Master Class: Europa and Grain - EMusician

Master Class: Europa and Grain

A deep dive into Propellerhead 10's powerful new synths
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Reason 10 is a synthesist’s dream, offering specialized instruments for a variety of organic and acoustic applications. Included are Klang Tuned Percussion, Pangea World Instruments, Humana Vocal Ensemble, and the Radical Piano, a hybrid of sampled and modeled acoustic pianos that is a knockout.

Reason 10 also includes two new softsynths—Europa and Grain—that are genuinely remarkable. This month, I’ll show you how to approach their more advanced features so you can begin crafting your own sounds.

A SHAPESHIFTING SYNTHESIZER

A true powerhouse, Europa is well worth the upgrade price. In fact, it is so complex that its synthesis architecture is the most important concept to understand. Begin with the techniques below, then expand from there; handson experience is the best way to learn this instrument. For all of the examples, start with an initialized preset from Reason’s Reset Device option in the right-click menu.

EUROPA ENGINES

Calling Europa’s engines “oscillators” is an understatement. Each Engine is a complete synthesis path, with a complex oscillator, a multimode spectral filter and discrete unison effects (see Figure 1). On its own, this chain would be a powerful synth, but with three individual engines, the layering possibilities are endless.

Fig. 1. Each of Europa’s three engines is a synth
 unto itself, with groundbreaking oscillators and filters in each.

Fig. 1. Each of Europa’s three engines is a synth  unto itself, with groundbreaking oscillators and filters in each.

The Wave is a sophisticated digital oscillator with specialized timbral features, FM, noise generators, and wavetables. The first seven wave options cover traditional analog functions, as well as “chiptune” (the Game wave) and formants. Here are some highlights from the category.

Electro Mechanic: This option is a Rhodes-like electric piano. To use this as a starting point when editing, turn off Envelope 1 looping (it’s on by default) and leave its default Decay shape. Then set the envelope Depth to 50%. This will give you a muted electric-piano sound. Increase Shape to about 20% and it will start sounding more familiar. From there, experiment with the env1 decay and amp envelopes.

Karplus-Strong: Adjust the Shape and Envelope parameters to get a feel for its range. This is a fine starting point for creating guitars, harps, and clavinets.

Envelope 3-4: This is a stunning synthesis tool. Each extreme of the Shape knob correlates with the contour of envelopes 3 and 4. Thus, env3 is 0% and env4 is 100%. To explore this Wave, give each envelope a distinct contour, adjust the Shape parameter, and then experiment with the env1 settings described in the previous two examples.

FM: There are five carrier/modulator configurations, with Shape functioning as “modulator amount.” Here’s a list of each mode’s strengths, using the above configurations as your starting point.

FM 1:1—for bass guitar at low settings; FM plucks at higher values
FM 1:2—for modern future-house bass; squarelike plucks in upper octaves
FM 1:8—Vintage bells, marimbas, and electric pianos
FM 2:1—Dubstep wobbles (with LFO modulation)
FM Feedback—4-operator Lately Bass and Solid Bass presets

Noise: S/H Noise and Bit Noise are useful for chiptune applications. Perlin Noise is great for filtered and pitched noise effects, and FM FB Noise is derived from extreme amounts of modulator feedback. Freeze Noise is especially nice in conjunction with the Spectral Filter modes described below.

Wavetable: Each of the 13 wavetable options has its own timbral characteristics and is best explored using an initialized preset, with the wavetable shape modulated using an envelope or LFO.

Next are two simultaneous Wave Modifiers—each with 31 modes—available to further shape the basic array of waveshapes. Some modifiers will be familiar to Serum and Massive users—such as hard-sync, invert, mirror, down-sample, and quantize—while others are unique to Europa.

Europa’s dizzying array of synthesis tools makes it one of the most powerful synths of any kind.

Europa’s dizzying array of synthesis tools makes it one of the most powerful synths of any kind.

Noise Mod: Starting with either the Basic Analog or Square-Ramp Wave set to a square or triangle hybrid, apply a touch of Noise Mod as a starting point when creating breathy woodwind patches.

Mirror, Invert, and Phase Distort: Using these modifiers with a small amount of slow, triangle-wave LFO modulation will result in a sound that is reminiscent of classic pulse-width modulation. The Self Multiply modifier also imparts this effect, but with an added octave above.

Shaping: These modifiers offer distortion and clipping effects for hard, raw timbres.

