Tag Archives: Ableton Live

Review: OSCiLLOT by MAX for Cats

Nord Modular has long been said to be the best software/hardware alternative to modular synthesizers, but there is one major problem. The software is no longer supported, and as a result there are issues with compatibility with modern operating systems.  For a long time there really was not much in the way of replacing it.This has presented an issue as Nord has not expressed much interest in revisiting this product even with the ever expanded popularity of modular synthesizers. In addition there really wasn’t many software plugins or products which accurately reflected modular systems. One that has not really started to resolve itself until very recently, and eloquently until now.

MAX and Reaktor both sell themselves a bit like modular systems, but they are visual programming languages, as such they require both skill and time to learn development. A few years ago BEAP made the rounds for MAX, and Modular X for Reaktor. This put some of the actual functionality of modular systems a bit closer in these two programs. But both had their flaws. BEAP was monophonic, and required opening MAX to edit signal flows, to be later recorded in live. This made it a bit less intuitive and broke up workflows for customization. BEAP though was a great learning tool for introducing one to modular synthesis, but also a great tool for those who use MAX extensively in their art and performance. Modular X presented its own issues for Reaktor, largely based around ease of use and design. Creating a custom system took a fair degree of work, so much so built systems for Modular X such as the Allegheny Modular have appeared. This is not to say either of these programs and frameworks were bad, they made huge strides towards pushing the actual spirit of modular systems into software platforms. But both created barriers and pain points that limited how practical they were.

I should note, there have been several attempts at making modular systems in plugins as well, but they often fail to capture the depth, complexity and customization of modern systems. While they do offer the wires and the about to string wires for modulation routings, they do not reflect the pure weirdness that often emerges from personalizing a system. The Moog modular from Arturia is basically set in place, as is Bazille from u-he. These did have ease of use, and while they are good introductions, they are by in largely fixed in place systems. They were never the spiritual successor to the ultra flexible Nord modular system, or reflective of how people who have hardware systems use and configure systems. Additionally, they never really offered ways to interact with such modern hardware modular systems, something even the legendary Nord Modular never did.

OSCiLLOT by Max for Cats has many of the same features of Nord Modular, but does not need any associated hardware, also it offers the potential of a gateway between hardware and software for modular systems. It is absolutely beautiful, flexible, intuitive, and usable. With that being said the potential cost of entry is still high. It shares many of the same features of BEAP, but is a commercial product with some expanded features both in terms of usability, integration, and polyphony. Before I go into the details, I must expand on the only issue with it, which is associated costs, is OSCiLLOT can only be attained through Ableton Live Suite with Max for Live, and OSCiLLOT carries a $99 cost on its own. This means it is a product exclusive to one platform, and the platform it is on is one that carriers a premium. The Ableton Live Suite is $749 making it one of the more expensive DAWs on the market. For sake of disclosure, I have Ableton Live Suite myself because I like having access to Max for Live.  I only mention this because cost is often the reason why many go a software direction, in this case between the cost of the DAW and the cost of the product, there is a barrier to entry which is high. With that being said many people use the most current version Ableton Live Suite already and have Max for Live ready and waiting, what OSCiLLOT is offering is pretty compelling. For those thinking of upgrading their version of Ableton Live, this may be the best justification for doing so.

What OSCiLLOT offers is a heavily integrated environment in Ableton Live to build modular systems on the fly using a clear menu system where one can select a module from a drop down menu delineated by function. This offers multiple types of modules that take on both the aspects of traditional hardware modules, but also some which are more reflective of the advantages of software synthesis such as some additive synthesis. One selects their first module, and starts the process of building their custom system from there. The person then uses virtual wires to communicate between modules and begins routing the signal flows, just like a real modular system. Deleting a module just requires selecting the module and hitting the delete key. The fact this can be done quickly and on the fly reflects one of the more accurate parts of modular synthesizers, which is their ease of use. While this still requires knowledge of how signal flow works, there is very little work needed in custom configuring a system with the available modules, and patching it together.

For being an entirely new program, the number of modules available out of the gate is also impressive.  There are several oscilators, filters, LFOs, envelopes, sequencers, and other random goodies. There are 99 in total, and the functional depth they offer is impressive. While it may not offer the depth of say Eurorack hardware system with its various manufacturers, it is actually an accurate reflection of what modular system typically does have to offer, plus a bit more. Unlike some modular systems which just try to emulate hardware, this one is cognizant of the fact it is software, as such it offers some of the better features of software synthesizers. So while it is taking an old concept of modular synthesizers, it is not so needlessly grounded in the past.

