Four or five years ago, VST plug-ins were really beginning to take root in the studio, but using them onstage was still a crapshoot. Stable audio interfaces for laptops were hard to come by at the time, and nobody really wanted to lug around a desktop PC just for the sake of a few plug-ins. That's when I first encountered the Muse Receptor at a NAMM show.
Muse Research presented its rackmountable dynamo as a platform for running VST plug-ins without the hassle of a computer, and over the past few years, I've watched it grow from an ambitious project into a mature, stable and well-supported musical instrument that's garnered a fair share of admirers in every segment of the music industry. Live musicians love it for its ease of use, studio producers are taken with its sheer power, and both are enamored by its broad support for popular VST plug-ins.
A cooperative venture with Native Instruments, Receptor with Komplete Inside combines Receptor's raw horsepower and portability with Komplete 5's palette of unparalleled VST instruments and effects. On paper, it seems like a match made in heaven, and after test-driving Receptor Komplete for a few weeks, I have the distinct impression that this is one instance where the reality does indeed live up to the hype.
OUT THE BOX
The Receptor's 194-page manual is comprehensive and well written, and it discusses every aspect of the unit's operation in exhaustive detail. Unfortunately, it exists solely as a PDF, which is particularly irritating when working with the Receptor as a stand-alone box, and browsing PDF files isn't convenient. On the upside, the digital documentation also includes a healthy complement of instructional videos that walk step-by-step through common Receptor tasks.
Looking at the Receptor's unassuming front panel, it's easy to dismiss it as another bit of outboard processing gear. Under the hood, however, lurks far more than a simple effects unit or dynamics processor. This beast is nothing less than a full-fledged rackmount computer — although with an OS and hardware optimized for virtual instruments and effects — with full networking capability and remote desktop access like a regular PC. The rear panel points squarely at a PC-based lineage, with USB ports, PS/2 ports for keyboard and mouse and a VGA port for connecting a dedicated monitor.
Along with these standard computer hookups comes plenty of audio I/O, ensuring that the Receptor will slide easily into any type of studio setup in the digital or analog realm. Both coaxial S/PDIF and optical ADAT connectors are present, as well a complement of ¼-inch jacks for input and output. A standard set of MIDI In, Out and Thru connectors also makes an appearance. A single Ethernet port provides high-speed network connectivity and acts as a key conduit to much of the Receptor's strength.
The Receptor's front panel features eight knobs — six of which are endless encoders — and a variety of push-button soft switches for accessing different layers of the operating system. A single ¼-inch input provides easy access for guitarists, and another USB port offers up-front connectivity for the included iLok dongle. A two-line LCD offers a tiny window into the Receptor's world, adequate for switching patches onstage but scarcely enough to truly dig into what's simmering beneath the surface. To really unleash the Receptor's hidden power, you need to install the included Remote Control software or connect a mouse, monitor and keyboard to the unit.
Receptor can be completely controlled by your Mac or PC using the included Receptor Remote software, which connects to the Receptor using a popular Ethernet-based desktop-sharing protocol called VNC that works with both Macs and PCs. Receptor Remote can even be used over a WiFi connection, meaning you can control your Receptor with your laptop without any cable connected between the two. Working with the remote-control software on a big PC monitor is certainly a breath of fresh air after fiddling with the Receptor's tiny onboard LCD. Not only does the remote software lay out the unit's broad set of features in a simple and easy-to-use display, but it also provides direct access to the native GUI of each plug-in as if it were running on a host computer.
Navigating the remote application is simple. Three tabs — Mix, Setup and Edit — group all of the Receptor's functions into separate pages. The Setup window allows you to modify systemwide parameters, load new plug-ins, change global MIDI settings and perform a variety of other housekeeping tasks. The Edit window offers access to individual plug-in GUIs, providing complete control over individual plug-in parameters that aren't easily accessible from Receptor's front panel.
The Mix window is where the sheer power of the Receptor really comes together. This familiar mixer-style layout displays channel strips for each of the Receptor's 16 processing channels and includes two effects buses and a master fader for additional flexibility. Each individual channel — including buses and master — can hold as many as three effects, yielding a theoretical capacity of 57 plug-ins at once. While it's unlikely that the Receptor's CPU will be able to chew through that much math without a meltdown, the flexibility afforded by the Receptor's mixer virtually guarantees that you'll have plenty of room to combine a wide variety of VST instruments and effects, which is a good thing. Receptor Komplete puts all that power to good use with its massive selection of onboard plug-ins.
Receptor with Komplete Inside gets its surname from NI Komplete 5 suite of plug-ins (www.nativeinstruments.com/komplete), which are included and preloaded in the Receptor as part of the purchase price. Each plug-in is specially optimized for use with Receptor and loads flawlessly from the front panel or via software GUI. As a bonus, you get the full set of Komplete DVDs and a license code as part of the package, allowing you to use the Komplete plug-ins on both the Receptor Komplete and as many as two additional host PCs simultaneously.
The level of integration achieved with the Receptor and NI's Komplete 5 package is remarkable. The amount of configuration required to get up and running is, quite literally, zero; I plugged my bass into the Receptor's front input jack, dialed up a Guitar Rig 3 patch on the LCD and had crystal clear sound coming out of my speakers in no time. It was just like patching in a traditional effects processor. Remarkably, working with the Receptor always felt more like a piece of musical equipment than a computer, offering simple and straightforward operation that never betrayed the slightest hint of its PC-based heritage.
