Welcome to the new beat generation
With its granular synthesis and MicroEdit capabilities, iZotope BreakTweaker provides a powerful set of rhythm-generation tools that is remarkably intuitive to use. PROBABLY THE healthiest aspect of state-of-the-art music software is the way the lines blur between the tools we use to make music. The latest instruments borrow technologies from samplers, drum machines, sequencers, and audio processors. I recently checked out iZotope BreakTweaker, which is all of the above and more.
BreakTweaker originates from iZotope’s collaborations with Brian Transeau (aka BT). It’s available as a plug-in only, in AU, VST, RTAS, and AAX versions. The installation and authorization procedures are simple and, thankfully, you can choose a disk for storing sample content. I ran BreakTweaker with Digital Performer 8.0.5 as a VST, as an AU plug-in with Ableton Live 9.1 and PreSonus Studio One 2.6, and as an RTAS plug-in in Avid Pro Tools 10.
Under the Ice The user interface is sensibly laid out, and if you have any experience at all with software groove engines, BreakTweaker should seem pretty intuitive. As with any drum-machine-style application, BreakTweaker furnishes a sequencer and an array of sounds. The basic operational concept is that a range of MIDI notes trigger patterns mapped chromatically to the keyboard, with individual sounds arrayed in the keys below the patterns—but that’s the tip of the iceberg. But BreakTweaker is truly distinguished from your run-of-the-mill groove and drum machines by the depths to which you can arrange and alter rhythms and sounds. It is at heart, a granular synthesizer folded into a drum-machine user interface, and that has as much to do with its sound as its rhythmic genius has.
Just below the header where you choose a preset, an animated piano roll details the events as they go by. Below that, there are six tracks, vertically arranged, each of which holds a horizontal field for creating events, called Steps. Steps are relatively pliable affairs, which you can create with the click of a mouse, and move or stretch just as easily. Stretching a Step changes the duration of the event, and you can edge-edit Steps for shorter durations and drag them up or down to change dynamics. All patterns are created in step time; the resolution of real-time granular synthesis is higher than that of MIDI data. If you need to play in your drum tracks, the entire kit appears an octave below the loop triggers.
Clicking on the sine-wave graphic next to a track reveals its sample-editing and synthesis parameters for each of its three generators. Each generator can be a sample or a twooscillator wavetable synth engine. Tweak of the Week Each slot holds a Generator, which, superficially, is the equivalent of a kit piece. Unlike with typical drum-machine maps, there are no hard-andfast rules to a track’s function or sound; click in the track’s Name field, and call it what you like. Next to the track’s name is the icon of a sine wave; clicking it grants access to more detailed editing of Generator source material. You start with two Generators and a choice of samples or digital wavetable synths for any of the Generator’s three slots. Sample Generators have a decent set of tools for modifying playback, including sample start, looping, coarse- and fine-tuning, and more. When adjusting the pitch of the sample, you can view the values as notes or as frequencies. From there, you can deploy a generous complement of modulation tools: four AHDSR envelopes and four very flexible LFOs per generator. Of course, you can sync LFO cycles to tempo.
BreakTweaker’s wavetable oscillators offer the same modulation capabilities and top things off with highly configurable wavetables. As with samples, you can determine the point in the waveform’s cycle to start playback, and wavetables can derive from analog-type periodic shapes or complex sounds created from formants, additive synthesis, and other sources.
Micro-Management The Microedit section is where BreakTweaker’s formidable granular synthesis capabilities come into play. Each step that you place in a track, in essence, can be a discrete moment for the granular process, as opposed to invoking an engine that processes all tracks equally. This lets you endow each step with its own timbre and rhythm.
Click on a step and the Microedit window appears in a bottom panel, where you can drag across the field to create buzzy, granular timbral changes, or discrete rhythmic figures. If you need more specific controls, type in specific values or rotate a virtual encoder. Edit a step into arbitrary divisions, or granulate for time or pitch. Because each step is discrete, you can (for instance) micro-edit a series of notes into a bass line or a motif. Using the Slope parameter, you can even subdivide each step into its own melodic figure. Editing amenities abound; you can audition and tweak your changes in context or solo a single step while you work. Rhythmic micro-edits can create dramatic fills and exceedingly funky polyrhythms. If that’s not enough, head back to the sequencer, where each track can play back at its own relative speed.
More Is More BreakTweaker has a ton of features that I don’t have room to cover in depth here, but I’ll list a couple. One very musical feature is continuity between loops: With the retrigger button off, playing legato on another pattern key at any point of its playback will play the next pattern at the same relative juncture of playback, the net result being the ability to seed an uncountable number of pattern variations.
The factory library has plenty of contemporary-sounding samples, and iZotope has already bolstered its collection with three add-on sets: Vintage Machines, Cinematic Textures, and Kicks and Snares. If that doesn’t satisfy you, adding your own AIFF or WAV files is extremely easy.
BreakTweaker can easily take its place beside Stutter Edit and Iris as another wildly successful entry into iZotope’s roster of creative instruments. Check out the 10-day demo and have someone slide your meals under the door.
Marty Cutler worked as a sound designer on a couple of the world’s first commercially available software synths and wrote one of the first books on MIDI guitar. He is also a well-known five-string banjo player. Go figure.
Strengths Incredibly powerful realtime editing and granular-synthesis engine. Intuitive user interface.
Limitations Sequencer is step entry only. No standalone mode.
BreakTweaker $249 (Download)
BreakTweaker Expanded $249