- A perfect entry point into the world of granular synthesis.
- Ahead of the music tech expo Superbooth 18, Audio Damage announced its first truly new instrument in quite some time: a granular synthesiser called Quanta. The company released a teaser by way of a blog post that described Quanta as a labour of love, the result of "many months of research and development in both DSP and user interface methods, and the first product of this new chapter in the history of Audio Damage."
If you're not familiar with the term granular synthesis, it's a technique invented by the 20th century composer Iannis Xenakis in which sound is split into very small fragments or "grains." These grains can then be looped and played back in order to achieve creative results. For example, you can achieve a rough timestretch feel without changing the pitch of an original sound by playing each grain of a sound twice. The technique can also be applied in more musical ways, like on Arca's Mutant and many of Holly Herndon's vocal manipulations. But getting your head around all of the terms and parameters of traditional granular processors can be intimidating to producers used to traditional subtractive synthesis paradigms. According to Audio Damage, helping to solve this problem was one of the foundational goals that informed the design of Quanta.
One of the ways they did this was by complementing the granular engine with many of the familiar trappings of traditional synths. This includes an oscillator and noise source, envelope generators and LFOs, and a pair of filters. The oscillator and noise source are relatively simple but sound great. On the oscillator side you get smooth waveshaping from sine through rectangle to ramp along with pulse-width modulation, whereas the noise source has a colour knob that alters the timbre. Both can be mixed independently before being sent into the filters, but Quanta also gives you the ability to route the oscillator and noise into the granulator for creative processing. This is a great option to have as it expands the sound design potential substantially. My only complaint is that the granulator noise mix curve is way too aggressive, overwhelming your signals even at very low levels.
To the right of the oscillator and noise modules you'll find a much more detailed set of controls that govern the real core of Quanta: the granulator engine. The eye is naturally drawn to the large Shape control, which lets you choose between seven different curves that govern the volume envelope of each grain. Volume envelopes on such small pieces of audio may not seem that important, but even a quick test proves the opposite to be true. The smoother shapes are great for creating pad-like washes of sound, and the ramps excel at making more percussive patches. Surrounding the Shape control are the four main parameters for controlling the number of grains generated (per second), the length of each grain (in milliseconds), the playback position in the sample and the playback speed. Usefully, each of these controls has an associated Rand knob for introducing varying degrees of randomisation to the parameters.
To get the most out of the granulator, you'll naturally want to feed it some sample content. Doing this is as simple as can be—just click and drag a file onto the Sample display in the upper portion of the UI. Quanta supports a wide range of formats (WAV, AIFF, MP3, Ogg and FLAC) with any sample rate and bit depth. Once successfully loaded, the sample is normalised and then its waveform is cleverly represented with a procedurally-drawn set of curving lines. Clicking anywhere on this waveform is another way of setting the sample playback position of the granulator, which is represented by a vertical blue line. The waveform display also provides some helpful visual feedback of the effect of the random knobs and modulators on the granulator playback position as voices are triggered by incoming MIDI notes. Procedurally-drawn UIs have been a trademark of Audio Damage plug-ins for some time now, and the benefit is more than just aesthetic. It provides the ability to resize the plug-in freely by dragging on the bottom left corner of the UI, which is extremely helpful in this age of resolution diversity.
Where the granulator display excels in visual feedback, one area that could benefit from similar treatment is the modulation system. With seven traditional modulation sources (four EGs, two LFOs and a sample & hold) alongside MIDI modulation sources, all routable to a huge number of destinations, there is an immense amount of power to be harnessed. This is wrangled by way of the modulation matrix, which shares real estate with the sample display in the upper section of the plug-in. Assignments are made by clicking and dragging a cell in the matrix to assign positive or negative values of modulation for the control (represented by the row) from the source (represented by the column). As you'd expect, this matrix is quite large, and it can be a bit difficult to find what you're looking for. One nice navigation shortcut is found by clicking on the control you want to modulate, which focuses the matrix to the destination row in question. Outside of the mod matrix, it's very difficult to keep track of the modulation assignments, and I often found myself inefficiently jumping back and forth between Quanta's displays. This could be prevented with some additional visual animations or even hover-based text overlays to show which modulators are assigned to a given control.
Usability and convenience concerns aside, Quanta is well worth the asking price when you consider everything that it brings to the table. The presets (created by a diverse set of artists including Chris Carter, Marcus Fisher and Richard Devine) do an excellent job of showing the many ways that Quanta could fit into modern tracks. Like Audio Damage's other recent plug-ins, it's available on their website in VST, VST3, AU and AAX formats for both Windows and MacOS or on the App Store as an affordable AUv3 version for iPad. There's also a demo version (a first for Audio Damage), which offers full functionality for 20 minutes at a time if you want to try it out first.
Ease of use: 3.5