Harmonics: These are fantastic for creating harmonic arpeggio effects in conjunction with extreme tempo-synced LFO modulation. With more subtle amounts, the sound veers toward flanging and phaser effects.

FM: These are all based on the FM Wave options, so they function like a modulator on top of the base waveform. Stick with muted or sine-like waveforms for the base Wave, then apply one of the FM options. If you’re already familiar with the essentials, start with an FM Wave and treat these as additional modulators. Because there are two modifiers, you can simulate a pair of parallel modulators—each with its own envelope—for basic 4-op FM synthesis.

SPECTRAL FILTER

Each Engine’s spectral filter includes resonant lowpass, highpass, and bandpass settings, as well as modes that swap the resonance parameter with a slope parameter for brick-wall filtering. Other filter types include a parametric EQ and positive and negative combs. The following options are all worthy of special attention.

Vocal Formant: Similar to the formant filter in Thor, but with slightly different characteristics, this filter is optimal for robot and computer voices. But using it in conjunction with the Vocal Cord wave type offers a quick way to get airy choirs, especially in conjunction with unison and reverb.

Dual Peak: This consists of two strong resonant peaks with their frequency distance controlled by the Resonance knob. Good for vocal effects due to its formant-like flavor, but with a tonewheel organlike character in low resonance settings.

Resonators 1/2/3: Sweeping these filters with a bright steady-state waveform yields subtle, metallic flanging effects, but they offer much more. Instead, start with the Karplus-Strong experiment, apply these filters, and explore radical frequency and resonance settings. The resonating characteristics will interact with the string models to create realistic dulcimers or a range of guitar types.

Envelope 4: This filter mode allows you to draw the response curve by editing the shape of envelope 4. Resonance controls the depth of the curve and Frequency shifts the axis. Especially good for creating custom formant shapes, you can also dial in hybrid band and notch forms with simpler envelope contours.

HARMONICS

In tandem with the Spectral Filter, the Harmonics section affects the harmonic spectrum of the final sound. Each option works interactively with the filter curve, so experimentation is crucial to understanding their characteristics.

Random Gain: Amplify random harmonics using Amount to determine the volume of the emphasized spectrum and Position to scan through random combinations. This effect is almost inaudible unless the source waveform is rather bright; use a sawtooth wave for your initial experiments.

Harmonic 1-8 Mix: This mode sweeps through the first eight harmonics in the series. If the amount is set to anything but zero, you’ll hear the Spectral Filter in conjunction. However, at zero, with a bright sawtooth, sweeping the Position knob generates various drawbar-organ tones. Interestingly, this filter will notch out the first eight harmonics with values over 50%.

Odd-Even: With Position at 0%, Amount crossfades between odd and even harmonics. If you start with a sawtooth, you’ll get a saw-square morphing effect. Note that a 50% amount setting does nothing to your input (neither odd nor even are emphasized). Alternately, using waveforms that consist exclusively of odd harmonics, such as square or Game, will result in erratic behavior.

Stretch: This stretches the harmonic spectrum based on the Amount knob’s setting and creates metallic and bell-like flavors. Position adjusts the phase of the harmonics, so its effect is subtle. Try applying this to Karplus-Strong waves, in conjunction with the resonator spectrum modes, for mallet and chime effects.

Ensemble: This is a standout, as it applies noise modulation to the harmonics creating a vintage string-ensemble/chorus effect. In conjunction with the detuning modifiers and unison effect, it’s possible to create humongous pads with just a single engine. In this mode, Position operates similarly to ensemble “rate,” while Amount correlates to “depth.”

Ensemble Sparse: Functionally similar to the ensemble effect with chunks of the spectrum notched out. The effect is distinctive, chaotic, and metallic. Start with the Freeze Noise wave, set the harmonic Amount to maximum, and sweep Position between 20% and 50%. With a touch of unison and reverb, the result is similar to the Star Trek transporter sound.

MODULATION

Europa’s modulation tools are versatile and very unusual. Its unique envelopes function similarly to Serum’s LFOs, but with an inverse approach: Each of the four envelopes can be set to loop, allowing them to double as LFOs (see Fig. 2). And because you can add a seemingly unlimited number of breakpoints, they can also serve as step-sequencers.

Fig. 2. While the three LFOs offer classic implementations, the four envelopes can be
 looped and offer a seemingly unlimited number of breakpoints.

