When it comes to secret weapons, U&I Software’s Metasynth has been a suitcase nuke in the arsenals of sound designers for nearly a decade. So why haven’t more people heard of it? Well, for starters, Metasynth’s functions defy easy categorization. It’s not a synth you can play with via MIDI. It looks a bit like a DAW, but recording a traditional song or remix with it would be challenging at best. It includes audio editing tools, but no plug-in support. To call it unclassifiable is an understatement. Metasynth is a beast that can do tricks no other sound design tool can touch, but taming this creature requires a bit of patience and dedication.
[Click image for a larger version with numbers that correspond to the legend. Click linked text to hear audio examples. -Ed.]
1. At the top of Metasynth are tabs that switch between the various sound manipulation modes.
2. The upper section of Metasynth’s interface displays rendered audio wave data for the sounds you create in the lower panels. It also provides basic editing like normalization and DC offset removal.
3. Above the image window are menus for selecting factory presets, analyzing and filtering the audio, and switching between the various tone generation modes.
4.Sound design tricks like reverb, echo, and repeat are all graphic-based, delivering results that range from ethereal swoops to bizarre techno rhythms.
5. An array of common and not-so-common drawing tools lets would-be graphic designers flex their sound design skills. 6. What does a picture of Amsterdam sound like after it’s been mapped to a Pythagorean scale, then processed by a repeating ramp envelope? Click here to find out.
THE BIG PICTURE
Since the initial release, Metasynth’s trademark feature is its ability to translate images into sounds. Ever read about psychedelic drug users “hearing colors” or “seeing sounds”? It’s like that, only without the cottonmouth. Using painting tools straight out of Photoshop, and a canvas that maps pixels to specific frequencies, harmonics, semitones, or microtonal scalings, producers can whip up extraordinary additive synth loops and drones using the intuitive right brain instead of the more logical left brain.
What’s more, even graphically challenged musicians can join the fun, since Metasynth also allows the importing of existing images, even photographs, which can then be modified with everything from blurs to repeating patterns. That’s just scratching the surface.
In addition to Metasynth’s hallmark image-to-sound tools, the environment includes a dazzling array of Fourier and resynthesis tools that eschew classic technical approaches in favor of intuitive visual techniques. Everything from spectral slicing and manipulation to classic piano roll sequencing lurks under its hood, but getting at them requires users to unlearn their existing DAW skills, instead approaching these tools with an open mind and few preconceptions. If you can do this, you’ll be deeply rewarded with a tool that goes beyond “How’d you do that?” into wholly uncharted waters. Secret weapon, indeed.
Here’s where the action begins. You start by selecting the pixel dimensions of your image, with options ranging from 64 x 64 to 2,048 x 1,024. As with standard graphics tools, higher resolutions deliver more complexity and detail. The quickest way to get a feel for Metasynth is to cruise through its extensive collection of presets. After about 15 minutes of WTF-ing, its visual approach starts to make sense. Many presets rely on simple sine waves mapped to the pixel grid, but if you pop open the instrument editor, you’ll be greeted with a wide array of alternatives. In wavesynth mode, you can either draw your own single-cycle waveforms or create hybrid waveforms by blending multiple selections from its palette. This alone provides a lot of sonic diversity.
As you dig a bit deeper, you’ll find that you can map to alternate tunings as well. For additive and resynthesis effects, you can stick with the exponential map, or explore deeper options such as semitones, major scales, harmonic minor, melodic minor, several microtonal scales and — for the truly adventurous — the ability to create your own scales from scratch. U&I tells us that soon, you’ll be able to download over 1,000 custom tunings as well.
Once you get a feel for what’s what, the temptation to load an existing image becomes irresistible. Since quite a few preset images include blurry organic forms, I hopped online and picked a nebula from NASA’s Hubble collection (see Figure 1 below). I started with an exponential map and a sine wave synth, resulting in a harsh,abstract, morphing drone. Switching to the melodic minor map with the same sine wave generator transformed the sound into a shifting, organ-like drone.
That was a good start, but I wanted to see how far I could push Metasynth while still staying in somewhat familiar territory. I selected the Whole Tones map, applied the Motion Blur and Pulse Image tools, then switched to the new granular synth with a touch of traditional hall reverb. The result still evoked an organ-like texture, but with pitch swoops, rhythmic interest, and a lot more depth--click here to hear it.
That’s just ten minutes of fooling around with a space image. Had I delved further into Metasynth’s other new synthesis modes, I could have “played” the image using FM or multisampled instruments.
The best musical results, though, come not from importing an image, but from drawing one yourself. To do this, you select from a palette of tools: line, spray paint, parallel line (for chord riffs), and a bunch of really useful new shapes that are great for creating rhythmic sequences that make sense visually. Some presets leverage these drawing tools, combined with a noise generator for the synth playback, delivering quirky old-school drum machine effects you can morph and modify to your heart’s content.
