Sometimes the third time is the charm. That's certainly true withApplied Acoustics' Tassman 3.02, the third incarnation of theaward-winning modular physical-modeling synthesizer. Though theprevious two versions were more than adequate for live performance,various issues relating to integration and usability as a plug-in madeTassman less than an ideal platform. Applied Acoustics has addressedmany of these issues and enhanced other aspects of the program aswell.
Tassman runs both as a standalone application and as a plug-in usinga DXi, MAS, and VST host or Pro Tools' DirectConnect. I tested it onthe PC as a plug-in under Sonar 2.2 and as a standalone program. Thehost computer was a Pentium 4/2.2 GHz running Windows 98SE.
I'll give a short overview of Tassman then focus primarily on thenew features. First, a brief overview of physical modeling. (For moreon the subject, see “SquareOne: Let's Get Physical” in the May 2002 issue ofEM.)
MODEL THE PHYSICAL
Though physical modeling (PM) has been available in hardware forsome time, its appearance in software instruments has lagged. With fewexceptions, you won't find more than an occasional plucked-string modelin any of the dozens of soft synths on the market today, or even insuch otherwise powerful toolkits as Native Instruments' Reaktor. Thatmay be because physical modeling places such a heavy burden on even amodern CPU, or maybe it's because PM is one of the most complex formsof sound synthesis.
Regardless, unlike acoustic or “spectral” modeling,where the intention is to mimic the movement of molecules in the airusing additive, subtractive, or other synthesis methods, PM's goal isto model those components of a musical instrument that contribute mostto its sound production. These include things like the body of a cello,the shape and material of a flute mouthpiece, and the interaction of apick and a string. Good PM-synthesis tools give the user intuitive andthorough control over such components and use very fancy math toproduce the desired sound.
Tassman is one of the few commercial programs that focus on PM. Itsdesigners, veterans of IRCAM, the French advanced sound-researchfacility, have created an interface that resembles more-traditionalsoft synths and samplers, but that includes parameters for instrumentdesign that you won't find anywhere else. For example, you can changethe shape or size of a cello as it plays, modify the amount of airpressure being applied to a flute mouthpiece in real time, or increaseor decrease the finger pressure used to pluck the string of a harp.
Tassman is not just for building acoustic-instrument models,however. You'll also find components for building synthetic instrumentsthat employ FM, additive, subtractive, and other synthesis methods. Alarge number of modulation sources, such as LFOs and envelopes, coupledwith a vastly improved sequencer, are only a few of the additionaltools on hand.
Tassman's interface is split into two main work areas: the Builder,where you construct Instruments, and the Player, where you perform yourcreations. In versions before 3.0, these were actually two separateprograms, and they were not well integrated. With the new release, thetwo are tightly integrated, and you can move from one to the next byclicking a single button. Also, when you made a change to a device inthe Builder in the older version, you had to recompile it before thosechanges would show up in the Player. Now updates are automatic.
To create a new instrument, open the Builder, and you'll see aBrowser window on the left containing folders for each group ofModules, which are the program's basic building blocks. The Modules arearranged into ten categories: Effects, Envelopes, Filters, Generators,I/O, Logic, Mixers, Resonators, Routing, and Sequencers.
|FIG.1: Tassman's Builder Window is used to design Instruments. Modules aredragged from the Browser window at the left and connected in variousconfigurations. A description of the currently selected Module appearsat the top of the screen.|
To use a Module, drag it from its folder to the main workspace onthe right of the Builder screen. When you release the mouse, adescription of the Module appears at the top of the window (see Fig.1). To edit the Module (if you want to change its label or MIDIchannel, for example), right-click on it and choose Module Settingsfrom the drop-down menu that appears or double-click directly on theModule. From the drop-down menu, you can also cut, copy, or paste aModule, and you can use the menu's Locate command to identify thesource folder it came from.
Connecting Modules is easy — just click on the output of oneand drag to the input of another. Removing a connection is just aseasy: click on the “patch cord” to select it, then pressthe Delete key. A number of new commands allow you to align Modules invarious ways, and a new multiple Undo command makes it easy to returnto any point in your current work session if needed.
Navigating in the Builder is still a bit of a hassle. If you open aSub-Patch to see its structure (more on this later), there's no buttonto take you back to the top level. Instead you have to choose thePrevious Patch option from a drop-down menu. It would also be nice ifthe Browser represented actual folders on your drive. As it stands, youhave to use an Import command to add a new patch to yourcollection.
