BT Phobos, a review

[NOTE: This article talks about commercial products and contains links to them, I do not receive any money if you buy those tools, nor I work for or I am affiliated to any of those companies. The opinion expressed here are mine and the review is subjective]

This is my attempt at a review of Spitfire Audio BT Phobos. Before diving into the review, and since I know I will be critic particularly on some aspects, I think it’s fair to assess the plugin right away: BT Phobos is an awesome tool, make no mistakes.

BT Phobos is a “polyconvolution” synthesiser. It is, in fact, the first “standalone” plugin produced by Spitfire Audio, which is one of the companies I respect the most when it comes to music production and sample based instruments.

The term polyconvolution is used by the Spitfire Audio team to indicate the simultaneous use of three convolvers for four primary audio paths: you can send any amount of each of those four primary sources (numbered 1 to 4) outputs to each of the three convolution engines (named W, X and Y).

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Source material controls

There is lot of flexibility in the mixing capabilities; there are, of course, separate dry/wet signal knobs that send a specific portion of the unprocessed source material to the “amplifier” module, control how much of the signal goes to the convolution circuits, and finally how much of each of the convolution engines applies to each of the source sound.

This last bit is achieved by means of an interesting nabla shaped X/Y pad: by positioning the icon that represents the source module closer to a corner it’s possible activate just the convolution engine that represents that corner; for example, top left is the W engine, top right the X and bottom the Y. Manually moving the icon gradually introduces contributions from the other engines, and double clicking on the icon makes all convolvers contribute equally to the wet sound, by positioning them to the center of the nabla.

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The convolution mixer

Finally, each convolver has a control that allows to change the output level of the convolution engine before it reaches its envelope shaper. Spitfire Audio has released a very interesting flow diagram that shows the signal path in detail, which is linked below for reference.

BT Phobos signal path

In addition to the controls just described, the main GUI has basic controls to tweak the source material with an ADSR envelope which is directly accessible below each of the main sound sources as well as the convolutions modules, but it’s possible to have access to more advanced settings by clicking on the number or the letter that identifies the module name.

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The advanced controls interface

An example of such controls is the Hold parameter, which let the user adjust the time the sound is held at full level before entering the Decay phase of its envelope; another useful tool is the sampling and IR offset controls, which allow to tweak parameters like the starting point of the material or the quantisation and its Speed (the playback speed for the samples, and is a function of the host tempo); there is also a control to influence the general pitch of the sound; finally a simple but effective section is dedicated to filtering – although a proper EQ is missing – as well as panning and level adjustments.

All those parameters are particularly important settings when using loops, but also contribute to shaping the sound with the pitched material, and can be randomised for interesting effects and artefacts generated from the entropy (you can just randomise the material selection only as opposed to all the parameters).

Modulation is also present, of course, with various LFOs of various kind that can be used to modulate basically everything. You can access them either by clicking on the mappings toggle below the ADSR envelope of each section, or by using the advanced settings pages.

The amount of tweaks that can be made to the material in both the source and the convolution engines is probably the most important aspect of BT Phobos, since it gives an excellent amount of freedom to create new sounds from what’s available, which is already a massive amount of content, and allows to build wildly different patches with a bit of work, but it’s definitely not straightforward and needs time to understand the combined effects that each setting has on the whole.

Since the material is polyphonic, the Impulse Responses for the convolution are created on the fly, and in fact, one interesting characteristic of BT Phobos is that there is no difference between a material for the convolution engines and one for the source module,  both draw from the same pool of sounds.

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BT Phobos beautiful GUI

There is a difference on the type of material though, where loop based samples are, well, looped (and tempo sync’ed), and their pitch does not change based on the key that triggers them (although you can still affect the general pitch of the sound with the advanced controls), “tonal” material are pitched and change following the midi notes.

One note about the LFOs: the mappings are “per module”. In other words, it is possible to modulate almost every parameter inside a single module, be it one of the four input sources or one of the three convolution engines, but there seem to be no way to define a global mapping of some kind. For example, I found a very nice patch from Mr. Christian Henson (which incidentally made, at least in my opinion, the best and most balanced overall presets), and I noticed I could make it even more interesting by using the modulation wheel. I wanted to modulate the CC1 message with an LFO (in fact, ideally it would be even better to have access to a custom envelope, but BT Phobos doesn’t have any for modulation use), but I could not find a way to do that other than using Logic’s own Midi FX. I understand that MIDI signals are generated outside the scope of the plugin, but it would be fantastic to have the option of tweaking and modulate everything from within the synth itself.

