Truly original and innovative software is a rare thing these days, but Camel Audio's latest is exactly that. Let's find out what it is that sets Alchemy apart from the soft-synth crowd.
Things have been a little quiet on the Camel Audio front of late. After making a name for themselves with plug‑ins such as CamelPhat and CamelSpace, and then wowing us with their Cameleon 5000 additive synthesizer — which was impressive enough to warrant a big review in the April 2004 issue of SOS — we've not heard a great deal from them. Apart from some updates to existing products, and a series of well‑received Soundbanks for third-party products such as NI's Absynth and Massive, little seemed to be happening.
Well, now we know the reason why. After four years of development, with a team of six programmers and 25 sound designers, we finally see the release of Alchemy. Operating as a VST or Audio Units plug-in and going way beyond Cameleon, Alchemy not only features additive synthesis, but also spectral and granular synthesis and resynthesis, and sample import, along with the more typical virtual analogue engine found in most other software synths (although this one offers up to 600 voices and can be used in unison mode for the fattest sounds imaginable!).
Its extremely powerful engine will be great news to those who like to dive in at the deep end of synthesis, and morph and manipulate their own unique sounds, but Camel Audio have included easy‑to‑use performance controls and 'remix pad' variations for those who favour instant gratification. Alchemy also ships with a 2GB sample library and a collection of 300 presets, but many more are promised for the months to come. Let's get stuck in!
Plenty of effort has been put into making Alchemy easy to play and flexible during live performance. For the casual preset dabbler, the Simple interface removes the in‑depth controls, leaving the title bar with its easy‑to‑use preset selector. This has sounds sorted into convenient banks such as Arpeggiated, Bass, Leads, Pads and so on, and also Load, Save, and Random buttons — the last a Camel Audio speciality that creates a new preset each time you click on it.
Below this are the Performance controls, with eight knobs that can be assigned to any of the deeper parameters, and two X‑Y pads, each in charge of two more functions, so you can perform live twin‑parameter sweeps or record automated ones. A set of dedicated ADSR buttons for final tweaks and a set of eight Remix pads complete the controls. The latter are a revelation, since each one stores a different snapshot of all 16 Performance control settings. Each preset therefore expands to become a whole area of sonic exploration, and as you drag the 'target' with your mouse over each pad, the controls all smoothly morph from one snapshot to another. You can even switch between Remix pads using keyswitches on your MIDI controller keyboard.
Once you switch to the Advanced interface, the rest of Alchemy's controls appear, yet, despite the huge amount on offer, you never feel overwhelmed. The graphic user interface is designed by Bitplant, who also developed interfaces for Propellerheads' original Reason, Arturia's CS80V and Cakewalk's Project 5 PSYN synths, and who seem to have the knack of creating workmanlike interfaces that are stylish, yet easy to get to grips with.
Each Alchemy voice starts life as between one and four sources, each of which can then be passed through up to three filters before entering the main pair of filters, and finally the effects stage.
The interface is divided into three main horizontal areas. Across the top are the four sound sources, morph, main filter and master controls. I'll come to the sound sources in the next section, because they are so revolutionary, but the filters are well worth a mention. Each source can have up to three multi‑mode filters in series or in parallel, and then there are a further two main filters (again in series or in parallel), and yet another as an effect option. In total you can have up to 15 filters in each preset, chosen from 15 types including formant and 'fat', which is designed to saturate at higher resonance and drive settings.
The middle interface strip houses all the Modulation controls, including LFO, AHDSR envelopes and MSEGs — Multiple Segment Envelope Generators that can be assembled to taste, with as many breakpoints as you wish, to create incredibly complex shapes. Other controls on offer include the Step Sequencer, ModMap (to massage existing modulator outputs into new shapes, such as note‑quantising pitch‑bends, scaling parameters across the keyboard, and so on), and XY‑MSEG, which lets you modulate two MSEGs simultaneously with the X‑Y pad. The last is featured to great acclaim in Cameleon 5000 with its evolving Spirographic pad sounds.
Despite its complexity, I found the Modulation area relatively straightforward, since in most cases you simply right‑click on a voice parameter that you want to modulate and then choose the modulation source from a drop‑down list. There are few numerical limits, either: for instance, although each patch starts life with a single LFO, choosing 'new LFO' in the drop‑down list adds another one, and will continue to do so up to a maximum of 16. Thus your patches can be as simple or as complex as you need them to be — it's a bit like having a massive modular synth at your disposal, but without needing any patch cords!
