With the release of version 3.0, Native Instruments' Reaktorhas come of age. This update features a redesigned audio engine thatoffers greater CPU efficiency; new Modules, such as a granular sampler,analog-filter emulations, data tables, and an x-y controller;and a reworked user interface. Although Native Instruments hasn'tmagically turned the fine art of building Reaktor Ensembles intochild's play, it has significantly expanded the large Ensemble librarythat comes with Reaktor (see the sidebar below, “A Trip tothe Library” for a summary of some of the Ensembles). Whether youdecide to dive in to the tangle of objects and wires that make up aReaktor Ensemble or just take advantage of Reaktor's vastlibrary of synthesizers, samplers, and effects processors, you'll finda variety of unique and challenging sound-design tools at yourfingertips.
The Reaktor package includes a standalone version as well asVST 2.0 and DXi Instrument and effects plug-ins. (The plug-in versionsnow include the same editing features as the standalone version.) Foraudio I/O and streaming, there's support for DirectSound and ASIO onthe PC, and ASIO, DirectConnect, and MAS on the Mac. Windows MME andOpen Sound Control (OSC) handle MIDI on the PC, and Open Music System(OMS) and FreeMIDI perform that job on the Mac. The Mac and PC versionsof Reaktor are now separate packages, and both employ a USB key(dongle) for copy protection (a parallel-port key is also available forthe PC). Consequently, the huge Enigma file and frequent calls for theReaktor CD-ROM, familiar from previous versions, are gone.
As with all software synthesizers, performance, sound quality, andlatency depend on CPU speed, available RAM, audio drivers, and, whenused as a plug-in, the host application. For this review, I used both aMac G3/300 MHz with an Emagic Audiowerk8 PCI card running OS 8.6 and aPentium III/700 MHz with an Emagic EMI 2/6 USB audio interface runningWindows 98SE. For VST operation, I used Emagic Logic Audio 4.7.2as host on each platform. The sound quality was excellent on bothcomputers, but performance and stability were significantly better onthe PC. You can download the latest update and a time-limited demoversion of Reaktor 3.0 from the Native Instruments Web site.
WHO'S ON FIRST
The top level of organization in Reaktor is an Ensemble.Whenever Reaktor is running, an Ensemble is present. Youinteract with an Ensemble through its Control Panel and Structurewindows. The Control Panel window is similar in function to theonscreen control panel of most software synthesizers and samplers. Youneed only be involved with the Structure window when you want to buildor modify an Ensemble.
Loosely speaking, Ensembles are made up of Instruments. Usually,Instruments are self-contained components such as synthesizers,samplers, effects processors, and step sequencers. Instruments arewired together to form the completed Ensemble. The reward for dealingwith that extra level of complexity is that Instruments can be savedfor reuse in other Ensembles. Reaktor comes with a large libraryof Instruments, letting you create custom Ensembles without getting toofar into the guts of Reaktor programming. Reaktor loadsonly one Ensemble at a time, but each Ensemble can contain Instrumentsthat respond on their own MIDI channel. That is Reaktor'sapproach to multitimbral setups. For a detailed look at Reaktorprogramming, see “Building a Reaktor” in the September 2000issue of EM.
Fig. 1 shows the Control Panel for Reaktor's NewscoolEnsemble. Newscool is a drum synthesizer combined with a 4-track stepsequencer, granular delay, and reverb. (Check out Example 1 at for anexample of Newscool in action.) As you can see, the Control Panel isdivided into subpanels, each with a bluish gray title bar indicatingits name. (The selected panel, Ensemble, is in red.) The subpanelscontain the controls for the individual Instruments that make up theNewscool Ensemble. Notice that one of the subpanels (at the bottomright) is labeled Ensemble. It contains global controls rather thancontrols belonging to a particular Instrument. In this example, theycontrol the mix levels for the dry, delay, and reverb signals.
Each Reaktor Instrument also has a Control Panel window thatyou can open by double-clicking on the empty space in the Instrument'ssubpanel. At first glance, having separate Control Panel windows mightseem redundant, but it is a great convenience. Although the controls'appearance is the same in both windows, their visibility and placementcan be different. That means you can have a minimal set of controls foran Instrument visible in the Ensemble Control Panel window, with a morecomplete set of controls accessible in the Instrument Control Panelwindow. Newscool's Sequencer Settings subpanel is an example —its controls are infrequently used, and space is saved by having themvisible only in the Instrument Control Panel window.
