Noise Engineering bring their distinctive modular philosophy to the computer.
“You’d be amazed at how many people have complained about how simple the interface looks,” Noise Engineering’s Kris Kaiser told me while the developer’s latest plug‑ins were still in beta phase. Kaiser’s point was that in today’s plug‑in realm it’s all too easy to be taken in by flashy GUIs — a scuff‑for‑scuff representation of Eddie Kramer’s tape machine, perhaps, or a cartoon sausage whose face gets more and more angry as gain is increased. These sure are fun, but all too often one is left wishing that perhaps some of the time spent meticulously recreating the aged walnut finish on a Minimoog went into making its software counterpart work well and, most importantly, sound good.
That’s exactly the approach that Noise Engineering have opted for, with the Bundle 1 plug‑in package marking a new era of software‑based output for the company. Kaiser has in the past made no secret of the fact that the parts shortages that have plagued developers over the past two years have in no small measure encouraged diversification, and in the face of such an existential challenge you hardly need me to say that plug‑ins are the sensible way to go.
Up to now, Noise Engineering’s formidable reputation has almost exclusively been in the world of modular — with the exception of a few soft synths and Rack Extensions for Reason. Spanning Eurorack to 5U units they have been responsible for some truly excellent and original modular hardware designs, from the Basimilus Iteritas Alter drum module, mentioned anon, to the Loquelic Iteritas complex oscillator. Can their software do the family name proud?
I went into this review process already very impressed by Noise Engineering’s preceding Freequel bundle, which gave away the Sinc Vereor and Virt Vereor synthesizers and the truly wild distortion plug‑in Ruina, but while these did take a portion of influence from modules like the Sinc Iter, it’s clear that Noise Engineering hadn’t yet truly gotten down to business with their software products. Enter Bundle 1: three of Noise Engineering’s most celebrated hardware modules available for the first time in AAX, AU and VST plug‑in form, direct from the minds behind the originals. Bundle 1 offers three plug‑ins: Basimilus Iteritas, based on the Basimilus Iteritas Alter drum synthesizer module; Cursus Vereor, based on the Cursus Iteritas wavetabling module; and Desmodus, based on the Desmodus Versio module. And no: they do not have flashy GUIs.
As an existing custodian of a Noise Engineering Basimilus Iteritas Alter Eurorack module, I was keen to see how the virtual Basimilus Iteritas stacked up. Like most synthesists who had the opportunity to try one, I was astonished at the raw power of the BIA. Feeding it various gates and modulation signals could achieve anything from gentle melodic percussion to driving industrial beats. In a DAW environment, though, one must of course adopt a very different workflow and approach, even if the sounds of the software and hardware are comparable. Which, in this case, they absolutely are. The Basimilus Iteritas can sound aggressive and full of body, or it can sound otherworldly and ethereal.
The Basimilus Iteritas can sound aggressive and full of body, or it can sound otherworldly and ethereal.
It’s quick and easy to make sweeping edits to its sound, with parameters for Attack (which also adds noise to the front end below halfway), Decay, Harmonics, Spread, Morph (which blends through sine, triangle, saw and square waveforms) and Fold, all of which combine to create a phenomenal palette of percussion sounds, as well as a melodic instrument that easily stands up next to any basic FM synth. It has presets, which immediately places it in a different world to the BIA, and a bank of onboard LFOs to give everything some movement.
As mentioned, much of the joy of the BIA module indeed came from extensive use of wild CV modulation to create a whole ‘kit’ of drum sounds from just one eighth‑inch mono output, and while the onboard modulation matrix of the Basimilus Iteritas can emulate this to a degree, it’s clearly not the same creature. For one thing, I’m sure many will default to playing it in the first instance (or at least to auditioning sounds) with a chromatic keyboard MIDI controller. This is obviously a far cry from the workflow of modular, and one that immediately places more emphasis on the Basimilus Iteritas’ tonal properties. Unlike its hardware counterpart, of course, one can also stack up as many Basimilus Iteritases in their DAW as they like, taking away the need for modulation to create variety. I found myself instinctively making one a kick or tom‑like sound, giving another snare duties, another melodic responsibilities, and so on, all of which Basimilus Iteritas performs with ease. There’s also a toggle switch for velocity, so in this regard it can become a more playable and, dare I say it, organic instrument.
