Native Instruments' flagship modular software synth has now reached version 4, dispensing with the dongle copy protection that bothered v3 owners, adding many user-friendly features and allowing still greater scope for personalising your patches.
I first came across Native Instruments way back in SOS September 1998, when I reviewed their Generator v1.5 modular software synth, and even at this early stage I was impressed with its flexibility. However, most people started to take notice the following year, when sampling and granular synthesis features were added, and Reaktor v2 was born. Reaktor v3 appeared in 2001 with a more efficient engine, a Mac version, and lots more modules, and this version has gained an enthusiastic following, as well as an extensive user library and a dedicated forum.
Demos were shown of a version 3.5 at last year's Frankfurt Musikmesse, but Native Instruments later aborted their launch, so we've had to wait a total of two years for Reaktor v4 to appear. Was it worth it? Well, there have certainly been quite a few improvements and additions, but even before trying out the new features, some musicians were shocked by the price hike from £250 to £330, and by the new copy protection (for more on this, read on). However, the good news is that users who don't want to design their own synths or modify the existing ones can buy the considerably cheaper Reaktor Session at £170, which is otherwise identical.
Reaktor v2 offered relatively benign anti-piracy protection in the form of an included 100MB Enigma file, and so the introduction of a USB dongle with version 3 bothered some users — although personally, I've never had reliability problems with this form of copy protection. You could also install as many copies of Reaktor as you needed to cope with desktop and laptop use, transferring your dongle from one to another as required.
However, in Reaktor v4, the dongle has been abandoned in favour of a CD-ROM with two small holes drilled in it, a unique serial number, a unique System ID that's generated during the install based on hardware components in your computer, and a unique software Authorisation Key that you obtain from NI to permanently unlock the software after its 30-day demo period expires. You can do this while on line if your music computer has Internet access, from another computer using a generated HTML page, or by post or fax.
This type of protection is becoming far more common nowadays, but may require re-authorisation after installing a new motherboard or operating system, and you won't be able to install multiple instances of Reaktor v4 any more, although NI will provide up to two authorisations if they are not being used at the same time, to cope with desktop and mobile use. Mac users can also get two authorisations for OS 9 and two for OS X, to cope with the changeover from one OS to the other. If you ever subsequently upgrade OS, or buy a new computer, you'll need to apply to NI at firstname.lastname@example.org for third or additional authorisations.
Despite the copy-protection switch, you still need to have the dongle in place to load in ensembles encrypted by v3, although once you've loaded these, you can then re-save them in version 4 format and abandon the dongle for ever. Version 4 does come with a greatly updated library, but some old faces are still present, and NI are providing a conversion facility on their web site. If it seems bizarre that I've devoted so many words to a copy-protection scheme, it does have many implications for the way some musicians work — I've even heard of some who are ignoring the update, particularly if they regularly rebuild their PCs.
You'll also need a fair amount of space on your hard drive — on my PC, the full install was 366MB, largely because of the 308MB of library files, although I later found that it's possible to drag the library into another data partition, and point to the new location using the Preferences options in the System menu, leaving just 58MB of application files.
Reaktor users have always been fairly proactive with both ideas and bug reports, and as a result of this I was notified of several updates during the review period, including a new DXi2 version, support for Audio Units on Mac OS X, and improved audio streaming for OS 9 users. This brings the full set of supported formats to VST 2.0, Audio Units, DXi2, ASIO, Sound Manager, Core Audio, and OMS.
The 380-page printed Operation Manual and separate 102-page Instrument Guide are well-written and very informative, and although some users have complained that there are no PDF-format versions, this is perhaps another part of the new protection scheme. However, you can order the CD and manuals via the NI web site for a reasonable $79 (or just $19 if you bought Reaktor 3 after January 17th 2003). In addition, a free short 1.8MB PDF Guide for Reaktor v4 has now appeared on the NI web site, and this covers both the new features and the new library.
OSC (Open Sound Control) is an Ethernet-based 'open, network-independent protocol developed for communication among computers, sound synthesizers, and other multimedia devices', and first appeared in Reaktor v3 to provide greater reliability and versatility than MIDI connections. Various applications are suggested as possibilities by Native Instruments, including Internet-based collaborations between musicians, coordinated synthesis between two or more computers to increase processing power, and sound installations with dozens of computers in a single room.
In its current incarnation, it transmits event data between two or more Ethernet-equipped computers running Reaktor. There's a dedicated OSC Settings window where you turn OSC on, set up synchronisation, scan for and display other OSC members to whom a connection has been established. I don't know of any musicians who yet use these functions, but along with other related technologies like Steinberg's VST System Link and mLAN, networking multiple computers does seem to be the way to bypass the current limitations of a single CPU when attempting to run an entire software-based music studio, especially across different platforms. After all, quite a few of us now have two or three computers available...
