Native Instruments has released version 5 of Reaktor, a major upgrade to an already powerful sound-synthesis toolkit. The new version sports enhancements in many areas, from new Ensembles, flexible interface elements, and streamlined displays to the biggest update of all: an entirely new set of DSP processes called Core modules.
EM has reviewed Reaktor several times in the past, most recently in the December 2003 issue, so in this review I'll focus primarily on its new features. For those readers who haven't yet entered the Reaktor universe, here is a quick overview.
FIG. 1: Reaktor 5 has a wide range of new display elements. Almost every parameter control—knobs, sliders, and pan pots, for example—can have its own skin.
From the Top
Reaktor is a sound-synthesis and sound-processing toolkit that offers dozens of modules for designing software instruments and effects. It has a variety of sound-generating elements such as oscillators, sample players, and noise sources, as well as math and audio-routing functions, graphical user-interface elements, and signal-processing routines. You build structures by wiring modules together, and the type and number of modules that you can have in a design is almost unlimited (though for real-time playback, your CPU is the main determining factor).
But Reaktor isn't just a tweaker's paradise; you can avoid all custom construction and use the numerous Ensembles and the 2,000 user-contributed files that are on the company's Web site. Those resources cover a vast range of approaches and techniques, and it would be tough to find a synthesis method or sound-processing function that wasn't available from the collection of Ensembles you have access to.
Reaktor 5 runs under Windows and Mac as a standalone application and as an Audio Units (Mac only), VST, RTAS, and DXi (Windows only) plug-in. As with any software instrument, the more RAM and CPU power you have, the better the performance will be. Native Instruments recommends a minimum of a Pentium III/1 GHz or Athlon XP 1.33 GHz processor with 512 MB of RAM running Windows XP, or a G4/1 GHz with 512 MB of RAM running Mac OS 10.2.6. I tested Reaktor on a Windows XP (running Service Pack 1) machine with dual Pentium 4/3.06 GHz processors and 2 GB of RAM with an E-mu 1812m interface, and I had no problems.
Crank It Up
When you first load Reaktor 5, you won't notice any major differences, other than a new color scheme, fewer tools in the main toolbar, and some minor tweaks to the Instrument panel. Registration (challenge/response) is unchanged, and you can still configure many aspects of the program.
Once you load one of the new Ensembles, however, you'll see some of the program's more dramatic changes. A range of new interface elements give Reaktor Ensembles a more modern look. For example, SpaceDrone, a new sound generator, uses custom skins that you can apply to almost any panel element, such as faders and knobs (see Fig. 1). As you'd expect, SpaceDrone and other new additions to the Library are not compatible with older versions. Moreover, some Ensembles created in Reaktor 3 won't open in Reaktor 5 unless you have your Reaktor 3 dongle installed.
When you right-click on a Structure window to access the module library, you see a reorganization of the menu offerings and an entirely new set of modules called Core Cell. That category expands into a number of other categories, including Audio Shaper, Control, EQ, and Oscillator, each of which has additional entries of its own. The already crowded modules menu gets even busier with the addition of those new modules. Although you can use the Browser to quickly access Ensembles, Instruments, and Macros, it would be great if the modules appeared there as well.
Instrument designers will appreciate a number of new design capabilities and tweaks to existing functions. Among those is the Bookmark feature, which lets you place a marker on any one Structure window and jump to it from any other Structure window in your Ensemble. That is a good start, but even better would be a feature that allowed you to bookmark multiple windows, view a list of them all, and jump to the one you want. (Because you can't name Structure windows, however, some new type of identification scheme would have to be devised for multiple bookmarks to work.) Moving among the main work areas is easier than in the past — new icons in the Structure window give you direct access to the Browser and the Structure's Parent and Properties windows.
FIG. 2: Core modules are one of the most important new additions to the Reaktor arsenal. You can edit those modules at a very low level, for example, disabling components of their structure that you don''t need
Removing wires in a Structure is easier; just click on a wire at its destination and drag it to any blank area of the workspace, and the wire will disappear. When editing Core structures, you'll find a new feature called Compact Board, which helps you keep your designs organized (see Fig. 2).
The Panelsets feature expands on the capabilities of Screensets by allowing you to save the position, view, and visibility settings for all Instruments in an Ensemble. You could, for example, have a slimmed-down layout for use in a live-performance setting, and another layout to use while composing in the studio.
If you work with samples, you'll appreciate the ability to preview sounds off your drive from the Sample Map Editor and the Browser, though not from a File Open window. (In Windows, you can use the right mouse button to play the file using your default sound application.) If you enable the Browser's Auto feature, sounds play automatically when you first select them.
Perhaps the most important enhancement in Reaktor 5 is Native Instruments' new Core technology. Core supplies signal-processing capabilities that were previously unavailable and that allow users to create modules at a lower level than before. Core modules operate at the level on which actual samples are written into a buffer for playback or processing; you could therefore create, say, your own custom oscillators or filters (assuming your DSP chops were up to the task). Native Instruments provides an entire printed manual devoted to working with Core elements.
In addition to the new Core modules included with Reaktor 5, a number of existing Ensembles have been updated with Core components. Core modules are fully portable and easy to add to your toolkit. Without much effort, you can upgrade your favorite Ensembles by substituting Core modules for existing ones. A simple example would be to substitute a Core Multiwave LFO for the simple LFO used in many earlier Ensembles, which would give you a greater choice of LFO shapes. I also expect to see a large number of user-created Core modules online soon.
