Review – Crusher X 6 from accSone
One of the oldest and most sophisticated granulators, and an old friend, gets a makeover, which increases its capabilities enormously.
by Warren Burt, July 2017
Crusher X is the brain-child of Jorg Stelkens, software designer extraordinaire from Munich. It’s been around since 1999, in one form or another. Over the years, it’s been updated and its capabilities have expanded, version by version. A couple of months ago, it was updated to Version 6, and some amazing new capabilities have been added. As a long-time user of the program, I was looking forward to this update, and my hopes have been realized. It’s more efficient (less CPU power needed), and has a whole range of new features. In its current incarnation, it truly is the Rolls-Royce (or Jaguar) of granulation programs.
To go back to the beginning, for those unfamiliar with the technique, granular synthesis is a technique that extracts (mostly) very short segments of sound from an ongoing sound stream, and combines those segments into new orders and textures. It can be used to modulate a sound, to time-stretch it, to assemble clouds of sound-textures from a single sound source, to spatialize sounds, and a number of other things. Like its sibling, additive synthesis, though, it requires lots and lots of simultaneous controls to make it work most effectively. And the more “bells and whistles” you build into a program, the more unwieldy the problem of controlling the program becomes. Jorg Stelkens has proposed a number of solutions to this problem in Crusher X, and the result is a program that is very powerful, but basically pretty easy to learn to control.
Crusher X is a VST plugin for Windows (W7+, 32 or 64-bit) and a VST and AU plugin for Mac (OSX 10.6+, 64-bit only). It only works as an effects plugin, but the excellent manual has solutions for several programs which don’t allow you to MIDI control an effects plugin. My two test-beds of choice, AudioMulch and Plogue Bidule, do indeed allow you to apply MIDI signals to any kind of plugin, so I had no problems there. The program is reasonably light on CPU resources, which seems to be an improvement on past versions of the program. On my large ASUS desktop (an Pentium i5 running at 2.3 GHz, with 4 GB of RAM, running Windows 8.1), I can run 60 grain-streams (independent voices each derived from a single grain of the source sound) and only use about 50% of the CPU, often less. The surprise was that on my tiny underpowered ASUS Vivo Tab (An Intel Atom CPU running at 1.8 GHz with 2 GB of Ram, running 32 bit Windows 8), I could run 4 grain-streams and only be using about 50% of the CPU. Earlier versions of Crusher X had just overloaded the Vivo Tab completely. That I’m able to use it on this very convenient machine, even with a reduced grain-stream count, pleases me immensely.
Crusher X (love its blue lobster logo!) starts off with three possible sources of sound, a DCO (digitally controlled oscillator), a live input, and a buffer where you can load in any desired sound file. The DCO generates a sine wave, or in “Random” mode, a kind of very funky series of unpredictable FM type sounds. The live input, or the buffer, of course, can be anything you want. There is a “Trigger” control, which enables both manual filling of the sound buffer and that filling to be triggered by a user-set input level, and a Feed, a feedback control which allows the granulated sound to be fed back into the processing chain. These are seen near the bottom of the all-in-one faceplate shown in the screenshot above. All of these sources are then put into what is called the “Vapor Generator.” This is where the real strength of Crusher X lies, in what it enables you to do to the grains, once you have them.
This is the control panel for the “Vapor Modulations” in Crusher X. Each of the tabs at the top of the box selects a different treatment for the grains. Delay sets how long after the beginning of the sound buffer the sound begins to play. Length sets the range of how long the grains are, and Birth determines how much time passes between the start of each new grain. As you see, each of these tabs has the same kind of controls underneath them, and this is what gives Crusher X its strengths.
From left to right, we have a slider and a unique “wheel” control (for finer control) for Offset, which sets the minimum value for the parameter being controlled. Then comes Mod, which sets the depth of modulation of the parameter, in other words, the maximum value for the parameter. What is controlling the parameter is an LFO-like generator. The speed of the LFO is set with the Freq control, the Spread control adjusts the amount of control over the effect for the different grain-streams, and the Phase control adjusts the spread of phases of the LFO across the different grain-streams. The selection of the kinds of LFO signals happens next. Clicking on the window under Mode gives you a drop down list of 29 different controls. Some of these are basic LFO shapes (Sin, Triangle, Saw, etc) but then there are a number of different Random types (both stepped and smooth), controls from the Physically Modelled X-Y controller (more on this later), Spline (which opens up a window where curves can be drawn and used for almost any parameter), Steps (which opens up a window with an up to 16 step sequence generator), some MIDI input controls for Velocity, Aftertouch, and Channel Pressure, and some controls for “Follow Tune” and “Follow Pitch” which read the left channel of the sound input, and allow you to use pitch information from the incoming sound to control parameters of the various effects. Below that box is a selector for Free Run or many different Sync ratios for the speed of the control, and below that is a Process box, where you can adjust the little graph to produce various control curves for the output of the LFO signals. Each tabbed parameter in this window has its own control like this. Additionally, there is another control at the right of the box called “Glob Mod,” which allows another Modulating signal to be added into the control of the desired parameter. This signal is available for all the different tabs, and its amplitude can be scaled differently in each one.
