Summer for me means that my schedule slows to the point where I can indulge in some of my guilty pleasures…. Fishing perhaps? Not quite. I’ve always been interested in building things, or at very least taking things apart and trying to put them back together. When it comes to electronic music, there are two really great toolkits available for building software instruments: MAX/MSP/Jitter and Reaktor. My April 26 blog post talked a bit about the new version of MAX, so I’d like to give you a quick look at Reaktor.

Reaktor is perhaps one of the most misunderstood products in the musical instrument industry. Everyone has heard of it, but everyone seems to have a different idea of what it is. I like to think of it as a combination of three different things that users will all make use of differently. Reaktor is a collection of software instruments, an object oriented programming environment, and membership to big fellowship of users. It’s really the first two here that throw people. While Wikipedia provides a good history and overview of Reaktor, there are a few basics to understand before you get started.

First off, Reaktor is a commercial product from Native Instruments. The package contains the software and documentation that will get you started. Reaktor is not a single synthesizer per se, but a player that comes with a collection of factory Ensembles, each it’s own self-contained software synthesizer. Each Ensemble is made up of one or more Instruments, these are typically some sort of synthesizer, effects processor, or a step-sequencer. While this may seem somewhat confusing, these are exactly the types of components that make up a commercial hardware synthesizer. So, your new Virus TI might be thought of as an "ensemble" of instruments in Reaktor-speak.

Opening the program, you need go no further than opening Ensembles either as a standalone software instrument or as a plug-in, to experience Reaktor. More adventurous users will want to dig a bit deeper, and that’s where things get a bit more involved. Ensembles are viewed in panel mode, where only the user interface –knobs, sliders, buttons, and displays– are visible.

A Reaktor Ensemble in Panel View

Structure view shows how the ensemble is made. On the top level, you’ll see the various instruments used, but clicking on any of them will reveal the components and connections that make up that instrument. This is where the programming work in Reaktor is done.

A Reaktor Ensemble in Structure View

The individual modules you see can represent anything from a simple math calculation to something more akin to a synthesizer module, like an oscillator or envelope generator. Fortunately, Reaktor comes with a wealth of objects, but more importantly, you can build and save your own, as well as share them with other users. Which brings us to the Reaktor community.

Native Instruments maintains an online database of user submitted Ensembles. Currently, there are about 2700. The community of Reaktor users that contribute to this resource is nothing short of amazing and there are submissions here from novice users all the way to legendary mad scientists. Bob Moog said in the film Modulations that building electronic instruments was "hot-rodding for the 90s," and Reaktor and the community that supports it is a software version of exactly what Bob was talking about.
For those of you getting ready to take the plunge, here are a few thoughts to get you started:

Tips for Learning More About Reaktor

1. Learn all you can about using the factory instruments. You will be amazed at the clever synthesis architectures that you’ll find. However, the documentation for many of the factory Ensembles is rudimentary at best, and you should plan to spend a good deal of time mastering any of the instruments.
2. Start simple. Start by building simple subtractive instruments and work your way up by adding features to your creations. There’s a quick tutorial in the user guide that will get you started.
3. Analyze and create your own variations of the factory instruments. This is where you can start hot-rodding your own ensembles. Here again start simple with swapping instruments and then component modules between ensembles
4. Look through the collection of Reaktor patches on the Native Instruments website. Here, you’ll find countless variations on basic synthesis tools that in many cases will offer different approaches to the same basic design.
5. Make friends and ask questions. Many Reaktor users are online in various discussion boards and are often quite willing to help newcomers. Find other musicians in your area, where possible who have been using the program and share your knowledge.
6. Lastly, have fun. Use the ensembles you hack in your music whether it be in the studio or live.

Links to Online Support Resources

Reaktor Tips
NI Reaktor User Forum
NI Reaktor Tutorials
Sound on Sound Reaktor Tips part 1
Sound on Sound Reaktor Tips part 2
Reaktor Wiki Tutorials


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