by Francis Preve
When Native Instruments first announced Razor, the vibe of the promotional videos portrayed it as a synth dedicated to dubstep, the flavor du jour of electronic dance music. When I first got it, someone asked me if it was like NI’s Massive, which is the current darling of the wub-wub-wub set. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In a market increasingly crowded with McSynths that remain variations on basic Minimoog signal flow, Razor slices through the me-too stuff . It seems like it’s been forever since we’ve seen something truly new. Playing with Razor, it’s obvious that it has been forever.
At first glance, Razor looks like a dual-oscillator, dual-filter wavetable synth with a couple of clever effects tacked on—like the dozens of freeware plug-ins that can do that trick. Instead, Razor’s sound engine is a brilliant implementation of additive synthesis, which builds up sounds directly at the harmonic level. By contrast, most synths are subtractive, in that you start out with a harmonically complex waveform and filter out what you don’t want.
Other makers have attempted additive synthesis with varying degrees of success, largely because it’s so deep. To keep Razor’s interface friendly, Native Instruments, in conjunction with Berlin electronica wizard Errorsmith, dressed this hulking behemoth in familiar clothing. Better still, everything that happens to the harmonics is shown in real time, much like an FFT display that’s had a fling with Apple’s iTunes visualizer.
How It Works
Each of the 17 oscillator types manipulates the individual volumes of the harmonic series in clever ways. For example, the square-to-saw oscillator includes a knob that generates a square wave (odd harmonics descending in volume) when counterclockwise and a sawtooth (all harmonics descending in volume) when fully clockwise. In between, the waveform is continuously variable, and the display reflects the exact harmonic changes as you turn the knob. All of this only seems complicated. When it happens before your eyes, it’s downright enlightening. The other 16 “oscillators” run the gamut from swept sync effects to tuned noise to clever formant generators, with a lot of other useful stuff in between.
Razor’s filters work in a similar manner. Once you’ve created your harmonic spectra with the first oscillator, its filter then shapes the frequencies further by adjusting the harmonics’ volumes. Five lowpass filters include a phased version and one with “dirty” resonance. The phased mode is especially interesting, thanks to a “Barber” switch that adds tempo-synced barber-pole animation to the phased effect, with gorgeous results. Th e other filter types include bandpass, vowel, and formant modes, along with a few decay-envelope types that are awesome for making plucked and mallet sounds.
The filter section also includes Razor’s 34-band vocoder. As with the rest of Razor, the sound veers into more unusual territory, especially when used in conjunction with the effects, which we’ll get into now.
Razor’s effect slots are mind-blowing, since they operate directly on the oscillator-filter’s harmonic spectra. The first effect changes the overall tuning of the harmonics, delivering results that I promise you’ve never heard before. One effect, “Centroid,” lets you smoothly converge all of the harmonics into a single note, then manipulate the pitch of that note. Another effect, “Stiff String,” morphs the original sound into a belllike texture by subtracting certain harmonics and shifting others. The result evokes the famous PPG Wave synth, but with richness that only modern CPUs can deliver. This ain’t no chorus/flanger/phaser insert, that’s for sure.
The second effect specializes in stereo tricks that further transform the sound. Panning and detuning function much like traditional chorus and unison, but the most dramatic modes are the reverbs. At first listen, they sound like a standard hall, but as your ears zoom in on the details, there’s an otherworldly polyphonic quality that defies description.
After all this harmonic surgery comes dynamics and distortion. Compression, limiting, saturation, and clipping effects are all present and perfect for—you guessed it—those grungy dubstep sounds. There’s also a “Safe Bass” section that reinforces the fundamental of the tone, not unlike a trick I discussed in my June ’09 column on making bass sounds out of sine waves.
I’ve saved this for last, since modulations can be applied to almost every parameter except for the dynamics/distortion and bass tools. Razor’s modulation matrix includes three envelopes, two LFOs, a sidechain tool that blends the behavior of two mod sources, and a nifty effect called “Echosteps” that gradually drops the value of the modulation in steps—and sounds freakin’ incredible. Each envelope also has a switch that toggles a global MIDI echo, creating a similar effect, but with that envelope’s shape as the source.
I usually save my raves for hardware analog synths, but Razor is so chock full of sounds you can’t find anywhere else that I have to say it: I’m in love. So I am adding Razor to my palette of go-to soft synths, because it oozes character and sounds like nothing else on the market. It’s the best $79 you’ll spend this year, and a Key Buy if ever there was one. Go get it!
PROS Otherworldly additive sounds. Ingenious display shows you exactly what’s going on in each synth module. Even the filters and effects manipulate harmonics directly.
CONS CPU-intensive when multiple instances are in use.
CONCEPT Deep additive synthesis, disguised in a familiar subtractive interface.
FORMAT Requires free Mac/PC Reaktor Player (AU, RTAS, VST, and standalone). Also runs in full Reaktor synth environment.
PRICE Direct: $79