Though Tassman doesn't have the same number of building blocks asNative Instruments' Reaktor, its offerings are thorough nonetheless andvery different in type from what any other modular synth provides.
Physical modeling often involves combining an exciter, whichis the source that stimulates the movement of a vibrating object (suchas the reed of a clarinet or mouthpiece of a trumpet), with aresonator, which is the body of an instrument that amplifiescertain frequencies, attenuates others, and in general transmits themovement into the air. Tassman provides a number of exciters (which itcalls Generators) and resonators that can be freely matched.
In the Generators category, for example, you'll find a plectrum(pick), two types of mallets, a noise source, a flute mouthpiece, andmore. These can be freely mixed with the various Resonator Modules,which include membranes, plates, strings, and tubes. The MP3 file Flutetubeplate, which you can hear at the EMWeb site, uses, as its name implies, a flute passing through a tube andthen running “across” a plate. Different amplitudes andvarying amounts of noise are used in the example. The result has aclear metallic ring to it, with a good deal of breath noise and someoverblown qualities as well. Also listen to Pluckedbeam.mp3, which uses a plectrum to stimulatea metal beam. Here, the Damping Frequency of the Beam Module changes onevery note.
In the Envelopes category, you'll find no fewer than 15 Modules foradding time-varying qualities to a sound. In addition to ADSR and anumber of variations thereon, Envelopes offers Rms, which can track theamplitude of one sound and use it to control some parameter of another,and Portamento, which can apply a smoothing effect to any type of inputsignal. The Envelopes category is also where you will find variousknobs and sliders that can be used for a variety of purposes —for example, adjusting the gain of a signal or modifying the range ofvalues sent out by an Effects Module.
You can type values into the parameter fields for an Envelope— defining the initial attack, decay, sustain, and release valuesfor the ADSR, for example — or assign a MIDI Control Changemessage to animate the parameters of an Envelope or any other componentof a Module. However, there's no way to create an Envelopegraphically.
Moving to the Effects arena, there are a number of new Modules,including a compressor, tremolo, delay, and several filters. The Reverbmodule is unique in that it models an array of three tubes, with themic and speaker set in the center of the array. The lengths andradiuses of the tubes can be set individually, but Decay is the onlyReverb parameter that can be adjusted in real time.
There are a number of “ready-made” processes availablein the Sub-Patch category, including several effects; two filters; alarge number of drums, plates, and strings; and a variety of utilities.Unfortunately, descriptions are included for only a small number of theSub-Patches, so you'll have to use the Open command to see what theycontain. You could also build them into a patch and then switch to thePlayer to see what controls appear on the Module's interface, butthat's an awkward work-around. Moreover, the name of the Sub-Patch doesnot appear on the icon as it does for the other Modules. Though you cansee the name if you choose Module Settings from the right-mouse-buttonmenu, things can get very confusing when you have more than one iconlabeled “sub patch” onscreen.
Tassman includes a Player Module, used to read in and play apreexisting sound file on your drive, and a Recorder, for recording theoutput of an Instrument directly to disc. Though it's no trouble to adda Recorder to a new or existing Instrument, it would be nice if everyInstrument had one by default. Of course, if you're using Tassman as aplug-in, you can always record its output in your host program.
|FIG.2: A vastly improved sequencer is among the new features of Tassman3.02. Notes are entered using the graphic display that appears at thetop of this synth (which is open in the Playerwindow).|
Among the most important new features are Tassman's vastly improvedsequencers, which come in several flavors. In the past, the one Tassmansequencer offered a very lame “virtual keyboard” forentering notes with the mouse. Now, three different Sequencer Modulesprovide a number of new options, including the ability to enter notesby selecting pitches in a clearly marked graphic display (see Fig.2).
The Single Gate Sequencer is the most basic — like the others,it supports patterns of up to 16 notes and can store up to 32 differentpatterns for recall. The Dual Gate Sequencer adds a second layer of 16steps; a Shift feature, which will delay the output of any step inincrements of 0 to 127 steps; and a Loop button, which is used tochange the length of the pattern. The top-of-the-line Multi-Sequencerhas all the features of the first two and adds a Slide function, whichdoubles the length of a step, and a Velocity parameter.
modular software synthesizer
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|RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO5|
PROS: Wide range of uniquesound-design models. Myriad excellent Instruments and presets included.Well-integrated user interface.
