U&I SOFTWAREMetaSynth 4 (Mac)

It was a long time coming so long that they've skipped a version number. But MetaSynth 4 for OS X is well worth the wait. Some features, such as effects
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It was a long time coming — so long that they've skipped a version number. But MetaSynth 4 for OS X is well worth the wait. Some features, such as effects processing and instrument management, have been greatly enhanced. Performance and user-interface improvements grace the Image Synth and Image Filter sections. The Spectrum Synth adds a new twist to looping, slicing, and analysis-resynthesis. Finally, the Sequencer and Montage Room, respectively, provide integrated (but limited) note-based and multi-track audio sequencing.

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FIG. 1: The Effects Room''s Ring Modulator provides envelopes for the modulating waveform (sine, shown in red), the modulation amount (green), and frequency variation (blue) from the base modulation frequency set by the Semitones slider at the top.

Reviewing a one-of-a-kind product always presents a quandary; you can compare the product only with its former self. In addition, there's no way to evaluate its price; if you want what it does, it costs what it costs. Given MetaSynth 4's broad range of functionality, its price is quite reasonable and, compared with its predecessor, has skipped ahead by at least two generations.

Crank It Up

The best way to describe MetaSynth is as a graphics-oriented sound generator and effects processor that includes a sophisticated complement of spectral analysis and resynthesis tools. MetaSynth 4 comes in two flavors: MetaSynth 4 and MetaSynth 4 Pro. The Pro version adds 24-bit processing and the ability to record audio directly in the Montage Room, the program's multitrack audio sequencer.

At the core of MetaSynth is an additive-synthesis engine capable of synthesizing hundreds of voices simultaneously. Depending on how you use it, you can push almost any computer over the top, but paying attention to your audio settings along with reducing the sampling rate for real-time previewing brings most tasks within reach of a reasonably modern Mac. I used versions of MetaSynth on a dual G5/2.0 GHz Power Mac and on a G4/800 MHz PowerBook, and got good performances on both machines.

Rooms with a View

MetaSynth is actually seven applications whose operation and output are seamlessly integrated. The single-window interface is split, with the Sample Editor always available at the top and one of six specialized editors, called XEditors or Rooms, occupying a larger section at the bottom. I'll start with a brief overview of each XEditor, then follow with the details.

All the XEditors integrate with the Sample Editor by either analyzing, altering, or replacing its contents, which is why the Sample Editor is always present. The processing, called rendering, isn't carried out in real time, but most processing can be previewed in real time before being rendered. Real-time previewing is a big leap for MetaSynth, allowing you to hear changes as you make them. In a nice twist, a process called Preview to Disk even allows you to record real-time changes. Depending on your computer, you may have to settle for a lower sampling rate, but that's often good enough.

Room by Room

The Effects Room is very powerful and straightforward. It offers 25 DSP effects, each with from three to five parameters. Many of the parameters can be automated with a built-in graphic envelope generator. Effects include standard fare EQ, compression, and delay-based processes, as well as unusual granular, shuffling, wave-shaping, and resonator effects. In addition to Preview to Disk, the Effects Room offers batch processing.

The two image-based Rooms, the Image Synth and the Image Filter, will be the most familiar to experienced MetaSynth users. Though their appearance hasn't changed much, many conveniences have been added, such as layering and the ability to import note patterns directly from the Sequencer Room with a single keystroke.

Both Rooms are organized around the interpretation of images as pitch (vertical dimension) versus time (horizontal dimension) maps. In the Image Synth, additive synthesis is used to render the image as an audio file in the Sample Editor. In the Image Filter, the image controls boosting and cutting of corresponding frequencies in the audio file in the Sample Editor.

Both image-based Rooms allow you to freely import or draw images as well as to analyze the audio in the Sample Editor and convert it to an image. Both also provide numerous graphics tools for image manipulation. In contrast to the tools found in most graphics software, MetaSynth's tools have been modified and named to enhance their musical usefulness.

Steppin' Out

The Spectrum Synth Room and Sequencer Room offer two varieties of step sequencing. In the Spectrum Synth, each step is an individual frequency spectrum, which is used for additive synthesis. Spectra can be drawn in, loaded from presets, or analyzed from the audio in the Sample Editor. Among other things, the Spectrum Synth is great for turning almost any audio material into rhythmic loops.

