Review – BioTek from Tracktion
An amazing new plugin softsynth/sampler from Tracktion that will keep you occupied for hours, if not days.
by Warren Burt, Nov. 2016
There is, of course, the old saying, “Be careful what you ask for; you may get it.” When BioTek 1.0 was released earlier in the year, many of us immediately wrote to them, asking, nay demanding, that this synthesizer, which at the time only played the presets supplied by the factory, be “opened up” so that those of us who are accustomed to “rolling our own” sounds, could do so with what seemed like an incredibly powerful synthesis engine behind the front page. In July this year, we got our wish. The “Sound Designer” edition of BioTek was released (now up to v1.5.1), and what an amazingly powerful machine it turned out to be. I’ve been working with it, off and on, for about 3 months now, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of its sound-design possibilities. I tested the 32-bit version of the program inside AudioMulch, and the 64-bit version inside Plogue Bidule, and the performance of the plugin was smooth in both cases. I did notice one discrepancy – when I was working with the 64-bit version, and then I switched to the 32-bit version, my registration for the program disappeared. I had to re-enter my Tracktion password into the 32-bit version again, in order for it to not function in demo mode. Then when I returned to the 64-bit version, I had to do the same thing again. But if I stayed in one version or the other, I didn’t have problems with registration of the program.
The team behind BioTek is a powerful one. Chief engineer is Wolfram Franke, who is best known for his design work for Waldorf. Most of the sound design is by Taiho Yamada, who is well known for his sound design for M-Audio, Alesis, and Dave Smith Instruments, among others. Graphic design is by Kristina Childs, who not only designed an attractive central control for the instrument, but also did an admirable job de-cluttering literally hundreds of controls into something that is quite readable and clear. There is also a large sample library of nature and industrial sounds recorded by Mike Wall (which will take quite a while to explore), and project management and additional sound design work was by James Woodburn.
The original idea behind BioTek (and as implied by its name) was to combine natural sounds, industrial sounds, synthetic sounds and sampled percussion into complex patches which the user could control in real time. The central control on the front panel, called “The Ring” (“One ring to rule them all?”) is an X-Y controller which can be used to control just about any parameters in the synthesizer. In Version 1.0, many of the presets allowed you to move between a natural soundscape into a drum beat, into some kind of FM timbre, into some kind of industrial sound, and have different blends between these. As clever and attractive as these presets were, they seemed to me to be too rooted in one or two people’s aesthetics, and they only hinted at the possibilities of the machine underneath. This original concept is mirrored in the graphic design of the ring itself, which, moving around the edges of the graphic, morphs between a silhouette of the “natural world” with a printed circuit motif in the center, into an industrial/city scape silhouette with the same printed circuit motif in the center, into the same city/industry silhouette with no circuits in the center, into the nature silhouette with a tree and bird in the center. With the matching, in some of the patches, of nature sounds with the nature silhouettes, and drum beats with the city scape, the opposition of nature/city was complete. Fortunately, not all the patches had that obvious kind of mapping, and, in fact, the central ring is one (or two) of 22 different macro controls which make up the front panel, any of which can be mapped to any (one or more) controls within the machine. With these front panel macro controls, you can make as complex or as simple a set of manual controls for your patch as you wish. And these front panel controls can then be externally controlled with external MIDI continuous controllers, or DAW based automation. So the front panel is an incredibly powerful, and very well designed overall control for the whole program.
In this diagram, you can see the upper part of the front panel. The Browser is on the left, and then across the top are the “Wild” (page 1) selector, and the “Edit” (all the other pages) selector. The Patch Name is next, Save, Global Controls, Voices setting (up to 256-voice polyphony, if your CPU can handle it), central tuning frequency, and the All Notes Off control. Below those you can see the Macro controls. The Ring is in the middle, and it’s surrounded by the other Macro controls. In this patch, none of them are activated, and the default names for the sections and the knobs are displayed. These can be changed to anything, and can control anything, as stated earlier. For example, you could use the four Oscillator knobs to control aspects of one effect, and you could then rename that section “Effect 1,” and rename each knob to match the parameter it is controlling. Below that is the “Flow LFO” controls, shown in the next Figure.
