Were you the type of child who pried open your family's electronic gadgets, taught yourself Java script by the age of 8 or jammed knives into electric sockets just to see what it would do? Or are you the kind of synth buff whose daydreams linger in lands of multiple independent oscillators, the future of wavetable synthesis or ways to wire CV to your cat? If you answered yes to any of the above, lend me a few nanoseconds to tell you about Native Instruments' newly revamped Reaktor 4 and its simplified cousin, Reaktor Session. Simply put, Reaktor is a limitless and customizable sonic power plant made by one of the world's greatest virtual-instrument makers. Its modular design enables you to build, patch and combine nearly any synthesizer, sampler, drum machine, groovebox, sequencer and effect that you can dream up. Once built, you can charge up Reaktor in either stand-alone mode or as a VST, DXi, RTAS or Audio Units plug-in in the host of your choice.
In many ways, Reaktor issues not only creative freedom but also a creative challenge: “You think you can do it better? Show me.” And for those less inclined to tear apart their families' stereos, Reaktor also has a softer side, Reaktor Session. Although Reaktor 4 avails complete internal editing of all Instruments and Ensembles, Reaktor Session allows only patch and preset modification to existing Instruments. So which will it be for you? How much synth sculpting are you looking for? Did you really get an A in trigonometry, or would you rather let the experts make the instruments? It's time to find out.
REAKTOR? BUT I HARDLY KNOW HER!
In testing, I loaded Reaktor 4 onto both my Mac G4 PowerBook and my Athlon/800MHz PC. Installation was quick for both, including the second installation of the 4.0.3 upgrade that I downloaded from NI's Website. Upon launching the app, I was prompted to enter my serial number by Reaktor 4's new mandatory challenge-and-response copy protection. Reaktor (or Reaktor Session) will then generate a unique System ID that corresponds to both your serial number and your computer. You then have 30 days to authorize by submitting this number through e-mail, fax or Web so that Native Instruments can email you an Authorization Key. Any hard drive reformat or purchase of a new computer will require you to contact NI again to authorize another installation. Reaktor supports all major audio-interface drivers: ASIO 2.0, DirectSound, MME, SoundManager and Core Audio. Although I was a little disappointed that Reaktor doesn't ReWire, NI's newly implemented OSC (Open Sound Control) does enable Reaktor (and Reaktor Session) to link with other Reaktor (Session) applications through LAN, the Internet or within the same computer.
For my review, I tested Reaktor 4 as a plug-in in Ableton Live 2.1 (Mac/PC), Emagic Logic 6.1 (Mac) and Cakewalk Sonar 2.2 (PC). But before I get into how Reaktor fares as a plug-in, let me first say that stand-alone mode is by far Reaktor's most stable and productive mode. Accordingly, several musicians around the world perform with Reaktor as their stand-alone instrument-in-a-box. However, when running Reaktor as a plug-in, I often saw mixed results. I encountered intermittent crashes in Logic — usually while loading different Ensembles or naming Snapshots — and patch-recall issues in both Logic and Sonar. I did find that once I saved the preset to my Reaktor 4 Audio Units folder (in my Logic folder), Reaktor patches could be successfully recalled in Logic. So I got in the habit of saving the Audio Unit preset, saving the Reaktor Instrument and then saving the Logic song. That's a lot of saving.
With Sonar, I experienced crashes mainly related to the processor load on my somewhat wimpy PC. For many users, the best way to use Reaktor in a host like Logic or Sonar will be to play and then bounce the tracks. When running Reaktor strictly as an effect in Ableton Live, I experienced no problems with recalling the patches or Instrument settings, but the processor strain was at times intense. Thankfully, a Reaktor CPU-load spike halts Reaktor's output to avert crashing your computer. The work-arounds here are to use fewer Instruments inside the Ensemble (like turning off a reverb if one is running), lower the voice count (in terms of polyphony) or mute certain samples in one of the grooveboxes. In other words, there is a processor price to be paid for Reaktor's stunning sound. You can also load Reaktor's grooveboxes and sequencing synthesizers as plug-ins, which automatically sync to their hosts' tempos.