The Sequencer Room is organized much like a MIDI sequencer's piano-roll editor, but unfortunately, there is no MIDI input or MIDI file support. Sequences can be played by any of MetaSynth's five instrument types (of which, more later) or transferred directly to the Image Synth for further manipulation. Numerous note-based tools and processes are included to facilitate pattern generation.

The Montage Room is a 16-track audio sequencer for arranging audio files generated in the other Rooms. Montages are self-contained projects, into which you put presets and rendered files from the other Rooms, and then arrange them to make complete compositions or new audio clips combining multiple renderings.

Just for Effect

The Effects Room is a significant enhancement of the Effects Palette from previous versions of MetaSynth. It combines the original Effects Palette effects, a number of processes previously found on the Transform and Morph menus, and several new offerings.

The most conspicuous feature of the Effects Room is the Envelope Editor, which takes up most of the screen. As many as four automation envelopes are available for each effect; however, the effect itself determines which and how many parameters can be automated. In a number of cases, separate envelopes are provided for the right and left channels of a stereo file. Fig. 1 shows a setup for the Ring Modulator effect, the third of three effects applied to a piano loop in Web Clip 1.

MetaSynth's graphic envelope-editing tools, like the Image Synth tools, are customized for musical results. Fourteen variable-amount curve shapers allow you to create a wide variety of envelopes without resorting to more typical drawing tools, although pencil, line, and selector tools are also available. Clicking-and-dragging on a curve shaper blends the current envelope with the chosen curve. Clicking-and-dragging while pressing a modifier key allows you to invert, fade in, multiply, and modulate the existing shape with the chosen curve instead of blending. Furthermore, six of the curve shapers are periodic, allowing the shape to be repeated as many as 32 times, and curve shaping can be applied to a selection as well as the full envelope.

MetaSynth's selection of DSP effects certainly puts it in the major leagues for effects processing, although several of the more creative effects from the previous version, including cross convolution and the phase vocoder, didn't make the cut. But more than anything, it's the envelope automation that sets it apart.

Getting the Picture

A common misconception about MetaSynth's Image Synth is that its main purpose is to synthesize pictures into sound. Try it with pictures of, say, your grandmother and of Mt. Everest, and you'll find that they sound about the same — ugly. The Image Synth is actually about additive synthesis (and with additive synthesis, less is more — even with MetaSynth).

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FIG. 2: Grandmother''s portrait has been sliced and diced using the following Image Synth effects: fit to scale, pulse, pitch shift, motion blur, horizontal displace, vertical displace, and rotate.

The Image Synth offers two vital functions: graphic sound painting and analysis-resynthesis of audio files. Sound painting can originate with a blank canvas, a picture file, or a note-based sequence imported from the Sequencer Room. Analysis-resynthesis can, of course, start with any sound file (although, somewhat inconveniently, only Sound Designer II and AIFF formats are supported). The analysis produces a sonogram, which is a picture that, like any other, can be manipulated using any of the Image Synth's graphic tools.

MetaSynth gives you a wide variety of tools for manipulating images, and they are especially designed to produce musical results. There are drawing tools (brushes) for modifying existing pixels and for creating notes, chords, harmonic series, and various shapes of blobs. There are graphics effects such as Blur, Emboss, and Trace; note-based effects such as Add Harmonics, Filter Octaves and Fifths, and Fit to Scale; and time-based musical effects such as Echo, Reverb, and Repeat. The effects can, in fact, be used to turn your grandmother into interesting music (see Fig. 2 and Web Clip 2).

No Tweak Left Behind

One of the most useful new Image Synth features (and one that applies to the Effects and Image Filter Rooms as well) is Preview to Disk, which provides real-time recording while you manipulate a picture or even change presets. Another great addition is the ability to separate an image into layers, in which case graphic manipulations apply only to the active layer. Taken together, those features allow you to, for example, take an image that uses a MultiSampler instrument with pitched and unpitched sounds (such as guitar and drums), place the pitched and unpitched content on separate layers, and separately manipulate the images on each layer while recording the whole process on the fly (see Web Clip 3).