The most obvious changes when browsing through the new instrument library may seem cosmetic, but are actually fundamental to many designs. Two display layout schemes (called 'A' and 'B') are now available to each design by clicking on the two small buttons alongside the minimise button, and you can define which controls appear in each. For instance, the complex 'Kaleidon' synth uses view 'B' for its day-to-day performance controls, while view 'A' requires a 1280 x 1024 resolution to display more controls when creating new sounds. On the other hand, 'Blue Matrix' displays all the module and sequencer controls in view 'A', while view 'B' displays an additional modulation matrix with 595 buttons and 35 rotary controls.
While version 3.0 allowed you to customise colour schemes and incorporate TGA or BMP graphics into your front panels (mostly to provide distinctive logos), such graphics may now be used as panel backgrounds. This finally allows Reaktor designers to create much more radical-looking control surfaces — the new library makes great use of controls grouped into differently coloured compartments, and 'metal', 'wood', and 'weathered' panels are in evidence.
While the various knobs, sliders, and switches still have a fixed appearance (although they are mostly available in three sizes), Multi Picture is a new module that allows 'animations' to be used within your designs, with the animation 'frame' determined by its selected input. You could use this to recreate Pro 53's keyboard (with its keys which seem to depress when receiving MIDI or mouse input), for example, or to import a multi-position sequence of images to create your own design of control knob, analogue meter, or anything else that captures your imagination. This new module is demonstrated in the 'Fusion Reflections' effect (see screenshot, above), where each of the various delay taps is shown in a graphical display as a small seed-like blob whose position defines its delay time, and when you modulate the delays, the 'seeds' swirl about.
Other smaller but welcome new graphical features include the List module, which provides three different styles of switch with drop-down text options (ideal for selecting sine, square or triangle waveforms, for example). There's also a 'Multi Text' option, which you can use to attach informative notes to each patch, and a new resizeable RGB lamp module with custom colour transitions.
Mac users of Reaktor v4 can use OS 9.1 or OS X 10.2 (or higher) with a recommended G4 733MHz processor and 256MB of RAM.
Reaktor v4 will also run on Windows 98, ME, 2000, and XP, with a Pentium III 1GHz processor and 256MB of RAM. My own PIII 1GHz PC ran all of the new library ensembles at a CPU load of between 15 and 25 percent with a typical four voices, which would leave plenty over to run some simpler supporting software synths and plug-ins. However, if you anticipate launching multiple instances of Reaktor, and especially if you desire higher polyphony for big pads, a faster processor would be desirable.
The main toolbar has been halved in size by incorporating its second rank of controls into a header bar on the instruments themselves — it makes far more sense to have the mute and solo buttons, MIDI channel, number of voices, and the snapshot name here. A further space-saving feature is that each instrument now has a minimise button to reduce it to down to just the header bar, which lets you amass a complex collection of instruments and effects in a compact virtual 'rack', and still be able to choose different snapshots, but only display the panels when you need to for editing or performance purposes.
While the right-click menus are still available to PC users, as well as the various main menu options, there's now also a new Browser window that we first saw in NI's Kontakt, which provides much greater flexibility. It lets you search for audio files, modules, macros, and instruments, and then use drag and drop to add them to your creations. You can also use the Browser to examine the overall structure of any ensemble and its associated sub-assemblies, or to display and alter the wiring of the various instruments and the audio input and output connections.
The handling of Snapshots (ie. instrument settings) has also been improved, and instead of the limit of 128 snapshots per instrument seen in Reaktor v3, v4 supports up to 16 128-snapshot banks, managed via a new floating Snapshot window. Snapshots can be sorted in various ways, or you can generate new ones randomly, select two snapshots and randomly merge their settings, and even morph between their control positions (excluding switches and buttons) at a user-defined rate. There's also a new Snapshot module to provide the same functions inside an Ensemble, with full automation!
The list-based sample-mapping windows from Reaktor v3 have been revamped (see screenshot, below), and are now supplemented with a graphical editor (again from Kontakt), featuring drag-and-drop positioning on the graphic keyboard display, plus velocity- and key-splits.
Apart from the various new modules already mentioned, there are also other newcomers devoted to sound creation and modification. For many musicians the highlight will be the new Grain Cloud Delay module, which builds on the Grain Cloud module first seen in version 3. This time you can create granular soundscapes in real time, and even freeze live audio.
There's a new all-pass one-pole filter with a flat amplitude response and a variable phase shift depending on input frequency, and there are also quite a few new mathematical modules encompassing more advanced functions such as square roots, arcsin (inverse sine), and logarithms.
