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Too Much Good Stuff - Windows

August 1, 2003

Looking for Mac software? Read Gregory D. Moore's companion article on Mac Shareware/Freeware.

What a great time to be a computer musician. There's never been more software available than today, and the range and quality are better than ever. What's more, many of the most interesting applications are coming from small, independent developers who are releasing their work for free or for very low registration fees. Talk about some great bargains!

We've scoured the Web for the past few months, checking out all sorts of tools that creative programmers have made available for little or no money. We'll focus primarily on newer software, though a few of our old favorites have received major face-lifts recently, and we'll include them as well. We won't be looking at many digital audio sequencers or audio editors, as we assume most EM readers are well equipped in those categories. Nor will we cover many of the excellent shareware utilities — patch editors, studio-management tools, and the like — though you will find some programs in those categories in the “Short Takes” sidebars accompanying each section of the article. Rather, we'll be looking primarily at programs that offer unusual or unique ways of dealing with sound.

SHAREWARE DEFINED

In the past, shareware referred to software that had all or most of its features intact right out of the box. By registering, a user might get a printed manual, early news about updates, or even just a good feeling for doing the right thing. Today, shareware is just as likely to mean a crippled demo; for example, one that doesn't allow you to save your work.

We're covering programs that have all or most of their features working or, at the very least, provide enough features to allow you to get some serious work done. Though several of the programs we're reviewing do have fewer features than their registered counterparts, we aren't including any software that doesn't let you save your work or that will “intermittently add a test tone to your audio files.”

In corresponding with the various developers, we ran into several situations where the authors of the software had not yet decided the precise means by which they intend to release their work. For example, some of the programs that have been in perpetual beta do not yet have a clear registration policy. It is our understanding, however, that none of the software presented here will time out or stop working prior to the release of a new upgrade. But we can't predict the future, and especially with shareware and freeware, it is hard to know when a developer might lose interest or move on to other projects.

In the pages that follow, you'll find roundups of both Windows and Mac software. In some cases, a program runs on both platforms, but we'll review it only once. We hope that there is something for everyone in these roundups, and we are fairly certain that every reader will discover some new and unusual tools for making music. Just remember, if you try out a shareware program and decide it works for you, register it! It's the right thing to do.

Windows Shareware Roundup

Great opportunities abound forgetting good stuff cheap.

By Dennis Miller

The Windows world has always been a great environment for shareware and freeware, and the current situation is better than ever. Maybe that's because the PC has been around longer than the Mac, or because many developers prefer it as a platform. Logically, the greater number of PC users represents a vast potential audience for shareware developers. For whatever reason, you'll find Windows shareware and freeware of nearly every shape and size, from VST and DirectX plug-ins to audio editors to sequencers to complete composition and production platforms.

This roundup will include several modular synthesizers, some “programming environments” for moving well beyond the fixed limits of traditional modular soft synths, one multitrack and one stereo audio editor, programs that can convert graphic images into control data for synthesizing sound, and various other entries. In addition to the main write-ups, I'll list some more programs worth trying out in the sidebar “Short Takes.”

Several applications I considered including were simply too crippled to be of use to most people. For example, FAsoft's n-Track Studio 3.21 is a very powerful multitrack audio editor, but the free version can mix down only two tracks at a time; that, and other rather severe limitations in the free version, kept it from making the cut.

Clearly, hard work and creativity are alive and well in the music-software development community, and these programs represent just the tip of the iceberg. So now, on with the show!

FREEWARE

We'll start out with a group of applications that you have no excuse for not trying. Who ever said you can't get something for nothing?

Additive Synth 1.0 (Win)

Though most of the main synthesis techniques have been modeled in software — FM and analog being the two most common — additive synthesis hasn't gotten the attention it deserves. Perhaps that's because there aren't as many “legacy” hardware devices to use as models for a plug-in (Kawai's K5000 and the Technos Axcel Resynthesizer being notable exceptions), or because controlling the frequencies and amplitudes of a huge number of oscillators independently can be a frustrating and time-consuming experience.

FIG. 1: Additive Synth is a VST plug-in that provides independent control of the amplitude and phase of up to 32 oscillators. Multiple oscillators can be grouped in various ways if, for example, you want to use the same envelope on the entire group.

Causal Agency's Additive Synth, a VST plug-in that offers 32 oscillators, is one of the few sophisticated additive-synthesis plug-ins around. Though it has some kinks yet to be worked out, the intuitive interface and versatile feature set make this a powerful tool for creating a wide range of sounds.

As the famous French mathematician Fourier noted nearly 200 years ago, any periodic sound can be reduced to a set of sine-wave components (called partials) at varying frequencies and amplitudes. Therefore, given enough oscillators to generate sine waves, it should be possible to synthesize any periodic sound. The main problem is how to set the frequencies and highly varying amplitudes of each oscillator independently. Some tools allow you to extract the relevant information from a preexisting sound and apply it to the oscillators, but for total control, there's nothing like being able to set the parameters for each oscillator manually. That's where Additive Synth comes in.