The resynthesis of analyzed sound files is another area where the Image Synth shines. It's especially good for creating new multisampled instruments from old. For example, you can create your own prepared piano, mangle a percussion kit, or realign the harmonic spectrum of a guitar.

Resynthesis is also an excellent way to process loops and riffs. In addition to providing an interesting alternative to conventional pitch shifting and time stretching, it offers no end of timbral alterations and beat remappings. Web Clip 4 applies that process to a simple ride cymbal and piano groove to completely alter its character.

Less Is More

The Image Filter Room is similar in appearance to the Image Synth Room, but it offers active filtering (boost and cut) rather than additive synthesis. As with the Image Synth, any picture can be used as a filter, and its pixels are interpreted the same way — vertical position for frequency, horizontal position for time, and intensity for level, with red versus green intensity determining stereo balance. You can think of each pixel as a high-resolution stereo bandpass filter; each column acts like a stereo graphic equalizer.

The Image Filter Room offers a number of enhancements over MetaSynth's previous Filter Palette. Filtering is now stereo, images of arbitrary size can be used, and custom tunings are supported (as in the Image Synth). The Image Filter Room also supports batch processing and Preview to Disk.

You can use the Image Filter to produce a wide variety of effects including subtle phasing and panning, rhythmic pulsing, harmonic realignment, convolution, and vocoding (see Web Clip 5).

The Full Spectrum

The Spectrum Synth is a new MetaSynth feature and replaces the elementary Instant Spectrum and Synthesize Spectrum functions in version 2.5. When used as an analyzer, it cuts the selection in the Sample Editor into as many as 64 slices and calculates an instant spectrum of each slice (see Fig. 3). It arranges the slices in its Sequencer window for you to manipulate and resynthesize. It has more slice- and harmonic-oriented tools and spectrum analysis that is more precise than the Image Synth. Another thing that is different from the Image Synth is that resynthesis is always done with sine waves, rather than with one of MetaSynth's more complex instruments.

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FIG. 3: This Spectrum Synth analysis comes from a choir singing a major triad. Individual harmonic manipulations on the first 16 slices are used to arpeggiate the triad.

The wide variety of uses for the Spectrum Synth make it MetaSynth's most intriguing new feature. You can use it to harmonically manipulate the spectra of individual sounds, for example, to tune the harmonics of percussion sounds, merge the spectra of two instruments, or apply the formants of one sound to another. You can use it to create custom tunings for the Image Synth so that synthesizing any picture (think Granny) filters the harmonic spectrum from which the tuning was derived. It's also useful for quickly building MultiSampler presets for use in the Image Synth or Sequencer Rooms.

Because it works its way sequentially through the spectrum slices, the Spectrum Synth is a natural for creating rhythmic patterns from nonrhythmic material. For example, you can start by analyzing a choir singing a chord, and then create an Instant Spectrum for use as a custom tuning in the Image Synth, manipulate the individual spectrum slices to emphasize notes within the chord (thereby creating an arpeggio), and resynthesize the arpeggio at different pitches to create a MultiSampler preset for use in the Image Synth and Sequencer Rooms (see Web Clip 6).

Take Note

MetaSynth's Sequencer Room is a bare-bones version of U&I's OS 9 MIDI sequencer Xx. (An OS X version of Xx is currently in the works.) The Sequencer has no MIDI support, has only one track, and is limited to 16 measures (though a measure can have as many as 16 beats). It is intended for generating short patterns that can be imported into the Image Synth for further graphic manipulation or rendered using one of MetaSynth's instruments.

Although the Image Synth is ideal for adding texture and nuance to note-based images, it is not ideally suited for creating them. Even with its limitations, the Sequencer is much better suited to that task, and once a sequence is created, it can be imported into the Image Synth with a single keystroke.

The Sequencer Room is also the best place for creating and editing Instruments. You can start a sequence looping, and then open an instrument and edit while you hear the changes. You can even use the Sequencer's tools to edit the sequence while the Instrument Editor is open. Finally, the Sequencer is well suited for creating short loops (especially percussion loops) for use in a Montage.

