Thanks to the proliferation of 'analogue' synth plugins, newcomers to the world of music technology could be forgiven for thinking that little has changed in synthesis in the past 40 years. This assumption isn't at all true, of course, as there are plenty of innovative synths on the market that simply couldn't exist outside the realm of software. With Cycle, though, Amaranth Audio may have set a new bar in terms of progressiveness - this is a synthesiser that challenges us to hurtle headlong into the future rather than wallow in the past.
Cycle (VST/standalone) looks and sounds thoroughly modern. A dark interface hosting vibrant colourful spectral displays of varying sorts, it's certainly not concerned with familiarity. Forget the ubiquitous two/three-oscillator-through-filter design - here you get a Spectrum display that resembles additive interfaces such as the one on CableGuys' Curve, a collection of 'Vertex' parameters, a complex envelope generator, a Spectrum Filter and a 'Time Surface'. Feeling a bit lost? So were we.
We've seen - and, dare we say it, mastered - all kinds of synthesis, from subtractive and FM to additive, granular and everything in between, but Cycle is entirely (sometimes, frustratingly) different. At the time of writing, the user manual was unfinished and the few complete online tutorials read like academic theses rather than instructions. However, a few preset auditions offered us the promise of something new and exciting, so we persevered...
Amaranth calls Cycle's sound generation technique "vertex synthesis". The idea is that sounds are made up of multiple "vertices" and the paths they follow over time. These paths form a "waveform surface" and the vertices themselves exist in 2-, 4- or 5-dimensional space. The use of the word 'dimensions' is perhaps unnecessarily abstract, the five being keyboard scaling, velocity, modulation source, amp and phase.
Up to eight vertices work together to form a "vertex cube", and each of these has an associated "intercept path", with an intercept being the "knot" points that define all types of curves. Sound complex? You ain't seen nothing yet!
Sets of vertices and vertex cubes form a "mesh", and a particular mesh creates a surface or layer. A set of time-domain layers make up a Time Surface, which affects how the sound behaves over time. Further, vertex paths can be "deformed", which, alas, isn't a form of morphing - deformers are static. Still, they're potentially very powerful, since they can make fairly broad changes to a sound with little CPU hit and without adding too much complexity to the mesh topology.
The rather less alien Spectrum Filter is an additive tool as well as a subtractive device. Essentially, it comprises phase and amplitude layers that affect frequency. More familiar still are the multistage envelope section and effects, including reverb, delay, unison, waveshaper and impulse modeller.
We just don't have the space to describe every one of Cycle's functions even briefly - and we're not entirely sure we could if we did. This is truly geeky stuff, and getting the most out of Cycle will require a lot of time and effort.
Nonetheless, it is, in practice, an effective tactic to grab the pencil or axe tools and hack away in the various displays until you achieve an interesting timbre, and there are a few things you can do to make the experience a little more immediate. Deactivating a preset's effects gives a better idea of what's going on under the hood, and it's a good idea to memorise the key commands.
Reinventing the wheel
Amaranth Audio has delivered an impressive debut synth, even if it is hard to fathom. We always appreciate a new approach and Cycle's most assuredly qualifies as that. It looks, works and behaves differently to just about anything else out there - yet there is a logic to its functionality, and once you suss out the basics, you can create new and unusual sounds with surprising ease.
Is it worth the asking price? That depends. If you're in a hurry, averse to learning something new or just looking for a 'traditional' synth, look elsewhere. For those who dare to dive into uncharted waters, however, there is treasure to be had.
Sonically, Cycle can do punchy and gritty or crystalline and clear with equal conviction and aplomb, and with no concessions made to existing paradigms. It's particularly good at grungy guitars and motion-filled pads - and some of the "analogue" sounds are as convincing as anything you'll hear from a retro emulation.
It's not without its problems, though. We had some stability issues with version 1.0, particularly when using it as a plugin. However, the updates are coming in and hopefully, any remaining bugs will have been squashed by the time you read this. Also, as of this writing, Cycle is Windows-only, but a Mac AU/VST version is allegedly imminent. A good first showing, then, and one that'll certainly keep us busy for some time!