Review – Rayblaster by Tone2
If you are looking for another typical subtractive virtual analog synth, you should look elsewhere. If it’s something fresh, innovative and with nearly endless possibilities, read this.
by Rob Mitchell, July 2013
Rayblaster is the latest synth plugin by Tone2. They are mainly known for their synth plugins: Gladiator, Firebird+, ElectraX, and Saurus. If you are looking for another typical subtractive virtual analog synth, you should look elsewhere. However, if your shopping list includes something fresh, innovative and with nearly endless possibilities, read on. Tone2 has created just that, but don’t let me jump ahead too far. Let’s start from the beginning to get an idea of how it all works.
RayBlaster uses a new method for creating sound. Tone2 calls it Impulse Modeling Synthesis (or IMS for short). IMS uses quick bursts of audio, and puts them together to create a unique sound. I have many synth plugins in my collection, and I haven’t heard anything like this before. The closest thing might be a granular type of synth, but those work in a different way. The manual doesn’t state exactly how IMS is accomplished, but from what I’ve heard, it sounds great.
Copy protection is by way of key file – very easy to install, just like many other Tone2 products. Rayblaster is available for PC in 32-bit and 64-bit VSTi, plus 32-bit and 64-bit standalone. For Mac, it’s available in 32-bit and 64-bit VSTi, 32-bit and 64-bit Audiounit and Universal Binary.
For my review, I installed to a PC, and this next part may differ a bit on a Mac. During the install process, folders are created for the different categories of presets that ship with Rayblaster. Those categorized folders end up in a folder called “Rayblaster_sounds”. If you’d like, you can create your own within that and save your own presets there.
Rayblaster has 2 oscillators, and you can load two wav files in each oscillator. You can import your own files too, and in the documentation they describe the recommended way to save your samples for the best results. Rayblaster supports 8 bit, 16 bit and 24 bit wavs in mono or stereo.
The wav file can be a single cycle waveform (they recommend zero crossing at the start), a short sample, or a wave file with the impulse response of a filter.
With RayBlaster, you can also resynthesize a sample you have saved previously, or even a drum loop. You can then sync those to BPM, and you’re able to change much of the sound in real time. There are lots of wav files available with Rayblaster for you to load and experiment with.
The Wave ½ Mix lets you cross-blend between the 2 wav files, giving a kind of wavetable effect. There is also a PulseWidth (PW) sequence, which can be changed over time with the PW value.
The PW sequences and the PW control add or remove certain harmonics from the sound spectrum. I mapped my mod wheel to the PW, and used that while switching between the different sequences available to hear how they differ. You could also map PW to an LFO, or other Matrix source. You can read more about the Mod Matrix later in this review.
Right below the menu to load in a wav for each oscillator, you’ll find the control for the ‘Osc Window’. This can affect the overall shape of the sound for each oscillator, and there are over 20 different types you can choose from. To see/hear what was really going with this section, I checked them out one at a time, just to hear what happens to the sound. The first one called Cosine is good for a basic overall sound, I used that one a lot while changing other parameters. Others like Comb 4X or Sine 8X can really change it up. Together with the Harmonic and Formant controls, there are numerous combinations available.
In addition, you can pick from three different types of noise: Pitch, Formant, and Amplitude; each of which have useful characteristics to add to the sound.
Osc Controls Section
Rayblaster does not have a filter control for its oscillators, but I’ll bet you will not miss it.
You can load any of the included filter impulse responses, or create your own. In combination with the formant and other controls, the audio can be shaped in nearly endless ways. The manual has some tips on how to change some of its settings to emulate eight different filter types.
Formant control adjusts the formant frequency, changing the cutoff of the filter impulse responses and the pitch of granular sounds. It can also just give a bit more brightness to the sound. The High Boost control changes the amount of higher formant frequencies. Using the Damp control, you can soften the sound if it’s too sharp or edgy sounding..
The Harmonic control lets you add more of a dark or bright value to the audio. When negative values are used it will usually be more of darker sound.
