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Accelerate Your Mac!
Bring in the Noise
Mac Audio Column
by Thad Brown

6/6/2000

Review of Reaktor 2.3.1 from Native Instruments

What it is and what it does

Regular readers of this little corner of the web will know that I have always been interested in the possibilities of software synthesis. The ability to harness the power of a host computer for doing all manner of sound creation is, after all, the goal of the home computer recordist. Being able to run a synth in software is a crucial piece of that puzzle. It's also not all that outlandish an idea. Many "classic" synths were either quite simple electronic devices, or were digital themselves, so getting the sound of a DX-7 or an 808 right is much easier than trying to get every nuance of a violin or an acoustic guitar out of a synthesizer. Native Instruments has been trolling these waters for some time, originally as a PC only company with their software synthesizer, Generator. They also made a software sampler called Transfomator, and finally, their you-got-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter app Reaktor. Reaktor is the sampling capabilities of Transformator and the synthesis capabilities of Generator under one roof and one GUI, with some effects tossed into the mix. All of the apps work from a similar philosophy where the user of the software can modify any Reaktor document, or make completely new Reaktor documents, as he or she wishes. New synths or samplers can be built with either fairly high level building blocks, or at a very low level where you have to think like a synth designer.

So, the first thing to remember is that the ambition of Reaktor is not to be a great synthesis tool, its ambition is to be any synthesis tool. Reaktor sound creators can easily be built to include traditional subtractive synthesis, granular synthesis, FM synthesis, wavetable synthesis, sampling, and a bunch of other unique tools. After the sounds have been Reakted, they can be further munged or improved with an extensive effects section. Finally, NI has made an impressive effort to support sequencer integration, so users of Cubase, Pro Tools 5.0 or better, Performer, and soon Logic (once a few more bugs are worked out) will be able to use Reaktor within whatever sequencing environment is most familiar.

Reaktor is an incredibly deep application. There is almost always room to learn more about it, and new sounds to be made. NI supports and posts on an active mailing list, and they actively encourage users of the software to upload their own Reaktor creations to a centralized NI library. Some of the ensembles there are fantastic, some are just good, but nearly every one at least one lesson that can be learned from it. One of the best things about Reaktor is that an experienced synthesist can use it to create completely new synths, or to quite faithfully recreate a synth that is no longer available or is prohibitively expensive. At the same time, a beginner can take apart whatever synths or samplers are available to learn how to make better sounds and synths. The sharing of this kind of information is one of many things I like about this piece of software.

Test System and Ratings Scale

I have the suckiest audio Macintosh in the world. Since the unfortunate and untimely demise of the UMAX S900, I have been plunking away on my old Powerbase. For over a year, the PB had taken over the job of being a place where I put a glass of wine while I'm working on a song. Really, it was nothing more than a drink tray. Once the UMAX went belly up, I dusted the PB off, put in a Turbomax card, and popped in my almost equally outdated Powerlogix 220/110 card. Believe it or not, it's basically working. The PL board is clocked up around 300 for the time being, and the system is using OS 9.0 quite effectively. Sadly, I max out at 144MB of RAM, which is a serious performance hindrance, as is the 43 Mhz system bus setting that I'm using now. Still, it gets my by until I can save the pennies for a new G4. I'm a proud and very happy owner of a set of Vergance/NHT A-10 monitors. My primary sequencer is still Cubase. All software here is evaluated with the same ratings scale.

1. Installation and configuration. 10 points

2. Audio features and quality. What can it do and does it sound good while doing it. 30 points.

3. GUI. I sometimes spend hours in a row for days in a row working with the same app. Will the interface be frustrating, tiring, or unintuitive after all those hours? 20 points.

4. Compatibility. Will the app integrate with other applications and support files from other apps and platforms. 10 points.

5. Documentation. 10 points

6. Overall value. I have no choice but to spend my audio dollars carefully, is this app worth it? 20 points.

Installation and Configuration

The full boxed version of Reaktor consists of two CD-ROMs and a sizeable printed manual. The install procedure couldn't have been simpler. Pop in the CD-ROM, hit the installer icon, and follow the instruction. In the license section, NI put the simple (and true) statement that pirating this software makes further development more difficult and less likely. Still, they avoid the most onerous kind of copy protection by choosing to use a serial number and "Enigma" file. The Enigma file is a large file (about 100 MB) that sits on your drive and includes something that the key needs to be sure the right serial number was used with the right CD-ROM. In the days when 2 GB drives were good sized, I suppose 100 MB might be a big deal, but nobody doing audio work is going to miss that little space. The second CD-ROM is a collection of samples provided free from NI. Many of them are in the "strange" department, but they proved to be useful in the sampling section of the application. In a few words, good stuff.

