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05 November 2010

SONIC CHARGE SYNPLANT 1.0.1 | £64.04 ($99)

REVIEW
The virus is a cunning and immensely successful little sod. If the strain is based on ribonucleic acid, it can mutate very rapidly and thereby more efficiently evade the infected host’s immune system. But it’s also a bit stupid in that it’ll more readily, self-destructively, compromise the host, just as we slightly more intelligent humans do with the Earth’s eco-system. So what’s that got to do wiv bustin’ bangin’ toonz, innit? (Sorry, I’ll take off my hoodie). In terms of sound synthesis, genetics analogies didn't really have much relevance until Sweden-based developer Sonic Charge's kooky soft synth Synplant poked its head above the sod. Admittedly, this instrument's GUI looks more like flora than microscopic fauna, but the device appears to fare remarkably well in the wild and has proved highly infectious. A bit like the pandemically popular severe acute respiratory syndrome (or SARS virus to its friends), but more drop-dead groovy than plain-vanilla drop dead. After more than a year at large, here's a re-take on how Synplant is growing.




The current mutation (32-bit VST/AU plugin for Mac PPC/Intel OS X 10.4+ and PC Windows XP+) was released in late August 2009. I’ve given it time in which to take root, grow, bloom and fruit, harvesting comment from tweets, forum posts and reviews along the way for a true picture of viability and buy-ability. Ambling around the allotments of considered opinion from synth strokers, it’s clear that some find it frustrating, others baffling, while plenty more have fallen, gushingly, in love.

Synplant’s sound-synthesis paradigm borrows much from genetics in order to encourage the more adventurous to seed fresh sonic furrows. We’re used to seeing the knobs, buttons, sliders and X/Y panels of conventional soft synths. However, according to the instrument's progenitor, NuEdge Development's Magnus Lidström (the brain behind Propellerhead Software’s Malström synth that graces the Reason 2+ rack), Synplant looks like "a plant inside a washing machine”. Kinda does, really, and for this, the MuzoBlog finger points accusingly at Magnus’ brother Fredrik for the graphic interface, one aspect of which resembles the dual-helix of deoxyribonucleic acid - minus points for those muzos who don’t know that they’re made of it. Putting DNA aside for the now, what the instrument offers is a quasi-organic approach to rinsin’ sound (there's that bloody hoodie again).

You grow patches from a central bulb that contains a sound, plant seeds and mutate those seeds by extruding up to 12 branches - one for each semitone in an octave. As you do so, the timbre of each branch changes, leading to some pretty freaky results in most cases. Sounds weird? It is, but then Mr Lidström is Swedish, after all, and is rumoured to own a cat (called Russin), so what can you expect? For a detailed inspection of Soundplant’s capabilities and possibilities, I’ll point you towards online documentation that can be viewed in a PDF-capable web browser. This post is, after all, more about smelling the flora than a forensic examination of genetic sound mutation. If you’ve not browsed the documentation, and are a novice muzo-geneticist, I'll précis and say the headlines bode well. It’s the kind of product into which one can dive headlong and be making unheard-of noises with relative ease and in a relative trice. Download the demo to experience the embedded intro tutorial for an overview of floaty, frondy synth action. Or watch this vid. It says what I would otherwise put in words, but in a more multimedia-mungous way...



YouTube devotees may also want to check out what the near-insanely enthusiastic music-tech commentator Torley has to say about what this soft-synth is about. About as mad as a box of genetically modified frogs, I'd say. The point is that, once you’ve grasped the seedy nature of Synplant, it’s a doddle to grow your very own audio organisms by accessing one of the 300 presets shipped with the demo, planting seeds, sliding linear and curved sliders, all the while wondering whither the genome drifts.

The oft-posted whinge of the oft oh-so friendly online forum community is that certain of their number can’t arrive at the lush, sometimes searing, sometimes soothing timbres that present in the presets, video and audio demos. They complain that the synth is unpredictable, possibly because the interface is so left-field; because one doesn’t always know what a seed will do when replanted and its branches extruded. Before addressing such issues, have a listen to Synplant in the hands of a trio of top GM (no, not General MIDI) boffins for a taste of its output in the context of structured musical works...

