Review – Form from Native Instruments
Form is yet another Reaktor-based synth from Native Instruments – one we think is one of the most interesting ones to come along in quite a while.
by David Baer, Mar. 2017
What It Is
Form is a fascinating new(ish) synth from Native Instruments. It may be purchased on its own for $99 USD but also comes with Komplete 11 and Komplete 11 Ultimate. Form runs inside of Reaktor 6 (or the free Reaktor Player), and Reaktor will run in any mainstream DAW or as standalone on the PC or Mac in either 32-bit or 64-bit mode.
At its heart, Form uses granular synthesis as a sound-production mechanism. But nowhere in the documentation do I recall seeing the words “grain” or “granular”. Furthermore, the controls one normally associates with granular synthesis like Density or Smoothing are nowhere to be found on the user interface. But granular playback is what gets Form off the ground, even if the documentation and the user interface hide the gory details. To my mind this was an excellent design decision, freeing the user and/or sound designer up to focus on what sounds it can make rather than being confronted with the intricacies of granular sound creation.
We’ll get into how Form works in a second, but let’s first briefly ask: who would want to use Form in the first place? Answer: just about anybody involved in the production of music or sound. This is a marvelously versatile tool. If you want pitched musical sounds, it can create some of the most gorgeous pads and most compelling leads you’re likely to have ever heard. If you do soundtracks for film, video or games, once again, it has an extraordinary range of possibilities from the epic to the atmospheric to the suspenseful. And if you just do sound effects, you can conjure up audio magic that will captivate and amaze. So, let’s take a detailed look at how the magic happens.
So, What Is It Really?
A sound in Form begins with a single sample: a wave file of up to 30 seconds in length. The documentation doesn’t say so and the user interface doesn’t make it obvious, but that file can be stereo and, if so, the channel-discreet audio will be preserved as stereo in playback. So, we load a sample … now what?
This is where the granular playback comes into play. Think of there being a “playback head” that can traverse the sample both forward and backward at whatever speed you wish (or can even remain stationary) while pitch remains constant (or not, but more on that shortly). This is pretty conventional granular playback at work.
But it’s the “roadmap” of how the playback head navigates through the sample that becomes a key part of the sound design creative decision process, possibly the most important one. The roadmap is called the “playback curve”. Laying out the playback curve and speed designations is certainly where the designers of Form put much thought. We’ll come back to this in a moment, but back to discussing the sample for a moment.
When a sample is loaded, a pitch map is created as part of the load process. The result, in Form terminology, is called the “pitch curve”, even though it always consists of nothing but straight horizontal lines. It doesn’t matter if there’s natural pitch in the sound or not, Form gamely takes a stab at it and comes up with what it believes to be the best fit. Even if it’s nothing but a cacophony of industrial noise, Form is going to decide what pitches are in there. The user may ask Form to flatten the pitch, which means that playback will adjust pitch accordingly so that Form will use its granular pitch shifting internal capabilities to maintain consistent pitch, or at least what it has determined to be pitch.
The signal that comes out of the playback module then proceeds through an FX stage, and much of this can be modulated with on-board LFOs and envelopes. The playback curve and pitch curve can even be modulation sources. Four macro controls complete the real-time performance control picture. But by the time we hit the FX section, we’re back on familiar ground, so we’ll focus more on the aspects of Form that make it unique in what follows.
One more important thing, though, is the performance capability in Form that allows up to twelve different versions of the sound to be available. These all use the same sample, but can have quite different playback settings and very different actual sounds. The versions can be “activated” as the current sound via a key switch or with the mouse.
Here’s one place this could get very interesting. As stated earlier, we can have a sample length of up to 30 seconds. But that sample could be 10 seconds each of flute, trumpet and oboe (or weed-whacker, helicopter and merry-go-round, for that matter). Since we can select sub-portions of the sample to use for each performance slot, we could have quite a lot of variety of source sounds in a single Form preset.
But there’s more. The versions may be stacked (called Multi mode), up to four in a stack, and play back simultaneously. You get eight sounds total, so in Single mode, Form has eight-note polyphony. In stacked mode you get reduced polyphony based upon the stack size. Finally, there’s a Unison mode, much like that in any conventional synth. Use of Unison also uses up voices, so Unison decreases maximum polyphony.
The UI has a fixed header and footer area and a three-tab center area, the tabs being dedicated to Sample, Sound and Effects. The three buttons in the header so labelled navigate to these tabs. I’m not going to go into great detail about the header and footer, but there are a few noteworthy points. First, Speed can be absolute or synced to host tempo. An interesting feature here, though, is that it may be modulated with LFO, mod-wheel or other modulation source. As you’ll see, rather elaborate playback curves are already possible for some very groove-intensive results, so speed modulation elevates the game even further.