BLOW IT OUT
While the 11 plug-ins included with Komplete 5 are likely to keep the average synth junkie occupied for the foreseeable future, the time will come when the itch to explore new sonic vistas is irresistible, and Receptor Komplete is up to the challenge. Unlike the standard fixed-architecture configuration of hardware synths and effects processors, Receptor can be expanded and upgraded with additional hardware and software, making it a truly open-ended tool that can grow and evolve with your needs. Sick of Receptor's stock sounds? No need to junk it — just pick up a new batch of VST instruments. Muse Reasearch works with many plug-in manufacturers to “Receptorize” products — making them easier to install — and a quick trip to the retail site at Plugorama (www.plugorama.com) can refresh the Receptor with the latest and greatest on the market.
Receptorized plug-ins are specially crafted to work with Receptor's somewhat unique architecture and minimize user interaction during installation. I tested the procedure by registering my Receptor at Plugorama and downloading Dash Signature daHornet, one of the free plug-ins included with every Receptor purchase. Once I had the installation package on my desktop machine, I connected to the Receptor using the remote-control application and put the package in the Drop Installers Here folder. I clicked on the Setup tab in the remote-control window, started the installation, and after a quick and automatic reboot, I had a brand-new synth ready to rock. There are many free plug-ins available with each Receptor and countless other Receptorized plug-ins from big-name manufacturers for purchase from Plugorama.
Plug-ins don't have to be Receptorized to work in Receptor. Because the unit runs Windows-format virtual instruments and effects, it has the same file structure as a Windows box, and you can manually install plug-ins by copying the appropriate .dll files into Receptor's Unsupported Plug-ins folder. The manual details how to do this but also warns that Muse Research won't be there to help if an unsupported plug-in hoses your Receptor, so exercise extreme caution if you try this at home.
Plug-ins aren't the only expansion options for Receptor Komplete, which comes with 2 GB of RAM. Its options for 400 GB or 750 GB hard-drive expansions are welcome upgrades for users who intend to use the Receptor as a host for large multi-DVD sample libraries.
CHASE THE MUSE
Receptor is an outstanding audio processor, but its true power is unleashed when used in conjunction with the UniWire interface. UniWire can be inserted as a VST or Audio Unit (RTAS available soon) into any compatible sequencer and routes audio to and from the Receptor in real time as if it were a plug-in on your host computer.
It almost sounds too good to be true, but after working with Receptor in this way for some time, I can say with confidence that it's a solid system that works flawlessly. Latency is negligible by default and adjustable down to 32 samples (0.36 ms) or as many as 4,096 samples (44 ms). (512-sample latency is typical but depends on your CPU/audio interface.) I found myself playing Akoustik Piano for hours on end as a VST instrument inside Cubase 4, and not once during my session did I feel like there was any significant lag. The same goes for Reaktor, Absynth, FM8 and the rest of the Komplete 5 plug-ins — flawless implementation, snappy patch changes and blazing-fast load times when switching instruments.
Effects plug-ins worked equally well, with Reaktor, and Guitar Rig 3 all performing perfectly. In fact, I got the feeling that these plug-ins might be running even better on Receptor than they do on my studio PC. Without any pesky system processes and background applications to disturb things, I didn't encounter a single pop or audio glitch during my entire time with Receptor. MIDI synchronized perfectly during playback, and audio routed through the Receptor for effects processing came back sample-accurate with adjacent tracks.
The one gripe I have with the UniWire system is its failure to pass automation parameters. While working with UniWire inside Cubase, I couldn't find a way to quickly select plug-in automation parameters like I do when working with a native plug-in loaded directly into an insert slot. UniWire does provide a facility for passing MIDI controllers through to plug-ins running on Receptor, but the whole concept of mapping MIDI seems somewhat counterintuitive to Receptor's plug-and-play philosophy. (Muse Research said it will likely address that in a future release.) Nonetheless, it's a small price to pay for the capability to use Receptor as a VST insert effect, and the ability to automate is there if you're willing to put in a little extra work to get it humming.
With few significant flaws and countless redeeming qualities, Receptor with Komplete Inside is an outstanding device that's perfect for anyone seeking a turnkey solution to expand a studio's processing power. If you're computer savvy and are willing to pour a little elbow grease into things, you could probably cobble together a custom PC with more horsepower than the Receptor and use it as a processing host via VST Link or other Ethernet-based sharing protocol. However, Muse Research has clearly put a lot of work into making the Receptor a simple and reliable workhorse that's more than just a simple PC in a rackmount chassis, and I continue to be impressed with the overall sensation that I was working with a musical instrument this whole time — not a computer. The illusion is impeccable — I simply can't say enough good things about how smooth my overall experience was with this outstanding bit of kit.
With the formidable Komplete 5 preloaded, plenty of extra plug-ins available via Plugorama and a reasonable price tag competitive with big-name synth workstations (that can't touch it in terms of capability or expandability) I can say with confidence that Receptor with Komplete Inside is a hands-down winner that will prove to be a truly worthwhile long-term investment for an electronic musician.
RECEPTOR WITH KOMPLETE INSIDE> $2,899
Pros: Includes entire NI Komplete 5 suite (Absynth 4, Akoustik Piano, B4II, Battery 3, Elektrik Piano, FM8, Guitar Rig 3, Kontakt 3, Massive, Pro-53, Reaktor 5) and $400 of additional plug-ins. UniWire application allows use as a VST plug-in in compatible sequencers. Rock-solid stand-alone operation. Excellent integration of plug-in parameters and front-panel controls. PC/Mac remote-control software for easy editing via network connection.
Cons: Two-line LCD. Long start-up and shutdown times. No AES/EBU digital or word-clock connectors. Slightly noisy fan.