Review – Icarus by Tone2

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Tone2’s latest effort is a wavetable monster just waiting to take on the competition. Can it live up to the hype? We check it out in this review.

 

By Rob Mitchell, July 2016

 

Tone2 is the music software developer behind many well-known products, including Gladiator2, Saurus2, and Electra2. You may have noticed that the ones I have mentioned are all 2nd-generation titles that they developed, but the one I am reviewing is a brand new product. They’ve named it Icarus, and it’s their new morphing wavetable-based synthesizer. It includes multiple LFOs which can run at audio-rate, a built-in wavetable editor, 54 morphing modes, an additive spectrum editor, a vocoder, over 1,000 presets, and much more.

On the PC, it will work with Windows ME, XP, Vista, 7, 8, 8.1, and 10 (32-bit or 64-bit)

It is in 32-bit and 64-bit VSTi formats, and 32-bit and 64-bit standalone. You’ll need a 1 GHz (or higher) CPU.

On the Mac, it works with OSX 10.5 or higher.  It is in 32-bit VSTi, 64-bit VSTi formats, and 32-bit and 64-bit Audiounit as well.  You’ll need a 1 GHz (or higher) CPU.

When you run the installation for Icarus, it lets you pick the folder for the install.  Once it loads, either in standalone version or in your DAW, you will have to activate it with a key file. When this is done, you’re all set and it is ready to roll.

 

The First Impression

Once it is up and running, much of Icarus is right there on the main display. There are certain parts of it that do use some other displays, and I will get to them momentarily.  I like how you can see nearly everything all at the same time. In the upper-left, you can skim through presets one at a time in the various categories. Some of these categories include Bass, Brass, Atmospheric, Lead, Effect, Pad, Vocoder, Wobble, and there are many more. To see the full browser, there is a “Browser” button at the bottom of that display. This opens up a large window that lets you see everything that is available. Presets can be rated with a 5-star system, and on the right side it will show what attributes the preset has, such as polyphonic, wavetable, limiter, etc. You can also save presets from the “File” menu, and create a new Init preset or Init Randomized preset.

Using the Resynthesis and Vocoder buttons, you can import a WAV file to easily create a new preset, and then modify it with all the other controls available. When you use resynthesis, it will create a new synthesized version of the sound you are importing. This allows you to apply morphing, use variable speed playback and pitch shifting, time stretching, and more.  One of the choices is Granulator, which uses granular synthesis. After you’ve loaded in a WAV file, you can adjust grain density and pitch. Turning the LFO’s speed down to zero will freeze the sample in place, and the “WAVE” control will let you move back and forth through the WAV’s audio.

Using the vocoder, robotic-like sounds are easily obtainable. It uses over 500 bands, and has very fast envelopes. It can be set up a couple of other ways (if you’re not into the robotic-type of thing), as the “Vocoder Poly Classic” and “Vocoder Poly Breathy” both offer a vocal-synth sound, but they have less of that edgy type of robotic sound. These can all be modulated or warped in different ways, and I will get to some of those other interesting features soon enough.

 

The Oscillators

To the right of the browser is the oscillator section. There is a huge amount of control available here, so I can’t go over everything, but will try to mention most of the features hidden within this area of the synth. There are three oscillators available, and when you click in the waveform display, it will cycle through the 3 different waveform/wavetable views that it has: The first waveform by itself, a sequence of one waveform after the other (has a 3D look to it), or a combination of them on the display at once.

Each oscillator has standard volume, panning, tuning, and phase controls. The “Wave” control will cycle through the waveforms when it is adjusted, and the “Fade” control changes how much one waveform blends into the next. For example, if you want to have a definite “jump” from one waveform to the next, you’d set the Fade at 0. The “Morph” control adjusts the amount of the Morph mode you’ve selected (tab located right above it), which I will get to soon enough. 

There are three tabs towards the middle of the oscillator display.  The first one selects the play mode, which include a selection of types: Mono, Hypersaw (many detuned oscs), Hyperstereo (many stereo detuned oscs), Unison, Supersaw (9 detuned oscs), Stacked, Chords, and Flanged settings. There are also some variations of those same play modes that you can select from.

The second tab is the Waveshape menu, where you’re able to choose from over 80 wavetables. Many of these are good building blocks to make your own presets. I won’t bother spelling out all of the types, but here’s an abbreviated list: Additive Saw, Organ WT, Square PWM, Bells, Spectral 120, and Formant Square. You’re also able to load and save your own wavetables and waveforms by clicking the “Edit” menu at the top.


