Native Instruments has established itself as one of the premier suppliers of unique and powerful synthesis, sampling, and live-performance tools. Reaktor 4, the latest version of the company's flagship program, keeps that tradition going. Reaktor's huge number of modules makes it an excellent resource for designing sounds and virtual instruments of all types, and the vast number of user-created Ensembles proves that the program is alive and well in studios throughout the world.
Reaktor 4 is a major upgrade and includes enhancements in many areas. Among these are a newly designed user interface, improved Snapshot (preset) support, graphical sample-map editing, multiple levels of undo, and an updated Ensemble library. In addition, there are a number of new and enhanced sound-generating and interface Modules, as well as new Modules that support the display of graphics and even animation. And in a move that will certainly make many users happy, the hardware dongle is no longer needed to run the program. Instead, a standard challenge-and-response authorization is used.
We've covered Reaktor on several occasions, so I'll focus here on the main new features. Because there have been so many changes, I'll give only a brief overview of the program before jumping in to the new stuff.
IN THE TOOLSHED
Reaktor is a modular virtual-instrument builder and sound-design toolkit that provides nearly unlimited flexibility in the arrangement and configuration of its many dozens of components. You can build a synth that incorporates a large number of wave types simultaneously or create a sample player that can chop a sound into individual samples and even freeze playback on a single sample. There are numerous preconfigured effects you can use in your designs, or you can build your own using Reaktor's raw materials (delay lines, all-pass filters, and the like).
Reaktor components fall into four main categories. Modules are the smallest program elements and don't do much on their own. When combined with other Modules, though — an oscillator, a filter, and an amp, for example — they become functional devices. Next come Macros, which often contain a group of Modules encapsulated in a single “device” (an effects rack, for example) that can be reused at will. Instruments are fully working designs that can be played under MIDI control or that might include sequencers, allowing them to run automatically. Finally, Ensembles are the largest program layer and can include one or more Instruments.
Reaktor's interface includes a work area for configuring your designs and, new in version 4, a Browser that can toggle between a number of displays (more in a moment). Structure windows show the block diagrams of your devices, and Panel windows are where you manipulate the actual controls (knobs, sliders, and so on) of your soft instruments (see Fig. 1).
PLUG IT IN
Like its predecessors, Reaktor 4 runs as a standalone application on both PC and Mac and as a VSTi plug-in (with automation) under every major host platform. It also works as a DXi under Windows, and it supports Audio Units and CoreAudio under OS X, OMS under OS 9.x, and RTAS under Windows XP and Mac OS X. A number of below-the-surface improvements enhance its performance as a plug-in, and you can now load as many instances of the plug-in as your processor will allow. (The previous limit was four.)
Users of Reaktor 3 can upgrade to version 4.0 at no cost, but they don't get the new Ensemble Library or any documentation. Those run an additional $79 (or $19 if you purchased 3.0 after January 17, 2003), and they must be ordered from the manufacturer's Web site. To be fair, the company had intended to give a free upgrade only to version 3.3, which was never released, so the opportunity to download 4.0 at no charge is actually quite generous.
Building virtual instruments is much easier now that a new Instrument, complete with AudioIn and AudioOut modules, is inserted by default (though I usually end up removing the AudioIn). Locking and Unlocking Panels is also a snap now that a dedicated icon for that purpose appears directly on the Panel interface. That is a huge time-saver, because Instrument controls (knobs, sliders, and the like) still appear layered on top of one another in the Panel when you first add them to your design (you must Unlock the Panel before you can move them around). It would be nice if Reaktor could automatically arrange the controls somehow or at least place them side by side rather than on top of each other.
Some of the Modules now have “adaptive” inputs. For example, in previous versions, you had to choose among separate 2-, 3-, 4- and other-input mixers, but now the single Mixer Module lets you input as many sources as you need. When you first load the Mixer you only see a single input (and a level control), but if you hold down the Control key (or the Apple key on the Mac) while you drag an output to the Mixer icon, it will expand to accept the signal. The same feature is available with the Relay, Router, and Selector Modules.
You can still insert Modules or Macros into a design by using the right-mouse-button menus, but the new Browser makes the process even easier (see Fig. 2). The Browser can work as a traditional Explorer-style display and show, for example, all the WAV files on a single drive. But you can also use it to display the Modules, Macros, and Instruments in the Library folder and drag those components directly onto the screen, and you can view the Structure of your design in the Browser in a list format and jump directly to the components of your patch by clicking on their names. If you tend to work with multilayered Ensembles, that feature will come in very handy.
