PC owners who fancy a full modular synth for less than £200 need look no further. Martin Walker connects more virtual modules than you can shake a patchcord at.
Judging by the response to the recent review of the Clavia Nord Modular synth (see the two‑part SOS review in April and May '98) there are plenty of people out there who fancy running their own modular monsters. Although the Nord Modular uses PC software for designing patches, it is the DSP chips in the hardware that actually do all the hard work. Taking this one stage further, various manufacturers have dispensed with the additional DSP circuitry, and created complete synths in software. Not only are the patchcords virtual, but the entire synthesizer (including all the oscillators, filters, and amplifiers) is also created inside the virtual world of the computer. Given the power of today's PCs, it is now possible to perform all the calculations in real time, so that you can audition the sound while you tweak the virtual knobs.
Generator (from Berlin‑based Native Instruments) is a software synth that will run on any Pentium PC (100MHz or better). The more processor power you have, the greater the complexity and the more notes you'll be able to use. Much like the software for the Nord Modular, Generator uses a completely modular interface. You can assemble any desired combination of the building blocks provided and connect them with virtual patchcords. However, in addition to the more traditional synth facilities, the program also enables you to design your own circuitry from scratch, from the modules and connections, to the front panel, complete with knobs, faders and buttons. You are not restricted to synths either. The supplied library contains a ring modulator, vocoder and several step sequencers, all assembled from the lower‑level building blocks. This gives Generator huge sonic potential... but it doesn't stop there. The program can also be used inside other applications as a DirectX plug‑in, so that you can design your own effects and use them within, say, Cubase VST.
Once you have installed the software, you need to set it up for your soundcard. In the Options menu, Audio Port lets you choose between the standard MME driver, the Audiowerk8 (with lower latency), or the Native Instruments' Generator card, as well as DirectSound drivers (if your soundcard has them). If you open Generator from within another application like Cubase VST, ActiveMovie is used instead. The MIDI option enables Generator to be played from an attached MIDI keyboard, although you can also play notes using the computer keyboard, which is very handy during editing sessions. Finally, the Audio Settings option determines the latency setting, both for input (Record Ahead) and output (Play Ahead). See the Power and Performance box for further details.
Once you have the main Generator window open, you will see the default building blocks ready for use. Audio Out is the interface to your soundcard, and also provides overall Level and Tune controls. The Audio In block is used if and when you need to record new samples, or when processing incoming audio. Apart from these, what you see is a dummy 'instrument' already connected to the Audio Out module.
Native Instruments have their own nomenclature for the program's building blocks at the various levels of operation. Thankfully for the casual user, there are about 140 ready‑designed Instruments in the supplied library. These include a wide range of more than 70 synths neatly arranged in 10 folders with names such as Atmosphere, Basic Analogue, FM, Modelling, Organ, Pads+Strings, Percussion, Soundeffects, Various, and Vintage. Other available Instruments comprise the 41 effects blocks, which include chorus, compression, distortion, filters, flangers, delays, echoes, panning, ring modulation, tremolo and vocoder, plus step sequencers and samplers.
After selecting an Instrument, you simply connect it to the Audio Out module by clicking on its Out, and then dragging the resulting patchcord across to the Left or Right of the Audio Out, and then again for the other audio channel. The Instrument is then ready to play. If you want to add an effect, simply right‑click again to choose one, and then re‑connect this between the synth and the Audio Out.
The exciting part comes when you right‑click on any Instrument. This brings up a further menu with editing options (Mute, Cut, Copy, Delete, Save As), followed by the three more advanced options of Panel, Structure, and Properties. Clicking on Panel launches a window with a set of virtual analogue knobs, switches and sliders. You can now start tweaking in earnest, and, whenever you create a good sound, save it as a snapshot. Snapshots appear in a drop‑down list and can be stored, deleted or renamed, or selected using MIDI programme changes. You can save them as part of the Instrument before you exit, so that you build up a complete bank of sounds associated with each Panel.
There is one operational layer higher than the Instrument, and this is the Ensemble. This lets you set up an entire collection of instruments and position any combination of Panels on the screen. Each Instrument can be given its own MIDI channel for multitimbral operation, and when you next open the Ensemble, everything will be set up ready for use in just as you left it.
I've tried out several software synths, but most of them are not a patch on this one!
You can explore the design of any Instrument by examining its structure, and this is where the lower level components and their interconnections are found. Structures can contain Modules or Macros. Modules are the individual building blocks, ranging from switches, knobs and faders through to oscillators, filters and amplifiers. There is a huge range available (with 33 types of oscillator alone).
However, although you can get really deep into synthesis and delve into individual switches and amplifier stages, Native Instruments also provide more than a hundred Macros. Comprising advanced assemblies (such as RingMod which contains no less than 21 individual modules), these Macros allow you to concentrate on the creative connections, rather than having to 'hand‑wire' every knob and fader to each individual control point.
For each component, the Properties box lets you modify such variables as the range of a control, its response to MIDI, and how it will appear graphically in the Panel (knob, fader, switch, and so on). You can also edit the Panels themselves using click and drag to arrange the controls as you wish. There is a useful tutorial in the manual and a help file to guide you through the creation of your first simple synth using basic modules.
