Review – Izotope’s BreakTweaker
Breaktweaker is a different kind of instrument, one that will surely become a favorite amongst electronic/dance musicians. It’s a worthy companion to Izotope’s Stutter Edit, and yet it’s a completely different beast.
by Suleiman Ali, Mar. 2015
The electronic dance producer is currently spoiled for choices given the large variety of virtual instruments and plug-ins available, most of which cover all aspects of electronic music production, from the beat makers to the bass synths to the samplers to the slicing and mangling of audio.
Izotope’s BreakTweaker was designed by famous musician BT and developed by Izotope’s team based on his initial design specification. BreakTweaker was originally supposed to be released with Stutter Edit, but due to various reasons the release was delayed. Well, it’s here now, so let us see what Izotope and BT have cooked up this time around.
I used an i5 based HP Laptop with 6 GB RAM running Windows 8 (64 Bit) alongside a Roland Tri-Capture audio interface. The DAW was 64 Bit Reaper version 4.77 and the plug-in itself was 64 Bit.
The installer downloaded quickly, as did the 2 GB of content. Nevertheless, a reasonable internet connection is required to ensure smooth downloading. The installer itself worked without any issues. You can direct the installation path of the VSTi and the content. The best news in this regard is that there are no security hoops to jump though (dongle or complicated activation procedure) and the authorization takes very little time.
Starting up the VSTi in your DAW for the first time loads the instrument and a helpful welcome screen is seen. The welcome screen points out the main sections of the instrument, as well as allowing you to load a demo preset. The demo, when combined with a reading of the very helpful pdf manual (also accessible through the “?” button in the interface), amply illustrates what BreakTweaker (henceforth to be referred to as BT) is all about.
I will just describe the interface itself in this section, and the details will be tackled in an appropriate section later on.
The GUI is very elegant and futuristic looking in general, and maintains Izotope’s reputation for clear and intuitive user controls that ooze sleekness. The overall theme is a black background with everything else various shades of neon blue. Think TRON and you are on the right path.
The bottommost part of the interface shows the preview button (allowing to playback your patterns as well as host sync and MIDI Latch features).
The instrument shows six rows or channels with the associated step sequencer lanes for each. The leftmost side of the interface shows the name (user editable) for each of the lanes. Clicking the next GUI item (small illuminated sine wave symbol) opens up the sound source details for that particular lane. This allows you to use samples as well as the built in synths as a sound source. Pressing the tab key switches between an active layer’s sound source controls and the sequencer.
Just before the step sequencer lane for a particular row, there are five distinct controls that influence the behavior of the step sequencer’s playback for that particular layer. It includes play/stop, preset browser, speed, track gain and pan.
The sequencer itself is simple enough, and allows you to turn on any of the steps for that particular sound. The step size can be increased (for longer sounds), and the velocity can be dragged up or down as required for each step.
The beating heart of this instrument is the micro-editing capability. This is easily the main selling point of BT, as it allows you to implement stutter/gating like effects on a per-step basis. A little playing around with the controls here while the preview button is engaged will quickly clarify what level of tweakability is available to the user.
You could spend all day just playing around with the presets, as they are great starting points for a new user. These presets can be the instrument presets or the generator presets. The instrument presets include all the relevant generator settings, the sequencer settings, the micro-edit settings and usually 24 variations on that theme. So these can be considered as starter kits for people to get their groove on.
The individual tracks can also be quickly assigned sounds (complete generator settings) by using the folder icon on the left of the tracks. These include a large number of generator presets that cover most bases.
But a better way in my opinion is use them to get an idea of the controls and dive right in to make your sounds and beats from scratch.
Using the top menu (“Preset”), a click on the NEW button leads to a completely blank slate. You are free to assign each of the six track’s sound sources. The aforementioned bright sine wave icon next to each track opens up the generators interface. The sources can either be a sample or a synth, and you can layer up to three of either generator types. Quite a number of options are open to the discerning tweaker, from a basic amplitude ADSR to complete multi-modulation madness. There are three main types of filters and a number of distortion effects available (all modulate-able by the three available LFO’s or the four envelopes). Basic tuning is available here in the form of coarse and fine controls. The sampler has various playback modes and all other essential options that should make fine tuning it to your needs quite simple. If that is not enough, an internet connection can enable you to use the “Discover” function, finding similar sounds (based on analysis, not tags) quickly.
The included library of sample WAV files can be accessed by selecting sample as a generator source and then clicking on the folder icon. It is a pretty thorough collection and may be all you need to lay down the grooves for your next EDM, Drum n Bass, Pop, Hip Hop or Dubstep track. The versatility is such that I was even able to use the provided drum samples and percussive sounds in a rock context. You can also import your own samples by placing them in the content location as defined in the settings. The acoustic drum loops I imported made for hours of break-beat enjoyment.
Now we come to the synthesizer sounds. The sheer number of waveforms available should be enough for most needs. Combine the fact that there are two oscillators per generator (which offer AM and FM synthesis, among other options), three generators per track, four LFO’S, four Envelopes, very nice filters, a variety of distortions and easy modulation options, and you have pretty much a dream synthesizer built right into BreakTweaker. I was soon wishing that there some way to play it directly with the MIDI keyboard instead of the current sequencing only option!
