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iZotope Break Tweaker

Virtual Percussion Instrument
By Paul Nagle

iZotope's Break Tweaker software gives you microscopic control over your beats and much more besides.

Break Tweaker is a 'drum sculpting and beat sequencing environment' designed by BT and developed by iZotope. It consists of a well-stocked library of percussion samples backed up by detailed synthesis, plus a six track, 32-step sequencer. Its Microedit engine is a multi-functional gadget for carving up beats into ultra-fine slices to be shaped, triggered, tuned and transformed. With minimal effort, any sample, hit or bleep can be treated to the kind of shine and polish commonly associated with hours of intensive mouse-fondling. If your grooves could benefit from a tweak or two, read on...

Take A Break

Installation offers iLok as an option, but if you choose to avoid it, as I did, you're plunged into a relatively straightforward process of response codes and authorisation. There's a 2GB sample download of factory content too, after which you can crank up Break Tweaker in your DAW of choice. In my case this was Logic X, but all the majors are supported. It's also available as a 10-day fully functional trial version.

With a streamlined UI in sombre dark blues and greys, this six-track drum machine is remarkably consistent with old-school beat building. There's no swing or shuffle, but it is at least possible to deviate from common time. Right-clicking the ruler reveals a number of alternate time signatures, from 3/4 up to 9/8. Each track hosts up to three generators. These are either synth waveforms or samples to be processed, filtered and modulated to a surprisingly comprehensive degree.

The interface is a familiar stack of tracks with mute, solo, pan and gain, plus a top-level overview of the pattern. Patterns are a maximum of two bars long, and while this keeps things simple and is comparable to many hardware drum machines, I'd love to see longer patterns in future. A click on the track's waveform icon reveals its generators and switches the top-level overview to the track in focus.

There's no song mode or even pattern chain functionality, but as the 24 available patterns can be triggered by MIDI keys, the most direct method of assembling songs is by recording these actions into your DAW. You can additionally play each drum voice manually to add fills, overdubs and most other tricks you might traditionally expect from a percussion module.

Over 80 presets are provided, organised into five genres: Dubstep, Electro, Hip Hop, Minimal and Retro. To help set you in motion, each preset is populated by a number of patterns, many of which are brilliant introductions to the sonic wonders within. They also show from the outset that drums aren't the full extent of Break Tweaker's ambition.

Each track has its own independent length. Here each track's output is routed for independent processing (in this case in Logic X). When triggering patterns from a keyboard or drum pad and dynamically rearranging their running order, you'll notice that, with legato play, the new pattern continues from the same relative position as the old one. When you put a definite break between notes the new pattern starts at the beginning.

Even though all tracks start together, each can be a unique length and speed. To adjust the length of any track you simply drag its track length handle. Similarly, you can modify the track speed from one third up to three times the norm, with all sensible divisions provided in between. Tracks loop independently until a new pattern is selected.

A hit is inserted on any step by a click. Its level is adjusted by a vertical drag and its length extended by dragging in the horizontal plane. You might expect that extending a hit over several steps would make no sense for percussion, but it's a key contributor to Break Tweaker's charm because it determines the area that Microedit works on, which we'll look into shortly. In the meantime, any step's Generators can be silenced in their tracks by inserting a subsequent dummy hit called a choke.

Kits & Generators

Whether designing sounds from scratch or plundering the extensive set supplied, there are bountiful resources on hand before you dip into the optional (and affordable) expansion libraries, or import your own samples. Those supplied are a better than average starting point and include more than 1500 kicks, almost as many snares and many eminently usable percussive whacks and wallops. These are further boosted by a smattering of synths, short vocal noises, filmic booms and a cache of cymbals, crashes and tympani rolls, plus more colours of noise than a flatulent painter and decorator's lifetime output. I imported a few samples of my own, more to test the functionality than because I spotted any obvious omissions. You're also free to load kits from any preset without disturbing existing patterns. Auditioning the factory kits can be particularly reassuring if you were worried six tracks might not be enough.

A rather novel idea is the 'Discover' button, which attempts to find samples similar to the current selection. This feature requires an Internet connection and its results aren't always genuinely similar, but it's a fun means of quickly trying replacement samples all the same. As per all Break Tweaker's actions, there's extensive and well-documented undo available should you wish to revert to the original selection.

Samples can be truncated, transposed, looped, played forwards, backwards or in alternating directions before being passed on for processing. The first processor is a dual distortion section with half a dozen different flavours to rough up any source. It's followed by a choice of modelled filters presented in homage to classics designed in the USA and Japan. They're fat, squelchy and not too shabby, but if it's quick and brutally precise cutting of frequencies you need, the Brick Wall filter is ideally suited to building composite percussion voices of several layered generators.

Other than distortion and filtering, effects aren't Break Tweaker's forté. There's a built-in compressor/limiter with a single intensity control and this acts as a 'glue' to give more cohesion to the mix, but no delays or reverbs. Typically, you'd route each track to its own DAW input for individual processing by your favourite effects.

As an alternative (or companion) to sample playback, a generator can be kitted out for synthesis instead. Two morphing wavetable oscillators are offered, each with a waveform arsenal to be proud of. There are complex waves, formant waves, rhythmic waves and more, plus synthesis modes such as AM, FM and ring modulation to mash the oscillators together before they too get the distortion and filtering treatment.