Although you can program Reaktor to be many things — a synthesizer, a sampler, a rack of effects, a sequencer, a drum machine and even a primitive video game — you can actually make good use of it right out of the box. Both Reaktor (and Reaktor Session) ship with no less than 13 synths (four with built-in sequencers), four separate software samplers, two live-performance-oriented synth/studio/drum machine combos and nine specialized effects. These included instruments are called Ensembles and contain more than 20, and often more than 100, factory-developed presets/patches, which Reaktor refers to as Snapshots. What's more, Native Instruments hosts a newly reorganized online user library stuffed with more than 1,300 additional Ensembles and other Reaktor goodies. You can sort the Web-based library according to the name of the Ensemble's creator, rating, date of upload and intended use of the patch.
As I downloaded a sampling of 50 or so different synths, samplers, drum machines and effects, I found that many of the designers “borrow” from one another by recombining unusual devices for experimental-type instruments. The results are occasionally fantastic and often very good. To see what I'm talking about, try downloading The Dansant (created by Bubu from Bubuland), in which you click on a tiny movie clip of two cha-cha dancers to randomize a pulsing IDM-style sequence. Although this sounds like a preposterous idea, I confess that I had a blast exploring the guts of this Ensemble. More “normal” Ensembles, such as New School and New School R3 (by lazy fish), comprise four drum synthesizers and a simple sequencer for rhythmic fun. Other standouts include rachMiel's Water Organ (an additive-synthesis-generated organ) and Metallo (featuring some spooky “sonic chrome” synthesizer sounds), and almost every Martin Brinkmann or James Walker-Hall Ensemble that I tried was excellent. Of course, with daily additions, there are plenty more where these came from.
Of the original nine included synths that come with both Reaktor 4 and Reaktor Session, my favorite changed each week that I demo'd the program. Take the expressive SteamPipe, with its wind-infused physical-modeling synthesis, or the tight-sounding remake of the early-'80s Junatik, and you have plenty to work with right out of the gate. More expansive synth layouts, such as the quadruple-oscillator Carbon synthesizer and the screen-hogging Kaleidon provide millions of possible patch options. I also fell in love with a live techno toy called Go-Box, the rhythmic sequencing synths Vierring and Wave Weaver, and the minimal techno beast DSQ-32 (sporting more than 30 of Rob Acid's presets and edited drum sets). All told, the included factory library offers more sounds, patches, effects and possibilities than I could describe in several full-length books. And in six weeks with the program, I could only skim the surface of the many treasures to be found. Each of the four included sampler/transformer units and multi-effects are impressive in their own way.
SHE BLINDED ME WITH SCIENCE
If you are new to Reaktor, you are lucky in that the program has never looked or sounded so good and operated with such general ease — earlier versions of Reaktor were famous for their ability to stump new users. Reaktor rookies will also benefit from a user library stocked to the gills with cool Reaktor Ensembles, Instruments and Macros, as well as a Reaktor user forum full of passionate, knowledgeable and usually polite synth and sampler gurus. But before you think, “Finally, I can build the synth of my dreams,” you need to briefly explore what Reaktor heads call “the Reaktor concept.” When opening Reaktor for the first time, you will be faced with a blank Ensemble. From here, you choose whether to load a premade Ensemble or attempt to build or modify your own Ensemble. An Ensemble in Reaktorland can be likened to a virtual studio or a multi-instrument that can contain one or several instruments. Reaktor calls any synth, sampler, drum machine or effect an Instrument when it is inserted into a Reaktor Ensemble. For instance, you might load a sampler (Instrument) and route it through a couple of Reaktor's stellar new effects, such as the SpaceMaster reverb or the exceptional Two Knees Compressor. That Ensemble would then contain three Instruments.
