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
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.
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
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
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!
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Many of these programs are available from multiple locations. Where
possible, we've listed the program's home page.
Causal Agency e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.causal-agency.com
Digital Sound Planet e-mail email@example.com; Web www.digitalsoundplanet.com
Jeff McClintock e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.synthedit.com
Niels Gorisse e-mail email@example.com; Web www.bonneville.nl/cps
Rasmus Ekman e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web http://hem.passagen.se/rasmuse/index.html
Richard Wolton e-mail email@example.com; Web www.vocoder-plugins.com
Ross Bencina e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.audiomulch.com
Victor Khashchanskiy e-mail email@example.com; Web www.webcentre.ru/~vsoft/SndWarp.htm
Xavier Cirac e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com; Web www.waveflow.com
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)
Arpeggiate your audio files as if they were MIDI using this DX plug-in
from developer AnalogX. Stutter and delay effects are especially easy
Density 1.2 (Win; freeware)
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)
Definitely not your average waveshaper! The blocky green interface
with the real-time waveform display is just too cool.
FreeverbToo 1.55 (Win; freeware)
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)
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)
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
Pd 0.36-0 (Mac OS X, Win; freeware)
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)
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)
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
scuzzphut6 (Win; donationware)
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
Smudger (Win; freeware)
This DirectX plug-in from GenieSys transforms a sound's spectrum to
produce LFO-like effects.
Triangle I (Win; freeware)
RGCAudio Software offers this gem of a VST software synthesizer free
to the music community. It provides great sound and a variety of