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Native Instruments Reaktor 6

Software Synthesizer
Published January 2016
By Simon Sherbourne

A Blocks modular rack in split views. The main Panel stays tidy as all patching is in the Structure.A Blocks modular rack in split views. The main Panel stays tidy as all patching is in the Structure.

After 10 years with no major updates, Reaktor bursts back into the spotlight with the ultimate virtual modular rack.

Despite being a foundation of the Native Instruments product range, Reaktor has taken a back seat in the last few years, playing a supporting role as the framework for other synths like Razor and Monark. It’s always been a powerful synth toy box, but often gets overlooked due to its complexity compared with the instant gratification of other Komplete instruments. Version 4 took a step further away from the accessible with Core: a lower layer of components and operations for compiling algorithmic structures. This gave DSP programmers the tools to create some remarkable instruments (eg. Rounds) but wasn’t the modular synth Lego the rest of us dreamed of.

So it was unexpected and exciting when Reaktor 6 emerged with Blocks: what appeared to be a software simulation of a Eurorack-style modular synth environment.

First Reaktions

Reaktor 6 immediately strikes you as cleaner, sharper and nicer to look at. The previous-generation interface shared with Kontakt is replaced with the modern flat stylings of Maschine and Komplete Kontrol. The superfluous frames around panes are gone, it’s easier to manage views, the fonts are crisper and Structure cables are now smoothly anti-aliased and they curve around the edges of objects, which as well as looking better makes it much easier to trace connections. Given all that, I was disappointed that Reaktor 6 still doesn’t support retina displays like the one on my trusty Macbook Pro.

The sidebar with the Browser, Inspector, Snapshots and so on is far better organised and easier to use. Just like Maschine, you can flip between User and Factory lists within each tab instead of visiting separate areas. The library itself has had a reorganisation, with years of accumulated ensembles and instruments sorted into a consolidated hierarchy. For example, the Electronic Instruments 1 & 2 collections have been collated into the main library.

Blocks

But Reaktor 6 is not just a cosmetic refurb, it has a major new feature: the aforementioned Blocks. If you’ve seen any of the promo pictures or videos you probably got the idea of Blocks straight away: here is the virtual modular rack we’ve been waiting for. The best way to start exploring Blocks is with the collection of ready-made creations that live in their own folder alongside the main library. You’ll find a selection of classic and modern modular synth constructions, from the simple Moog-emulating Monark Micro, to the big sequenced Buchla-esque Quant FM.

The panels look fantastic, and the sound is amazing. These new structures are all freshly built in Reaktor Core and are the best-sounding oscillators and filters you’ve heard yet in Reaktor. And, just as important for modular fun, there are sequencers, clock dividers, quantisers, and sample and hold modules for generating unpredictable rhythmic and melodic movement. Prepare to lose a few happy hours enjoying the depth, range and solidity of sound, and randomly modifying these presets. (I went so far down the rabbit hole the first week I found myself dreaming about connecting little wires!)

As you’ll see from the pictures, Blocks does not try to be an exact visual simulation of a modular synth rack. The Panel view comprises movable modules of standardised heights that all slot together into rows — so far so Euro. However, no cable patching happens directly on the panels; interconnections are made in the Structure view. Most modules have two modulation inputs, with modulation depth set on the panels for each parameter individually. This all actually makes for a more flexible, and certainly more tidy, system than the hardware equivalent.

Assembling your own creations is essentially the same as patching a modular synth, except you can start from scratch with whatever modules you want. Fairly quickly I was starting to put together some modest synths, with a bit of experimentation and reference to the example instruments. Importantly for a modular, you’re not restricted regarding what can be connected to where: there’s no hard distinction between audio and modulation (ie. virtual CV) signals. The factory library contains a good selection of Blocks divided into several categories: the Bento Box collection contains your essential oscillators, VCA, filter, envelope and LFO generators, mixer, etc. You then have Utility Blocks, and several more characterful modules in the Boutique, Modern and Monark folders, the last of which holds the essential components of the Monark Minimoog emulation in modular form. Some effects Blocks have also been included, in the shape of the Reverb and Delay sections from Rounds, and the Driver filter and distortion processor. This is by no means all though, as the User library is already filling up with new submissions (see the ‘Community Spirit’ box).

On The Block

So what exactly is/are Blocks? Thankfully it’s not really a whole new technology to add to the already dual-layered Reaktor environment. It’s actually a framework defined by Native Instruments for building a class of Reaktor Instruments that can all work together in a similar way to hardware synth modules. Much like the Eurorack standard defines things like voltage/frequency relationships and power requirements, so Blocks sets out rules like a unified signal range for connections, and the size of panels. There’s much more to it than that: there’s a specific internal structure to follow, but NI have provided a template and lots of panel controls ready to use if creating new Blocks.

My first Blocks synth made from bits of Moog.My first Blocks synth made from bits of Moog.You’ll notice I said that Blocks are Instruments, and I meant this in the strict Reaktor sense. In Blocks, each module is a self-contained Instrument, so a Blocks ‘patch’ is actually an Ensemble: roughly equivalent to a project in Reaktor. This arrangement has allowed NI to contrive this new system without fundamentally changing Reaktor. But zooming out to a level above where Reaktor Instruments traditionally live, and building ‘macro instruments’ from other instrument-level components, has some limiting consequences within Reaktor’s existing paradigm.

