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Review by Colin Zxzzzxx

CellSynth is the software that music producers have been dreaming of. It is a 'conventional' synthesiser, a sampler, a multitrack player and recorder and an all in one production tool which outputs stereo CD quality audio files to your computer. In conjunction with Cubase VST it is completely awesome.

CellSynth as a software synthesiser is based around the creation of sound on a matrix of 36 'cells'. The cells fall into 2 categories - audio generators and audio processors.

Each cell has audio and modulation inputs on each of its four sides indicated by triangular and semi-circular icons respectively, except those on the edge of the matrix which have inputs only on those sides adjoining another cell. The amount of modulation and gain is adjustable at these input points.

The audio generators are in 'CellStores' across the top of the matrix and comprise the four main wave types, sine, square, triangle and sawtooth, along with a harmonic oscillator, a noise/random number generator and a sample cell which allows inclusion of samples in AIFF, Wav and SDII formats. These can also function as LFO's in the lower register.

Below the matrix are the audio processors, Filter (low pass or band pass, 2 and 4 pole), comb filter, mixer, panner, Black Box (with spatialization, limiting, gating and distortion), delay, reverb, envelope and event sequencer.

Clicking on a cell in the matrix opens the control window where the main control parameters are. Values can be typed in numerically on each parameter or manually adjusted with pots and sliders on screen. Each cell can be controlled via MIDI controllers and has a controller parameter and controller amount as well as output gain as standard. Other parameters depend on the function of the cell. A large proportion of these parameters can be command clicked to bring parity with the matrix clock (at any tempo), allowing samples to be pitched and delays and modulation sources to be timed in at the click of button.

The matrix has an overall tempo (or master clock) setting which helps to create one of the magical aspects of CellSynth. As a result of the overall sync many of the parameters in the cells can be easily synced to tempo. A sample, providing that its start and end markers are set to a bar length, 1, 2, 4 or 8 for example, can be dragged onto the matrix and automatically tuned to the tempo by command clicking on the frequency pot of the cell. After that an option click will double the frequency while control click halves it. This facility makes Cellsynth a remarkable tool for sample manipulation and is an absolute godsend for dance music producers.

For example, 6 different samples can be put together and timed to one another in 30 seconds rather than 30 minutes. These samples can then be routed through other cells to process the sound in just about any combination of filters and delays etc. This easily makes CellSynth the best advance in dance music production of the last 5 years. Controlling filter sweeps and realtime modulation of samples is now as easy as you have ever dreamed, EQ'ing, processing and demoing ideas can all take place in one environment which stays at a similar sonic quality throughout the course of a production.

As many cells as your processor can handle can be employed in a matrix and there is a performance monitor to aid your awareness of the computers limits. In the review a Mac G3 233 Desktop and a G3 266 Tower were used with performance becoming sluggish after the 25 cell mark on the 233 and 29 on the 266.

Combining cells to create conventional synthesised sound is a simple task with the added bonus that as well as allowing the user to make exciting sounds it also educates her in sound synthesis in a way that many other synths are unable. All wave cells default to middle C when deposited on the matrix making it simple to keep tune with other gear. For a simple lead or bass sound drag a sinewave oscillator onto the matrix, drag a filter cell to an adjacent cell and send the sinewave output to the filter cell. Modulate with any wave type and hear the frequency of the filter sweep. Adjust resonance for a more or less 'acidy' sound.

Each cell has a keyboard icon in its control window which spreads the sound across a MIDI keyboard, CellSynth only has 1 MIDI channel but the span of individual cells can be set, by option clicking the keyboard icon, allowing for multiple sounds to be spread across the keyboard. Multiple cells can also be allocated to the same keyspan allowing for the creation of polyphonic chords on individual notes.

The audio input of your computer can also be routed through CellSynth allowing access to its processing power for virtually any source. The processing cells are extremely powerful tools and can be combined in an almost unlimited number of ways.

Filters can be 2 or 4 pole and have frequency, resonance and gain controls and so are also effectively EQ blocks which can be set to low pass and band pass settings. Wave cells also function as LFOs which can be timed to the master sync of the matrix. Modulating filter cells affects the frequency parameter, exactly as in 'tweaking' and acid sound.

Mixer Cells can be used to boost, cut or mix up to four other sources. They can also function as Ring Modulators. Modulation affects the gain amplitude when the ring modulator is off and ring modulation when it is on. Signals can also be inverted in the mixer cell.

Delay and reverb cells are superb with a sonic quality that matches that of high end studio gear. Delays range from 0 to 2 seconds with up to infinite repeats and reverb goes from tiny boxes to infinite cavernous effects. Modulating delay cells affects delay time but reveb cells do not have a modulation input. The panner is excellent and modulating it causes smooth auto panning effects.

The black box is a proprietory processing cell which offers spatialization, limiting, expansion and gating with spatialization as the highlight. Modulating the black box cell affects the gate.

Envelope cells provide traditional volume or modulation envelope functions and can be triggered by MIDI, they also have a sync facility which can be utilised to turn on a envelope at a specific bar or beat.

The event sequencer works with note and controller information and can automate the gain or other parameters of any cell.

Dragging parameters away from the editor windows creates a floating slider for that parameter which can also be controlled via MIDI. This allows, for example, both the frequency and resonance of a filter to be modulated independently.

There is so much depth to Cellsynth as a music application that it virtually impossible to cover all aspects of it in one review. The simplicity or complexity of its use is determined by the user. On one level its amazingly fun software that can be used by any non musician to create easy music for pleasure, but the deeper you dig the more amazing it becomes.

The possible number of permutations is incalculable and its applications for all kinds of dance, experimental, multimedia and electronic musics are myriad. The tones are generated from original algorithms and have a warmth and depth that could soften the heart of all but the most extreme of analog fetishists. The emergence of several software based synthesisers shows that the time is right for this sort of development but nothing currently on the market covers as many bases as comprehensively as CellSynth.

There are some minor criticisms to be made of it, the interface is a little fiddly at first but that soon falls away as the pleasure factor takes over. It could look more funky but that is in hand for later updates. The output levels stray into peaks a little too often when things get busy but this produces a distortion which at least has some aesthetic viability, like an overdriven analogue unit, and is avoidable. The backroom programming, the algorithms and processing are all absolutely first class and help to create a beautifully rounded sound from this small piece of software.

To sum up this is a landmark application whose use will be detectable in music to come and whose benefits will help producers to concentrate on arrangement and sonic quality and push engineering lower down the list of skills required to create contmporary music. CellSynth is a liberation and an inspiration for music makers.

Colin, Janurary 1999 - Zion Train www.wobblyweb.com