Articles and Opinions

Plugin Review: NI Razor

I picked up NI’s new “Razor” Reaktor ensemble last week.  Not like I really had a ton of money burning a hole in my pocket, but, hey, it wasn’t terribly expensive and you know what, I didn’t own an additive synth yet.  So now I do.  (I’ve always wanted one, to the point where I almost bought a used K5000r back in the 90’s.) 
Reaktor is required to use it, although NI has thankfully provided the free Reaktor Player for those unwilling to buy the full Reaktor or Komplete packages.  The player has a few limitations – you can’t save new preset banks, although you can create and save new sounds within your DAW – although they are generally minor annoyances.  The use of Reaktor as a framework entails a little extra overhead to the workflow – instead of dropping the synth in a DAW slot, first a user has to load Reaktor player, then load the Razor ensemble in the player, then load any saved patches (or start programming).  An extra step, although not really one that’s going to hamper your average electronic musician.
How’s it sound?  It’s fascinating, and weird, and rather cool.  As additive often is, it’s great at doing really gritty, punch-you-in-the-head digital sounds.  And because it’s additive with 320 partials, it’s also great at doing pretty complex evolving sounds (and I guess it has a pretty killer vocoder in it, I haven’t had the opportunity to try it yet).  The real excitement money seems to be in the effects section, which instead of actual “effects” in the traditional sense, are really modulations on the additive engine.  So a reverb isn’t so much a “reverb” as it is “changing the decay of certain partials so it sounds like a reverb”, and then there are crazy pitch-and-overtone based effects, and pan on individual sine waves, and so forth.  What’s cool about that is that you can then modulate those things directly from the synth, meaning your reverb can be pitch-following or be tied to the same LFO as your cutoff or whatever. 
The filters are also surprising.  Instead of the standard lp2/lp4/hp2/hp4 there’s a bunch of lowpass and highpass filters with definable peak and rolloff behaviors – so basically you can change a filter’s resonance response in ways that aren’t normal or natural for your standard Moog-diode-ladder or whatnot (usually, as your cutoff increases, the resonance peak bandwidth decreases – with this you can do just the opposite or keep it the same, or modulate how you please).  Years back I used to use (odd, experimental, completely unsupported) software that did lowpass in a similar way, and it meant you could do really weird squelchy sounds, and I always missed that ability in modern softsynths. 
The waveform display is pretty well-implemented and is rather useful to see what it is you’re exactly doing to the sound, although the “3d visualizer” option eats up a lot of processor (and the 3d option isn’t so useful as to be a massive benefit).  Shut it off and it’s surprisingly efficient, since everything except the dynamics is basically in the synth engine itself.  It’s not as processor-efficient  as most of the similarly-priced subtractive synths, but it’s still pretty good.  On my iMac it uses about 10% of a core playing chords on a semi-complex patch.
I can see this becoming one of those de facto IDM synths, simply because of all the weird stuff you can do with it if you want, and because it doesn’t really sound like anything on the market, except maybe slightly similar to some of the CamelAudio stuff.  
What I find interesting is how they’re marketing it.  If you watch their “trailer” for it, it’s all crazy wobbly dubstep and electro-house, gritty basses and stabs, like they’re saying “hey, look, here’s how you can sound like Skrillex or Rusko!”  And then you look at how they’ve structured the synth and you think “oh, it’s really good at doing sound sculpting and weird noises, and it does those wacky filthy basses basically as a side-effect.”  And yeah, it can do those but it…generally doesn’t.  Even the presets devoted to that sort of genre seem to lack much in the way of low-end (although doubling it with a simple sine subosc would be trivial).  ?  Of Razor’s 350 presets, only maybe 10-15 of them would qualify as the kind of thing you’d expect to find in a synth aimed at the dubstep/fidget house market.  A lot of the presets are surprisingly pedestrian – oh look a punchy stab bass, a wakeman-style lead, and a bunch of chimy sounds.  Of course you can mangle the heck out of those sounds pretty quickly.  It’s not until you hit the formant choirs or some of the more unusual Errorsmith patches that you sit up and say “ohhh, yeah, I get it now.”
Reminds me a bit of Absynth in that you *can* use it to create all sorts of basses and leads and stuff but with that sort of soundscaping power under the hood and an engine geared towards making weird sounds, why would you necessarily want to?
The most brilliant part of this synth, and one that I hope will trickle down into other synth design, is the clean, minimalist UI.  At first glance the whole thing looks like a standard 2-osc synth, but clicking on an osc brings up a nice, icon-ized, easy to understand menu of available osc types.  Clicking on a filter does the same with filter types, and effects, and so forth.  Choosing modulations is easy as well – click on the element you want modulated, and you get an icon-ized list of possible modulation sources.  It’s the kind of interface that would translate remarkably well to a touchscreen interface, actually, and I would not be a bit surprised if it borrowed inspiration from iOS and Android. 
There are a number of nice touches to distinguish it from other synths and make up for some of the traditional shortcomings of additive.  A special limiter in the dynamics section helps prevent the occasional spike caused by stray resonances and overlaps, and a set of knobs for enhancing bass help fill out the “thin” quality that certain additive sounds can generate.
So in short, it’s a unique synth and it has a lot of really unusual features.  Probably not as universally and immediately useful as something like Massive, and not a “bread and butter” synth.   But useful if you need funky, gritty punch-through-a-dense-mix sounds.  Some features basically might as well have “IDM Guys will use this” stamped on them.  Others have that “some 21-year-old dude in Sheffield will write an entire song with just this one feature being modulated and it will be a club hit in the UK” feel to them.  And yet others have the “this effect will dominate the soundtrack of low-budget SyFy channel movies for decades to come.”  It excels in the way additive often excels – unusual, evolving sounds with lots of harmonic complexity that cut through a mix – but anyone expecting it to replace a lot of their traditional subtractive or FM synths will be disappointed.  A dead-simple and functional UI and a flexible, unusual effects section are the secret weapons of this synth, making it quick to alter sounds.

By Eric Oehler

Senior Engineer

Founder and owner of Submersible Studios, Eric enjoys talking about microphones and buying audio software he doesn't especially need. He also spends an awful lot of time with a RTA and a reference mic trying to get the acoustics of the studio juuuust right.