On Additive Synth's main page, you can toggle each of the 32 oscillators and draw envelopes to control their amplitude and phase (see Fig. 1). You can also create an envelope to detune the oscillators from their base frequency (the fundamental frequency is derived from the MIDI note that you play, and the upper partials are harmonic, that is, in whole-number multiples of the fundamental). But many sounds have partials that evolve in a similar fashion, and you can save lots of time by grouping oscillators and using one envelope to control all the oscillators in that group.

For example, you could select all the upper partials in your sound and create a single envelope that makes them fade in later than the lower partials and also fade out more quickly — that's generally what happens in brass sounds. Or, to quickly create a square wave, which is the sound a clarinet most resembles, you could set all the even partials to zero and then set the odd partials' amplitudes in inverse proportion relative to their number (partial 3's amplitude is one-third that of the fundamental; partial 5's is one-fifth; and so on). These and other options make working with such a large number of partials more manageable and efficient.

Additive Synth also offers built-in effects that can be applied on a per-oscillator basis. Included are a delay, flanger, phaser, and reverb. You can have only one effect on any given oscillator, but that's still more control than you'll find on any soft synth I've ever seen.

Additive Synth does have a few shortcomings. Among these is that it crashes with certain hosts. For example, when used as an effects plug-in under Cakewalk Sonar 2.2 and Cakewalk VST-DirectX Adapter, Sonar instantly crashes. A work-around is to load Additive Synth via Sonar's Insert/DXi Synth menu option, but even then, when you save your project and subsequently reload it, Sonar will crash. Other problems have been reported with Orion Pro, though I wasn't able to test that host. On the other hand, Additive Synth worked fine during numerous sessions with Sonic Foundry Acid 4.

I also noted that Additive Synth occasionally plays several repeated notes even when sent a single MIDI Note On. It sounds as if the delay feature is enabled even though it's not turned on. This happened intermittently and may have been a result of CPU overload.

Despite its shortcomings, the plug-in is capable of creating some very interesting sounds, and for the price, it is a worthwhile tool to have on hand. Also look forward to future enhancements, which the author says he is hard at work on.

Coagula 1.6 Lite (Win)

Like many other PC owners, I've long envied Mac people for their ability to use one particular piece of software: U & I's MetaSynth. Though not nearly as powerful or flexible as MetaSynth, Rasmus Ekman's Coagula is a very cool “image synth” that can add some unique tricks to your sonic arsenal. Every time I look at this software, it has gained new features, which convinces me that I can put off the purchase of a Mac just a little longer.

FIG. 2: The Brush tool in Coagula is used to paint an existing image or create a new image. Other settings allow you to determine how the image will be rendered as a new sound file.

Like MetaSynth, Coagula can load a bitmap-image file and extract from it information that is used to synthesize (or “render”) a new audio file. In brief, the program scans the image and uses each pixel's horizontal position for time and the pixel's vertical position for frequency. Color information is used to determine stereo position, and, in effect, amplitude. Although the program uses only sine waves for synthesizing sounds, careful tweaking of its many parameters allows you to create a vast range of material.

Coagula includes a large number of tools for manipulating existing images or creating new ones, and its many filters are especially handy for quickly processing the current image. You can produce amplitude fades, glissando effects, and all manner of random frequency tricks using the included filters, which are nothing more than BMP files, and you can use your own filters by adding a BMP file to one of the filter folders. There are also tools for zooming, rotating, flipping, skewing, and otherwise altering an image.

To create a new image, you'll most likely start with the versatile Brush tool (see Fig. 2). Sprinkle a little red and a dab of green on a blank screen, then render the image, and you'll hear a granulated sound with clear stereo separation. Or, draw a series of horizontal lines at equally spaced intervals, and you'll get something resembling an organ sound. You can use gradients so that multiple shades and hues are applied as you sweep around the screen. You can save up to 16 customized brushes of various shapes and sizes.

In addition to using the filters, you can modify an existing image using the Echord (for “echo-chord”) tool. This feature will make multiple copies of an existing image in a single pass. Its many parameters offer the ability to alter the copies in a variety of creative ways.

Coagula provides many options for controlling the final rendered output. For example, you can choose the total duration of the output file, set an overall amplitude-scaling factor, and modify the smoothing that is used to shape the amplitudes derived from successive pixels. You can also define the frequency range that the synthesizing oscillators will cover, from the Nyquist frequency (one-half the sampling rate) on down to subaudio levels. In addition, you can set the scanning resolution Coagula uses to analyze the graphics files.