That is also how you get to the Wavetable Editor where a multitude of editing controls are on board. Just this section of Icarus could be material for a whole separate article as it has so many creative tools built-in to it.

Along the left side, you’re able to load/save wavetables and waveforms, or load initialized settings with different types of waveforms. Across the top is the Wavetable Strip display, which can have up to 256 waveforms within it. The selected waveforms and can be quickly edited with the cut, copy, paste, and trim commands, and drag-and-drop functionality is supported for loading up waveforms.

The “Sweep” menu lets you automatically create a morphing wavetable using one of many choices. Some of these variations include Ring Mod, AM, Bandpass, Comb 2X, Lowpass, Highpass, Stacked Harmonic, FM Sine, and there are plenty more. Below the Sweep menu are more editing tools, such as the Mix, Filter, Modify, Spectrum, and Phase tools. Clicking on any of these five tools will give you a dropdown menu with many choices for how the selected waveforms will be affected. The sliders will adjust the amount for each of the editing tools. Within the choices of the “Mix” menu are maximize, normalize, mix with copied data, crossfade, reverse, PW by value (adds pulse-width modulation), and Comb 2x by value (comb filter is added).

That is just for the Mix menu, and the others work in a similar fashion, but they are focused on different types of filtering or modulation. Some of the other ways you can affect the waveform/wavetable: Adding lowpass, highpass, bandpass, or bandstop filtering, saturation, and bit-crushing. One of my favorites in this section is the “Modify” menu, and making use of its FM (Frequency Modulation). It will modulate the waves with a sine, square or saw wave. PD (Phase Distortion … think Casio CZ) is also included, morphing the waves by the selected type of waveform. These all work quite well, but I would like numerical displays for when I adjust the Mix, Filter, Modify, Spectrum and Phase sliders.

The last two in the column menus are for Resynthesis and the Vocoder. Remember those two that I mentioned earlier in the review? These buttons work in a similar way, but the main difference is that they don’t create a preset with the LFO already setup in a way to affect the wavetable. You would have to make any adjustments to make it sound the way you want, which would include the LFO, or anything else. 

At the bottom-left are buttons to switch to three different editing modes; Waveform, Spectrum, and Phase. When you choose the “Waveform” option, you’re able to edit the waveform itself. They’ve given this display various drawing tools which are available at the bottom-right of the display. If you choose the “Spectrum” display for editing, the partials are then displayed, and you’re able to adjust their amplitude amounts. When you edit in the “Phase” spectrum, it is possible to add or remove a sheen or airy type of quality by changing the harmonics. 


Now that we’ve made are way though most of the options in the Oscillator section, there is just one more tab to mention, and that is the Morph Modes menu. This will play back the wavetable using different types of “modes”.  Basically it can be affected in various ways, and you’re able to choose from a long list of these modes to get a whole new type of audio from the wavetable. Some of these choices include Formant, AM mod, Stacked Harmonic, Phase Distortion, Jodel Chip, plus there are many Sync and FM types of modes. After you’ve selected one of them, you then use the Morph control to make adjustments for the mode you have selected. What changes depends on the morph mode you’ve selected. One powerful feature that the manual describes is the ability for Icarus to use an unlimited number of morph modes on a wavetable. It does take a few steps, but it isn’t really a chore, as it takes just a minute or two to get many of the modes applied to a wavetable. For instance, if you want a Jodel Chip/Phase Distortion/Stacked Harmonic wavetable, you can achieve that without much effort.

 

Filters, LFOs, Envelopes, and Effects

 In the upper-right are the two filters. These can be run in serial or parallel modes, and the filtering itself can be switched off completely (if needed) using the included on/off button. Because of the layout and the way the controls are setup, the resonance control is before the cutoff. I don’t think I’ve seen that in any other synth plugin. It’s not a huge deal, but it does take a little getting used to.

There are a generous number of filter types, and just for an example of the diversity, there are no less than sixteen  lowpass filter types. They have names that describe their basic characteristics: LP Digital 12dB, LP Butter 24dB (I am guessing it’s modeled after the Moog Ladder), LP 303 Analog, and many others.  Also included are highpass, bandpass, vocal, EQ shelving types, and even physical modeling types as well! All in all, there a whopping 60+ filter types you can assign to either of the two filters. Besides filtering, they have also loaded up 9 varied distortion types in this section of the synth. Using the Drive control, you’re able to adjust the distortion amount to your liking.