In Reaktor, presets of control settings (programs or patches)are called Snapshots. Snapshots can be stored and recalled fromReaktor's Toolbar, or they can be recalled with MIDI ProgramChange messages. The Ensemble and the Instruments all have their ownSnapshots, which provides you with a lot of flexibility. You canautomatically store and recall the Snapshots of any Instrument withthose of the Ensemble, or you can choose to store the InstrumentSnapshots separately — that is useful for Instruments such assequencers and effects when you want to apply the same settings todifferent synthesizer Snapshots. Another convenience is that anyindividual control can be isolated so that Snapshots do not affect itssetting. The management of Snapshot banks could be improved, however.For example, you can overwrite, insert, or append into an existingSnapshot bank, but there is no way to delete multiple Snapshots —you have to delete them one at a time.
For standalone operation, Reaktor comes equipped with arudimentary Standard MIDI File (SMF) player as well as an audio-fileplayer and a recorder. The audio-file player and recorder can streamfiles direct to and from disk or work with files in RAM. The SMF playeris one of the few disappointments in Reaktor. You can start,stop, and return to the beginning of the file, but that's it. I foundmyself constantly wanting to know where I was in the MIDI file and toloop a few bars while testing various Ensemble features.
TAKING THE WHEEL
One of the big changes in Reaktor 3.0 is the variety ofonscreen controls. The biggest advance is the addition of interactivegraphic controls. The Sequencer section of the Newscool Ensemble usestwo: the Event Table and the x-y control. The four rows of bluebars are four Event Tables, each of which displays a track of sequencedata. You can enter data by drawing with the mouse, and there is aContext menu with a number of convenient operations such as rotating,mirroring, and scaling selected data.
The gray bars above and below the sequence displays that look likesliders are actually x-y controls. There are several modes ofdisplay for the x-y control, including the standard rectanglewith a movable crosshair. The mode used here, called Shadowed Bar,provides independent control of the position of each end of the bar.The x-y control reports the mouse position, and Newscool'sdesigner has used that feature to make clicking and dragging at theright end of either bar change the bar's length, whereas clicking anddragging in the middle of the bar changes its position. The top barsets the sequence's loop (from the left end to the right end of thebar) relative to the sequence displays, and the bottom bar controls thezoom and position of the sequence displays. That added degree ofgraphic control takes Control Panel design to a new level inReaktor 3.0.
Other graphic advances include three sizes of knobs instead of two,horizontal sliders and meters, slider and meter sizes definable inpixels, and independent settings for the visibility of a control'sgraphic, its label, and its numerical value. (You still can't entervalues numerically by typing into a numerical field, however.) A newBitmap object lets you include custom graphics in a Control Panel.
MIDI remote control
All Reaktor controls can be set up to send and receive MIDIControl Change (CC) messages. That allows you to use any hardwarecontrol surface to manipulate Reaktor controls. Setting up MIDIcontrol is extremely easy using Reaktor's MIDI Learn function,which assigns the next incoming MIDI CC message to the selected controland automatically deletes any previous assignment for that MIDImessage. You can also use MIDI CC messages to automate Reaktorcontrols from your MIDI sequencer.
In a nice twist, MIDI CC messages can be routed internally, lettingone Reaktor process automate another. The Newscool Instrumentmakes use of that feature to randomize its knobs in real time,synchronized to the sequencer clock. You can also use internal MIDIrouting to create random Snapshots or to slave one group of controls toanother.
Common tasks and the Toolbar
Aside from Control Panel programming, most Reaktor tasks canbe carried out from the Toolbar. The top section, called the EnsembleToolbar, is for global functions, including loading and savingEnsembles, turning audio processing on and off, indicating CPU load andaudio I/O levels, and setting the audio sampling rate (for internalprocessing only). It's also where you manage the built-in MIDI Fileplayer and switch between MIDI Learn, panel locking, and onscreenhints. Many Ensembles come from Reaktor users and are withoutdocumentation. Onscreen hints (if supplied by the designer) provide theonly clue to how an Ensemble works. I'd like to see some of the hintsprovided with the factory Ensembles enhanced a bit, as they are thefirst exposure most users have to Reaktor.