There's a bit of a learning curve to really master this program, but getting started takes no time at all. If you're a musician with a strong visual sense, you'll feel right at home with Coagula.

Quartz AudioMaster Freeware 4.6 (Win)

If you're looking for a program that allows you to produce music with a variety of media, Digital Sound Planet's Quartz AudioMaster Freeware (QAMF) 4.6 might be the one. Though it offers only a very modest set of audio- and MIDI-editing features, its attractive and well-designed interface is an ideal place to undertake your sonic adventures.

FIG. 3: The Spatialization window in Quartz AudioMaster Freeware lets you see each track represented as a different object. You configure a track's pan and volume settings by moving its object on the grid..

QAMF supports 16 MIDI tracks with a resolution of either 48 or 96 ppqn. A piano-roll window (with a right-mouse-button tool set reminiscent of Cubase's) can be used to enter or edit note data, and an event list is also available for the same purpose. You can toggle the piano roll to display General MIDI drum names, note numbers, or the traditional keyboard, and though the program doesn't preview notes when you enter them, you can trigger notes by clicking on the keyboard display along the left of the screen. Among other interface niceties is the ability to reorient the keyboard so that notes appear in either ascending or descending order.

QAMF imports MIDI files very effectively. When you load an existing MIDI file that contains multiple channels of data in a single track, the program will automatically split all the data out to new tracks and assign them to successive MIDI channels. If you prefer, you can use the Expert import setting to make the track and channel assignments manually.

The program supports up to four audio tracks and allows you to use its own proprietary QAM-format effects plug-ins, four of which (Phase Shifter, Reverberator, Stereo Chorus, and Stereo Delay) are included (VST and DirectX plug-ins are not supported in the free version). Audio-editing features are limited, but the waveform display that appears when you click on an Audio Element (QAMF's name for the portion of a sound file you want to play) in the main screen helps make selecting regions and defining loop points easy. There's a shuttle wheel for moving through the file, but the time-stretching and pitch-shifting features of the full version are missing.

Working in the Mix Grid (the main track window) is very quick and efficient. Each track has high-, mid-, and low-band EQ settings in addition to volume and pan controls. You can save the EQ settings as presets for later recall. There are also two aux buses on which you can route each track to an effects plug-in.

Moving Audio (or MIDI) Elements around couldn't be easier, though it would be great if you could just type the start location and the file would snap to that point. You can toggle a grid display, which makes lining up Elements on successive tracks easy, and also toggle the waveform display for all (but not individual) tracks.

If you've got all your audio tracks configured and decide you need to add a few seconds of silence at the beginning of a project, use the Insert Bars command to insert as much time as you need. This command is found in the Tracks menu, where you'll also find commands to swap the contents of two tracks, erase and copy tracks, and access the DSP (effects) menu. You can save all or parts of individual tracks complete with their settings for use in other projects or for distribution over the Web, a service that Digital Sound Planet supports at its site.

QAMF's Spatialization window is one of the most intuitive interfaces you'll find for panning and adjusting the levels of a track (see Fig. 3). Each track is assigned a graphic object such as a ball, diamond, or square (you get to choose), and as you move the object around on the grid, the level and pan position of the track is updated in real time. The objects themselves get bigger or smaller as you move them to the front or back of the grid, which is a handy visual cue. By giving each track an object of a different color, it's easy to distinguish one track from another. If you do lose sight of which object represents which track, the Find command will point it out to you. Nicely done!

QAMF provides a vast number of configuration options. For example, you can map the keys on your computer keyboard to specific MIDI notes or program commands, toggle a prompt asking whether you want to keep each successive recording take (or simply have every take added to the current project), and even choose whether new recordings are saved in memory or on disk. You can also choose whether imported files are kept in their original directory or copied to the default program directory, and determine how often the program will update its display while playing back.

The included help file covers all versions of the program, and it's sometimes hard to tell what the limits of the free version are. But you can get contextual help for nearly every element of the program. And because most functions are very intuitive, you should be up and running in no time.

Sound 2D Warper (Win)

Here's one you won't find on the shelf at Guitar Center: Victor Khashchanskiy's Sound 2D Warper lets you load an audio file, display it as a spectral plot, then manipulate the spectrum and resynthesize the sound. Or, you can load a BMP graphics file, manipulate it, then use the image to synthesize a sound as well. It's a simple concept, but one that can produce a huge variety of interesting results.

FIG. 4: Sound 2D Warper allows you to load an audio file, convert it to a spectral plot, then manipulate the plot and resynthesize the sound. You can also load a graphics file and manipulate it, then use the image to create a new sound.

There aren't a lot of features to tweak in Sound 2D Warper. Besides choosing a graphics or sound file, you can change the resolution of the grid on which you'll make your modifications (see Fig. 4). The grid contains a number of control points that you move to warp the image appearing on the screen. You can assign up to 999 points for either the horizontal or vertical axis (or both), though at the maximum settings, it's virtually impossible even to see (much less move) an individual control point.

