Native Instruments Razor 1.5 reviewed

March 19, 2014
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When I reviewed the original 1.0 version of Native Instruments’ Razor back in 2011, I was absolutely blown away. While the synth was marketed at dubstep producers—now morphing into “bass music” producers given recent trends in EDM—it was far more than just a “wub-wub” generator. As a high-concept software synth, Razor blends additive synthesis with familiar subtractive and virtual analog concepts in a way that makes it both approachable to newcomers and an extremely powerful educational tool for learning the essential concepts of synthesis itself. I intend that as high praise, as I teach electronic music production to college students.
 

PROS: Powerful and unique additive synthesis tools in a familiar subtractive synthesis interface. Innovative FFT-style display shows users exactly what’s going on inside each synth module. New processing tools expand Razor’s usefulness immensely. Fantastic educational tool.

CONS: All this additive power is a bit CPU intensive.

Bottom Line: The most intuitive additive soft synth—period.

$99 street/direct | native-instruments.com 

 

Signal Path

For those of you who missed the original review, here’s a synopsis of Razor. Unlike many other additive synths, Razor’s architecture closely resembles a standard two-oscillator analog-style synth, with each oscillator feeding its own “filter” module. Following the oscillator-filter pairs is a series of three “effects” that rely on direct FFT-like manipulation of harmonics and related frequency components. While these may sound like standard processes like reverb, chorusing, and such, they’re generated entirely within the additive domain, giving them a certain kind of flexibility and presence that traditional time-domain effects don’t quite match.

Some artists skip over additive synthesis because it’s so insanely deep. If you don’t know exactly what you’re doing, you’ll often end up with sounds that are crystalline and bell-like, or that sound like vocal formants. Both are quite easy to achieve using additive synthesis, but they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. Razor’s approach to additive oscillators bypasses those common pitfalls by providing a wide variety of different modes that are controlled via easy-to-understand macros. For example, the first oscillator mode allows users to morph smoothly between sawtooth and square waves by directly controlling the volume of the even-numbered harmonics, with ample visual feedback so you know exactly what’s going on with the frequency content. Other oscillator modes focus on morphing tricks like octave harmonics shifting to sawtooth harmonics or manipulating prime-numbered harmonics (which sounds uncannily like a harmonica, interestingly). Of course, there are also modes that deliver those trademark shimmering glass-like sounds, but with 14 options available, it’s remarkably easy to get exactly what you’re looking for without needing a math degree.

Razor’s filter modes are equally useful and often shockingly exotic, even when given a standard sawtooth wave to process. Filter 1 includes five different lowpass modes, each tailored for different textures, while remaining familiar to anyone who’s delved into analog synthesis. The two standout lowpass modes are “Phaser” and “Dirty.” Phaser mode delivers a highly customizable barber-pole phase-shifted effect that I’ve never heard before. Dirty mode will put a smile on fans of the TB-303, without sounding anything like the original. The other six filter modes work their magic on formants, vowels, and even vocoder effects. Filter 2 offers completely different options, including the standard multimode fare along with some unique processes that have names like “Waterbed” and “Gaps.” A particular favorite here is “Unisono Noise,” which does the classic stacked oscillator trick but with a customizable flavor that, again, is unlike anything I’ve ever heard in a soft synth.

Following the filters is Razor’s trademark Dissonance module (see screenshot above), which applies intelligently designed mathematical transforms to the harmonic output of the main synthesis tools. These defy description, frankly, and are fantastic for risers, transitional effects, and of course, those classic shimmering crystal textures—but again, these rely on intuitive macro control and jaw-dropping visual displays that make it extremely easy to understand exactly what’s going on inside Razor.

The final two modules head back into more familiar territory, with the stereo effect module delivering reverb, auto-panning, and chorus options and the dynamics module offering compression and limiting, along with a new mode called “Rectifier” that sounds like no fuzz box you’ve ever heard before.

As for modulation, Razor includes three ADSR envelopes and two LFOs that you can apply to pretty much any parameter in the synth. There’s also an insanely great tool called Echosteps that gradually reduces the value of a given parameter in tempo-synced chunks, transcending what we normally call “echo” to offer highly creative rhythmic effects that would be hard if not impossible to duplicate by other means.


What’s New

Visually, Razor hasn’t changed much, which is a great thing since it’s so intuitive to explore. The additions in version 1.5 focus on added modes for each of the modules, a slew of new presets that highlight these new features, and tight integration tools for NI’s Maschine 2.0 groove platform (reviewed with Maschine Studio on page 50).

The majority of the new modes are focused on Razor’s Dissonance module. This takes the output of the filters and then performs unique transforms to the mathematical relationships of the frequencies using multiple macros. Sounds heady, I know, but the end result is highly musical. Some of the highlights are Semitone Spacing, which morphs the frequency spectrum into direct correlations to, yep, semitones. Another standout is Noisy, which moves the pitch of the processed frequencies individually via what appears to be a random LFO. At slow speeds, it imparts a wobbly effect. At faster speeds, it sounds a lot like noise is being added to the signal. Other new goodies, like P Grid and F Grid, manipulate clusters of frequencies and sound like a cross between ring mod and resonant spaces.

Speaking of resonant spaces, Razor’s Stereo Effects module has a few new modes including Resonant Reverb (which is smooth, but with more ringing characteristics) and Air, which adds motion to the upper frequencies and at extreme settings sounds a bit like a flanger.

As I mentioned at the beginning, all of these processes are displayed graphically in a window above the main parameters. This view can operate in one of two modes. The first displays the individual harmonics or frequencies, while the second mode displays an oscilloscope view of what’s going on with the final waveform output. For educators, these displays alone are worth Razor’s price of admission, since they reveal exactly what’s going on inside the synth. To see it in action makes understanding sound design so much less arcane. In fact, when I demonstrate synthesis principles to my students via Razor, the room invariably has a collective “a-ha” moment. I can’t emphasize this benefit strongly enough, especially for newcomers to synthesis.


Conclusions

Last year, I overhauled my entire studio and eliminated a lot of hardware and software that I no longer use all that often. Among the soft synths I kept was Razor, because its combination of immediacy and sheer uniqueness as a synth makes it truly inspirational. It’s also the fattest and punchiest additive synth I’ve ever used. With version 1.5 adding even more features, I’m in sonic heaven. I’ve never said this before in a review, but I absolutely mean it: Just owning Razor will make you a more informed sound designer. It’s a five-star soft synth for around a hundred bucks, and carries our highest recommendation, the Key Buy award.

 

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