BioTek has eight LFOs, each of which can have eigth different settings. On the front panel, you have LFO 1 and 2 displayed. If you want controls for the others, you can set those up as macro controls in the Edit pages. We’ll look at the LFOs in detail in a little while. There’s also some controls for the Arpeggiator, and then an on-screen keyboard (position on the keys equals velocity) with virtual mod wheel and pitch bend controls next to it.
Going into the Edit pages is where the real power of BioTek is, so let’s take a tour of them. First up, after housekeeping pages “Instrument” and “Sound”, is the “Oscillator” page.
To the left of the page is the “Sounds” control. Here you can create and delete layers for the patch. Up to twelve layers are accommodated. Each layer consists of four oscillators, two filters, an Amp, a parametric Equalizer, four Effects, an Arpeggiator, and a Modulation Matrix. This is clearly a lot of power. The “Common” section of the Oscs page, has a volume control for Ring Modulation (of Oscillator 1 against Oscillator 2), FM Algorithm selection (there are ten possible FM Algorithms supplied), Global Tuning Controls, and a versatile Portamento/Glide control. The central column of controls for each Oscillator has an on/off control for the oscillator, a waveform selector, and individual oscillator tuning controls, which here (Sound 4) are set to eleven semitones above the fundamental, detuned by -12 cents. So this oscillator will play a just-intonation Major 7th (the ratio 15/8) above the fundamental tone, which is specified in “Sound 1.” The waveforms available for each oscillator are sine, saw, triangle, pulse, white noise, pink noise, and sample. For the sample, you can load the factory installed samples, or you can load your own. You have to put your own samples into a special folder, which varies from machine to machine. (On my Win8.1 machine, the folder was C:/Users/Warren/AppData/Roaming/Tracktion/BIoTek/Samples.) If you put in just straight recordings (WAV files), the samples will play through to the end, if you keep holding your finger down on the key. If you load a sample with loop points set in it (you can create loop points in the free Wavosaur editor, among other programs), the sound will play the loop you set, repeating the loop until you take your finger off the key. The right hand column will change its controls depending on the waveform selected. For traditional waveforms, there are controls for “sync pitch” (for playing harmonics of your fundamental pitch), start phase, saturation, symmetry and other parameters. (And remember, each of these controls can be controlled by an LFO or other controller).
Below this Oscs panel is a panel which appears on every Edi page, the Controllers panel. In this view, it’s set to control LFOs 1 and 2.
In this Figure, you can see clearly that LFO1 has eight slots. Each slot has a different waveform and is playing at a different frequency. You can select these waveforms in real time, or you can set up other controls to select between them. In one of the demo videos, Taiho Yamada shows how you can set up two LFOs to act as a kind of weighted random generator. The LFOs, and all the Controllers are one of the most powerful parts of the system. I don’t have time or space here to go very deeply into how they work, but may I highly recommend that you download the excellent manual from the Tracktion website, and look at the eigth demo videos Wolfram Franke has put together, and the excellent Patch Deconstruction video from Taiho Yamada. I normally don’t watch demo videos – I prefer to just read the manual and then start getting my hands dirty – but these videos were all short, extremely clear, and complemented the manual very nicely. In a much shorter time than otherwise, I found myself rapidly moving around the BioTek environment, making patches that I would have thought I wouldn’t have been able to do until much more exploration had taken place.
Two “gotchas” to be aware of with BioTek. The overall volume of all the sounds is controlled by Envelope Generator 4, which is hard wired to the Amplifier on the Filters/Amp page. If you don’t change the settings of EG4, you won’t hear any amplitude changes you’re making with the sound. And also, on the Filter/Amp page, you must have the Effects control up in order to hear any of the Effects that the sound is routed through. Keeping those two “gotchas” in mind (both are covered in the manual and the videos, but not really emphasized) will save you a lot of head scratching when you first play with the machine.
Moving on to the Filter/Amp page, you can see that there are two filters, in a serial arrangement, with a Drive unit between them. The filters have twelve different modes, various slopes of Low Pass, High Pass, Band Pass and Band Reject filters, plus a Comb filter mode, and a “Redux,” which is a bit crusher / sample rate reduction mode. There is also an Amplifier here, and a four-band Equalizer. All these except the Amplifier can be turned on or off.