The bottom strip either displays the Performance controls discussed earlier, a flexible arpeggiator, or the effects. The arpeggiator offers all the features you'd expect, as well as more advanced options such as MIDI File import, so you can grab the velocity and swing values of an existing groove. Similar import features can be found in the built‑in Step Sequencer module, which can also use imported note data.
To add the final polish to your sounds, up to five effects are available simultaneously, chosen from a list of 19 types including various filter options, delays, distortion, compression, modulation, bass enhancement, and a good-quality reverb. This list includes all those found in the popular CamelSpace and CamelPhat effect plug‑ins, which are already used around the world by so many professional musicians.
At the heart of each preset are the four Sources (A, B, C and D), each of which can either be Additive, Virtual Analogue, Spectral, Granular, or straightforward Sampler playback. To create your own sounds from scratch, you just choose the 'Import Audio' option for the chosen Source, choose the desired WAV, AIFF or SFZ file from the Explorer‑like dialogue, then click on one of the four analysis buttons: Granular, Additive, Additive+Spectral (for sounds that combine both pitched and unpitched elements, such as speech), or Spectral.
The Granular engine breaks down imported samples into short 'grains' that are reassembled into a stream that can be time‑stretched, pitch‑shifted, or scrambled into new orders. Most often used on drum loops and percussion to create new grooves, I found it inspiring with many other sources and treatments. I've used various granular synthesis systems in my time, and it's incredibly easy to end up with static and crackles that would have been easier to sample from a bowl of Rice Krispies. Alchemy's implementation is, however, eminently musical, letting you stretch sounds to incredible lengths while remaining musical, or squashing them into short squeaks, and the modulation options let you perform mind‑bending manipulations.
Compared with the typically hundreds of parameters required to create additive sounds from scratch, the big breakthrough in Camel Audio's previous Cameleon 5000 synth was its resynthesis features. Alchemy's Additive engine is based on that of Cameleon 5000, and once again analyses imported samples or multisampled sets into multiple harmonics that evolve over time. It is rather more sophisticated in this incarnation, though, offering Pitch, Pan and Phase partials as well as Amplitude.
Previously, some sounds ended up more realistic than others, but this time around the analysis produces results close to almost any original material, in stereo as well as mono. Cameleon's 64-partial limit has also been increased to a massive 600, which, for sound designers, is drool‑worthy, especially since you get individual Amplitude, Pitch, Pan and Phase envelopes for each partial, all of which can now be modulated in real time. This means you can, for instance, control the odd/even harmonic balance, or pan different partials, or stretch/contract the harmonic spectrum, using LFOs, envelopes, or step sequencing.
The additive engine provides other distinct advantages for the samplist: because your sounds are already a series of sine waves, changing the length of the sound (time‑stretching) introduces no lumpy artifacts, and you also get more realistic pitch‑shifting.
We covered the Additive Editor in some depth in our Cameleon 5000 review, but essentially it displays a breakpoint envelope in its lower window (each breakpoint being a snapshot of your sound at a particular moment in time), and the partial content (Amplitude, Pitch, Pan or Phase) for the currently selected breakpoint is displayed in the upper window. However, this time around there's an invaluable Detail control, so you can either edit the fine details right down to individual breakpoints, or smoothly gather them into a smaller number of groups, to both reduce visual overload and provide you with a bigger editing 'brush'.
Spectral synthesis uses phase-vocoding techniques to split imported sounds not into a harmonic series, but into a set of 'spectral bins' filled either with sine saves or filtered noise. This is the successor to Cameleon's noise synthesis option, but offers up to 1024 bands compared with 128. This is the least explored option in the Factory sounds thus far, but I was impressed with what's on offer. The Spectral Editor provides graphical sonogram editing with various brushes, so you can both edit analysed sounds, and 'paint' new ones. There's also the ability to import graphic PNG files, so you can generate sounds from pictures.
I've used utilities before where you wait a few seconds while the picture you've imported or drawn is converted to audio format, and advanced sonogram editing in applications such as Wavelab 6, but never before have I been able to play sounds polyphonically on a keyboard while drawing them in a Spectral window. Wicked!
The final two synthesis options are simply variations on a theme. Sampler mode is an option in the Granular engine that plays back samples continuously instead of splitting them into grains. Virtual Analogue synthesis is an alternative mode for the Additive engine, playing back one of 48 oscillator waveforms with variable pulsewidth, PWM (Pulse Width Modulation), and Unison. The waveforms are licensed from Galbanum, whose waveforms have also graced many other quality synths, including U&I Software's famous Metasynth and NI's Absynth and Massive.
Overall, Alchemy provides more scope, flexibility and synthesis options than I've ever seen in any soft synth, yet you never feel you've entered a boffin's lair. This is design at its cleverest!