First, connections between Instruments are monophonic. A traditional Reaktor synth has all its component parts living within an Instrument, with the component modules and macros and their interconnections able to operate as multiple parallel voices. The Blocks layer exists outside this polyphonic universe. (It’s not entirely insurmountable: there is already a voice splitter Block on the User Library that I was able to use to make a classic four-voice synth arrangement with a lot of duplication of modules.)

The second drawback is that when you’re changing ‘patch cord’ connections you are making changes to the Structure, which cannot be stored as part of Snapshots (Reaktor’s preset system). So you can store different sounds that all share the same cabling, but to store a sound that employs different patching requires saving as a new Ensemble. This is mitigated by the fact that it’s easy to connect and scale modulation sources to multiple destinations, so in real use there’s less need for ad hoc repatching compared to ‘real’ modulars.

In Development

While Blocks appears to bias this Reaktor update towards the casual user, instrument builders have not been entirely left out. Like the instrument library, the developer library of modules, macros and operations has undergone a thorough spring cleaning. Many Core macros have been optimised for better sound quality and performance. The collection of components known as Classic Modular, which was an earlier attempt to create a standardised group of building blocks for analog synth creation, has been dissolved into the main library.

There are also some new features and objects offering both efficiencies and fresh possibilities for developing in Reaktor. Table Reference is a new signal type that allows access and distribution of data from arrays to anywhere in a Structure. Used in conjunction with updated sampler macros this paves the way for a new generation of samplers and sample manipulators in Reaktor. The new objects also provide for drag-and-drop import of samples.

A Blocks patch with several downloaded User Blocks.A Blocks patch with several downloaded User Blocks.Bundles are a new connection type that pack multiple signals into a single wire — virtual multicore cables. Scoped Buses allow point-to-point connections to be made between places on any layer of a Structure. Finally, Core Cells are no longer categorised as Audio or Event processes.

If, like me, a lot of this goes over your head, but you dabble with hacking together custom synths from other primary-level components, you’ll at least appreciate a couple of other subtle yet highly welcome changes. Names and basic values can now be edited directly in the Structure, and panel objects no longer have to be constrained to a grid, freeing you to make your creations look exactly as you imagined them.

These are all solid refreshes and additions for Reaktor developers, but there’s always more that can be done. In particular, integration of a scripting language would help serious developers who sometimes feel the restrictions of a purely visual-based approach.

Summary

It’s fantastic to see Reaktor revitalised with a solid new release. It’s long had some of the most beautiful synths around, and I never tire of the classic sequenced synths and generators, but I’ve sometimes felt I’d never get the full potential from it unless I took a year off to learn the building tools. Blocks opens up a whole new way for the more casual user to create their own incredible-sounding synth creations. That’s not to say it’s dumbed down — you’ll still need some understanding of synth architecture; but there’s plenty of examples to learn from.

One of the most exciting parts of the Blocks concept is that it will keep growing with new modules, just like the Eurorack scene. Since the release there’s been a steady stream of brilliant new Blocks in the Reaktor User Library. There’s even been the first Block released commercially, although it’ll be interesting to see what NI make of that.

Not all is perfect: the fact that Reaktor 6’s new UI looks so great only makes the lack of high DPI display support hurt more — imagine Blocks on a retina 5K iMac! Some will be disappointed that Blocks are essentially monophonic, like the modular synths they emulate. But what you’re getting amounts to a practically limitless virtual Eurorack on top of what Reaktor already does, and that’s more than enough reason to update, or to jump on board now.

Alternatives

In its early days Reaktor was the only synth environment that could run on off-the-shelf computers instead of custom DSP hardware. Now it’s at version 6, there are many alternatives with overlapping functionality. Max/Max For Live is probably the most comparable as an open tool for MIDI, synth and audio manipulation. FL Flowstone (formerly SynthMaker) is interesting as a visual programming environment for creating synths and effects because it can compile out as stand-alone VST plug-ins.

If it’s the modular synth side that interests you check out Tassman, or maybe Oscillot for Max if you’re Ableton-based. Then there are Arturia’s modular and semi-modular emulations like Modular V and the ARP 2600. A lovely modern take on this is u-He’s Bazille. There’s even functional similarities between Blocks and Reason’s Rack, and I actually had some fun sending audio rate modulation between the two.

But, really, Reaktor is unique in its scope as a multi-platform plug-in and stand-alone platform with an open and ever-growing ecosystem of available instruments and modules.

Community Spirit

One of the great strengths of Reaktor is its user community, which has generated thousands of instruments, utilities and modules over the years. Blocks has given the community a new lease of life, and there are already dozens of user-created Block modules free to download. This is partly down to the clear framework, templates and components provided by NI from the outset, and also thanks to a handful of talented and prolific builders (eg. Michael Hetrick) who can’t possibly have slept in weeks.

The quality of the user content is mostly high, especially given the short time that’s been available, and has both enriched the palette of sound sources, filters, sequencers and more, and quickly filled functional gaps. A great example of this was when I tried to create a Blocks patch that could output MIDI. I soon discovered that there is no factory module that can take the pitch data generated by Blocks like Seq 8 and pipe it out to the world. A very quick search of the user library found a Block created by Phil Durrant that did the job.

On the creative side examples include a fantastic Wave table oscillator, which is a Blocks treatment of the classic Reaktor OKI Computer oscillator, with more coming every day.

Published January 2016