Tore Jarlo: Dirty Slip

Funky, fresh, filtered, electro, disco, ear-candyman Tore Jarlo gives us a slip on the dancefloor, with Synplant busying away at everything but the drums

Martin Eklund: Sepia Kite

A slice of melodic electronica courtesy of Martin Eklund, aka Teadrinker. Everything you hear here is exclusively Synplant following its virtual biological imperative

Magnus Lidström: RuckZak

A harder treatment by the developer himself. Another Sonic Charge product, percussion synth µTonic, provides drums, while the effects used are those built into Ableton Live

A tasty crop, but so hard to nurture. While the timbres you hear may be virtually genetically modified, creating them could hardly be described as an agricultural exercise. It’s more like coaxing an exotic garden into life. Those who like to go steaming into a synth, guesstimating parameters to arrive at the sound they’re aiming to summon, will rapidly become frustrated. Synplant’s roots go deep and it does require a shift in one’s thinking to make it blossom, but there are many horticultural highs to be had when it does. You have to learn to program with your ears, rather than setting oscillator, envelope, filter, etc, with traditional rotaries and sliders.

Concerning the curved sliders around the central ‘bulb’, tuning is easy enough to tweak - things can go out of tune when planting new seeds and, while the plugin will try to maintain correct tuning, this +/-12-semitone slider enables you to reel it back in. Used in conjunction with the Atonality slider, the modulation wheel (or lever, or rocker pedal, even) of your MIDI controller is in for a hammering. Things become excitingly messed up when manipulating the mod values of seeds sporting long branches. Effects are set at the genome level and, while fairly limited in range (for example, a single, global reverb that reassigns itself depending on the last key pressed), are useful enough. However, I’d suggest keeping Synplant itself dry, watering it when necessary with third-party FX plugins. The Release slider, meanwhile, explains itself.

Other envelope settings are a click away courtesy of the Gene Manipulation icon next to the Main Menu. We’ve 37 virtual genes in nine categories, although peculiar things happen when you start playing with them - Synplant is more than game for happy happenstance to happen, which can further entrench the feeling that you’re not really in control of the instrument. Download the demo, try Genome Mapping and hear for yourself. Highly commendable are aspects of Synplant’s MIDI functionality, two highlights of which are that you’ve MIDI control over the Key Ring and Rotation Control which sit concentrically at the periphery of the washing machine’s door. Automating the latter means you can have sound variations occur with each note triggered. Your best friend, however, is the modulation wheel, which makes wild sounds flower as the on-screen Mod Ring dilates.

Live performance potential is further enhanced by the facility to switch between patches without a glitch, so there are no uncomfortable silences, and even the undo and redo functions can be triggered via MIDI when working up sequences and sonic experiments in the controlled conditions of the studio. It’s easy enough to save out your very own sonic Synplant creations for future recall and geeks will enjoy the fact that the .synp files generated are in plain text format, ready for opening and editing in a word-mangler of choice. Über-geeks are also catered for, provided they’re conversant with Cushy, PikaScript, can bitmap a font and bling a PNG, in that Synplant is hackable. A number of script-literate muzos have devised hacks (note that the results of such dabbling have to be approved by Mr Lidström himself before they’re planted online), perhaps the most famous thus far being Jingle Balls, which is said to have appeared in the KvR Audio Forums on Xmas Eve 2009 - check it out on YouTube.

For all the infectious enthusiasm Synplant has generated, it has not grown on everyone. Some criticise the interface for being too way-out; a bit too silly. Others bemoan the fact that they can’t confidently whip up sounds that ‘sound like something else’ when working with clients who want to sound like someone else. If you’re seeking a synth that you can rely on to behave itself and offer up sounds that sit safely within a definable genre, look elsewhere. Or be prepared to learn Synplant inside-out and accept its idiosyncrasies.

If, on the other hand, you’re the adventurous sort who gets a kick out of on-the-edge mayhem in sound design, or need the exudate of a virtual organism in order to moisten parched creativity, plant Synplant in your garden of grooves and expect the unexpected. It’s light on the processor (I had 10 instances happily burbling away on a Mac Core 2 Duo with 4GB RAM as AU plugins in Apple Logic Pro 9 and barely hit 60% CPU usage), light on the wallet and when the three-week demo expires and you decide to register, there’s a crop of another 413 patches to be reaped.

Some might think that a demo period of three weeks is a bit stingy, but the deal is such that you can spend, say, a week preening and pruning the software, have a run-in with the SARS coronavirus, spend a while in the ICU and be discharged to find you’ve still a fortnight’s worth of demo time left. Finally, if proof positive is needed that Synplant is great for experimentation and far-out faddling, ambient innovator Mr Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno is a fan. Nuff said.


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