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On Test
Published May 2011

New Sonic Arts Granite

Formats: PC & Mac stand‑alone, PC VST, Mac AU

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Turning your audio files into a stream of short grains and replaying these in various ways is no longer novel, and granular synthesis can be found in many products, such as Camel Audio's Alchemy and NI's Reaktor, among others. However, Granite from New Sonic Arts sticks out from the crowd by offering various unique features. Currently running on Windows XP, Vista or 7 in stand‑alone and VST Instrument versions, in both 32‑bit and 64‑bit formats (an OS X stand‑alone and Audio Units version will be out by the time you read this), Granite can be 'played' monophonically via a MIDI keyboard, while chords are played back as arpeggios. To get started, you load a WAV or AIFF file into the main Waveform area, drag the two blue Loop Markers to define the area within which your 16 independent grains get selected, and then start tweaking the various playback controls in the four tabbed pages of controls beneath.

The master output can either be a continuous drone or gated via a simple Attack/Release velocity‑sensitive envelope under MIDI control. Apart from those controls related to the grains themselves, such as Pitch, Density and playback Speed, two further pages offer compression, distortion, sample‑rate reduction, resonant filtering, simple EQ and reverb effects, for plenty of extra versatility, and all of these controls can be allocated to MIDI controllers for real‑time performance tweaks. Most of these parameters also offer 'Cycle Modulators' that are similar to LFOs, offering various waveforms plus speed and depth sliders, but which alter parameter values in steps as each new grain is launched, providing a wide range of evolving and morphing possibilities that are somewhat different from the norm.

What really sets Granite apart from the competition, in creative terms, is its ability to automate movements of the rotary grain or effect controls, and even the loop position. You just click and drag your mouse button over the desired control to start recording these moves, and when you release the mouse button, all control automation is replayed, either in free‑running mode or retriggered at the start of each new MIDI note. This allows you to build up very complex, yet organic, sounds with loads of internal movement.

However, for me, Granite's strongest feature is its informative graphical interface, with its moving display of the current grain area in your waveform, and even a tiny Grain Activity meter that shows the current amplitude of all 16 grains. Granular synthesis has previously offered me very satisfying results, but I've always found them rather unpredictable. Using Granite's real‑time feedback, I was able, for the first time, to guide the end result where I wanted it to go, rather than stumbling about in the dark by fiddling with controls to see what happened.

Moreover, while Granite is capable of glitchy beats and chaotic contortions, its engine has obviously been tailored to encourage very musical results, ranging from slowly evolving drones to new 'acoustic' instruments. It's amazing what you can extract from well‑known WAV files.

Granite is a great tool for the sound designer and composer alike. Try the demo and see for yourself! Martin Walker


DDMF Metaplugin

Format: PC VST

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Most great ideas are simple, and DDMF's Metaplugin is no exception. In essence, Metaplugin is an effects rack and VST wrapper: you instantiate it in one of your DAW's insert slots, and it enables you to load several other VST plug‑ins within it. What's particularly enticing, though, is that has an incredibly flexible routing system, which presents users of more rigidly structured DAWs with some welcome new options — in effect, you can have a fully modular VST effects system at your disposal in any single insert slot of your DAW. You simply add a VST effect inside Metaplugin, and, on the rather Spartan GUI, drag Metaplugin's audio outputs to the new effect's audio inputs. You can route the plug‑in's outputs to any other plug‑in's inputs or to Metaplugin's outputs. In contrast to the fixed signal flow of many VST hosts, you can also route signals to multiple destinations, or combine multiple signals. The possibilities this opens up are seemingly endless — so I'll simply mention two uses for it that I discovered very quickly, and leave the rest to your imagination.

The first use is as a side‑chain processing tool. If you have a dynamics plug‑in with a side‑chain input, you're able to process the incoming signal for the side‑chain as much as you want, without having to create a duplicate track: you can simply feed Metaplugin's input(s) to the processor's side‑chain and audio inputs. You can then insert other processors en route to the side‑chain input — all within Metaplugin, and all within that single insert slot in your DAW. That's a godsend for anyone running VST 2.4 plug‑ins with side‑chain inputs in Cubase, because otherwise those inputs would be unusable! Alternatively, if you're using a host that doesn't support side‑chaining — or which executes it very clumsily — you could easily use Metaplugin in combination with a freeware routing plug‑in like Senderella to get inputs into Metaplugin from a different DAW channel.

The second application is the creation of multiband processors. It's a simple matter to route Metaplugin's inputs to several different band‑pass filters, or to a freeware crossover plug‑in such as Robin Schmidt's Crossover 3‑way, and the outputs of those filters to different processors. In practice, that obviously means you can create weird and wonderful multi‑band compressors, but it also enables you to achieve more subtle results — such as running a drum bus or master bus through a tape emulation plug‑in while leaving the high frequencies in the cymbals unaffected.

In other words, Metaplugin can effectively turn your non‑modular host into a modular host. Unlike some other wrappers, Metaplug‑in includes latency compensation for those plug‑ins it hosts, and of course it properly declares its latency to the DAW. All good so far, then... and in fact I only really have one criticism: you have to experiment to find out what the individual inputs and outputs of a plug‑in do. On Elyssia's Mpressor, for example, there are four inputs (two for audio and two for the side‑chain) but no labels to tell you which is which. That's not a major headache, though, and it's entirely forgivable given the plug‑in's $20 price tag! Matt Houghton


Cableguys Curve

Formats: Mac & PC VST, Mac AU

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Curve is a new software synthesizer from Cableguys in Germany. It's no easy task to conjure up unique selling points these days, but Curve's shared online database of patches and its nifty built‑in waveform editor are two valiant attempts. Cableguys are also keen to point out that their baby will grow in full public view, driven not by their own vision but by suggestions from the user community.

