Points of Kontakt – eDNA from Spitfire Audio
We examine Spitfire Audio’s eDNA library, a massive and deep instrument of mostly synth-type sounds for both the full and free version of Kontakt.
by David Baer, May 2016
Perhaps I’m doing Spitfire Audio a disservice reviewing Electronic DNA (hereafter eDNA) in the Points of Kontakt column, since this library can be run using the free player (and like other Kontakt libraries licensed with NI that are compatible with the free player, that is reflected in the price). So, potential buyers who are not in possession of the full version of Kontakt might skip this review, which for some would be a considerable shame. However, owners of the full version do have a few additional advantages – briefly more on this later.
The eDNA library is a collection of sounds that originate from a wide variety of sources, many of them being actual synths, and many (probably) being naturally-occurring sounds that have been processed to a point that their true origin in obscured. So, we’ll call it a synth library, even though we’re likely stretching the truth a little with that label.
These sounds are then included in a very elaborate custom player provided by Spitfire, no doubt the result of a massive scripting effort. This player has many competencies, especially when it comes to a generous set of FX capabilities.
The eDNA Sound Engines
We will start by focusing on the player and defer the discussion of sound content until later in this article. In brief, eDNA has two sound engines (named A and B) which are largely, but not completely, identical. As far as I can determine, the sample sets available to each engine are identical for any given preset, but different presets may offer a different collection of sample sets.
The general signal flow can be seen in the following graphic.
After the initial sound generation based on the selected sample set, there is a dedicated LFO (sine wave only) each for pitch, loudness and filter cutoff. These are called the “Wobbles”.
There are two filters, two-pole Kontakt state-variable LP and HP. The LFO (wobble) modulating cutoff will do so for either the LP or HP filter but not both. Each filter has its own resonance control.
A simple ADSR envelope for amp completes the basic sound-generation options picture.
Each engine has several additional independent controls. To begin with, there’s a simple pan. Then there’s the somewhat puzzling tune/offset pair of controls. Basically, one powerful thing that can be done with these is to offset the MIDI note-number in one direction while compensating the pitch in the other, producing a correctly-pitched sound whose timbre variations that grow more pronounced as the distance from the natural key increases. Finally, a trim control allows for adjustments of loudness (down or up).
Next we have controls for pitch bend and portamento glide. Between these two controls is a very useful control for an oscillator clone capability. This can be used to produce anything between a slightly detuned or full-octave detuned second signal.
Each engine has a set of inline FX. This is the one area the A and B engines are different. In all cases (all that I’ve examined in any case), the collection of FX is intentionally different between the A and B engines. Much of the power of eDNA comes from the ability to mix the A and B output in varying amounts, providing much animation (whether supplied automatically via LFO or manually via mod wheel). There are various techniques for achieving subtle (or not so subtle) differences in A and B timbre, employing different effects being just one of them. We’ll come back to FX shortly, but do note that the insert effects come before the A/B mixer.
The A/B mixer is next. For presets that use both an A and B sound, the question arises as to how best to mix them. In some cases, you want to set the respective mix level and leave it at that. But often we will want some variation in the mix level. In many presets, this is left to the player to control via the mod wheel. But there’s also an LFO. By the way, all the LFOs on the main panel (see image at top) are synced to host tempo. The mix LFO has four waveforms from which to choose. The starting position can be established with the small slider control under the main mixer graphic (that imposing grill-shaped thing in the center).
Post mixer we have an optional gate sequencer with independent programs for A and B. Hmmm, at least that’s what the signal flow diagram tells us, but that’s not really possible. And experimentation verifies that the UI provision of separate gate sequences for A and B are in effect. So, on this point, the signal flow diagram appears to be slightly in error. The gate sequencer would have to be situated before the mixer if the A and B sounds can be manipulated independently.
Let’s next move on to FX. We have master FX, a set of independent insert FX for the A and B engines, a shared set of send FX called Aux FX, and finally set called the Motor FX, which have modulation capabilities that will be explained momentarily. Master FX come post-mixer, as you’d expect. The A and B insert FX provide seven FX of a variety of types, and a send module that controls the signal level sent to the Aux FX. Only one of these sets is visible at any time, as can be seen in the secondary UI page image below.
When you click on any of the FX, a set of controls specific to the effect is displayed. In the above image, the EQ effect is selected and the expected EQ controls are seen in the row immediately below. Of these, you will see two FAV buttons highlighted in red. When so highlighted, these controls will appear on the main UI screen as “easy controls” in the FX Dashboard area. I found the FAV highlighting was not always consistent, although as bugs go, this one is cosmetic only and pretty minor.
You can see all the FX present in a single preset in the composite image below. This should give you a good idea about just how very much potential FX capability is present in a single preset. This is a good time to mention the Conv. effect that you see occupying several of the FX slots. There are 21 convolution impulses that ship with eDNA, some of them pretty wild, and there are provisions for users to supply their own as well.
