Rob Papen never fails to surprise, so when news of Blade appeared in our inbox a little while before its launch, there was a hesitance on our part. Additive synthesis is something that’s seen a significant rise in popularity of late. The technique – adding multiple sine wave generators together each with independent swell and decay – is not a new one, then, but we remained faithful and assumed that Papen would put his own unique twist on proceedings. We were 100 per cent right – Blade is one of the most exciting soft synths I’ve played on in years, available for Mac and PC in 32- and 64-bit incarnations (VST, AU and RTAS).
The biggest challenge when it comes to additive work, or rather when it comes to providing it, is to create a system that not only makes the tweaking of countless filters and envelopes with each wave simple enough to not drive you insane, but in doing so somehow doesn’t restrict your creativity. If you pull back too far on what can be achieved, everyone will end up with the same additive sounds and then there’s no point. Hmm.
You don’t end up adjusting individual partials of the whole sound at all here. Instead, we have something altogether new – the Harmolator.
A step by step introduction to Blade Additive Virtual Synthesizer, demonstrated by Rob Papen himself.
No harm in trying something new?
It’s not a gimmick. It’s simply a 12-part editing system that picks apart the various parameters one might want to affect and separates them into individual controls that have an effect across the multiple sine waves. Imagine it as an analogue oscillator section, really, although there’s more than the expected control sets there. You have Even/Odd harmonics, harmonic volume, timbre, base frequency, octave, range, spread, sub, ‘ripple’, ‘ripple width’ and ‘sym’. They’re sat in a control panel to the left, and they effectively give you access to the core of additive synthesis via quickly-editable knobs. Underneath, you have readouts for the timbre type you’ve chosen – this brings in different partials as you flick through each option –the ripple controls effectively move the way the partials spread out and how they peak, the width how broad a sound it is and the symmetry (sym) how biased it is towards low and high frequencies.
This should make sense on paper, but even if that sounds a little fuzzy as a description it’ll become immediately clear when you’re in front of the neatly arranged GUI. I sat down and messed about with each of the Harmolator settings in turn, and within 10, 15 minutes found it incredibly easy to create wildly different tonalities. It’s something of a mad scientist’s tool, but with the bonus of actually being useable – the tones you’ll be bending thicken out and shimmer as you move the controls to an astonishing extent and it’s therefore not hard to find your imagination captured when you’re writing songs or forming soundscapes.
Adding an edge to Blade
The Harmolator is the core then, but as you’d expect Papen has also provided filters, envelopes and LFOS. Of the former, there are 14 filter modes to work with, which in the case of Blade feel even more like refining instruments once you’ve gotten to grips with the Harmolator’s free spirit. There are EGs for amp, pitch and the core engine itself (which in particular has a pre stage), along with a couple more to assign to wherever, and the LFOs benefit from tempo sync and six waveform choices - two LFOs are free, with two dedicated to pitch and Harmolator. And there’s a distortion area for good measure!
It’s laid out like a signal chain you’d expect from any synth – Papen wants you to create here, not end up hopelessly lost – and I like the way it’s presented because you don’t feel overwhelmed in the slightest. Creating your tone still feels inventive and proactive while you’re adjusting each of the 12 engine parameters, but there’s no shame in putting on the reigns with the more expected parts of a synth setup!
Of course when you’ve gotten a hold of the sound you want, applying it is another thing entirely, and you have a great many options available to you.
Accessing the axes
First off you can use an arpeggiator as your modulation source. It’s a powerful little guy which you can fire up as a step sequencer for unique patterns, and can otherwise be used with latch/swing options too, sync’ed to your tempo naturally. It’s a quick and effective part of the interface that lends itself well both to the let’s-just-play kind of user and the much more precise engineer who wants specifics with their arrangements.
Of course, there is another way – this is Rob Papen after all. Blade has a big X/Y control area dead centre, surrounded by familiar knobs like the aforementioned ripple, timbre, sym, range, base, width etc and also Q and volume settings. There are double-ups of this running along the X and Y borders of the central panel (so the left and top sets of controls are identical, as are the bottom and right).
You set these as you wish independently, put your mouse in the panel, click, and drag. Or swirl around, or dart back and forth. A little light show occurs from the single or multiple machinations you put into effect – little blue glowing orbs on the black panel show you the paths you’re taking – and you can of course hear the direct results of these movements generated in real-time. It’s a neat way of finding the sound you want without stopping to knob twiddle, and while it’s not for everyone I loved it as an exploratory tool.
Whether you choose to program the exact movement actions or move instead the mouse around yourself, either situation can be captured as an articulation which can be not only looped, but synced. So you can grab those swells and the sudden ripple-outs of sound and turn them into on-the-beat accents and embellishments. It’s a truly awesome way of creating unique synthesis and it brings Blade into the realms of completely new songwriting weaponry too.
There’s an effects section to polish all of this off, and it’s very well loaded indeed as you might expect – again, more of a standard synthesis tool but a welcome one for the sheer variety presented. They’re easy to select and control too – a tabbed area under the XY section allows you to much around with the FX you want, along with providing access to velocity, pitch controls, envelope curves etc. It must be added that if you’re a little green to tone creation or simply want a quick fix, there are tons of presets loaded up with a menu at the top to flick through them.
Additive in moderation
Papen’s Blade is an interesting concept. It’s not about the very, very zoomed-in world of zealous additive synthesis at all really – if you want that you need other software and you need a lot more time and patience – it’s for those who have been captivated by the shimmers and ripples of the multiple partials flitting across a soundscape and thought ‘I want that’. You can very easily have it too, with enough variety in post-harmolator editing to construct tightly-defined but still-unique patterns.
I love the way the modulation is applied, and it’s a genuine concept rather than some form of fake impression of freedom. You’ll become a little addicted to the X/Y panel if you’re anything like me. To Blade altogether in fact – I’m struggling to put it down even now.
Reviewed by Rob Sandall