Curve's three oscillators and four LFOs share a pool of 10 user waves per patch. Drawing waveforms with a mouse is both fast and fun, but if you prefer to begin on familiar ground, old friends such as sawtooth, square and sine can be summoned with a click. The oscillators boast several 'Quality' options to manage resource consumption and aliasing; this, plus a healthy FM implementation, supplies Curve with a rich tonal palette. The LFOs offer a note grid to plot intricate melodic patterns which, depending on the waveform used, might involve sharp transitions between notes or smooth glides. When sync'ed to the host's clock, an LFO's cycle can be stretched over 32 bars, or crammed into a zippy 128th interval.

If you enjoy visual minimalism, meanwhile, this soft synth could be right up your street. Every tweakable parameter resides on a single monochrome backdrop that also accommodates three envelope generators, two filters and a densely packed modulation matrix. The filters are connected serially and appear in various low, high and band‑pass flavours, plus peaking and notched. And while the modulation matrix won't win any prizes for elegance, it is clear and informative, its numeric grid fitting neatly into the available space.

In implementing a global patch database, Cableguys hope to stimulate interaction between users of all skill levels. Synchronising your local version of the database with its online counterpart requires but a single click, at which point the process also donates all your own patches to the wider community. I felt this approach had a few drawbacks, not least because there's a high potential to fill the database with works in progress, duplicates and, well, guff. Judging by the cross‑section of database entries I auditioned, many users are still finding their way with Curve, but fortunately a rating system and various filters enable you to narrow down selection. As the user base expands and gains experience, the database should hopefully become a valuable resource.

Curve's raw sound is promising — but at present it feels more like you're investing in an idea than a glossy, finished product. If you feel that oscillator sync, pulse‑width modulation, effects or an arpeggiator should be included, you'll have to campaign for each in turn. Or maybe there are more radical 'must have' features buzzing away in your imagination? Either way, I recommend downloading the full‑featured demo version and taking a test drive. You can only run a single instance and can't access the user patch database or save patches, but at least the demo doesn't time out. Finally, I'd say it's an act of bravery for any company to expose itself to this level of public interaction. With bug reports and feature requests available for all to see, vote and comment on, it will be fascinating to see where the collaboration leads. Paul Nagle

€119, or bundled with all Cableguys plug‑ins, €149.

$159, or bundled with all Cableguys plug‑ins $174.

Voxengo LF Max Punch

Formats: Mac & PC VST, Mac AU

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Voxengo's Alexsey Vaneev has an uncanny knack of coming up with a neat twist that makes his products just that little bit different. Many musicians have drums or bass sounds that need more 'oomph', and there are many bass enhancers that aim to supply just that, but what caught my eye about LF Max Punch was its clever combination of dynamic bass equalisation, sub‑harmonic synthesis, bass saturation and Mid/Side processing options.

The signal chain starts with a Linkwitz‑Riley crossover network that sends the high frequencies to the output unaltered, but splits off the low ones below a user‑defined frequency and subjects them to a batch of enhancements. First up is the Puncher, a transient shaper operating around your chosen crossover frequency, which can either boost transients for tighter, snappier attacks, or reduce them for smoother results. With the crossover tuned to around 80Hz I found this a very effective way to modify the weight of kick drum sounds while leaving snares and hi‑hats untouched.

Next in the chain is the variable‑drive Saturator, offering a full spread of odd and even harmonics, with the bonus of a high‑pass filter — which allows you to generate only higher harmonics, to get the impression of more bass even through tiny loudspeakers, in the fashion of Waves' MaxxBass — and a low‑pass filter so you can drive the saturator hard but roll off any harshness. It even offers an alternate Pumping mode that lets you better tweak the 'flow' of the sound. This module was great for adding extra richness, warmth, 'ring' or even a handful of grit to the proceedings!

The third component is a sub‑harmonic synthesizer generating sounds an octave below the fundamental to add extra low‑end energy to thin sounds. The Punch, Saturator and Sub components get mixed back together in the LF Output Mix section, and are then passed through an optional feed‑forward Compressor for even greater dynamic control. Further fine‑tuning is available via a gain control for the mixed low‑frequency components and a Dry Mix for the original input signal. A 'DC' filter with variable roll‑off from 3Hz to 20Hz ensures your loudspeaker cones remain intact after all these enhancements, while a Mono button lets you confine the extra bass energy to the centre of your mixes. As in most recent Voxengo offerings, routing options are extensive, letting you independently alter channel settings when working in dual‑mono, stereo, surround or Mid/Side stereo modes.

I found this plug‑in extremely versatile, and although it's complex, setting up is made far easier by the inclusion of a Monitor button that lets you hear just the contributions that LF Max Punch is making to the low‑frequency signal path. By sweeping the Dry Mix control from 0 to 100 percent, you can hear exactly how your bass end has changed from the original.

Voxengo have a loyal and enthusiastic following, and I suspect they could swell those numbers with catchier product names and slicker graphics. However, for those who judge their plug‑ins by audio quality rather than fancy packaging, LF Max Punch is a winner. You could attempt the same results with a string of other plug‑ins, but why bother when LF Max Punch already offers a one‑stop‑shop for extra impact, warmth, fatness and low‑end extension?

Martin Walker