Review: Applied Acoustic Systems Chromaphone 2

The most intuitive physical modeling synth to date
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Like FM and granular, physical modeling (PM) is a type of synthesis that many artists find confusing when it comes to designing their own sounds. While Ableton’s Collision has graphic tools that make it more approachable, other PM-based soft synths, such as Apple Logic’s Sculpture, often inspire a fair amount of head-scratching.

With Chromaphone 2, Applied Acoustic Systems has dispensed with the more arcane details of physical modeling to deliver a synth that is so straightforward that even newcomers can get great results from scratch.

The approach here will be familiar to fans of Collision (which was also designed by AAS), as it’s a streamlined version of that synth. But by “streamlined,” I’m not implying that it’s not as powerful. In fact, Chromaphone 2’s audio engine is noticeably more detailed than both Sculpture and Collision. Rather, the more obtuse modeling factors, which could often lead to unpredictable results, are tucked away. While some users may feel this makes Chromaphone 2 less flexible than Collision, it also means that it’s almost impossible to make Chromaphone 2 sound “bad,” while retaining the most important aspects of its overall approach.

Chromaphone 2 is remarkably intuitive once you understand the underlying concept of physical modeling. There are two resonators, which can be applied independently (in parallel) or coupled (in series) to create a gestalt resonator that’s far more than just a blending of the two. Each resonator offers an array of modeled materials, including string, beam, marimba, membrane, metal plate, open and closed tubes (think “woodwind” and “bottle”) and two new materials (Drumhead and Manual). Drumhead is perfect for toms and other drums, while Manual offers control over four definable partials, allowing for customization of its more synth-like character.

With each material, you can control decay, release, tone, low-cut, excitation position, as well as fine tune how the various partials decay in relationship to the decay parameter. The overall complexity can be adjusted in four steps, called quality. Higher-quality settings yield more detail in the upper frequencies at the expense of some CPU.

The resonators are excited by an impulse—either filtered noise (with its own envelope) or a customizable mallet. The mallet is used for objects that are struck, while the noise is suited for blown or bowed sounds. As with the materials, there are several notable version 2 enhancements in the filtering options, such as a graphic EQ mode in addition to the original lowpass, highpass, bandpass and highpass/lowpass combo modes. These filter types may seem innocuous from a subtractive synthesis standpoint, but they’re powerful tools in the context of physical modeling.

Physical modeling doesn’t currently lend itself to massive modulation matrices of LFOs and envelopes. While there’s an LFO for pitch and filter modulation and the aforementioned envelope for the noise-based exciter, the real focus is on performance modulation, such as key scaling and velocity control. These are essential for creating realistic acoustic models when applied to destinations like the stiffness of the mallet and the hit position or the decay characteristics of the resonator.

For effects, Chromaphone 2 has an EQ and compressor at the beginning of the signal chain. The compressor is essential for controlling dynamics when you’re tinkering with parameters on-the-fly. The next two effect slots can be any combination of chorus, delay, phaser, flanger, distortion, and a few filter effects. At the end of the chain is a solid reverb algorithm, with four different modes/sizes, that offers a lot of variety. In addition, the arpeggiator can create unique rhythms thanks to an X0X-style step editor, and the factory presets include more than 70 examples of arpeggiated patches that make great use of this feature.

All in all, Chromaphone 2 is a knockout example of physical modeling, wrapped in an interface that is remarkably easy to understand. If other modeling plug-ins have scared you away from this powerful form of synthesis, you owe it to yourself to download the trial version and spend a couple of weeks checking out its features. There is a strong chance you’ll be a convert: It’s that good.

Snap Judgment

Pros Extremely detailed models of acoustic materials. Straightforward and intuitive interface. Integrated effects. Arpeggiator with configurable rhythms. Impressively realistic sound.

Cons Physical modeling experts may prefer more detailed control.

Bottom Line

The most intuitive physical modeling synth to date.