The basic building blocks of any Reaktor Instrument (and therefore Ensemble) can be either Modules or groups of Modules assembled in nifty packets called Macros. Modules are usually simple, tiny and singular in function, such as a pulse oscillator, an ADSR envelope or a simple level meter. Macros, on the other hand, are a good deal more developed and provide real Instrument-building tools like FM source, multiple oscillator combinations and MIDI input with pitch- and mod-wheel tracking. Most basic Instrument construction involves connecting these prebuilt Macros (with virtual wires) to portions of prebuilt Instruments or effects. Generally, a typical Instrument or effect is made up of several Macros, which in turn contain multitudes of Modules. More adventurous (aka smart) Ensemble builders may build their Instruments from scratch at the Module level — but they better have a lot of time on their hands. Reaktor 4 users can also modify how existing Instruments (and effects) sound and look down to their very last knob, fader, LFO, EQ or sample map, as well as even add randomization to any parameter. Hint: Many of the dedicated Reaktor developers exchange information within the Yahoo group called Reaktor-List, as well as the Native Instruments-monitored forum.
For those who have been following the Reaktor family, Reaktor 4 is such a serious a upgrade that your old Reaktor 3 Ensembles will need to be opened and resaved in 4 to work correctly. The bonus: No more USB-key copy protection will be required for 4 saved files. Your old Reaktor synths may sound a touch warmer in 4, but the basic sound of your 3 Instruments will remain the same. Standout items on the 4 feature list include some friendly user-interface options such as targa (.tga) or bitmap (.bmp) graphics-file importing, a streamlined transport bar, rack-style Instrument stacking and dual views for each Instrument. The last two features allow you to save some precious screen real estate while adjusting controls in a large Ensemble. You can see the full Instrument or a simplified version, or minimize the Instrument to fold up into a rack. Other standout features in 4 include NI's Pro-53 antialiasing oscillators for improved clarity of sound and Kontakt-style sample mapping. Unfortunately, there is no sample-preview function in Reaktor's Add Sample browser. Speaking of samplers, I must commend NI for Reaktor's spooky new granular delay module (called Graincloud) that comes in two flavors: plug-in effect and sample-playback instrument. Instrument developers will also find a handy group of “math” Modules in 4 that can help round numbers and multiply calculations in simpler and more CPU-efficient ways.
Nevertheless, my hands-down favorite feature in Reaktor 4 has to be the Snapshot-handling interface, with real-time morphing between presets, that also sports a Randomizer button for slot-machine-style patch creation. You can set Reaktor to morph over a given amount of time or simply drag the crossfader-style control to find new presets between the originals. While morphing, Reaktor will gradually move any control it needs to get to the new patch. Often, the sounds created during the transition are nothing short of amazing. Native Instruments has also created a Snapshot Module so that you can install Snapshot-morphing functionality onto any Ensemble's panel controls.
Although it may seem obvious to note that each software application sounds different, nowhere is this more true than in the world of programmable software-synthesized instruments. Reaktor fits into a class of brainy applications with the likes of Cycling '74 Max/MSP, Applied Acoustics Tassman (now in version 3) and even the decadently priced Symbolic Sound Kyma. Line these applications up side by side, and you would invariably generate four differentiated sound sets. Each app also offers its own look, feel and accompanying learning curve, though their fundamental concepts may be similar. Still, each sonic oscillator, filter, effect and modulation that you create will tinge the sound and create a specific final result. In testing Reaktor, I found the sounds to be more sharp than soft, crisp than fuzzy, clean than dirty and more likely to punch than crumble. But I should add that if you are so willing, and at least as clever, you can truly make almost anything you can imagine with Reaktor. Me? Well, um, I'll be heading over to the user library to see if someone else might have thought of it first.
REAKTOR 4 > $499; $249 (REAKTOR SESSION)
Pros: Top-of-the-line sound quality and flexibility. Improved documentation. Excellent array of Instruments. Well-maintained user library with hundreds of downloadable synths, samplers and effects.
Cons: Processor-intensive at premium sample rates. Susceptible to crash in plug-in mode. Steep learning curve for creating Ensembles.
MAC: G3/500; 256 MB RAM; OS 9.1 or higher
PC: Pentium III/500; 256 MB RAM; Windows 98/2000/ME/XP