If you're after effects and instruments to give your mixes a sideways slant, Cycling '74 might have just the thing...
Mode is a bundle of plug-ins from the same stable as Pluggo, and comprises three instruments and two effects processors plus 18 further modules derived from these. The additional modules include 'light' versions of the plug-ins, effects spun off from the instrument plug-ins, and modulators for use as modulation waveform sources. Mode supports all the currently popular plug-in formats on the Mac platform (VST, AU and RTAS) and runs under OS X only, requiring version 10.2.8 or later. Authorisation is via a code available on-line when registering; until you register, the plug-ins will work in demo mode, where the audio is disrupted and replaced by a bleep every minute or so.
Many of the the plug-ins enhance an existing sound in some way through the use of arpeggiators, sequencers, delay, distortion, filtering, feedback and modulation — but not always in the most obvious way. There are also modulators that can be used just as they would be in a modular synth, by patching them to control parameters of a different plug-in. Unusually, the majority of parameters are accessed via knobs that have no numerical display, which is intended to encourage adjustment by ear, and nestling alongside familiar and predictable parameters are oddball creations added to inspire weirdness — which is no bad thing. Furthermore, parameters are often provided with a greater control range than would normally be considered useful, simply so that the user can experiment with excess. The full 'heavy' versions of the plug-ins include inbuilt effects, such as delay.
The first virtual instrument on the list is simply called Bang, and as its name might suggest, it is a drum/percussion sound synthesizer. It responds to MIDI notes by changing pitch and combines elements of subtractive synthesis, FM and simple sample playback. It can only create one sound at a time, so if running multiple instances of it turns out to be too CPU-intensive, it may be easier to create percussion sounds one at a time and then sample them for playback in a soft sampler.
The instrument panel is divided into three sections, corresponding to the three synthesis types on offer. The sample playback section has its own five-stage envelope generator and tuning controls, plus bit-depth reduction for distortion purposes. The FM section is a fairly simple two-operator affair with modulation envelope, adjustable carrier and modulator pitch and waveform. Envelope and pitch modulation is also possible, with MIDI tracking of modulator pitch available, and of course everything is velocity-sensitive.
There's also plenty to play with in the subtractive synthesis section, including the usual oscillators, filters and envelopes. All three sections have sends to feed a delay processor. The factory presets demonstrate this module's ability to create a vast range of non-emulative drum and percussion sounds, from kicks and snares to toms and synthetic cymbals plus plain weird noises. The three modules that make up Bang are also available as separate light plug-ins, to save on CPU resources where only one type of sound synthesis is required. Mode's Bang Delay is also available as a separate delay-with-mod effects plug-in, as is its filter/distortion module.
As the name suggests, Mono is a monosynth, but in this case using FM oscillators featuring extensive envelope control. Aliasing is turned into a virtue and feedback enables the creation of some very non-FM-style sounds. A very sophisticated distortion section is followed by a more familiar resonant filter to skim off the spiky bits, and as with Bang, a digital delay is built in. There's also a simple but effective monophonic arpeggiator with adjustable direction, octave-shift and timing controls, where the note duration can be extended to exceed the length of individual steps allowing for creative abuse.
There are separate oscillator, amp and mod envelopes as well as LFO modulation, distortion and that handy arpeggiator, which can lock to the host's tempo. I think the distortion section also deserves special attention as it also includes a waveshaper, which sets the distortion transfer characteristic and can be used to radically change the harmonic structure of any waveform to the point that it becomes unrecognisable. Because this section has the ability to transform even silence into a noise, a safe Zero button is included to ensure that no input always results in no output. This synth has a fairly hard, contemporary sound — sort of FM meets Oscar meets PPG — and it is capable of huge variety despite its apparently straightforward user interface. Used with the arpeggiator, it can create both contemporary dance sounds and vintage electro-pop sounds.
A light synth-only FM module based on Mono is also available as a stand-alone plug-in, as is the arpeggiator, which it is claimed can be routed to modulate any parameter of any of the other Mode instruments or effects. The manual points out that Arpeggiator probably won't work when the host sequencer's Freeze Track function is being used so it's best to render these tracks as audio files instead if saving CPU resources becomes necessary. Mono 's delay section also shows up as a separate plug-in, as do its distortion/filter components.
Poly has a very simple user interface and uses digital waveform oscillators as sources, augmented by built-in delay and chorus effects, a resonant filter and a polyphonic arpeggiator that can be locked to the host's tempo. There are separate amplitude and modulation envelopes and a comprehensive display for interacting with the arpeggiator.
An LFO Designer allows the user to create more complex modulation waveform shapes and each of the two oscillators can select from a list of 24 different 12-bit waveforms. Delay and chorus add further interest to the sound, but there is an 'effectless' version of the plug-in available if you'd rather add your own treatments. The arpeggiator is interesting as it automatically splits any played chords into three parts (high notes, low notes and middle) and then arpeggiates these independently. Setting octave shifts or high/mid/low settings for the arpeggiator steps is simply a matter of clicking in a grid where active cells light up as blue 'LEDs'. There's also a step display that shows whereabouts you are in the arpeggiator sequence. Polyphony can be set from four to 12 voices and the sounds on offer range from organesque to more PPG-like sounds.
