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KEYTOSOUND NEXSYN - EMusician

KEYTOSOUND NEXSYN

Nearly a decade ago, Max Gronlund developed the groundbreaking Koblo Studio 9000 bundle the first commercially successful virtual instrument among a handful
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To hear demos of Nexsyn go to KeyToSound's site.

Nearly a decade ago, Max Gronlund developed the groundbreaking Koblo Studio 9000 bundle—the first commercially successful virtual instrument among a handful of pioneers at the time—and has since put his energies into developing software synthesizers and effects under his own KeyToSound banner. Remedy, a free and relatively simple 5-note polyphonic synthesizer, and InetSynth, an educational synth for learning how to program, came first. But those only laid the foundation for the company''s flagship product.

Nexsyn is a hybrid instrument of unlimited polyphony and everything you''d expect from a classic modular subtractive synth, as well as an advanced sample-playback synthesizer, but with preset-ROMpler ease of use. It features an arpeggiator, built-in effects and a social-networking interface for acquiring and trading your own soundware online. After all, Nexsyn was developed with hardcore sound designers in mind, as well as gigging musicians, studio producers and full-time composers in search of a flexible, workstation-like sound palette.

Nexsyn may be used as a stand-alone application or as an Audio Units, VST or RTAS plug-in on Windows 2000/ME/XP or Mac OS X (10.3.9 or later) systems. The single DVD installs 4 GB of proprietary XWM (Xtended Waveform Management disk-streaming format) multisample material, supplied by Big Fish Audio. Because the concept of streaming samples from disk is patented, not all sample-based soft synths offer it, so it''s a tribute to KeyToSound for developing its own technology to do so. Also, XWM samples can be as deeply modulated as any subtractive-synth oscillator; for example, you could make fantasy instruments like a Vox Continental combined with warm Rhodes bell-like overtones and pipe-organ harmonics.

RACK ATTACK

Nexsyn''s customizable rack interface is built around discrete modules that can be expanded, collapsed and toggled to best suit your workflow. Upon launching, the Preset Browser at the top is based on an easy-to-navigate file structure. Starting at the root directory, you select instrument categories and types until you find the sound you want. The initial release has no textual or attribute-based searching, but hopefully it will be added in future releases. The I-Net button toggles between the installed presets and the presets located online at the KeyToSound Website. Registered users can participate in a global community of sound designers and musicians where you can upload presets to share publicly or to keep in your private locker. You can also audition other people''s presets in real time, and even “purchase” presets/banks using Nexsyn''s own NetNotes system.

You earn NetNotes when somebody downloads your presets, and you can spend NetNotes on presets from other users. I like this simple, incentive-driven concept. What''s really cool is that you can audition the posted presets directly within your open session to see if they fit in the mix without having to purchase them first. Of course, you can''t save or edit until you acquire them.

Another nice touch to the browser mode is that you can see the effects used in the currently selected preset with the ability to perform quick edits, bypass or change effect types, all without leaving the browser. A virtual keyboard and notepad display the author''s or your own notes.

Clicking on a sound''s name at the top of the browser will flip the rack into discretely selectable modules roughly based on classic subtractive synthesizers. These include three oscillator modules; three filters; amp, filter and modulation envelopes; three LFOs; Matrix 1–2, 3–4 and 5–6; Effect 1 and 2; and an arpeggiator.

At the top of the synthesis rack sits a well-outfitted System module addressing global and master settings such as keyboard modes (poly, mono, legato), portamento rate, MIDI and DSP load readouts and toggling of the master tube amp (analog boost) effect and limiter. Below that is a handy module to toggle any of the 18 possible synth modules you want displayed in your rack for immediate tweaking during a live performance, for example. That saves scrolling up and down the screen.

DESIGNER TOOLS

The oscillator modules are each capable of holding one of the following types in mono or stereo: Classic (sine, triangle, pulse, saw), All Harmonics (Sine+1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 16), Odd Harmonics, Stacks (seven saw oscillators at different frequencies stacked together) and Noise. Oscillators 2 and 3 can also access the XWM sample as possible wave types.

The three filter modules can be highpass, lowpass and bandpass (with four slopes each), Stereo Only (high/low splits at 12 dB and 24 dB/octave) and drive/exciter. Filters can operate in mono or stereo, in which the Spread parameter modulates the cutoff points for the left and right. Controls include cutoff, resonance, envelope and keyboard and velocity tracking amounts. Filter modules 1 and 2 let you pass variable amounts of their outputs to filters 2 and 3 for serial and parallel processing.

The amp, filter and modulation envelopes are each of the DAHDSR variety, with a delay stage prior to attack and a hold stage prior to decay. Expert mode reveals velocity and key influence on time and amp tracking, as well as five variable attack, decay and release slopes. Envelopes can repeat two to five times or infinitely, and may be triggered/retriggered by note on, note off or by each other.

The tempo-syncable LFOs have three trigger modes and rate times from 32nd note to 8 measures. Available waveforms include sine, triangle, sinoide, saw up, saw down, sweep up, sweep down, square, impulse and smoothed pulse, noise or random. Controls for attack rate, phase and smoothness are provided, and each LFO includes five destinations, including FM, filter cutoff, panning, oscillator pitch, pulse width, amplitude and more.

Three modulation matrix modules each have two discrete matrix routings from single-source to dual destinations: that''s six possible modulation sources to 12 possible destinations. Nearly every major Nexsyn parameter is available as a destination, for a total of 60 targets. Nexsyn''s MIDI learn function can save an unlimited amount of MIDI map files.