I got version 2.0, which had, um, some issues at first. Like it didn't work much. Updates are regularly posted at the NI website and are almost always an executable only. You download the file, unstuff it, and you have a new Reaktor app to click on. The underlying pieces stay the same. Version 2.0.4 was the first one I used for some time, and it was reasonably stable. At that time, it used OMS exclusively for MIDI inside the Mac, and it worked fine. Set up an IAC bus and off you go. With the release of version 2.3 and above, VST 2.0 compatibility was added. That also worked right the first time. I copied over the VST instruments to the right folders and everything went fine. It's one of the most stable VST instruments I've used, and performed as advertised, from the get go.

I had not a single problem setting up, installing, or configuring Reaktor. I wish every app were as easy. 10 points.

Audio Features and Quality

Now comes the tough part, explaining what Reaktor does. Reaktor is a completely modular environment in which you create, modify, and play pretty much any synthesizer or sampler you can imagine. It has tools to modify and route MIDI data, tools for all manner of sound generators, tools to create filters and envelopes, tools for effects, and tools for controlling final output.

Maybe the best way to discuss Reaktor is to explain how a basic synth would be made. A blank Reaktor instrument is just that, a blank window. As always when dealing with synths, the first thing you need to learn is some vocabulary. In Reaktor-speak, what you might call a synth is called an ensemble. It's a fully formed entity with all of the guts that your sound maker contains. The reason it's called an ensemble is that the next lower level of complexity in Reaktor is the instrument. An ensemble is a group of instruments (get it). If it's a group of instruments, I suppose they could have chosen a different name, like a "music store" or a "string quartet" or an "invitation to drug addiction" but they chose ensemble. So be it. An instrument is an entity with internal sound producing and modifying guts, MIDI routing, and a control panel. For instance, something as simple as a single shot .wav sampler is an instrument. On the other hand, something as complex as a reverb unit or a three oscillator two envelop synth can be an instrument. Instruments are filled with either macros or modules. Modules are the lowest level widgets in Reaktor, things like oscillators and mixers. Macros are predefined collections of modules, so instead of having to use a ton of modules to build a two pole filter with an ADSR controlling it from scratch every time, you can add it with one click. This all sounds terribly abstract when written, but it makes a great deal of sense in practice. Modularity, and the ability to make your own instruments and macros in Reaktor is one of its strong points.

Making a synth is a matter of hooking up pretty much any and all of these pieces, and can be done at a very high or very low level. For instance, you can take a small sampler instrument, put a keyboard MIDI input in it so it can be triggered, then hook the output of the sampler to a filter macro with an envelop, and finally to an amplifier macro with an envelop. Hook the output of the amplifier to the output of the ensemble, and there you are. That's the high level way of working in Reaktor. The low level way of working with Reaktor is avoiding macros entirely and tweaking with the modules themselves, hooking everything up yourself. In this mode, you can get completely geeked out, changing the control range of the attack knob, deciding what controllers are assigned to what functions, and so on. I think it's fair to say that Reaktor offers as much control over your sound making as any app you're like to find anywhere. You can quite easily get lost at the low level in Reaktor, fiddling around with wires and modules until you are losing your sanity. In a good way, of course.

Once you have put together all of your sound making pieces and parts, you generally need some way to control at least some of the parameters. In Reaktor, as always, you are given maximum freedom. You build the control panel for your creations by choosing what control elements are visible, and where they are visible, in your creation. Remember that I said that each instrument has a control panel. When you have any parameter in Reaktor that you could want to control, it can show up in either the instrument control panel, or the ensemble control panel. Since the ensemble window is visible all of the time, things you know you'll need should be there, and things you might need sometimes, but don't mind digging for should be in the instrument control panels. As I said, this all sounds a trifle abstract when described, but it's very logical when working with it.

Reaktor includes an amazing variety of ways to make sound. Reaktor lets you use sampling, FM synthesis, granular synthesis, and tradition subtractive synthesis as you wish. Within these different kind of sound generation, of course, there is a great deal of variety. For instance, pulling down the menu to insert an oscillator module reveals over 30 possible choices. Choosing filters, envelopes, sequencers, and all else offers a similar range of choice. It is, in fact, rather amazing to see.