In addition to adjusting the new sound file's amplitude and sampling rate, the only other option is to change the window size. This feature affects the resolution of the spectral plot — the larger the window size, the finer the resolution, and the more pixels that are used to represent the spectrum (higher window sizes result in lower frequencies). A multiple undo feature allows you to backtrack through the changes you've made to the very start of the current session.

Don't expect to use Sound 2D Warper to do your next remix, but if you're open to a little experimentation, it's definitely worth a look. And if you like the feel of this one, try out the developer's other two free programs: Bitmaps & Waves, which uses a technique similar to Sound 2D Warper's but with more features, and Enrhythmizer, which can modulate a sound file in some very unusual ways.

SHAREWARE

This is shareware the old-fashioned way, and we like it. Lots of features, no annoying limits on session time, and help files or documentation to move you along. There are clear advantages to registering in every case, but you'll get lots of mileage out of all these programs, and most important, you can save your work.

4ormulator Vocoder Extreme Basic 3.1 (Win, $49)

Vocoders are all the rage these days, but Richard Wolton has created a vocoder with a difference. Unlike most other vocoders, 4ormulator offers a wide range of options for configuring and modulating the bandpass filters that are used to analyze the input source sound, and unique ways to configure the bank of filters that is used to create the output. You can employ up to 260 filters in a bank, “tune” them to any equal-tempered interval, and modify their center frequencies using an LFO with adjustable rate and depth. Though you can't save your own custom settings in the unregistered version, its 32 presets provide a wide variety of sound-shaping options that can do wonders to whatever audio is on the track to which you apply this VST or DX plug-in. And, of course, you can record the output of any patch you make directly in your host software.

FIG. 5: 4ormulator is a powerful vocoder that offers a unique approach to configuring its two filter banks. The Edit window (right) is where you set the frequencies for the filters.

4ormulator's interface is split into two screens (see Fig. 5). The opening screen is where you'll find knobs and sliders for adjusting parameters such as volume, wet/dry mix, and global coarse and fine pitch (no increments are shown on the sliders). There's a Glide control for adjusting the time it takes for a change to the Pitch parameter to kick in; a very high setting can produce beautiful, cascading sounds. You can also pick from among the 32 presets by clicking on the Effects Selector, which is a dial-like interface. As you hold the mouse button down and move around the dial, the different preset numbers appear. Release the mouse when the number you want is showing, and it will be loaded.

The second work window is the Editor, which is where the fun really begins. Among the screenful of controls are areas for adjusting the two bandpass-filter banks. Filter 1 represents the bank of filters that is used to extract spectral information from your source sound, and filter 2 is the bank that modifies the carrier signal that will pass through it, under the control of the data derived by filter 1. Though you can set the center frequencies of the bandpass filters only in half-step increments, you can apply a global fine-tuning parameter for more exact control.

The large keyboard in the middle of the screen is used to determine how many filters will be used by filter 2. Filter banks in 4ormulator are made up of sets of filters whose frequencies are “harmonically” related; that is, their frequencies are whole-number multiples of the base frequency. By enabling a note on the onscreen keyboard, you define a fundamental frequency for a set of filters, and you then specify how many additional filters will be in that set by clicking on one or more of the buttons (marked H) found under the keyboard. Here again there are a total of 260 filters, and you can employ them “dynamically” — 10 sets with 26 filters each, 20 sets with 13 filters each, and so on.

The filter-tuning system is unique and takes a bit of getting used to, but the power it provides for creating unusual effects is huge. For example, you can take a song in a major key and jam it through a bank of filters tuned in a minor key; the results can be quite surprising. Unfortunately, you can't automate the controls using MIDI Control Change messages; that would be a useful enhancement for a future release.

Using a looping drum track as a carrier, I got interesting results with nearly all the presets. Preset 11 was especially tasty, with its delicate ringing quality, as was preset 17, with its sweeping-frequency effect. Number 14 conjured up some serious dissonance. Several presets produced a variety of resonator and comb-filter effects, while others offered varying amounts of distortion.

This is one “demo” that packs a punch, and I would recommend that you give it a serious look.

AudioMulch 0.9b12 (Win, $50)

Ross Bencina's AudioMulch (AM), described as an “interactive music studio” by its author, is a powerful resource for building a vast number of performable or “self-playing” instruments. More than just your average modular synth, AudioMulch includes several unusual sound-generating and processing modules that move it into extraordinary realms. Though technically still in beta, the software is under active development and should remain available indefinitely. Registering means that you don't have to download each new beta version as it comes out.

FIG. 6: Ross Bencina's AudioMulch is a powerful toolkit for designing modular instruments. The Automation window (bottom) is where you can configure time-varying controls for the parameters of the modules you are using.

