Thursday, December 30, 2010

Review: Big Tick Audio Rhino 2.09

Product: Rhino
Developer: Big Tick Audio
Formats: PC (Windows 2000 and higher) and Intel Mac (10.4 and higher) VST & AU
Price: €70 (for a limited time €35 with coupon code XMAS2010)
Demo: MP3 demos on product page, as well a downloadable demo version.

The power of the computers in our studios these days has opened a lot of doors. Not only does it allow developers to come up with entirely new approaches to sound synthesis that would be prohibitively expensive in hardware form, but it allows them to re-visit previous, well-mined methods in an attempt to bring them into the present. The latter is the case with Big Tick Audio's Rhino.

At its heart, Rhino is essentially a modern take on an FM synth. This doesn't really tell the whole story, however, because Rhino also allows the use of sampled sounds and contains an additive synthesis-based generator for creating still more custom waveforms. Indeed, you don't need to use the FM features at all, as you can pass the oscillators straight to the filters without them modulating one another for more traditional subtractive or sample & synthesis type timbres.

Installation is your standard installer. Copy protection comes in the form of a key file. Without the key file, the plug-in operates in demo mode, which restricts you from saving presets or automating parameters. Pretty simple stuff.

The manual is worth noting here as it is surprisingly concise for such a complex synth, weighing in at only 19 pages. This isn't because it's lacking anything, though. Everything is outlined in a pretty easy to understand way without being unnecessarily long. So that's good news for those of you who hate reading manuals. The bad news is, you probably will need to read this one. A lot of how Rhino works isn't immediately apparent on first sight, so the manual is helpful in unraveling any mysteries you might encounter.

I'll say right from the start that I was not a fan of Rhino's interface. The parameter names text is small and difficult to read, and overall the interface's look feels "old" to me, as if it were a much older softsynth. You can switch skins for different looks, but I really felt like the default skin should look better than it does.

My second issue with it may be nit-picky, but I found the use of horizontal sliders a bit off-putting as well. To me, vertical sliders are much more intuitive as far as giving one a quick visual representation of parameter values. Your mileage may vary.

One final small complaint - each oscillator's settings are accessed via tabs. For the most part, this makes perfect sense, but I did find myself wishing that there was maybe a 'global oscillators' page that displayed basic settings for all oscillators on a single page, thus allowing you to tweak relative volume, pan, and pitch parameters quickly while being able to see the other oscillators settings at a glance. Since FM synthesis is highly dependent on the way the oscillators interact with one another, being able to compare pitch settings of each oscillator in one place would be handy.

Rhino is comprised of 6 oscillators. These can be used as operators for traditional 6-OP FM (indeed, Rhino will import sounds from Yamaha's venerable DX-7, giving you a wealth of other presets right off the bat), or simply as oscillators in the more traditional, subtractive sense. A generous selection of waveforms is available ranging from the standard synth waves, to sampled attacks, loops, nature sounds, percussion, and user waveforms created via the simple additive generator. Additional waveform packs can also be added to further expand Rhino's palette.

Each of Rhino's oscillators can be accessed via tabs at the top of the interface. Herein you'll find settings for the oscillator's amplitude envelope, waveshaping envelope, pitch, envelope, and phase envelope, the oscillator's waveform, keyboard and velocity tracking (which can be set to modulate a variety of parameters), waveshaping, pitch modulation and random pitch, glide time, phase, and coarse and fine settings.

Rhino offers 2 filters which can be run in series or parallel, each offering 20 different filter types including variations on lowpass, bandpass, and highpass. The layout of the filter page is very similar to the oscillator pages, allowing scaling of filter parameters via key tracking or velocity & aftertouch, dedicated filter and resonance envelopes, morphable waveshaping, and the expected cutoff and resonance settings. The filters can also feed back into each other which opens the door to more extreme, ear-shredding territory should you be wishing to punish your ears.

The filters sound decent, if pretty non-descript. There's nothing here that's really going to light you on fire for the most part, but they get the job done.

I would be remiss if I didn't make a mention of the envelopes throughout. As you might expect, these are rather more complex than your standard ADSR, allowing you to add and subtract points, lock points into position, or even loop to use the envelopes as a complex LFO. These are, of course, syncable to host tempo as well. One feature I really liked and would love to see more developers offering complex envelopes use, is that if you just need a standard ADSR envelope, there are settings at the top of the window allowing you to do just that without having to dirty your hands with the more complex side of things.

Here's where things start to get a bit more complex. FM synthesis is all about modulation, namely oscillators modulating each other. In traditional FM synthesis, pre-defined algorhithms
described how those oscillators would interact. Rhino is significantly more open-ended, giving you a matrix allowing you to freely route the desired level of an oscillator to other oscillators, the filters, ring modulators, or the raw output. This obviously is a much more flexible and open-ended way of doing things, but for those not familiar with FM synthesis, it can also be a bit bewildering. The option of some commonly-used, pre-defined set-ups might be a helpful, time-saving addition in a future version.

Next to the mod matrix, are a series of six sliders marked as 'user controls'. These can be assigned to a wide range of parameters that make up your sound allowing quick access to useful sound-altering tweaks.

Rhino contains an up to 16-step sequencer with separate rows for setting pitch, velocity, and note length, allowing very expressive grooves and sequences to be programmed. Sequences can be saved and loaded, and a random mode is also available. Again, the horizontal sliders are bit odd to use in this context, at least to me.

If the selection of waveforms that ship with Rhino aren't enough to keep you satisfied, you can create your own 64-partial additive waveforms. These can be saved and loaded to disk, and WAVs can be imported and analyzed as well. The upper display is where you define the level of each partial, while a very helpful display below it shows you what your waveform looks like in real time.

Each sound in Rhino can have up to two effects, run either in parallel or series. You've got access to over 20 effects here ranging from the expected delays, choruses, flangers, phasers, and reverbs, to more esoteric effects such as the crazy comb, the chaos chorus, and the stereo granulator. The quality of the effects are generally decent, although I found most of the reverbs pretty disappointing.

As you can see from what I've discussed, Rhino is a pretty complex beast. FM synthesis is already fairly complex on its own, but when you add the open-ended flexibility Rhino offers, its easy to see just how much more complex and potentially confusing to novices this could get. Big Tick seems to understand that and includes a very generous selection of over 1,000 presets to get you started. The problem is, these are a mixed bag at best. The patches that come up in the default bank are predictably the most impressive and indeed give a peek at what Rhino is capable of. However, once you start exploring the sounds in the sub-categories (via the very helpful patch browser), things are more of a mixed bag. I found quite a few of these to sound extremely dated and uninspiring. Certainly when compared to the presets that ship with comparable products such as Native Instruments FM8 or Rob Papen's Blue, most of these come up a bit short.

My general feeling is that Rhino is a very powerful synth with a lot of depth to it - a programmer's synth. The people that are likely to get the most out of it are those that are at least somewhat familiar with the inner workings of FM synthesis. I'm not sure if I would recommend this as an instrument to learn FM from scratch, however. If you really like to roll up your sleeves and get down and dirty with your programming, Rhino offers you a lot of territory to explore and an extremely flexible engine for producing sounds. Overall, though, I feel like this is an instrument that hasn't quite reached its full potential yet. Certain aspects such as the interface, the filters, and the effects fell into the "good enough" category, where I felt like a synth with so much obvious thought behind it deserves for those things to be spectacular. I am confident that Big Tick will improve those aspects in future versions, but in the meantime, I highly recommend downloading the demo and giving it a test spin yourself. [7.5/10]

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