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electronic MUSICIAN


By Jeff Burger | June 1, 2001

You can paint with a variety of brushes designed for musicalapplications.

Since it burst onto the scene in 1998, U&I Software'sMetaSynth has offered Mac users a unique collection ofsound-design and composition tools. EM's last review ofthe program (in the August 1998 issue) covered version 2.0, andsince that time, a slew of new features has been added. U&I nowoffers the MetaSynth Studio 2.7 bundle, which consists of siblingproducts MetaTrack 1.4 and Xx 1.3 along withupdated MetaSynth software. You can also purchase theMetaSynth Studio 2.7 bundle's elements separately.MetaSynth is $299. MetaTrack ($99) andXx ($129) are available only through the Internet.

With its algorithmic composition, MIDI-to-PICT, and PICT-to-MIDIfeatures, Xx hasn't changed much since its review appearedin the March 1999 issue. The same can't be said aboutMetaSynth, which has evolved considerably in the past fewyears. Also, MetaTrack, a multitrack environment forarranging and scheduling MetaSynth sounds, now augmentsMetaSynth. (For more information about MetaSynth,see “Master Class: Mastering MetaSynth” in theFebruary 2001 issue.)


MetaSynth lets you design, manipulate, and render anunparalleled array of sounds using tools borrowed from the world ofcomputer graphics. At the program's core is the Image Synth, atwo-dimensional canvas that contains the information used to playany sound source you select. The Image Synth's horizontal axis istime, and its vertical axis is pitch (see Fig. 1). You canimport photos and graphics, paint directly on the canvas with avariety of brushes designed for musical applications, and applyimage-processing effects á la Adobe Photoshop.

Each pixel in MetaSynth represents one of 1,024oscillators, with brightness controlling volume and colordetermining pan position. The Filter Palette provides the sametools as the Image Synth but acts as a 128-band, time-variant,dynamic filter for sounds loaded into MetaSynth's SampleEditor. You can receive wildly varying results from a singlepicture by changing the harmonic scale associated with the verticalaxis, the timeline's duration, or the sound source selected for theoscillators. The results can be anything from new instruments totechno sequences to otherworldly soundscapes.

The Sample Editor is also powerful. Like the waveform editors ofmany audio applications, the Sample Editor provides standardcutting, copying, and pasting of mono or stereo audio files andoffers many additional processing features such as morphing andconvolution. The final major work area is the Effects Palette, inwhich you can apply a number of effects to a sound and manipulatetheir parameter settings in real time.


One of MetaSynth's more distinctive new features is theability to use displacement maps. A displacement map uses itspixels to displace or warp the master image's pixels. Theluminosity of each pixel in the map determines how much thecorresponding pixels will move in the master image — 50percent gray produces no change, and black and white representextreme displacement in either direction. As with most otheraspects of MetaSynth, you can use preset images or importany PICT file or clipboard image as your map.

You can apply displacement maps in a variety of ways, all ofwhich are guaranteed to result in outrageous images and equallyoutrageous sounds. For example, you can displace only one axis oruse the Smoothing option to produce continuous curves in placeswhere line breaks would normally appear. Smoothing is appropriatefor modulation effects in the Image Synth or sweeps in the Filterpalette. When you want to alter a sound's harmonic structure,transpose melodies, or create rhythmic effects, it's better to turnSmoothing off.

Other new tools let you work at the spectrum level. The InstantSpectrum command creates a high-quality fast Fourier transform(FFT) spectrum analysis, which analyzes as many as 1,024 partialsfrom the first 2,048 sound samples loaded in the Sample Editor. Youcan use the analysis as a source for the Synthesize Spectrumfeature. The results are not dynamic, so you have to apply a filteror other tools to make the resulting sound move through time.Instant Spectrum's most common application is to assign referencepitches to the results of Synthesize Spectrum, so you can createeither single- or multisampled input sources for the Image Synth orfor use in a traditional sampler.

A spectrum analysis can also yield interesting sounds when it isused as a custom scale for the Image Synth. Alternatively, you canemploy the spectrum as a filter. Processing a rich sound like ahorn's with a spectrum from another rich instrument like a cello,for example, can render sounds suggesting a stringy horn.

The new Wave Shaping feature uses a standard MetaSynthenvelope to selectively remap the amplitudes of individual samplesof the sound loaded in the Sample Editor (see Fig. 2). Thegraph represents an input-to-output map (or transferfunction) across the range of sample amplitudes, so a45-degree line, for example, represents a linear response or nochange. Applying this tool to various waveforms is a great way toexplore new sounds. Use it to impart a subtle distortion or adenaturing quality to a clean sound. If you plan to add dynamicfiltering, the extreme settings yield a bevy of rude harmonics thatmay aptly suit your needs. As you would expect, the wave shaperincludes a number of tools that let you create custom curves. Thenew Remap Colors feature manipulates an image's color in ways thatare similar to Wave Shaping's effect on amplitude.