CONS: No support for ProgramChange messages. Sub-Patches need to be better identified. Song modenot entirely intuitive.
Applied Acoustics Systems
tel. (888) 441-8277 or (514) 871-8100
All of the Sequencers offer a Mode control that determines which offive different arrangements (forward, backward, bidirectional, and twotypes of random play) of the pattern will play. You can also use SongMode with any of the Sequencers to create a much longer chain ofevents. A Song can contain up to 1,000 patterns, and any of theSequencers can hold up to eight Songs. Songs are selected using theeight Song buttons at the top of a Sequencer, and you can startplayback at any point within a Song by selecting the current patternusing the plus and minus controls.
Despite the major enhancements, it would be nice if there were otherways to create patterns, such as recording them directly from anexternal MIDI controller or reading in a MIDI file. It would also beuseful if you could select patterns, especially within Song mode, usingMIDI note numbers.
Speaking of MIDI, there's still one major flaw that I hope will beaddressed soon: you can't change Instruments or even presets usingProgram Changes. Though you can load as many instances of Tassman asyour host software will allow (an improvement over previous versions— in Sonar, for example, loading more than one instance ofearlier versions often caused Sonar to crash), or include severalInstruments in a single Tassman instance, that's not as efficient asbeing able to switch Instruments or presets on the fly. According tothe manufacturer, this feature will be available in a forthcomingrelease.
Applied Acoustics has provided a large number of prebuiltInstruments along with a vast collection of presets. In total, thereare nearly 1,000 patches ready to play. The included Instruments fallinto a variety of categories that break down even further intosubgroups. For example, in the Acoustic category, you'll find Malafons,Bowed Beams, Bowed Metal, Congas, Dulcimers, Electric Pianos, Harps,and more. In general, the quality of the Instruments and their presetsis excellent, and even if you never edit a patch, the range of includedsounds is alone worth the price of the program.
The Flute sounds are uncanny — I've never heard a morerealistic model. You can dial in a significant amount of noise to getan almost entirely nonpitched breath sound or change the physics of themouthpiece (strength and angle of airflow) as the sound plays.Particular care has been given to the presets here — I canimagine a creative use for nearly all 18. Listen to the MP3 example Modelbach, which uses a flute model (complete withartifacts that result from fast note changes) and a dulcimer in atranscription of a Bach two-part invention.
The various beam instruments are also unique, especially those basedon a bowed beam (one of my favorite avant-garde performancetechniques). The Bowed Vibes is very nice, though I prefer less tremolothan the Default preset uses, and the Bowed Marimba is also especiallynoteworthy. If I were scoring a remake of a 1950s horror film, theSinging Beam would come in very handy — it does an excellentimpression of a theremin.
The Plate instruments are another excellent resource, especially theGlass, Metal, and Plastic presets. The Bisbo Gong preset (named for thenew-age artist Robert Bisbo perhaps?) has an eerie afterlife and acleverly ambiguous tonal center. FM is well represented, with over fivedozen presets for the four Instruments. Among my favorites is Freak ModFM, whose presets range from the Default, a ghostly, hauntingunderwater chorus, to the delicate and serene Watery. The Bell Grainspreset is tasty, though I would kill the delay effect, which is usedtoo often in general. Remarkably, almost no latency results whenswitching presets — the change seems to occur nearlyinstantaneously.
Tassman's file handling has improved dramatically with version 3.02.In older versions, there were far too many layers of individual programcomponents to deal with. These included Builder files, Player files,preset files, snapshot files, and even samples that were used by anInstrument. Now, all elements except samples are neatly bundled into a“master” collection.
Tassman's documentation, which includes a printed manual and aduplicate PDF file, has also been improved. There are four tutorials toget you going, and there's a complete description of every Module.
Tassman 3.02 is a unique program that can provide a huge range ofunusual sounds. Any composer or sound designer would appreciate thehigh quality of its models and the extensive tweaking opportunities itprovides, and if you're an instrumentalist, you might consider using itfor your next gig. If you have any interest in physical modeling,Tassman is the place to start.
Minimum System Requirements
MAC: G4/400 MHz; 128 MB RAM (256 MB with OS X); Mac OS 9 orOS X 10.2
PC: Pentium III/500 MHz; 128 MB RAM; Windows98SE/2000/ME/XP