Higher values above +1 will repeat the wav, depending on how high you set the value. If you turn it way up, it is nearly inaudible, and can be a little harsh. If you do want it set that way, you can use other controls to tame it a bit, such as damping or using a different type of Osc Window/PW setting. Normally you won’t be cranking that way up into that range, but it is available.
The Start value is the start offset for the waveform you’ve loaded up in whichever oscillator. You can get really creative with this, as the Start amount can be used for granular or looped type of sounds. It can play forward or backward through a sample, depending on how the Start value is set. Playing around with this feature was one of the coolest parts of Rayblaster. You really must check it out.
Sync, Ring, Phase, and Drift are all included. They’re handy controls that Tone2 has added, and can help with getting some classic synth sounds, among others. If you set Phase to 0, the oscillators will be always running. If it’s set to a value above 0, it will use that same phase value you set it to, and re-trigger both oscillators every time a key is hit.
Modulation, FX, and More
There are three Envelopes included. One is set to only be used with the Amp section. The other two can be assigned nearly any way you want via the Modulation Matrix.
Using the oscillator controls in conjunction with the Modulation Matrix can give some dynamic results. Match up the Formant control to an envelope, set Wave Mix to another LFO or the Mod Wheel, and you’ll start to get my point. The Matrix has three sections with five source/destinations available on each of the sections. This provides plenty of room for expanding the sound. You can get to some added goodies in the Mod Matrix as well. For example, besides the three types of noise in the Osc section, of the synth’s main screen, from the Mod Matrix you can also get access to white and/or pink noise. For a full list of sources and destinations, see the figures at the end of this review.
The Value Modifiers in the Matrix add even more flexibility. There are four different modifiers to choose from, and they can give a different type of control over whatever source you have assigned to it.
You also get two LFOs, each with six different waveforms available. These can both be assigned in the Mod Matrix.
The 16 step Arp/Gate is very flexible, but it could be little easier to use. But once I got used to it and all its options, I really liked it. There are also many pre-made Arp patterns you can load, and you save your own for future use in other presets.
There are two effects available per preset. You can pick from reverb, delay, distortion, phaser, flanger, EQ, and more. The presets are high quality and very useful. I really liked the multi-tap delay, trance gate, and reverbs.
A couple of handy menu items included are the ability to copy Osc1 to Osc2, and exporting of wavs from the oscillators to disk. You can also initialize just the Matrix or Arp, while keeping all the other settings.
One feature some will appreciate (but it has nothing to do with sound) is being able to hide the keyboard. Some people just don’t like keyboards on their synth plugins. I don’t mind them myself actually, but it’s nice to have this option. Some may use Rayblaster on a smaller laptop screen for instance, and this would help save on the screen real estate.
With Rayblaster, I found that I was having loads of fun experimenting: changing the harmonic controls, formant knob, and using the Arp to control many aspects of the sound. That’s only part of its sound. It can also be set to more “standard” kinds of sounds, imitating other classic synths if you’d like. The manual gives some examples of ways to attain some of those types of sounds. Tone2 also gives you tutorial presets where they used those methods that are mentioned in the manual, and you can check them out to see how it’s really done.
One thing I’d like to see is the effects available as destinations in the Mod Matrix. Also, and I might be greedy here, but I would like three effects available. Two is OK, but just one more would really round-out the effects. I usually like delay and reverb much of the time, but then I can’t add an EQ, chorus, or anything else.
I thought it would also be useful if you could save the Matrix settings, so then they could be loaded into another preset. I found myself repeatedly setting up certain functions for different presets I made in nearly the same way each time: LFO amount to Modwheel, OscFine to the Pitchwheel, or Formant to Modwheel, etc.
So is IMS the next big thing? However IMS works, it sounds very good, and the synth controls make it extremely versatile. Rayblaster is a far cry from most other synths on the market. It lets you get the older classic sounds, if needed, while also breaking new ground itself. It would be nice to know exactly how IMS works “under the hood”. It is explained a bit more on their website. But not understanding the underlying technology is not a big deal…I’m having too much fun just working with this great synth.
At 199USD, Rayblaster isn’t exactly cheap (nor are the two available expansion sound sets). But one thing’s for certain: you don’t already have something quite like it in your instrument arsenal, so it definitely may be worth a look/listen.