When it comes to designing softsynths, Sugar Bytes is among the most innovative companies around. They gamble big with their products by implementing established synthesis and processing tools in radically unfamiliar ways, much like Wolfgang Palm’s iOS apps and Wide Blue Sound’s Kontakt instruments. For some developers, instrument design qualifies as artistry.
Aparillo is a definitive example of this approach. At its core, it is a four-operator FM synth with effects. But that’s where the comparison to a conventional instrument stops because, from there, Aparillo introduces a variety of unusual elements that invite experimentation and deliver wholly original results, even if you’re a seasoned sound designer.
UNISONS AND MODULATIONS
In terms of its familiar features, there are two modulator/carrier pairs, configured in one of three algorithms, with adjustable modulator ratios for each. You’ll also find timbral modifiers (including waveshaping and brightness), dual envelopes, a pair of LFOs, and a set of effects that genuinely sound terrific. However, even these synthesis foundations are configured in a manner that requires exploration and tinkering to understand fully.
The first thing to note is that the instrument is optimized for monophonic use in unison mode. In fact, if you’re starting a new sound from scratch, it is illuminating to begin by examining the unison types, which include key modes like major, minor, augmented, diminished, and six other musically relevant options, including a user-definable key. Thus, with the unison depth at 100%, it is the equivalent of playing 16 notes in that mode, spanning two octaves.
Obviously, that’s a lot of musical density for one note, so in addition to the unison depth, there’s a parameter that assigns the effect to one of six additional voice templates: all, even, odd, every third voice, just the lower voices, or just the upper voices. This is essential knowledge for comprehending Aparillo’s LFOs.
Fortunately, the dominant element in the synthesis user interface is a graphic that displays the LFO behavior. Both of the LFOs are represented by two sets of 16 dots that traverse a vertical plane in the main interface. Each dot represents one of Aparillo’s unison voices (see Figure 1). The individual LFOs offer a slightly different set of features that complement each other, like phase relationship, quantization (as in clock-sync, offering all divisions from 1/2 to 1/64th notes) and sample-and-hold. Thus, the visualization is crucial for understanding how the LFOs interact with the unison voices.
Another groundbreaking feature, Jitter, is available for both rate and phase-related parameters. Adding Jitter to either of those parameters imparts randomness to the LFO’s effect on each voice, independently. It’s tricky to describe in print, but immediately obvious when you look at the interface. Because the synth is designed for unison mode, adding jittery chaos to the signal imparts complexity and richness. Just skimming through Aparillo’s amazing preset bank quickly demonstrates this.
While the LFOs can be assigned to nearly any relevant synthesis parameter, even that is an oversimplification, because each parameter destination includes the same secondary unison menu (as described above) that lets you configure the LFOs to affect specific voices. For example, you can apply LFO 1 to simultaneously modulate the FM amount of only the even numbered voices, the cutoff frequency of every third voice, and the waveshaping of just the upper voices. Add a touch of Jitter and that modulation is no longer moving in lockstep, but quivering slightly as it follows the LFO waveform’s path. And that’s with just LFO 1. LFO 2 offers the same array of destinations, but adds a ring-mod mode that outputs the sum and difference of the two LFOs.
The LFOs aren’t the only modulation option. Other sources include an ADSR modulation envelope, four types of curve modifiers, mod wheel, pitch bend, velocity, and the arpeggiator envelope. The only thing missing is aftertouch, which I hope will be added in a future release.
Once you’ve got a handle on the grandeur of Aparillo’s modulation amenities, it’s time to engage the arpeggiator, which also defies convention. Instead of basing the arpeggio pattern on a held chord, Aparillo maps the arpeggio to the tuning parameters of the unison section, then steps through the 16 voices in sequence. If you’re using classic unison detuning with a low percentage, the results are a series of slightly detuned notes in succession.
The entire effect depends on those unison settings, so some configurations will be atonal, while others will deliver patterns that are both unusual and musical. For example, using the major unison mode at 100% with only odd-numbered voices resulted in a dreamy, ambient progression.
Once you’ve set up your preferred tuning, four knobs modify the arpeggiation behavior. The Arpeggiation knob determines how much the arpeggiator impacts the voices: As you increase the value of this parameter, the voice arpeggiation becomes pronounced, while sustaining notes gradually lower in volume until the stepped pattern is fully apparent.
The OP Balance parameter blends the arpeggio between the two FM pairs, so you can apply it to only one timbre in your patch. The Rate knob sets the quantized note value, with the addition of decimal points for dotted and triplet variations. The final parameter, Decay, adds a simple release to each arpeggiated note and can also be used as a modulation source as mentioned above.
Last, there are two additional trigger settings besides the standard clock. Threshold triggers the entire unison stack at once every time a selected LFO crosses it, whereas Collision mode triggers the stack whenever the dual LFO cycles intersect.
The integrated effects include a resonant multimode filter, an autopanner with multiple waveforms, a delay, a wonderfully large reverb, and another Sugar Bytes innovation, the Spacializer. This last effect appears to be another delay and can be used like one with high Size settings. At low Size settings, it resembles a Dimension D, and with low size and high feedback it sounds a bit like a resonator but with more of a physically modeled character. Think of it as having a deep level of control over a reverb’s early reflections.
Aparillo’s final component is the Orbit section, which is demonstrated beautifully in every factory preset and a great way to get customizable results from the synthesis engine without having a clue about its features. Here, each synthesis element is a node in a user-designed constellation (see Figure 2). Every node can have its own modifier settings (such as cutoff frequency, operator balance, or reverb mix) and, more importantly, radius.
Interacting with these nodes is the Orbiter Object, which can be freely positioned in relationship to the nodes. As the Object approaches a node, its synthesis modifiers become more pronounced. For example, if you cluster the cutoff and reverb mix in one area and the operator balance in a different area, moving the Object around will alter the sound, based on proximity. This is certainly great for live performance, but Aparillo includes a Motion Capture mode that lets you record your mouse gestures and play them back in loops of up to 32 bars.
A NEW FM EXPERIENCE
Aparillo is so utterly original that even after two decades of synthesizer reviews, I found it nearly impossible to adequately describe its features—you have to see and hear them yourself. Even the online videos don’t capture the experience of its parameter set in action.
In terms of sound, Aparillo is one of the most complex and richly textured synths I’ve ever used. And conceptually, it will blow your mind regardless of your synthesizer experience. Remarkably, its sophistication doesn’t interfere with instant gratification. The presets are uniformly breathtaking, and switching to Orbit mode is a great way to reactivate your beginner’s mind. Aparillo is genuinely inspirational.
Unique approach to FM synthesis. Customizable unison modes interact with modulation sources. Graphic LFOs. Orbit mode.
Pronounced learning curve. No aftertouch support.
Francis Preve has been designing synthesizer presets professionally since 2000. Check out his soundware company at symplesound.com.