In a marketplace in which most softsynth designers are seemingly focused on developing “emulations” of classic vintage pieces, AudioDamage’s newest synth offers something different: originality. Axon is really “out there.” The instrument involves a 7-voice FM percussion synthesizer controlled by a “Neuron” sequencer. This newly developed sequencing engine is what Audio Damage describes as “a seven-node hexagonal counter” – essentially a series of independently controllable arpeggio-nodes governed by a selectable central node.
Axon ships as an Intel-binary AU/VST for OS 10.5.1 and higher, as well as both 32- and 64-bit VST Instrument for the Windows platform. The instrument features MIDI output for control of external devices (VST only, no AU), greatly expanding the possible uses for Axon.
How does it work?
On first-run, Axon’s presets generate unusual IDM-style poly-rhythmic synthetic percussive patterns. The instrument features an internal transport (Start and Stop) that can function with the host or independently. Each of the neural nodes controls a separate FM voice which is itself editable with filter, pitch, FM, and Timbre controls. These controls dramatically reshape the sound, allowing the user to morph from short, bunt percussive strikes, to longer pitched sounds. The interface also allows users to tune an individual voice to a specific pitch on the fly, which makes setting the various voices to different notes within the musical scale a snap. Each voice also features FM and ring modulation send and receive sliders for even more sonic manipulation.
In addition to the independent synthesizer controls, there are also integrated mixer, combo feedback/filter, and delay sections. The delay section is particularly useful for adding more depth and dimension to the rhythmic palette of sound. Back on the sequencer side, Axon’s neural network has added sound controls. There is a “wire” view that allows users to configured the connection between nodes. In this relatively abstract view, nodes can be assigned to “transmit” or “listen” to another, wall the while communicating with tempo-synchronous “pulses.” Audio Damage themselves admit that Axon is a bit of an oddball and the wiring arrangement of the neural sequencer definitely takes practice to make full use of.
A feature that’s curiously absent, is any sort of arrangement tool for creating distinct song sections derived from the same settings in Axon. The only way to switch from one pattern to the next (short of manually altering it) is to save each “section” as a separate plug-in preset (inside the host application) and switch between them. This method works, but some type of clip based pattern switching would be a welcome addition to the UI.
How does it sound?
Axon’s FM engine is quite nice. The sound is clear, concise, and versatile. In addition to short percussive sounds, the engine is capable of emitting melodic sounds. The quality of FM synthesis featured in Axon is reminiscent of the very best hardware FM synthesizers of the late 80s. Given the high-fidelity sound quality, the most fun under the hood of Axon is in using a few nodes to create a poly-rhythmic percussion backing against wildly melodic, pitched synth sounds. Factory preset “Soupy Sales” is a good example of melody-percussion combination in action.
Here a short demo of Axon driving another instance of Axon by MIDI out.
In terms of stability, Axon plays nicely with Reaper on a 32-Bit Windows 7 test machine. Following Axon with a variety of other VSTi synthesizers posed no problems. Even considering the wealth of features afforded by Axon, the interface is surprisingly simplistic. Simply selecting a particular Neuron allows the user to freely edit all of the features of the corresponding voice right away.
Using the single-screen interface it is easy to arrive at any sound you can imagine.
Sending Midi Out
Another interesting feature is Axon’s ability to route MIDI output to another instrument, which really opens up the sonic possibilities. It is important to note that under AU does not pass MIDI from one plug to the next, so this feature has no effect using the AU version of the plug. For Windows and Mac VST users, though, simply dropping a synth into the signal chain after Axon will allow the Neuron sequencer to “trigger” notes from the secondary instrument. This functionality adds instant “fun” to the already intriguing Axon. Here’s a short demo of Axon driving an external VSTi via MIDI out.
Overall, Axon is a great buy at $59 (USD). The instrument is simple enough to “get” right out of the box. Still, to truly realize the potential of Axon, reading the manual is a must. The feature-set is much to abstract (and curiously inspiring) to really grasp within the context of a single setting. The sound of Axon is top-notch in comparison to other FM synthesizers (even some hardware ones). Axon steps out of the old molds of synthesizers of the past, and brings bold new concepts to the fold. Makers of IDM, industrial, and electronica will find Axon a welcome addition to their software arsenal. AudioDamage is known for unconventionality, and Axon adds to that heritage justly. The company has definitely earned points for originality and boldness with Axon.
…Axon steps out of the old molds of synthesizers of the past, and brings bold new concepts to the fold…
Axon is a breath of fresh air in comparison to other more “predictable” synths. If you are a user who can handle a little “mad science,” Axon offers both fun and inspiration. Otherwise…maybe it’s better to stick to the tools you’re used to…
MIDI out only works under VST (not really the fault of Audio Damage, though)
No pattern arrangement features
Definitely best enjoyed after a thorough reading of the manual