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In Session Audio Riff Generation 2: Outside In Edition Review

Marty Cutler

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Find musical inspiration at the touch of a button (or two).

The music software world is rife with one-finger wonders. One Note On command is seemingly all you need to contrive grooving musical motifs that will color your song with atmosphere and motion. You can find some excellent examples out there, but none are as intriguing, musical, or adaptable as In Session Audio’s Riff Generation series. Riff Generation loads into Native Instruments Kontakt 6.04 and above, as well as the free Kontakt Player.

Take 2 (and Call Me)

In Session Audio Riff Generation 2 (RG2, for brevity) is not a revamp of version 1. The subtitle Outside In underscores the sample origins, which  are brought in from external acoustic and electric sources. Guitar, pedal steel, tuned percussion, and other non-software-derived material are commingled with synthesizer fare gathered from a selection of hardware instruments.

It is difficult to categorize RG2; it relies on sampled sounds, but it does not play back multisampled replicas of your favorite axe. RG2 plays complex, interwoven patterns with the press of a key, but it is not a slick arpeggiator. Simply calling it a musical tool downplays the enormous amount of fun and inspiration you’ll get from putting RG2 through its paces. It can loop for days, but the tremendous amount of available real-time musical input catapults RG2 beyond a simple loop player.

RG2 is a musical instrument that provides numerous ways to play and adapt it to the need of the moment, just as you would a guitar or a keyboard. The short-form description is an instrument that creates a multitimbral accompaniment according to degrees of a scale in a particular mode and key, based on user choices.

As in a sophisticated arpeggiator, RG2 plays patterns. Unlike an arpeggiator, RG2 can combine simultaneous sustained elements with multiple and independent arpeggios. Equally significant is RG2’s ability to adapt the pattern based on the interval of the scale.

Talkin’ ‘bout My Generation 

RG2 loads from the Kontakt menu as an instrument; its individual patches appear in snapshots. That makes it easy to audition one preset after the next without wandering too far afield with your mouse. Clicking on the inverted triangle in the Snapshot field grants random access to all available presets. RG2 provides access to everything on a single page. It may appear daunting at first, but it’s laid out quite logically. The layout is smart and elegant for all its depth. In fact, once you familiarize yourself with the layout, it’s surprisingly simple to shape RG2 to your needs.

With its steampunk-inspired graphics, the first thing you’re likely to notice is a familiar step-sequencer user interface. However, a remarkable level of detail lets you sculpt each note to a higher degree than most step sequencers. A pattern can be as short as 2 or as long as 256 steps. Four tabs at the right of the screen define velocity, duration, volume, and pan. Clicking on any of these tabs reveals a bar-graph-type grid. You drag each event’s bar to affect the amount of modulation you want for that tab’s parameter.

One Step at a Time

Duration and pan are bipolar parameters, meaning you can adjust them in two directions. Duration lets you extend or attenuate the time a note is played relative to its step length. The ability to break free from strict note durations is key to the very human, natural flow of the patterns. Pan presents a bipolar grid: hard-left through hard-right. Because each step is discrete, sounds could leap to any position in the soundstage, step-by-step, in totally nonlinear fashion.

Just below the grid area, each step shows its nominal value: eighth notes, sixteenths, and the like. Dragging up or down on the number will increase or decrease the step value, while a readout does the math, informing you what you’ll need to keep measures even. By no means are you bound by measures; you can create all sorts of broken clouds of asymmetrical rhythms if it suits you.

In theory, RG2 behaves like a traditional arpeggiator in that its patterns trigger only one note at a time. Because you can extend any note well past its assigned step value, notes overlap, padding out the interwoven lines. However, because RG2 is essentially monophonic, only one sound triggers per step. You can choose which sound will play at a given step by clicking in the color-coded Dot-Matrix section. It offers a number of step-based modulation triggers: glides, stutters, and bursts of delay or reverb.

Modes of Expression

Perhaps the feature that sets RG2 apart from garden-variety arpeggiators and event processors is its ability to alter the tonality of a pattern based on scales and modes. For instance, if your key is G and your mode is Lydian, playing an A will adapt the mode to the second degree of the scale, rather than simply transpose the riff a whole-step. A Play Mode knob determines a number of ways for out-of-scale notes to conform harmonically by remapping, or you can choose to bypass those notes completely. Further to the right, another knob lets you dial in the root key of the mode. Next to that, a pulldown menu presents a list of various modes, You can lock subsequent patterns to adopt your selected mode.

Clicking on Generation Options reveals the heart of RG2’s deep and inviting programmability. Rhythm, Level, Pitch, Time, and Sound nest dimensions of probability and scale you can adjust to taste. After you’ve edited these, click the big Generate button, and RG2 will instantly generate a new RG2 pattern. Leave the options window open, and you can tweak it and home in on new patterns or edit the existing pattern to your liking.

Sonically Superb

If that isn’t enough, open the Sounds window and select new samples for each of the five sounds, edit or randomize sample start, tweak envelopes, and more. The library of sounds is vast, and In Session Audio has expanded the library with new presets. RG2 focuses heavily on acoustic and electric instrument samples. The blend of real-world instruments with a selection of esoteric and often exotic samples reminds me of bands I’ve played in, suiting me just fine. You’ll also find many synthesizer flavors if your tastes run in a less eclectic direction.

RG2 gives you so much more to discover, but I can’t conclude this review without talking about the inspirational quality of the end result. Calling these patterns riffs hardly does justice to such complex, rhythmically engaging, interwoven motifs. To avoid repetition, you can create variations and store them as scenes for instant recall. Drag MIDI files of the patterns to tracks, adding other instruments into the mix. Don’t forget to try the templates, which were designed to create your own material.

I don’t think I’ve seen a software instrument that is nearly as much fun or nearly as inspiring as Riff Generation 2 (although I haven’t explored the first version of Riff Generation). It is complex, and yet it’s easy to use: an inviting deep-dive into generative music. In Session Audio has done a superb job of building an instrument that invites multifaceted music making that never gets in the way of your muse. Riff Generation 2 will be a part of my compositional workflow for years to come. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

Website: insessionaudio.com

Supported sample players: Native Instruments Kontakt Player and Kontakt 6.04 and above

Price: $159.96 (includes three expansion packs)

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