Different presets or collections (called Cartridges – more on this shortly) can in theory have a unique collection of FX at any level. From all the ones I examined, the master, insert and send FX are always the same. The Motor FX are the only ones I noticed differing from Cartridge to Cartridge.
So, let’s talk about those Motor FX. There are two LFOs called motors and two sub-LFOs called (you guessed it!) sub-motors. The LFO motor can be a mix of sine, triangle, rectangle, saw and random waveforms. A motor LFO can be used to modulate one or more parameters of one of the FX modules in the Motor FX set. The sub-motor can modulate the frequency and/or the strength of the corresponding primary motor for considerable mayhem. Unlike all the other LFOs, none of these LFOs are synced to host tempo.
At last, let’s finally get to the factory content … and what a massive load of content there is. It would literally take one several days of many dedicated hours to properly explore all the factory content, which is reportedly comprised of 1900-plus presets. I’ll choose to believe that claim since I certainly don’t want to have to actually count them all. But there’s no doubt: eDNA is simply massive.
The content is split into seven sub-libraries that Spitfire calls Cartridges, although there is no insertion/removal needed to utilize any of them. The cartridges are called Apocalypz, Moviedrome, Discoman, Disphoria, Analoganaut, Sound Swamp and Wheel Spin. I’ll leave it to the reader to explore Sptifire’s own description of what’s in each (URL for this purpose provided below). But they are all included as part of the purchase price, so one does not need to pick and choose.
The range of material is extensive, from the ethereally sublime to deeply warped mayhem and everything in between. But there certainly is a generous amount of the mayhem variety. Adjectives like “discordant”, “noisy”, “screaming” and “distorted” are in considerable evidence in the names given to the sample sets. So, if sonic chaos floats your boat, you will be riding high.
Fortunately, Spitfire has been generous with demo videos. There is one video for each cartridge, most of them lasting approximately 30 minutes. It may take you, the potential customer, a half a day to view them all to see if eDNA is your type of instrument, but you will come away from that experience with a very good idea of how well eDNA will fit your needs.
Odds and Ends
This is a good time to mention the documentation. On the surface, it is nonexistent at the time this is being written. Spitfire claims it is developing an online version which should be ready shortly after this article sees the light of day. However, the “beta” documentation, which seems to be largely complete and accurate, is available here:
And trust me – you will need to read the manual to figure out a few of the interactions with the UI. Most things are intuitive, but there are a few things needing a real explanation, such as how to connect the motor LFOs to effects, to cite just one example.
The mod wheel is the only one of two MIDI controllers for which dedicated purpose is assigned on a per-patch basis. For a great many presets, it will control A/B mix amount. But it will always be used for something when not used for that purpose. In theory, Spitfire includes a description of the mod wheel application in the preset name. Many of the preset names are so long, however, that that description is clipped. Expression (MIDI control 11) is hard-wired to control overall loudness. No other MIDI controller programming was done, although MIDI-learn is an option for many other parameters.
While users of the free-Kontakt-based eDNA will have much programming capability at their disposal, courtesy of the rich and detailed UI, as I mentioned earlier there are a few things that the owner of the full Kontakt will benefit from, provided that owner also has modest Kontakt programming skills. If you are completely baffled at what you see when you click on the wrench icon, this sort of activity is not for you. But if you know your way around Kontakt under the covers, at least a little bit, additional options open up.
Primary among these is the ability to move the sample playback start position further into the sample. Quite a few of the sample sets included with eDNA have slow attacks. Many of these might also be perfectly suitable for faster-attack sounds as well. To achieve that, your only option is to move the sample start position past the slow attack. Dialing in a fast attack in the main UI is not going to do you any good.
Another fine use of DIY tweaking is adding aftertouch modulation to one of the wobbles, the pitch (vibrato) wobble in particular. Other than aftertouch, any MIDI CC can be learned. Users with the full version of Kontakt will have more subtle expressiveness in the way the slave follows the master CC movement.
I wish that Spitfire had chosen to provide controls for these in the UI. I also wish there was an option to modulate filter cutoff with MIDI note number. On the other hand, just where was there room to put additional knobs or switches? Many of the user controls are already fairly miniscule the way things are.
Is eDNA for You?
I purposely deferred mentioning the price of eDNA until the end. It is £149 GBP, or about $230 USD. During end-of-year sale season last year (2015), Spitfire offered a 25% discount for several days, something they had not been known to do previously. Whether this becomes an annual thing is unknown.
I do not mean imply that I think eDNA is overpriced. This is a magnificent library with an absolute wealth of sound sample sets with a deeply competent sound engine. The factory preset content is beyond generous, although anyone not also exploring all the possibilities with their own programming is missing out on much of the value.
As mentioned earlier, Spitfire has been entirely forthcoming with demo videos that aptly illustrate what can be expected from eDNA. The price of eDNA may be a strain on the typical home studio producer’s budget, but anyone who decides to commit their funds will be able to do so with a clear knowledge of what their investment will yield. If you like the demo videos, you will certainly not end up disappointed post-purchase.