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U&I Software MetaSynth 5 (Mac) Review

February 1, 2010
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FIG. 1: U&I Software MetaSynth 5''s work areas are divided into six rooms. Here you can see the Effects room, which provides drawing tools (far right) for creating parameter envelopes.

FIG. 1: U&I Software MetaSynth 5''s work areas are divided into six rooms. Here you can see the Effects room, which provides drawing tools (far right) for creating parameter envelopes.

With some programs, updates appear on an annual basis like clockwork. For U&I Software MetaSynth, new releases are few and far between, and each new version is received as a major event. MetaSynth (MS) 5, recently released by its developer, is the first update since 2005, and it offers new features or enhancements in nearly every area of the program. Among the major advances are support for higher-resolution and longer audio output, new recording options, the ability to modify many more parameters in real time and a large number of new instruments. MS 5 is also now multithreaded and universal binary. All told, this is one of the biggest releases in the program's history.

MetaSynth is a Mac-only synthesis, sampling and sound-processing powerhouse that offers some unusual and unique approaches to working with sound and sound control. At the core of its interface is a screen on which you draw or import bitmap images to control parameters that generate new sounds or process existing audio, but that's just the start. There are synths, samplers, effects, spectral processing, custom tunings and a vast array of other features that you can use to mix or mangle audio in numerous ways. The program offers endless options for composition, sound design and a host of other uses, and it is especially well suited for experimentation.

MetaSynth was the winner of a 2006 EM Editors' Choice Award for best sound-design software. You'll find a thorough overview of MS 4 in the October 2005 issue of EM (available online at emusician.com/mag/emusic_ui_softwaremetasynth_mac/). Here I'll focus primarily on the new and updated features of MS 5.

In My Room

MetaSynth provides six work areas (called rooms): Effects, Image Synth, Image Filter, Spectrum Synth, Sequencer and Montage. A separate area called the Sample Editor appears at the top of every screen and shows any loaded sound file (a synthetic waveform is loaded by default; see Fig. 1). New in the Effects room is a convolution option that will convolve the currently loaded sample or waveform with a sound you designate as the Auxiliary Sound. Convolution is great for creating unusual reverb and filtering effects (see the article “Audio Alchemy” in the April 2008 issue of EM. Many programs include features that allow you to offset or delay the impulse response, or perhaps alter its length, but MS only has settings to control the input levels of the two sound sources and a third option for setting the convolution level. Unlike other implementations, however, MS offers a number of graphical tools for creating envelopes to control the available parameters, and these are guaranteed to produce convolution effects you won't find elsewhere (see Web Clip 1).

Image Synth has always offered a massive range of synthesis modes and parameter controls, and Version 5 adds 11 new synthesis configurations, as well as a number of new ways to work with them. In the Multiwave category (Multiwave instruments incorporate three wave generators), you'll find new FM instruments, several waveshapers, new synths for pulse-width modulation and phase distortion, and a few synths that combine different synthesis methods. There are new modulation options to vary the parameters of the synths as they play and several new Filter options including a parametric EQ and Vox Enhancer.

WaveSynth instruments now benefit from 10 new Attack modes, which are also available for use by samplers and multisamplers. The impact each has depends on the type of instrument you have loaded, but I especially liked the results different Attack modes produced when using the instruments in the Future category from Galbanum, a third-party developer that makes a>a href="http://emusician.com/web_clips_streaming/metasynth_5_review_WC2" target="_Blank">Web Clip 2 and the Online Bonus Material, “Even More Meta”). You'll also find a new Edit menu in the Wavetable editor that offers six ways to quickly modify the wave your synth is using. Added to the very capable existing synths, these new resources make MS one of the most versatile synthesis tools around.

Making Grains

Granular synthesis has long been one of MetaSynth's fortes, and this version adds a set of tools for modifying the grain shape in ways that I haven't seen elsewhere. Open the Grain synth, and you'll find a menu listing various types of balanced and unbalanced modes, each of which alters the grain shape in a different way. Like some other areas of the new-features documentation, the details on this new option are not extensive, but with a little experimentation, I found that the modes produced distinct effects (see Web Clip 3). Fortunately, you can switch between modes in real time so it's easy to compare them until you find a sound you want.

As always, you can generate control data for your synths by importing a graphic, but MS can now work with any file format that QuickTime supports. (PICT was the only option in previous versions.) This is especially good news for me as I have thousands of TGA files on my system. Each of these could now become a score for a synth or sampler or even a filter for processing an audio file. There are also plenty of new graphics tools for drawing control information directly on the screen.

FIG. 2: The Montage room is useful for composing extended multilayered compositions. There are new effects and additional tracks available in version 5 of MetaSynth.

FIG. 2: The Montage room is useful for composing extended multilayered compositions. There are new effects and additional tracks available in version 5 of MetaSynth.

One of the most useful areas for creating extended compositions is the Montage room, where you layer any of MetaSynth's sound-generating or -processing functions and arrange them in time (see Fig. 2). The new Montage now supports as many as 24 tracks, up from 16 in previous versions. There are also five new track effects, and most importantly, you can now apply multisegment (up to seven segments) volume envelopes to any event. (Previous versions allowed only three segments.) All of these changes can save you vast amounts of time because you don't have to use other software to do a lot of your post-production work.

I/O Options

Prior to V. 5, I never thought of MetaSynth as a go-to application for recording. I typically recorded and tweaked my source material elsewhere, and if I were working on my PC, I'd have to convert the files to AIFF format, as well. MS 5 offers a host of new options that now make it far better suited for handling the various audio formats and recording operations you're likely to work with. For example, you can record directly into both the Sample Editor and Montage room, taking advantage of the new and more flexible choices for picking your audio I/O hardware. (Earlier versions were limited to the default settings in your System Preferences.)

There's support for new audio file formats — CAF and WAV have been added to AIFF and SD2, and MP3 is supported for input only — and you can also save files with up to 32-bit resolution. Because MS 5 has a new Render to Disk option, you can create sounds that are much longer than the previous 6-minute limit, and V. 5 will also import files of nearly unlimited length.

MetaSynth is a deep program. To help you get your bearings, U&I has put together a collection of online tutorials that cover different aspects of the program (these are in addition to the many online tips, examples and lessons). The user's manual is also excellent, and the numerous included presets will definitely come in handy, no matter what type of music you're doing. (A huge collection of new multisamplers and custom tunings for the Image Synth and Image Filter became available as I was writing this review.)

MS has enough tools to keep you busy for eons. Its sound design potential is vast, and the Sequencer and Montage rooms provide a great environment for working with longer compositions of any style. The ease with which you can create music that uses highly complex stereo positioning is amazing, and its room-based architecture offers some unique options. You might, for example, analyze and graph the spectrum of a sound in one room, then use that same data elsewhere as a custom tuning table or filter. I can think of no single program other than perhaps Symbolic Sound's hardware-based Kyma system that offers so much in the way of working with sound. There's no doubt where I'm getting the score for my next film.


Dennis Miller teaches at Northeastern University in Boston and is a composer and animator. Check out his work at dennismiller.neu.edu.

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