The bottom section, called the Instrument Toolbar, is where youcarry out tasks associated with the selected Instrument. When youselect an Instrument, its Title Bar turns red, and its name isdisplayed in the menu at the left of the Instrument Toolbar.Instruments can be selected by clicking on their Control Panel or usingthat menu. Buttons here let you open the Instrument's Control Panel,Structure, and Properties windows; mute and solo the Instrument; savethe Instrument to disk (for use in other Ensembles); manage Snapshots;and set the number of voices and MIDI channel of the Instrument. If youselect the Ensemble rather than one of its Instruments, those settingsapply to it.
Managing CPU load is always a challenge with software synthesizers.With one as open-ended as Reaktor, it becomes doubly difficult— Ensembles built on someone's G4/733 MHz or Pentium III/933 MHzmay bring your system to a dead stop. Reaktor provides severalmeans, accessible from the Toolbar, for mitigating CPU load. One isreducing the internal audio sampling rate. Rates from 22.05 kHz up to132.3 kHz are supported. The common choice is 44.1 kHz, but manyEnsembles produce good-sounding results at lower rates. (Example 2 at contains thesame four-bar loop processed at 44.1, 33.075, and 22.050 kHz.) Anothertrick is to reduce the number of voices for one or more Instruments,and a third is to mute any unused Instruments. Muting an Instrumenttakes it out of the Reaktor signal path and completely reclaimsits CPU drain. For example, muting Newscool's Grain Delay and ReverbInstruments cuts the CPU load by more than half.
What can you expect in terms of real-life performance? On my PentiumIII/700 MHz, Newscool with its delay and reverb running at 44.1 kHztakes up 30 percent of the CPU load. That is much better than inprevious versions and is in part because of the major speedoptimization that Reaktor 3.0 provides.
UNDER THE HOOD
On the Structure level, Reaktor uses three kinds of objects:Modules, Macros, and Instruments. Modules are the basic buildingblocks. Macros and Instruments are organizational units whose mainpurpose is to combine logical groupings of other objects in a singlepackage, making them easier to work with. An added benefit is thatMacros and Instruments can be saved to disk for use in other Ensembles.Instruments also have their own Control Panel and provide formultitimbral operation by having their own MIDI channel assignment.
All Structural objects have inputs and outputs for control (red) andaudio (black) signals. Control signals use a much lower sampling rateand, consequently, use much less CPU — examples include panelcontrols (as the name suggests) and LFOs. Ensembles are built from theground up by drawing wires between the inputs and outputs or by wiringtogether prebuilt Instruments. (If hints are turned on, placing thecursor over a wire will show the sound or event data passing throughit, an essential feature for debugging.)
In addition to the x-y and Event Table Modules mentionedpreviously, several powerful new audio-processing Modules have beenadded in Reaktor 3.0. The Audio Table works like the Event Tablebut can be run at audio sampling rates. That lets you draw andmanipulate your own waveforms. The Scanner Module crossfades betweeneight audio inputs, and the scanning rate can be in the audio range.Audio-rate scanning goes way beyond standard crossfading, producing aunique kind of crossfade modulation useful for all kinds of unusualeffects.
Grain Cloud is a granular resynthesizer that works with multisamplesand offers independent control of pitch, pitch slide, grain size, timebetween grains, and grain envelope. (Although drag and drop has beenadded to Reaktor's multisample management, setting up keymaps isstill rather rudimentary.) Multi-Tap is an eight-tap audio delay line.Finally, there are two new filters modeled on classic synthesizers:Pro-52 after the Sequential Prophet-5 and Ladder after the famouslywarm Moog filters.
DO IT YOURSELF?