The luminance (brightness) of each pixel correlates with its volume, with dim parts being quieter and brighter sections louder. This makes extreme blurring sound like tuned reverbs and washes. In addition to luminance, color plays an important role in the Image Synth’s behavior, with red components on the left, green on the right, and yellow in the center. Needless to say, colors in between are positioned accordingly.
These image-editing techniques can also create evolving filter effects when used in conjunction with the Image Filter area of Metasynth, so once you get the hang of the essential concepts, you can filter imported audio, which is another universe unto itself — with effects ranging from familiar lowpass and highpass filters to intergalactic phasers and comb effects.
Metasynth’s Spectrum Synth area is another highlight of this environment. In really simple terms, it extracts the spectral frequency data from an audio file, then slices it into chunks that roughly correspond with the original rhythm. Playing back the chunks in order results in a highly synthesized sequence that contains the Fourier fingerprint of the original, but there’s much more to it than resynthesis tricks. Each of the chunks can be resized, reordered, and/or repeated.
A few minutes of tinkering with a wah-wah guitar loop from Loopmasters’ Joey Youngman library resulted in a dirty, digital dubstep riff that reflected the original loop, but stretched and resliced in oddball ways.
Using a similar technique on the lead vocal from “Deep Down” by Winter Kills delivered an entirely new voice riff that evoked aspects of reverse reverb, time-stretching, and a bit of loop slicing (see Figure 2 at left). Going a step further took the vocals into more sustained territory, which makes me think this would be a great way to extract the formant characteristics of any vocalist, which would let you derive a unique, sustained tone, then import that into your sampler of choice to create pads and leads. Click here to hear the final result.
While Metasynth’s Image and Spectrum synths are its most unique features, there are also a few modes that will feel immediately accessible to seasoned DAW users. If you want to create piano roll sequences that make use of Metasynth’s new FM and Granular synths, you can pop over to the aptly named Sequencer area to whip up riffs and melodies for importing into the Image Synth for further editing (see Figure 3 at left). Since the Image Synth can be rather daunting for new users, this is a quick way to get usable results as you familiarize yourself with Metasynth’s more complex amenities.
The Effects area is another recognizable set of tools, offering both common effects such as delay and modulation, along with granular exotica and timewarping processes. What sets this effects section apart is its graphic-oriented automation tools, which can be applied to multiple parameters in a given effect. While many of its tricks can be recreated using other DAWs, notably Ableton Live’s clip envelope tools, Metasynth’s implementation can deliver results that would be difficult to recreate otherwise, like a morphing granular harmonizer with bizarre randomization options.
Finally, the Montage Room provides a way for experienced users to tie all of the aspects of Metasynth together using a classic timeline approach. While this section of Metasynth remains its least sophisticated component, the rest of the app is so deep that the Montage Room is almost refreshing in its simplicity, though collecting the various parts can be a tad fiddly for newcomers. For more complex productions, you can always export your Metasynth meanderings to a more common audio format (now with up to 32-bit floating point resolution), then import the files into your preferred DAW, so it’s no big deal.
At a list price of $599, Metasynth is a luxury item that will compliment your existing DAW rather than replace it, because comparing Metasynth to a DAW — or to more standard-fare soft synths — misses the point. This amazing tool is deeper than deep space when it comes to immersing yourself in a wonderland of digital manipulations. Describing its overall sound is a paradoxical task: It has an overall sound, but a very diverse palette — all the same, nothing else on the planet sounds remotely like it. If you’re looking for an utterly unique production tool, Metasynth is an E-ticket ride to extraordinary new sonic adventures.
One-of-a-kind sound manipulation tools. Fourier transform and advanced additive synthesis techniques made easy. Painting with sound is just plain fun.
MIDI and/or plug-in support would extend its usefulness exponentially. Montage Room is very cool, but a tad too fiddly for all but the most intrepid users. No PC version.
$599 list/approx. $499 street, uisoftware.com
Is it a plug-in? No. Metasynth is a self-contained sound design environment. Other than importing and exporting audio, it doesn’t talk to the outside world of software and synths.
Is it a soft synth?While Metasynth includes multiple methods of synthesis — including new FM, granular, and multisampled instruments — these are aspects of its larger sound design process.
Is it a DAW? In theory, yes. In practice, no. It’s better to think of Metasynth as a way to manipulate sound in ways that no other program can touch.
Can I use third-party plug-ins with it? No. As a consolation prize, Metasynth includes its own DSP tools ranging from essentials like reverb, delay, and flange to more esoteric granular options, all of which can be automated within the Metasynth environment, then exported as audio.
So what’s it good for? Generating exotic rhythmic loops by painting with sound, importing images, or processing recordings. Creating extreme textures to import into other samplers. Producing otherworldly soundscapes for soundtracks and electronica.
What platforms does it run on? Sorry, Windows users — Metasynth is Mac OS X only.