In 2003, Hartmann Music introduced the Neuron, a $4,995 keyboard synthesizer that took a unique approach to creating sounds. It was filled with fantastic new timbres and was a joy to use (see the article “7 Deadly Synths” in the September 2003 issue of EM, available online at www.emusician.com). The Neuron's cost, however, put it beyond the reach of most musicians.
Neuron VS is a plug-in version of the acclaimed Hartmann Neuron synthesizer. It includes a hardware controller called the Nuke, which also serves as a copy-protection dongle.
The Neuron keyboard resynthesizes sampled sounds, a process that analyzes audio recordings and algorithmically reproduces their characteristics. The advantage of resynthesis is that sound becomes more malleable than traditional sampling allows. By offering a flexible set of user parameters, the Neuron made it possible to drastically reshape resynthesized samples (which Hartmann calls Models) in real time.
In 2005, Hartmann released Neuron VS (Mac/Win, $899), an expensive virtual synth that harnesses what it called neuronal synthesis. Neuron VS consists of software and hardware. The software component is a plug-in that supports Audio Units on the Mac and VST in Windows and Mac OS X. It provides most of the keyboard synth's functionality in two windows that you can easily switch between. Unlike the original, Neuron VS is not multitimbral, it doesn't support surround, and it lacks one envelope level and the keyboard's master effects (reverb and delay).
The hardware is a compact tabletop unit called the Nuke, which also serves as a copy-protection dongle; Neuron VS will not run unless the Nuke is connected to your computer. In addition to four assignable knobs, three status LEDs, and a single button for switching between modes, the Nuke has an orange plastic x-y joystick identical to those on the Neuron keyboard. Because the joystick is so fragile, a spare is included; otherwise, the unit feels very solid. A third window in the software lets you assign the knobs' parameters, as well as parameters assigned to Aftertouch, Expression, and so on. It would have been nice if you could use the Nuke to control software other than Neuron VS.
The joystick moves one of the corresponding vector controls onscreen. In fact, the joystick is the only way to move those controls, which don't respond to clicking-and-dragging. According to the manual, the software should record joystick movements, but the current version doesn't implement that feature.
Although the system requirements specify a minimum Pentium III/850 MHz with Windows XP or a G4/800 MHz with Mac OS X, don't expect to play more than one or two notes at a time unless you have something more substantial. Even when playing monophonically with the minimum setup, though, some patches may not play at all unless your sequencer's buffer is set high enough to detect latency.
I began this review on a Power Mac G4/dual 1 GHz with 1.5 GB of RAM, which led to frequent CPU overloads in Digital Performer 4.6, Logic Pro 7.1, and Cubase SX3. There were no graphical anomalies or any problems of that sort, but some patches quickly overwhelmed the computer. Fortunately, you can specify the plug-in's polyphony, from 1 to 32 notes, on a per-patch basis. I upgraded to a Power Mac G5/dual 2.3 GHz and was surprised that Neuron VS still managed to occasionally overload the CPU and shut down the sound engine, even with the default polyphony of six notes. Obviously, the ability to freeze tracks will come in handy for recording Neuron VS.
Out of the Ordinary
Another stumbling block is Hartmann's nomenclature. The two sound sources, called Resynators (short for resynthesis oscillators), provide hands-on control. The Blender is a mixer that offers cross-modulation and other functions. The envelope-generation section is the Shaper, and the only assignable LFO is called Mod. Silver — analogous to the COSM section in Roland's V-Synth — combines a multimode filter with two multi-effects processors, Freq FX and Time FX. None of the time-related parameters can sync to MIDI Clock.
Overall, Neuron VS generates expressive, evocative sounds that only its namesake can reproduce. The factory patches are almost identical to its predecessor's (see Web Clip 1).
It has been a year since the software shipped, and Hartmann hasn't issued a single update to address problems such as CPU inefficiency and missing features. Assuming that Hartmann has the resources to continue its development, I expect that Neuron VS will grow into a formidable virtual instrument. In the meantime, you'll have to deal with a few serious limitations if you want to live on the cutting edge.
Overall Rating (1 through 5): 2.5
Hartmann Music/Russ Jones Marketing Group