Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Review: Tone2 Gladiator 2

Product: Gladiator 2
Manufacturer: Tone2
Type: AU/VST synthesizer
Support: http://www.tone2.com/html/tone2_support_help_contact.html
Platforms: VST for Windows 95 or later, VST & AU for OSX 10.3 or later.
Price: $199
Demo: Available at http://www.tone2.com/html/gladiator_2_vsti_au_synthesize.html

Although Tone 2 isn’t exactly a household name in the world of music software, you are probably familiar with their work, as they were the brains behind the ubiquitous Vanguard softsynth released by ReFX a few years ago. Part of the appeal of that synth was its ease of use, but with that ease of use came a lack of flexibility that might be frustrating to hardcore sound designers. Anyone who felt that frustration with Vanguard would do well to check out Tone2’s latest creation Gladiator 2.


I somehow missed the first incarnation of this synth, so I can’t really comment too much on how the new version differs in use, but there is a PDF file that comes with it explaining what has been updated. In brief, the updates include new waveforms, higher quality over-sampling , improved filters, additional unison modes, new effects, improved modulation capabilities, and more.


INSTALLATION

After running a standard installer, you copy a key-file sent to you by Tone2 to your plug-ins folder and you’re ready to rock. It doesn’t get much more simple than that. Hooray for no dongles!

THE MANUAL

Gladiator 2 comes with a very thorough PDF manual that not only explains the functionality of the synth very well, but even includes a number of tutorials to guide you through using the different functions. I think this is the best way to learn a new synth, so I applaud their inclusion. Although I will note that in the Welcome Tutorial, they instruct you to use the ‘Spec Formant’ modifier on a waveform and, at least on my machine, that resulted in no sound whatsoever. Actually, going through the presets, it appears that I don’t get any sound out of any patch using the Spec Formant modifier. A bug perhaps?

SO WHAT IS IT?

Gladiator 2 uses a kind of synthesis Tone2 has dubbed HCM synthesis, which stands for Harmonic Content Morphing. A bit similar to wavetable synthesis, each waveform in Gladiator 2 is actually a series of harmonic ‘snapshots’ that can be played back in varying orders and patterns. If you think of how a note on an acoustic instrument sounds, you’ll realize the initial attack is usually very bright, and the harmonic content of the sound evolves as the note decays. HCM attempts to mimic this and apply it to synthetic sounds (although it can do acoustic sounds, this is definitely not its strength). The result can be anything from a subtle, organic-sounding harmonic shift to more radical, artificial-sounding rhythmic loops and wavetable effects reminiscent of the PPG or Waldorf Microwave synths.

THE INTERFACE

Gladiator 2 is a seriously deep synth, but rather than hide everything behind heaps of menus or pages, Tone 2 manages to fit everything all on a single page. The layout takes a little getting used to, but once you have a feel for where everything is, it’s quite logical and easy to navigate. It is big, though. So big, in fact, that when I tried to use it on my 15” Macbook, it didn’t fit on the screen. Perhaps the addition of a scroll bar or something to the interface for people using smaller screens might be a nice addition. As it is now, there was no way for me to see or reach the parameters at the bottom inch or so. That said, let’s have a look at what’s on offer.

At the very top of the interface is the category and preset browser. These work about as you would expect and helpfully include an INIT button to initialize a new sound and a RANDOM button for generating random sounds as starting points to your own programs. The results from this are generally quite good, although occasionally they resulted in either no sound at all, or dangerously loud sounds (the manual recommends inserting a brick-wall limiter on the Gladiator 2 channel when you are using the RANDOM function). Next to this are settings for volume, quality (for setting the amount of oversampling to prevent aliasing), FX MIX, and Microtuning (which slightly detunes notes in a chord for a fatter and clearer sound). There is also a HELP button here, but all it does is bring up a window telling you where the manual is. This seems rather pointless to me. If you’re going to have a HELP button, it should bring up in-program help or at least automatically open the manual.


This is all you see when you first open Gladiator 2, so if you want to get into making your own sounds, you need to hit the EDIT button which opens the rest of the interface allowing you access to all the sound programming controls.


Gladiator 2’s architecture is based around 2 pairs of waveform oscillators and a 5th oscillator for various types of noise and attack transients (a very nice touch). The waveforms (or more accurately wavetables… Tone2 calls them ‘morphtables’) range from your standard basic synth waveforms to vocals, pianos, strings, guitars, percussion and all manner of other acoustic and synthetic sources. From here, you can apply any of dozens of ‘modifiers’ which alter the harmonic spectra of the morphtable. There are far too many modifiers for me to list here, but suffice it to say that these can do anything from slight variations on the original timbre to all out sonic mangling. Just this ability alone expands the timbral possibilities nearly infinitely. Still more variety is available via a number of different options for combining the oscillators within a pair. Of course you can simply mix them, as on a standard synth, but you can also have them combine only the odd harmonics of one wave with the even harmonics of another and a number of other less conventional methods. Cross-modulating with FM and AM is also available.


Next up are controls for the MORPHMODE, which effects how the MORPHTABLES play back and how much of the MORPHTABLE plays back. Everything from playing through one to all manner of looping back and forth are available here.
You may also notice two buttons marked RESYNTHESIS and VOCODER. At the moment these do nothing, but apparently, they are to eventually become available as paid “expansions”. There’s been a lot of controversy about this online and I have to say I agree with the general consensus that one shouldn’t have to pay to add functionality to a synth they already paid for. Either include it as standard, or don’t.

