Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Alchemy 1.5 Review: New Update for a Huge Synth

Alchemy is one serious piece of music software.  Although it's more than 3 years old at this point, the recent release of version Alchemy 1.5 has brought some new additions to the table for Camel Audio's flagship instrument.  Just last year, it was rated as one of the public's favorite plug-ins on MusicRadar.  So what is Alchemy, and does it still stand up to the hype now?

Alchemy is a five-in-one synthesizer, in a way.  It offers additive synthesis, virtual analog, sampling, granular, and spectral synthesis.  This means that we can cover a huge range of sounds and mix between them, offering a huge sonic palette from this synth alone.  This is particularly exciting because we can use Alchemy in a basic form to just create standard saw and square waves, like most other soft synths, or we can use sampled ones from vintage synths-- like some of the available-- that allow us to more or less embed the oscillators of something like the Oberheim OBX as the oscillator, or use a mellotron flute sound in place of an oscillator.  I'm finding myself rarely disappointed by this synth in terms of the sounds.  There are times when I'm using a piece of software, and an intriguing patch begs to be tried in a lower register, but it turns to mud, or just doesn't sound good.  By virtue of Alchemy's incredible clean sound, everything transfers so well up and down the keyboard.

Alchemy is broken into three main screens.  The first is the patch browser, which I'll go into detail in a bit.  On the patch browser page, there is also performance controls, a versatile arpeggiator, and effects.  The built in effect selection is pretty great, considering all of the other options of the Alchemy.  They are also lined up in an Ableton Live style chain, which makes it easy to slide along and edit the effects without pages.  Next is the simple page, which shows off a performance controls.  There's a nice little feature here called "remix pads", which is a box that you can slide around and go between different snapshots of settings for Alchemy.

Finally, the main page is called "Advanced", which is where the most creation happens.  You have the layout of your 4 sound sources, which can be paged through to edit each with individual attention.  There is the dual filter section, which contains a vast variety of filter styles.  Below this, we have the modulation matrix, which has LFO, AHDSR, MSEG, Sequencer, Modmap, XY Mseg, and Target.  Below this, we again have our Performance, Arpeggiator, and Effects settings.  This is all daunting for a beginner, but many will see it as a playground.

Filters galore!

Some of Alchemy's presets are absolutely killer.  I'm particularly fond of the Himalaya Vintage preset pack, which includes recreations of classic synths sounds, like the synth from "Sweet Dreams" by the Eurythmics, or the brass pad from Hall and Oates' "Out of Touch".  If you're an vintage synth fan, this is absolutely the pack to go with.  There are numerous great bass sounds as well-- and they've got this very clean beauty to them.  You've got the combination of the rugged sampled oscillator sounds combined with the clean digital sound-- and it is fantastic.  There is warmth, yet brightness, and it is all beautifully balanced.  You're also by no means pigeonholed to one type of sound, either-- just browsing through, there are a couple great sounding pianos, in addition to other real instruments-- and even sampled female vocals in a different preset pack, which would be perfect for that big choir sound you've been dreaming up.  It's not a one trick pony by any means-- it's hard to find exactly where the walls are of this plugin.

The recently updated patch browser is really fantastic as well.  Just about every synth description to help narrow down what your looking for is used-- the category of the sound itself (bass, brass, keys), the subcategory (acoustic, electric, staccato), the sound library you're looking in (or simply select "All"), the timbre (dark, bright, phat), the articulation (long release, decaying, morphing, additive), and finally, the genre (funk, dubstep, rock, house).  In addition to this, many have short descriptions explaining hidden features at times, or what they're inspired from, and you can rate them from 1 to 5 stars to quickly remember what you think is great, and which ones you prefer to skip.  And of course, there's search too, so if you remember the name, you can most quickly dial it up that way as well.  This makes it an absolute breeze for presets-- no more searching for 15 minutes for a good dubstep bassline, or rock lead-- you're simply two clicks away from everything the program has to offer.

My only complaint, really, is that it is by no means a beginner's tool to just sit down and fly through.  Sure, you could keep busy with the presets and never venture into the sound creation tools, but you'll miss out on the insanity of possibilities that Alchemy has to offer.  It doesn't have the most obvious layout ever-- there are a few pages within different sections-- but this is pretty easy to clear up by watching the available tutorials on Camel Audio's website.  One feature that is particular nice, given the multiple layers of pages at times, is that clicking whatever parameter immediately brings up what modulates it in a different section.  That way, you can quickly see, for example, what is modifying the filter cutoff or amplitude of the signal.  Sounds great but a little too much LFO?  Click what you think its affecting, and it'll show you where that modulation is coming from.  It also displays a nice small green area to make you aware of how something's being modulated.  This way, if I open up a sound and click over to the "Advanced" tab, I can look and know immediately by way of the green markings that aspects of the sounds are being modulated.

Of course, once you do actually learn how to program it, and move out of pure preset territory, the amount of sounds that can be created is staggering, between the different types of synthesis and the available waveform samples.

Ultimately, Alchemy 1.5 is a beast.  The fantastic patch browser is perhaps the best and quickest I've seen.  The sounds are really something special, and the crazy amount of possibility given by all the different types of synthesis is almost overwhelming.  Once you've made it past that initial learning curve and get your bearings, you're going to find that this is a fantastic plugin that can become the workhorse for your tracks.


  • Fantastic array of synthesizing/sound creation options
  • Quick, easy, painless patch browsing
  • Built in effects work great
  • Daunting for a newbie
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