I can't remember ever loading up the first preset of a new synth and finding myself still playing the same one 10 minutes later. This is helped in part by the Performance controls, and in particular the Remix Pad, which generally offers a whole raft of timbres and alternate treatments for each preset. It's easy to move beyond the Performance controls to your choice of MIDI controller as well, since any Simple or Advanced parameter can be allocated to external controls using a right‑click MIDI Learn function.
The Morphing options are also lovely. While various other soft synths refer to morphing from one sound to another, they invariably mean fading one layer out while another fades in underneath. Alchemy also offers true morphing, where a single sound is generated but all the individual harmonics that make up each sound, plus all the other parameters associated with each preset, are gradually interpolated between the settings of all four Sources. This means you can start playing one instrument and have it slowly evolve into something else.
However, as much as I enjoyed the presets, this was nothing to the feeling I got once I started to import my own samples and create unique sounds. I lost whole days exploring the possibilities, yet there's so much more promise still to come. An Undo function would be useful, and I was disappointed that you can't currently view all the modulation routings en masse, but you can at least click on each parameter in turn to view its modulation routing and controls in the Modulation area. Nevertheless, Alchemy is the easiest and most fun to use soft synth I've played for years, and the results are just so musical.
It's not often that I get the luxury of spending a whole month with a product before the review is due, and it's even rarer to find myself still discovering yet more jaw‑dropping features after such a length of time. Alchemy is a deceptively deep synth, yet its engine remains incredibly easy‑to‑use, and at $249 it's also excellent value for money.
Overall, this is a diamond of a synth that sparkles in so many creative ways: a couple of its facets, like the modulation overview and editing windows, may need a little final polishing, but you can most definitely see why Alchemy took four long years to develop. Well done guys!
Although there are plenty of sample-playback soft synths containing lots of multisampled instruments available, those looking for as many synthesis types and routing possibilities as Alchemy offers will have to look rather further. If you want versatile sample manipulation and incredibly flexible modulation possibilities, check out Max/MSP from Cycling '74, or Symbolic Sounds' Kyma (used to create Star Trek's Borg voices), and the only VST Instrument competitor I can think of is Native Instruments' Reaktor. All three of these programs offer the ability to create new instruments from scratch by wiring together a collection of low‑level modules, but such freedom comes at the cost of a much steeper learning curve than Alchemy.
Ironically, the product that most people are comparing Alchemy with is Spectrasonics' Omnisphere, subject of a glowing review in the December 2008 edition of SOS. Both are great at creating pads and soundscapes, but having auditioned both side‑by‑side I feel there are fundamental differences. Omnisphere provides a vast array of polished sounds courtesy of its vast 42GB sound library, and has a very flexible engine, but you can't currently import your own samples. On the other hand, Alchemy offers a much smaller 2GB library, but significantly more flexible sample manipulation, modulation opportunities and sample import. I think Alchemy will appeal more to musicians and sound designers who prefer to create their own unique sounds.
One of the unique features of Alchemy is that its factory presets have been created by no less than 20 sound designers, while 16 people are credited with the sample-library design. There are plenty of famous names in the list, such as Arksun, biomechanoid, Ian Boddy, Tim Conrardy, Richard Devine, John 'Skippy' Lehmkul and Scot Solida, to name but seven, and it's also patently obvious that they have had a lot of fun in the process!
At 2GB, the sample library may be modest in size compared to some, but apart from all the staples that you might expect, there are loads of other intriguing sounds tucked away in there. These's a good collection of acoustic instruments, such as dulcimers, harps and guitar harmonics, a vocal and speech library, exotic percussion such as metal hits and waterbowls, and a wonderful range of single note and chordal soundscapes. There are also sound effects such as city and nature ambiences, circuit bending, and exotic analogue synths such as the Chimera bC16 and EML Electrocomp 200.
Alchemy's factory library covers a lot of sonic ground, so here are some of my favourites to give you an idea of its scope:
Released simultaneously with Alchemy are two add‑on soundbanks: the soft pads and soundscapes of Atmospheric Alchemy, and the harder bass, leads, loops and synths of Electronic Alchemy, both of which further illustrate the scope and depth of the Alchemy engine. Some might consider this an odd approach, but Camel Audio prefer to keep Alchemy's retail price low and let its users buy only the sound genres they prefer, which makes sense to me!
Alchemy's requirements can vary hugely depending on the preset and the maximum polyphony you use, but whether you are on the Mac or PC platforms an Intel Core2 Duo and 2GB RAM are recommended, along with OS X 10.4.9, Windows XP SP2 or Vista. You'll also need 3GB of hard drive space and a suitable AU VST 2.4-compatible host application.