In a world gone mad for analog devices, acclaimed American developer Audio Damage has created a truly elegant virtual instrument designed to push the digital potential of granular synthesis to its limits, while ensuring it remains accessible for producers of all skill levels.
The concept of chopping audio samples into very short component grains for the purpose of time stretching and atmospheric manipulation has existed for decades. By reconfiguring its powerful features into a highly intuitive interface with more than a few clever twists, Audio Damage succeeds in making this somewhat arcane and often overlooked synthesis technique feel fresher than ever.
Quanta’s resizable vector-based interface is divided in two halves. The upper section provides access to six key sections: the sample selector and display, the flexible envelope generators, the flexible LFO and S&H section, an extensive modulation matrix, the preset browser, and global settings. Regardless of the selected upper view, the lower half provides continuous access to the oscillator, noise, grain, filter, and output controls.
The crucial engine driving Quanta is, of course, the Grains section. Samples can be dragged and dropped from directly within your DAW, or if your desired file isn’t directly to hand, selected via file browser after clicking the floppy disk symbol. The resulting highly-stylized waveform is easy on the eyes, while the blue vertical line intersecting it can be dragged forward or backward to determine the playback anchor – corresponding to and simultaneously controlled by the Position dial in the Grains section. When triggered, horizontally scanning dots represent each of the up to ten Voices being played.
In addition to Position, four other parameters have a major impact on granular playback. Number of Grains determines the number of grains played back per second, from one up to a hundred, which has a significant impact on the perceived density of a sound: lower values are correspondingly thin, while higher values are increasingly full. Length, measured in milliseconds from 1 to 1000, determines the duration and resulting cohesion of grain playback: shorter times result in audibly serrated textures, while higher values deliver smoother continuous tones. Both come with Randomization controls to generate controlled irregularity and enhanced texture.
Between the number of Grains and Length controls is the critical Shape dial. Ten options impose an amplitude envelope on each grain, ranging from unforgiving, clicky squares to smooth sines, with quite a few options in between. On the extreme end, Ramp Down creates plucky, almost percussive rain drops of sound, while Ramp Up delivers reverse sweeps full of atmospheric tension.
Below the Shape dial is a pop-up menu with five playback directions. Forward plays the grains in the direction you would expect, while Reverse plays them backwards; Play Dir determines the perceived direction of grain playback in relation to the waveform and plays it accordingly while -Play Dir inverts this behavior; Random mode selects a mode from the other four options for each grain by chance. Experimenting with the different playback modes yields a wide array of textures, with Forward more upfront, Reverse generally more suited to ambient textures, and both Play Dir options providing glitchier options.
Tune, Level, and Position dials can all be easily randomized via their attendant controls, while the Oscillator and Noise In controls allow both generators to be fed through all the granular synthesis controls described above, even if their direct output is set to zero. Fine Tune affords pitch control in cents, while a Width dial separates Quanta’s pair of true stereo channels accordingly.
The dedicated anti-aliasing Oscillator features a smooth waveform control that glides seamlessly from sine to square to sawtooth; adjustable Pulse Width takes effect on any square-adjacent waveform, instantly providing access to a unique range of timbres. Tune and Fine pitch controls along with a Level complete this deceptively simple yet powerful generator. The Noise oscillator features a simple Color dial along with Level control.
Taken on their own without any sample layering or granular synthesis, Quanta functions as a solid synthesizer. Better still, even without being audible on their own and left entirely unaccompanied by audio content, both oscillators can be fed through the granular engine to rapidly synthesize otherworldly tones and textures without any sample loaded into Quanta at all.
Just prior to output, a pair of luscious 2 or 4-pole Low Pass, Band Pass, High Pass, or Notch Filters can be applied to the signal path in either serial or parallel. Lacking any cutoff display in Hz, the graphical interface nevertheless paints a helpful picture.
Beneath the master Output level dial is drop down allowing for the selection of up to ten Voices, useful for saving CPU, while an optional Unison mode stacks all available voices with each trigger for thicker results where processing allows. The All Stop button provides an emergency exit if you accidentally create something too loud, awful, and continuous to endure.
While the granular engine and interface itself could likely have been deemed sufficiently innovative, Quanta’s unique modulators provide sound shaping control above and beyond the call of duty.
Four flexible envelope generators reside in the FEG section. Each one can be assigned infinite segments, easily configured by clicking the existing envelope line to create new breakpoints, which can then be dragged up or down to change their value. Dragging an envelope segment up or down adjusts its curvature.
Three playback modes are available. First is the standard play-once mode deployed with most ADSR envelopes; beyond this are two looping playback modes: cyclical forward looping, and a typically smoother forward-reverse looping cycle. With either looping mode engaged, a grey vertical segment between two breakpoints is designated as the looping section; simply drag either edge line in either direction and it will snap to the next breakpoint.
With the Sync toggle engaged, each breakpoint is synchronized to a musical interval between a 32nd note and a bar, allowing for all manner of host-synchronized rhythmic trills, loping polyrhythmic dives, or simply measure-accurate slopes – a welcome concept surprisingly lacking in most contemporary envelope generators.
Two flexible LFOs come with the standard complement of Sync and Retrigger toggles along with Frequency and Phase offset dials. The selectable waveforms are, much like the core Oscillator, selected by a smoothly morphing Shape dial, while Skew and Warp controls alter the resulting shapes in myriad ways – hence the “flexible” LFO description, as a huge variety of unconventional shapes are available through a few simple twists.
A dedicated Sample & Hold modulator can be triggered from a random generator or any of the six modulation sources, with a Smooth control to prevent unwanted clicks at value transitions.
A full-featured Modulation Matrix features all four FEGs, both FLFOs, the S&H, and a standard complement of MIDI modulation sources including aftertouch and a single Control Change parameter for assignable control. The unique T-Random modulator generates random values for each note triggered, obviating the need for conventional S&H usage in many cases. Scrolling vertically provides access to bipolar modulation assignments for just about every Quanta parameter, though simply clicking an available parameter’s actual dial jumps the Matrix view directly to its corresponding entry for incredibly intuitive navigation.
Reinventing the wheel isn’t easy, but by putting granular synthesis into new context with Quanta, Audio Damage may have come close. Accompanied by an extensive patch library and modern global settings, Quanta’s most important features include incredible sound quality, the powerful grain engine, and inventive modulation options. These are expanded by a wealth of randomization options and modulation routing that should have any advanced sound designer's mind racing with possibilities.
With an attractive, intuitive interface, Quanta also doubles as a fantastic tool for beginners to learn the essential features and powerful potential of granular synthesis from the ground up. In just a few days, Quanta quickly became a workhorse for all manner of intricate textures that I would have had difficulty even dreaming up without it. If you’re looking for inspiration from a new virtual instrument, make a point to check out Quanta as soon as you can.
Pros: Striking minimalistic intuitive design; fantastic, unusual sound; unique modulators; powerful granular engine.
Cons: No internal undo or filter cutoff value display; could be nice to see some kind of automatic sample tuning or root key detection feature in a future version.
Learn more about granular synthesis: https://ask.audio/academy?nleloc=new-releases