Review – Alchemy by Camel Audio
Camel Audio’s Alchemy is a marvel of inspired and elegant design making it one of the most versatile synths ever seen. Check it out in this close-up look.
by Rob Mitchell, Nov. 2014
Camel Audio shouldn’t need an introduction, but just in case, I’ll get you caught up on a bit of their history. Camel Audio is a music software company based in the UK, and they started out back in the year 2000. Over the years, they have created the software plugins CamelPhat, CamelSpace, and the free CamelCrusher plugin.
Along the way, they created Alchemy, which combines many types of synthesis together in one package. The standard virtual analog type is included, but it also features spectral, additive, granular synthesis, resynthesis, and sampling. There are great effects on board, and it includes a powerful system for modulation. They’ve thrown in handy performance controls and Remix pads that make it easy to change the sound to your liking. I’ll talk about all this in more detail later.
Installation was a breeze. After you’ve ordered Alchemy from their website, they embed your info into the install file itself, so there’s no need to use an installation key, or some other type of protection. You just download, install, and you’re ready to go.
The system requirements are as follows: On the PC, you’ll need XP or a later OS, a 2 GHz CPU, and one gigabyte of RAM.
For the Mac, you’ll need OSX 10.6.8 or later, 2 GHz Intel CPU, and one gigabyte of RAM.
Most modern PCs and Macs have much more than these requirements, but it’s nice to know it isn’t too power hungry. I basically just think of these as the “minimum” requirements, even though they don’t state it that way on their website.
At the top left, there are three buttons for changing the layout of Alchemy. The “Browse” button brings you to the Browser screen, which also has performance controls along the bottom. The “Simple” button will just show the performance section, and can save you a lot of space on the screen. To get to the sound sources, and actually create and/or edit presets, you have to click the “Advanced” button.
Alchemy has four sound sources for sound generation. Each one of them can use additive, granular, or spectral elements. There is a VA (virtual analog) mode which can be accessed in the additive section.
Clicking the “All” button at the upper left gives you an overview of all four sources at once. From here, you can see the volume amount of each source, as well as tuning, panning, and its filter mix amount. If the filter mix is turned all the way to the left, the entire signal goes to the first filter. When you turn it all the way to right, it directs the signal to the second filter. Anywhere in between is a mix of both filters, depending on how far the control is turned left or right.
To see more detail, and get your hands on more of the controls for an individual source, you just click on the A, B, C or D buttons. When you click on the name in the field for a particular source, it will bring up a menu. This is where you can load in different sounds, such as the huge amount of content that ships with Alchemy. There are also many useful waveforms for VA synthesis available from here, and those can be found under the “Load VA” menu. Importing your own audio is accessed from this menu, and you are able save a source’s settings from here.
Granular mode is used whenever you load the factory content located in “Load Audio” menu. You can see the granular synthesis controls by clicking the corresponding button for the source (A, B, C, or D). From here, you can use some of the more self-explanatory controls, such as Amp, Pan, Coarse Tune, and Fine Tune. The real fun starts when you use the other available knobs. “Position” will determine where it will start the playback from within the sound, while “Stretch” will change how fast it plays through the sound.
The lengths of the separate grains are controlled by the Size knob. The Density knob controls how much overlap there is between the different grains. To the right of the Density knob, you’ll find the Window setting. There are nine settings included within it to control the grain’s volume envelope.
Importing audio in Additive mode lets you edit the sound by its separate partials. Up to 600 partials can be used in every one of the four sources. You don’t really need all of those most of the time, 130-150 partials works fine for most situations after loading in a sample (and sometimes considerably fewer). The editor is easy use, and in the top section, it has separate editing modes for Amp, Pitch, Pan and Phase. In the lower section, it uses breakpoints to change the partials volume (like an amplitude envelope), and the number of points is adjusted by using the Detail knob. This makes it easier to change the levels for the partials, so you don’t have to edit a hundred or more individual points.