The panel next to the Curve Editor button shows a thumbnail representation of the playback curve which is convenient for reference, but a curve editor (actually a fourth tab panel brought up from a button in the footer) that we’ll look at shortly is where the playback curve may be constructed. The Perform area of the footer is where up to twelve versions of the sound can be stored and recalled for playback.
The Sample tab is shown in the screenshot above. The sample can be brought in via drag and drop, auditioned, and if it is found suitable, it can be loaded and the pitch curve will be constructed in the process. In the example above, we can see that the sample has much diversity of pitch. Had the sample been that of an instrument playing a single note, the pitch curve would be totally flat. Finally, the portion of the sample to be used is designated with the vertical lines with the small white handles at the bottom.
Next up is the Sound tab. This has multiple functions. Under Form Osc are pitch, pan, formant filter and amp modulation controls. The Flatten Pitch button causes Form to adjust playback pitch to be uniform for the entire sample, even if much pitch variation is found in the original audio. Additive Osc allows for a waveform to be added at an octave offset. The waveform is selectable from a morphing pure-sine to soft-saw to soft-square sequence.
The Osc FX section allows various modifications to the audio. Deform can aggressively do just what it says. Shaper … well, shapes the audio. Actually the documentation is pretty vague about what it does, but it seems to be related to phase and/or something that causes the audio to beat prominently. Stereo “jitters” the playback head between left and right and, as such, is an excellent way to introduce additional width to the sound. Multiply does some kind of compression that results in more harmonic content.
Modulation offers two LFOs, two envelopes and a combo-modulator called Sidechain (I’m not sure why that term was chosen). The LFOs and envelopes are pretty conventional. Envelope 1 is hard-wired to amplitude but can also be assigned to other targets. The Sidechain can be used to, for example, make an LFO depth subject to mod-wheel control.
This is a good place to mention how modulation is assigned. To the right we see the modulation assignment popup, obtained by clicking on the label of a control. Form is generous with modulation targets and a great, great amount of interesting audio is possible with creative application of modulation. Modulation targets can be assigned as many as three modulation sources. Form offers much potential in this area, so be sure and check out what was done with it in the factory presets to appreciate the possibilities. The Form manual takes a full eleven pages to show how modulation is assigned, so this area is deeper than it might first appear.
The Effects tab has a lot going on, but I won’t spend much time talking about it. The manual covers this thoroughly. I will just point out the Frequency Shaping area. This is somewhat akin to a two band EQ. Areas of the frequency spectrum outside the two colored blocks do not allow audio through. Inside the blocks, the strength of the signal passed through is proportional to the height of the colored box. Level, Center and Width controls exist for both blocks and any of these may be a modulation target.
Now we get to the heart of the instrument: the curve editor. This is where we lay out the roadmap for sample playback. In the screenshot above, we see a playback curve defined with four segments. Each segment can have a subset of the sample selected, and they need not have any shared areas with neighboring segments. So, the playback may jump to a new location when traversing segments.
Segments may be aligned to a grid, allowing for precise groove-centric playback when playback is synced to host tempo. The shape of the playback curve in a segment is selected from a selection of eight basic shapes, but these are then subject to much more modification using the controls at the top of the curve editor window. In all, the manual devotes eleven pages to curve editing.
I’ve mentioned the documentation several times so far. It’s quite good, offering about 110 pages of clear, informative instruction (although, admittedly, many of the pages have mostly big pictures and aren’t very packed with information). So, the documentation is good, but there’s something about the curve editor, in particular, that begs for a good instructional video. Those with all-access passes to peruse Groove 3 videos and encouraged to look at the Form tutorials. The videos are just over one hour in length total, are quite well-done, and will get the user up to speed in no time – much recommended.
The factory content is highly varied and quite good. There are approximately 220 presets, organized in the categories shown to the right. Just spending a few hours going through all the presets will give you an excellent idea of the range of which Form is capable.
When you’re ready to try your hand at building your own sounds, there are approximately 200 factory sound files to use as samples to get you started. These all appear to be stereo (although I did not check every single one) and they range from single-pitch musical tones to musical sequences (bells, etc.) to noises of many varieties, both natural and man-made. But of course you can copy in sounds of your own (mono sounds work just fine and can easily be used in building stereo presets using Form’s FX, etc.). I heartily encourage users to try their hand at building sounds from scratch. This is easier than it might seem at first and can be a tremendous amount of fun.
So, there you have it. Form is a real winner in my book. But if you are not convinced, check out the demo audio tracks here to see if this instrument suits your creative aspirations:
A demo version is available for download. Some early demo-seekers encountered problems according to forum chatter, but by now hopefully whatever was causing difficulty has been addressed. Also, the above web page does not indicate what limitations of the demo version are, so I can only suggest that you try it and see what happens.