Native Instruments Absynth

One of the coolest synths now does sampling!
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One of the coolest synths now does sampling!

By John Krogh
Before it was a commercially released product, Absynth was an “underground” shareware synth that quickly developed a following of devoted fans. Mostly synth geeks and sound designers, these loyalists (myself included) found Absynth’s left-of-center approach to sound creation a refreshing break from conventional subtractive-style synthesis. It wasn’t long before the keen developers over at Native Instruments caught on, and eventually Absynth was brought into the NI fold. For almost two years since, the synth has remained essentially the same — NI made it work on a bunch more platforms, improved stability, and added a few features to make it more useful. That’s about it.

Now with V2, NI has improved upon a truly remarkable thing, taking it to another plane where few software instruments can compete.

The big news with version 2 is that samples can be used as oscillator waveforms, which on the outside might not seem worthy of more than a yawn. Okay, so it can play samples and do modeled synthesis. So what, right? But the way in which samples can be played and processed is downright inspiring. Manipulating samples with Absynth can result in all manner of effects, soundscapes, and broken beats that would be nearly impossible to create with any other studio tool, hard or soft, with the exception of NI’s own Reaktor.

So how does Absynth fit into the day-to-day studio gig?

Say you want to transform static background vocals into a shimmering pad that seems to have the vowel and consonant characteristics of the lead vocal, but never quite sounds like words. Or maybe you want to imbue a drum loop with a tweezy lo-fi quality a la The Crystal Method. If that’s too extreme, and time is running out on a deadline, maybe all you need is an obligatory percolating synth pad to sit in the back of the mix. Absynth can supply all this and much, much more.

The synth engine is a hybrid design incorporating elements from subtractive, FM, and granular synthesis — don’t worry if all this sounds scary, it’s really not. If you have any experience with analog synth programming, chances are you’ll be able to get up and running with Absynth.

Let’s break it down: A patch consists of up to three oscillators, each with their own multimode filter and ring modulator. The output from all three can be fed into a waveshaper,

which provides a variety of distortion-like effects ranging from subtle overdrive to hardcore speaker-shredding filth. After this is another filter, which is helpful for taming any sharp edges created by the waveshaper. Last in the signal chain is an effect module, which offers a choice of multitap delay, comb filter, and a physical modeling algorithm called “pipe.” In the factory presets, pipe is commonly used for reverb and panning effects. Each segment in the chain can be bypassed, so if you’re looking for straight-up raw oscillators, it’s no problem.

Three LFOs are available, each of which can be applied to any and all oscillators as well as a number of other parameters. (See Figure 1). LFO waveform choices are many — you can even draw your own. What’s more, the waveforms’ phase can be adjusted. There are five hardwired mod destinations: pitch, amp, FM index/balance, filter cutoff, and effect time. If you want to affect other parameters, you’ll need to turn to the envelope section, which is nothing like what you’d expect to find in an analog synth.

Envelopes can have up to 68 stages. Let that sink in. Most synthesizers have 4-stage envelopes (ADSR), or some variation on this theme with perhaps an extra few stages. With so many stages, it’s possible to produce arpeggios, rhythm patterns, wavesequence-like sounds, and so on, despite the fact the Absynth doesn’t have a step sequencer or any of the other programming facilities commonly associated with these popular “synthisms.”

Envelopes are created similarly to the way rubber-band automation is drawn in most DAWs. You can add breakpoints (nodes) along the envelope as well as shape the line contour between two points — in other words, changes between automation points don’t have to be linear. There are five envelope modes to choose from — release, sustain, loop, retrigger, and MIDI driven. Loop and retrigger are ideally suited for modulating parameters rhythmically. Along these lines, breakpoints can be snapped to a grid, and envelopes can be set to sync to tempo. It’s not inconceivable that you’d spend most of your time programming in the Envelope window. Deep doesn’t even begin to describe it.

(Here’s a tip for beginners: To remove/delete an envelope, select it, then Choose Delete Selected Envelope from the Transform menu. This vital bit of information isn’t in the manual.)

New in V2
Sampling. Now that Absynth can use audio as raw oscillator fodder, nothing is safe. A guitar solo, vocals, drum loops, or whatever else is fair game, but I should point out that Absynth’s sampling features aren’t intended for workhorse applications. It can’t load Akai or E-mu multisamples (or any other multisamples, for that matter), nor can you create velocity-switched keymaps or do any of the things you’d typically do with a traditional sampler. This isn’t a gripe, merely a disclaimer. If you think of Absynth as a sound design tool, you’ll be fine.

Two playback modes are possible with a sample-based oscillator. With Sample mode, an audio file can be assigned a keynote and played from the keyboard in predictable ways: Play a key in the upper register, the sound plays backs faster. Play in the low register, audio is slower. Or you can assign the sample to play at a specific frequency (no change in playback speed across the keyboard).

