I’ve had the weekend to begin working with Sonic Charge Synplant, a wonderful new synth creation from Magnus Lidström. Lidström is a Propellerhead veteran best known for creating Reason’s Malström synth. But while Lidström has made a name in sound, I have to say, Synplant is something very, very different. Partly because of the user interface, partly because of the strange and mysterious sounds that emerge, Synplant makes you feel like you’re on an episode of Star Trek – like you’ve smuggled some alien vegetation after shore leave and are squeezing its leafy bits so it makes odd sounds. (Watch out for spores!)

The idea of the interface is not unlike the morphing UIs of old MetaTools software like Kai Krause’s Kai’s Power Tools and Eric Wenger’s Bryce and (as U&I Software) MetaSynth. Instead of tweaking a lot of fake knobs and doing the usual oscillator / filter adjustments, you’re presented with a big globe containing a leafy plant. Extend different arms of your plant, and you explore different variations of the sound. All of this can be done in real-time, so you could create ever-changing synth sounds that you modify directly or that randomly respond to input. Or you could use it as an alternative way of dialing in new sounds.

It’s all really inspiring to work with, partly because it returns you to the experience of exploring sound directly. Many user interfaces have tried to do that, but because the interface allows subtle and even fine-tuned exploration and not just randomization, and because the sounds themselves are so exotic, here it really seems effective. In fact, if it were just brute-force randomization that drove Synplant, I think you’d lose interest in it quickly. But there are some clever interface details that allow you to control the degree of mutation, how you restore previous settings, and how you map sounds to pitch and audition sounds. Despite similarities to Apple’s Sculpture (in Logic Studio) and Kai’s Power Tools, I actually find Synplant’s similar UI elements do some of the same things in a way that’s more usable.

(Before anyone asks: on a superficial level, yes, Synplant is closer to Sculpture than the MetaTools work. It’s even got the same circular sliders and interactive ring and draggable circular puck on a modeled, dark 3D-ish globe thing as in Sculpture. But because mutation is central, the functional reality of using it is closer to Kai’s designs. Those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t sweat it, just go have fun with Synplant.)

I’m working on a video / audio walkthrough of Synplant because it’s well worth it. But I couldn’t wait to talk about it. Magnus is finishing up the product site as I write this, so go have a look. I will say, the sound demos almost don’t do the product justice, because you really have to get the impact of using it with the interface. I’ll have more on this soon.

Availability: Right this instant

Price: US$89

Compatibility: Mac, Windows, Universal, Vista (VST/AU)

Sonic Charge Synplant

More good news: Magnus’ µTonic is available as a bundle with Synplant (US$158). If you’re not familiar with µTonic aka Micro Tonic, it’s a truly brilliant drum machine synth in an age of generic drum machine samplers. µTonic is old news, but then many good things are. I feel bad I’ve never written about µTonic so I’ve been working with that, as well. If you do own µTonic, you get a 25% discount on Synplant for a limited time.

Elsewhere:

Digital LoFi also participated in the early, pre-release test and has some thoughtful reflections on using the instrument.

Analog Industries considers the design from the perspective of a fellow designer, and laments that some blogs didn’t “get it” from seeing the press release. (Then again, no matter how press releases are crafted, that always happens … I certainly don’t always get it right.)

  • grumble

    what is "brute-force randomization"? (decent enough random numbers are actually relatively cheap)

    - and how is an audio effect made better by an image of a leafy plant for visual feedback?

    Looking forward to hearing something of this. I hope the sound demos DO do the product justice, because that's what it's for!

  • http://rekkerd.org ronnie

    I really like Synplant. It's very inspiring and fun to work with and I love the "controlled" randomize function.

  • http://myles.debastion.com Myles

    Yes, this is another great product from Magnus, I've been using it for a few months now and have to say that it's an incredible compositional tool and very versatile. Be sure to assign all the main controls to your MIDI controller of choice for superb ever-evolving sounds.

    :)

  • http://rvjaeger.com Ryan Jaeger

    Very nice… I like that it generates a name for the randomized patches as well. :)

  • Leslie

    Magnus is absolute genius… Synplant sounds so amazingly fresh. As I am a long time owner of uTonic, I have taken advantage of 20% off and "snapped" Synplant immediately. Simply Brilliant… :)

  • http://www.kentsandvik.com Kent Sandvik

    Very interesting approach, I always liked exploring sounds rather than worrying about ADSR settings and similar technical terms. Will put the synth through testing, if fun it goes to my 'must purchase' list.

  • vack

    "what is “brute-force randomization”? (decent enough random numbers are actually relatively cheap)"

    It's just that you can quite intuitively constrain and give a "direction" for the randomization and the algorithms seem to be geared for that. So instead of just setting all the parameters for random and hoping you'll end up with something that even makes a sound (I guess that's what Peter means by "brute-force"), you can make a series of "mutations" and end up with something that's more usable but still somewhat random.

