Review: Camel Audio Alchemy
After 4 years of development, Camel Audio recently released Alchemy, the ultimate sample manipulation synthesizer.
Update 26-02-2009: Ben @ Camel Audio pointed out to me that since my review, some things changed. You can check here for details, and I will add some notes in the review below as well.
Here’s what the product page says:
Alchemy features additive, spectral and granular synthesis and resynthesis, sampling, and a very capable virtual analog engine with unison and PWM. You can morph or crossfade between sources. You can import your own samples from SFZ, WAV or AIFF files. A wide range of analog modelled filters are included, in addition to a flexible rack of effects which includes all those from CamelPhat and CamelSpace as well as many new effects such as a high quality reverb. The innovative modulation system is extremely flexible, yet easy to use. Alchemy also features a powerful arpeggiator with the ability to import the groove from any MIDI file for immediate synchronization to a beat.
And here’s what it looks like.
Alchemy comes with 2GB of content and 300 presets from various sound designers. Check the Alchemy product page for details on what it is/does.
The installation process is quite simple, although it’s not your usual “double-click, next, next, finish” type installation.
The Alchemy download is split into a few files (the instrument plug-in and some data files) which you’ll need to install by following some simple instructions in the manual. I’m not terribly good at (or rather patient with) reading manuals, yet I had no problems completing the installation successfully at the first try.
I think I’ve read somewhere that Camel Audio will simplify the installation procedure in the future.
Note: version 1.0.8 introduces improvements to the installer!
Let me just start by stating that Alchemy is big. Huge actually… I’m talking about its features here. I’ve been trying to figure out all it can do, but my daytime job and newborn son are both keeping me away from spending too much time with my music, so it will probably take me a few months to explore all that is Alchemy.
For now, I will just say I’m impressed with what I’ve seen so far.
Each sound in Alchemy consists of up to 4 sources, each of which can have the following elements:
- Additive synthesis — independent control over the amplitude, pitch, pan, and phase of each partial in order to manipulate sounds in ways that would be impossible to achieve with a conventional sampler.
The additive element also provides a VA (virtual analog) mode, in which you can use the additive engine as a bank of raw oscillators.
- Spectral synthesis (Phase Vocoder) — offers three different modes: White noise, Resynth (summing sine waves) and Noise-Resynth (summing bands of filtered noise). The spectral resynthesis works well with sounds that don’t have a single pitch.
- Granular synthesis — uses grain to provide time-stretching and pitch-shifting goodness. The granular element also can also be used as a regular sample player.
Upon selecting one of the sources in the GUI (A/B/C/D), a host of parameters can be controlled from the source’s sub page. Here is where you set the source content, sources and 3 multi-mode filters per source (no less than 50 filter types, in parallel or serial mode).
A morph feature allows you to control the interaction of the sources in a number of ways, allowing you to mix and morph the individual sounds.
The output of the sound sources is then fed into 2 main filter modules, with the same 50 filter types available in the sound source section, and controls to set the filters in parallel, serial or mixed modes.
About a third of the advanced interface of Alchemy is devoted to modulation. This is where a lot of the magic happens.
Alchemy features a unique ‘modular’ modulation system which combines ease of use with almost limitless flexibility. It’s a bit different from an ordinary synthesizer’s modulation system, but don’t worry: you can learn the basics in no time.
The modulation system is quite intuitive. Pretty much every knob on Alchemy can be modulated. Simply select the mod target and assign up to five modulators in the mod rack.
There are 6 types of modulator available:
- LFO (up to 16) — a standard low frequency oscillator with some interesting extras.
- AHDSR (up to 16) — envelope generator with attack, hold, decay, sustain, and release stages and envelope shaping for attack, decay and release.
- MSEG (Multiple Segment Envelope Generator) — create and edit complex modulation envelopes with any number of breakpoints and a loop mode.
- Sequencer — a step-based modulator with patterns of up to 128 steps. Perhaps you’ll recognize this one from CamelSpace.
- Note Property — incoming MIDI note data and values generated per-note by Alchemy are also available as modulation sources (i.e. velocity, pitchbend, keyfollow, etc).
- Perform — sixteen different modulation sources that correspond with the controls from the Perform section.
Besides the six mentioned above, there are two other modulation options. The ModMap processes the output of a modulator and maps the original values to new ones before they are applied to a particular modulation target.
I haven’t spent too much time with the ModMap yet, but according to the manual, interesting applications include ‘curved’ velocity responses, scaling the volume of each Source across the keyboard, ‘quantizing’ the pitch response to random-LFO modulation so it adheres to the steps of a scale, and much more.
The XY-MSEG is basically two MSEGs, allowing you to manipulate the levels of both MSEGs at the same time. There is more to it (i.e. morphing), but like I said before I will need to spend some more time with Alchemy to see the full potential of all these advanced features.
Anyway, I think it is pretty clear that Alchemy has plenty of options when it comes to modulation.
Are we there yet?
Let’s move down to the bottom part of Alchemy’s interface. Here you’ll find the Perform section I mentioned earlier (no I haven’t actually explained what it does yet), the Arpeggiator and the Effects module.
KORE. That’s the first thing I thought when I saw the Perform (or performance) section of Alchemy. Similar to the morphing pad in Native Instruments’ KORE, the remix pad in Alchemy lets you morph between performance snapshots, controlling various parameters in real-time.
