Camel Audio Alchemy 1.55 – The Sonic Elixir
Alchemy has been around for some time now, December 2008 in fact, which in the world of computer software make this a veritable old age pensioner. Though its getting a little long in the tooth, the synth engine still packs a heck of a wallop. The current 1.55 update brings a sweet new browser, remote access, a bunch of presets but remarkably little else – testament to the solidity of the first release.
Alchemy holds its place deservedly at the top, even though the factory presets do little to show off the amazing power of the synth (presumably not to over shadow any of the expansion packs you buy over and above the initial purchase cost). The factory install library might be a little ho-hum compared to the competition, but download the free ‘Taste of Camel’ sampler pack which has examples of what you can do with a bit of effort (normally $15, but free if you own Alchemy)
Dive straight into the deep end
The interface is very nice, crisp looking and well-styled – though could be a little daunting to new users at first. You get three skins to swap around and the user section of the website has extras you can download, all of which are quite cool. There are three main sections – Browse, Simple and Advanced. I’m not sure why you would use simple, it’s there I guess to save on CPU power when performing live.
The new browser page takes up the full screen with preset and custom search criteria, box artwork, developer info and of course links to buying more expansion packs. I don’t have a problem with this trend of up-selling customers if the original boxed product you buy is good value, and there is no doubt Alchemy is that. I think the expansion packs would only appeal to the absolute power users or someone looking for a very specific sound style – they are certainly not required to get the most out of Alchemy.
The whole browser system is a big step up from the original release. There is a handy rating system and you can create your own banks – a neat way to not only save your favourites under your own name, but custom project or even song names, making searching for them later a breeze.
The advanced section is where you go to play. It is split up into sections again – the top area is static controls: Source, Morph, Filter and Master. The middle section changes depending on what knob you have selected, and the bottom area is for the performance features, namely the X/Y pads, arp and effect units.
It would be great to have some kind of mouse-over explanation of what the various controls do as some are a little cryptic, though you can right-click a control and select ‘Help’ to be linked to the excellent online manual (Internet connection required, of course)
The filters are to die for, seriously nice sounding – and tons of them. Alchemy does additive and spectral synthesis so well, but where it totally outshines pretty much everything I can think of on the market is with its incredible sample-based granular synthesis. In short, you can load in any wav or Soundfont file and that becomes your sound source. This pretty much means Alchemy has no boundaries whatsoever. Other synths like Omnisphere do this too, however, Alchemy lets you import your own wav sounds which makes it infinitely more flexible.
There are 4 sound source areas you can choose from, each can either be Additive, Virtual Analogue, Spectral, Granular, or Sampler. You can also morph between each of the sound sources, which is incredibly flexible.
The spectral mode allows you to draw in by hand in its nifty ‘Pain Mode’ or even import your own PNG photos for synthesizing.
The additive synth engine has 600 stereo oscillators (yes, 600!) allowing you to create ‘super-saw’ walls of death. Remember that scene from Back To The Future when Marty stands in front of that massive speaker, plugs in his guitar and hammers out a chord – a picture that when you wind up the ‘NOsc’ dial to 600? I can almost hear the extra power being sucked out of the wall socket to feed the CPU. Absolutely so over the top and crazy, and I love it!
The granular engine is the star of the show to me. Just so much power here to get really nuts. I stumbled upon a cool vocal clipping effect that was straight out of The Matrix, and a few sounds that got me thinking ah, so THATS how BT gets his wicked stutter effect!
I’m not going to go too deeply into the specs, there’s not enough space on this page to cover everything – let’s just say Alchemy is fully featured. The interface is a little crowded at first glance, and even though everything is MIDI-mappable, you would need a pretty serious controller to map even the most basic knobs. Fortunately, there is the wonderful Remix Pads where you can map sections of the synth to controllable via X/Y pads (16), which in turn are morph-able via the remix pads. Sounds a little over the top, but again once you get the feel for it endless possibilities open up for you.
There is an iPad app available as well which we haven’t tried, but from all accounts its an invaluable interactive way to control Alchemy, especially in live environments.
The absolute level of quality and thought that has gone into Alchemy constantly astounds me when I’m creating new sounds.
Alchemy isn’t really ideal for bread-and-butter synthesis such as your simple pads, SAW lead, synth brass etc. Sure it can do all that basic stuff, it’s just better than doing lush soundscapes. It’s akin to putting on your fingerless driving gloves, and reflector shades and getting in your Ferrari F40 to go to the end of the driveway to collect your mail. If you’re looking for a more rudimentary instrument just to get the job done quickly Alchemy might frustrate you somewhat.
The effects are pretty good, and there’s a large collection to choose from. There is the option to load from or save to presets, it would be nice if there were a better way to preview presets other than having to load them up one at a time, but I’m being very picky here.
Alchemy is the synth you sit down at with a few beers and let your fingers explore. It’s for designing and creating new sonic worlds. It’s a synth you call for creating signature sounds, new and interesting tones and just plain crazy weirdness. So many times in my testing I tried to create a sound in my head, only to come away with something absolutely polar opposite to what I was originally thinking. I’ve discovered it’s best to go in with a vague idea of where you want to be, and just let cards fall where they do.
I think it’s better suited to studio producers, film and game designers – those kinds of people. Pulling out Alchemy at your next band rehearsal might get some strange looks and the singer telling you to ‘just play the organ, bro!’ It’s a hefty investment for casual bedroom studio guys, but if you’re at all interested in, or make a living from producing music – Alchemy is required buying, period.
You’ll need a MIDI controller – there’s just too much going on to click and grab with a mouse. The iPad App sounds pretty good, but a decent MIDI controller like our Axiom Pro is perfect. Just something you can map a bunch of knobs to and get your hand off the mouse.
We were considering producing a video to demonstrate Alchemy in action, but a quick search on YouTube will get you half a dozen great clips, and Camel Audio has an excellent series of tutorial videos on their site you should watch. There is so much going on inside the box you really need to give it a try yourself. Alchemy Player is the free stripped-down version which includes a good selection of presets, plus you get a generous 4-week demo of the full-blown synth to trial.
So how do you judge the ‘sound’ of a synth like this? Beyond me – all I can say is Alchemy is as awesome as you want it to be, and probably the best VST synth I have ever used.
Again using car analogies, Alchemy 1.55 is a great synth in the same way a Bugatti Veyron is a great car. Sure, you can take it to the village to get your groceries if you like, but if you want to have your face peeled off – open her up on the autobahn and let it roar!
Alchemy 1.55 retails for slightly over $300 NZD including a free expansion pack of your choice, with bundles available and a complete pack for around $1000.