A further variation on this plug-in is a synth-only version with no effects and no arpeggiator. Spin-offs include the LFO as a separate modulation module and the chorus module.
That about wraps it up for instruments, but Mode also includes some unusual effects, the first of which is Mode Spin. This is a multi-effects unit where parameters may be sequenced in steps locked to the host tempo. Effects include a multi-mode filter, distortion and bit-crunching effect, auto-panner, volume sequencer and stereo delay. Modulating levels via a line of miniature faders allows rhythmic gating effects to be set up, but having other effects on board means the end result can be far more complex.
The step size can be adjusted from 32 steps per 4/4 bar to one step per bar, while the slew rate between steps can be changed to offer hard stepping or smooth gliding. The tempo gate effect is set using a simple volume slider for each step. and of course the delay effect (which has filtering in the feedback loop) puts in an appearance to make things more interesting. This delay is also available as a separate tempo-sync'able plug-in. Distortion/Bit Crunch, Spin Filter, Spin Sequencer and Spin Pan are also available as separate plug-ins if you only need to use one element.
It all starts to sound a bit like a launderette running in reverse at this point, as Spin is followed by Wash.
Wash is certainly an oddball application of delay, and comprises six interacting delay lines controlled by a grid-like user interface. There's a Lock button on each of the delay lines which, when activated, sets the feedback to 100 percent and shuts off the input to create an infinite loop of whatever sound is trapped in the delay line at the time. This loop can be filtered, time-shifted and volume/pan controlled to create a continuous, smooth sound, so it is useful for sound design as well as performance.Each delay can be set in steps up to 10 seconds, while a delay time knob sets the delay time to a percentage of this maximum figure — much like any other coarse/fine arrangement.
A resonant filter is available following each delay line with adjustable frequency, resonance and mode (low-pass, high-pass, band-pass and notch). Additional audio can be added to the loop 'sound on sound' style, and by using the matrix, you can send any output into to any of the delay inputs. The audio output can be any combination of the delay line outputs so you can get anything from subtle echoes to dense clouds of regeneration. You can also end up with a swirling mess, but that's part of the fun!
Spin-offs from Wash include a single-channel looping delay module, where double-clicking the delay time indicator will enter a tap tempo rate dependent on the timing between the two clicks. This also works in the full version of Wash.
Mode might not have the most attractive plug-in windows, but they are on the whole clearly set out and easy to control. The synths have a distinctively digital edge to them and provide more sonic flexibility than their meagre parameter sets might indicate, though they tend to be quite processor-intensive, so it makes sense to use the lighter versions wherever you don't need all the bells and whistles. The arpeggiators are extremely useful and Poly Arpeggiator in particular can create some very complex-sounding results from relatively simple musical inputs.
On the effects side, everything works well but Wash is of particular interest as it allows the looping and freezing of audio for the creation of unusual drones or textures. It's not always clear what the end result will be until you try it, but experimentation is easy thanks to the visual grid interface. However, I found Spin more to my liking as I've always had a soft spot for timebase-controlled effects that allow you to sequence levels or filter settings. The effects on offer here are extensions of the rhythmic gating idea but with the option to change the rhythm and levels of the individual steps. Overall, the extra quirkiness of some of these effects is nicely balanced by the controllability of the interface while the ability to apply modulation sources to other Mode plug-ins also opens up some very creative possibilities.
My only real criticism of this suite of goodies, other than the slightly unimaginative graphic design, is that the synths in particular are very processor-hungry, so anyone not using a G5 machine will need to deploy them with care. If anything, I'd like to see even more made of the timebase effect possibilities as I really see that as a great way to add interest and rhythm to tired old sounds, but what's available here is a step ahead of what I've seen elsewhere and still very easy to use.
When inserted in an audio channel, modulator plug-ins such as Mode Poly LFO pass audio signals through them without changing them, but they do function as modulation sources that may be used to dynamically modulate the parameters of other Mode plug-ins.
For example, you could insert Poly LFO in an audio track, then use it to control a parameter in a Poly Chorus plug-in inserted in the same channel. In this example, the Mode Poly LFO Edit window would allow you to select a destination parameter to control — for instance, the chorus plug-in's depth setting. Once set, you can confirm that all is working properly by looking at the chorus window controls, where you should see the depth control moving. You can also adjust the ratio of LFO value to parameter change to adjust the depth of the modulation effect.
Mode is a useful blend of the familiar and the quirky, where anything too confusing or unnecessary has been stripped away to keep operation simple. The synths have a sound all their own rather than being anybody's clone, and while their thirst for CPU resources worries me a bit, the provision of 'light' versions goes some way to lessening this concern. My first impression was that the synths are probably best suited to dance music production because of their hard, slightly digital edge, but they can be coaxed to work outside this genre without too much effort. The same is true of Bang, which is great for creating electronic-sounding drum or percussion sounds but also handy for creating abstract sound effects.
On the effects front, the various permutations and derivatives of the Spin and Wash modules are capable of producing musically useful but artistically different sounds, and as I've already hinted, there are some good tools here for sound design as well as straight ahead music performance. Ultimately then, Mode is a mixed bag and intentionally so, but if you're fed up with me-too sounds, Mode might be all it takes to dig you out of your rut and set you thinking in different directions.