by Aiyn Zahav
Tone2 are nothing if not interesting. They seem able to make something that looks and feels typical, yet works totally different under the hood from anything else I've come across. Their line-up has become more and more impressive over the years. Gladiator was and is an outstanding synth which still sounds fresh and has a lot to offer. Their take on analog modelling resulted in the brilliant Saurus. Rayblaster is strange yet wonderful. But when they announced an FM synth, even I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would it be difficult to program? Would it be simplified to a point where you always end up with the same kind of sounds?
FM synthesis is not new and has been with us in popular form since Yamaha released the DX7 synths back in the 80’s which despite being very difficult to program has been one of the best selling synths of all time. In fact I’d bet FM sounds used in the 80’s are probably more recognizable to the average listener than any sound made with an analog synth and therein lies the problem for anyone wanting to revive FM synthesis. It will quickly be associated with the E-pianos and bells we’ve all heard unless you can make it do something else as well.
Tone2 have set out to do just that with NeoFM, a take on FM synthesis which they say is unique. Traditional FM synthesis as found in the DX series they say was limited in that it relied on phase modulation which when applied to anything other than a sine wave would produce heavily detuned side-bands and gobs of high end energy (harshness). To overcome this you must use real frequency modulation and it has to be done with digital oscillators to avoid drift.
If Tone2 had just taken traditional DX style FM and put in a synth of their usual standard they would have done well. Nemesis aside from being a NeoFM synth is very well featured with an extensive mod-matrix, arpeggiator, interesting and varied playing modes, excellent effects system and very easy to use interface. Nemesis however offers no fewer than 22 synthesis types including phase distortion, formant, wavetable and waveshaping to two oscillators which can be combined.
The two oscillators are the heart of Nemesis as you’d expect and all of the relative controls are neatly grouped with them: tuning, phase, detune and drift, FM and feedback. Each oscillator has a slot for the modulator wave and the carrier wave with a huge amount of waveforms available to each although many of them are intermediate forms and scrolling through them is like sweeping through wavetables (note: they are not wavetables)
After selecting your waveforms you then engage the FM dial and hear how they interact with each other. A lot of the fun here is in modulating the FM dial and in experimenting with the tuning controls. Another part of the FM algorithm is the feedback dial. As the manual states this does work well with sine waves and creates a crushed, obliterated sort of sound.
The waveform selection display offers a couple more options, re-synthesis, where you load your own sample and have Nemesis extract a waveform from it or play the sample in its entirety, and an additive spectral editor which allows you to modify the waveform either manually using drag-able bars on the waveform or applying preset processes such as Random spectrum, Phase sweeps, Dampen, clarify and so on.
I found the spectral editor powerful but I really wish there was a way to smoothly modulate the “bars” or sweep through waveforms like you can with wavetable synths as small changes here really have a pronounced effect and are an effective wave to add movement to a sound. As it is it’s not possible to modulate either even with automation. What you can modulate with automation however is the algorithm itself. If you have some decent automation tools in your DAW this can be an interesting avenue.
I should mention that the final stage here is the filter section, also part of the oscillator because it’s not an analog modeled filter, it merely filters out partials. A sawtooth for example will be gradually filtered down to a sine wave. It’s effective but not nearly as satisfying as a good analog modeled filter and given Tone 2's very respectable analog emulation Saurus I was at first disappointed that Nemesis didn’t get some form of analog style filter. That said all is not lost as I was able to achieve similar wild distortion sounds I usually turn to filters for. I would have liked an option to at least link the filters though as there are 2 per oscillator.
The variety of sound here lies not in the interactions between oscillators and filters as in usual VA’s, but in the selection of waveforms and the algorithm chosen for the FM. Once you leave this area the rest of the synths controls should be quite familiar to anyone who’s comfortable programming VA synths. There are two LFO’s and two modulation envelopes. The mod-matrix contains 12 slots and has a nice selection of modulation sources available including many speeds of sine sweep (which act as extra LFO’s) and decay waveforms (which act as more envelopes) meaning if you just want a simple sweep or decay you don’t need to use up an LFO or Envelope although the envelopes do have the added advantage of their shape being swept from linear to exponential.
Also in the mod matrix is the definable X source. First you define X using standard source and then you can modify X and use the modified version as the source. It sounds complicated but it basically allows you to apply multiplication, square root, or filter or limit to any modulation source. This would allow you to smooth out a square LFO for example among many other things. Other choices are White Noise and Pink noise, flipflop (alternate), random and voice output. This last feature is rare as far as I know, I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else except in a modular. It allows you to use the resulting audio output as a modulation source. This is a wild one and together with the other functions in the mod-matrix you can get some pretty crazy results you’d normally associate with the big modulars.
