By designing a signal processing environment that offers endless modulation and routing options, Native Instruments hope to reinvent the way we use effects.
Native Instruments' Molekular is a modular effects processing system that has been designed to be fast and easy to use, but also flexible enough to cope with any crazy signal routing idea someone might care to try out. Though it offers only four slots into which effects modules can be loaded, each of which supports only some of the possible effects types, there are limitless possibilities when it comes to modulating effect parameters and routing.
In all, Molekular includes 35 effects, but they are separated into categories, and some categories are restricted to certain slots in the interface. Spectral effects, of which there are seven, load into DSP slot one, while slot two accepts any one of nine delay, stutter and glitch effects. Slot three is home to eight modulation and filter effects, and the last slot accommodates six dynamic and distortion options. That leaves a further five 'bread and butter' effects (namely a dual delay, equaliser, filter, gate and reverb), all of which are unrestricted and can be loaded into any or all of the four slots.
The effects slots themselves sit in a neat row along the bottom of the interface, just below three control panels. The top left panel provides access to 16 modulation sources, while the right‑hand one deals mainly with routing. Between the two is a display which is both a menu/information screen and the control panel for an intriguing processor called Morph. Helpfully, the four DSP slots and three control panels always stay in the same place, making the interface clear and straightforward. It's behind the scenes where things start getting a little more complicated, but we'll kick off by looking at the Modulators section, as it is the modulators which drive everything along.
Molekular's modulation section houses 16 modulation sources, all of which are active simultaneously. Each can be assigned to modulate an unlimited number of effect controls. To keep the display simple, though, the designers have made only one modulator visible at a time. Like the effects themselves, the 16 modulators are broken down into four categories. The first set of modulators are LFOs, which not only modulate effect parameters, but also each other to a certain extent. NI obviously like working in multiples of four, because there are just four LFO waveform presets: 'tri‑saw', sine, pulse and noise. However, a simple shape adjuster enables the user to dramatically alter the contour of each waveform, so that other shapes such as sawtooth, triangle and square can be generated.
LFO rate can be set freely as a value in Hertz, slaved to the host tempo, or, in the case of LFOs 2, 3 and 4, as a multiple of LFO 1. It's also possible to change the modulation depth of each LFO, and assign each one to as many destinations as is desired. One could, for example, slave LFO 1 to the host sequencer, then use it to control the rate of a chorus effect and the cutoff frequency of a filter. At the same time, LFO 1 could be selected to be the sync source for the remaining three LFOs, and each of those could be sent to modulate its own particular gang of controllers. In short, there are oodles of options!
The Modulator section also includes four step sequencers, each offering up to 16 steps that can be set so that their range covers anything from 32 bars down to a 96th of a bar. The steps themselves are fully dynamic rather than just on/off, and can be dragged to the desired velocity with a mouse. A click of a mouse is also all that's required to make them play backwards, in pendulum fashion or in random order. Compared to the LFOs, the step sequencers provide a means of creating more detailed, custom modulation envelopes that develop over a longer period of time.
The next set of modulators are the three envelopes and single envelope follower, which is triggered from the DSP slots, so is dependent on whichever effect is loaded into the selected slot. As before, step sequencers form part of the design, but this time they are intended to be used to trigger the envelopes, which have variable gate, attack and release controls.
The last four modulators occupy a section labelled Logic, and introduce yet another level of complexity. This time, there are X and Y controls which are combined in various ways according to whichever one of eight presets is selected. The sources of the X and Y values can be drawn from any of the LFOs, step sequencers or envelopes.
If all this sounds complicated, that's because it is. Given that every modulator can be assigned to more or less every effect control or controls, and many of the modulators affect other modulators, which can also be assigned to yet more effect parameters themselves, things can get very complicated indeed. But because almost everything is broken down into neat blocks of four, in practice it's not as hard to keep track of what's going on as it first appears. Assigning modulators to destinations is dead simple too: you just click a button called Assign, and wee sliders appear next to every control.
