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NATIVE INSTRUMENTS Massive 1.1 (Mac/Win)

By Len Sasso | May 1, 2007

Massive 1.1, the latest behemoth virtual instrument from Native Instruments, lives up to its name in several ways. Its morphing wavetable oscillators give you a huge starting sound palette. Filters, effects, and a flexible signal path can bend those sounds to your every need. Envelopes, LFOs, sequencers, and MIDI remote control bring your sounds to life, and a categorized browser gives you easy access to more than 500 factory presets. All this coupled with a high-resolution audio engine for aliasing-free wavetable interpolation comes with a massive CPU hit and a somewhat outsize control panel (see Fig. 1).

FIG. 1: Massive''s outsize ?control panel puts all controls at your fingertips. Color-coded modulation routings make unraveling patches easy.

Massive will run standalone or as a plug-in under both Windows and Mac OS X. VSTi, DXi, and RTAS plug-in formats are supported on the PC; AU, VSTi, and RTAS formats are supported on the Mac. The Mac version is Universal Binary and, therefore, Intel ready.

For this review, I tested Massive on my dual 2 GHz Power Mac G5 running Mac OS X 10.4.8 and on my 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 laptop running Windows XP. It performed well both standalone and as a plug-in in several hosts on both machines. Because Massive's audio thread always runs on a single processor, or on a single core of a dual-core processor, you'll need a fast CPU to get high polyphony from the synth's more demanding presets. But choosing the lowest of its three quality settings (Ultra, High, and Eco), freezing tracks if your plug-in host supports that, and using multiple instances of Massive to distribute the processing on multiple-processor machines will significantly improve performance.

More than Meets the Eye

At first glance, Massive looks like a fairly standard subtractive synth: three oscillators followed by filters followed by an output section consisting of an amp and two effects. For modulation you get envelopes, LFOs, pattern sequencers, and MIDI remote. A closer look reveals a dedicated Modulation oscillator, a noise generator, a feedback circuit, a couple of insert effects, and a Macro Control section. Interesting but not that out of the ordinary. It's only when you dig into Massive's individual modules and beneath-the-surface features that you begin to see and hear how different this synth really is.

Massive belongs to the burgeoning category of semimodular soft synths. You get considerable leeway in reorganizing the signal path, but you don't need to wire it from the ground up, and logical limitations are in force. The Routing tab of the Central window reveals the signal flow, and you click on various icons to change things around (see Fig. 2). For example, clicking on one of the B (bypass) icons routes the associated oscillator or noise generator directly to either of the master effects or to the EQ. Clicking on the Ins 1 and Ins 2 icons controls where the insert effects appear in the signal path. And clicking on one of the FB (feedback) icons determines where the feedback signal originates.

Several of Massive's sliders also affect the signal path. The oscillators, noise generator, and feedback circuit all have sliders for balancing their output between the inputs to Massive's two filters. The filter section's F2 slider balances the input to filter 2 between the output of filter 1 and the mix of the sound sources allocated to filter 2. For instance, with the F2 slider all the way up, the filters are in series, and filter 2 does not receive any of the source mix. With the slider all the way down, the filters are in parallel, and filter 2 receives only the source mix. In intermediate positions, filter 2 receives a portion of both signals. The filter section's Mix slider balances the output of the two filters to the output section. That means you can arrange the filters in series and still use the Mix slider to balance their outputs.

Direct from the Source

Massive's morphing wavetable oscillators are the heart of this synth. Each wavetable consists of between 2 and 128 single-cycle waveforms. These are actually multiwavetables with different wavetables used for different pitches (similar to multisampling), resulting in nearly aliasing-free operation. The 89 wavetables are allocated among 4 categories: Basic, Analog/Electric, Digital/Hybrid, and FX/Chord. You select an oscillator's wavetable using a drop-down menu. The menu's 128-slot capacity suggests that more wavetables may be on the way. Additional banks of wavetables and a utility for creating your own would be welcome additions, though the 89 provided are plenty to keep you busy.

FIG. 2: You can reconfigure Massive''s signal path by clicking on the icons in the Routing tab of the Central window.