Moving swiftly on to the effects section we have two insert slots with various delay, reverb and modulation effects along with some dynamic processing. All of which are great quality. The delay band and feedback reverb were among my favourites. What is more interesting though is the implementation of the effects. They can be set up in parallel, serial, L&R configurations and three strengths of ducking. Ducking is a technique long used to keep a mix clear, the dry signal causes the wet signal to be ducked so that you for example set a delay to have high feedback yet not get in the way of the dry signal at all. It’s not always easy to get this to sound natural, Tone2 seemed to have tweaked it just right in my opinion, though I’d like to have one more option between 12dB and 96dB reduction.
It’s also nice to see a gate effect (also known as a trance gate) especially one as fully featured as this one. Gate effects can often be too choppy or end up sounding slightly off time. The implementation here is as good as any I’ve seen, giving you control over contour, fade-in, swing and even the stereo width of those sections where only one side is gated.
The Arpeggiator is also very highly featured. Tone2 have implemented a mode they call “smart mode” which they say delivers more musical melodies. I think it does but then again arpeggiators are my own arch Nemesis! The arp can play chords as well as single notes and also offers swing.
What is not very helpful though is the entire menu system for note sorting and play direction. It is made up of cryptic symbols such as “-+”, “+-”, “--”, “?”, “+!” and so on. Which for me meant referencing the manual frequently. This doesn’t really have to be this way and this section of the GUI feels a bit cramped generally for an arpeggiator. If it were larger I am sure we could have more descriptive text here to make things clearer.
However while the arpeggiators language may take some getting used to it is very well featured and it’s basic modes work fine for most things. You are able to save and load presets for the Arp independently from the patch, which is very helpful in getting the style you want quickly.
The next part of Nemesis to consider is the configuration page. There are some interesting options here. “New Legato” is something Tone2 says is new and not found anywhere else. It triggers glide at the end of the second note rather than at it’s beginning. So the pitch jump to the new note is quick, while the return to the base note glides. It’s quite a nice mode and is worth checking out, it works very well with dance music in particular. Speaking of glide, we are given a choice of three modes, vintage, variable and modern. Which are Logarithmic and linear curves respectively and relative glide amount depending on the distance between notes. Here we can choose to hide the keyboard on the GUI also. As with other Tone2 synths we have some interesting psychoacoustic and micro-tuning modes to choose from which are useful and sound very good to me. Another parameter I’d like to note is Punch. It seems to be based around phase. The ways I know of to get this kind of sound are using a vocoder, phaser or Tone 2's own Akustix effects processor. It gives a zappy, almost chirpy kind of sound that really sounds fat on low notes.
Equal Temperament is the standard tuning we are used to hearing on other synths, clean is designed to reduce interference between frequencies when chords are played, and very clean is a more aggressive version. We also have just intonation and three fat modes, which aim to make chords sound fatter either by reducing the speed of frequency interference or increasing beating. These are sometimes subtle but these small touches are really welcome. It’s easy to forget that it’s basic elements of sound like these that can really make the difference.
Finally there are three more tabs on this menu bar. Browse opens up the preset browser which is clean and easy to navigate but does not allow for saving or renaming presets (that is done from the file menu). Also displayed in the browser are the patches attributes, which seem to be automatically assigned based on what the preset actually contains. e.g. Arp, Legato, Formant and so on. Although you can’t actually search for presets based on any of these tags. This auto tagging feature is very welcome, as a sound designer myself I can’t say I look forward to tagging something like 128 presets, I wish all synths did this.
The file tab is where you save and load presets, Initialize the entire patch or just the mod matrix and a randomize (I got a screaming 303 patch using this!) but I would like to have been able to lock a couple of parameters when using the random feature.
Finally, nestled between browse and file is Shop. This brings up a dialogue box asking if you’d like to visit Tone2's website for updates, new products or sound expansions. It is a bit odd to have it on the main menu bar like this, especially in between two tabs you are likely to be using all the time as you might hit it by accident.
It will be clear by now to most that this is not a vintage DX, nor is trying to be an analog synthesizer. Nemesis is a bold, raw, digital machine that has absolutely no problem going covering un-trodden ground. Where it excels in my opinion is in new style, outlandish and aggressive sounds. While I can’t say for sure if it’s capable of producing never before heard sounds I can say that I got it to produce sounds I’ve never heard from my own DAW before. I’ve attached an audio file at the end of this review to give some idea of what I was doing with it. It definitely has a lot to offer Dubstep and DnB producers, though it’s not at all limited to these styles. It is a little limited overall though by not having a real filter.
Tone2 should be commended for taking what could have been very complicated and making it into something very simple. Nemesis is a very easy to learn synth, sounds great and has a lot of nifty tricks that make it stand out in the crowded Virtual synth market.
It does not get in the way of creativity, it’s laid out cleanly and logically and there is no fuss getting what you want done. I can recommend trying Nemesis to anyone who want’s to explore FM and digital synthesis generally.
At $199 though it's value is a bit limited by not having at least one analog modeled filter as it can't really be an all rounder or bridge the gap between digital and analog without help from another processor.
Nemesis Review Demo.mp3