Monday, June 29, 2009

Review: D16 Group Nithonat

Product: Nithonat
Manufacturer: D16 Group
Type: AU/VST drum machine
Platforms: VST for Windows XP/2000 or later, VST & AU for OSX 10.4.3 or later.
Price: 79 Euro
Demo: Available at

Roland's TR-606 was originally released as a complement to the infamous TB-303 bassline synthesizer back in 1982. While it certainly is overshadowed in the annals of history by the likes of the TR-808 and TR-909, the 606 was an underrated instrument. While it lacked a famous kick drum like the 808 or 909, it had pleasantly snappy 808-like snares and metallic hi-hats that had a uniquely nasty sound to them. More importantly, the 606 was probably the most suited for live performance of any of the TR family, as it allowed you to edit your beats on the fly while performing and switching patterns. So, having already wowed the world with their takes on the TR-808, the TR-909, and the TB-303, Polish developers the D16 Group set their sites on a software emulation of the 606. Let's see how they fared.

Installation involved downloading an installer and a key file. The installer works as you would expect it to, and upon running Nithonat for the first time, you will be asked to locate where on your hard drive the key file is. You can keep it anywhere you like, you just need to let the software know where. I had no problems with the installation at all. Quick and easy.

Nithonat features a clean, well-organized interface that is split into three main subsections. Starting at the top, we have the Control Module which is used for selecting whether you want to use the internal, TR-like sequencer or your host's sequencer, setting up MIDI learn for tweaking the controls with a hardware controller, and browsing & selecting presets (which can be changed independent of the Patterns, so if you have a beat you like, you can try out different drum kits until you find one you like).

Below this is the Synthesis Module. This is divided into sections for the Bass Drum, Snare Drum, Low and Hi Toms, Cymbal, and Open and Closed Hihats. Unlike the original, the sounds can all be tweaked to alter their timbre. Keep in mind that these settings are for things such as tone and decay, so while the sounds are editable, it's always going to sound like a 606. This is an emulation, not an attempt at a full-fledged drum synth like Sonic Charge's Microtonic or Waldorf's Attack. The fact that these controls can be assigned to knobs on your MIDI controller, though, certainly provides the possibility for a much more 'alive' sounds on the fly. Here you'll also find Mute and Solo settings for each sound, as well as output assignments for Nithonat's 8 assignable outputs (one for each of the 7 drum sounds and a 'trigger out' option for all you old schoolers). The unit defaults to the standard stereo outputs, but the mutli outs are a nice option allowing you to give each sound its own processing.

Finally, we have the Internal Sequencer. You can, of course, use your host's sequencer to program beats if you like (where the drum sounds are mapped to the General MIDI standard or your own custom drum map), but if you want the authentic TR experience, it's ready and waiting for you in this section. This is definitely the most complex section of the interface. It starts out with the Tempo setting. Of course you can sync Nithonat to your host's clock, but if you'd prefer to use the clock in Nithonat's sequencer, you can set the tempo here. Next to that, you'll find settings for engaging pattern write mode, a knob for selecting the amount of shuffle, a window for selecting and changing patterns, and a row of buttons governing some very useful functions, the coolest of which is the Random function.

This lets you randomize the pattern for an instrument (or Accent pattern) to come up with instant variations on the current one. In this mode, the instrument's Level knob selects the amount of randomization, so you can go from just slight tweaks to a pattern you really like, to something very different. If you like the results, you click the Tap/Accept button, or if you don't click Undo. If you've gone through several different Random variations and decide one you created a couple steps back was the best one, you can use the Prev and Next buttons to navigate back to that pattern. VERY handy! The Shift function is also very handy, allowing you to move all the steps in a pattern forward or backward in time step by step. You'll also find buttons here for Undo, Copy, Paste, and Clear, as well as settings for pattern length, and Tap Mode.

Nithonat's sequencer allows you to enter patterns in a number of ways. The above-mentioned Tap Mode lets you play an instrument sound in real time and what you play is instantly quantized to one of the 16 steps. This is a lot of fun and brought me back to playing around with my first drum machine, an old Korg DDM-110 that had a similar function. I find this mode to be the most intuitive, but if you want exact precision, you can also program in step time by turning on individual steps for each instrument until you have the pattern you like. The feel of patterns can be further changed by changing the Time Scale, or the number of steps per quarter note. This defaults to 4 steps per quarter note, but can also be changed to 8, 6, or 3.

Once you have a number of patterns in the Nithonat's sequencer, you'll probably want to chain them into a song. In the old days, this was a laborious process where you'd select a step in the song, assign it a pattern and the number of times it is to repeat and so on until you had the entire song constructed. Nithonat wisely abandons this approach for a much more intuitive one. Basically, each pattern is assigned to a MIDI note, so you can switch patterns in real time simply by playing the appropriate note on the keyboard. You can record these into your host's sequencer, so upon playback, all the appropriate pattern changes take place. Of course, this function would also come in handy for live performance if you're doing a "Live PA" type show where you're creating the arrangement on the fly... or even if you just want to extend that middle 8 a bit because the crowd is really digging it.

I've really only scratched the surface as far as the features on offer here. It's obvious that a lot of time and thought went into Nithonat's design, and the possibilities are pretty deep if you care to get into them. I don't have a real TR-606 to compare it to, but to my ears it sounds like the real deal.
Any differences between Nithonat and a real 606 are so slight that one could pretty easily close the gap with some slight EQ tweaks. Obviously, the sound shaping possibilities take it a bit beyond what is possible with a real 606, but these variations are subtle and still faithful to the original 606 sound.

The sequencer is very authentic as well, and although my guess is that most people will sequence sounds using their host's sequencer, there really is something to be said for doing things the old way. It tends to make you think in a slightly different way, and the end results often reflect that. I also think the internal sequencer is a little more fun when it comes to experimenting (especially with the wonderful Random function). The sequencer section of the plug-in is not exactly intuitive, though, so most people should expect to refer to the very thorough documentation. This illuminates things pretty well and should have you up and running in no time.

Nithonat is not going to be an instrument that is going to appeal to everyone. As I mentioned, the 606 never really got most people as excited as the 808 an the 909. But that's actually what I like about it. I absolutely love that D16 chose an underrated and perhaps lesser known instrument to emulate and I'd love to see them continue on that path with future instruments. They've really done an excellent job maintaining the balance between added functionality and reverence for the original in a way other companies sometimes miss. I can't wait to see what they do next! (9/10)


Oliver Chesler said...

A few audio samples I created:

Tom said...

Thanks, Oliver!

AudioKnob said...

Nice review for a very proper 606 emulator VST!!!

But it's still missing the low battery - high noise overdriven sound :)