Monday, January 12, 2009

Review: Camel Audio Alchemy Softsynth

Product: Alchemy Softsynth
Type:
Additive, Granular, Spectral & Virtual Analog

Manufacturer:
Camel Audio
Support forum: Camel Audio Forum
Price:
$249 (Limited time half off crossgrade pricing available for C-5000 owners).


Things had been quiet on the Camel Audio front for the past few years. Having already made a name for themselves with their Cameleon 5000 Additive softsynth and the excellent CamelPhat and CamelSpace plug-ins (still waiting for CamelToe...), we now know why things had been so quiet - Alchemy. Camel Audio bills Alchemy as 'The Ultimate Sample Manipulation Synthesizer" and it's hard to argue with that. The depth of this synth alone is clearly the result of years of hard work. So is it worth the wait? Let's find out!


INSTALLATION

Although Camel Audio does apparently plan to make Alchemy available on a physical DVD, for now, the only way to buy it is as a download, so that’s what I did. Note that if you have purchased Camel Audio’s previous synth, the C-5000 additive synth, you are eligible for a limited time to get Alchemy for half off... not bad! A smaller discount is available to people who purchased CamelPhat and CamelSpace plug-in effects. Just log in to your user account on the Camel Audio website, and you will be provided with a link to buy Alchemy with the appropriate discount.

Installation requires the download of 4 files: a key file (which acts as copy protection... hooray for no dongles!), the plug-in itself, the factory patches, and the rather large factory sample content file. After you’ve downloaded these, you run the installer and let it do its thing. This takes a little while, so go have a cup of coffee. The only hitch I had with installation is that it wasn’t immediately obvious to me when it was done. The progress bar was still incomplete and whirring away, and it was only after I noticed that the Continue button had become available that I realized it was finished. After it’s done, you fire up your DAW as usual, and you’re ready to go.


One other minor hitch to mention here... after I had fired up Alchemy a number of times, I got a message indicating that it couldn’t find the key file and that the program wasn’t authorized to run. This was quickly remedied by simply re-downloading the key file from the Camel Audio website, but had I been on the road or somewhere without internet, I would’ve been out of luck. So it might not be a bad idea to make a back-up of the key to have with you.


OVERVIEW

The first thing I should mention is the interface - it's fantastic. Although it wasn't terrible, one of the weaker points of C-5000 was its interface. There was a lot of wasted space, and the organization of the various elements wasn't as efficient as it could've been. All that has been remedied with Alchemy and I honestly can't think of anything I would do to improve it (well, the file browsing system for importing samples could use some improvements, but I think Camel Audio is aware of this). There's even a 'simple' mode that just provides the Performance controls for those of you who don't want to get into all that scary programming.

Speaking of which, when I bought it, Alchemy's manual was only available as a Wiki style website... no PDF. Their reasoning was that a Wiki would be easier to keep up to date, but clearly this option is not convenient for everyone. For instance, I travel a lot, and if I'm on a plane or in some God-forsaken part of the world without wireless, I'd be out of luck if I needed to look something up. I believe Camel Audio plans to fix this. In the meantime, a KVR user made one in PDF format which is available
here. (UPDATE: Camel Audio has now made the PDF version of the manual available for download on the first page of the Wiki site)

SOURCES

With that out of the way, each Alchemy sound starts with up to 4 different layers or "Sources" . These can be additive, virtual analog (actually a subsection of additive), spectral, or granular synth modules. Which mode you choose to use on each Source really depends on what you're trying to acheive. If you're trying to do analog or virtual analog style (complete with PWM) sounds, obviously the Virtual Analog option is the best choice. The Additive, Granular, and Spectral options are all used for resynthesizing sounds. In other words, you import a sample, and the synthesis engines of whatever you've chosen recreates that sample artificially. Each of these methods have different sorts of audible artifacts, but this can be minimized by choosing the right one for the job. For instance, Additive is better for tonally pure sounds, while noisier or more complex sounds generally sound better with the Spectral option. Each of these types of synthesis have parameters specific to them which is a bit much to go into here, but suffice it to say, there is a mind-boggling amount of manipulation that can occur at this level alone. You can twist the source material into something totally unrecognizable very easily.

