by Craig Anderton
Fig. 1. Padshop’s interface is easy to navigate and edit. Voice controls are at the top, with the granular engine underneath. The white vertical lines indicate grain playback location.WHILE KNOWN PRIMARILY FOR CUBASE, STEINBERG HAS INTRODUCED SOME EXCELLENT INSTRUMENTS—HALion, Xphraze, Groove Agent, and others. As the name implies, Padshop is all about pads, but these aren’t your father’s choirs and strings. Padshop uses granular synthesis, which is like musique concrète on a subatomic level: Instead of cutting up little pieces of tape and putting them back together in a different order, Padshop cuts up samples into tiny “grains” and plays them as streams of sound. Playback can jump around sequentially or randomly, and create rhythmic patterns. Thanks to micro-level crossfading, you don’t hear any clicks as one grain transitions to another.
Padshop incorporates a dual-layer granular synthesis engine, filter section, and modulation matrix for the onboard sources (two envelopes, two LFOs with six waveforms including sample-and-hold variants, and the step modulator shown in Figure 2 on page 68). You can also apply modulation from other MIDI controllers, including VST Note Expression from Cubase. Each granular layer is completely independent; switching layers is almost like switching between two instances of Padshop. While it doesn’t affect the sound, props to the functional yet aesthetic panel graphics, and the obvious, ergonomic user interface.
The Granular Engine
Other than simply calling up one of the 400+ presets, sound generation starts with loading a sample into each of the two engines; you can opt to use just one layer, or load the same sample into both. You can’t load your own samples, but don’t expect to run out of options given the 329MB of included content. You then specify the sample range (from which the grains will be derived), the base position within that range, whether to randomize or offset the playback range, and set the “spread” of the location of the grains that play back (further apart, or closer together). You can also choose whether to loop the sample, and the speed with which grain playback progresses.
In words, this all sounds abstract, as you can’t reference a conventional oscillator architecture; the best way to understand how these parameters affect the sound is to play with them and listen to the results.
There are also more general settings that relate to grain playback, and settings that affect the grains themselves. We’ll avoid going into a lot of detail (this is a review, not a manual), but suffice it to say that the various granular synthesis engine options allow for major sonic variations that are far removed from the usual freeze-dried sound of standard sample playback. It’s the variations of grain motion, grain shape and length, playback parameters, and in particular, randomization that create the compelling, evolving, nonrepetitive sound of Padshop.
It’s easy to “tame” the pitch of the synthesized sounds by defining pitch based on that of the original sample, or by editing the grain playback parameters to impose a sense of pitch. You can do random pitch changes and detunings, and transpose up or down one octave.
While the grain engine is exotic territory, filtering returns to the familiar. The filter has a dedicated ADSR envelope (with velocity control over amount), key follow, and 12 filter types. In addition to cutoff and resonance options, you can introduce one of four distortions: tube, solid-state, bit reduction, or sample rate reduction (fixed, or with key follow so the rate changes as you play up and down the keyboard). These add a very useful element when you want more “radikal padz.”
Fig. 2. The Step Modulator (two to 32 steps) is a welcome addition to the usual modulation sources. The range of sounds is very wide—from the clarity typically associated with FM synthesis, to warmer, more analog sounds, to sounds that defy conventional synthesis references. They’re ideal for soundtracks, chill, trance, ambient, and much more—this really is your one-stop shop for pads. Granted, Padshop is pretty much about pads— but they’re so stellar and editable that it greatly expands that genre’s boundaries. The presets are also not throwaways; Padshop will keep you happy for a long time with just a tweak here and there of the supplied library. Sometimes turning just one control will create an entirely new and wonderful sound, but if you like it, save it! A few more tweaks and you might not be able to get back to it again.
I suppose by now I should be jaded by synthesis— but then something like Padshop comes along. It’s unfortunate it’s VST3-only, but thankfully Steinberg didn’t code the plug-in to work only in Cubase. If you want to experience something new, different, and very cool, Padshop offers up sounds you probably haven’t heard before—while emphasizing there’s more to “sample-based” than pianos, strings, and drum loops. Even if you’re not into pads, playing with Padshop might change your mind. If you are into pads, you’ll fi nd Padshop as useful, engaging, and downright beguiling as I have.
Craig Anderton is Executive Editor of Electronic Musician magazine and Editor in Chief of HarmonyCentral.com
PROS Rich, evolving pads that would be diffi cult or impossible to create by other means. Inexpensive. Not difficult to learn but plenty of options. New approach to synthesis.
CONS VST3-only. No standalone mode. Can’t load your own samples.
Granular with filters, envelopes, and matrix modulation.
GRAIN STREAMS 8.
Mac: OS 10.6 or 10.7. PC: Windows 7. Both: Dual-core CPU, 700MB free disk space, VST3 host program (32- or 64-bit), Internet for activation. COPY PROTECTION
Steinberg eLicenser USB dongle.
More than expected for the price. The sounds are evocative, sophisticated, and novel.
$49.99 download | included in Cubase 6.5 and Cubase Artist 6.5 updates