In Spectral mode, Alchemy will take the spectrum of imported sound and put it into what they call “spectral bins”. There are many of these so-called bins, and the sound is divided up amongst all of them. They’ve also added a way to load in images, which is then used to form the audio you hear upon playback. You can edit the image inside of Alchemy to get different results, or use a paint program before importing the image. While experimenting with this, I found I was able to quickly make some interesting pad type of sounds.
There are two main filters included in Alchemy, each of which has a choice of fifty different filter types. Needless to say, that is a huge amount to pick from when designing your presets. They’ve included the standard cutoff and resonance controls, as well as a drive control. The filters can be set to work in parallel or serial mode.
The FX Mix controls determine how much of the signal passes on to the FX section, or bypasses the FX going straight to Alchemy’s main output.
Besides the two main filters, there are three filters included for each sound source. These source filters don’t have a drive control, and they have fewer filter types than the two main filters. I would have mentioned these when I was going over the sound sources, but thought they should be grouped together with the other filters for this review. There is a multimode filter in the effects module as well. I will get to the effects section later in the review.
LFOs and Modulation
One great feature of Alchemy is its ability to add up to five types of modulation for each target. For instance, you could have a crazy setup, such as five LFOs all set to one target, such as a Filter Cutoff. I would probably never set it up that way, but I like the fact that you’re not just limited to one or two LFOs. You might wonder: What can be set up as a target? The great news is that just about any control can be modulated in Alchemy.
The only limit in the modulation section is the five slots for every target. You can however, add more LFOs to affect other targets. As I mentioned, I would probably never set it up this way, but here we go: If you used five LFOs already for one target (filter cutoff), then started the process again with another target (i.e. Resonance), you could have another five LFOs for that target as well!
This is not just for the LFOs – I am only using them as an example. I happen to use them a lot, but that’s just me. Alchemy also works the same way with the AHDSR envelope (attack, hold, decay, sustain, release), MSEG (multistage envelope generator), and many others. It’s possible to end up with a monster preset using a total of something like 12 MSEGS, 10 LFOs, and 14 AHDSRs. In other words, this might just be the most powerful modulation section I’ve used, and yet it’s so easy to manage.
OK, so how do you actually set this up? To set up a target, you just click on a knob, such as Filter Cutoff. It adds that name into the field at the top of the Modulation Matrix section on the left, and then it gives you five blank slots to use for modulation down below it. After that, it’s very simple. You just click a blank slot to get to its menu, and you can select whatever you want. Alternatively, you can right-click on a control (i.e. Filter Cutoff), then click “Add Modulation”, and pick what you’d like from the menu that appears.
After that’s all set, and you’ve decided on an LFO to modulate the Filter Cutoff, you can use the LFO’s controls located in the middle of the screen. These include buttons for Trigger (on=poly, off=mono) and Bipolar functions, plus it has controls to adjust the Delay, Attack, Phase, and Rate. There are over 40 different waveform settings you can load in for each LFO. You have the ability to Load and Save LFO presets, too.
If you used something else for your modulation, such as an AHDSR envelope or MSEG for instance, you can edit their settings by clicking on the corresponding button to bring up their controls. The AHDSR envelope is like a regular ADSR, but it has the extra parameter for “Hold” in there as well. This lets you adjust the time in-between the attack and decay, giving that much more control over your sound.
The MSEG lets design your own envelope using nodes to define the shape of the envelope. It has controls for changing the loop modes, and the slide/stretch controls change the ways you can drag the nodes around to edit the shape. They’ve also included a “Sync” button to sync to the tempo of the host. Just like with the LFO section, with the “Trigger” button enabled, it operates in polyphonic mode, and uses a monophonic mode if it is turned off.
You can get to the effects section at the bottom of the interface. They include all the same effects that are in the CamelSpace and CamelPhat plugins, and some others have been added.
There are five slots available to load up the effects of your choice, such as delay, reverb, distortion, compressor, band-pass filters, and more. As you add them in the slots from top to bottom, the controls for each of them will appear lined up to the right of the slots, and they’ll be in the order (from left to right) that they were added.
The order of the effects can be changed by right-clicking on a slot, and you’ll get an option to move it up or down in the slot position. Just like with most everything else in Alchemy, the settings of the effects can be modulated. You just right-click and select a type of modulation, such as velocity amount, LFO, AHDSR envelope, or you might want to use an MSEG.