Speaking of which, Alchemy ships with about 2 GB of sample material of virtually every type you can imagine. Everything from acoustic instruments to synth waveforms to more esoteric stuff like weird sounds from circuit bent machines and the hum of an air compressor. What I really like about this is that the amount of raw material here seems like just the right amount. Many synth manufacturers like to tout their gargantuan 40+ GB libraries of source material, but to me personally, that's a turn off for two reasons. First, it's hard to get to really know the source material so you can find what you need quickly when you're programming your own sounds. Secondly, I'm not made of hard drives - I don't want to have to buy a new hard drive every time I purchase a new instrument. So kudos to Camel for showing some restraint here. Maybe not everyone feels the way I do, but for me personally, this is the way to go.
And, if do you get bored with the included sample material, you can import your own WAV, AIF, or SFZ files to your heart's content.

Each Source also allows an array of advanced editing options from adjusting of the individual partials in Additive mode, to 'painting' with sound in the spectral mode in a manner similar to MetaSynth.
Can you see just how deep this thing gets?!

MORPHING

Also worth noting is that there are various options for cross-fading and actually morphing in between the different sources which can allow you to emulate vector-synthesis type sounds a lá the Sequential Prophet VS all the way to having sounds smoothly morph into one another. The morphing isn't going to compete with a Kyma for the time being, but it is still very cool.

FILTERS

Each Source can be routed either in series or parallel to the 2 filters, which each have a whopping 50 different options to choose from with everything from modeled analog filters of every type (even ones modeled on specific synths) to comb & formant filters, to ring modulation, to various distortion options that will be familiar to users of CamelPhat. The filters are quite nice sounding, maybe even a bit too nice. Even with the Resonance cranked and the Drive pinned, the filters sounded a little tame to me (even that 'fat' versions which are supposed to be especially for this purpose). Your mileage may vary. You can do dirt, don't get me wrong, but I just don't hear the character and balls I might find in something like Native Instruments Massive, or even my trusty Virus B. It may very well be I just need to work with them more, but on my initial messing around, this was my first impression. That's really only a small complaint, as the filters are otherwise fantastic.

MODULATION

Below this is the modulation section which is one of the nicest I’ve seen on a synth. To modulate a parameter, simply click on its knob, and it becomes the active modulation source in the modulation window below. Here you have 5 slots to choose modulators such as LFOs, AHDSR envelopes, mutli-segment envelopes, step sequencers, a modmap, and an XY multi-segment envelope that allows automated modulation of the XY pads by combining two multi-segment envelopes, one controlling the X and one controlling the Y. There are plenty of parameters within each modulator (many of which can, in turn, be modulated), so the level of tweakibility is outstanding. For example, the A, D, S, and R segments of the envelopes each have selectable curve types from linear to exponential and everything in between, allowing you to emulate the envelope responses of virtually any synth out there. It’s a subtle thing, but it can really make a difference, especially when using it to modulate filter cutoff. In my opinion, the modulation section of this synth is where it really shines, and you can get lost for hours in the possibilities here alone.

PERFORMANCE SECTION

Below the Modulation section is an area split between the Perform, Arp, and Effects sections, which are selected via buttons. The Perform section offers 8 assignable knobs (Alchemy will even do this automatically for you if you ask it nicely) similar to those on Massive, 2 fully assignable XY pads, and the Remix Pad, which allows you to smoothly fade between up to 8 variations of the sound very much like the MelOHMan meta patch system found on Gforce's Minimonsta (right down to being able to switch between variations using keys on your keyboard).

ARPEGGIATOR

The Arp section is about as fully featured as you could hope for and is fully programmable (you can even import MIDI files) down to control of velocity, pitch, pan of each note. The Arps can have up to 128 steps and there are 4 of them, so you can build very complex patterns indeed. My one complaint with this section (and the Sequencer) is that there is no visual feedback as the Arp or Sequence plays to show you which step you are on. I find this very useful in Massive and would love to see the addition made to Alchemy.

EFFECTS

The Effects section allows the insertion of a chain of up to 5 different effects. The layout here reminded me a bit of how the effects chains in Ableton Live are set up (or at least the way they were set up several versions back when I last used it). Here you have reverbs (including the very nice-sounding new Acoustic Reverb), delays, modulation effects, EQs, a bass enhancer, a compressor, panning effects, and various filters to add the final polish to your sounds. All of them sound very good and though some have complained about the layout of the effects once they are chained, I really didn't find it to be an issue.

CONCLUSIONS

This is all well and good, but how does it sound? I personally am of the belief that we shouldn't expect every synth to be great at every type of sound. Instead, find what a synth is good at, and let something else fill in the gaps where it might be lacking. Where Alchemy excels are in pads, long, evolving soundscapes, virtual analog (this section really is surprisingly good), cool arps and sequences, unusual digital timbres, and unbelievable sample manipulation (the possibilities for manipulating vocals alone is astonishing). Where it doesn't do as well are in acoustic sounds (the brass and piano sounds in particular sound very muted and straight from the early 90's) and more 'true' analog sounds. With careful programming, I feel confident you can coax those types of sounds of this too, but buying Alchemy for brass or Minimoog sounds is a bit like buying a bulldozer to hammer a nail in - sure you can do it, but that's not what it's for.

Alchemy is not a synth for everyone, but for people who really like roll their sleeves up and experiment it's a wonderland. There's actually a LOT of features I didn't cover here, but I didn't want this review to turn into War & Peace. To get a fuller picture, definitely have a look at the manual. I've always liked Camel Audio's products (and their customer service is outstanding), but I think they've taken it to an entirely new level with Alchemy.

Here are a few sound examples.

First, some examples of sample manipulation using the various engines. There are three examples here separated by pauses. First is the granular engine, at about :50 in you can hear the additive engine, and at 1:37 you can hear the spectral engine in action. And by 2:17 I guarantee you will never want to hear the word 'waveformless' again. With each example I am manipulating mainly the 'Position' and 'Stretch' parameters.



Now, using the same source sample of me speaking the word 'waveformless', here is a weird, rhythmic drone. Nothing special, but it took me all of about 3 minutes to program and shows that the source material can give way to sounds with little in common to the original.



Next up is a quick demo of the virtual analog capabilities. No mixing or post production was done to this, it's all just 3 instances of Alchemy and the built-in effects. Kick drum is from Stylus RMX.


Finally, here is a quick soundtrack type piece demonstrating the more ambient side of Alchemy. This is just 4 instances of Alchemy playing live out of Logic. No mixing or additional effects.



Be sure to visit the Camel Audio website for more fully realized and varied demo clips using Alchemy.. what I've done here barely scratches the surface.

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12 comments:

MPS said...

Compared to something like Omnisphere, it's a great bargin. Compared to what I can actually afford it is dismally overpriced. A shame, since it sounds so interesting.

Ben said...

Thanks for the review - really pleased to hear you like it!

Regarding the installer - we're working on making it easier and more straightforward to use, by fixing the issues you mentioned.

Regarding the PDF manual - you can now download an official PDF manual from the first page of the Wiki manual.

We're also going to work on the preset library, and will endeavour to provide better pianos and brass.

Thanks again :)

Tom said...

That's great to hear! I really appreciate your responsiveness to your customers regarding stuff like this.

mangadrive said...