Two stereo effects may be applied to a program: echo, flanger, phaser, reverb, compressor and three types of chorus. Basic editing parameters vary by effect type, and each effect module has independent output leveling; the FX 1 module can also route to the main output bus or FX 2 bus in varying amounts.

The 16-step arpeggiator is clean and simple, with up, down, up-down and down-up patterns, as well as zigzag-up and zigzag-down for octave patterns. Arpeggiation rate ranges from 30 to 300 bpm in 0.1 increments or can be host synced. Note range can be 1 to 4 octaves, and loop duration for chord play, slide, staccato and velocity parameters can be set independently to 1 to 16 steps. I found it to be fast and fun, with more than enough power to get some great polyrhythmic action happening with very little effort.

GETTING TO THE SOURCE

With 15 preset categories and more than 1,000 factory programs, there''s something here for everyone. Keyboard sounds include acoustic pianos, clean and effected Rhodes and Wurlitzers, layered electro-acoustic, Celeste, Clavinet and more. The 47 organ programs are heavy on Hammond B3 variants, but also Farfisa, Vox Continental, reed, pipe and synth organs. Guitars cover 6- and 12-string acoustic, clean electric, pedal steel, distorted guitar, Spanish and more. Oddly, there are no acoustic basses, but 24 electric basses from picked Rickenbacker to slapped Fender. The strings bank contains solo, fifths, octaves and sections of viola, violin, cello and contrabass, as well as a synth string pad or two. A similar brass bank holds solo and layered trumpet, trombone, tuba, French horn, brass sections and a few synth brass sounds. Banks of reed instruments (sax, clarinet, oboe and bassoon), pipes and flutes, ensembles, synth sounds, ethnic instruments and percussion, sound effects and combinations round out the collection.

For 4 GB of material, the sample palette is somewhat limited. The acoustic and electric pianos, for example, carried a decidedly dark and effected theme, with hardly a clean, conventional pop patch to be found. The acoustic guitar programs didn''t have articulations and performance triggers. Digging deeper to the raw keymaps themselves, I noticed some excessive microphone and preamp noise captured that would be dubious in quiet passages. To be sure, this “rough” quality in numerous other multisamples could be beneficial in many indie, urban, club and dub styles. Velocity curves on the attack of all instrument presets seemed rather coarse, and not nearly enough velocity layers were used for heavily dynamic instruments such as pianos, guitars and strings. Hip-hop, R&B and dance producers may be disappointed by the lack of contemporary-sounding instruments and drum kits catering to those tastes. Additionally, the drum kits are rather boring and generally lacking dynamic flair. Fortunately, the very strong pure-synthesis section of Nexsyn can somewhat make up for those shortcomings.

Performance on a single-core Pentium IV 3.2 GHz test machine with 2 GB of RAM reached upward of 35 percent of on a single polyphonic sound. But typical mileage was around 10 to 15 percent per patch—still a fairly heavy, if not restrictive, hit per instance in a busy session. I also detected a peculiar performance issue in that the stand-alone version would hang notes intermittently, while a plug-in instance was rock solid; no amount of tinkering with the global cache and system settings improved that.

YOUR NEXT SYN?

Whether or not Nexsyn is the right instrument for you depends greatly on what you already have and where your artistic focus lies. Because of its strong virtual-analog and streaming-sample attributes, Nexsyn comes out of the box looking like a challenger to both the boutique soft-synth market and the sampler-workstation market. Actually, it is neither. As a modular design, it''s possible that Nexsyn''s rack may expand in the future to something more akin to Reason if more effect, sequencer, synthesis and drum modules are added. For the time being, I can''t see its current sample set nudging aside the most superior-sounding Kontakt and GigaStudio libraries. Nor do I see Nexsyn as a formidable contender against the most distinctive VA-hybrids such as Native Instruments Massive, LinPlug Octopus or Rob Papen Blue. Nexsyn is also monotimbral, unlike multichannel workstations such as Steinberg HyperSonic 2.

Instead, I see Nexsyn as a perfect go-to soft-ROMpler for gigging musicians, producers and sound designers who need quick access to a large variety of both meat and potatoes electro-acoustic and synthetic material that they can blend and mutate into new sounds in one instrument. Nexsyn dutifully provides what most hybrid softies lack in realistic-sounding full-length samples. That, as well as a true stereo path with freely assignable filters and modulation from beginning to end, make an ideal environment for vivid panoramic imagery.

While I have some concerns with the sample material and programming, by and large, Nexsyn''s factory presets give even the best outboard PCM gear a good run for their money in the variety and quality department, at a fraction of the cost. Things can only get better as the XWM library grows. I hope KeyToSound unleashes a sample-import and keymapping utility, so users and third-party developers can create custom sample sets.

For someone with a stash of VA synths and sampled instruments already, Nexsyn may not do much for you. As a gigging artist looking for a low-profile, nuts-and-bolts instrument to run on your laptop, it''s a good choice. And if I were new to the game and needed one virtual instrument to go to bat with in my DAW, Nexsyn would definitely get the call.

KEYTOSOUND

NEXSYN > $339
Pros: Hybrid sample/VA synthesizer. More than 4 GB of Big Fish Audio multisamples. 1,000 presets. Strong modulation section with true stereo path. Advanced disk streaming as well as RAM-cached playback. NetNotes online preset browser. Intel Mac ready. Cons: Sample set needs work. Unstable playback engine in stand-alone mode. Contact: www.keytosound.com

SYSTEM PREFERENCES
Mac: OS 10.3.9 or higher; VSTi, RTAS or Audio Units for plug-in use PC: Windows2000/ME/XP; VSTi or RTAS for plug-in use