Now, I hear you asking, "Great Thad, I'm glad you like playing with this stuff this much, but does it sound good, and do I need an electrical engineering degree to figure out how to use it?" The answer is it sounds great, and no. While Reaktor offers a level of tweakability that I would think would keep nearly any synth geek happy, it also ships with some very good pre-made ensembles. The stuff on the CD certainly doesn't suck, and with version 2.3, NI commissioned or built a new set of instruments they call the Premium Library, which any registered Reaktor user can download from their site. All of those ensembles are excellent, and some are extraordinary. If this still isn't what you want, the NI website includes a user section where people upload their own creations for you to play with. Many of those are also very very good sounding, some are recreation of favorite old synths, and some are totally different from anything you have used before. Remember, too, that you can always get in there and change things about if you don't like them at first, but Reaktor can do plenty right out of the box as well. NI also includes a full complement of instruments ready to use in your own creations, or to add to creations you get from somewhere else.

Finally, we get to perhaps the most crucial consideration-sound quality. Once again, I was thoroughly impressed by this piece 'o software. It sounds fantastic, regardless of what you are doing with it. The ability to output 24 bit audio files in Cubase with the VST 2 instruments let me hear Reaktor at full resolution, and I was very impressed. The pads are silky, the subtractive synths are punchy, the oscillators growl, and the resonant filter squeal enough to make a Labrador cry when the resonance is set high enough. Lots of people much more knowledgeable about old school synths than I swear you can do a better job modeling an old synth with Reaktor than any other software tool. The effects sound great as well. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that. Despite the already tortuous length of this review, Reaktor has a fairly exhaustive set of effects options as well, but I'll cut this short before everyone falls asleep. Reaktor sounds great, you'll likely run out of ideas before it runs out of capability and sound quality.

OK, what's wrong? Not much. Reaktor is murder on the CPU. All of this sound quality and complexity comes at serious computational cost. Don't bother trying to run it on your 180 Mhz 603e. There's not much to critique. I'll lop one point off for killing my G3, but I'm being a harsh grader. Reaktor sounds as good or better than any software out there, and as good or better than most hardware I've used. It trounces all comers for flexibility. 29 out of 30

The GUI

Reaktor is an interesting take on the whole modular synth and sampler thing. There are a number of different apps that do more or less what Reaktor does, and within that category there is a great deal of variety. Some apps (Nord, Pulsar) stick very closely to the real world metaphor of how a modular synth used to be. In those apps, you get a rack with a bunch of modules you can add, and virtual cables that you can patch between devices. Like real cables, they can get tangled and difficult to see around! Reaktor takes a two dimensional approach to building the synths, not at all like anything in the real world. You chain synths together with wires, but instead of patching cables into virtual plugs on a rack module, the inputs, outputs and controllers are available as little points on either side of a module or macro or instrument. In many ways, I think this is vastly superior to the way modular synths work in the real world, so that works in the favor of Reaktor. Also, the different levels of complexity means that you can hide some things you don't need to see when you wish to do so. I don't know of any way that you can hide six modules in a rack when you don't need them. NI also did a great job with color coding different parts of an ensemble, so it's easy to see where you are working. That certainly welcome when mucking around under the hood. Finally, the ability to have control elements visible in any way you wish is great. It means in a lot of ways, you can make your own GUI. I think the design of the interface of Reaktor is supremely elegant and useful.

Now for the bad news. It's not, well, very inspiring. I talked to NI about this, and they made the very good point that they put their energy into the algorithms and the audio of the app, not to making things super pretty. I certainly understand, and appreciate, that approach, but it is a bit of a drag at times. Every knob is the same, every LED is the same, and the background color is always the same. I guess in a perfect world, there would be more CPU cycles to use, and more programmers to use them at NI, but that isn't the world in which we live right now. It's a great design, it just isn't fun to look at. 18 points.

Compatibility

Another real winner for Reaktor. They already support, or soon will support, nearly everything. First up, NI was early on the VST 2 bus, and in Reaktor they have one of the most stable VST 2 instruments I've used. Anything you create in Reaktor can be saved a as a VST instrument. They are in the process of supporting DirectConnect and MAS as of this writing. There are some problems for Logic users, but NI and Emagic tell us that they are working on this. There's hardly a way to work on a Mac that Reaktor won't work with, and NI are to be commended for putting the effort into all these different drivers.