Next comes a page with four different Effects on it. All four have nine different possibilities: Distortion, Chorus, Phaser, Compressor, Filter, Delay, and three kinds of Reverbs. Each can be turned on or off, and all four are wired in sequence. These also mix back into the chain with the Amplifier control on the previous page.
The next page has controls for a very powerful Arpeggiator. Besides the normal options for an Arpeggiator, this page has some unique abilities – you can load in a MIDI file of a sequence of notes, and this will act as a template for the pattern the Arpeggiator plays. Also the Timing controls go far beyond what normal Arpeggiators allow. The Random Position and Random Length controls allow one to deform the arpeggios produce to such an extent that one is generating whole families of new patterns with this. I made a patch with the Ring control on the main page controlling Random Position and Random Length of an arpeggio which was set to Random order, and had the Latch and Freeze controls on. I played chords on my keyboard, which established a harmonic basis for what was played (with extreme settings of Random Position, notes can overlap each other wildly), but which was not predictable. The result was a set of extremely lively and varied rhythms, with only the general harmonic world being predictable. I found this result fairly thrilling. And this was a fairly simplistic use of the patching abilities of the machine.
There’s also a Modulation Matrix with 200 (!) slots. Each slot can have two inputs which interact, and a destination and a trimming control. But in terms of routing of control signals, that’s not all there is.
Each control on BioTek can take a control from one of the many sources of control the machine has. For example, if you go to the Oscs page, and you then select one of the control sources at the bottom of the page, and click on its “Assign” mode, a page appears with the controls on the Oscs page, now tinted green. Here, we’ve selected the “Sources 1” tab, and have clicked on the “Key” control under the “Keyboard” panel on the left. Now I can adjust any of the controls on the Oscs page, and change the range and routing of where the Key signal (MIDI note numbers) goes. You’ll notice that Oscs 2-4 have their range set to 128. This is full range control (128 MIDI notes mapped to 128 pitch possibilities). But you’ll see that for Osc 1, I’ve set the control to 32.3, approximately ¼ of the pitch range. This means that the keyboard signal will be playing this Oscillator over one-fourth of its full range; that is, it will play the pitches of this Oscillator in approximately 48 tones per octave equal temperament. Each of the four oscillators could have its own pitch range and tuning. If you also had the four oscillators interacting with FM or Ring Modulation, the possibilities for varied timbre as you play over the whole keyboard would be immense. In correspondence with Wolfram Franke, he told me that eventually, he plans to implement the use of Scala tuning files into BioTek. I hope that this is indeed the case – that would up the potentials of the instrument up another notch (after all, we are in that musical era in which any pitch, and scales of any formation and any number of notes are legitimate musical materials, so to limit any synthesizer to just twelve pitches these days, is to simply ignore the reality of today’s musical condition). But even without Scala file capability, until that happens, this attenuation of pitch range that is possible with this control makes BioTek incredibly powerful and a joy to play with.
And remember, any of the controllers – the eight LFOs, the four Envelopes, all the Macro Sources, and 30 “Modifier” slots (in which you can do mathematical operations on two different control sources) – can be then routed to any of the controls on the Sound, Oscs, Filter/Amp, Effects and Arp page; in any of the twelve possible Layers, and the Macro controls you assign to these parameters can themselves be controlled with external MIDI control or DAW-based Automation – and you have a synthesizer that has so many possibilities that it’s going to take quite a while to even begin to realize a small portion of the possibilities it contains.
In short, this is one of the most powerful synthesizers I’ve ever seen. At first, it was quite daunting. Then, when I plunged into it, it turned out to be surprisingly easy to come to terms with, and was quite gratifying to work with. I’ve only just begun to play with it, but already I’ve gotten some sonic results that I could have never gotten otherwise. The asking price is $150 US. However, at the beginning of November (now expired alas), Tracktion was having a sale where they offered a package of selected items of their software, including BioTek, for only $100 US. So if you’re bargain-oriented, just keep watching, and there will probably be another sale sometime soon. When there is, grab BioTek. From being a bit of an ugly duckling in its 1.0 version, it has now morphed into a swan of incredible power and beauty. Highly recommended.
$150 USD – VST/AU/AAX/Linux VST plugin for PC, Mac, Linux. 32/64-bit. From Tracktion.com: