Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Review: Madrona Labs Aalto Softsynth

Product: Aalto Softsynth

Madrona Labs
Support forum: Madrona Labs Forums

Demo: On Product Page

Although the gaps seems to close year by year, people can still argue until they're blue in the face about whether hardware or software is better when it comes to synths. I've always thought this was the wrong way to look at it. Instead of creating imaginary yardsticks by which to define "better", I find it a lot more productive to focus on what the strengths are of both so I can exploit them for what they do best. What is undeniable, though, is that these days most of the innovative and "weird" products are coming out on the software end. There are some boutique manufacturers out there who still cater to those who want (and can afford) their weirdness in hardware form, but the relative low cost to create and sell software online means most of the real interesting stuff is happening on the software end. Case in point: Madrona Labs' Aalto - a semi-modular softsynth inspired by the likes of Don Buchla's fantastic synth oddities.

Installation is as simple as dragging your registered Component file into the Plug-ins folder of your Mac's Library directory. If you are installing the demo version, saving of patches will be disabled and a swell of noise will be introduced to the signal every 60 seconds. Copy protection is extremely non-intrusive. The plug-in is registered to you, and you're issued a unique Component file. Periodically, Aalto will do a check to make sure there's no shenanigans going on, and that's it. I can't applaud this kind of thing enough. As someone who makes it a point not to pirate software, it always cheeses me off when manufacturers want to burden their users with a dongle or some other intrusive means of protection. This is Aalto's first softsynth. If you like what you hear, make sure you do the right thing and buy it so there can be more.

Aalto is an AU format softsynth that consists of a "Complex Oscillator" (essentially a fancy 2-operator FM set-up inspired by a Buchla module) fed into a Waveguide/Delay (which can act as an additional oscillator at the right settings), a multi-mode filter (based on the one on the Oberheim SEM), and reverb. 2 envelopes, a single LFO, and a Step Sequencer with up to 16 steps are all available as modulation sources, with a very intuitive patching system between modulators and the targets allowing just about all of the synth and effect parameters to be modulated by any modulation source (a modulator can feed multiple sources at once, and the synth/effect parameters can be modulated by more than one modulator at once).

If you're looking for yet another paint-by-numbers virtual analog to build big trance leads and lush pads, this probably isn't for you. Aalto is fully capable of producing some really appealing melodic sounds for sure, but the uniqueness of the Complex Oscillator and extensive modulation capabilities means that where it really shines is in weird, over the top, old-school modular madness. This is an experimenter's dream / "mad scientist" sort of synth that is especially fun to play around with if you've never had the privilege of playing a Buchla or EMS in real life. So Aalto is not meant to be your bread and butter synth - unless your bread and butter happens to be the more experimental, esoteric end of things.

One thing you should be clear on before taking the plunge with Aalto is the version 1 still has some kinks left to be worked out. Most notably, the CPU usage is pretty over the top. At the present time, you are afforded a maximum of 4-voice polyphony, but you will want to limit that if you don't need the extra voices, as more complex patches can really put a hurting on your processor usage. I'm on a 2.66 Quad-Core Mac Pro which generally has no problem with what I throw at it, but there were a few times I had audio drop outs when I peaked one of my processors. This is something Madrona Labs is well aware of and is seeking to curtail in an update which is expected shortly.

Another area Aalto is a bit deficient in at the moment is the built-in presets - there are only about 30. This is also something Madrona Labs plans to address in coming updates, as well as the hope that users will share their own creations on the User Forum. One could argue that they shouldn't include a lot of presets, as this is really a programmer's synth, and experimentation should be encouraged. However, I think a generous library of presets is pretty much expected these days and can go a long way towards showing off just how powerful your product is.

Finally, at the present time, Aalto can't be synced to your host's tempo. This, too will be remedied in an upcoming update, just be aware that host sync is not available with this initial version.

If you've only ever used bog standard subtractive synths before, Aalto's interface might look a little intimidating at first. A brief look at the included Quickstart Manual, however, will illuminate things for you and it becomes quite easy to get around. The controls consist mainly of dials and knobs, with thin, colored virtual patch cables to connect modules to one another. Many of the controls are animated to show how modulation is effecting their values, and the pitch control also contains a mini oscilloscope of sorts that gives you a visual picture of the sound in real time. The layout of controls is very clean and easy to follow. If you have an exceptionally complex patch with lots of "patch cables", it can look a bit confusing when trying to figure what's what, although not impossible. Perhaps a future version would allow you to click on a patch cable and have it "highlight" in some way (perhaps the cable becomes thicker or lights up) allowing you to see only the connection you want to see a bit more easily.

Sonically, Aalto is astonishingly "vintage" sounding. The oscillators already provide everything from simple sine bleeps, to clangorous bells and percussion, to soft, simple waveforms, to aggressively harsh digital timbres. Regardless of what direction you take it, however, the oscillator instability they've introduced into the path makes it sound like it's coming from something old. The reverb (inspired by the one in the Arp 2600) and delays only add to this, and definitely have a beautifully old school sensibility to them. The filters are no slouch, either. I think this is a synth where everything working in conjunction makes it much more than just the sum of its parts.

How you feel about Aalto really depends what it is you're seeking in a synth. If it's Top of the Pops candy trance or bread and butter rock and roll sounds, you're probably looking in the wrong place here. But if you've been longing for something different that will surprise you and let you get lost for hours patching and experimenting, Aalto has a lot to offer. It's clear that Madrona Labs are passionate about what they do, and if you share their fondness for the odder end of the vintage spectrum, you'll have a lot of fun with this. Keep in mind, as mentioned earlier, this is the first version of the software and there are still some rough edges that need to be buffed out, but it's one hell of a first synth for Madrona Labs and I hope it's only the beginning for more of this sort of thing. [9/10]

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