Below the standard PITCH and MIX settings, you’ll find OSCILLATOR 5. As mentioned previously, this is a specialized oscillator for playing back various types of noise (everything from standard WHITE, PINK, and BROWN to human breath, applause, water, etc.) and attack transients (including acoustic sounds like guitar picks or piano hammers to synthetic laser blips for adding attack to synth basses).
This oscillator is much more basic than the others and lacks the MODIFIERS, but they really aren’t needed here.

Everything is then routed on to the FILTER. Although there is only one filter, there are over 40 different varieties to choose from standard low-pass, band-pass, and high-pass variations to vowel filters, comb filters, filter FM and all manner of other goodies. The filters all sound excellent and impart a lot of character to the sounds. They’re also extremely fast and tight (when was the last time you played a synth with a 30 or 40db filter?!) The filter envelope is located here along with controls for altering the shape (logarithmic/exponential), key following, and velocity modulation. The velocity control was a bit confusing to me as even when set on its maximum, it doesn’t modulate the cutoff very much. This can be remedied by setting up velocity to modulate the filter in the MODULATION MATRIX, but it seems to defeat the purpose of having a VEL knob on the filter.


Below the filters we find the AMPLITUDE ENVELOPE (pretty standard) and settings for DISTORTION (7 different varieties), tempo-synced delay, EQ and two effects slots which each offer several varieties of reverb, delay, chorus/ensemble, filters, distortion, and more. The quality of the effects are excellent, but don’t offer a lot in terms of programmability (only 2 parameters per effect). However, there is enough variety among the effects offered, that it is unlikely to make you feel like your hands are tied, and of course you can always apply external effects.


Under the effects section, are the 2 LFOs and AUX ENVELOPES (selectable using tabs) to use as modulation sources. The AUX ENVELOPES are pretty standard, but the LFOs are more flexible than usual, offering all the conventional shapes along with rhythmic patterns and more esoteric selections.


For rhythmic patterns, however, you are better off using the STEP LFO located below the standard LFOs. This is essentially a basic 16 step analog sequencer where you shape the LFO by sliding each step up or down until you have created the pattern you desire. This allows for the popular trance gate effects, but with much more flexibility (even allowing you to choose the ‘shape’ of the steps).


At the very bottom is a section for UNISON and SPIRIT MODE. UNISON acts about as you would expect, stacking several detuned voices at once for a bigger, thicker sound. SPIRIT MODE is Tone 2’s attempt to emulate the nonlinearities of pitch one might find on a vintage analog. 19 different variations are available, each one affecting the sound in a different way.


Next door to this, we find the ARP, although merely calling it an arpeggiator really sells it short. It is, for all practical purposes, an analog sequencer allowing you to define pitch intervals, velocity levels, and slides in between steps. It’s a lot of fun to play with and is dead easy to use.


Next to the ARP is a small window for setting the range of the pitch wheel, and GLIDE settings if you want them.


Finally, we have the MODULATION MATRIX which has 12 slots divided over two tabs. This works pretty much as one would expect and provides enough sources and destinations to keep any programmer happy.


SO WHAT'S THE VERDICT?

It didn’t take long for Gladiator 2 to become one of my favorite softsynths. The presets are mostly trance-oriented, but this synth is so much more than that. The sheer depth of possibilities for sound design contained in the oscillator sections alone are mind-blowing and the innovation and originality of some of the ways you can alter your sounds is something you’re not going to find in too many other synths.

Because of some of its more unconventional features, it can take a little while to get up and running with Gladiator 2, but honestly, for me, experimenting and playing around with all the various modifiers to see how they would effect the sound was half of the fun. And as I mentioned before, the manual is very well-written and helpful in getting you up to speed.


If you’re looking for a virtual analog type synth, you are going to be hard pressed to find one that sounds better than this, and with the ability to do AM, FM, Phase Distortion, and wavetable type sounds, you’re also not likely to find a synth this flexible. Some of the preset sounds suffer from the same over-brightness that plagued Vanguard, but that doesn’t seem to be across the board fortunately. At the moment, Gladiator 2 seems to be a bit of a best kept secret, but I don’t expect that to be the case for long. This deserves to be every bit as popular as Vanguard, if not moreso.


Here is a demo I threw together in about 20 minutes using only factory presets and a drum loop. No external effects, compression, or EQ was used – just the sounds coming straight out of the instrument.


3 comments:

mangadrive said...

I wouldnt replace Vanguard totally with this, although I like the "random" feature a lot. I've been getting some interesting ambient/drone type stuff to put in mixes to add flavor that helps detract from the typical dryness of dance drums/settings. Also good variance builds/cuts for psy-trance-ish breaks. These results get a bit predictable as with Firebird though. Theres about 10-15 'like' sounds it will continually reproduce like organ-tones,white noise,etc, but you can easily tweak out of them or filter up more. (lots of filters good stuff)

Its a goto in my rack, but its not for traditional synth/tone usage 99.9% of the time. Its more a between the cracks thing, but its EXCELLENT for that. No other synth comes close. It makes glitchy/mechanical stuff like a pro where its a much more unorthodox sequence of getting them out on other models. Also it needs external effects to take away from the way over exagerated factory ones.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand how either of you can even mention Vanguard in the same sentence with Gladiator 2.

exposicion muebles madrid said...

The dude is absolutely right, and there is no question.