Well doesnt this thing sound cheerful. I think the main question , the one I always ask, is how bloody,dirty and violent can it. I guess I'll find out as you've tempted me to try this one out for a bit. I'm a bigger fan of Camel's filtering and was never a Chameleon fan at all.. but this seems like something I could see myself reaching for... especially with the full arp, which is something not all VSTs tend to boast and its actually important to me for creating chaotic lines (coughmassivecough). Hopefully it can fill the void that Sylenth didnt for me as far as deeper pads.
I picked that one up to make pad noises and ended up using it for...yes...chaotic lines instead.

Mark Mosher said...

Great review Tom. I've been working a lot with Alchemy and think you've really captured the essence of this great synth which isn't easy to considering it's a huge monster synth. I agree with your sentiments about Camel Audio showing restraing on the sample library which is also one of the big reasons I went with Alchemy over Omnishpere - not to mention the ability to import and do resynthesis.

In the next week or so I'll be revising my recommended blog links on http://www.modulatethis.com and add a lnik to your blog.

Mark Mosher
http://www.markmoshermusic.com
http://www.modulatethis.com

Tom said...

Hey Mark - I just checked out your blog and enjoyed it as well. I'll add you to my links section as well. Thanks!

Line of Control said...

ok - that "virtual analog" snippet you posted better appear on your next album... that was seriously nice. i can imagine you doing all kinds of goodness with an intro like that...

Tom said...

Hey Line - Nope, not a new track, just something I threw together quickly. Glad you enjoyed it, though!

Anonymous said...

You're not made of hard drives?
I just bought a 1TB external hard drive for £75.00.

Omnisphere is only 40GB. Hardly going to break the bank, if the VST itself costs over £200...

Having said that- some of the samples in Omnisphere make me wonder why they went to all the effort. I'm sure most of those sounds could have been achieved by much easier means, other than sampling Tesla sparks, burning pianos, lightbulb filaments, etc. Sounds like bullshit to me.

Anonymous said...

+1 on the VA demo, the bassline is very impressive. Add a touch more lfo movement and it's a killer.

Judging by your other demos and Camel Audio own demo, I gotta say this synth sounds like crap though.
I don't believe that selecting the right resynthesis technique eliminates artifacts to a satisfactory level. It sounds very very harsh to me.

Anonymous said...

It is unfortunate that my first post on this blog happens to be one of misfortune. My hope in sharing my story is to advise and caution people when purchasing from Camel Audio. The truth is that I only recently learned about Camel Audio a few months back. Since then I had been exploring and discovering the amazing sounding plug-ins they produced. As a working musician, I am always looking for inspiration and I really felt that they had the type of sounds I have been craving. Right now times are tough, as I am sure it is for many people out there, so making the commitment to buy another plug in was a careful and meticulous choice. Even my wife knew how much I wanted it, so she even allowed me to buy it as my Christmas present......so here I was all excited to buy it! So I did, but the WORSE HAPPENED! When I purchased it, their system went into an endless loop at the final stage of charging my credit card without giving me a download link. I waited ten minutes without any response. The worse was when I received an email confirmation from them thanking me for the order and stating that the transaction was successful. I went to their website using my newly created log to see if I could find a confirmation or a download link, but nothing was there. (WHAT!!!!) I immediately called my bank and sure enough there was a pending charge from Camel Audio on my statement. I went through their website trying to find a phone number or somewhere to contact them and all I got was a generic email to their support team. Even my bank did not have a contact phone number; all they had was their URL. (Most vendors provide some type of contact information to dispute and defend a claim.) I have tried already four times to reach them using their generic email and through their “case manager” (case 10629) in the last week and I have still not received any type of reply. I know it is the holidays, but I am sure if I was Danny Elfman they would have surely replied to my request...maybe you need to be a well known musician to get their attention. In either case, now I have no gift from my wife AND I have to go through my credit card's claim department to see if I can even get my money back!!!! So my advice is: BE CAUTIOUS, BE VERY CAUTIOUS WHEN MAKING A PURCHASE FROM CAMEL AUDIO....... Peace!

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