Thursday, January 3, 2013

Review: Tone2 Rayblaster

Product: Rayblaster Synthesizer
Developer: Tone2
Format:  PC (VST and Standalone, 32 & 64-bit) and Mac (VST, AU, 32 & 64-bit)
Price: $199
Demo: On the product page.

Whenever a developer or manufacturer comes forth boasting of a “revolutionary” or “radically new” form of synthesis, more times than not, it comes across more  like a small tweak to tried and true methods that have been around for decades.  So it was with a healthy dose of skepticism that I approached Tone2’s latest offering, Rayblaster.  Rayblaster uses a technique Tone2 calls IMS, or Impulse Modeling Synthesis.  So is this a brave new world of synthesis, or more of the same?  Let’s find out!

IMS is a bit difficult to explain, and to be honest, I’m not entirely sure I understand it fully, but basically, IMS replaces the typical static waveform with tiny “bursts” of sound interspersed with silence.  The order of the bursts and various other aspects can be altered in a way not unlike granular synthesis.  Apparently, however, the small bursts of silence help replicate the way our hearing works, allowing Rayblaster to have more apparent loudness and cut through a mix.

In most ways, IMS sounds are programmed similar to subtractive, with one important difference – there are no filters.  That’s because the oscillators can utilize not only waveforms, but also impulse responses of real-world or imaginary filters (it can import drum loops too!).

In most other ways, however, Rayblaster programs like the softsynths you’re used to.

Installation takes place via an installer specifically for the full version (the demo version is a different installer, in other words).  Copy protection takes place via a keyfile, as with previous Tone2 products.  Easy!

As is standard these days, the manual comes in the form of a PDF.  Oddly, this appears only to be available from within the plug-in, although once it takes you to the PDF online, you can, of course download it to your device of choice.  For the most part, everything is well laid out and easy to understand.  There are some things (for instance, the “oscillator window” parameter) that aren’t really explained in depth at all, though.  So perhaps more thorough explanation in spots would be helpful. Also an editor with English as a first language might be in order, as there are quite a few grammar and spelling errors throughout.  There's nothing that gets in the way of understanding the plug-in, though.

Rayblaster shares the easy-on-the-eyes look of previous synths with a grey background, and orange or blue displays.  All the controls are easy to read and nothing feels crowded.

The top left section of the interface is occupied by the two oscillator displays.  Up to two waveforms (or filter impulses) can be loaded into each oscillator and blended between using mix controls.  Various parameters controlling the sound of the oscillators are present here allowing you to brighten sounds by controlling the kinds of harmonics they produce, add three different types of noise, and alter other properties of the way the impulses are constructed and played back.  One beef with the interface here, the display always reads “LOAD WAVE 1” and “LOAD WAVE 2” whether you’ve selected a waveform or not.  It would be helpful to have the name of the waveform displayed here if a waveform has been selected.

Next to the oscillator displays are the oscillator parameters.  Here you can set key-tracking amounts for the pitch of each wave, pan settings for each oscillator, low cut and damping controls for each oscillator, oscillator sync and BPM synchronization (especially helpful when using drum loops), as well as phase, analog drift and ring modulation settings between the two oscillators.  If you have just waveforms loaded into your oscillators, the formant control will change the formant of the oscillator (a separate tune control is independent of formant).  If, however, you have a filter model loaded in, this acts as your filter cutoff. 

Next door to this section is another display from which you can set-up the Arp/Gate, apply effects to your sound, and an extensive modulation matrix with an abundance of sources and destinations to keep your twisting your sounds for days. The Arp/Gate can function either as a standard arpeggiator or as a modulation step-sequencer for some nice rhythmic possibilities.  The effects section allows you to apply up to two effects at once (out of 19 available effects types).  Just about every type of standard effect you’d want can be found here and while they aren’t going to rock the effects world, they sound very good and offer a decent balance of flexibility and simplicity.

Directly below the display, you’ll find Rayblaster’s two LFO’s.  6 different LFO shapes are available with selectable frequency and phase, as well as the option to sync the LFO to the host tempo.

The leftmost bottom row of controls houses the general controls for the synth such as glide amount, pan, unison spread, overall patch volume, and the dedicated amp envlope.  Next to this, is the main patch display.  The bulk of this consists of the current patch name and patch category.  The bottom displays whatever the currently selected parameter name and value is, for precise adjustments.  At the top of the display you’ll find the File menu.  This section allows you to load and save patches, separately load or save arpeggiator settings to transfer between patches (nice!), the ability to export any of the waves loaded into an oscillator as a WAV file.  This is also the area where you import drum loops or resynthesized sounds.  To me, those functions seem like they should be located in the oscillator display as part of the Load Wave function.  Additionally, this section includes an Edit menu that allows you to initialize and copy different parts of a patch, a Help menu that links to the manual and a tutorial video, and a Buy Sounds menu that links to additional patches you can purchase for the synth if you so choose.

Finally, there are an additional two freely assignable ADSR envelopes with adjustable slope.

Depends on how you use it, really.  It can do evolving digital sounds, convincing analog emulations, Waldorf-like wavetables, modern granular textures…  Rayblaster definitely sounds like a Tone2 synth.  It cuts through a mix nicely and has a beautiful, modern sheen to it.  I’m not sure I find that IMS offers anything truly radical or new from a sonic standpoint, but there is no denying that this is a great-sounding synthesizer.

The only real problem I encountered (I am using Logic Pro 9.16) were occasional audio drop-outs on polyphonic patches that appeared to be unrelated to CPU load (at least Logic’s meter wasn’t showing any spikes).  This didn’t consistently happen, but it happened enough to be annoying.  CPU use varies from patch to patch, but is generally quite reasonable.  However, a “Low CPU” quality mode is selectable should you find the drain too much while working out arrangements.

Whether Rayblaster appeals to you or not really depends on what you expect out of it.  If you own other Tone2 synths and want something radically different-sounding from their previous efforts, you might want to skip this one.  If you’re new to Tone2 synths, however, this isn’t a bad place to start as it offers a good balance between the simplicity of Saurus and the sound-warping depth of Gladiator 2 while offering sounds somewhere in between those two synths.  The unconventional method of programming may be off-putting to novices, but conversely may appeal to old pros bored with subtractive synths that shape sounds in more usual ways.  And, of course, the ability to capture impulse of any real or imagined filter and import it will be a big selling-point for filter freaks.  No doubt, Rayblaster continues Tone2’s track record for great-sounding synths and deserves a spin with the demo. [8/10]


Anonymous said...

£177 for this? That'a a bit steep for a synth. Was gonna buy this till i seen the price then decided to shop at U-HE instead. Value for money and all that i give this synth 6/10 for effort but price tag is just, well errr ridiculous.

Danke ;-)

John said...

Excellent review. I appreciate that the author understands exactly what he is writing about. Thanks much for posting!

John said...

Oops, forgot to add. I love many of Rayblaster's presets, but most of the voice, vox, presets are ridiculous. "Let's party!!!" etc. Gonna pass on this synth.