Thursday, October 22, 2009

Review: Plogue's Chipsounds

Product: Chipsounds softsynth
Softsynth emulation of classic computer/gaming sound chips

VST, AU (OS X only), RTAS, Standalone
System Requirements:
PC: Windows XP or better,2.8gHz Pentium 4 or better, 1GB RAM. MAC: OS 10.4 or better, Intel Core Duo Processor or better, 1 GB RAM
Manufacturer: Plogue
Support: Plogue YouTube Channel, Plogue User Forum
$75 (limited time offer).

I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire called Lyme. Despite how small our elementary school was (less than 100 students in total), we always had a really good computer education program. We learned not only the basic operation of a computer and peripherals, but even learned some programming in BASIC, LOGO, and other now-outmoded languages. The computers we had were mostly Commodore 64's and one day in class, I noticed in the back of the manual there was a section about the synthesis chip (the now famous SID chip) and how to use it. I couldn't yet afford a synthesizer at this point (I was only in 5th grade), so I had a go at programming a little synthesizer program for the C64. There wasn't much to it, but you could do basic editing to the sound and play it from the keyboard and it didn't sound half bad. Little could I have known back then how popular 'obsolete' computer and gaming console chips would become in the electronic music underground decades later. While there have been previous softsynths aimed at recreating these types of sounds, so far none have been as ambitious as the latest offering from Plogue called, appropriately enough, Chipsounds. So how have they done? Read on...

Installation is a standard affair with an installer program taking care of all the grunt work. Once you've registered your product, you will be issued your copy protection key which comes in the form of a graphics file in PNG format that you drag onto the GUI of the softsynth when you first launch it. Please note there is a bug in Logic 9 that prevents the drag and drop authorization from within Logic itself. The solution here is simply to launch the standalone version and authorize it there (this also authorizes the plug-in versions).

Documentation for the program comes in the form of a PDF file. Plogue indicates that this is a work in process, but for the most part it's very good, if a bit of a dry read. Helpfully, the manual makes notes throughout wherever Chipsounds strays a bit from the limitations of the original chips for those who are sticklers for absolute authenticity. There's also a nice section containing some history on each of the chips and what made them unique for some good, geeky fun.

I'm just going to come out and say it. The interface is ugly as sin. Fortunately, it is entirely skinnable if you're willing to get your hands a little dirty. And unless colors like pea-soup green or sickly mustard yellow are your bag, you'll probably want to give it a go. That said, the interface is easy to understand and well-organized. The layout doesn't seem quite as efficient as it could be, but does leave room open for future expansion and is, at least to a degree, necessary considering that some chips offer different, unique functions not available on others. Overall though, despite not being pretty to look at, the interface is very easy to understand and navigate even without cracking the manual.

Chipsounds opens to the MIXER page which gives users access to up to 8 slots in which to load different chip emulations. These can either be layered in OMNI mode, or can be triggered individually via multi-timbral operation. Each slot offers settings for MIDI channel, tuning, volume, panning, reverb amount, etc. You can think of this similarly to the 'MULTI' mode in many hardware synths allowing you to either set up different sounds per MIDI channel, or layer and detune multiple sounds to harness the power of up to 8 different chips at once for sounds that would've been tough to create in the old days.

Before we go on, it's worth mentioning a little bit about the chip emulations themselves. There are tons of options here from such historic machines as the Commodore 64, the Atari 400, the VIC-20, the Super NES, the Casio VL-1, Colecovision, Intellivision, etc. At the present time, some chips are emulated with samples, where others are directly modeled. Plogue indicates that in future versions, all chips will be modeled (although the samples will still be available for the purpose of backwards compatibility. In addition to the standard waveforms offered by each chip, Plogue has graciously included some cool 'extras' such as a small selection of 4-bit sampled drum sounds, and a couple sounds produced by misbehaving chips. Even listening to the raw sounds, there is a nice variety of timbres to start from, all with those unique sonic qualities that make these old chips sound different from modern synthesizers.

The next page of parameters is the CONTROLS page which consists of settings unique to each chip model, an ARPEGGIATOR, and a WAVESEQUENCER. Tabs on the left side of the interface let you access each of the 8 available slots individually and easily which makes programming more complex sounds a breeze.

The ARPEGGIATOR is inspired by the very basic arpeggiator on the Roland Juno 60. As such, it's really intended more as a performance feature than as a sound design source. A nice addition, but by no means an essential part of the instrument.

