Camel Alchemy : the Camel died

 

New: Alchemy has reborn as an Apple product. Nice for some.

 

Right. I’m dreading this. This is the complete negation of hardware, the do everything, super-bloody-complex mega-synth that is completely and utterly disinterested in whether it sounds like a Jupiter 8. It says, ‘fuck you Jupiter 8’ with a slight pelvic thrust and sets its jaunty cap askew. It’s easy to write about something that does one thing. This will not be easy.

 

At the very simplest level, Alchemy has four ‘sources’, each of which has its own sound generator, triple filters and amp. These are arranged in a quadrant that can be panned over by a ‘joystick’ and then fed into a master dual filter and amp, then on to effects. In this simplified guise it can be a virtual analogue, with some comparison to the Prophet VS. The sound generators could be single waveforms from the Prophet –  but they can actually be any multi-sampled sound you would like.

 

The filters include all kinds of Moogs, MS20s, Xpanders, combs and so on. Given that you can have as many as five filters in a row that’s plenty to start with.

 

But each sound generator can be many things: Additive, Granular or Spectral. Describing these is redundant so I’ll mention some things I have done:

 

  • Sampled a door bell as a Granular cloud. Slowed playback to 0, so that only a single pure ‘grain’ of the sound is heard. Then used a multi-stage envelope to bow through the sound back and forth so slowly it’s like an underwater pipe organ.
  • Resynthesised a female choir voice into a Additive formula, made up of sine waves. Modulated the sines into saws with an LFO which made a sound like a swarm of bees. Made the choir of bees fly randomly away in stereo by putting an envelope over the number of available additive sources.
  • Painted a Spectral audio picture by hand, and then cut out an interesting section of the sound painting and stamped it rhythmically all over a different frequency.
  • Created my own comb/sideband filter by drawing points and nodes and swept it over 100 detuned saws. Fed that into delays under the control of a chaotic signal.

 

In other words – you know that crazy shit they used to do in large music research labs? Yeah, sounds like that.

 

Doubt

 

Rather than try to keep listing the features which you can see for yourself, it’s more interesting to ask – if this thing can do just about everything, why use anything else? Which brings us to Lawler’s Law that, optimally, each single surface should represent a single workflow. An LP record is a single album of music. A moog has a single sound signature. When a thing does too many things it becomes less usable. I’m not 100 percent in agreement with this (because e.g. who uses a phone as a phone), but I can say that when I start up Alchemy there’s at least a moment of confusion where I’m unsure what the hell I am doing. It’s easy to stagger around without getting anywhere, and be disheartened.

 

I actually think the problem is the same for most software synthesisers that have many preset sounds – they smother your own small steps to get somewhere. Why be satisfied by a single step when there’s 1000’s of complex patches ready to go? You have to delete them, it’s the only way.

 

Sound

 

Alchemy does actually have a sound signature. It’s a remarkably complicated sound but it’s there. Whereas the tendency is for additive synthesisers to sound like meta mouth organs, Alchemy is more of a ‘glow’, like many small coloured lamps at once. That’s how I’m using it, as an atmosphere surrounding all the bleeps and blorps of the hardware. And in a way if you are using hardware this is the necessary dynamic opposite – the antithesis to hardware.

 

I actually HATE modular synthesisers where there a many modules on screen at once (e.g. the software Moog Modular V). The grid of controls actually makes me nauseated. If you can add modules as required, fine, no problem, and hence I prefer software. If I had a real eurorack, I would have to cover it with a sheet concealing the modules not in use.

 

Alchemy is complex, but it is after all just four sources through two filters. And that is a good approach to Lawler’s Law.

It was either this or a red car and I think I chose wisely.