Review: IRCAMAX 2: Spectral Bugaloo

IRCAMAX 2 is a collection of Max for Live tools based on physical modelling, spectral analysis and harmonic re-synthesis. Noah Pred put the whole collection through its paces in this review.  

Straight out of Centre Pompidou, France's preeminent institute for the science of music and electro-acoustics is back with their second collection of tools built on the Max for Live platform. While IRCAMAX 1 was loosely focused on sample mangling instruments, IRCAMAX 2 draws on sophisticated physical modelling, spectral analysis, and harmonic re-synthesis to deliver a truly unique batch of devices.

Instrumentality

Comprised primarily of effects, IRCAMAX 2 comes with two distinctly different instrument devices. Modalys Synth, based on Ircam's acclaimed Modalys physical modelling engine, is comprised of a Mallet section that controls the character of note impact, and a Resonator that can be set to either a Plate or Membrane shape for a convincing range of tonality, controlled by Brightness, Damping, and Harmonicity. A pair of sync-able LFOs and modulation Envelopes, along with two microphone-modelled Phase controls, can be used to give movement to the glistening results.

ModalysSynth in the mode.

ModalysSynth in the mode.

In contrast, MatrixSynth is built on three oscillators with a powerful modulation sequencer. Each oscillator—selectable between sine, saw/triangle, square, or noise—is fed to four independent grid-controlled modulation matrices, where each oscillator's frequency modulation, pulse-width (if applicable), sync, and global filter cutoff can be modulated by any or all of the three oscillators themselves, a sync-able LFO, a dedicated ADSR envelope, or the mod wheel. Crazy cross modulated tones and shifting layers only take a few clicks.

MatrixSynth's step sequencer, runnable up to 16 steps at rates from 1/1D to 1/128, controls which matrix each step is fed into, delivering a staggering array of rhythmic synthesis variations. Randomization controls for each matrix and the step sequencer help create new sounds and patterns in a pinch—though it seems some kind of smoothing between potentially drastic matrix states could be helpful to avoid clicks and pops when switching between extreme synth routings.

Deep in the MatrixSynth.

Deep in the MatrixSynth.

 

Highly Effective

Including seven true audio effects, IRCAMAX 2 excels at transforming audio into harmonic content. It also comes with a few useful utilities. The IM MIDI Send and Receive devices help route MIDI data to and from any IRCAMAX 2 devices in your Live set, which is great for kicking some of the frequency-selective effects into high melodic gear. IM Note Tracker is a real-time audio to MIDI analyzer and converter that can spit MIDI out to any of the 12 IM MIDI buses. At the same time, the Note Tracker can optionally re-synthesize the detected input with a rudimentary built-in oscillator that actually worked well for bass lines when using the sinusoind shape with a judicious amount of glide.

Chromax gleams as a harmonically tunable spectral delay. Frequencies can be selected via the piano roll to select specific tones and chords from the frequency spectrum of the input audio signal. These are then fed into Delay, Feedback, and Filtration units, each with a different set of controls to create everything from lush reverberant drones to shimmering washes of noise. Better yet, Chromax can receive MIDI input to dynamically trigger spectral melodies and chord progressions.

Chromax attacks.

Chromax attacks.

 

Freezer comes as an audio effect device, though it tends to seem more like an instrument, as it has to contain a sample of its own, the playback of which initiates the effect regardless of whether or not an audio clip is playing on its track. Regardless of device format, it's an incredibly useful granular synthesis engine, significantly aided by the Contour pitch table that can select chordal harmonies to more easily integrate randomly tuned samples into the tonal palette of a project. The Main panel gives access to Stretch, Timbre, and Formant controls, while the Remix section further alters the original signal through a selection of transient noise attenuation parameters. The sample selection, Freeze option, and playback directionality help to easily generate expansive grain clouds and richly detailed textures.

It's cold in the Freezer.

It's cold in the Freezer.

 

Ianalyser combines additive synthesis with spectral analysis to re-synthesize incoming audio into wild new shapes. Three tracking modes determine whether input is re-analyzed according to a metronome set in milliseconds, a rhythmic host-synchronized rate, or manually triggered. Spectrum Computation can be adjusted by FFT size, Window type, and Downsample amount; Peak extraction can be fine-tuned, while Output partials can be re-ordered, restricted, transposed, or shifted in hertz. Frequency and Amplitude of the additive partials can be smoothed in the Synthesis panel, where Fade and Slope amounts further alter the synthetic response. Everything from intricate bleep patterns to dizzying tracers are elicited with just a few tweaks to Ianaylzer's deceptively straight-forward interface.

Real-time resynthesis with Ianalyzer.

Real-time resynthesis with Ianalyzer.

 

PsychHarmonizer puts a unique twist on traditional vocoding with Ircam's bespoke pitch-shifting technology. Designed for vocals but highly usable on a range of sounds, the input is divided into four voices, each with their own delay amount, panning, and gain. In the default Transposition mode, both the sustained tone and the formant shape can be pitched up or down independently for each voice, in steps of 5 cents, within a maximum range of four octaves. The more traditional vocoder mode provides a pleasantly gentle carrier frequency, transposable in musical notes. Pitch and Speed modulation provide added texture, while MIDI Bus input allows for the full potential of melodic vocoding. The unique power of this device however is in the separation between formant and sustained pitch, allowing for divergent retuning of source material, yielding powerful results on everything from percussion to spoken word.

Psychotic Harmonization with PsychHarmonizer.

Psychotic Harmonization with PsychHarmonizer.

 

As you might have guessed, Modalys Filter builds on the same physical modelling engine employed in ModalysSynth. Two separate Resonators can be assigned their own shape, with significantly more options to choose from than ModalysSynth offers, including a string, three tubes, three plates, and two membrane types, along with input Excitation and Microphone reception controls. Each Resonator can separately receive MIDI input from a different IRCAMAX bus, allowing for intricate melodic interplay between each Resonator. The Interaction section allows for further connection between the two Resonators, with Strike, Pluck, Spring, or Glue styles of interactivity controlled by the Intensity amount. The result is a dynamic resonation tool not unlike Ableton's Corpus effect, but significantly enhanced by Ircam's MIDI input functionality for extended melodic potential.

Physically modelled melodic filtration with ModalysFilter.

Physically modelled melodic filtration with ModalysFilter.

 

The included Grain Delay doesn't come across as particularly unique on its own, though once again, the ability to transpose grains via MIDI input wins out to make it worthwhile. The included MultiFX device seems a bit thrown in, with a somewhat disappointing Delay line, lush if rudimentary Reverb, functional Autopan, and a convincing retro Chorus—though none approach the level of sophistication on offer elsewhere in the bundle.

Nevertheless, the included tools present a wide range of solutions and opportunities, designed with impressive processor efficiency and a reasonable price point. Whether you're looking for unusual tools to spark creative musical ideas or simply add new weapons to your sound design arsenal, you should certainly consider IRCAMAX 2 among your top candidates.

 

Price: $199

Pros: Diverse collection of incredibly unique, lush sounding, processor-efficient creative tools for a reasonable price.

Cons: Help documentation is lacking.

Webhttps://www.ableton.com/en/packs/ircamax-2/

 

Noah Pred is a Canadian techno and house producer, DJ and Certified Ableton Trainer living in Berlin, Germany - where he runs his label, Thoughtless Music. His Juno-nominated full-length album Third Culture, is out now: http://www.thoughtlessmusic.com/releases/tlm086-noah-pred-third-culture/ - and you can check out his new project with... Read More

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