Well, you certainly can't accuse Dutch developer 112dB of hiding its light under a bushel.
In the marketing of its first plugin synth, it is making the kinds of bullish claims guaranteed to stoke scepticism in any reviewer. "So you thought that everything that could be done in the field of synthesizers had been done already? Time to wake up from your hibernation. With Cascade we give you a completely new form of synthesis to play with, creating sounds you could never create before."
Well, whether or not we've heard sounds like these before, we've certainly heard claims like these before, and they almost invariably turn out to be only slightly realistic at best. Keeping our minds open, though, let's see how it fares...
Inspired by the work of deep-thinking Austrian composer Peter Ablinger, Cascade (VST/AU/ AAX) is a two-oscillator virtual analogue synth that feeds into a complex delay network in order to "densify the output up to 5832 times".
Ablinger experimented with 'sound densification' using 12 tape decks to layer an input signal into coloured noise, summing the concept up thus: "By condensation, successive events are transformed into the simultaneity of a spectrum. A succession of sounds as an input turns into a colour of sound as an output."
Cascade runs with the same idea, the goal being to introduce tonal change through the delay interactions, rather than just thicken up the sound.
All of this takes place in the Cascade section, which comes right at the end of the signal path and, although described as a synthesis technique, works more like an effect.
Before that, Cascade is pretty standard subtractive fare. The two oscillators each offer a selection of the usual waveforms (Sine, Triangle, Saw and Square), as well as five noise types: White, Pink and Brown, plus Geiger (crackling pulses, the number of which is controlled by the Shape knob) and Dirac (a single utility impulse used to audition the effect of the cascade).
The oscillator Shape knob adjusts the wave shape for sync-like effects, while tuning is handled by the Semi and Cents knobs, and the balance between the two oscillators is set with the Mix knob.
The filter is an OTA ladder model, capable of self-oscillation and coming with a sizeable array of types: one-, two- and four-pole low-pass and high-pass, two- and four-pole band-pass, and a pair of LP/BP combinations. It sounds great, although it does exhibit some zipper noise at high resonance.
Modulation comes in the shape of two envelopes and a single LFO, all of which are used to modulate the oscillator pitch and wave shape, and the filter cutoff. The LFO rate can be targeted by the envelopes, too, and the filter can also be modulated by velocity and note pitch.
The LFO can run host-synced or free, and be phase-adjusted and delayed by up to 5000ms. Envelope 1 is a conventional ADSR model, hardwired to the amp, while the loopable Envelope 2 is unassigned by default and has four discrete stages, each with its own Time, Level and Curve parameters, enabling more elaborate shapes to be defined.
The Cascade section works by applying an accumulating series of delay 'cascades' to the sound, the first comprising eight delays, the second 72, the third 648 and the fourth 5832. The number of delays actually brought into play is determined by the Density knob, which ranges from 1-32 (32 activating the full 5832), while their lengths are controlled with the Size knob, and stereo distribution by the Spread knob.
Being an accumulating delay network, by it's very nature the Cascade section takes time to build up to its full effect, so 112dB has thoughtfully added the ability to 'pre-render' a user-adjustable amount of the front end of the sound, so you can skip straight to the action – ie, a point at which you feel the delays have built up enough to make a good starting point. This is done using the Render knob, which jumps the start point forward by up to 10,000ms, taking a second or two for the background process involved to do its thing.
By default, pre-rendering doesn't include envelope and LFO modulation – ie, both remain initiated by note input, as usual, rather than jumping in, mid- flow, at the point set by the Render knob. Their start points can be pulled back into the pre-render stage (ie, the part of the signal you don't hear), though, by raising the LFO and Envelope 2 Early knobs. So, if you design a sound with modulation baked in, then decide to pre-render it by a few seconds, you can dial back the modulation to sync it back up with the new start point.
The mix between the analogue synth and Cascade sections is set by the Wet knob, making the latter feel more like an effect than a synthesis method in the truest sense, although it is applied independently pre-filter to every voice. The timing of the delay network is defined by a pop-up matrix of 32 adjustable delay times, for which six diverse preset setups are included, along with a Randomize button.
Below the matrix, a real-time graphic visualises the network, its vertical lines becoming more numerous and tightly packed as the Density is raised. The Freeze Time parameter switches full feedback in for the specified time, while Window Width applies a Hanning envelope prior to the Cascade section, for a granular kind of sound.
Finally, the LFO and envelopes can be assigned to modulate the delay times and feedback loop, for huge chorus and unison-style effects, while a Drive module is on call for clipping distortion.
Cascade is an interesting instrument, and we really dig the idea behind it. However, the subtractive synth at its core – as good as it sounds – is basic and unremarkable, and the Cascade section never feels intuitive.
As you might expect, cascade 'synthesis' is most effective with pads and other sustained sounds, from which it can elicit cool builds, textures, smears, pulsating tonal shifts and enormous stereo landscapes that at times do sound genuinely 'new'. It's not hugely useful for basses, leads and the like, though.
In summary, then, Cascade doesn't herald a revolution in synthesis, but it is able to conjure up certain types of noises that no other instrument could.