AM calls its modules Contraptions, and by combining them into any arbitrary configuration, you can make a wide range of devices that synthesize or process sound. There are six main categories of Contraptions — Input/Output, Signal Generators, Effects, Filters, Buses, and Mixers — and all are accessible via the right mouse button. You can also use existing VST plug-ins in your designs; just tell AM where to find them.

As expected, some of the most unusual processes are found in the Effects group. Here you'll find oddities such as the DLGranulator, which uses a delay line to granulate its input. Among other things, you can control the grain duration (from 5 to 500 ms) and also determine whether successive grains will overlap or not by adjusting the Interonset control. Of the 12 total parameters, all but InGain, Mix, and Quant have “range sliders” that allow you to set a range within which AM will pick a value randomly. You can also freeze the effect's output on a small range of audio; talk about a bad stutter!

The DigiGrunge effect is used to distort sound in one of two ways. You can modify its bit depth (from 1 to 24 bits, with 14-decimal-point precision) or use the Decimate parameter to modify the sound's sampling rate. As the Decimate-parameter value gets higher, you are, in effect, lowering the sampling rate, and any frequencies in your sound that are above the Nyquist frequency (that is, above one-half the sampling rate) will be aliased (wrapped around) and added back into the audio. This one definitely begs for time-varying control, and fortunately, it is available (more on this later).

AM's Arpeggiator has a few unusual tricks up its sleeve. It provides two oscillators that can be assigned waveforms (sine, square, or sawtooth) and transposed independently. A Random parameter can randomize the selection of notes, and a variety of controls allow you to keep the sequence of notes from ever repeating intact. Among the other effects, especially noteworthy are those that pay tribute to computer-music great Jean-Claude Risset; for example, RissetTones, which simulates Risset's famous “never-ending” glissando.

AudioMulch provides an abundance of modulation options. The Quick-Map MIDI Control menu makes it simple to map MIDI Control Change messages to nearly any parameter and supports both 7- and 14-bit controller data (in addition to Program Change, Pitch Bend, and Channel Pressure messages). Even more useful is the Parameter Modulation dialog, where you can view and map all the parameters of a Contraption at once.

Equally powerful is the Automation screen, on which you can draw envelopes for automating parameters. Right-click on a module and enable Automation, and a new envelope will appear in the Automation window at the bottom of the screen (see Fig. 6). Then create any number of breakpoints for that envelope. A cursor scrolls across the Automation display as the sound plays, which makes it very easy to fine-tune your settings.

I've barely scratched the surface of this powerful sound-design and composition toolkit and highly recommend that you give it a try. The examples alone are worth the price of admission.

CPS 1.30 (Mac OS X, Win, $150)

While the Windows world waits for Cycling '74 to release its much-acclaimed Max/MSP composition software on the PC, a number of other development tools are ready to stand in. Among these is Niels Gorisse's CPS, a set of audio and MIDI processing routines based on MIT's powerful programming language, Csound. You don't need any knowledge of Csound to use the software, though you'll get the most out of it if you're willing to do a bit of tweaking.

FIG. 7: CPS is a programming interface for composition. It provides numerous modules that can be connected in a vast number of configurations.

Like other composition “environments,” CPS provides a number of sound-generating and processing modules (called Objects) that you can combine in any configuration. Right-clicking on the screen brings up a menu where you'll find 20 categories of Objects (Csound users will immediately recognize opcodes such as loscil, pluck, and rand; see Fig. 7). You get a massive amount of tools to work with, including signal generators, effects, MIDI modules, math and control functions, filters, and a whole lot more. And if you can't find what you're looking for, you can add your own Objects, though that would require some programming chops.

All of the Objects include a description that you access by double-clicking on them, and “tooltips” also appear when you hold your mouse pointer over an Object's inputs and outputs. There's an excellent manual in both HTML and PDF versions, and a very thorough overview of the program at the developer's Web site. Even more help is available through the included tutorials and example files that cover many aspects of the program. What's more, if you try to place an illegal value into an Object, CPS's excellent error handling will inform you of the problem.

Table Objects, which derive from Csound and are implemented in a similar fashion, are among the most useful programming modules. You can put a variety of data into a Table, such as an audio file for use in a sampling patch, a series of MIDI note numbers that an Object could draw from randomly, or a custom scale or microtuning that an oscillator could use for frequency. And as with Csound, you can use table-generating routines to automatically fill a Table. The Buzz generator, for example, fills a Table with a band-limited pulse train, and the Periodic generator will create a single cycle of a composite waveform that uses multiple sine waves at frequencies you specify.