The routing section at the top right of the interface concerns itself with the four effects slots and alters the way they are ordered. Selecting its eponymous menu brings up eight diagrammatic routing configurations, or charts, as NI like to call them, any of which can be selected in an instant. In terms of altering the overall sound of Molekular, switching routing charts can have a very dramatic affect, as some are based around single or double DSP lines, while others use as many as four, but it is all a little dependent on what the modulators are doing.
Once a routing chart is selected, the four DSP effect icons are free to be moved from their starting positions. Helpfully, when one is dragged to the position occupied by another, the displaced effect automatically hops across to fill the vacated position, which makes patching fast, simple and clear. Importantly, the actual effects stay in their DSP blocks on the bottom of the page — it is only their routing and positions on the routing chart that change. Where there are two or more DSP chains feeding the output, it is possible to crossfade between them using a little slider, and like so many of the other controls, this action can be driven by one of the modulator sources. From there the user can set filter, delay and sync parameters for each of the four effects.
To add to the mayhem, the designers have added another layer of routing which is brought up by pressing Patch. This enables the output of one of the effects to be looped back to the input of another, or indeed itself, and there is a delay, filter and level control in the circuit too!
Another major sound‑altering tool hidden in the routing section allows detailed pitch quantisation of each effect according to user‑defined scales that are set in a pattern editor. There are eight pattern slots in total, and by carefully applying a modulation source, Molekular can be made to automatically shift through some, or all, of them at a particular rate. For example, using an LFO with something like a sawtooth pattern has the effect of driving the scale changes along with the music, but by using a step sequencer as the modulator and extending its length, the changes are forced to evolve over quite a number of bars. As for creating a pattern, that's simply a matter of selecting or de‑selecting notes in the scale and transposing the octave to the desired position.
In terms of quality, the effects impressed me, and I'd certainly consider using them in place of my other plug‑ins, particularly if I wanted a relatively simple array of parameters to work with. To my ears they have a kind of warmth to them that is not always there in the digital domain, and in that sense they could be said to sound analogue‑ish. There isn't room here to describe all 35 available effects in detail, but Native Instruments have covered most things pretty well and have clearly put a lot of thought into making the interfaces attractively uncluttered and simple. One effect called Reverseoid, for example, has only two controls, and they don't even have a scale. There are a few effects, however, which could do with more options. The Metaverb reverb, for example, is very basic, and although it sounds lovely, a few more controls would increase its flexibility.
If I had to pick some favourites from the bunch, I'd start with Metaverb, as there are few effects as useful as a good reverb. Molekular's manual describes it as having a slightly synthetic sound, but even if it isn't as pure as some reverbs, it creates a very attractive ambience that is certainly suitable for sound‑design work. Of the spectral effects, reSonitarium is the one I'd go to first. It feeds the input through four parallel feedback‑delay‑based resonators, and each of those passes through its own resonant low‑pass filter and delay. Like a number of other effects, reSonitarium has its very own pattern editor, making it possible to control the relative intervals, delays and pan positions of the four resonators. It's brilliant for turning a single instrument into a resonating ensemble, and beefs things up in an instant.
To get the best from the controls of the delay effects, it is probably best to think about automating them. The Cloud Delay, for example, has a Play control which freezes a grain delay buffer while held down. In other words, it momentarily samples the audio signal and uses it as a source for the grains, so modulating it with, say, an oscillator, can be very effective. Control is also given over pitch, jitter, grain length and delay time, and the grains can even be reversed.
Dark Forces is a modulator effect that has three modes of operation based on modulated delay lines, all of which are controlled from the effect's own pattern editor page. With certain settings, Dark Forces works like a tremolo effect, but it is also capable of behaving like a pitch‑shifter, and can be used to create everything from crazy metallic sounds reminiscent of early Doctor Who to bizarre pitch and level wobbling.
