Thursday, October 27, 2011

Review: Hamburg Audio Nuklear

Product: Nuklear Pulsar Train Synthesizer
Developer: Hamburg Audio
Format: AU, VST2, and VST3 for Mac and Windows
Price: €169 (academic discounts available)
Demo: Downloadable demo interrupted periodically by noise

Today I'll be taking a look at the first release from the new developer Hamburg Audio: a software synth called Nuklear.

Nuklear is a four oscillator software synthesizer that creates its sound via what Hamburg Audio refer to as "Pulsar Train Synthesis". And just what is "Pulsar Train Synthesis"? It's basically a form of Granular Synthesis where the duty cycle of the waveform can be modulated in a way somewhat similar to Pulse Width Modulation. A wide variety of modulators from LFOs and envelopes to step sequencers are available for sound mangling. In case all of that is a bit too much for you to process at first, it can also be used as a standard virtual analog using subtractive synthesis if you'd like to. So let's fire this puppy up and see what it has to offer.

After downloading the demo version of the software, make your purchase online. When you fire up Nuklear for the first time, the authorization window will pop up with what your personal ID number is (based on your system ID). Submit this via Hamburg Audio's website and you will be issued your authorization number which you then enter into the authorization window.

I should mention that I was unable to get the product to register in Logic Audio 9. When I tried to enter the serial number, Logic's internal key command handling took control and changed my screensets in Logic with each keystroke, and none of the numbers entered into the box. Cutting and pasting didn't work either. I brought this up to Hamburg Audio and they said they hadn't encountered this behavior among any of their Mac testers, so it's entirely possible there was something unique to my system that was causing troubles, but it's something to keep in mind. I simply downloaded a demo version of Ableton Live and used that to authorize the plug-in on my system.

Nuklear's documentation comes in the form of a downloadable PDF (which you can download from the product page). The docs are fairly well-written and organized, but some users, myself included, may wish they were a little bit easier for the layman to understand. This is, after all, a type of synthesis that is rarely seen, so describing it in less technical terms for people new to it, might be a good idea. Beyond just a clearer explanation of the synthesis itself, perhaps a few basic tutorials are in order here as well to show the practical applications for Pulsar Train Synthesis and why we would want to use it over another type of synthesis.

Nulkear has a very pretty interface indeed with colors that are easy on the eyes, and a clean, 3D-looking appearance. My one initial criticism is that it seems a bit small. Not unusably so, I just feel like if it was 10% bigger (or even resizable by the user), it might be a bit easier on the eyes. The pulse train set-up and step sequencers would be a lot easier to program as well Your mileage may vary, though. Other than that, the layout and look of the interface is really beautiful.

At the top of the interface, you'll find the preset manager. This window displays the name of the currently-selected preset, the soundset (bank) it's from, the patch category of the patch, user-assignable ratings, and selections to alter the basic settings of the synth can be found here. If you click the "Browse" button, a larger patch browser opens allowing you to see all your patches listed on one page. To the right of this, is another window which is used for setting up modulations as well as controlling MIDI learn capabilities.

Below those windows is the bulk of the interface, the left half of which is made up of Nuklear's 4 oscillators (or "Pulsars"). By shaping different preset Waveforms with special preset Envelopes, you define what is called the "Pulsaret". You can then alter the duty cycle of the Pulsaret via the Frequency control. You can add variations in stereo width and phase to further manipulate your raw oscillator sound. Both semitone and cent tuning knobs are available, as well as a cryptic looking little box full of interlocking triangles. This is the Micro Sequencer. It basically allows you to define which individual pulsarets sound (the bottom row of triangles) and how often the sequence should loop (the top row). Finally, there is the mysterious knob marked "Pulsar". This allows you to switch between Pulsar mode (all the way to the right) or Classic mode (all the way to the left), which turns the oscillators into your standard virtual analog oscillator. Of course, you can even use a mixture of the two types by putting the knob somewhere in the middle.

Next door to the oscillators, you'll find the filters and the mixer. The mixers is fairly straightforward. It allows you to set the volume and pan level of each Pulsar, as well as routing each Pulsar's Filter Destination (allowing you to send to either or both of Nuklear's filters).

