- Sugar Bytes are partial to step sequencers. A quick look at their gallery of plug-ins and apps shows no less than five options, which are all built upon a foundation of time-based note or parameter control. Many of these plug-ins, like the wonderful Effectrix, are what made Sugar Bytes' reputation. Their most recent creation may be the most extreme and creative example yet of their continued exploration of the sequencer plug-in concept: Obscurium.
When you launch Obscurium, you're greeted with a star field of rainbow-colored dots scattered across a prominently featured grid. This is where you'll realize that the Obscurium UI does indeed live up to its name. Without the very helpful walkthrough videos or at least a read through the manual, it would be tough sledding for any average human to figure out how the thing works. The controls one would expect on a synthesizer—knobs or sliders to dial in the oscillators, envelopes and filters—are either missing or obscured (naturally) in one way or another. The components are all there, of course—Obscurium has an analog/FM hybrid eight-voice synthesizer architecture; it's just the interface to control it with is substantially different than any other synth I've seen.
So how does it work? The obvious place to start is the grid, which Sugar Bytes calls the Motion Sequencer. It's essentially a step sequencer with 16 layers, one for each of the color-coded parameters that sit off to the right of the grid. The parameters are loosely organized into five groups that control the pitch, the two oscillator types, the noise amount and the filter. When you click on the name of one of these parameters, two things happen. First, the dots corresponding to the values of that parameter are highlighted within the sequencer and can be altered in a number of ways, the most obvious of which is by clicking and dragging each dot. Second, you'll notice that the background design of the grid changes subtly in order to provide context to the grid and its relationship to the selected parameter. For example, when you select the filter type parameter, you'll notice that the bottom of the grid is labeled low-pass, the middle is band-pass, and the top is high-pass. This is a nice touch that helps make things more intuitive.
Clicking and dragging with your mouse within the motion sequencer is really only scratching the surface of the Obscurium Motion Sequencer. The Sugar Bytes crew built in a head-spinning number of tools for both entering steps on the sequencer and modulating/twisting those values afterwards. Within the Draw Tools area, you can enter one or more step values with a resizable pen, an adjustable ruler, a random brush and a sine wave. In each case you get the option to enter steps for just the selected parameter or for all parameters at once (with a certain amount of vertical offset). There are modifiers that will rotate all of the values within a step or swap values from one step to another and a powerful step randomization engine called the Super Obscure mode. There are also two ways to morph the Motion Sequencer data once it's entered. The first is the Morph Fader, which allows you to copy your current sequence to an alternate B sequence layer and morph between the two in a manner very reminiscent of the Elektron Octatrack scene crossfader. The second morph tool is probably the oddest: the Shift Fader, which is the vertical fader to the right of the parameter names. This one swaps the values in the Motion Sequencer for each parameter—so the curve you draw for the filter cutoff, for example, could end up controlling the filter resonance instead. Both of the morph tools can be modulated via their own LFO, envelope or sequencer, and the result (as one would expect) is often a completely unexpected sound.
By default, every parameter has a value for every step in the Motion Sequencer, and so all 16 parameters are constantly being updated. If you want to reduce the complexity of your sequence, you can disable the motion sequencer for individual parameters by clicking the arrow to the left of the parameter name. You can also tame things a bit by setting the minimum and maximum values that can be active for each parameter. To do this, click the small vertical meter icon sitting off to the right of the name. The resulting parameter window that pops up also allows you to set the amount of modulation for that parameter by the shared LFO and mod envelope. When the motion sequencer is disabled for a parameter, it can be set directly by using this minimum value slider, which is a helpful tip when trying to design a sound in a more deterministic fashion.
To complement the 16 parameters acted upon by the Motion Sequencer, Obscurium lets you establish the foundation of the synthesizer using a set of tabs that sit near the top of the UI. Here you'll find tabs that control settings for some of the synth components, such as attack/hold/release settings for the envelopes, the LFO speed, modulation amounts, effects (you get chorus, delay and reverb), some spartan oscillator parameters and the pitch/scale of the arpeggiator. You'll also find one dedicated to the clock behavior of the Motion Sequencer, which allows you to get into some wild off-tempo back-and-forth behavior that can drive your sequence further into insanity.
The most interesting option is found in the Sound tab, which is where the oscillator and effects controls live. Somewhat hidden within this menu is Obscurium's Plug-in Mode, which, when activated, allows you to replace the built-in oscillators with an actual VST instrument plug-in. The whole idea of loading a plug-in within a plug-in isn't exactly new (see Native Instruments' Maschine), but doing so with all of the power of the Motion Sequencer is pretty amazing. When a plug-in is loaded, the bottom 11 Motion Sequencer parameters are blanked out and can be repurposed for controlling VST parameters, complete with all the morphing possibilities mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, in my testing this appears to be a bit rough around the edges—many of my plug-ins were not compatible with Obscurium, and the ones that were often created an untenable CPU load on my system. Hopefully in future releases this gets smoothed out, because it would be a sound designer's dream.
What became increasingly evident as I explored Obscurium is that it's the last instrument I would choose if I had a specific sound in mind for a track. That's what Sugar Bytes intended, though—it's not meant to be a yet another traditional synthesizer replicating standard designs and architectures. It thrives on the random and the unknown. Its sweet spot is in plucking out sounds you would never design on your own, and in doing so creating inspiration where it didn't previously exist.
Ease of use: 3.5