An oscillator's Wt-position knob chooses a waveform from the selected wavetable, and there are lots of ways to modulate that knob to morph between the waveforms in the wavetable. An Intensity knob controls waveshaping-like processing of the oscillator's output, and three modes are available: Spectrum, Bend, and Formant. Spectrum and Formant apply lowpass and formant filtering, respectively. Three varieties of Bend modulate the waveform scanning rate based on the position within the waveform. That can radically change the harmonic spectrum of the output.

A new virtual-analog oscillator mode (VA Osc) has been added in version 1.1. Pulse-Saw PWM and Pulse-Saw Sync variations enable morphing between pulse and sawtooth waveforms. The Intensity knob is replaced by a Pulse-Width or Sync knob for controlling pulse-width (PWM) or hard-sync-style resetting (Sync). The aforementioned waveshaping feature is disabled in VA Osc mode.

The noise generator is standard fare, with 12 flavors of noise and a Color knob to shift the spectrum of the chosen flavor. The feedback circuit, which can take its input from various points in the signal path, has a slider for balancing its output between the two filter inputs. High feedback can push the signal over the top, but when used with discretion, this circuit adds a new dimension to Massive's sound. Try placing a delay or pitch-shifting insert effect in the feedback loop and enveloping the feedback amount (see Web Clip 1).

More or Less

The Modulation oscillator in the source section is not wired into the signal path; it is an audio-frequency sine-wave oscillator that you use to modulate the other oscillators and filters. You can apply each of its modulation types — ring, phase, wavetable position, and filter cutoff frequency — to one target. Phase modulation produces results similar to FM and was in fact used in the original Yamaha DX-7. A single knob sets and displays the modulation amount for each modulation type, but the settings are independent. You'll see how important the Modulation oscillator is to Massive's sound by stepping through the factory preset bank; most of the presets use it, and many use it to modulate several targets.

FIG. 3: The sustain stage of Massive''s envelopes allows you to morph between pairs of preset shapes and loop the chosen shape a fixed or unlimited number of times.

As with all subtractive synths, Massive's filters are key to sculpting the sound. Aside from the flexible routing scheme, the feedback circuit, and the option to place insert effects before, after, and between the filters, you'll find some uncommon features. In addition to the standard 2- and 4-pole lowpass and highpass filters, you get bandpass and band-reject filters with variable bandwidth. Allpass, comb, and double notch filters are useful for phasing and flanging effects. Three lowpass variants called Scream, Daft, and Acid round out the filters. Scream has built-in feedback. Daft makes an especially good target for the Modulation oscillator. Acid is modeled on a famous mono bass synth (read: Roland TB-303).

Massive's two master effects, which appear before the EQ at the end of the signal path, include the usual suspects: reverb, flanger, chorus, phaser, and stereo delay. In addition, you get three tube-amp simulations and a room simulator called Dimension Expander that produces subtle and clean spatial effects. The EQ offers low and high shelving with a tunable center band that you can boost or cut.

The insert effects lean toward distortion. You get a bit crusher, two styles of waveshaping, a hard clipper, and an unusual sample-and-hold effect that quantizes the incoming waveform by sampling it at regular intervals and holding the sampled level in between. You also get a simple delay line (mono, no sync, no feedback), lowpass and highpass filters in series, and a frequency shifter. The frequency shifter is an unusual and welcome inclusion; it shifts all of a sound's overtones by an equal amount, thereby completely changing its timbre as well as shifting its pitch.

A Novel Twist

I've saved one of Massive's most impressive features for last. The design and implementation of modulation in Massive is as stunning as the signal routing. To start with, you get eight modulation sources: four envelope generators and four LFOs that double as pattern sequencers. The envelopes are delayed-ADSR generators, and the attack (A) and decay (D) stages have level controls. You can use that, for example, to attack quickly to one level, then decay more slowly to a higher level. The sustain stage is a morphing looper. You choose 2 shapes (from 22 preset possibilities), the number of iterations of the loop (from off to continuous), the beginning and ending level of the loop, and the morph amount between the chosen shapes (see Fig. 3).