For many people, one of the big attractions of the modular synth is the ability to tweak knobs in real time. Moving any on‑screen control will generate a MIDI output that can be recorded into a sequencer.
The number of notes (or indeed multiple synths) that you can run simultaneously depends on how much processor power you can spare. With a Pentium 166MHz MMX processor, I had no problems running any of the supplied instruments and ensembles, but they did typically take between 25 and 50 per cent of my processor power. If you intend to run a sequencer as well, then you would really need a more powerful processor than this. Performance is also somewhat dependent on soundcard drivers, particularly on the input side, and it would be worth checking out the demo with your own soundcard for full compatibility.
I lost many hours working with the many synths already provided, as well as producing several variations of my own. Apart from creating more traditional oscillator/filter/amplifier designs, along with FM and modelling synths, there are many more possibilities for generating unusual sounds, or even new forms of synthesis. Native Instruments' web site also provides updates and designs from other users for free download.
Another joy was working inside Cubase VST. It only took me a couple of minutes to assemble a 'sample and hold flanger through four‑tap delay' effect patch which I then used as a channel insert.
Generator is a very open system with an easy‑to‑use and attractive interface which offers a tremendous flexibility of approach. It enables you to work at many different levels depending on your particular interest and expertise. Those who lock themselves away for days could produce amazingly complex Structures, but then let other people access the sounds via an easy‑to‑use front Panel or Ensemble, which hides away the possible confusion of patch cords. Ultimately, sonic quality will be determined by your soundcard. If it has a flat and wide frequency response, low noise and low distortion, the software will provide you with an excellent‑sounding synth with a huge range of possibilities.
I was very impressed with it, despite some teething troubles with my soundcard drivers, which should be sorted out shortly. It will certainly appeal to the inveterate experimenter, especially at its bargain UK price of £169. You can also buy Generator directly via the Native Instruments web site by credit card, and a demo version is freely available. I've tried out several software synths, but most of them are not a patch on this one!
The two potential problem areas with software synths are overhead (in other words, the proportion of your processor power used) and latency (the time between playing a note and hearing the sound). The latency of Generator is very dependent on your soundcard. There is a Play Ahead setting in the Audio menu which you reduce until you start to hear clicks and glitches. At this point, edging the value back up will give the fastest glitch‑free response for your system. The smaller the value, the shorter the delay, and the more responsive your synth.
I got very good results with my Event Gina, and found that I could reliably use the lowest setting of 10mS, which compares very favourably with Seer Systems' Reality (reviewed in SOS November '97), which I recently measured at 8mS. When switching to my AWE64 Gold card, I had to raise the setting for Generator to 20mS using its MME drivers, but this was still very usable.
DirectSound drivers should give lower latency if your soundcard has them, but make sure you have the latest version. Generator pushes the drivers hard, and you may get crashes with older drivers.
Running the huge number of complex calculations required to produce real‑time audio will necessarily take a significant chunk of your processor overhead, and unless you can devote your PC to this single application, you will need to know whether there will still be enough power left to run a sequencer alongside. A basic VCO/VCF/VCA chain, with two ADSR envelopes and an LFO took 31 per cent of my Pentium 166MHz MMX machine for four voices at 44.1kHz. However, you can reduce overhead by selecting a reduced sampling rate. At 33075Hz and 22050Hz this reduced to 25 per cent and 17 per cent respectively.
Another option is to adjust the maximum number of voices. A rough mock‑up of the Minimoog Model A (three VCOs, one VCF, one VCA) took 17 per cent at 33075Hz sampling rate with a single voice, but this only increased to 44 per cent with five polyphonic voices. As always with software, you can expect proportional changes in processor usage in line with processing power.
Although there is not enough space here to provide a comprehensive list of the Modules and Macros (there must be several hundred in all), here is a small selection to give you a taste. Many of the simpler Macros are in fact basic Modules, but with all the required controls already attached.
- Control and Display (faders, knobs, buttons, and switches, lamps and meters).
- Delays, Samplers and Tapedecks (10 in all).
- Envelopes (10 types including AD, AR, and ADSR).
- Filters (10 types from one‑pole to four‑pole, and various EQs).
- LFOs (six varieties).
- MIDI Source (Gates, Note, Trigger, Pitch‑Bend, Aftertouch etc).
- Mixers (including Crossfade and Pan).
- Modifiers (15 in all, including Clippers, Saturators, Dividers, Sample and Hold, and Randomiser).
- Oscillators (23 in all, including basic analogue waveforms, PWM, Sync, FM, Multistep and Noise).
- Sequencers (six‑ to 16‑step).
- Switch matrixes (up to four‑in, four‑out patchbays).
- Works with nearly all soundcards.
- Up to 64 voices/16 multitimbral parts.
- Can be used as a DirectX plug‑in inside another application.
- Easy‑to‑use interface for both casual and expert users.
- Huge variety of sounds available.
- Knob movements can be recorded as MIDI events in a sequencer.
- Needs a powerful PC if you want to run a sequencer as well.
- Performance can be dependent on soundcard drivers.
A very well‑designed and comprehensive modular synth system at a bargain price, which should provide a huge amount of programming pleasure to a wide range of people.