Building a complex Ensemble from scratch is not for the faint ofheart. On the other hand, it is not difficult to get sufficientlyfamiliar with Reaktor's Structure to make useful modificationsto the Ensembles that come from the factory or that are availableonline. You can easily swap one type of oscillator or filter foranother, for example, to radically change an Instrument's sound. Youcan add an effect or a sequencer Instrument to a sound-generatingEnsemble or replace one Instrument with another. You can quickly add aswitch to the Control Panel to toggle an Instrument out of the signalpath and retrieve its CPU load. In short, you can do a lot ofcustomizing without becoming a Reaktor engineer.
The Reaktor 3.0 documentation is only a slight improvement onprevious versions and is still cause for some serious head scratching.But, in conjunction with an active users group and the online librarysupported by Native Instruments, it is enough to get you over the hump.(You can join the users group and access the library at NativeInstrument's Web site.)
Reaktor is different things to different people. On the mostbasic level, you can simply use the factory Snapshots inReaktor's vast collection of preset synthesizers, samplers, andeffects processors. On the next level, you can create your ownSnapshots for the included devices and for Ensembles that you downloadfrom other users. Beyond that, you can do some basic customizingwithout spending a great deal of time mired in the Structure. On thehighest level, you can create almost any audio software device you canimagine, but you'll spend considerable time doing it.
At $499, Reaktor seems a bargain on any level. Consideringthat a top-of-the-line single-purpose software synthesizer, sampler, oreffects processor can cost half that amount, the price seems welljustified for a package of hundreds of Ensembles, with downloadableadditions coming all the time.
Len Sasso can be contacted through his Web site atwww.swiftkick.com.
Minimum System Requirements
MAC: G3/300; 128 MB RAM; OS 8.6; free USB port; Opcode OMS orMOTU
PC: Pentium II/500; 128 MB RAM; Windows 95/98/ME/2000/XP
A TRIP TO THE LIBRARY
Reaktor 3.0 comes with more than 200 ready-to-go Ensembles, and youcan download more from the well-maintained User Library on NativeInstruments' Web site. The Ensembles fall into four broad categories:synthesis, sampling, sequencing, and effects processing. (For adetailed description of 25 of the best in the collection, see theDynamo 1.0.1 review in the December 2000 issue of EM.)
The synthesis group contains a number of emulations of classicsynths, such as the Oberheim Two Voice, the Minimoog, the Roland Junoseries, and the Roland SH-101. Several variations on the FM theme offervirtually any combination of operator sources and routing complexityyou could want. Among my favorite synths were Uranus, which features afour-delay chorus and produces luscious pads; Matrix Modular, whichlets you cross-modulate a wide variety of sound sources; aphysical-modeling emulation called WeedWacker; and a mixture of threevariations on wavetable synthesis called Virtuator.
Reaktor has a broad range of sampler Modules for everything fromgranular synthesis to pitch and formant shifting to beat-loop munging.My favorite Ensemble in the granular department is GrainStates, whichuses Reaktor's new Grain Cloud Module to manipulate every aspect ofgranulation — size and spacing of grains, pitch and pitch slidefor individual grains, and the grain AD envelope. GrainStates combinesthat with a kind of metasequencer that steps through Grain Cloudsetups. Another one not to miss is Kaleidophone4 (see Fig. A),which selects grains at random from a multisample and randomizes eachgrain parameter — an effect that reminded me of a video arcaderun amok.
The sequencer offerings are incorporated in the various synthesisand sampling Ensembles. Newscool is one of the more interesting of thedrum sequencers. For beat-loop manipulation, my favorite is 6-Pack,which offers four independent beat-loop players and a pair of drum stepsequencers. For an audio example using several of Reaktor's multipadsequencers, download the MP3 file reaktorexample3.mp3 from www.emusician.com.
The selection of effects processors isn't large, but the mainoffering, GeekFX, gives a broad sampling of Reaktor's processingcapabilities. You can also scavenge most of the usual effects fromvarious other Ensembles. Because Reaktor can be used as a VST andDirectX effects plug-in, the effects category is begging forexpansion.
Reaktor 3.0 (Mac/Win)
update from version 2.x
EASE OF USE
QUALITY OF SOUNDS
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Large collection of prebuilt Ensembles. Excellent sound.Greatly improved graphics and controls.
CONS: Difficult to master on the deepest levels. Requires a fastCPU. Multisample management is awkward.