I don’t know if Camel Audio got the idea from Native Instruments or not, but regardless I’m happy Alchemy has this remix pad. The two XY pads are used for morphing or crossfading sound sources, and controlling other parameters.
Performance section of Camel Audio’s Alchemy synth @ Vimeo
In the video above I’m using the advanced interface mode, but in the simple mode Alchemy only shows the title bar and Perform section. This is all you’ll need for playing sounds from your library, great for live perfomance.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not much into arps. It always feels a bit like cheating to me. I mean, what can an arp do that I can’t
play… program myself. On the other hand, why reinvent the wheel… The arpeggiator is great for getting some quick results, which of course is useful when performing live.
Alchemy’s arp has all you’d expect from an arpeggiator (various arp modes, latch, amp, etc.) plus you can modulate the arp’s basic controls with dedicated sequencers. These are basically the same as the sequencer modulator, but only affecting the arp.
Camel Audio knows a thing or two about effects, so I wasn’t surprised to find a lovely collection of effects in Alchemy.
Alchemy’s Effects module provides a powerful multi-effects processor, offering up to five high-quality effects simultaneously. The available effects include all of the choices found in Camel Audio’s popular CamelPhat and CamelSpace multi-effects plug-ins as well as its Cameleon 5000 synthesizer. Several new effects, including a highly realistic Acoustic Reverb, round out the choices.
The effects include:
- Acoustic Reverb — a high quality, full-featured reverb effect, and Camel Reverb — a reverb effect featuring the CPU-efficient algorithm used in Camel Audio’s popular CamelSpace effect and Cameleon 5000 synthesizer.
- Delay1/2 — stereo delay with dual-filtered feedback.
- Mod FX1/2 — short delay with built-in LFO modulation, useful for chorus, flanging, and related effects.
- Distortion1/2 — distortion effect with multiple algorithms that can be used simultaneously.
- Three Band EQ1/2 — three bands of parametric EQ.
- Bandpass Filter1/2 — adjustable-width bandpass filter, and Band Reject1/2 — allows you to mix in the portion of the signal that was rejected by the bandpass filter.
- MM Filter1/2 — multi-mode filter, offering all the same filter types as Alchemy’s main filters.
- Bass Enhancer — easy-to-use, bass-boosting EQ, recommended for use with bass and low-frequency percussion sounds.
- Compressor — easy-to-use dynamics processor based on a soft-limiting compression algorithm.
- Gain and Pan — allows for a variety of auto-gate/auto-pan effects when modulated by an LFO or sequencer.
There are some other cool features (i.e. the preserve function for tuning, randomize options) that I’m going to skip for now. Camel Audio should be releasing a demo version of Alchemy very soon so you will be able to check it yourself.
A fully functional demo version for Windows and Mac can now be downloaded from the Alchemy product page!
Alchemy is currently available as a download for $249 USD / €199 EUR / £179 GBP. It will soon ship on DVD as well.
So what do I think?
Like I said earlier, I’m impressed. Alchemy is deep, yet not overly complicated. The GUI has a clear layout so it’s pretty easy to find your way around.
The Alchemy factory sounds are OK. Some I like lots, others I wonder why they were included in the factory sounds bank. That’s okay though, as Alchemy is not limited to the presets it comes with. I’ve already found some excellent user presets (i.e. Luftrum’s pads) and of course you can just import your own samples and find out how powerful Alchemy really is.
Ben pointed out to me that Camel Audio is planning to release several banks of additional presets available free to all registered users: We intend to continue to release additional banks of free presets every couple of months for the forseeable future. We’re also developing a range of commercial add-on preset banks, and are inviting comments from users on what kinds of sounds they’d like to hear more of.
In short: The resynthesis is absolutely great. The VA is very capable. The modulation system is excellent. Alchemy comes with a good amount of quality effects and I simply love the Perform section with all its hands-on controls.
I’m also very happy with the big “Random” button in Alchemy’s title bar. It’s quite sane and has already produced some wonderful, inspiring sounds for me.
Although there’s some overlap with other plug-ins I have (i.e. Kontakt, Reaktor, Crystal), I find that Alchemy is a different beast all together. I think I’ve touched on most of its features in the brief time I’ve used it, yet I know there is just so much more to it and I’m looking forward to getting to know Alchemy better.
Since there’s no demo version out yet (keep your eyes out for it), I can only recommend you check the demo mp3s and videos at Camel Audio.
Again, a demo version for Windows and Mac can now be downloaded from the Alchemy product page. It comes with 40 presets and 100MB of samples, and is fully functional for 3 weeks. Go check it out!
Visit Camel Audio for more information.
I should mention that I encountered a few bugs in Alchemy v1.0.4. Nothing big really, and I’m not that much of a sound designer that it caused problems for me, but it’s good to know anyway. Also good to know is that the Camel Audio team takes bug reports very seriously and they fix them fast.
There’s a topic at the KVR forum that deals with bug reports, so you can have a look and see if any of the current bugs might be a problem for you.
Camel Audio did a great job fixing the little problems I encountered in v1.0.4. Might you still find a problem with the latest version, you can still report bugs. Camel Audio is now using the FogBugz tracking system so they can keep track of, and fix bugs even faster (the bug report thread I posted above is now no longer active).