Thursday, November 5, 2009
Product: Berna Vintage Electronic Studio
Platform: OS X Standalone
System Requirements: Mac PPC or Intel Processor running 10.4 or later, with 1 GB of RAM.
Demo: Available on site.
Before Bob Moog came along and changed everything, electronic music was made in a very different way than it is today. Instead of banks of synths and sequencers, experimentally-minded composers created alien soundscapes using what more or less amounted to scientific and radio equipment. Sounds were laid down to tape, looped, and often chopped up and reassembled meticulously by hand. As you might expect, the results weren't always what many people would think of as being very musical in the traditional sense. Regardless of what you think of the otherworldly cacophony of early electronic composers like Xenakis, Stockhausen, and the like, they laid the groundwork for what future electronic artists would bring into a more mainstream awareness.
It's a shame, then, that much of the old way of creating electronic music has been forgotten by almost everyone but academics. Sure, a lot of the kinds of equipment used in those early days isn't as readily available as it used to be, but wouldn't it be interesting to hear what a new generation of electronic musicians would do with this antiquated gear, in this day and age, a full 50-60 years after those first electronic pioneers? Enter Gleetchplug's Berna.
Berna is a standalone program for Mac that recreates a typical 1950's electronic music studio in software form. Gleetchplug are quick to point out that the devices in their simulation aren't models and the aim here isn't to perfectly recreate the sound of the old, dusty lab equipment. Instead, Berna is more concerned with the actual methods involved. That said, I don't think anyone will complain about the sound quality here either. Everything sounds pleasantly old school and will have you reaching for your lab coat in no time.
Installation is about what you'd expect. You download an installer, run it, and upon receiving your serial number, you authorize Berna from within the program itself. Simple as it gets.
Berna's documentation comes in the form of a PDF file. In addition to explaining the functionality of everything in an easy to understand manner, bits of history (and a very interesting introduciton) are scattered throughout, making it interesting as well as informative. Gleetchplug is an Italian company, and unfortunately, it's rather evident that the manual is not written by a native English speaker. There are a ton of spelling and grammatical errors, but nothing that will interfere with your ability to understand the material at hand. I also thought a few tutorials or practical step-by-step examples of the use of each module would be helpful since many of these will not be common knowledge to modern synthesists.
As you might expect, Berna's interface looks like a cartoon version of a rack of old lab equipment - lots of esoteric twiddly bits to tweak and very scientific-looking. In the upper right hand corner are a handful of controls for setting up your sound card, authorizing your software, and saving and loading set-ups. Everything is very cleanly and logically laid out. The only real problem I had was that the interface was too big to display entirely on my little 13" Macbook. Considering that this instrument seems to be perfect for live performances, that could be a concern.
Central to everything in Berna is the Matrix. This is where you route all the individual signals to Berna's various modules, tape machines, and mixer channels. Indeed, Berna won't make a sound until you set up routing through the Matrix, so it pays to take some time to figure this first. It might take a little getting used to at first if all you've ever used is a virtual analog, but once you get your head around it, it is actually quite simple.
The first sound generators you'll encounter in Berna are the 9 sinewave oscillators. True to the oscillators used in these early days, you don't have a selection of waveforms to choose from. Instead, you can combine the sine waves at different frequencies and amplitudes to create different timbres as you would in additive synthesis. Frequency is controlled via knobs, and all of the oscillators are routed to a small mini-mixer that further allows you to sculpt the volume of each oscillator. There is also a single squarewave oscillator with variable range, frequency, and duty cycle.
Next up, we find a noise generator with both white and pink noise options. The Beat Oscillator follows and is essentially another sine oscillator, but one that has its frequency modulated by a sawtooth/triangle wave. Controls allowing you to change the slope of the modulating wave, the frequency of the modulating wave, the frequency of the oscillator, the amount of modulation, and the oscillator's volume. This module is good for creating wavering and chirping type sounds. The frequency modulation doesn't go up into audio range, which is a bit of a shame, but Gleetchplug have paid a LOT of attention to making sure their modules are consistent with the abilities of the original equipment, which I think is to be admired.
The Tone Burst Generator is essentially a gate. The oscillators in old school music labs weren't controlled from a keyboard as they are today. They were always on and were varied with mixers or triggered by gates. Berna is no different. The Tone Burst Generator thus allows you to create pulsing sounds with variable closed and open values, allowing a number of different simple triggering options for the oscillators.
The Variable Band Pass Filters consist of two filters with individually Lowpass and Hipass cutoff levels connected in serial with a 24db slope. The Selective Band Pass Filter below it is a sort of mutant consisting of a high frequency oscillator, a filter, and a balanced ring modulator, giving you basically a very narrow bandwidth band pass filter. The manual points out this can be useful for processing noise to create a more imperfect, 'organic' sine wave.
The next available modifiers are the Octave Filters which are comprised of 6 bandpass filters with different cutuoff frequencies that are wired in parallel. Think of it basically as an EQ to allow you to sculpt the frequency content of a signal more precisely. This is followed by the Ring Modulator which behaves pretty much as you would expect with controls for setting the carrier and the modulator volumes.
The Amplitude Selector is an audio gate that is triggered when a signal exceeds a specific level. This again, allows you to have signals trigger at that threshold versus always sounding. The Dynamic Modulator works by applying the envelope of one signal to that of another - an envelope follower, essentially. This is followed by the Amplitude Modulator which modulates the amplitude of a signal via an sinewave LFO with adjustable frequency.
Futher sound sculpting options are available in the form of a Frequency Shifter, a tape echo, and a plate reverb effect. Also notable are signal monitoring options from 2 different oscilloscopes and a VU meter.
You are not just limited to oscillators as sound sources, however. Berna features 4 virtual tape recorders. Signals can be routed to these to record, loop, and play back sound files (which can be exported as AIFF files... AIFF and WAV files can be loaded into the recorders as well). Playback speed is also variable. The tape machine are particularly useful in building more complex arrangements and, of course, as sound sources in their own right. Helpfully, the tape machines can also be synced together.
Finally, we have the mixer. This is a simple, 8 channel affair, each with return knobs for the plate reverb and tape delay. A master slider and sliders for each of the tape machines are also present.
There is no doubt that Gleetchplug is aiming for a very niche market here. This isn't, to say the least, a piece of software that most musicians are going to find themselves using on a daily basis. However, Gleetchplug very smartly kept the price of this very low, perhaps to encourage those who wouldn't ordinarily get into something so fiddly to check it out. This is clearly a labor of love, and has been born out of a desire to educate and share with modern musicians the techniques that eventually gave way to the ones we all use today. As such, I think this would be an invaluable tool for educators. Think about it... not only can students read about these techniques, now they can actually have some hands-on experience with them, thus gaining a much greater understanding and appreciation for the difficulty these early electronic composers faced.
Experimental musicians will also find a lot to like here. The flexibility of the matrix and the vast array of unusual sound manipulators will be a breath of fresh air to those burned out on the virtual analog trance machines that seem to get released every week. The limitations present here are faithful to what the original studios were limited to, and sometimes having those kinds of restrictions can lead you down very interesting paths you might not otherwise travel.
For sure, this isn't the most useful piece of software in the world (to most of us), but it's really hard to find fault anywhere with the program. The sound quality is great, the tools are weird and fun to play with (it drove my cats NUTS), and you can learn a bit about the history of your craft in the process. If nothing else, it'll certainly give you an appreciation for how easy modern electronic composers have it. So if you'd like a break from the norm and feel up to making some crazy 1950's sci-fi soundtrack fodder, it's hard to go wrong for a mere 10 Euros. [9/10]