A large number of Display Objects are available for designing custom graphical interfaces for your patches. These include faders, number boxes, buttons, and checkboxes. It's easy to alter the resolution of a fader; just Shift-double-click on the Object to open its Settings dialog and change its Drag range. You can also specify whether an Object will “fire off” its default value when a patch first loads or wait until it is triggered by some other event. Adding an AutoStart module to the patch will also force it to begin running as soon as it is loaded.

CPS supports the use of Sub-patches, which can contain entire working designs or just a component that you might want to reuse, such as a multi-effects device. Sub-patches also help keep the screen from getting too cluttered.

And here's a twist that even Max/MSP doesn't offer: load CPS and double-click directly on the blank screen, then type a number, and you've created a Number Box Object (Number Boxes are used to feed a value to a parameter of some other Object). Or double-click and type the name of an Object, and the Object will immediately be inserted into the patch.

Though only a fairly small number of examples are included, their range is broad and their sound is great. Relaxx, for instance, is a complex filtered-noise patch that has a switch for toggling between wind and wave sounds. My personal favorite is Move Your Mouse, which uses the x and y coordinates of your mouse to control the parameters of several Objects, including the frequency of an oscillator and the cutoff frequency of a lowpass filter. I added an Audio To Disk module to the preset and recorded several minutes of sweeping gestures that I hope to find a home for in some future composition.

A Mac version of CPS is due out around the time you read this, and if you're involved with creating music for games or other multimedia projects, be aware that the registered version includes an SDK for using CPS with Macromedia Director and Shockwave. Other benefits of registering include an SDK for using CPS as a VST Instrument plug-in; full e-mail support; and more.

If you're a tweaker at heart, CPS is a great place to build your musical creations. Who knows, it may be the only composition software you'll ever need!

GranuLab 1.0 (Win, $20)

Here's a synth with a difference: Rasmus Ekman's GranuLab is a standalone granular synthesizer that can generate synthetic waveforms for splicing and dicing or granulate preexisting audio files. The program has sliders for a large number of grain parameters and lets you use MIDI Control Change messages to manipulate any parameter (see Fig. 8). Coupled with the interactive Gesture window, this lets you create highly animated granular textures and output them as WAV files. If you're a gigging musician, you could use GranuLab to add some real variety to your set.

FIG. 8: GranuLab's many sliders can be manipulated in real time, even while the program is recording to disk. All of the parameters can operate under MIDI control.

Like other granulators, GranuLab allows you to specify the base frequency, length, and pitch of the grains it produces. But beyond that, you can add varying amounts of randomness to any parameter, which ensures that your textures will vary over time. If you're using an audio file as a source, the Soundfile Playback options will come in handy. Here you can set the start and end points within the file from which grains will be selected.

You can also change the rate that GranuLab scans through the file to get slow-motion or speedup effects without changing the pitch of the sound. The default scan rate is adjustable between +/-2× normal speed, but a second slider allows you to scale that rate, producing, in effect, a scanning rate between +/-1.3× normal and +/-23× the original playback rate. Also, the file can be scanned backward or forward or even frozen at a specific time.

Another control, found in the Rate section as well as in other parameters, lets you use the amplitude of a source audio file to modulate a parameter. For example, the file's amplitude could modulate the scan-rate setting, pan position or output levels, or the grain pitch.

Unlike the limitations of recording a soft synth in a sequencer, controls can be manipulated as GranuLab records its output to disk. Just be sure to change the name of the file that is created after making a recording, as the program always uses the name granny.wav by default. You can also store custom settings in GranuLab's Patch Banks. Each of the eight banks can hold up to 20 Patches; a Patch is the entire set of slider values in place at the moment you stored it.

Once you name a Patch, it will appear on a list in the Gesture window. This screen allows you to morph among up to four Patches in real time by moving your mouse. The process is like vector synthesis, popularized by various Korg synths some years back. If you hit upon a mix of Patches that sounds especially good, just hold down the Shift key and close the window, and the settings will be exported to the sliders in the main window.

The registered version lets you have up to eight “grain streams” running at once. That would tax nearly any modern computer, but it's nice to know the potential is there.

SynthEdit 0.9437 (Win, $20)

Jeff McClintock's SynthEdit is a robust construction kit for building synths, samplers, and effects. As with Native Instruments' Reaktor and Applied Acoustic's Tassman, you construct soft devices by wiring together modules in various configurations. But unlike the others, SynthEdit has the ability to create VST plug-ins from your designs that you can use in your audio software. You can even include existing VST plug-ins in your plug-ins; for example, if you wanted to build a multi-effects device or a plug-in that contained multiple VST Instruments, each on its own channel.

FIG. 9: SynthEdit's WaveShaper2 (bottom) has an intuitive interface for entering control values. All instruments and effects that you create can be saved as VST plug-ins.