Massive's LFOs allow you to crossfade between two shapes, and they have their own fade-in/fade-out envelopes. In addition to the standard sine, saw, pulse, and triangle waveforms, you get 31 unusual shapes, including 4 random-step patterns. You can swap any of the LFOs out for either of two kinds of pattern sequencer. A standard 16-step sequencer is useful for pitch sequencing. The 16-step Performance sequencer resembles the step sequencer, but each step is actually a curve. The Performance sequencer can generate very complex repeating patterns, and it becomes even more powerful with the addition of a pattern-randomization scheme in version 1.1 (see Fig. 4). As with the LFOs, you can crossfade between two Performance sequencer patterns.

The scheme for assigning modulators in Massive couldn't be simpler. Each modulator is numbered, and for easy recognition they are color coded by type. Virtually every control on Massive's panel, including the modulator settings, has one or more empty boxes below it. You apply modulation to a control by dragging a cross-shaped handle from the modulator to one of those boxes. The modulator's number and color appear in the box, and you drag it vertically to set the modulation amount. As you do, a color coded ring (knobs) or bar (sliders and numericals) appears to show the modulation amount. A glance at the control panel shows all the modulation in place, and the numbering and color coding make it easy to unravel.

On the Side

Sidechain modulation is another Massive innovation. For many of the controls, the rightmost modulation box is labeled SC. You can use that box for normal modulation, but alternatively, you can use it to control the amount of the other modulation inputs. For instance, you could assign an envelope to control the amount of an LFO or Performance sequencer applied to the Wt-position knob, or you could assign MIDI Velocity to control the envelope amount applied to filter cutoff.

FIG. 4: Massive's Performance sequencer uses shapes as modulation sources at each step in the sequence.

Massive has a standard MIDI Learn implementation; you assign incoming MIDI continuous controller messages to any knob or slider by means of a context menu. But Massive also provides eight macro knobs along with direct access to key tracking, Velocity, Aftertouch, and a clever random-value trigger. You assign each of these sources to target knobs and sliders by dragging its handle, just as you do with the modulators. The random-value trigger emits a random value each time a MIDI note is received. Apply that to pitch for a sample-and-hold effect or to attack and decay time for subtle variations in volume contour (see Web Clip 2).

A highly customizable randomization scheme produces surprisingly useful results. You access it from the Global tab of the Central window and select random-deviation ranges for the oscillator, filter, master effects, and insert effects sections. You can randomize each section separately or all at once, and you can toggle randomization on or off for parameters, modulation depth, type, connections, matrix, and oscillator pitch. Randomization in the 5 to 10 percent range with oscillator pitch protected typically yields sounds close to the original but different enough to be useful.

Browse Awhile

Like many Native Instruments updates and new synths, Massive incorporates a Kore-compatible browser, and presets are saved in the proprietary SingleSound format. All the Massive presets are accessible in the latest version of Kore, and Massive's macro controls are automatically mapped to the knobs on the Kore controller. Twenty-eight Kore MultiSounds use Massive.

The browser classifies presets by attributes in five categories: Instrument, Source, Timbre, Articulation, and Genre. You can select multiple attributes in the last four categories to further refine your selection, and you can leave some categories blank. You can also search text attributes such as the author's name or text in the Comment field. Unfortunately, you can't mix methods, for example, to search for all presets in a certain category by a specific author. Nonetheless, the browser is very handy for finding your way through the large collection of factory presets. And you can, of course, categorize your own presets as you go.

Massive is a fascinating synth capable of an enormous range of sounds. For all of its advanced features, it is surprisingly easy to understand and program. In particular, the modulation scheme is the best I've seen in terms of both ease of use and flexibility. Whether browsing factory presets or creating your own, you won't soon tire of this synth.


Len Sasso is an associate editor of EM. For an earful and free refreshments, visit his Web site at www.swiftkick.com.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

NATIVE INSTRUMENTS
Massive 1.1

software synthesizer
$339

FEATURES 4
EASE OF USE 4
QUALITY OF SOUNDS 5
VALUE 3

RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Best modulation routing scheme on the planet. Controlled randomization. Huge sound palette. Clever sidechain modulation scheme.

CONS: Could use more wavetables or a utility for creating your own. Needs a fast CPU.

MANUFACTURER

Native Instruments
www.native-instruments.com

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