Trying new software is a little like traveling to new places. You take a certain period of time to try things both new and familiar and learn along the way. Usually you come to recognize commonalities — the familiar customs and behaviors that make for a fairly straightforward experience. Using Native Instruments Reaktor 5.1, however, is like traveling to an advanced civilization halfway across the galaxy; it's an amazing and befuddling trip that's difficult to summarize. Reaktor isn't simply a virtual studio, an elaborate audio-processing system or a synthesis-design program that allows you to build your own instruments of various types; it's actually all of those things, and it can be used on multiple levels.
The key with Reaktor is that it's a completely modular environment, allowing you incredible flexibility at the most fundamental levels of sound design. Where most software synths are fixed, Reaktor is completely open. If you want to change the structure of an instrument, you go inside it and alter its makeup. Within such an interactive architecture, you can also create elaborate signal-routing schemes and experiment with signal flow among various instruments and instrument components. Reaktor 5.1 is the result of nearly a decade of ongoing development. The new version is not only an enhancement in flexibility, appearance and efficiency, but it also offers detailed control over the individual sound-generating and processing components within the application. The new Core Technology architecture enables user customization of what were previously fixed modules. If you are already a member of the Reaktor cult, that is a welcome evolution. If you're new to the program, prepare to be overwhelmed at first.
The first step for newbies is becoming familiar with the nomenclature. Your project or session is known as an Ensemble. Within each Ensemble are two main workspaces, known as Ensemble-Structure and Ensemble-Panel. You can think of them as distinctly left-brain and right-brain activities. The former is where you do the intensive engineering work of building and customizing instruments and routing signals via a patching scheme. The Panel area is the graphical interface, where you adjust parameters to dial in your sound. Within the Structure lie various elements that make up an Ensemble. Instruments, which reside at the highest structural level, are playable devices such as synthesizers, samplers or mixers. Within each instrument lie primary and core macros, as well as the building blocks of those macros, which are called Modules. Core macros are part of the Core Technology engine, which is a redesigned environment for Reaktor that enhances flexibility and efficiency and also gives the program a new look. You can choose to save an entire Ensemble (.ens extension) with all elements embedded, or save individual instruments (.ism), Core Cell files (.rcc), core macros (.rcm), primary macros (.mdl) or audio files (WAV and AIFF).
If all of this sounds rather complex, it is at first. The program can be daunting, particularly if you want to develop your own custom ensembles and instruments at the macro level. At the same time, if you're not inclined toward synthesis design or computer coding, it's actually a surprisingly easy program for developing creative ideas. Even if you used Reaktor only to load instruments and make connections, the program is well worth it. There is a vast library of bundled instruments that sound phenomenal and are easy to navigate. Out of the box, there are a total of 52 library instruments in version 5.1, including 19 synthesizers, six groove boxes, eight sample transformers, six sequencers and 13 effects.
Aside from the sheer quantity of options, there's also a uniqueness to the instrument designs. I've never heard nor seen anything quite like Gaugear in the soft-synth world. Coded entirely in Reaktor by designer Lazyfish for version 5.1, it has an abstract-expressionist-inspired interface in which you pull shapes and colors to randomize oscillators and modulation settings. Its sound is dramatic and otherworldly, with deep time- and pitch-based manipulation potential. There are at least a dozen other instruments that feature design aesthetics unlike anything out there in the soft-synth world. Native Instruments also encourages the Reaktor community to upload instruments and ensembles to its Website, which currently hosts another 2,000 or so user-library instruments for download.
Installation is straightforward and leads you to a registration process. The registration tool works on multiple systems without the need for a dongle. I tested Reaktor on two Apple systems: a Power Mac dual 1.8GHz G5 (OS 10.3.9, 1 GB of RAM) and a Mac PowerBook 1.67GHz G4 laptop (OS 10.4.2, 512 MB of RAM). Reaktor works in stand-alone mode, which is the best method for building sounds. Because version 5.1 features several built-in sequencers, you could get by on just stand-alone mode, but it also works as a plug-in for Audio Units, DXi, RTAS and VST 2.0 hosts — great for remixing and live performance. It performed flawlessly in Ableton Live 5 and Apple Logic 7.1.
GETTING TO WORK
While the bundled instruments are impressive, the real magic of Reaktor is its modular interface found in the Structure window. With Reaktor Core, you have the ability to redesign the entire structure. Because these devices are not hardwired so to speak, you can shape the sounds by swapping components or building new ones and auditioning the result. That is not as difficult as it may seem. At its most basic, subtractive synthesis involves one or more of the following three elements: a signal (oscillator), a filter and an amplitude envelope. With that understanding, anyone can experiment with Reaktor Core and build at least basic original sounds and also use that knowledge to spice up existing instruments. There is a walkthrough provided in the manual that helps you create your own first synth, and there are tutorial examples as well. It's also worth noting that the Reaktor box comes with three user manuals, including a Core Tutorial book that gives you step-by-step instructions on using Core Technology.
The nice thing about the Structure window is that you can gain initial familiarity of how to build new instruments through signal chaining existing library instruments. Load instruments into the workspace by right-clicking on an empty area within the Ensemble-Structure window, insert a mixer with a couple of effects processors, link it all together, and you have an Ensemble. The same approach applies to the macro level. Within each instrument lies its internal structure. Here things get much more interesting, but also far more tricky to navigate. Contextual menus at this level load various instrument components: modules, Core Cells, macros and other instruments. The Core Cell library is new to version 5. Earlier Reaktor versions used Primary Modules, which were set and unchangeable. Primary modules are still available, but the addition of Core Cells invites you to change parameters at almost ridiculously deep levels. One of the intriguing aspects of this kind of detailed work is the ability to manage system resources. A common drawback in working with soft synths is the processor load they incur. Because most are static in design, you have little control over the CPU drain. Reaktor Core, on the other hand, enables you to dig deep to streamline a Core Cell to provide you only what you need and eliminate what you don't. That in turn increases the efficiency of the synth and preserves CPU cycles.