Cursus Vereor’s hardware equivalent Cursus Iteritas was, according to Noise Engineering, “designed to be a milder counterpart to the other more aggressive oscillators we’d made, like the Basimilus Iteritas.” Its voice is based around one of three different ‘orthogonal conceptualisations’ of frequency, which also offer a casual history lesson should you want it: Fourier, named after the 19th Century mathematician Jean‑Baptiste Joseph Fourier, is ostensibly a harmonic series of sine waves. Walsh, named after Joseph Walsh, is similar to Fourier but its functions are composed of square waves instead of sine waves — not far away from a cosine series. Daubechies, named after Baroness Ingrid Daubechies, is possibly the most interesting of the three. Working from a family of orthogonal functions adorably named ‘wavelets’ — apparently a late 20th Century discovery — it can perform the same function as the Fourier series but, in Noise Engineering’s words, “better and faster”. In practice, Daubechies wavelets sound in the first instance a little like low‑passed sawtooth waves. This I found very well suited to bass sounds and deep drones.
From any of these starting points Cursus Vereor then offers a simple and intuitive workflow with the potential for huge variety. It has an adequately responsive envelope with adjustable slope (something I always miss when it’s not there), a decent multimode filter and an extremely handy (in fact rather powerful) two‑stage onboard chorus, but its real sound‑sculpting ability comes from the parameters down the left side of its panel: between Center, Width, Tilt, Parity, Fold and Edge there is a lovely palette of sounds within each tone algorithm, from rich organ‑like tones to more guttural leads. These parameters, I found, work best from top to bottom and then back again — start with Center to choose your central harmonic; next use Width to select the amount of harmonics constituting your waveform; use Tilt to spread those harmonics; use Parity to discriminate between odd and even harmonics; use Fold to add stages and maximise harmonic content, and finally use Edge to oversample and add overtones. Then work back up in reverse and repeat until happy.
It’s a satisfying workflow that discourages random parameter fiddling (a common pitfall for soft synths in my experience) and it sounds great. The modulation matrix, more or less identical to that found on the Basimilus Iteritas, then increases Cursus Vereor’s scope considerably with flexible and customisable routing to any parameter, including modulating between the Fourier, Walsh and Daubechies algorithms.
Lastly is Desmodus, “a reverb unlike any other... an instrument as much as any other element in your project” according to Noise Engineering. The interface layout will look familiar if you’ve used the Ruina; I like the way Noise Engineering tend to recycle layouts because it encourages a unified workflow across their plug‑ins. Fair to say that the modulation sections are a little confusing at first but get easier with use.
If you’re looking for a functional reverb that can be applied subtly across your mix, Desmodus can be used as such but is capable of so much more. It is very much, as the developer says, more like an instrument in its own right, with options to limit, distort or frequency shift its output to either augment your input signal with some special reverb‑like sauce or change its character entirely. While it’s tempting to simply feed it pads and drones to create instant dreamy ambience with endless shimmer reverb tails, which is of course possible, it also works nicely with sharp, abrupt sounds, working somewhere between delay and reverb to stretch, mash and resonate in a variety of ways.
Once again, Noise Engineering’s ‘nothing‑off‑limits’ approach to modulation is not to be overlooked here, adding masses of movement and character to Desmodus’ overall sound — or mangling it completely if you so choose.
It’s indicative of Noise Engineering’s intentions with these plug‑ins that the Basimilus Iteritas Alter, Cursus Iteritas and Desmodus Versio hardware modules are still very much in production. There’s no ‘you’ll never need a real [insert hardware here] again!’ implication, which I feel often accompanies software emulations; the hardware versions of these products can do what the software cannot — but also vice versa. If you consider yourself enrolled in the NE school of Eurorack, you’re still positioned to benefit hugely from these. At their price, you may find yourself out of reasons not to give them a go.
- Three products that play to one another’s strengths.
- Intuitive and consistent interfaces.
- Quality algorithms across the board.
- Modulation matrices can take a little getting used to.
This is an affordable package of two premium instruments and a high‑performance effect plug‑in. Building on their achievements in hardware, Noise Engineering have now unequivocally proven themselves in the software realm.