    "and how is an audio effect made better by an image of a leafy plant for visual feedback?"

    It's actually a synth, not an effect – and it's not just for one-way visual feedback, but also the core part of the UI that you use for modifying the patches. It doesn't feel like a gimmick but a novel UI that actually works for the task – the interface and the sound of the instrument also fit well together. It's worth trying out since it's quite hard to explain and your opinion may differ after you've tried it out.

    It's just that I've been toying with the beta versions for some months now and I was very positively surprised at how damn nice the whole thing is. I'm generally put down by novel experimental interfaces when I want to make music instead of toying around and making weird sounds (not that it wouldn't be music too), but this one feels like an usable instrument in its own right.

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  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Yeah, sorry, was a bit sleepy as I wrote this — had just gotten the go-ahead from Magnus to talk about it.

    Basically, what I mean about randomization:

    * control via the interface, so you aren't just hitting a randomize button, but can actually dial in what you want

    * MIDI assignability, so that randomization works when you're playing

    I actually don't expect everyone will like this; I'm sure some people will hate it — not because they don't like the concept, but because some people are going to prefer to just have access to parameters in a conventional way to get what they want. But I do like it.

  • http://www.digitallofi.com/words Puffer

    Actually, to further what Peter said, an example of a brute-force randomizer would be Ugo's freebie Element of Surprise (http://www.ugoaudio.com/). If you're PC it's definitely worth a look, if only to read the manual which is a nice little mediation on getting work done.

    Great write up on this, Peter.

  • Chris

    I'm really interested this product, controlled randomization has a special place in my heart. Are there any other products out there that can closely compare?

  • Hungry Antelope

    Is there a plug in randomizer for the PC that gives you some basic controls over which parameters are randomized?

    Minihost has a randomizer, the trouble is that I tend to not want to randomize a few parameters (such as the pitch… I want notes to be in tune).

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    There's another randomizer that does that, Antelope … host I'm forgetting at the moment (not Brainspawn Forte, a different one). But I think it also randomizes *everything*.

    Yeah, it'd be really interesting to take this interface and actually make it a vst *host*. :)

    Then again, you can get something a bit like that just chaining together parameters / assigning them to a macro — then you have a degree of control, but of what you want — and even assigning a bunch of stuff to one macro could just about fake the randomization.

    I would like to do a roundup of similar instrument designs, though — I've even asked Magnus about ones he found inspiring. Keep the ideas coming.

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  • leo cavallo

    Just wondering… is this any better than Clavia Patch Mutator?

  • Chris

    There's a plug out there called modismaster that does fractal LFOs for MIDI CCs, check it out.

    http://www.kvraudio.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=139

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  • http://mrbiggs.com Brian

    @Chris asking about other examples of something similar:

    There are several Reaktor ensembles that feel similarly "random" in that one doesn't often know how one went about getting the sound that one is playing and likely could not repeat. I don't think Synplant is supposed to be "random" as much as it is just a way of working that is so far new and weird and bizarre. I spent the day just dialing in settings and recording the result and I'm pleased. I'd think that Gaugear is very similar in this aspect, and in some ways NewSkool and the new Spiral sequencer fit this description. They are tools that I don't quite GET yet the same way that I get Oki Computer and Reason's Thor, and they seem random mainly because the interface is so different. There are also several Reaktor ensembles that just seem TOTALLY random and really are meant to be a complete surprise. Sometimes these are fun and inspiring and sometimes just annoying.

  • http://www.ituniv.se/~palle Palle Dahlstedt

    It is really nice to see a tool like this emerging. Interactive evolution is a great way to explore a sound space, and can definitely be so much more than just another randomizer. But the real power of this approach is evident when you start creating your own sound engines, and then explore them. That is a whole new compositional paradigm – available for example in the Nord Modular G2's Patch Mutator (already mentioned above).

    Anyone interested in this approach can read this article by yours truly, discussing the whole issue in detail:

    http://www.ituniv.se/~palle/publications/Dahlsted

    It is nice how SynPlant lets you gradually bring in mutations to the mother sound, but I think this approach can also be further developed. See for example this article:

    http://www.ituniv.se/~palle/publications/FreeFlig

    I really look forward to how SynPlant can grow .-) into something really powerful in a few upgrades from now.

  • http://myspace.com/fallsastar foosnark

    This thing is fantastic, inspiring, innovative, and doesn't sound bad either. :)

    I bought it within about half an hour of trying the demo, and I'd have bought it sooner if I could have torn myself away from playing with it long enough to switch to my web browser.