Ensembles created with Core components don't necessarily run faster or more efficiently. In fact, I did a simple comparison of the original SteamPipe with the Core-enhanced version, and the original used about 5 percent less CPU power. But that's not the whole story — you can make edits to Core modules to increase their speed, which is something that was not possible previously. For example, the new Multiwave Oscillator module outputs four waves simultaneously. With just a few clicks, you can limit its output to three, two, or even one signal.
Out of the Box
Native Instruments has always been generous with the number of example files it includes, and that hasn't changed with version 5. Almost 100 Ensembles ship with the software, each of which has dozens of Snapshots (typically 30 to 40, but often as many as 90). The collection is a fascinating assortment of unique sound-design tools, algorithmic-compositional processes, live-performance instruments, unusual visual elements, and great-sounding patches for almost any style or musical taste. Native Instruments provides a printed Instrument Guide containing usage tips and an explanation of many of the included Ensembles.
SteamPipe 2, for example, is an update of the original SteamPipe that appeared in Reaktor 4. It's one of the most unusual physical-modeling Ensembles in the entire collection, and I've always loved its sound. I dug into the Ensemble's Structure and found that a Noise source creates the steam effect that is fed into the pipe model. I replaced the Noise source with a sampler so that any file on my system could become the exciter in the network (see Web Clip 1). There are more than 80 Snapshots, ranging from acoustic-instrument emulations (Flute, Bell, and Harp, for example) to ambient, evolving timbres (SteamGhost and Bowed Bell are two of my favorites), and each creates a unique effect on samples or on the default Noise source.
Oki Computer 2 is another Ensemble that has been updated with Core modules. It uses wavetable synthesis as the basic sound engine and provides a collection of 50 waves (16 can be loaded at once) for the oscillator to scan through. You can alter waves individually using a number of different parameters, and several of the presets morph through all the waves that are loaded. There are two assignable envelopes, an LFO, a filter section, and a clever scheme for loading and selecting waves. I altered the patch so that the LFO scanned through the wave tables, lowered the LFO speed, and set the second envelope to control pitch. You can hear the results on the EM Web site (see Web Clip 2).
If you work with loops, Reaktor will be your little bit of heaven. A number of the new Ensembles are geared directly toward looped-based music production.
FIG. 3: Newscool is a patch modeled after John Conway''s Game of Life, in which cells can “live,” “die,” or multiply,” depending on the conditions that you set up for the patch.
The default preset in Newscool, for example, has a sound and rhythmic quality vaguely reminiscent of Paul Lansky's Idle Chatter series. The Ensemble uses a cellular-automata procedure to determine what events the sequencer will generate (you can draw your own patterns on a graphic display or use the supplied presets), and a second display mirrors the activity coming from the sound engine (see Fig. 3). For example, there's no way to save the output of the graphics to an uncompressed AVI or Quick Time movie file, so for the most part, you are left with some very tasty eye candy.
Speaking of graphics, the sound generator Skrewell has an amazing display that shows a real-time Lissajous pattern. (In the analog world, you can produce Lissajous patterns by using a sound to vibrate a mirror, then bouncing a laser or some other light source off the mirror. If you use two or more interacting sound sources, a vast range of animated patterns can be produced.) The sound source that drives the display is a bank of eight oscillators, and you can either control them with great detail or let the Ensemble run in random mode. There are also a number of adjustable parameters to control the display itself, including its size and the types of graphics it uses (lines, crosses, rectangles, and particles, among others).
Though the examples that ship with the software would keep you busy for many days, it is impossible to overlook the many outstanding files that are available from the Native Instruments online User Library. EM contributor rachMiel's cloudMaker, for example, is a versatile and well-documented Ensemble that, according to its creator, was inspired by Curtis Roads's writings on granular synthesis. At the core of the Ensemble is a Grain Cloud sample player and an effects component that combines two filters and a delay. The Ensemble automatically generates a continuously changing sound by constantly moving through different portions of your sample(s) and changing the values of the numerous parameters. Using the effect on many of my samples made them sound unusual and compelling (see Web Clips 3 and 4).
Native Instruments deserves kudos for aggressively upgrading and improving its software. There are many other tweaks and usage enhancements in version 5, and although I can't mention them all because of space constraints, Reaktor users will appreciate the subtle modifications and fixes in this version. There's no other software-based modular synthesis toolkit that's as powerful as Reaktor; Applied-Acoustics Tassman physical-modeling software comes to mind, but Reaktor is clearly the more general purpose of the two (though there's no reason why they both wouldn't fit nicely on the same desktop, especially in a professional musician's toolkit).
Reaktor, a hugely popular music-production platform, is useful for any type of composition or sound design, and is well-suited for live performance, installations, and other settings. With the new Core technology, it is an even more powerful application for designing custom signal processing and performance tools. If you haven't yet looked into Reaktor, try out the free demo version.
Associate Editor Dennis Miller has been known to overReakt to excellent software.
OVERALL RATING (1 THROUGH 5): 4
PROS: Huge range of sound-design and sound-processing modules. Improved display and user-interface elements. Excellent collection of included Ensemble examples. Core modules bring new capabilities for low-level programming.
CONS: Some features not well documented. Bookmark feature could be more robust.