Two new input sources for the Image Synth are available:Granular and Sample Granular. Unlike the Grain option in theEffects palette, which provides a number of parameters to adjustthe granular effect, those new features apply a preset granulationalgorithm to the Wave Table or current Sample Editor contents. Theywork by taking small snippets of the source sound and looping themwith slight overlaps. The frequency of the overlaps adds harmonics,with results similar to those of a tunable resonant filter. Theamount and nature of the new harmonics are automatically derivedfrom the Image Synth picture. Without any adjustable parameters,some experimentation is required to arrive at an image that yieldsusable results.


MetaSynth 2.7 can import and export custom scales of1,024 values. That is quite significant when you consider thatMetaSynth employs scales for harmonic spectra andmelodies. The MetaSynth Studio CD includes a vastselection of custom scales (approximately 4,000, according to themanufacturer), and you can also create scales from the output ofthe Instant Spectrum feature. If those don't manage to keep youbusy, you can create scales manually, either by entering text or byusing Kenneth Newby's ScaleComposer freeware (which isavailable at the U&I Web site) to create themalgorithmically.

For version 2.7, U&I shook out all known bugs and improvedMetaSynth's overall efficiency. The silent blue grid nowhas a features submenu that makes creating rhythmic and note gridseasier. The Grain effect computes more accurately and is two tothree times faster, making it practical for lengthening sounds andtransforming mono to stereo. In the past, MetaSynthInstruments remained in memory until deleted; the program now swapsthem into RAM only when in use. The absolute sample-size limitationof the Sample Editor was removed as well. You can also save severalsteps when editing MetaSynth presets fromMetaTrack by hot linking through AppleEvents.


MetaTrack is a rudimentary, 16-track sequencer designedfor mixing MetaSynth sounds; its operation isstraightforward. You begin a session by opening a library ofpresets that you created with MetaSynth into a sourcepalette in MetaTrack. Then you create sonic montages bysimply dragging various sounds from the palette onto a grid thatshows time and tracks. Basic tools facilitate quantization, fade inand out, insertion and deletion of measures, and a link back toMetaSynth for editing.

MetaTrack has buttons for muting and applying effectsto tracks, volume and pan settings for tracks, and global volumeand pan settings. Although the design is not as intuitive orinformative as a traditional multichannel mixing display, it doesmake it possible for all of the controls to appear on a singlescreen.

MetaTrack provides nearly a dozen effects, includingEQ, compressor, rotary speaker, delay, and early reflections. Thequality of the effects is decent, especially considering that amoderately powered computer gives you an effect on each of the 16tracks simultaneously. The program also lets you load and saveeffects settings.

Once a MetaTrack mix is perfected, you can render it asa Sound Designer II file (interleaved or dual mono). You can alsoexport tracks if, for example, you want to process them further inanother application. Before rendering, you can apply a selection ofreverbs to the mix. Despite the fact that MetaTrack is abare-bones program, it offers an easy, powerful, and inexpensivemethod to create complex soundscapes using your MetaSynthdiscoveries.


U&I Software has produced a set of tools that is completelyunique in computer music. Mastering those new tools takes a while,but the results are worth the time invested. Discovering new soundswith MetaSynth is so much fun that it's addictive.MetaSynth is a must-have tool for anyone doing sounddesign or wishing to explore the realm of abstract sound. It isalso great fuel for the imagination in the techno and dance musicgenres.

The MetaSynth Studio bundle bridgesMetaSynth's unique visual metaphor with more traditionalapplications. Although you could simply dump multiple Meta Synthsounds into a multitrack audio editor, MetaTrack isready-made for that task. Xx is great for generating newmelodic phrases and even complete scores, and it offers a way toexchange data with MetaSynth. The threesome yields anincredible recursive loop of sonic-processing and composition toolscapable of rendering final mixes for many musical applications. Thebundle's 300 MB of additional samples take MetaSynth wellbeyond the ordinary.

Minimum System Requirements

MetaSynth Studio
Power Macintosh 601/120; 16 MB RAM; Mac OS 7.3; SoundManager 3.1; QuickTime 2.0


MetaSynth Studio 2.7 (Mac)

sound-design software bundle


PROS: Unique synthesis options. Great sound quality.Well-integrated suite of tools.

CONS: Exploiting potential requires time commitment.Nonstandard interface sometimes not intuitive.

U&I Software
tel. (800) 811-1991

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