I found some of the included oscillator waveforms (accessed via the folder browser icon) to work pretty well in a variety of situations with minimal tweaking. They are full yet warm sounding and once you apply the micro-edit magic on them, they are hard to beat for futuristic sounds.
Once you have the sound dialed in, you can start sequencing it by returning back to the main sequencer interface (either by pressing the tab key or by pressing the bright sine wave icon again). Sequencing is as easy as clicking to add “on-step” rectangles as required. The velocity can be varied as can be the length of the individual rectangles, by clicking and dragging up or right respectively. A dummy “hit” called a choke does exactly that to a generator’s sound (similar to an open-close hi-hat setup).
I laid down a kick drum, snare and hat groove quickly, and then decided to play around with the possibilities before using the remaining three tracks for bass and synthesized effects. Just with these three tracks of drum sounds, I was experimenting away happily for a while. Why, you ask? The pleasure of varying the loop points and play speed for each individual track opens up a world of morphing polyrhythms, that , if you are not careful, will quickly exceed your ability to map them to known time signatures. Yes, it’s the prophesied Rhythmic Singularity, and it got here via a deceptively simple sequencer interface. And should you further need to be amazed, you can open the generator interface again for a single track, and now notice that the sequencer lane for that particular track is open on top, so you edit the sound and sequence from a single interface.
Micro-Edit for the Win
If you click on any single-step/rectangle in the sequencer, it opens the previously mentioned micro-editing features in the bottom half of the screen. That means that you can apply a wide variety of glitch/futuristic-sounding stutter/gating effects just by clicking and dragging your mouse left or right. Fine tweaking can be done by the associated dials, such as building the tension towards the left or the right by bringing the slices closer together in either direction. I really hope that you understand this point: you can do this for each individual step in the sequencer! It definitely works better with longer steps/rectangles of more sustained sounds such as the included synthesizer generators. Even a single-bar loop can get a great amount of excitement and movement by wisely using the modulation and the micro-editing features.
One important point to note here is that there are three kinds of pitch controls: the generator settings pitch (coarse and fine dials), the individual steps pitches and finally, the micro-edit pitching that calculates the required slicing for a particular pitch. This makes programming melodic motifs in the sequencer a breeze.
The patterns, numbered from 1 to 24 can be copied and pasted, by right clicking anywhere on the sequencer grid and selecting copy/paste. This allows you quickly build variations on a theme, and develop a full song quickly. The preview button can be kept on to hear the changes you make as you build your track.
The instrument worked perfectly with my DAW, with the sync feature ensuring that the DAW tempo changes are followed to the letter. MIDI Notes C2 onwards trigger the patterns 1 through 24, allowing you conveniently build up your song in the DAW’s MIDI editor. Furthermore, the individual sounds assigned to the each of the six tracks can be triggered via MIDI Notes C1 to F1. There is an option for a latching mode as well.
Onward to the DAW
One of the utilization-enhancing features in BT is the multi-out mode. In Reaper, it was breeze to get all six tracks routed to individual tracks. The first step was to “Insert Virtual Instrument on new Track” option in Reaper. This presented me with the below dialog:
Upon selecting “Yes”, the DAW set-up the six tracks and the relevant routing automatically with the BT VSTi on a seventh master track. If you select “No”, you get BT on a single stereo track, and this can later be manually configured for your own choice of multi-out setting. The automatically-enabled multi-out setup in Reaper is shown below:
This enables you to apply more surgical specialized equalization, reverb, delays, compressors/limiters or any other effects that you deem fit to the six tracks individually directly in your DAW. And you will need to, because none of these effects are available in the virtual instrument itself. There is single knob labeled “Intensity”, but to date I am not sure exactly what kind of compression it implements.
Room for Improvement
I have to mention couple of minor quibbles before concluding the review. Editing the sequencer tracks’ looping points or speeds on the fly leads to the tracks getting out of sync with each other, which could have been prevented by some kind of auto-syncing feature at the start of each loop. At present, this makes it less than ideal for live use if you plan to do a lot of on-stage rhythmic tweaks.
As I mentioned before, the synthesizers sound fantastic and I wish there was a way to play them with a MIDI Controller. A possible method could be to utilize MIDI Channel 1 for the normal triggering of patterns and samples as mentioned above, and MIDI Channel 2 to 7 for pitched playing of the synthesizer or sample generators for tracks 1 through 6.
My initial impression of BreakTweaker was one of a drum-machine-like plug-in, but it turned out to be a feature-loaded rhythmic instrument that can get you from zero to a full song’s worth of grooves quite fast once you get the hang of it. The learning curve is actually rather gentle, especially if you save time by taking a look at the demos/tutorial and read the provided (and exhaustive) pdf manual.
The software itself is rock-solid, with absolutely zero issues or bugs that I could discern despite repeated and thorough usage. CPU performance has been optimized, with BT using a very small amount of processing power, even when things are in full swing.
Aside from some of the above mentioned criticisms, this is a fully formed virtual instrument and is one of the few options that can be placed on an electronic music project template without much thought. From simple dance rhythms to glitchy, complex rhythms, BT has you covered. There are a number of expansions available at the Izotope website, offering a variety of content. There is a trial version available on the website, so what are you waiting for?
I look forward to what else Izotope may have in store for us in the future.