SynthEdit includes more than 80 modules that you can freely interconnect. The program will tell you if you are attempting to make an impossible connection; for example, trying to control the attack rate of an envelope using a MIDI Note trigger. That type of control interaction is not impossible, however — just insert a MIDI-to-CV converter module between the two other modules, and you're set.

SynthEdit's architecture uses a layer called a Container, which offers some real advantages. For example, you can add MIDI automation to every module in your device simply by adding a single MIDI Automator module to the Container. You can also change the number of audio ins and outs the device will have, which is very useful if you're making a VST Instrument (some hosts support only plug-ins with a limited number of ins and outs).

SynthEdit's two waveshaping modules are about the easiest to use I've ever seen. The WaveShaper module offers 11 control points for manually creating the transfer function, and WaveShaper2 has a text interface for entering control values (see Fig. 9). Either module can be expanded to fill the entire screen, which makes assigning values easy.

Among the MIDI modules are a SoundFont player, a drum sequencer, a step sequencer, a MIDI file player, and a module that can remap up to four types of controllers at once. There's also a Patch Select module that allows the users of your plug-ins to save presets, and a MIDI Monitor for watching the action. The step sequencer could use a bit of work; entering notes isn't as easy as it should be.

If you're a fan of ring modulation, you'll be happy to see the dedicated RM module, but you can also use the Level Adjust module for doing ring or amplitude modulation (RM uses bipolar signals, while AM uses unipolar signals — that is, signals whose amplitudes remain above zero). You'll also find a variety of effects and filters, and though there's no reverb, you can get one contributed by a user at the SynthEdit Web site (and you can always roll your own with the included all-pass filters).

You can also add LEDs, volt and peak meters, and a scope if you want to visualize the signal flowing through your design. SynthEdit allows you to encapsulate complex instrument or effects designs into Prefabs and share them among patches, so you could build a whole set of metering tools into a single, reusable component.

Every module has a dedicated Help button that takes you directly to the manual page for that module. The help file also includes explicit instructions on how to make and optimize a VST plug-in, even explaining how to embed a “nag user” message in the interface if you intend to make your plug-in shareware.

SynthEdit doesn't have its own dedicated MIDI drivers like, for example, GigaStudio, so you'll need a loopback device (such as Hubi's) to play it directly from your sequencer. But exporting your devices as VST plug-ins is so simple that this shouldn't be a real problem.

Registering removes the word SynthEdit that appears in your plug-ins' interface, but that's about the only real limitation. However, with so much power for such little money, this is one program you should seriously consider investing in.

Wave Flow 4.9 (Win, $25)

Xavier Cirac's Wave Flow is a stereo audio editor with a large feature set and some very sophisticated tools for working with sound. The program uses a modular-windows interface that allows you to keep as many files open on the screen as you want (see Fig. 10). Though the shareware version is an exact replica of the registered version, the developer gives you his assurance that you will “be a happier person” upon registering, and the very reasonable fee gets you technical support, early news of new releases, and discounts on future versions.

FIG. 10: Wave Flow is a stereo audio editor with a wide range of features. You can have as many files open at one time as you want.

Wave Flow includes more than 60 tools for shaping sound that are spread among a variety of categories. Filters represent one of the largest groups — in addition to more than a dozen preset filters (including highpass and lowpass with a variety of fixed cutoff frequencies), you'll find less common choices such as Median, Average, and Top Hat (these filters can be helpful for various types of noise reduction). If you still come up short, you can design your own filters in the Advanced Filter window. This screen provides options for setting the high and low cutoff frequencies, as well as deleting, boosting, decreasing, or passing the frequencies within a range. There's a ratio control that is used to set the amount of boost or decrease, as well as more esoteric options such as specifying the characteristics of the Fast Fourier Transform that is used in the filtering.

In addition to a flanger, reverb, and echo, you'll find more than a dozen other functions in the Effects menu. Among these are a compressor, an expander, a noise gate, two “metallizers,” a gapper, two choppers, and a Robotic Voice effect. Though there aren't a lot of adjustable parameters in many of the effects — the choppers have only one preset setting each, for example — the range of effects should allow you to accomplish much of what you need.

Even more thrills can be had with the speed up/slow down, invert, normalize, and reverse commands. For simulating a variety of grunge effects, you can even add any of five different types of digital noise to your music. You can also save a highlighted selection to a new file, automatically find zero crossings (to facilitate setting loop points), or access your sound card's mixer directly from within the program. Clearly, this is a comprehensive set of tools for the modern sound sculpture.

Wave Flow also offers several uncommon utility functions. For example, using the Concatenate Multiple Files command, you can select any number of files on your hard drive, and the program will combine them, one after another, into a new audio file. Or, you can create numerous new files by splitting a single file into small chunks and choose exactly how large (in bytes) each chunk should be. There are also tools for controlling your system's CD player and printing the waveform display that appears onscreen.