ON THE MAP
Another major enhancement in Reaktor 4 is the graphical Sample Map Editor. Finally, you can assign key ranges using a piano-style keyboard and view a sample in a waveform display (see Fig. 3). Equally important are new options for setting loop-start and -end points and Velocity splits using both a graphic display and by typing exact values; automatically mapping all loaded samples to single, consecutive keys; and fine-tuning the default tuning (in cents), pan position, and gain (in decibels) for all samples in a Map independently.
Even with these enhancements, which definitely bring Reaktor in line with other modern soft samplers, I'd still like the ability to trigger a sample directly from the Editor's keyboard. (A reference to such a feature appears in the manual, but the feature is not yet implemented.) Overall, though, the changes are significant and will definitely be useful to most users.
TAKE A SHOT
Working with Snapshots (Reaktor's name for presets) in earlier versions was fairly straightforward, but beyond naming and storing new presets, options were very limited. New in Reaktor 4 is a dedicated floating Snapshot window that includes a list of all Snapshots and a variety of tools for manipulating them.
In addition to new “maintenance” options, such as inserting or appending Snapshots, there are now commands to randomize or morph between Snapshots. Options include setting a randomization factor (from 0 to 100 percent) for the parameters in a Snapshot and the ability to isolate one or more controls from the randomization process (it's very useful, for example, to remove Amplitude from the settings that get randomized). You can also create a Snapshot that uses values midway between two other Snapshots, and there's even a new Snapshot Module that you can include in your designs to, for example, automatically morph between two Snapshots.
Each Instrument can now store up to 16 banks of 128 Snapshots each — up from a single bank in version 3.0 — and you can now compare an edited configuration with the original version of the most recently loaded Snapshot. And don't forget that Reaktor allows you to load the Snapshots from one Instrument into another Instrument. This “pseudo-randomizing” feature often yields interesting results.
With all the new interface features, you could almost overlook the fact that the entire Ensemble, Instrument, and Macro library has been overhauled, and that a number of new design components have been added to the program. Two entirely new collections of Macros are the Building Blocks and Classic Modular sets. Each offers multiple categories of Macros — Filters, LFOs, Oscillators, Samplers, and Sequencers, for example — and the range of tools will have a broad appeal.
The Classic Modular set is intended to “simulate classic analog modular systems,” according to the manual, though it is a bit funny to see a granulating sample player (not to mention MIDI control and multiple notes of polyphony) included in the collection (hey, I'm not complaining!). It's more significant, however, that the Macros can really save time when used to build Instruments, because all of the inputs in this collection have been normalized to a range of -1 to +1. That means you don't have to scale the particular signal that you are sending to a Macro to fit whatever range that Macro might need.
The Macros in the collection sound great — just listening to some of the example Ensembles that use them gives you an idea of the range they cover. The three-oscillator Green Matrix, for example, is one of several Ensembles built entirely from Classic Modular elements. Its myriad parameters could keep you busy for an entire afternoon (check out the example Green matrix.mp3 at the EM Web site).
The Building Blocks group is an even larger set of design tools. These run the gamut from waveshapers (Cubic Shaper, Linear Shaper, Wave Fold, and Wave Wrap, for example) to prebuilt FM-synthesis devices (with and without filters and feedback components) to display elements (a level meter and signal and clipping indicators).
Reaktor's new Library is a fantastic collection of sound-generating and -processing devices that is practically unrivaled. The Library, which is well documented in the printed Instrument Guide, includes synthesizers, samplers, effects, and even a few tools intended for live looping and beat-munging. Though several of the instruments were available in previous incarnations, those have been souped up with the latest components, and the rest are totally new.
Among the most unusual Ensembles is GrainStates, contributed by user Martin Brinkman. This device has a Grain Cloud Sampler Module at its core and a sequencer that sequences through eight “scenes.” Each scene has an x-y controller for adjusting grain position and length in real time, and each offers a unique effect (delay, envelope, and so forth) and a transposition parameter. The instrument can produce an amazing range of granulated, sliced, and diced sounds (though I recommend lowering the Delay Feedback value to allow for more “clarity” in the output). Listen to the file grainstates.mp3 at the EM Web site for an example of this Ensemble.
The SteamPipe is another one of my favorites — Reaktor is getting very good at producing physically modeled instruments, and this is one of the best examples. SteamPipe's 44 presets range from Flute to Water Drum to Glockenspiel and highlight a wide range of metallic and membrane sounds. Bowed Bell and SteamPipe are especially noteworthy, and SteamGhost would come in handy wherever a haunting, ambient effect might be needed. Some examples are online at the EM Web site.