The one quibble on the compatibility front is with the sample maps. Unfortunately, Reaktor will only work with its own sample maps, and will not import any others. In addition, I occasionally had problems dealing with .aif files in the samplers. Never had any trouble with .wav files, so that's what I used, but I'm getting really sick of having to have all of my favorite loops in eighteen different file formats. I hope NI has some time to get at least Akai and Samplecell keymaps importing into Reaktor.

Still, that's fairly small potatoes. 9 points.

Documentation

Reaktor includes very good dead tree documentation. There is a tutorial section walking a new user through making an initial synth. Explanations of how the sampler works, how to make sample maps, and suggestions on proper organization within an ensemble. If that isn't enough, there are a number of very good tutorials on the NI web site. And, they are in English, which is cool for those of us who forgot all of our German. Each update has included a .pdf or other format readme file explaining the setup of new features if there is any. Some people have complained about Reaktor documentation, but I think it's very good. All of this jives with my experience with European software companies, I guess they just take the time to write good doco. Finally, there is a VERY informative and fairly high signal to noise ratio mailing list where NI people post. The list is a great source of information on Reaktor and related topics. 10 points.

Overall Value

For software Reaktor is neither cheap nor expensive. It is available for a good bit less than the $499 list price if you look around. At the street price, it's is truly an exceptional value. It comes out of the box with some exceptional synth sounds, and the full version allows you to use the synths that are uploaded to the NI web site in the user area. This is one of the best things about using Reaktor. Some of the user synths are truly spectacular, some are just good, and some are completely strange, but few are out and out clunkers. I think that this level of pre made synths and the ability to roll your own make it quite a deal. Finally, by supporting so many different ways to get audio and MIDI in and out of the app, NI has made Reaktor useful in a ton of different situations. I could even see it being used live in a laptop. 19 out of 20.

Conclusion

Reaktor sets a new record for Bring in the Noise reviews with a score of 95. That score is impressive, and I think this is a very positive review, but I haven't come close to capturing what Reaktor really is. As much as any app I've yet dealt with, Reaktor has mojo. Mojo, mojo, mojo. It's fun, it's deep, and it sounds fantastic. If you are interested in electronic music and synthesis, buy it now. If you are interested in sound design and twisting samples, buy it now. If you have ever wanted a juno and don't have one, buy it now. In fact, the only person I think shouldn't consider buying Reaktor is a hard core audio only acoustic musician, and I doubt any of them have bothered to read this far. So, if you are reading this, you need Reaktor only a bit less than you need water and low jitter ADCs. Trust me.

Another great thing about Reaktor is that I think you are buying one of the finest companies currently making music software on any platform. Native Instruments blazed trails on the PC (not an easy task) and had Reaktor working very well on the Mac in only a few months. They obviously have serious coding chops. They also maintain and update their apps as needed, answer questions sent to tech support and post on the Reaktor mailing list. But, beyond that, they also have people with good ears. I have been lucky enough to get to know a number of people at some very good audio software companies, and the best of the best combine exceptional ability to code with exceptional ears. You have to have both on hand, usually in the same person. Having heard the B3 model that NI had working at the Musikmesse, having used Reaktor for a few months, and having heard the Pro Five, Native Instruments clearly has that combination.

Finally, one last thing to remember is that VST 2 support in Reaktor takes home music making to a completely new level. Think of this. With Reaktor and Cubase, you can build a synth from scratch inside your computer, open it up in Cubase, and then program MIDI parts to play it (or play a keyboard or import a MIDI file). Then you can automate the activity of the synth, and it will play back with sample accuracy, since VST 2 clocks from the audio engine. This means you have a level of flexibility of design that no hardware synth in the world has, and you have much much tighter timing than any hardware synth in the world. At any moment you can bounce the sounds down to an audio file, which will once again be sample accurate. If you don't like the sound, you can change it within your sequencer. If you don't like the synth, you can open it in Reaktor and change it. If you don't like anything, you can change it. Reaktor is, quite simply, a quantum leap in what a home studio can do with synthesis and sampling. The first time I sort of got my arms around this, I just kinda sat in my chair with my mouth open. Reaktor is the first moment where some of the things we've been waiting for in home recording are coming true. Be a part of it, you will not be disappointed. It's murder on the CPU, but beyond PARIS and my sequencer, I think it's the app I wish I knew better than any other.


Have an Audio question? Check the Audio FAQ first, then the General FAQ Audio topic area.

Send Thad Feedback or new links at: tcb@caliban.grendelnet.com


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