Cycling '74 Mode

Cycling ’74 has never been known for creating “me-too” products. The company has released a range of unusual products such as Max/MSP (an object-oriented programming environment), Pluggo, (a runtime shell that provides audio processing using MSP extensions), and a long list of others. Now the company has released Mode, a collection of 23 plug-ins.

Mode is currently Mac OS X-only, although a Windows version is said to be under development. System requirements are reasonably light (G4/800MHz), although some of the larger plug-ins can require a fair amount of CPU juice. RTAS, VST, and AudioUnits formats are supported.

Mode consists of plug-ins built by the CreativeSynth team (www.creativesynth .com) using Pluggo technology. The collection includes a variety of synths and sound generators, as well as various types of processors.

There are five “primary” or main Mode plug-ins from which the remaining 18 Mode plug-ins are drawn. The first three of the Big Five are soft instruments/sound generators.

How useful can a monophonic percussion generator be? If it’s Bang, pretty useful! This instrument actually has three discrete “engines,” which can be used separately or in combination. The first engine provides sample playback, the second, FM synthesis, and the third, “analog” synthesis. There’s plenty of control for tweaking each engine to get the exact sound that you want. For example, each synth engine has its own DADSR envelopes for both amplitude and modulation (the sample engine has one DADSR for amplitude). There’s also a master distortion, filter, and stereo delay. The three engines can be mixed with control over level, pan, and send to the delay. You could spend days just trying all the possible combinations of samples (73 are provided, from snare to congas to cymbals) and synthesis — and that’s before you start applying the built-in effects.

Mono is a dual 2-operator FM synthesizer that includes an arpeggiator, distortion with a unique interface. You can actually draw the waveshaper curve you want using your mouse, a filter, and a stereo delay. It’s capable of fat bass sounds, screaming leads, arpeggiated burbling, and, with the distortion/waveshaper, you can tailor the tone to whatever you want — and that’s before you add on the filter, delay, or even start twiddling the FM synth controls.

It’s probably obvious, but Poly is a polyphonic synthesizer. It uses a digital/“analog” hybrid. There are two oscillators with amplitude and modulation envelopes, a filter, pitch and filter LFOs, and a powerful polyphonic arpeggiator. In addition, Poly has a built-in delay and chorus.

The remaining two of the Big Five are processor plug-ins.

Spin is a wide-ranging plug-in. At its most basic level, Spin does time-based effects. But as with everything in Mode, you can do so much more. There’s built-in overdrive and bit reduction. Pan position can be modulated. The built-in filter can have its frequency response modulated. Unique to Spin is the “Time Gate,” which is a step sequencer that controls the volume of each of 16 steps. This allows you to create very unusual rhythmic/dynamic effects. Everything in Spin can be locked to the host application’s tempo, or operate using its built-in clock.

Wash is a digital delay, the likes of which you’ve never seen before. It contains six separate delay lines, each with its own delay time, feedback, filter (with frequency, resonance, and filter type controls), level, pan, mute, and solo parameters. A built-in 8x8 patchbay lets you route any combination of either the left or right inputs or any of the six delay lines to any combination of the left or right outputs or any of the delay lines. The delay lines can be “locked” to create a perpetual loop for sound-on-sound effects. Up to 10 seconds of delay time are available for each delay line.

The remaining 18 Mode plug-ins are drawn from the Big Five. For example, there are single-engine versions of Bang that feature just sample playback, just FM synthesis, or just analog synthesis. These smaller plug-ins tend to be more CPU efficient, and are easier to use as they generally have fewer parameters to deal with.

In some cases, there are separate mod plug-ins that can be used to modulate the parameters on another plug-in. For example, the Poly-Chorus plug-in (the chorus section of Poly as a stand-alone plug-in) can be modulated using the Poly-Chorus-LFO, which is basically a stand-alone LFO plug-in. The LFO can be set to modulate just about any parameter. It may seem kludgey to use two plug-ins to accomplish this, but in use, having the user interfaces separate allows you to focus in and set things up quickly. The real downside is that you’ll use up two plug-in slots to get a single effect.

All the Mode plug-ins support plug-in automation. You can also access other features by command-clicking in the plug-in window. This opens a hidden menu containing Touch Parameters (sends the current parameter settings to the host for automation purposes), Randomize All (randomizes all parameters), Evolve All (randomizes parameters by up to five percent), Undo Last Change, Copy All From Program (basically for recalling presets), and so on.

If you’re after conventional sounds and effects, Mode can deliver them. But the Mode plug-ins really come to life when you start exploring some of their unique capabilities. While the effects and sound generators are based on familiar concepts and parameters, they’re almost always presented in such a way that you can go one step (or many steps) beyond the usual.

I had a great deal of fun with this collection of sound generators, processors, and manglers. If you’re a sound designer looking to add some new tools to your arsenal, Mode offers tremendous power. For composers after new sounds, Mode delivers easily, plus its plug-ins are easy and fast to use. The settings of some parameters are difficult to discern— you’ll have to make those adjustments using your ear. But you’ll adapt quickly, and is it really that bad to use your ears to tweak your sounds rather than your eyes?

If you can’t create distinctive, unique sounds using Mode, the problem isn’t with the plug-ins — these are powerful tools. Check them out. Cycling ’74 offers a free download of the full software that operates in demo mode — there are periodic interruptions in the audio. Once you pay for and authorize the plug-ins, they’ll operate without interruption.

Cycling ’74 deserves big credit for continuing to push the sonic envelope — and for offering so much plug-in power for such a reasonable price. This is fun stuff!