Many of Wave Flow's settings can be customized. For example, you can select colors for the different program elements, toggle the display of VU meters, disable the Undo feature, and request a confirmation before exiting. The program's controls are large, colorful, and easy to manipulate, which helps make Wave Flow a comfortable and efficient environment for working with sound.


Dennis Miller is an associate editor of EM.

CONTACT INFORMATION

Many of these programs are available from multiple locations. Where possible, we've listed the program's home page.

Causal Agency e-mail scalar@causal-agency.com; Web www.causal-agency.com

Digital Sound Planet e-mail info@digitalsoundplanet.com; Web www.digitalsoundplanet.com

Jeff McClintock e-mail jef@synthedit.com; Web www.synthedit.com

Niels Gorisse e-mail cps@bonneville.nl; Web www.bonneville.nl/cps

Rasmus Ekman e-mail rasmus.ekman@abc.se; Web http://hem.passagen.se/rasmuse/index.html

Richard Wolton e-mail info@vocoder-plugins.com; Web www.vocoder-plugins.com

Ross Bencina e-mail rossb@audiomulch.com; Web www.audiomulch.com

Victor Khashchanskiy e-mail vsoft@online.ru; Web www.webcentre.ru/~vsoft/SndWarp.htm

Xavier Cirac e-mail shareware@waveflow.com or waveflow@waveflow.com; Web www.waveflow.com

SHORT TAKES

We could fit only a fraction of the interesting software we found into this roundup, so here is a list of more cool tools to try out.

Audio Arpeg (Win; freeware)
Web www.analogx.com
Arpeggiate your audio files as if they were MIDI using this DX plug-in from developer AnalogX. Stutter and delay effects are especially easy to accomplish.

Density 1.2 (Win; freeware)
Web http://web.tiscali.it/no-redirect-tiscali/_flat/density.jsp.html
Flavio Tordini's program is a real-time granular synthesizer that runs on top of Csound, which you'll need to have installed on your system. You can choose from three different Csound Instruments and control numerous grain parameters, including density, length, and pitch.

dfx Geometer (Mac, Win; donationware)
Web www.smartelectronix.com/~destroyfx
Definitely not your average waveshaper! The blocky green interface with the real-time waveform display is just too cool.

FreeverbToo 1.55 (Win; freeware)
Web www.sinusweb.de
Sinus's plug-in works under multiple host formats and is one of the best bargains you'll find anywhere. Based on the code of the legendary plug-in creator Jezar, FreeverbToo sounds great and includes some unique features, such as the ability to “freeze” the reverb tail so it never fades out.

KTGranulator (Mac, Win; freeware)
Web www.smartelectronix.com/~koen
We love granulators of all shapes and sizes, and this one is as powerful as most we've seen. There are lots of parameters to adjust, including grain duration and pitch. Try out the new beta version while you're at it.

MIDI Mouse Mod 1.03 (Win; freeware)
Web www.analogx.com
Send up to four 7-bit MIDI controller streams simultaneously using AnalogX's free software. If you have a loopback device on your computer, you can send data into your sequencer for recording. Otherwise, the program's output is intended to control an external MIDI device.

Pd 0.36-0 (Mac OS X, Win; freeware)
Web www.crca.ucsd.edu/~msp/software.html
We'd need a book to do justice to Miller Puckette's seminal graphical music programming language. Pd is available for all major computing platforms, and numerous users have created “extensions” that give it even more capabilities.

RatHole 3.1 (Win; freeware)
Web www.genevoice.com/demos.htm
GenieSys's software compresses files in a variety of formats. It uses a lossless technology and can achieve up to 80 percent compression.

SayIt 2.03 (Win; freeware)
Web www.analogx.com
AnalogX's standalone program lets you enter a line of text, then render it to a WAV file while adjusting the sound's pitch and speed. You can transform the sound further using the Modulation and Cascade controls.

scuzzphut6 (Win; donationware)
Web www.djmarko.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/plugins.html
Don't let the name stop you from trying this one. It's a VST effects plug-in from developer scuzzphut with two delay lines, two highpass or lowpass filters (with the cutoff frequencies of each controllable by one of the two LFOs), and a 16-step pattern gate. Set filterdelay1's delay parameter to the tempo of your music (if it's metered), then set filterdelay2's delay parameter to double that rate to get a nice groove going.

Smudger (Win; freeware)
Web www.genevoice.com/demos.htm
This DirectX plug-in from GenieSys transforms a sound's spectrum to produce LFO-like effects.

Triangle I (Win; freeware)
Web www.rgcaudio.com/triangle_I.htm
RGCAudio Software offers this gem of a VST software synthesizer free to the music community. It provides great sound and a variety of features.

Looking for Mac software? Read Gregory D. Moore's companion article on Mac Shareware/Freeware.

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