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Audio Damage Quanta 2 – the Synth and Software Review



Granular Synthesis As You Like It

Q: When is a sample not a sample? A: When it’s been chopped apart into tiny grains and reassembled using granular synthesis.

Granular is found on a number of modern synthesizers. It can be used to add subtle coloration to conventional tones, but it’s more often employed to create shimmering soundscapes, some of them quite wild or disturbing.

Audio Damage Quanta 2 is a major update of their Quanta plug-in. Quanta 2 combines granular synthesis with a couple of virtual analog oscillators to give you the best of both worlds. It also has some excellent envelope generators, dual multimode filters, and a trio of effects.

There’s a downloadable demo version, which times out after 20 minutes. I would also recommend watching the excellent tutorial video on the Audio Damage website. The video zooms in on a few features that I hadn’t noticed.

Quanta 2 is MPE-compatible, by the way. I tested this in Ableton Live 11.3 using a Linnstrument, and it worked as expected. Fans of microtonal tunings will be happy to learn that it can load Scala .tun files.

Presets. The first thing I usually do when looking at a new synth is check out the factory preset bank. Quanta 2 has several hundred presets. Most of them are in the Artist Series (contributions by nine sound designers, including Richard Devine) rather than in standard categories. This makes it harder to find what you’re looking for, but it’s a bit difficult to see how a strict system of categories could be used, because many of the sounds don’t fit well into the standard categories.

The good news is, there are plenty of surprises. Many of the sounds are distinctively granular, ranging from subtle insect noises and surf to industrial grinding. You’ll also spot a few sweet lead and pad sounds, and even a couple of basses. This is not a do-everything workstation synth, however.

I wish there was a way to flag your favorites with little stars. As a workaround, when you find something you like you can use the Save command, navigate to the User preset directory, and save it using your own system of categories. You can create your own sub-folders within the User folder so as to group leads, pads, rhythmic, subtle, mangled, and so on.

Making grains. When you’re ready to start programming your own sounds, it’s time to look at the granular engine. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, let’s take a very brief look at the basics.

In granular synthesis, a source sound (usually a digital audio sample) is chopped up into tiny grains. Instead of playing the grains back in their original order, which would result in a more or less faithful re-assembly of the original sound, the grains can be juggled in various ways. Grains can be played sparsely for a scattered sound, or layered over one another for a thick sound. They can be long or short, and they don’t all have to be the same length. Individual grains can be randomly changed in pitch. Grains can be selected from different parts of the source sample rather than played in order. And literally any type of digital audio source can be used – a drum loop, a recording of spoken words, the tinkling of wind chimes, you name it.

Figure 1. The granular oscillator in Quanta 2. Several of the parameters have subsidiary knobs for random amount, and all of them can be modulated while a note plays.

The granular implementation in Quanta 2 offers few real surprises, but it’s well set up. Its granular oscillator can use either a sample, the internal noise source, or one or both analog oscillators as its source material. An Input Levels mixer at the bottom (see Figure 1) gives you control over the amounts. The basic parameters are grain length and shape, source position in the sample, density (number of grains), level, and tuning.

Several of these have knobs for randomization amount. Randomizing the tuning or position of grains is a standard way of making the sound more lively. All of these parameters can be modulated from envelopes, LFOs, or external MIDI sources. (See below for more on modulation.)

One unusual feature in Quanta 2 is the quantization of the grain tuning parameter. This can be used to set up some wonderful drone colors that are tuned to your chords.

Using your own samples instead of the factory-supplied set is as easy as drag-and-drop. Quanta 2 will accept not only standard uncompressed sample formats but also mp3s, which will be converted automatically. Your sample will be stored with your preset when you save it. The main limitation here is that factory-supplied samples are not available from a menu. In order to use one of them you have to load the preset that uses it and then mess with the parameters to make your own patch.

Oscillators & filters. The two oscillators sound good, but there’s nothing remarkable about them. No cross-modulation or sync is included, because Quanta 2 gets its sound animation in other ways, but you can modulate the waveshape. There is a unison mode for stacking oscillators, but there’s no unison detune parameter. You can apply a bit of random pitch variation to the individual notes in a unison stack, but that’s not quite the same thing. Also, there’s no glide parameter for unison mode solos, and that’s disappointing.

The two resonant multimode filters can be put in a series or parallel configuration, but at present there’s no ability to assign one filter to one oscillator and the other filter to a different oscillator. I hope that feature will be added in an update. Each filter can be lowpass, highpass, bandpass, or notch, with either 2-pole or 4-pole slope. Nothing fancy here – no comb filtering or formant filtering. So let’s move on to the fun stuff.

Modulation. Quanta 2 provides two LFOs, a sample-and-hold, four multisegment envelopes, four macro controls (which are assignable to MIDI control change numbers), and the standard MIDI pitch-bend, mod wheel, aftertouch, and key number as modulation sources.

Figure 2. A multisegment envelope in Quanta 2. You can add more breakpoints by double-clicking. When the Sync button at lower right is active, dragging the breakpoints with the mouse will snap them to rhythm values.

The envelopes are not ADSRs; you can program several attack and decay segments, a sustain loop with more segments, and several release segments (see Figure 2). Instead of modulating individual segments, you can assign a modulator to an overall Scale parameter. This is maybe not ideal when all you want to do is control attack time from key velocity, but it’s a sensible and flexible system.

You can adjust the curvature of individual envelope segments with the mouse. Envelope breakpoints can be synced to the DAW clock, so setting up a few rhythmic pulsations is easy, or even a couple of simple step sequencers. The main limitation of the step sequencing will be getting the individual steps in tune, but you can get pretty close.

Rather than use a conventional mod matrix, Quanta 2 lets you assign any source to a destination by right-clicking on the knob. When the modulation signal is changing the knob position, you’ll see an animated ring around the knob that shows exactly what’s happening. This is a nice system.

The sample-and-hold is not just a random source; it can sample one of the LFOs or envelopes, and the output can be smoothed rather than strictly stepping.

Figure 3. The chorus, delay, and reverb in Quanta 2 aren’t fancy, but they get the job done.

Effects. Chorus, delay, and reverb — three separate processors, arranged in that order (see Figure 3). Standard parameters, nothing fancy. The delay has a lowpass filter on the feedback, and also a width parameter for dialing in an amount of left/right ping-pong. Effects parameters can’t be modulated by the individual voice sources (envelopes and LFOs), but they can be modulated from the macro knobs or via MIDI.

Quantum entanglement. Quanta 2 is not a do-everything workstation synth. Nor is it the ultimate granular machine. But it’s well designed, and it sounds great. The more time I spent with it, the more impressed I became. It has the right features to add some tasty new sound colors to a mix, plus a few extras like MPE compatibility and the ability to use your own samples.

As a side benefit, you don’t have to use the granular synthesis if you don’t need it. Quanta 2 works fine as a basic virtual analog synth, as long as you don’t need your lead lines to glide from note to note. Whether you’re just starting to build a VST arsenal or already have a variety of plugins, you’ll probably find Quanta 2 a worthy addition to your toolkit.

Price: $129 (available in VST3, AAX, and AU formats)

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