For the envelope section, you have a total of four AHDSR envelopes to manipulate: Volume, Filter, Aux1, and Aux2. Their names basically indicate what they are for; “Volume” is for the layer volume, and “Filter” setting is for the filter cutoff. “Aux1” and “Aux2” are for anything that you want to setup within the Mod Matrix, which I will cover shortly. “Shape” lets you make adjustments to the shape of the envelope, changing it from linear to logarithmic, or anywhere in-between.

In the LFO section of this synth, you have access to three separate LFOs, as well as a Multi-Stage Step LFO. To change to another of the 40+ waveshape settings for the LFO, you just click in the waveshape display. Fade in, Phase, and Shape controls are also available. Other simple LFOs are available via the mod matrix. They utilize a sine wave (the only waveform available from the matrix for this function) running at different set frequencies which range from 1/64 Hz to 16Hz.

Next we have the Icarus FX section, with its three effect slots. There over 50 included effects, with some very nice reverbs, many types of delays, chorus, a trance gate, distortions, vibrato, flanger, ensemble, EQ, and many others.  What sets these effects apart from many other synth’s effects is the way you can configure them. It can be set up in a serial or parallel type of mode, but there’s also an additional stereo mode. This allows you to set up one oscillator to have its own effect in one channel, while a second oscillator has another effect in the other channel. “Feedback” is a type of delay that feeds the signal back into the FX section. It has controls for high/low cut and a swirl control. Ducking and pan controls are here as well. In addition, there are handy FX templates that can be saved for future reuse. I am also happy to report that the effects can be added as targets for modulation in the mod matrix.

 

Arpeggiator, Mod Matrix, and EQ/Limiter

The arpeggiator in Icarus can use up to 32 steps, and each note is entered on an easy to use grid which stretches from left to right. Patterns can be loaded in or saved from the “Tool” menu, and there are many modes to choose from which affect the playback. Looping up to a certain step is easy to configure (repeat after X amount of steps), or you can set it to stop the arp playback at a step of your choice. Special commands are also within the arp, such as a re-sorting of the notes when it hits the first step once again, pitch/glide options, and many other chord commands are available.

The arp is really overflowing with features, including Stacked Chord, Split High/Low, and one of my favorite modes is called Dual Layer. Using this one, the first oscillator can play the arpeggio, and the second oscillator can play a chord. You do have to change a couple settings in the mod matrix for this to work.

The Mod Matrix is where you can set up routing for certain functions to work correctly, or to work in a special way. It is also where you can use those extra sine LFO settings I mentioned before. There are 18 slots available spread out over three pages. Normally the Volume and Filter envelopes are for amplitude and filter cutoff. Using the mod matrix, you’re able to map them to nearly anything you want. Other sources for modulation include unipolar or bipolar LFO, White noise, Pink noise, a simple Decay (8ms to 16s), and even some math functions such as X*X, SqrtX (square root).  Step+/- (uses the arp velocity amounts as a source), and there are many more. The list of modulation targets is even longer. Just a few of these include tuning, master panning, cutoff/resonance, drive, panning/tuning for each oscillator, EQ, LFO speed, effects, and any segment from the envelopes can be modulated.

The last area I want to go over is the EQ/Limiter section. For the equalization part of it, you have Low, Mid, and High cut/boost controls. “DBass” will boost certain frequencies and make the overall audio sound fuller, even if you have it set to a lower volume. The “Freq” control changes the middle EQ’s frequency, and “Q” narrows or widens the frequency bandwidth. The Limiter is a straight-forward design, with Threshold, Ratio, Attack, and Release controls to tame the audio the way you’d like.

 

Conclusion

When I first tried out Icarus, I had no idea what was lurking under the hood. After getting to know it better, I was delighted to realize that it is a truly powerful beast with nearly endless combinations of sound manipulation capabilities. I easily could have made this review nearly twice as long, but I think I covered the more important aspects that it has to offer.

The several oscillator settings and morph modes make Icarus a tough one to beat. I really like the vocoder’s sound, and the resynthesis they’ve included is easy to use. It has awesome waveform/wavetable editing, tons of high quality presets, and its huge number of filter and effect types really make this a knockout synth you simply must try for yourself.

While I am writing this review, Icarus is nearly out of its beta stage, and should be released anytime now. Icarus is priced at $199 USD. To get more information and to try the beta/demo version yourself, checkout the website here:

https://www.tone2.com/html/icarus.html

 

 

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