The fourth virtual instrument from US developer Audio Damage - generally best known for its range of colourful, anarchic effects - is a hybrid analogue/granular synth for Mac, PC and iPad, the last priced £8 at the time of writing.
Like all AD plugins, Quanta (VST/AU/ AAX) walks its own design and workflow path, and one of its main aims is to make the potentially befuddling concept of granular synthesis easy and approachable. At the same time, though, it’s also intended to be a serious synth for sound designers, specialising in the types of sonics traditionally associated with granular: pads, drones, ambiences and the like.
Quanta is a true stereo, ten-voice polyphonic synth that blends three sounds sources: the “granulator” (the primary focus), an analogue oscillator (see Analogue sauce) and a noise generator. The granulator is a granular sample player into which any mono or stereo WAV, AIF, OGG, FLAC or MP3 file of any length is loaded via drag and drop.
Upon import, the sample is normalised and baked into the Quanta preset itself (for portability), and chopped up in real-time into ‘grains’. The Position, # Grains, Length and Tune knobs control the point in the sample at which playback of grains starts, the number of grains generated per second (up to 100 per voice), the grain ‘window’ size (1-1000ms), and the speed of sample playback for each grain (resulting in pitchshifting). Each of these, as well as the volume and grain playback direction controls, has an associated Random knob, used to vary that parameter for every generated grain within the dialled-in range. This randomisation is one of Quanta’s defining features, imbuing the sounds it makes with organic moment-to-moment variation. Indicators overlaid on the crudely stylised waveform visualise per-voice playback and random grain Position range.
Outputting through its own signal path into the filter, as well as being routable in parallel through the granulator, Quanta’s analogue oscillator serves as a welcome counterpoint to the crunchy digital-ness of the granulator. While it might present itself as an ancillary device in the grand scheme of the synth as a whole, it in fact proves transformative when switched in - with or without its sample-mangling partner up front.
Keeping thing even simpler than the granulator in terms of controls, the analogue oscillator could hardly be easier to program. The Shape knob morphs the waveform from a sine, through a square to a saw, while Pulse Width modulates the rectangular width of the square wave and the symmetry of the other shapes. Pitching is handled by the Tune and Fine knobs, which between them deliver up to two and a half octaves of range up or down.
Used discretely, the analogue oscillator is just the thing for adding a solidifying sub tone, harmonic texture or smoothing layer to the grain stream. Plumb it though the granulator, though, and it becomes something else entirely, as the Grains section and its brilliant randomisers turn it over to babbling S&H-style sounds, weird faux unisons, spooky drones and more.
Equally important is the Shape control, which applies one of ten fixed fade-in/out volume envelopes (ramps, curves, square, triangle, etc) to every grain, radically altering the way they lead into each other and overlap. The upward ramp and curve Shapes are noteworthy, making the grains sound as if they’re playing backwards. Whether or not a sample is loaded, the outputs of the analogue and noise oscillators can also be tapped off and routed to the granulator in parallel with their ‘dry’ signals, wherein they’re then duly treated to the same granular processing. While we’re talking about the noise oscillator, its only control other than Level is Color, which acts to increasingly ‘darken’ it away from white noise the further around you turn it anticlockwise.
There’s a Unison mode, too, which stacks up to ten voices for monophonic play, with voice detuning handled by the Tune Random parameter and various routings in the modulation matrix (see below).
The signals from the granulator and oscillators meet at the Filter section, in which a pair of two- or four-pole multimode resonant filters are arranged in series or parallel. High-pass, low- pass, band-pass and notch modes are on offer, and they’re edited by dragging two nodes around in a graphical display - horizontally for cutoff frequency, vertically for resonance. Audio Damage’s filters always sound fantastic, and these are no exception.
Quanta is big on modulation, with a ‘hardwired’ (as opposed to menu-driven) mod matrix enabling assignment of 14 source signals to 36 target parameters from throughout the synth. Handily, wiggle a parameter on Quanta’s interface and that destination will instantly jump to the top of the matrix list for assignment. Sources include Audio Damage’s new Flexible Envelope Generators (FEGs) and Flexible LFOs (FLFOs), a Sample-and-Hold module, a randomiser, and all the usual MIDI signals (Velocity, Note, Mod Wheel, etc).
The four FEGs enable the totally free construction of custom envelope shapes: add as many nodes as you like, bend the adjoining lines between them, and set up a loop range, if desired, for LFO-style cyclical action within the envelope. Each segment can be set between 0ms and 10s in length, although the envelope graphic can be very misleading, as the time scale used by the display is non-linear - you have to mouse over a breakpoint to see the duration of the segment preceding it.
The ‘F’ in the two FLFOs lies in their Phase, Shape, Skew and Warp controls. Working these, the range of waveforms that can be defined is pretty much limitless. Sharing the same window, the S&H module can take any of the FEGs or FLFOs or a random signal as its source input.
As promised, Quanta does indeed make granular synthesis easy and fun, and even seasoned synthesists should find its concise control set empowering rather than restrictive. The sound of the granulator is, of course, decidedly ‘digital’ - space out short grains for glitchy sci-fi beds, or extend and overlap them for smoother melodics and sustains - but the analogue and noise oscillators and dual filters are ideal for bolstering it and adding warmth, dirt and bite. The modulation system, meanwhile, is superb, and we’re only slightly saddened by the lack of effects.
Audio Damage is a true master of ‘different’, and Quanta is certainly that. It won’t be anyone’s first call for basses or searing lead lines, but for pads, keys, textures, drones, weird rhythmics and FX, it’s a versatile, distinctive instrument.