There are many jobs for which hardware still rules the music roost. But there are some that software does better - synths, for example. Though no software will replace my analog Minimoog, many hardware synths are nothing more than specialized computers running software. Sampling and FM synthesis are prime examples where cutting out the hardware aspect shouldn't hurt the sound. Additive synthesis is another scheme that exists almost exclusively in software, and Camel Audio came out with a good one a few years ago. Alchemy (VSTi/AU) isn't an update of their Cameleon 5000 additive synth, but it slathers on granular and spectral synthesis, covering many of the ways a computer can make noise. Alchemy uses four separate "sources" to make each sound. Each of these is a complete synth voice and each of these sources uses three different types of synthesis engines at once - a Virtual Analog or additive element; a granular or traditional sample; and a spectral or noise element. So, when you strike a key, you can have twelve different sounds going at once, which ought to be enough layers for anyone.
From the main expanded view, you click on one of the A through D sources to bring up that source's individual page. The additive engine generates all the usual analog waveforms for VA. Chose a wave-shape and you can adjust and modulate the pulse-width as well as the phase starting point. The pulse-width controls not just the square waves, but the ramps and other waves too. If you want phat, use the NOsc (number of oscillators) knob. I rolled it less than a third of the way up and had 24 oscillators. Not just phat, but morbidly obese. If that isn't enough, you can detune all those oscillators. A button on the Additive subpage switches from VA to the Additive mode (there is a button to bring up each element's subpage, as well as switches for on/off, solo, etc.). You get another pop-up list of wave-shapes to choose from, or you can import an audio file. < /span>Alchemy works with WAV, AIFF, and SFZ formats. (SFZ organizes the audio via an attached text file.) Import is a separate page where you can easily bring the same sound into each of the three engines or load different files to each via a pop-up browser. One glitch was that I couldn't use my mouse scroll-wheel to roll through the files; I had to use the sidebar scrollbar. However, I was told this is on the to-do list for the next update. Click on the file, and Alchemy quickly calculates the wave-shape as it loads the file into whichever engine, and you are ready to go.
There isn't room here for a technical description of additive synthesis (or any of the other methods Alchemy uses), but basically a series of sine waves (partials) produces the fundamental pitch as well as any overtones. Then you use the same controls for altering the sound as you do for the VA, though they may work a little differently. The Spectral element also has a dual use - either as a complete sound source or as a noise source. To the VA, you can add filtered noise to your sound just like any analog synth does. Or you can use it to add the noise element (like breath) back into the Additive engine when you import. Finally, it can work its own re-synthesis magic. You can perform all sorts of sonic manipulation on a visual representation of the re-synthesized file using Photoshop-like tools - or start one from scratch. You can even import a PNG image file to create a sound and then demolish it. The granular element continues this dual work-mode as either a straight-up sampler or granular synth. Granular synthesis gives you control over the pitch and timing playback. Two knobs at the top of the source page let you define the file playback position while the stretch slows or speeds up the playback. There is also size and density control of the individual grains of sound that make up the sound. This is powerful stuff for altering a mild-mannered sample and is similar to the Roland V-Synth, for example. All three source elements are then streamed through the source's filters before heading to the master section. The master includes two more filters (some 50 types to choose from - just like the source filters), as well as EQ and effects taken from the Camel Phat plug-in.
The Modulation page occupies the center of the synth and is one of the slickest interfaces I've come across - although a little confusing in the beginning. At first glance, there are only five modulator slots in the rack to the side of your LFO, AHDSR, Multi-stage envelope, step-sequencer, and other modulators. However, every knob within a Source or in the master section has an individual modulation rack, and there are hundreds of knobs. The kicker is that when you click on any knob, its modulation page pops up. Suppose you are on the VA page and want to control the volume. Click on the Vol knob, and presto, its modulation page opens and you assign the AHDSR in the first slot. Then click on the Source Filter button and enable a filter. Click on the cutoff, and its modulation page comes up. Add a step sequencer and draw in a pattern. Finally, click on the resonance knob and yet another mod page appears and you can patch in an LFO. Congratulations, you just programmed a sound, and to bounce around from knob to knob and refine the modulators is as easy as eating pie. This is about as intuitive and ergonomic a method of control as I've run across in any piece of software. About the only complaint I have is that all those knobs means that they are small, and mouse control is imprecise, although a numeric readout in the title bar helps. Finally, at the bottom is a performance page, with eight assignable knobs and eight remix pads which hold snapshots of the knob settings, along with two X-Y pads. Drag the mouse across the remix area, and the knobs and pads morph between saved settings. I've always loved joysticks (and then pads) since my days with an EMS Synthi, and Alchemy doesn't disappoint. You can mix the four sources like a Prophet VS (and add a special X-Y multi-segment envelope to further mimic that synth) and/or assign a pad to pitch and filter cutoff as a drone control.
If you just need a rompler (a sampler or synth with sampled waveforms in ROM) or General MIDI synth, Alchemy is probably a bit much. Not that it isn't a perfectly serviceable sampler - but it is so much more. Plus, it only ships with 300 presets, and these don't lean toward realistic sounds. If you are into electro or industrial drums, the preset kits are killer. Total, nasty noises under your thumb (and fingers). And for the programmers among us, I haven't even scratched the surface. But having three different engines using six different synthesis methods in one easy-to-use package comes close to being the "ultimate sample-manipulation synthesizer" Camel Audio claims Alchemy is.
Before Tape Op went to press, I learned of the passing of Tim Conrardy. If you haven't heard of Tim, you've heard his work. A programmer in his own right, he also did presets for a host of well and lesser known synths, starting with the Yamaha DX7. If a synth had TC in the presets, I always tried those first to see what could be done with the engine, including Alchemy.
by John Keane
This article is partially excerpted from the introduction to A Musician's Guide to Pro Tools, Book Two, which is a continuation of A Musician's Guide to Pro Tools Book One. It was adapted by me to...