It's a grand time to own a fast computer. Every month, it seems, I fall in love with a new software synthesizer, and this month it's Native Instruments Absynth 2 ($299). The first version (a 2002 EM Editors' Choice winner) was packed with great features and produced hair-raising sounds. Version 2 is no mere face-lift; its programmers have outdone themselves. Absynth is not multitimbral, but it is cross-platform and runs either standalone or as a VSTi or DXi plug-in. It supports ASIO, CoreAudio, DirectSound, MME, and Sound Manager.
Calling Absynth a 3-oscillator synth is like calling a Porsche a 4-wheel vehicle — true but not very informative. Each oscillator can operate in dual mode for detuning or FM purposes, and each has its own filter and waveshaper to further sculpt or mangle the tone. The three signal paths are then mixed and fed into another waveshaper and filter, which can be monophonic or polyphonic.
Although Absynth does conventional leads and pads quite nicely, you can use its 68-stage synchronizable looping envelopes to create complex rhythms. You can control almost anything with as many envelopes as you need. Three LFOs provide additional tone shaping, and you can apply keyboard scaling to any parameter with pinpoint control over each key. You can draw single-cycle waves and hear the results while sustaining a note. Real-time MIDI control is well implemented, too.
New and Improved
Two types of sample playback, normal and granular, have been added to version 2. The idea isn't to turn Absynth into a full-featured sampler but to send the timbral palette through the roof. For instance, you can combine sampled attack transients with analog-type sounds. You can turn a snare drum into a sustained, breathy wash in granular mode by changing the sample playback speed, start point, grain size and density, and the amount of randomness in the grain frequency, start time, and amplitude. In normal sample-playback mode, Absynth can manage a maximum of three samples at once, which barely qualifies as multisampling. You can edit loop points numerically but not graphically.
Innovations in the envelope department include Control-Driven and Sample Jump envelopes. The former turns an envelope into a mapper for any MIDI Control Change message. A single MIDI slider can thus make arbitrarily complex changes in a sound without sacrificing normal envelope control, because you can create and assign two envelopes to the same parameter. With Sample Jump envelopes, you can load a sample containing a number of separate drum hits, and then sequence them in any order. Which note you play will affect the pitch but not the rhythm. Even with some limitations, that feature goes well beyond Acid-style tempo stretching.
Except for Sample Jump envelopes (which couple sample start points with time values but have no up-and-down curves), each segment in an envelope can have an embedded LFO waveform. That unusual feature makes it easy to turn a three-segment looping envelope into a modulated LFO wave. In addition, MIDI can independently control the time and amplitude of each envelope point.
New filter modes include comb, 8-pole lowpass, and several allpass options. Modulating an allpass filter with an LFO adds a nice phase-shifting animation.
Absynth is the first soft synth I'm aware of that has a strong, effective implementation for user-programmable microtunings. You can individually tune all 128 MIDI keys. You can repeat a tuning in every octave, decide how many keys will be in each octave, and even define the octave's tuning size. Tunings can be defined in terms of ratios, MIDI key numbers, or absolute frequencies. Naturally, you can save your tunings, and a good set of factory tunings is provided.
Absynth is a class act all the way and is well worth its price tag. I encountered a little graphic weirdness in the envelope Edit window, and the program crashed once when I was editing sample loop points. Other than that, though, it worked very well. Between the awesome envelopes, granular synthesis options, powerful filters and waveshaping, ability to resequence drum loops, comprehensive MIDI control, and excellent microtuning capabilities, this synth is a sound programmer's delight.
If you find the sheer depth of the feature set a bit intimidating, don't despair. The factory sound library is excellent; it includes preset banks of atmospheres, loops, basses, percussion, and so on. Every patch I tried sounded great, and the utility for combining your favorites into new banks is very easy to use. No question about it — Absynth will get a thorough workout in my next music production.