There are four Ensembles in the sequenced-synth category — each offers a maze of controls for tweaking. You can easily change the source input to Vierring — choices are Live, Oscillator Mix, Sampler, and Single Pulse — and drawing control data on the panels for the Modulation and Filter parameters as the instrument plays is just too easy. By changing the maximum value of Modulation 1's Length parameter to 128 (in the Properties window), I was able to create patterns with more rhythmic variety than some of the presets. Check out the EM Web site for some examples.
The Effects group also has a lot to offer. Fusion Reflections is a workshop on diffusion — its 25 presets model a large number of real (Stadium) and virtual (Liquid Room) sonic environments. I tested it by substituting a Sampler Module for the Live input and was very impressed with the level of control the instrument provides (and the animated displays are fun to watch). SpaceMaster is a powerful and versatile 2-channel reverb with 38 presets of its own, and Banaan Electrique is a “multi-effects box” that provides an amp simulator, reverb, dual delay, chorus, phaser/flanger, stereo compressor, and tremolo on a single screen.
IN THE STACKS
Reaktor 4's online users' library has been significantly enhanced and now gives you much more information about an Ensemble or Instrument before you download it. You can see a screen shot of an Ensemble's Panel, check to see how many times it has been downloaded, and read reviews and ratings written by other users. A search function lets you look for terms that users have included in their descriptions, and you can quickly access the newest 20 or 100 uploads to the library. You still must download files one at a time, and there is no sign yet of a promised batch-converter utility that will convert all of your custom Reaktor 3.0 Ensembles to Reaktor 4.0 format.
Not much has changed in the way of documentation. As before, there is a printed manual that includes a few getting started tutorials, but no online help. The first manual I received had some major gaps in the index — be sure you get an updated copy if you buy it. Even the new version has some serious omissions — many more terms should be included in the index and some of the Module descriptions are just plain confusing. Fortunately, a number of expert users offer valuable assistance in the Reaktor forum at the Native Instruments site. There's also an online FAQ with answers to many common questions. Though you can get information about various program components if you have Show Hints enabled (assuming the author of the currently loaded Ensemble has provided them), that won't get you any help when you pass the Tips icon over the main menu items that appear along the top of the screen.
I tested Reaktor 4.03 on a dual-Pentium III/1 GHz computer with a MOTU 2408mkII audio interface and on a Pentium 4/2.8 GHz laptop with an Echo Indigo I/O PC Card interface. On both systems, I ran it standalone and as a DXi plug-in under Sonar 2.2 XL. The sound in both environments was outstanding, but of course, results will vary depending on the audio system you're using. I was also a little surprised that even with the program's new Multiple Undo command, some functions can't be undone (changing the transpose function in the Sample Editor, for example).
Yet despite that and the few other shortcomings, some of which are probably inevitable for a product of this size and scope, Reaktor is a massively powerful tool set for a wide range of users. Its appeal reaches well beyond the dance and trance crowds on into the realms of performance art, computer music, sound design, and, to be honest, any form of electronic music making you can think of.
If you're a current Reaktor 3 user, the free upgrade is a no-brainer. If you're not yet hooked on Reaktor, try out the demo and see if you can resist the urge. My guess is that you will succumb to the pleasures of what is easily the most powerful and productive graphical software-synthesis and sampling toolkit around.
EMassociate editorDennis Miller's synth hardware sits idle, as his computer has taken over nearly all music-making tasks.
Minimum System Requirements
MAC: G4/733 MHz; 512 MB RAM
PC: Pentium III/700 MHz; 256 MB RAM
If you're not up for creating your own custom synths and samplers, you might want to look at Reaktor Session 1.04 ($249), a collection of more than 30 prebuilt devices. Session can play any Reaktor Instrument or Ensemble you happen to find on the Web (or elsewhere), though it doesn't let you edit the basic design of those files.
Session's Ensemble Library is identical to the one that comes with Reaktor — in fact, the same Instrument Guide manual is included with both packages. The included devices fall into several categories — Samplers and Transformers, Synths, Sequenced Synths, and Effects — and each is well documented with performance tips and a good explanation of its construction. I've described some of the devices elsewhere in this article, and you can find details about a few others at the manufacturer's Web site.
If Session seems a little steep at $249 (given that the full Reaktor is only $499), then consider that there are more than 1,300 user-contributed Ensembles and Instruments at the Native Instruments site. Without spending a great deal of money, you can increase your audio arsenal by a massive amount.
Reaktor 4.03 (Mac/Win)
modular software synthesizer
upgrade from 3.0
FEATURES4.5EASE OF USE3.5QUALITY OF SOUNDS5.0VALUE5.0RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Enormous library of included Modules for building custom instruments. Ability to employ a wide range of synthesis and sampling techniques. Extensive collection of user-contributed examples available online.
CONS: Manual needs enhancement. Additional sampling-configuration features needed.