In its original incarnation, which featured the now-familiar H. R. Giger-esque interface and sophisticated envelope programmability, Absynth was a shoe-in for an EM Editors' Choice Award in 2002. Since then, Native Instruments has taken the formidable software synthesizer through two major revisions. (Absynth 2 was reviewed in the January 2004 issue of EM, available online at www.emusician.com). The most recent incarnation, Absynth 3, adds a number of welcome features, including two new source modes, support for multi-channel output, and the ability to process three external stereo audio signals.
Absynth 3 can be used as a standalone instrument with Core Audio on the Mac and ASIO 2.0, DirectSound, and MME on the PC. It can also be used as a plug-in, and it supports VST 2.0 and RTAS on both platforms, as well as DXi for Windows and Audio Units on the Mac. As a plug-in, Absynth syncs its envelope grid seamlessly with its host: it worked easily in all windows as an auxiliary input to Digidesign Pro Tools LE.
Sources of Certainty
Absynth 3 has three separate sound sources, called Oscil modules, which can be mixed and modulated against one another. Each Oscil module has eight modes. The wavetable synthesis modes include a single oscillator, a double (modulated) oscillator, FM, Ring Modulation, and a new Fractalization mode, which offers math functions that are applied locally to the module's waveform. You can also choose one of two sampling modes — Sample and Granular — or the new external Audio In mode.
A new feature added to the wavetable synthesis functions is the Unison tab, which gives you control over the number of voices produced (as many as eight) and the transposition of each voice. Another new feature for those modes is the ability to switch between a free or prescribed initial phase setting for the oscillator: in Free mode the phase is not reset with each Note On.
The instrument's sample playback is basic, but it lets you adjust frequency, loop points, and start times. Granular mode has controls for playback speed, density, and grain size, as well as randomization amounts for time, frequency, and amplitude. There is no keymapping control in Absynth 3, but you can use the note-scaling editor in the MIDI window to map samples in each of the three Oscil modules — one per oscillator channel — to different areas of the keyboard.
From the Oscil modules, each source can be routed through a filter module (14 filters are available) and a modulator. From there, the sources are sent through a Mono/Surround pan matrix. Absynth 3 can route audio out to one of 14 surround-sound schemes, with as many as eight individual outputs supported (see Fig. 1). Unfortunately, as an RTAS plug-in, it is limited to two outputs. (Native Instruments plans to have addressed that limitation in an update by the time you read this review.)
The sources are then mixed and routed through a waveshaper (for amplitude-dependent distortion), a global filter set, and the effects module. The effects module contains a set of delay-based effects: Pipe, Multicomb, Multitap, Echoes, and Resonators. Most of them are self-explanatory, but the Pipe is idiosyncratic. It is similar to a waveguide simulation of a waveform traveling along a string, but Native Instruments claims that it is not an attempt at real physical modeling. The Pipe's left- and right-output positions and its overall length can be modulated by MIDI controllers or LFOs (see Fig. 2).
Views from Above
Native Instruments' intent for Absynth 3 was to make the working environment controllable from a single window. To that end, there is a navigation bar at the top of the screen, with seven buttons (with F-key equivalents) that change the interface view between Main, Patch, Wave, Effect, ENV, LFO, and MIDI. The controls in each view are, for the most part, self-explanatory. For example, the Main window contains the list of presets; controls for polyphony, pan, bpm, transposition, and tuning; and a virtual keyboard. The Patch window shows the sound source modules and their routings. The Wave window allows you to graphically edit the waveform in Wave and Spectral views. Small meters that show CPU usage and input and output levels are located at the top-right side of the screen.
You must use your mouse to navigate within the windows: you cannot tab through control boxes. The Main window's presets are easily accessible, and you can move through them using the arrow keys. Unfortunately, your computer keyboard cannot be used to trigger Note Ons as it can with Native Instruments Reaktor.
The exception to the single-window rule is the Record window, which is available only in standalone mode. It is a separate floating window that allows you to record as much as five minutes of audio, depending on the amount of RAM in your computer, whether you are recording in stereo or mono, and whether you have the Undo function enabled. The 1.5 GB of RAM in my computer gave me three minutes of stereo-recording time.
Pushing the Envelope
Beside the ability to produce incredibly lush sounds, what puts Absynth 3 into a category of its own is that nearly every parameter is controllable with user-editable envelopes. Envelope mode allows you to loop and retrigger and gives you attack and release control, offering choices for scaling and duration and a simple preset for attack retriggering. The controls can be used in either free or synchronized time, and they can lock to a host program.