Other parameters available are Speed, which controls the pitch of the grains; Sweep, which allows the individual grains to glide up and down in pitch; Overdrive (unique to Crusher X) which applies wave-shaping to each of the grains; X-Crush (also unique to Crusher X) which allows any overlapping portions of grains to Ring Modulate each other; Filter Freq, Filter Q, Volume and Pan, which change what they say; and Diffuse, which applies reverb to the inside of the grains, but not to the overall sound. This produces a quite pleasant spacious quality to the sound without blurring or smearing the overall texture. Global is the tab to adjust the Global control for all parameters; various kinds of Resets (which will or will not affect any pitch structures you have set up); and a Random button which will randomize all the controls on all the tabs in this Vapor Modulations section. Below all these controls is a Vapor Modulation Overview – a series of graphs which tell you at a glance what kinds of controls are being applied to each kind of modulation.
Given the wide variety of kinds of controls that can be applied to any parameter, and the wide variety of treatments each grain can receive, you can probably get an inkling of the huge variety of sound types that can be produced from the Vapor Clouds in Crusher X.
Moving to the right in the panel, we see controls for aspects of the Vapor, a graphic indication of how the grains are being generated, a physically modelled X-Y controller, Program controls, for loading and saving patch settings, and also for setting MIDI control of any of the on-screen controllers; and finally a Morphing control, which can set the speed at which any changes of controls can take place. For this last one, for example, I had a loop of piano music being granulated, and the Morph set to about 10 seconds. I faded out the piano music loop and faded in the sine wave DCO. Over the next 10 seconds, the smoothest transition between piano fragments music and sustained chords of sine waves took place. The result was really magical.
In the Vapor window, you can load sound into the sound buffer, set the number of grain-stream generators (up to 199!), set the envelope type for the grains (16 types given, plus you can draw your own, or load a sound file to act as the grain envelope type. The Generator Offset spreads the attack times of each grain out over a given range, settings for Sweep Mode, the kind of Filter that will be used, and even a control to draw the waveshaping graph used in the Overdrive mode! Below that is a Quantize control, which allows you to sync/not sync the grains, tying them to a beat or a beat-pattern (which can be user specified), or allowing them to combine freely. The Physical Model X-Y Field is both an X-Y controller and a performance device where, if you click the mouse in one part of the screen, the active point in the graph will move around, orbiting the center of the graph until it finally settles into the center. Depending on how this is applied to any given parameters, the effect can be either wild or very subtle. And mention should be made of the Grain View, which allows you to see the effect of your controls, and which can be rotated by the mouse, in order to see the kinds of structures you’re generating in 3D.
The bottom part of the screen shows a keyboard, and a MIDI input, and a tuning slot. Here is where I fall in love with the Crusher, because you can set the grains in the Vapor Modulator to conform to any microtonal scale you want. The Scale slot allows you to load any Scala .scl or .tun file into it, and then the grains will be tuned to that scale. When combined with the pitch modulations possible in the Speed tab and the Sweep tab, this can present all sorts of possibilities for both controlled and uncontrolled pitch complexities. Above the scale slot, the MIDI mode determines how the playing of MIDI keys will affect the sound of the plugin. You can have it set so that the sound will come in when you hit the keys, and then fade out after you release the keys, or just change the pitch of the grains, or have various kind of polyphonic and unison modes selected. At the far right are the settings for the “Auto-tune” options, in which you can have incoming sounds being retuned automatically to a preset scale. There are a number of options here, and they’re all a lot of fun. For me, this level of sophistication in pitch control makes Crusher X6 stand head and shoulders above any other granulation program, including previous versions of itself.
The Mixer mixes the output of the Vapor Modulations with the Dry input sound. In the lower right of the mixer, is a small slot where you can select from a number of options for sound routing. Stereo, Multichannel – where each grain has a separate channel output up to 10 channels – and various 5.1, 6.0, 6.1, 7.1, 8.1 and 9.1 options. I set one patch to 4 grains, and the output to Multichannel, and played this through the quadraphonic setup in my studio, and the result was a most pleasing surround sound environment. The 8.1 option seems especially useful – the .1 is simply a mono mix of the first 8 channels. This will be very useful in 8 channel surround settings.
Given the incredible range of external MIDI controls that can be applied, and the huge variety of kinds of modulation that exist (including the new Spline drawing and Steps modulators), and the timbral possibilities of things like the X-Crush, Overdrive and Diffuse modes, in addition to the microtonal possibilities, and you can see how this update brings Crusher X to a new level of sophistication, and places it in the very forefront of sound modification environments, one rich with unusual compositional possibilities. Highly recommended. I had a ball playing with it in preparation for this article, and so, I think, will you.
€168 EUR (plus VAT if applicable). Upgrade/crossgrade €84 EUR (plus VAT if applicable).
Windows (7+) VST (32 or 64-bit), or Mac (10.6+) VST or AU (64-bit)