The one big issue I have run into so far is the Low Pass Gate does not operate or sound like a Low Pass Gate should. There is no CV input, and getting the classic Buchla bongo seems like a difficult task. In addition the ever important “BOTH” mode was not available. The reality is I will likely have to spend more time with it because it is a unique module on its own even if it’s not exactly reflective of its hardware equivilent. The weird part is, I figured out how to emulate the same sound through other means without the LPG, and this is the beauty of a modular system, is exploration in sound design.

My other small gripe, is I would like the zoom to zoom in quite a bit more. There are certain functions harder to read than others, and this would improve the usability of the program.

For those with computer to modular interfaces such as expert sleepers Eurorack modules, this also opens to opportunity to work with things that bridge the software and modular worlds. I should note this is not something I explore. But for many people this will be a selling point and worth mentioning. Yes, this can work with an existing modular system.

For those that are more technically inclined, the system comes with an out of the box SDK for MAX to develop new modules. This is critically important, as having this available will make sure the support and further development of this program well into the future, but also it’s expansion as more people adapt it. This  opens the door to the possibility of people adopting the program, and an ever-expanding number of available modules in the future. As it stands though the 99 modules available offer a world of flexibility for any synthesist willing to take a dive.

Above all, and most importantly, OSCiLOTT sounds absolutely fantastic. This is easily the best software synthesizer I have ever used, and this is having dozens at my fingertips. For those of us who regularly use Ableton Live and have Max for Live, it is an incredibly powerful tool for creative synthesis. If you have felt as constrained by software synthesizers before as I have, this is the answer. This is the first purely software synthesizer to accurately capture the spirit of modular synthesizers without so much friction in terms of using the software. I highly recommend it for those wishing to dive into modular synthesis, that have Ableton Live, but are apprehensive of shelling out money for new hardware. This may very well be enough of a tool for them, and if anything provides a great tool to serve as a bridge into the hardware space.

Getting Started: The DAW

No matter what form of electronic music one records, something to record on is absolutely essential. A DAW is short for a digital audio workstation, and is the best way to record music. A DAW uses a personal computer to record audio, it is also a host for plugin software synthesizers and effects.

My advice is to start out by getting an inexpensive DAW. For those with MACs, Garageband will do the trick. For those who are starting on a PC or Linux, Reaper or Tracktion are likely the best option for a low cost platform.

There are a large number of DAWs and everybody has their favorite. If you do research and find something you can both afford and fits what seems like you would like to use and learn it. I only mention Reaper and Tracktion because of their affordability. My advice is to make sure the DAW is compatible with the native platform for plugins for your mac or pc.  For Macs this is the AU format, for Windows and Linux this is VST. A word of warning though, not all VST plugins or hardware can be used with Linux. While Linux is becoming more common in terms of compatibility.

Since each DAW is a little unique in terms of functionality, I highly suggest you watch and read the tutorials and manuals for the specific one that you will be using. I personally use Ableton Live, it is a great piece of software, and a lite version often comes with many controllers, which are either keyboards, drum pads, or other physical devices to control software. If you chose a controller that comes with Ableton lite, it is also a more than appropriate DAW and host to get started. With that being said one does not need to start on with Ableton Live and Ableton Live Suite, both of which carry a high cost. Ableton Live is a wonderful tool for those who are experienced, but the more expensive software out there is not necessary to get started.

A USB Midi controller is a nice thing to have when starting out. Smaller ones are easy to find both new and used that would likely be appropriate.  Controllers can range from relatively inexpensive keyboards, to esoteric ones such as the Eigenharp which cost thousands of dollars. I highly suggest just getting a decent inexpensive keyboard. If you want to go for both the hardware synth and software synth route though, something like the arturia microbrute can also be used as a controller.

All DAWs also work with audio interfaces which work with either USB or Firewire. This will allow you to record audio signals using either lines in or microphones. This however is not needed for doing music with plugin synthesizers. However,  if you do move onto hardware synthesis or incorporating musique concrete it is recommended to get some type of audio interface. The microphone plug into your computer is generally not sufficient to record high quality audio.

The one thing I do not recommend to get started is Pro-Tools or Reason. While these platforms are frequently pushed for a synthesist the insistence of an exclusive plugin format is problematic for both. They do not take Native plugins as a result there are barriers to some of the best software instruments with these platforms.  Other than that most DAWs will do the same job, but in slightly different ways with different interfaces and features. But outside of the exceptions, most can host native software instrument and effects plugins on most DAW platforms.

Once you have chosen your DAW and have installed it on your computer, the next step is to identify some soft synth plugins, and start to record music.