My first suspicion, quickly shown to be wrong, was that including synth waveforms might be a gimmick. (You know, like when manufacturers first started sneaking instrument and voice samples into drum machines so the demos sounded better.) However, after a short time playing with the complex waves and modulating the wavetable shape, I realised my error. It would have been a missed opportunity to confine the precision of Microedit to drums alone. The inclusion of even one 'Break-Tweaked' synth voice implies sophistication beyond the reach of lesser mortals.

To add animation or unpredictability, there are eight sources of modulation per generator lane in the form of four LFOs and four envelopes. With a bewildering number of LFO shapes, plus sample and hold, you shouldn't get bored any time soon, but it might have been nice to include more traditional parameter automation in the tracks as well. Still, there's always the option to do that in your DAW. All parameters can be assigned for regular host automation.

Since this is resolutely a drum machine, there's sadly no way to play the voices chromatically from a keyboard, but you can create melodies using the functions of Microedit.

Micro Magic

When you select a step (or steps) in a pattern, the Microedit window bursts into life. This is the feature that separates Break Tweaker from everything else, its friendly front-end guiding novices and pros alike through a process that straddles enhanced beat repetition and granular synthesis. The bulk of the window is occupied by a graphical representation of the triggering or slicing, the effect honed by the type, slope and gate parameters. Usefully, there's a preview button to fire off the edited step without you having to wait for the sequencer to come round and play it.

Making adjustments to Microedit looks like a more complicated operation than it turns out to be, which is something of a relief. The impatient can click 'Randomize' a few times to get a feel for how their selected hit can be gratuitously warped in ways that could never be accomplished by copying and pasting samples or painting notes in a DAW. Any step can be butchered into thousands of tiny slices, retriggered at almost the molecular level — or so it seems. If the Retrigger box is ticked, each Microedit division retriggers the generators and envelopes, but when left empty the process acts as an ultra-precise gate.

Samples can be edited, altered and generally interfered with via this window. With type set to 'Time' you enter the realm of mad rhythmic trills and repeats. Some of these could — conceivably — be accomplished with a regular DAW. From fond memories of the Cubase drum grid, I can recall drawing a series of 64th triplets from time to time but I don't recall ever coming close to the glitched-out warbles excreted by Break Tweaker when pushed to its maximum division of 1024T!

If you choose a type of 'Pitch' the events are tuned to a single musical pitch but the most interesting results come by applying different slope shapes. These generate programmed musical flurries; little riffs with names such as 'Galactic', 'Sauce', 'Minor 7' and 'Bling', their intervals spread over the length of the selected step. Alternatively, select a Microedit type of 'Speed' and the note numbers are translated into Hz. It's while dragging the mouse vertically within the view window that you notice the playback rate can be adjusted as far as 493.9Hz, while horizontal movement sets the tension — a rhythmic skewing of note triggers.

When tension is set to zero, all divisions are evenly spaced across the step. As you adjust the tension value, the divisions are skewed to produce twists and accelerations based on the selected slope. It's easy to become distracted by the timing subtleties imprinted by this on each step, which is where making copies of patterns is a good idea. You can save multiple versions and pick a favourite later.

By increasing the gate amount, the pale blue individual slices in the Microedit window become shaded at the rear. No, this doesn't represent the early stages of haemorrhoids, but the release stage of the triggering or slicing envelope. It's also possible to include a volume fade so the effected step can smoothly enter or exit and there's an effect tab offering a last blast of processing for each Microedited step in the form of filters,Break Tweaker's synth engine is built on morphing wavetables with ring modulation, FM, AM and modelled filters. chorus or yet more distortion.

Finally, in order to add bass lines or other melodic material to your patterns, there's a coarse pitch offset for each step. This is a functional, if rather crude, way of programming bass lines, melodies and so on.

Conclusion

You may remember the previous BT/iZotope outing, Stutter Edit, for its stunning effect-triggering and audio-slicing capabilities. Break Tweaker is equally successful, mainly due to its focus. It does what it sets out to do without being hampered by a thousand extra functions bolted on to cloud the issue. Furthermore, it's packed with a solid library of sounds that can be supplemented by user samples or expansion packs, all of which can be modified to taste. The inclusion of wavetable oscillators is neither a gimmick nor an afterthought, although I would have loved to play them like regular synths from a keyboard.

As an interactive drum machine accessible directly from your DAW, Break Tweaker could already earn its keep, lacking only swing to cover all the basics. Its polyrhythmic implementation is very effective, but could have been spiced up by the inclusion of patterns longer than two bars. However, the unique selling point remains Microedit's intense manipulation of single events, sliced and diced at such speeds that rhythm morphs into melody. If zooming into the fine detail matters — and in dance music it surely does — Break Tweaker could be an invaluable asset to hoist your productions to the next level.  

Pros

  • A fast, intuitive drum machine designed for complex beat construction and ornamentation.
  • Polyrhythms made easy.
  • Quality content included.

Cons

  • Patterns can only be two bars long.
  • No swing.
  • Generators cannot be played chromatically.

Summary

Break Tweaker effortlessly delivers freaky sample retriggering, gating and polyrhythmic grooves that could energise even the most mundane tunes.

information

£149 including VAT.

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sales@timespace.com

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www.izotope.com

Published June 2014