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Devine Machine Krishna Synth 1.5 (Mac/Win) Review

November 1, 2009
Devine Machine's Krishna Synth couples its innovative frame-analysis oscillator with two analog-modeling oscillators and slick modulation capabilities.

Devine Machine's Krishna Synth couples its innovative frame-analysis oscillator with two analog-modeling oscillators and slick modulation capabilities.

I am astounded by the swelling ranks of software instruments with the capacity to produce awe-inspiring sounds of incredible beauty: gauzy pads, pulsing keyboards and crystalline bells. Devine Machine Krishna Synth (KS) is a different beast entirely. Animated, yes; pretty, no, at least not in the usual sense.

Krishna Synth is a download product. Along with stand-alone versions, you get VST and RTAS plug-ins for Windows and AU, VST and RTAS plug-ins for the Mac. You must also download several preset banks and sliced audio files (called Movies), unzip them and copy the files to a data folder. Bundling everything into a single installer would be a timesaver. A small key file authorizes KS.

Superficially, KS resembles a conventional hybrid of sample playback and subtractive synthesis, but its unique first oscillator and an imaginative set of modulation facilities help distinguish it from its siblings (see screen above). Almost every major parameter is accessible from the front panel; however, a hidden Options window hosts a grab bag of fine-tuning features such as setting different speeds between upward and downward Portamento, morphing between Movie frames, randomized detuning between oscillators, tube preamp and effects parameters, and much more. A separate page or two for this information might be more effective than piling it into a single menu.

The Shape I'm In

Five LFOs sit at the top of the plug-in, and each is supplied with five separate sends. KS shines in its variety of LFO shapes. The 18 waveform types include the usual sine, triangle, saw and square wave shapes; several varieties of logarithmic progressions; chaotic and step-sequencer LFOs; and hand-drawn waveforms (see Fig. 1). Moreover, with the speed knob you can easily bump LFOs into the audio frequency range.

A button to the left of the five LFOs lets you create a new LFO assignment by capturing the most recent knob maneuver. The included PDF manual is vague about details, but I expect that I could capture knob motions as a custom LFO. In fact, moving the knob is one of several ways to assign an LFO to that parameter. Capturing a parameter automatically replaces the default sawtooth LFO with a flatlined LFO waveform, which seems a baffling choice after you have just chosen to animate a parameter.

You can set LFOs to bipolar or unipolar shapes with or without key sync. A second menu lets you choose from a wide variety of rates, including beats, measures (up to 32 bars), dotted values and frequencies that follow in direct proportion to note number. Oddly, KS offers no free-running LFOs. A quadrant of buttons at the upper-right can shift the LFO phase. Unfortunately, the phase does not reset if you select a new LFO type. A small window clearly shows any changes to the LFO shapes and also illustrates the LFO's progress when triggered. That window is also where you draw the step-sequencer LFO shapes.

Frame of Reference

Samples imported into the first oscillator (Osc 1) are parsed into Movies, which divide the analyzed samples into frames. Much as you would animate a film by viewing frames in succession, Krishna Synth's playback of the frames animate the sound. That's most interesting because of the different ways you can play back the frames.

By default, the first LFO assignment modulates the starting frame of Osc 1, but you can easily change or add modulation sources. A small rectangle reads out numbers as frames play. (KS can generate up to 8,192 frames.) Moving the Start knob initiates playback at a later point in the Movie. Modulating that knob with the Chaos LFO after importing a fragment of a political speech produced fascinating results (see Web Clip 1).

Bent Frame

Next down the line in Osc 1's panel is the Frame Effect section, which is where KS really distinguishes itself from typical wavetable-scanning synthesizers. This section is primarily a phase-distortion effect that can reshape a series of frames in real time. Eight different types of distortion — including pulse-width and inverse pulse-width modulation, mirrored, repeat and bit reduction — are available from the menu (see Web Clip 2).

The Frame Draw window is a sort of sonic Etch A Sketch. Its menu lets you choose the type of shape to superimpose on the waveform, and it is reminiscent of the palette of shapes you might find in a graphics program. Select from sine, triangle, square, noise, harmonic or a simple pencil tool and click-drag in the waveform display window as it plays back. Use the Size knob for higher- or lower-resolution drawing. Use the smoothing tool to iron out rough spots and edgy overtones (see Web Clip 3).

Three AHDSR envelope generators add to the modulation circus. Each of the envelope's three destinations offers a knob to control amplitude. The Velocity menu is a bit of a misnomer: It lets you control envelope intensity through velocity, sync envelopes to tempo or modulate envelope rates based on keyboard position, but only one selection is available per envelope generator. A separate key-follow parameter would be useful.

FIG 1.: Krishna Synth's collection of LFOs is impressive. You can redraw the step-sequencer LFOs with varying degrees of resolution.

FIG 1.: Krishna Synth's collection of LFOs is impressive. You can redraw the step-sequencer LFOs with varying degrees of resolution.

Two analog-modeling oscillators give you sawtooth, square, triangle and noise waveforms with basic amplitude, frequency and pan settings. A balance knob sits between the oscillators to fine-tune their relative levels. The single filter offers lowpass, bandpass and highpass choices, as well as a resonance knob. Although limited in flexibility, it sounds just fine.

Ring the Changes

The Sync section provides several different ways to connect oscillators. Moving the Type knob chooses between FM, AM and ring-modulation routings. I was able to cook up some raw but effective bell-like timbres. As soon as more complex waveforms come into play with the use of frames in Osc 1, it's hard to predict the sonic outcome, and that's part of Krishna Synth's charm.

For all of its sonic horsepower, KS is stupidly easy to use. Click on a modulation source and all possible destinations light up, then drag and drop the source on the destination and you're done. Do you want to modulate an envelope that is modulating the frames? Just drag and drop, wiggle a knob or pull down a routing menu.

What's the Matter With KS?

In spite of its many capabilities, KS has some serious problems. In Digital Performer 6.0.2, it passed the validation but repeatedly crashed the MOTU Audio System on instantiation. It shut off audio and became unresponsive in Apple's GarageBand 4.1.2 and AU Lab host 2, although it worked fine in Logic 8.0.2. Less significant but annoying, the stand-alone version doesn't retain audio or MIDI settings. According to Devine Machine, most of these issues, especially problems with Digital Performer and other host software, will be resolved in Version 1.6.

The manual is in need of a rewrite with a more formal style and more careful, detailed explanations. Built-in links to user forums don't work, and there are links to tutorial videos that don't exist.

I sincerely hope that Devine Machine gets these issues resolved. On most counts, it is a brilliant instrument. It can cut through a mix like a knife and provide a unique sonic stamp (see the Online Bonus Material). By all means, try out the demo version and keep an ear out for V. 1.6.

Marty Cutler is busy programming a new sound set for a hardware synthesizer.

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