Fig. 2. While the three LFOs offer classic implementations, the four envelopes can be  looped and offer a seemingly unlimited number of breakpoints.

Use the Edit Y-position button to restrict the repositioning of each breakpoint to the vertical axis; that’s useful if you want to fine-tune values without moving their timing. Use Cmd-drag (Ctrl on Windows) on the envelope and Europa will continuously add breakpoints as you mouse around, resulting in freeform curves that would be difficult to create any other way.

Used in conjunction with waveform Envelope 3-4, these envelope shapes are capable of almost limitless waveshape options. Or use it on the Spectral Filter’s custom Envelope 4 mode for drawing filter curves.

Propellerhead included 20 envelope presets as starting points. Right now, there is no way to save your own envelopes, or even copy between the four slots, but the presets are well-designed and illustrate the techniques described here.

Assigning modulation sources is a direct process. The commonly modulated parameters have dedicated modulation-selection tools, while everything else is handled by a modulation matrix at the bottom of the synth. Nearly every parameter can be modulated by envelopes, LFOs, MIDI performance controls, and Reason’s four virtual CV inputs, to name just a few.

The noise source is also available for modulation. Try adding a value of 1-25 and routing it to filter cutoff or wave-related tools for a touch of drift and chaos.

DON’T FORGET THE EFFECTS

Although it might not be obvious at first, the effects at the end of the chain—parametric EQ, chorus/flange/phaser, six types of distortion, delay, compression, and reverb—can be reordered by dragging them around. And nearly every parameter can be modulated using the matrix. Try using mod wheel, velocity, and aftertouch to affect their behavior; for example, connect reverb Mix to the mod wheel, Drive amount to velocity, and flanger or phaser Depth to aftertouch (if your controller supports it).

GRAIN SAMPLE MANIPULATOR

Granular synthesis is used for time-stretching algorithms and certain types of formant and FFT processing. At its core, Reason 10’s Grain synthesizer is a single-sample player enhanced by a sophisticated range of granular and FFT-based tools for altering your sounds beyond recognition. Yet it retains a somewhat traditional synth interface that includes filtering and modulation.

Grain may be the first full-featured granular synthesizer with a truly approachable interface,
 despite its complexity.

Grain may be the first full-featured granular synthesizer with a truly approachable interface,  despite its complexity.

Granular synthesis is wholly dependent on the source material; processing results vary dramatically based on the kind of audio you select. Because of this, I’ll cover the general functions of each of Grain’s features, with tips for experimentation regardless of the source material.

THE SAMPLE SECTION

Here’s where you load your source audio files into Grain. To examine its features, right-click Reset Device to initialize the synth, then drop a .wav or .aif sample onto the main sample window (see Fig. 3). Playback defaults to FW Loop—one of the six playback modes and the one that’s most similar to traditional samplers. The file will play in its entirety, then repeat from the beginning. Other modes include forward-backward looping and one-shot.

Fig. 3. The sample section shows the waveform
 for its single sample, with playback options beneath the display.

Fig. 3. The sample section shows the waveform  for its single sample, with playback options beneath the display.

These playback modes interact directly with the Playback Algorithms, the array of three granular types and Tape mode, which functions like a classic sampler (as you play different keys, the sample is transposed by playing it back faster or slower).

Freeze and End Freeze hold a slice of the audio either at the beginning or end of the sample, respectively, with the character of the loop determined by the Playback Algorithm. Tape mode has a minimal effect on the freeze modes unless you move one of the points, at which point the sample is scratched, as with a vinyl record.

Freeze mode is handy for a number of tricks that are instantly useful, regardless of your audio data. For starters, the loop is so short (a grain, if you will) that it functions like a single slice of a wavetable that can be scanned in various ways for timbral animation. To get a feel for this, select one of the granular playback modes, then route one of Grain’s LFOs to the Position or Start Position parameter, which will sweep through these frozen grains. Another tactic is to modulate Position with the mod wheel for real-time control of the scratching effect.

End Freeze puts the grain loop at the end of the sample, which is governed by the End Position parameter. Here, the sample plays to the end point, then the freeze kicks in.

Pro Tip: You can create evolving loops for single instrument notes by selecting End Freeze for one of the granular types, then adding a slow triangle LFO to the End Position parameter with a low amount of modulation depth.