The Filter section gives users access to two multi-mode filters (offering lowpass, highpass, and bandpass filters in both 12db and 24db variations). Filters can be run in serial or parallel, and can even cross modulate one another for ring modulation effects.

Finally, at the very right hand side of the interface, you'll find the Envelope and LFO section, as well as the effects and step sequencer sections. Nuklear offers an extremely generous 8 envelopes and 8 LFOs apiece! This is a good example of where I find the interface to be a bit too small. You select the envelopes and LFOs by clicking on tiny circles. Getting your selection right the first time can be a bit difficult if you're a klutz like me. Each envelope offers controls for Attack, Decay, Sustain, Hold, and Release with adjustable slope shape for the Attack, Decay, and Release. Nice!

The LFOs are about what you'd expect with controls for Frequency, Attack, Offset, Phase, and Waveform, as well as buttons to sync the LFOs to your host tempo (via various note values) and set whether the LFOs retrigger or not.

This brings me to modulation. The set-up is actually quite nice. When you click on a knob, it is highlighted in blue. This also automatically brings up the modulation settings for that parameter in the modulation window. You can assign two modulation sources to each paramater and even modulate the amount with another modulator. Very easy and intuitive.

Finally, we have the Effects and Step Sequencer section. Nuklear offers two basic effects, a delay with adjustable time (syncable, of course), feedback, width, and mix, and both cut and damping controls for both high and low frequencies. The Distortion effect offers 3 different types of distortion, drive, gain, mix, and high and low damping controls.

The Step Sequencer is surprisingly nicely-featured, so it's a shame the window is so small. The sequencer can have up to 8 different modulation destinations and 8 different patterns. In the sequencer's Mono mode, it acts like a simple note sequencer. In the Poly mode, it acts as a modulation sequencer allowing you to modulate multiple parameters precisely and rhythmically. Holds, slides, and returns are programmable as well. Patterns can also be assigned to trigger via MIDI.

So, it's fairly obvious that Nuklear is an extremely well-designed and full-featured synth, but how does it sound? Unfortunately, this is where things kind of fall apart for Nuklear. The simple fact of the matter is that Nuklear is not a very good-sounding synth in this version. There is a distinct lack of bass in most of the patches, and when there is low end present, it's muddy and indistinct. Many of the sounds seem like their bandlimited or EQed strangely. Sometimes an almost comb-filtered quality is present. I'll admit, I am not familiar with Pulsar Train Synthesis, so for all I know, that's just the way this particular kind of synthesis sounds. But even when you put together sounds with the Classic virtual analog mode, Nuklear just sounds cold, sterile, and lifeless. The oscillators sound very digital and "brittle" and the filters, while being decent enough, aren't enough to make the sound of the synth come alive. Perhaps some sort of "Analog" knob that could impart some irregularity would be useful here, although there is just something I fundamentally didn't like about the quality of the oscillators.

All this isn't to say that Nuklear is incapable of some decent sounds. It's very mid-rangey quality would be perfect for Goa and psytrance style leads. The sequencer is very nicely appointed and some of the included patches that make use of this are pretty cool. The extensive modulation capabilities make it very adept at weird "special FX" type sounds. The quality of the oscillators, while not great for traditional synthesis in my opinion, almost sound a bit like video game console sounds. That could make it appealing to the ChipSet boffins. But these interesting sounds tend to be in the minority. Many of the sounds are thin, unpleasant sounding, or just rather non-descript. Basses with little low-end, thin pads with too much high end, and just an overall sort of "cheap digital" sound (which may, in fact, be exactly what you're looking for).

I want to be clear about something here, though. At the end of the day, what most people are going to be concerned with is if a synth sounds good. That's a totally subjective thing and one man's noise might be another man's Nirvana. But I think it is important for me to re-emphasize how on the mark almost every other aspect of this synth is. The generous features are there. The clean, easy-to-figure out design is there. The "offering something different" factor is there. With some serious re-engineering of the sound of this plug-in, it could be something truly great. I hope Hamburg Audio will pursue that, as it's always great to see another new developer on the scene. As it is, though, I can only recommend this if you've got money to burn and are desperate to mess around with a different type of synthesis. [5/10]

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