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Expressive E Imagine

Software Instrument By Robin Bigwood
Published February 2022

Expressive E Imagine

Imagine uses physical modelling to let you create any acoustic instrument you can, er, imagine.

Imagine is the offspring of two innovative companies, Expressive E from France and the Canadian Applied Acoustics Systems. The former are probably best known for their Touché gestural control unit for synths, and the (at the time of writing still much anticipated) Osmose MPE synth. AAS, meanwhile, are old hands at the physical modelling game: their Lounge Lizard electric piano was one of the first really successful implementations of the technology as a plug‑in. These days the product range includes modelled guitars and synths too, and Eurorack hardware tie‑ins.

With forebears like these Imagine should be interesting and unusual, and it is! It’s essentially an acoustic modeller of imaginary instruments, based on the sound production behaviour of skins (in the drum sense), strings, bars and tubes. Two sound‑producing modules can be layered in each preset and their outputs treated by a bank of modulatable effects. A macro system lets you tie multiple parameters together for easy simultaneous modulation, and it’s easy to set up real‑time control with a Touché or more conventional MIDI controllers. The graphic interface is clean and invites experimentation. It all looks fascinating, and promising, but how does it work out in practice? And more importantly perhaps, what sounds can you get out of this thing?

Giving Me Excitations

Let’s start with an overview of Imagine. The heart of every preset is its pair of instrument layers, shown next to each other in the main Instrument plug‑in page. These have identical capabilities, can be individually enabled, and have their own independent level, pitch (+/‑ four octaves, in cent steps), release time and pan positions. In conventional synth terms you might regard each as a complete polyphonic ‘voice’ but there’s very little that’s conventionally synthy about them.

The instrument browser lets you quickly explore excitator and material combinations. The instruments are all factory presets, and fair game for further tweaking.The instrument browser lets you quickly explore excitator and material combinations. The instruments are all factory presets, and fair game for further tweaking.Each layer/instrument uses one of three methods of virtual excitation: either mallet‑struck, noise‑actuated or sequenced. Ten categories of material combinations can then be explored; pairings of skins, bars, tubes and strings. For each of those 30 excitation combos a number of pre‑configured starting points are provided, often with descriptive and fanciful portmanteau names such as ‘Dustophone’, ‘Hurdy Tuby’ and ‘Harpastral’. The names sometimes give a flavour of how they’ll sound and behave, but there’s scope for altering any of them quite radically: more of that in a minute. What’s more, there can be huge variation between instruments within a single category, and equally lots of overlaps between categories, so there are no hard and fast rules. Each instrument is, I’d guess, a product of hundreds of under‑the‑hood acoustic modelling parameters that would be too overwhelming and complex to expose to the end user. Regard them as very flexible, almost waveform‑like mini‑presets, and you’ll be on the mark. Also, be aware that conventional instruments (eg. marimba, bass guitar, violin) are conspicuous by their absence. You might find a way to create convincing versions of these, but that is not really the point of this plug‑in. In general too, the character of sustaining instruments leans much more towards ensemble than solo.

Alongside this main sound‑generating side of Imagine is a complex parameter modulation system, visible at the bottom of the window as four macro knobs and an associated MSEG (multi‑stage envelope generator) for each. And also a whole separate Effects page, with an extensive signal flow via a vibrato/frequency shifter, two configurable ‘expressive fx’ (which encompass filters, distortion, chorus and more), a tilt EQ and compressor, and finally a delay and plate reverb. The on‑board modulation is just as valid for use here as on the Instruments page, by the way, and remains visible.

As you might expect, an Imagine preset loads (instantaneously) the whole shebang: both instrument layers, modulation and effects. Somewhere around 200 are provided, organised into familiar groupings of Bass, Lead, Pad and so on. A nicely implemented, very easy‑to‑use MIDI Learn facility operates at a global level, in the individual instantiation in your DAW, with any hardware control assignments you make unaffected by loading new presets. There’s also a Main menu that gives access to preset management functions, an init patch, and an online PDF manual.

It’s Easy If You Try

Without wanting to pre‑empt the main findings of this review, Imagine would have a lot to offer even as a preset‑only virtual instrument. But in fact, digging in and tweaking presets, or starting new sounds from scratch, is easy and inviting: surprisingly so maybe, given the potential complexity of physical modelling.

Looking at the instrument layers first, it’s quickly apparent that different parameters appear according to the type of ‘excitator’ (which I’m not totally sure is a word, but I rather like it...). And it’s remarkable just how few parameters there are.

Mallet instruments, which are intrinsically decaying in volume and brightness, offer adjustable shine (brightness), mute (damping), position (of strike) and impact. This last parameter continuously varies the virtual mallet from a hard‑headed stick, through a felt then soft mallet, and finally a metal...

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