The final motion option, Envelope 1, introduces a radical approach to the playback of the sample. It correlates the play-head position with one of Grain’s customizable envelopes, with envelope Maximum being the end point and Minimum being the start point. Thus, the envelope’s shape corresponds with the sample playback, both forward and backward.

Two more controls—Speed and Jitter—interact with sample playback. In one-shot, looping, and End Freeze modes, Speed controls the rate of the sample playback from start to finish. Note that in Tape mode, changing the playback speed also changes the pitch; use this as an additional tuning parameter of sorts.

Jitter causes the play-head to jump around randomly as the sample plays, but only in conjunction with the granular playback algorithms. In Tape mode, it has no effect. Sonically, this is one of those trademark granular effects and its usefulness depends on how experimental you are, as extreme settings can sound chaotic.

PLAYBACK ALGORITHMS

Of the four sample-playback types, Tape is the most familiar and functions much like a traditional sampler. The others have interesting characteristics of their own

Spectral Grains: This mode applies one of four FFTs to the sample, selected by the FFT Size parameter (see Fig. 4). Mode 0 offers the fastest response, at the expense of low-frequency accuracy. Mode 3 is the most accurate, but it smears the signal considerably, creating a “blurred” audio effect. In my experience, Mode 1 offered the best balance of natural sound in conjunction with the spectral modification parameters.

Fig. 4. Grain offers three distinct granular synthesis
 modes, along with a basic oscillator and traditional filter.

Fig. 4. Grain offers three distinct granular synthesis  modes, along with a basic oscillator and traditional filter.

The Snap and Filter parameters further adjust FFT behavior; with Snap moving the inharmonic (dissonant) frequencies closer to the actual harmonics of a selected note. Settings of 100% squeeze all the harmonics together for an in-tune effect, but positions from 0 and 99% offer a range of atonal timbres. The Filter parameter affects the FFT harmonics differently: Instead of moving them closer to specific harmonics, it simply attenuates them, leaving only the harmonics.

Pro Tip: For timbres with a metallic character, use Snap to pull the frequencies toward the harmonics a bit, then use Filter to decrease the volume of the dissonant frequencies.

Once you’ve settled on an FFT spectrum, switch to the graphic controls for the FFT window. Curve allows you to draw an attenuation or emphasis curve for the frequencies, while Amount scales the curve’s intensity. From there, the Formant, Tune, and Kbd (keyboard tracking) parameters adjust the overall tuning of the FFT output.

Grain Oscillator: This mode generates pitched tones by alternating grains from the original sample. Grain Length adjusts the size of the alternating grains, with low values imparting a crunchier sound, and large amounts a smoother effect. Grain Spacing adjusts the distance between the two grains in the original sample; low amounts sound a tad fidgety and high amounts generate flowing textures, suitable for ambient and pad effects. Pan Spread and Pitch Jitter further refine the character, with Spread imparting a lower octave at its most extreme settings.

Pro Tip: Maximum Grain Length, combined with Grain Spacing settings between 20-50% are good for creating ringing bells and wind chimes.

The Formant, Tune, and Kbd parameters are present, but they impart a flange-like, combfilter effect to the tone.

Long Grains: This mode splits the sample into multiple grain-segments of audio, with knobs that govern grain length, the rate that the grains play in succession, and the crossfading (X-fade). Start by setting grain length and X-fade to zero, so you hear each grain distinctly. As you slowly increase the grain rate, you’ll hear a chopping effect that increases in speed.

From there, increase the Grain Length parameter until you hear the chunks start to overlap. The results will still be jittery and abrupt, which is where X-fade can be used to smooth the transitions between the grains.

OSCILLATOR, MODULATION AND EFFECTS

Although granular synthesis is the main draw, Grain includes a simple oscillator this is ideal as a tuning reference or sub-oscillator to stabilize the musicality of the granular effects. It’s also handy for reinforcing the fundamental in shimmery, high-frequency granular tones.

Grain’s envelopes, LFOs, and mod matrix are identical to those on Europa, so the above sections apply equally (see Figure 5). Even the effects processors are the same and can be reordered into any serial combination for adding a professional sheen to the end result of Grain’s output.

Fig. 5. Grain’s modulation sources and effects
 are identical to Europa’s, and like Europa, nearly any synthesis parameter can be modulated.

Fig. 5. Grain’s modulation sources and effects  are identical to Europa’s, and like Europa, nearly any synthesis parameter can be modulated.