For example, Reaktor works with all instrument voices turned on all the time. If you want to reduce the number of voices, open up the instrument and reduce the voice count. You can also shift things from the Primary level to the Core level to increase efficiency, eliminate unused modules, remove effects sections from instruments and either place them at the end of the chain or route them through a mixer, and so on. Long-term Reaktor users will find it necessary to gain that level of control because most library instruments in Reaktor 5 are deep, and they are a drain for slower computers. Oftentimes, I could load only three or four library synths and effects on the dual 1.8GHz G5 before it reached overload. The sound generators Skrewell and Space Drone in particular are wicked cool but drew 30 and 40 percent CPU power, respectively, on the G5. Thankfully, Native Instruments implements a “measure CPU usage” option that offers a processor readout for each individual module within an instrument. That makes it easy to identify problem areas and then — with an understanding of Core Technology — make changes or eliminate unneeded parts. Without a strong knowledge of DSP programming, this is no simple task, so the time -invested in learning how everything works will go a long way toward understanding the tools.
Of course the big question in any synthesis program is how does it sound? Most of the library instruments are intense and rich with spatial effects. They all sound outstanding and very clean (unless they're not meant to be) in the way that digital instruments are. Individual oscillators and amplitude envelopes are pristine and modulate cleanly as well. There were times during the instrument-building process when things became a bit noisy, and it was difficult to track down the problem. Stripping sounds to their essential pitches still maintained the noise. After saving and reopening a troublesome Ensemble, however, everything would be fine. It should be said, though, that any noise introduced into Ensembles was undoubtedly pilot error and not any fault of the program. This is, after all, programming we're talking about, and bugs in this case are invariably the result of the designer and not the system. While on the subject of bugs, there are two things to note. First, Reaktor 5.1 is rock solid. It never once had a crash on either Mac system used to test it, and everything worked predictably without a hitch. Second, Reaktor includes a debug section for isolating problems in your custom Ensembles, which is very cool.
While Reaktor's one big omission is the lack of a sample editor, it does offer the powerful Sample Map Editor. Here you can launch files to a third-party editor, manage all samples within an Ensemble, create loop points and map multiple samples to an instrument's pitch range. That last point is critically important for realistic sampling and is implemented quite nicely. The Sample Map Editor is, however, a bit of a beast and sometimes gets in the way of intuitive work. For example, it would be nice to simply drag and drop samples into instrument windows. Instead, Reaktor instruments require you to double-click in a sample-load area that opens the Sample Map Editor. As for the bundled sample transformers, Reaktor boasts some of the most powerful and unusual sampling instruments you'll ever come across. In fact, they were so advanced that I found myself hoping for a basic sample player for simple manipulation without all the bells and whistles. Of course, there are various sample modules at the structural level, so you can build one of your own if you want.
When loading it into a host application, Reaktor reflects the host's bpm value, and bpm changes in the host are instantly and smoothly reflected in Reaktor. Sequencer applications with freeze capabilities are more likely to benefit from Reaktor because, as mentioned, it can drain CPU cycles considerably. It is a particularly nice complement to Live, which has an intuitive way of managing instruments such as this. It's good to see Live's processor load readout matches Reaktor's precisely, meaning no additional drain is incurred by channeling prebuilt Ensembles through the host. Functionality is the same whether in stand-alone mode or as a plug-in. As a single-window plug-in, the work environment is tighter, but I actually preferred this more efficient use of space. With so many sound options, Reaktor 5.1 is an easy first-choice plug-in for any session.
Aside from the Core Technology implementation, there are some other new aspects worth mentioning. Panel sets store instruments and their positions within an Ensemble, enabling storage of as many as eight categories of workspaces. Panel skins allow customizing the appearance of faders, switches, meters and other modules. There are also a host of new modules and devices for accomplishing a variety of tasks. The incremental 5.1 update is approved for use with Digidesign Pro Tools 7, fixes a few modules, improves Reaktor Core implementation and adds a dozen new library instruments.
“Infinite possibilities” is a phrase thrown around awfully haphazardly in the world of software marketing, but the words ring true when they apply to Reaktor 5.1. Infinity, however, can be a scary thing. Clearly, those who already possess a solid understanding of synthesis design, programming and the intricacies of signal flow will benefit most from the sheer depth that Reaktor offers. But the program also provides the uninitiated an opportunity to learn how sound is made and to take a stab at designing unique sounds. It takes some imagination and patience; you'll have to spend considerable time with the program. Yet even if you never enter the macro level, the staggering variety of sound options and simple method of routing them together makes this an incredible value for the money. And for those who would like to build instruments and effects, Reaktor offers a vast universe to explore.
REAKTOR 5.1 > $449
Pros: Staggeringly powerful synthesis design and signal-routing environment. Nearly infinite customization. Vast user community of instrument designers. Unique, easy-to-use, great-sounding instruments. Relatively low price.
Cons: Complex, with a high learning curve at the macro level. Sample management could be streamlined. CPU intensive.
Mac: G4/1GHz; 512 MB RAM; Mac OS 10.2.6 or later; VST-, RTAS- or Audio Units — compatible host required for plug-in use
PC: Pentium III/1GHz or Athlon XP/1.33GHz; 512 MB RAM; Windows XP; DXi, VST- or RTAS-compatible host required for plug-in use