The ability to create complex rhythms within a single sound are almost endless, and they aren't limited to foursquare time structures. (The grid sizes are only ⅛, 1/16, and 1/32. Any complex subdivisions that you want to create have to be made in multiples of those.) Additionally, each envelope can be retriggered at a different time, allowing you to create continuously variable relationships. That sort of complex envelope interaction lets you easily build entire sonic landscapes using a single Note On.
And if that weren't enough, any envelope can be controlled by any assignable MIDI controller. In that mode, the range is mapped to the envelope's time, so that you can control level and playback speed by hand (see Fig. 3).
Absynth 3 is not without problems. The program's single-window idea becomes unwieldy in the Envelope windowpane. There are a few buttons to control overall window size, but you can't click-and-drag to resize windows. The top and left-side bars are click-and-drag capable for changing the view's track height and timeline.
One major inconvenience in envelope editing is that while you can copy and paste the entire envelope, you can't copy and paste just a limited portion of it over existing parts of the timeline without displacing the following portions of the envelope. Similarly, when generating an Attack-Release pulse set (one of the envelope choices), it automatically generates it along the entire timeline. It would be nice to be able to apply changes like that to only selected portions of the timeline.
The normal edit commands didn't work at all on my copy of the Mac version of Absynth 3. Copy appeared to copy but pasting didn't work, and using Command + Z to undo didn't work either. During my review, however, Native Instruments posted an update to Absynth 3 (version 3.0.1, available as a download at www.ni-absynth.com) that fixed those problems.
Starting from Scratch
With the envelope editing commands now available, I created a multivoiced polyrhythmic patch using looping envelopes of differing lengths to control pitch, amplitude, modulation frequency, and panning for the three oscillators and their modulators. I also added a few LFOs to vary some of those things, allowing me to change speed and depth at any breakpoint. With different loop lengths for the modulation frequencies and pitch, I was able to create a complex, rhythmic ditty that would take quite a while to fully repeat. And with so many breakpoints available, I created a whole new set of rhythms after the release/loop node of the envelope (see Web Clip 1).
I created a simple yet in-teresting melodic voice. I started by scouring the vast number of presets for similar sounds. Absynth 3 has more than 1,000 preset patches that are organized into several banks. Some banks offer examples of different types of sounds, while others group specific things together, such as evolving atmospheres, synth instruments, bass instruments, acoustic models, and rhythmic pads. I decided, however, to create my own instrument from scratch, starting with the default patch of one sine oscillator.
The basic waveforms in Absynth 3 sound good, and the factory set comes with 41 waveforms (in addition to any sets that the user might add). In the Waveform window, the waveform can be edited and saved to your own preset library. The ability to change it from single to multiple voices makes even a simple sine wave interesting, because additional voices can be transposed up and down from the base pitch. You can add randomized transposition, which in small increments can make for constant (but subtle) modulation. The overall note tuning can be changed to either a preset system (several microtonal sets are provided) or a user-created tuning system. Unfortunately, the factory presets cannot be edited as a starter set for your own tuning. I found some good sounds quickly, but I got caught up in the infinite possibilities available with envelope editing (see Web Clip 2).
Next, I checked out the included samples to be used in wavetables for the Oscil modules; there are plenty of good ones, as well as example presets that show various uses for them. I began adding in my own samples and quickly found an entirely new universe of sounds (see Web Clip 3).
While using the Audio In function on one of the Oscil modules, I added transposition and modulation to gain more control over the soundscape (see Web Clip 4). I used the Overdub function within the recording window to track my musical ideas, creating an entire piece without leaving the application itself (see Web Clip 5).
With the lengthy envelope controllers and surround-sound panning options, Absynth 3 lends itself perfectly to a variety of uses — from sound design to film scoring. (In fact, many of the preset names obliquely reference famous films.) The resulting sonic landscapes are entirely sui generis and often can stand on their own musically: entire scenes can be created using just one patch.
The instrument's sound quality is high and its overall structure is inspiring. Overall, Absynth 3 is an exceptional musical tool.
Jonathan Segel composes music using computers and instruments. Find out about some of it atwww.magneticmotorworks.com.
OVERALL RATING [1 THROUGH 5]: 4
PROS: Extensive control features. Excellent sound quality. Unlike other soft synths.
CONS: No click-and-drag window resizing. No computer keyboard note input. Cannot tab between parameter boxes.