However, two related new features greatly simplify the creation of new synths. Many modules in version 3 of Reaktor, such as adders and mixers, were available in two different versions for use either with control or audio signals, but these now appear as a new type of module, the so-called Hybrid modules, which automatically reconfigure themselves depending on how you wire them up, saving you from having to think about which type is which. Similarly, the new Single Delay replaces the previous Static Delay, Modulation Delay, or Event Delay modules, depending on what type of signal you connect to its input and output. There are lots of clever touches like this.
Just as handy are Dynamic modules, which replace the previous multitude of otherwise identical modules featuring two, three, four, six, or eight inputs or outputs with just one — but you can add more inputs or outputs to this module by simply holding down the Ctrl key while dropping a cable on them. Not only does this streamline the modules menu, it also makes adding extra features to existing designs far less frustrating, as you don't need to completely replace and rewire modules.
The latest Reaktor engine is optimised for PIII, P4, Athlon XP, and G4 Altivec processors. Various tweaks have also been performed to make life easier — when running Reaktor as a VSTi, for instance, you can now automate the controls, re-size the windows, and launch unlimited instances for multitimbral use. However, for me the best new feature is the replacement of all the oscillators with new versions based on the improved low-aliasing algorithms first heard in NI's Pro 53.
Having explored the new library (see the box below) I'm well impressed by the results, and when I visited the new web-based User Library, there were already 1217 Ensembles available for download, neatly divided into categories for the first time.
While some users may have issues with the new copy-protection system, the benefits of Reaktor v4 outweigh any inconveniences. NI have obviously put a huge amount of work into this upgrade, improving not only the look and feel, but also the sound quality, as well as making it simpler to use. This is no toy for budding synth designers — Reaktor v4 is a polished fourth-generation product. The sound quality matches that of most hardware synths, but Reaktor offers sonic possibilities that stretch beyond what hardware can offer.
The new library covers a huge range of sounds, but whereas in previous versions most ensembles had a dozen or less presets, and sometimes covered similar sonic ground, this time the various designers have spent far more time exploring the possibilities. With up to 128 presets per ensemble, the process of auditioning sounds is much more like it is on a hardware synth, and each instrument is described in some depth in the dedicated 102-page manual. Here are a few of my favourites:
'Carbon' is an impressive subtractive synth based on four oscillators and 11 different filter types, with extensive modulation possibilities. The 128 presets cover a huge range of atmospheric Wavestation-like evolving pads, plus all manner of thundering basses and cutting lead sounds.
'SteamPipe' shows off Reaktor 4's physical modelling skills, using a tuned resonator to create bowed, blown, and plucked sounds. You can vary the 'shape' of the pipe, and the 44 presets cover flutes, steam whistles, pipes, pipe organ, banjo, guitar, bass, and various bells, using materials ranging from glass and wood through to metal. In each case the mod wheel is used to control damping and breath noise effects, generally providing a wide range of overblowing and harmonic effects. The sounds may not be as sophisticated as those of AAS's Tassman v3, but Reaktor's CPU overheads are less than half that of the other program!
'Vierring' appealed to me most amongst all the new sequenced synths. Essentially, it splits incoming audio into four frequency bands, each of which can then have an envelope, panning, and step-sequenced modulation effects applied to it. These sequenced modulation effects are represented on the left of the window on a 'city skyline'-type graph, where the height of each step represents the depth of the modulation. You can sequence amplitude in this way, and also the depth of Vierring's built-in ring modulation effect (your input signal acts as the ring modulator's Modulator input signal, while the Carrier signal is supplied by oscillators built into Vierring). The amplitude and ring modulation allows you to derive rhythmic, tonally evolving results even from constant drones.
'GrainStates' is available both in sample player and real-time effect versions, the first using the Grain Cloud Sampler with built-in sonic material, while the second shows what's possible using the new Grain Cloud Delay module, which you apply as a real-time process to your own material. Eight 'scene' panels let you set the various grain parameters, and these scenes are then sequentially recalled in sync with the master tempo, varying the processing on your input audio as they change. The resultant evolving soundscapes can vary from unnerving to eerily beautiful.
'Scenario' is for the live performer. There are four linked loop players containing audio material with associated filtering and processing options, and you can either play with what's supplied or put your own material into the loop players. Each set of four loops and related filter and loop parameters is known as a Scene, and many thousands of these can be stored and recalled sequentially, allowing you to build up an entire Orbital-style live set if you wish. While the players are running, you can process the loops' contents in real time, filtering, adding delay and gate effects, and adjusting loop length and start points, or even reshuffling the contents of the loop. It's easy to get lost in this one for hours!