With Granular mode, a sound is divided into many small “grains,” each of which plays a tiny fraction of the sound. Essentially, this means time and pitch can be separated. The time of the sample is a constant, while the pitch of the sample is determined by the note you play on the keyboard. You’re given control over several parameters, which make it possible to “scrub” through a sound. Try controlling the rate of playback for a vocal phrase — it’s a cross between stutter edits and real-time stretching.

Filters. More filter types have been added, including three lowpass (2-, 4-, 8-pole) and three allpass (2-, 4-, 8-pole), which are intended for resonant and phasing effects.

Envelopes. The already sophisticated envelope section has been enhanced. With the new Control Driven mode, you can use a single MIDI controller to move through an envelope. Instead of changing a parameter over a set period of time, which is determined by envelope duration, a continuous controller can be used to move from one breakpoint to the next as fast or as slow as you operate the controller. One application for this is to create a “lookup table,” where you can morph between 68 different sounds with, say, mod wheel. Fun stuff.

Another new mode, Link, lets you chain envelopes together, so changes made to one will affect all the others.
A new envelope type, Sample Jump (see Figure 2), has been added specifically for use with sample oscillators. With a Sample Jump envelope, regions within a sample can be retriggered, rearranged, and synced to tempo, and the trigger (playback) position can be different for each breakpoint. It’s a clever way to revive otherwise well worn loops.

There are even more new features, such as the ability to control the position of breakpoints using a MIDI controller — useful for making a patch slowly fade in or immediately sound, based on mod wheel, for example. Suffice to say, Absynth’s envelopes could keep you busy programming for months.

Patches. The factory soundset has been beefed up to over 800 patches. Some of these first appeared in add-on patch collections, others are all-new. In addition, patches have been organized into sensible categories such as Drums, Evolving Atmospheres, Ethnic/Ambient/FX, and so on. In some cases the same patch may appear in several categories, but I didn’t find much duplication across the 13 banks of presets.

You’ll find literally hundreds of one-note epics ideally suited for underscore, as well as meat-and-potatoes presets for bass, pads, and emulations of electric pianos, flutes, clav, and more. I wasn’t as impressed with these basic patches as I was with the ambient and rhythmic offerings, but to be fair, using Absynth for a simple bass line is like driving a Porsche to pick up groceries.

In Use
I ran Absynth as a plug-in and as a stand-alone app on Mac OS X and WinXP with varying results. On both platforms, plug-in operation seemed to crash more than stand-alone, but that’s not to say it crashed a lot — we’re talking about two or three times a day during continued use and abuse. Most of the problems I experienced seemed to be related to the new sampling features. Under OS X I had continued pops and clicks, even with the 2.0.4 update, but under WinXP audio output was generally free of ugly anomalies.

As I was programming, it was tempting to use the envelopes to control every aspect of a sound, but that wasn’t always practical. For this reason, I learned to exploit the LFOs for the “bread and butter” rhythmic programming tasks like sample-and-hold filter mod, and so on.

When I auditioned the included factory sounds I discovered there weren’t many presets for the various sections (envelopes, oscillators, effects, etc.). There were only eight effects presets, for example, and only three envelope presets, none of which approached the kind of rhythmic or arpeggiator-like shapes common to many of the presets. As complex as Absynth can be, I’m surprised more “building blocks” aren’t included to help make patch creation easier. (As we went to press we learned NI is planning to make a number of presets freely available from their website.)

On the plus side, hours of fine-tuning the perfect envelope shape to produce an undulating pad don’t have to be repeated — envelopes, like effects and oscillator settings, can be saved and loaded into other patches.

With all the power and flexibility afforded by the envelope section came the possibility for losing track of time. More than once, I started down the path of programming arpeggios, looping filter modulations, and so on, only to stop hours later without a finished patch and realize I could have been done with what I was trying to accomplish if I had used another tool such as my MIDI sequencer. That’s par for the course with a synth this deep, I suspect.

I was a bit frustrated with the Sample Jump envelopes for several reasons: There’s no search for zero-crossing for breakpoints, no way to extract tempo data from an audio file, and the grid lines in the envelope editor aren’t labeled in bars and beats, which would make it more intuitive for programming envelopes that “work” perfectly when synced to tempo. I’m hoping these shortcomings make it into a soon-to-be-released update. These are arguably power-user wish list items, and as it is, there’s very little you can’t do now with the envelope editor, so any future features would be icing on the cake.

Version 2 brings more sonic sculpting possibilities to Absynth’s already formidable palette of tools. There seem to be a few rough edges regarding stability, specifically under OS X. But don’t let this put you off V2. I’m hopeful this will get fixed with an incremental update, possibly by the time you read this.

The prospect of bringing samples onboard significantly outweigh any short-term bugginess, and if you’re already an Absynth disciple, it should be a no-brainer: This is a must-have upgrade.