FIG. 1: Alchemy offers a choice of user interfaces. Pictured here is the Advanced mode with all parameters available. Simple mode pares down the view to the header and the bottom row of real-time controls in the Performance section.
Alchemy 1.09 should put to rest any debate about the continued usefulness of sampling. Alchemy is not a sampler, though it supports multisampling through SFZ files. A generous toolbox of sample-manipulation features, including additive synthesis and spectral modeling, springboard the instrument into some pretty exotic-sounding territory.
Currently available by download only, Alchemy contains a factory sound library a bit more than 2 GB. You must also download the instrument, presets and key file separately. Camel Audio provided me with two optional Alchemy patch libraries: Atmospheric ($59) and Electronic ($59), each adding more than 150 presets and a raft of new samples to the 300 patches in the factory sound set (see the Online Bonus Material).
You get an Audio Units plug-in version for the Mac, and VST 2.4 versions for the Mac and Windows. Camel Audio plans to release an RTAS version later this year, but there is no stand-alone version. I put Alchemy through its paces on an 8-core 2.8GHz Mac Pro running Mac OS 10.5.6. Hosts included Steinberg Cubase 4.1, MOTU Digital Performer 6.2, Apple Logic Pro 8.0.2 and Ableton Live 7.0.3.
Architecture and Alchemy
You must choose between two styles of user interface: Simple, which presents the Performance section of the instrument, and Advanced, which provides access to all of Alchemy's parameters (see Fig. 1). The Title Bar, common to both, lets you toggle Simple and Advanced modes, select a bank of sounds and select a specific patch — either from a drop-down menu or left- and right-arrow buttons. You can choose from 17 categories, including Arpeggiated, Pads, Brass, Loops and Soundscapes. The small voice-allocation window found in Advanced interface is missing from the Simple interface, where it would be especially useful.
In Advanced mode, several file-management buttons appear near the patch-selection areas. Selecting Check for Updates in the File menu opens your browser and takes you to Camel Audio's Login page, where there is no direct button to an update section. I'd much prefer a pop-up window that informs you Alchemy is up-to-date or offers a direct download.
Below the patch-selection area, a generously sized window displays any knob or parameter value on mouse-over, including percentages, milliseconds, decibels, semitones or whatever measurement is relevant. I much prefer that to balloon windows, which often obscure parameters. Finally, there's a patch-randomizing button (which produced remarkably useful sounds) and a main Volume knob.
At Alchemy's heart are four sources, each containing additive, spectral and granular tone-generating engines called elements. Each source packs three multimode filters, each feeding a mixer that routes the result to two main filters. You can enable some or all elements simultaneously, although one element can limit the functionality of another.
The granular element also serves as the sampling section, and here you can set up looping and, if you choose, granulation parameters. Elements can load samples of your choosing, or you can import them for spectral analysis as long as they're AIFF, WAV or SFZ files. One small gripe: The window for importing audio resembles an old DOS tree menu. I find that type of menu cluttered and a bit cumbersome; standard Open dialog boxes would be more useful.
Switching on the granular element limits the additive element to virtual analog functionality, and the spectral engine then becomes a noise generator. With four sources available, however, you'll have plenty of room to pull out the stops and use all the elements you want, if your CPU is up to it. If you toggle granular synthesis on, you can adjust grain volume, size and density, and choose from several envelope shapes for the grains. Additional knobs control sample starting point and controls for adding random variations to sample start and pan position. My experiments with Alchemy's granular synthesis were hit or miss, ranging from beautiful and unearthly to very pedestrian noise.
FIG. 2: Additive sources provide as many as 600 partials. Create partials by clicking in a bar-graph-type editor.
Additive synthesis is nicely done in Alchemy, with only a few compromises in the interest of simplicity and processor overhead. Frequencies are represented in a familiar bar-graph form, and grabbing any partial with the mouse raises or lowers its amplitude (see Fig. 2). Similarly, bar graphs set each frequency's pitch, pan position and phase, with each of these parameters modulated by breakpoint envelopes. You can also choose to use the additive element as a virtual analog synth with pulse width and symmetry controls. Finally, the spectral element is best at interpreting a sound's noisier high-frequency components with the help of a highpass filter; as such, it is best used for translating polyphonic sounds, such as drum loops.
Each source provides three filters that you can arrange serially or in parallel topologies. A drop-down menu offers 11 filter types, ring modulation and a couple varieties of distortion. You can balance each filter's output with the Filter Mix knob.
If the source section's three multimode filters aren't enough, you can add either or both of the two master filters, which offer no less than 50 filter variants, including formant, comb, highpass and numerous lowpass versions with different slope and pole configurations.
The Morph section mixes the four sources in various ways, but don't confuse it with a simple crossfading vector; it can also crossfade modulation parameters, such as envelope generator, pulse width, pan and other settings, often producing wild sonic variations (see Web Clip 1).
Alchemy's modulation section runs from left to right across the middle section of the instrument, and it's a mix of convenience and complexity. Randomly poking around yielded fascinating sounds, but my first attempt at deliberate modulation programming was less intuitive. I clicked, and I tried every click modifier, but could not call up anything but the matrix of modulation parameters for the Master Amp.
A quick read of the PDF manual revealed that clicking on any parameter (for example, an element's pulse width) changes the modulation section to expose its matrix, available modulation sources and related parameters. If I chose an LFO as a modulator, the LFO parameters would highlight in blue, as would the selected destination. It's a sensible way to reduce interface clutter and multiple pages, but because related components and parameters are not adjacent visually, grasping signal flow requires a conceptual attitude adjustment.
The Performance section is a playground for real-time control, sporting programmable arpeggiators, step sequencers (which can also serve as modulation sources) and a raft of effects ported over from Camel Audio's CamelPhat and CamelSpace plug-ins. Perhaps the most dramatic real-time tool in this section is the Remix Pad, a series of eight squares that work with all the other performance controls to create radical changes in the patch — arpeggiator behavior; morph settings; and envelope, filter and resonance parameters, to name just a few.
My quibbles about the Import menu and unfamiliar programming interface notwithstanding, Alchemy more than compensates with its stunning sounds and enormous flexibility. Importing and warping audio provide virtually unlimited sonic resources. I had spectacular results importing samples from Native Instruments' Absynth and Cakewalk's Rapture (see Web Clip 2). Alchemy's reasonable price delivers a lot for the money, and once you get over a few conceptual hurdles, you'll appreciate the design. Don't take my word for it; go to the Camel Audio site, check out the demos and tutorial videos, and then download the fully functional three-week demo and see if you don't agree.
By the time you read this, Marty Cutler's Website should include a page of gig announcements, more music and a working blog. Check it out atweb.mac.com/martycutler.