Instead, the types of rapid arps and burbling bloops you might expect to create with an arpeggiator are created in the WAVESEQUENCER. Indeed, the WAVESEQUENCER is rather integral to the creation of a lot of classic video game sounds and is really the key to getting the most out of this instrument. Note values and parameters such as NOTE ON, NOTE OFF, PITCH, and CC modulation are entered on a grid here that takes a little getting used to at first, but that is not too bad to use one you get used to how its set up. That said, I think this could be implemented in a much more intuitive/visual way such as the step sequencers featured on many softsynths such as Native Instruments Massive. I think a little visual feedback would make this a lot more simple for the average user. Each chip slot can have up to 12 different wave sequences that can be mapped as you see fit across the keyboard. So even with a single chip, you can see the potential for creating a broad range of sounds and effects using the WAVESEQUENCER alone.

Next, we have the chip-specific parameters window which contains any parameters that are unique to a specific chip. Some have no additional parameters at all, while others offer several parameters to let you further sculpt the sound.

The final component of the CONTROLS page is the OSCILLISCOPE that lets you visualize the sounds you are playing. (This actually appears on the MODULATION page as well).

The third available programming page is the MODULATION page which contains standard style envelopes for modulating both PITCH and AMPLITUDE, an LFO for modulating pitch, and an extremely basic PORTAMENTO mode. Some users may be a bit surprised by the relative dearth of parameters here, but these reflect the way the original chips worked and, frankly, the limitations of those chips lead to some very clever tricks used by programmers to extend the range of sounds possible (see especially the previously mentioned WAVESEQUENCER). I like that Chipsounds encourages users to discover some of the old workarounds for creating unique sounds.

The next page over is the EFFECTS page, which presently consists solely of a REVERB effect. The REVERB sounds very good and is as flexible as you could hope for, but I did feel like the lack of other effects was a bit of a shame. Plogue has indicated that they do intend to introduce more effects in future versions, but for the time being, you may need to rely more on external plug-ins to put that final bit of polish on your sounds. No doubt the raw sound of Chipsounds is cool in its own way, but a wider variety of effects will help users create more contemporary sounds and vastly expand the usefulness of this instrument.

Finally, we have the SETTINGS page which contains info on various settings (sample rate, buffer size, etc), your licensing, and a link to the online support from Plogue.

In a word: awesome. I obviously don't have a stack of the original machines on hand to A/B Chipsounds direectly with the originals, but I've used more of these machines in my childhood than I care to admit. Playing with Chipsounds brought tons of these childhood memories rushing back... playing Frogger on my friend's dad's Atari 800... playing the little Casio VL-1 another friend had... my own experiments with my grade school's Commodore 64. The personality of these chips comes through in droves and makes this a must have for anyone nostalgic for these archaic means of sound production, whether they're a musician or not.

But while Chipsounds takes great pains to remain faithful to the limitations of the original chips, it's the possibility to harness up to 8 of these chips at once that breathes new life and possibilities into them. You can make some very thick and powerful sounds you might not expect to get from classic chips if you take the time to layer and experiment. This is one aspect I found Chipsounds really excelled at over similarly themed softsynths. Previous softsynths emulating chips I have used sounded cool enough, but ultimately they always sound like chip sounds. Chipsounds can obviously make those sounds without breaking a sweat, but it is also capable of some very useful, "un-chip like" sounds with a little work.

So who is going to find this the most useful? If you're into making chiptunes, this is a no-brainer. Just buy it. With chip sounds making their way into an increasing number of genres these days, it will also appeal to people looking to introduce some different and unique timbres into their songs not attainable on your standard virtual analog. Once you start to experiment with layering and building more complex sounds, it becomes immediately obvious that this will also become a favorite among musicians doing styles such as electro house where its aggressively digital sound is a natural fit.

What excites me most about Chipsounds is the possibilities for the future. I'd love to see a couple options that weren't present in the original machine introduced here. A filter section would definitely expand the possibilities (a handful of chips have filters available as their chip-specific settings), a more useful and flexible Portamento function would be great, and, as mentioned before, a wider array of effects would be a nice addition. That said, imposing the limitations of the original chips is not a bad thing in my opinion. It encourages the same kind of creative thinking and workarounds the original programmers used to use back in the day to get sounds you wouldn't expect to be possible with such limited means. Plogue has approached this softsynth with a palpable sense of reverence and their affection for these outdated sound makers shines through in abundance. An exceptionally fun and unique instrument! [8/10]

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