Instrumental Decisions

Although pure additive synthesis uses sine waves to render individual harmonic components of a sound, MetaSynth expands the range of possibilities for graphic sound sculpting by providing five instruments with which to play sequences and render Image Synth pictures. Each instrument offers a different user-programmable synthesis or sampling algorithm, ranging from basic sample playback and granular synthesis to variations on FM synthesis. Instrument presets are automatically saved with Sequencer Room sequences and Image Synth picture presets, and the Sequencer is the preferred tool for creating and auditioning instruments.

The WaveSynth and Sampler are the most basic instruments. With the WaveSynth, you set amplitude attack and decay times; create a single-cycle waveform by blending 15 preset waveforms ranging from sine to random; and choose one of eight effects that include chorus, distortion, echo, reverb, and an assortment of filters. (The same effects are available on all the instruments.) Sampler maps a single sample across the entire note range; the sample can be loaded from disk or grabbed directly from the sample editor. Sampler offers a variety of sample-start offset options including 8- and 16-step sequencers.

Against the Grain

GrainSynth combines granular techniques with the single-cycle waveform tools of the WaveSynth. Enhancements include formant filtering, several targets for LFO modulation, and grain attack and width. MultiSampler offers the same parameters as Sampler, but allows you to map as many as 24 samples across the note range (see Web Clip 7).

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FIG. 4: The -MultiWaves instrument allows you to combine three -single-cycle -waveforms in a variety of -crossfade and FM -configurations.

MultiWaves is the most unusual of the bunch (see Fig. 4). It combines three single-cycle waveforms (created as in WaveSynth) in one of nine configurations. Four crossfade configurations assign different waveforms to the attack and sustain (or both) portions of the note. Four configurations offer different FM routings. The ninth option uses all waveforms in parallel.

Putting It All Together

As you've undoubtedly gathered by now, MetaSynth does things in its own way, and its approach to audio tracking is no exception. The Montage Room replaces U&I's previous audio tracking application, called MetaTrack, whose files it can read.

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FIG. 5: The Montage Room is a 16-track audio sequencer for mixing files rendered in -MetaSynth''s other Rooms.

The Montage Room has 16 tracks, each with its own effects processor; not surprisingly, the effects are the same as those just described for the instruments (see Fig. 5). Interestingly, although you are limited to 16 tracks, you can play several audio files simultaneously on a single track, if need be. All audio files in a Montage must have the same sampling rate, but you can mix mono and stereo files and different bit rates.

Although the Montage Room works with audio files, its elements are displayed in their source format (Image Synth pictures, Sequencer note sequences, and so on) where possible. What is actually played in the Montage Room, however, is the rendered audio file. A handy Render and Save function will render the necessary audio file, save it next to the source file, and make it available on the appropriate Montage Room menu. I had mixed results using that function, though. You can also load audio files directly into a Montage.

Getting Down

MetaSynth is an excellent and unusual sound-design tool. If you're already a MetaSynth user and have been waiting for the OS X version, you won't be disappointed. It takes MetaSynth to a new level and is easily worth the upgrade price.

For new users, the call is currently a little more difficult. For one thing, MetaSynth is available only as a 75 MB download, with the consequence that the content (much of which is carried over from version 2.5) is somewhat limited. A product of this complexity and price deserves a CD or DVD with lots of content and a printed manual. Both are planned for the future.

Having said that, the PDF manual and tutorials for each Room are well written and, together with the downloaded content, are definitely enough to get you up and running. Furthermore, there is no alternative; if you want what MetaSynth has to offer, you've got to have it.

Len Sasso is an associate editor of EM. He can be contacted through his Web site atwww.swiftkick.com.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

U&I SOFTWARE
MetaSynth 4

graphic sound-design software$499 standard version (upgrade $199)

OVERALL RATING (1 THROUGH 5): 4.5

PROS: Unique approach to sound design. New integrated note sequencer. New integrated 16-track audio sequencer. New Spectrum synth. Expanded and improved effects palette.

CONS: No MIDI support in the note sequencer. Can't mute or solo Image Synth layers. Limited new content. Supports only SDII and AIFF audio file formats.

MANUFACTURER

U&I Software
www.uisoftware.com