The preset browser in Alchemy is one of the best I have ever seen for any plugin. It has attribute columns that help keep it all organized. For example, in the “Category” column, you can pick from certain categories such as Bass, Guitar, or Leads. In the second column, you can select from the choices under the “Subcategory” column, such as Acoustic or Electric. You don’t have to select something in each column if you don’t really need to.
The other columns you can select from include Sound Library, Timbre, Articulation, and Genre. In addition to all these choices, the last four columns can be changed to show the sound designer, or you can switch it to one of the already included categories. That way, you could have the last four columns in a bit of a different order. It is possible to select more than one attribute per column, just hold the control key to select however many you want.
They have also added a user tagging feature, comments for each preset, and a rating system. This makes finding your favorites a breeze. Clicking at the top of the “Rating” column will sort them in order, so the presets you have marked with highest ratings will be at the top.
The Performance controls let you map the modulation you’ve set up to certain controls. There are eight knobs on the left side, two X/Y pads in the middle, and there are eight Remix pads over on the right side. This Performance section is visible no matter which of the three screens you’re on at the moment: Browser, Simple, or Advanced. When you use the Browser or Advanced screens, it is all the way at the bottom.
You can setup different variations on your original preset, and then assign the various ones you’ve made to the Remix pads. As you move between the pads, it will morph between the sounds. This is really an awesome feature, and works just as advertised.
In-between the Performance and Effects buttons you’ll find a powerful Arpeggiator. It has some standard modes included, such as Up, Down, Up/Down, Down/Up, As Played, Random, and a Chord mode. It also has controls for Shuffle, Attack, Sustain, and Release. You can change the Duration of the steps, and the Step amount can go up to a hefty 128 steps.
The “Snap” setting controls what the steps snap to as you edit them. If you set it to 1/2 for instance, it would make steps that snap to the halfway point as you draw in or edit any steps, as long as you’re pretty close to the middle of the Arpeggiator’s screen.
Alchemy’s arpeggiator also has the ability to import MIDI files, and Camel Audio hasn’t stopped there. They have included an Edit Mode that lets you easily change the individual step’s length and swing amounts.
I know looks aren’t everything, but I happen to like the fact you can change the skin of Alchemy. It has three different skins included, and for the screenshots in my review, I used the one called “Nightshade”. The skins are found under the File menu.
The CPU usage on my older PC was not bad at all; I was able browse through many presets and never ran into any issues. This is great news for people who will want to use multiple instances of Alchemy in their music production.
I didn’t really mention the unison in Alchemy, which can stack up to 600 oscillators for every sound source. Normally that huge number would be used for getting enough detail for resynthesis. You would probably never use such a high number for a VA preset, as 8-10 should be enough to fatten up a preset using unison, or maybe 15-20 for huge “supersaw”preset.
One handy feature I wanted to mention is that Alchemy has built-in help menus. For many sections of the synth plugin, a right-click on certain controls will bring up a “Help” menu. This is great if you can’t remember how to adjust a setting, or you might wonder exactly what a control does. It will link to a page on the Alchemy site, (internet connection required, of course) where you will find a video explaining the subject, or you can just read up on relevant information that is on the web page.
Alchemy retails for $249 USD, and there is a generous 4 week demo version you can try out for yourself. Alchemy ships with over 1,000 presets, and there are tons of extra sound sets you can purchase from their website. At the time of writing this review, they have a deal where if you purchase Alchemy, you get an extra sound set for free (be sure and take a close look at the remarkable Steamworx library before you make a final selection – it’s quite an achievement).
This synthesizer plugin has one of the best user interfaces and modulation systems of any synth plugin I’ve ever used. Special accolades go to Camel Audio for the Alchemy documentation – it truly establishes the gold standard of what synth documentation should be. Despite how powerful it is, Alchemy is also very easy to use. I feel that is an important point to make, as that can definitely help you with your workflow, and won’t put up a roadblock on your creative process.
You can find more information on Alchemy and get the demo version from their website here: