Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Review: Sonic Charge Synplant

Synplant softsynth

Manufacturer: Sonic Charge
Type: Digital synth with very unique user interface
Support: http://www.soniccharge.com/support
Platforms: VST for Windows XP or later, VST & AU for OSX 10.4 or later
Price: $89 (+VAT where applicable)
Demo: 3 week demo available at http://www.soniccharge.com/download

Whether you prefer hardware or software when it comes to your synths, one thing you have to admit is that the lower overhead cost of producing software synths allows manufacturers to try out much wilder ideas than would be viable to do in hardware form. I mean, can you imagine how much Absynth would cost if it was a hardware synth?! That said, generally even the more creative approaches to synthesis usually still bear some basis in good ol’ subtractive synthesis. You program them with knobs or buttons, you send oscillators through a filter of some sort, and you shape the amplitude with an envelope. This is all well and good in that it makes the learning curve with a new instrument a bit less steep, but it also keeps your sound programming ‘in the box’ creatively speaking. Sometimes it’s nice to go into an instrument with no idea what you’re doing and just start playing around. It kind of recaptures the excitement of what it was like the first time you had a go at programming your own sounds. With Sonic Charge’s new softsynth, Synplant, they’ve created an entirely new way of interfacing with a synthesizer and they’ve managed to do it in such a way that, technically speaking at least, there’s almost no learning curve.


Installation couldn’t be easier. You simply download Synplant from Sonic Charge’s website, run the installer, and you’re good to go. If you’re just demoing Synplant, you’ll have three weeks to try it out before it “dies”. If you’ve purchased it, however, you are given a serial number that you enter along with your email address, and you’re done.


In addition to an excellent, easy-to-understand manual, Synplant itself contains a built-in tutorial that runs the first time you fire it up. You don’t have to go through it, but, like the manual, it can be useful to look at since this synth takes such a radically different approach.


More than anything, it is the user interface that makes Synplant unlike anything you’ve ever worked with before. Instead of knobs and sliders marked with familiar names like ‘cutoff’ and ‘resonance’, you’re instead presented with a virtual “seed” in a black circle surrounded by a ring marked with musical keys representing keys on your keyboard. There’s just seven sliders in addition to that, but let’s stick with the whole “seed” concept for a second, because that’s what makes this such an innovative interface.

The “seed” is a randomly generated starting point for your sound. You alter the sound by dragging out “branches” that change it in one way or the other as you drag them out. You don’t have any control over what dragging the branches alters, but that’s where the musical keys come in. Each branch that you drag out alters the seed in a different way and is assigned a different key on the keyboard. This way, you have 12 options to choose from as you sculpt your sound. You can choose to leave it mapped this way (so one sound is on all the C’s, another on all the D’s, etc.) for some unusual effects, or you can choose the sound from those 12 that you like the best and “clone” it so just that one sound is mapped across the keyboard. You can either stick with this sound, or use it as a new seed to further alter. Or, if you are finding that the seed isn’t providing you with anything to your liking, you can start over from scratch by having Synplant generate a new seed to start from. There are also undo and redo buttons at the top of the interface in case you make a mistake along the way.

There are four sliders circling the seed window. The first, tuning, allows you to tune the sound. This usually isn’t necessary since Synplant will attempt to make the sound map on the keyboard in a musical way, but sometimes it’ll be out of tune, which is where this knob comes in handy. “Atonality” basically decides whether your seed will be a musically tuned sound, or more like a sound effect. “Release”
acts just like the release value on a standard amplitude envelope works. Finally, there is “Effect” which controls the wet/dry mix of Synplant’s built-in “chorusing reverb”. Additionally, at the bottom, there are sliders for wheel scaling (the mod wheel can be used to grow all the branches simultaneously), velocity sensitivity, and volume.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. What good is a synth if the only way to create sounds is more or less at random? What happens if you come up with a sound that is close to what you want, but not quite there? This is where the Gene Editor comes in, which you access by clicking on the double helix button at the top of the interface.

The Gene Editor allows access to 37 different parameters that can be altered using sliders cleverly disguised as a DNA double helix. Some of the parameter names are a little esoteric, but you can turn on an interactive help function that explains what each one does when you place your mouse over it. Most of what you’ll need to tweak your sound to perfection is found here, and of course everything is fully automatable in your host program.


Synplant comes with 300 nicely varied presets, and registered users have access to 250 additional patches for download off the website (with a valid registration key). Sonically, Synplant has a very digital character. There are analog emulations among the presets, but you’re not going to fool anyone into thinking you’re using a Moog by a long shot. Emulations of acoustic instruments are generally not Synplant’s strong point either, although it does bells and mallets quite well, and there’s a pretty nice sounding contrabass among the presets. Overall, I’d say the general sound of Synplant is like that of an FM synth, although it is capable of a wider variety of timbres. It can do noisy sounds, but even in that state it’s not terrible aggressive. So if you’re after hard as nails sounds, this might not be for you. Overall I could see this being very useful to people making ambient, IDM, or even electro house artists looking for a little retro-digital flavor. Ultimately, you’ll have to download the demo and give it a try yourself to decide where it’s for you or not.


It's really hard to find fault with Synplant. I only really have two complaints. First, I encountered stuck notes in Logic quite a bit no matter what controller I was using. It seemed to happen most often when I changed patches, but it also would occasionally happen seemingly at random. Secondly, it would be nice if there was a greater variety of effects available, but even this is being nit-picky since I think most of us use external plug-ins for that purpose anyway. Synplant is one of those synths that you’re probably either going to love or hate. Some people might not appreciate the odd interface or the random nature of its sound generation, while others will find it incredibly refreshing. Make no mistake, this is not a synth to sit down with a specific sound in mind and start programming. This is one where you can spend hours wandering blindly through the virtual forest of timbres it creates until you find something that appeals to you that you might never have come up with on your own. I personally loved it and would like to see more companies take chances with radical programming interfaces like this in the future.

Here's a quick little throwaway ambient track I threw together in about ten minutes to give you an idea of the sound of Synplant. No compression, EQ, or external effects used, just 9 instances of Synplant.


Anonymous said...

Nice review Tom. I really like Synplant too.

Love the random sounds it comes up with and it's pretty easy to polish things up in the dna editor.

Tom said...

Glad you enjoyed the review, Ronnie. I'm a big fan of your site! Anyone here who hasn't checked out rekkerd.org should definitely do so, it's a great all in one source for the latest on plug-ins and soundware!

Buy Cialis said...

To be chaste, you can either stick with this sound, specially if you're posting the options, or use it as a new seed to further alter, to use the same language above. Or, if you are finding that the seed isn’t providing you with anything to your liking style and we'll see the kudos form in the blog.


comprar puertas metalicas said...

Well, I do not actually imagine it is likely to have effect.