The last DSP slot is for effects that distort and add interesting textures to the signal, but amongst their number there is Slam Dunk, which is a compressor/transient shaper, that has been designed to, as NI put it, compress the living daylights out of stuff! Whatever the design brief, it is easy to use and can be pushed quite hard without it noticeably deadening the music.
Native Instruments' Molekular product demo uses a driving electro track to showcase its presets, and clearly the software has all the necessary sound‑mangling tools (and more besides) to make that kind of music, but I decided to start my tests with a looped finger‑picked classical guitar riff I had made. Just using some of the presets I was able to turn my delicate playing into something approaching dance music, then into an ambient dreamscape, and then a crazy mass of layered bleeping, burbling and filtered delays worthy of an early Tomita record!
But to really get to grips with Molekular I found it helpful to start simple, using a single effect and assigning a single modulation source to one of its key controls. That way I was able to keep track of what was happening and build from there. For example, the actions of the attack, gate and release controls of the envelope modulators are not obvious, especially amidst a busy patch, but they can be tested by setting the sequencer to have 16 steps divided into blocks of two on, two off, adjusting the modulation depth slider, and then assigning the output to the Size control of the Metaverb (reverb) effect.
When building more complicated patches, it pays to be organised and assign modulators to effects in some kind of logical order. Usefully, each DSP block has an on/off switch, mute button and solo control so that when things get a little muddled it's possible to take effects in and out of the equation to find out what's going on.
Ultimately, though, it can become difficult to keep tabs on what modulator has been assigned to which control, or controls, especially after a bit of DSP slot effect swapping has taken place. The only ways to check are by flicking through all the LFO, Step, Envelope and Logic pages and looking at the status of the assignable sliders on each page, or entering the Assign mode and clicking on each parameter to view its modulation assignments table, so perhaps the designers could look at introducing some kind of global diagrammatic patching page in the future.
In Molekular, Native Instruments have succeeded in designing a very complex effects processing environment that remains relatively easy to use. It does take a little time to get to grips with its capabilities, however, and I'd suggest that anyone who has just downloaded their copy should put the kettle on, set up an interesting loop, and settle down with the software for a few hours. That should be enough time to scratch below the surface and find out what it's capable of doing, although mastering it may take a while longer. There again, perhaps the strength of the software is that it is almost impossible to master completely.
Looking into my crystal ball, I can see myself using Molekular as an insert on just about anything that requires more than two different processes applied, simply because working with multiple effects in a single environment such as this is fast and tidy. I can also see it being extremely effective for scoring work, chiefly because it can be set (using the right combination of step sequencer, LFO and envelope modulators) so that the output evolves and re‑evolves over time, and not just in time with the beat. As for utter madness, it is great for that too, and given that the quality of the effects is very good, I might even use it for specific effects like reverb and delay.
I'm not sure if Molekular reinvents the wheel in the way its promotional literature suggests: the idea of patchable modulation sources goes back to the early days of modular analogue synthesis, and there are a number of other plug‑ins that permit multiple effects to be connected in interesting ways. Nevertheless, it has all the advantages that software has to offer, such as total recall and instant patching, and provides so many modulation and routing options that its users can hardly fail to find it inspirational.
Molekular's Morph feature is arguably the hardest aspect of the plug‑in to understand, in part because what it does is so dependent on its settings. Simply put, it enables the user to save five states (one of which acts as a central 'base' value) in locations on the display and then move between them, either by dragging a cursor with a mouse, clicking on one of the five, or by modulating the
movement. A Motion button sets the Morpher into action, and its motion is dependent on its angle and percentage settings: the higher the values, the more it shifts about. Final tweaks are made on a Morph Quantization page, where its response to the incoming modulators, and rate of output to the DSP effects, is managed. It is also possible to alter the rate that Morph moves between the saved states.
At the foot of the Morph window are four Macro knobs, labelled M1 to M4. These are designed for simultaneously controlling multiple parameters, and act a bit like buses on a mixer. They too can be controlled with modulators, just like any other knob.