All the sources and convolvers can be assigned to separate parts of the keyboard by tweaking the mapper at the bottom of the GUI. It is not possible to map a sound to start from an offset in the keyboard controls – for example to play C1 on the keyboard but trigger C2, or any other note – but of course you can change the global pitch so this has effectively the same result, and as said before it can also be modulated with an LFO or via DAW automation, for more interesting effects.

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Keyboard mapping tool

Indeed, the flexibility of the tool, and the number of options at disposal for tweaking the sounds are very impressive. Most patches are very nice and ready to be used as they are, and blend nicely with lots of disparate styles. Some patches are very specific though, and pose a challenge to be used. Generally, I would consider these as starting points for exploration, rather than “final”.

When reading about BT Phobos in the weeks before its release many people asked whether you could add your own sound to it or not. It’s not possible, unfortunately.

At first, I thought that wasn’t a limitation or a deal breaker. I still think it’s not a deal breaker, but I see the value added that BT Phobos has even just as a standalone synth, as opposed to recreate the same kind of signal path manually with external tools, to give your own content the “Phobos treatment”, which is something that is entirely possible of course, for example just with Alchemy and Space Designer (which are both included in MainStage, so you can get them for a staggering 30 euros if you are a Mac user, even if you don’t use Logic Pro X!), but of course, we would be trading away the immediacy that BT Phobos delivers.

That, maybe, is my main criticism to this synth, and I hope Spitfire Audio turns BT Phobos into a fully fledged tool for sound design over time, maybe enabling access to spectral shaping in some form or another, so we can literally paint over (or paint away!) portions of the sound, which is something you can do with iZotope Iris or Alchemy and is a very powerful way to shape a sound and do sound design in general.

Another thing that is missing is a sound effect module, although I don’t know how important that is, given that there are thousands of outstanding plugins that do all sort of effects from delay to chorus etc… And, in fact, many patches benefit for added reverb (I use Eventide Blackhole and found that works extremely well with BT Phobos, since it’s also prominently used for weird sound effects). But it may be interesting to play by putting some effects (including a more proper EQ section) in various places in the signal path, although it’s all too easy to generate total chaos from such experimentation, so it’s possible the Spitfire Audio simply thought to leave this option for another time and instead focus on a better overall experience.

And there’s no arpeggiator! Really!

The number of polyphonic voices can be altered. Spitfire Audio states that the synth tweaks the number of voices at startup to match the characteristics of your computer, but I can’t confirm that, since every change I do seems to remain, even if I occasionally hear some pop and cracks at higher settings. Nevertheless, the CPU usage is pretty decent unless you go absolutely crazy with the polyphony count. I also noted that the numbers effect the clarity of the sound. This is understandable since an higher count means more notes can be generated at the same time, which means more things are competing for the same spectrum, and things can become very confusing very quickly. On the other end, a lower polyphony count has a bad impact on how the notes are generated. I feel sometime that things just stop generating sound, which is counter intuitive and very disturbing, especially since it’s very easy to have a high polyphony count with all those sources and convolvers.

Also to note is that, by nature, some patches have very wild difference in their envelopes and level settings, which means it’s all to easy to move from a quiet to a very loud patch just by clicking “next” (which is possible in Logic at least with the next/prev patch buttons on top of the plugin main frame). The synth does not stop the sound, nor does any attempt to fade from one sound to the next, instead, the convolutions simply keep working on the next sample in queue with the new settings! I still have to decide if this is cool or not, perhaps it’s not intentional, but I can see how this could be used to automate patch changes in some clever way during playback! And indeed, a was able to create a couple of interesting side effects just by changing between patches at the right time.

More on the sounds. The amount of content is really staggering, and simply cycling through the patches does not make justice to this synth, at all!

What BT Phobos wants is a user that spends time tweaking the patches and play with the source material to get the most out it, however it’s easy to see how limiting this may feel at the same time, particularly with the more esoteric and atonal sounds, and there’s certainly a limit on how good a wood stick convolved with an aluminium thin can may sound, so indeed some patches do feel repetitive at times, as the source material does. There are quite a few very similar drum loops for example, or various pitches “wind blowing into a pipe” kind of things.

This is a problem common to other synths based on the idea of tweaking sounds from the environment, though. For example, I have the amazing Geosonics from Soniccouture, which is an almost unusable library that, once tweaked, is capable of amazing awesomeness. Clearly, the authors of both synths – but this is especially valid for BT Phobos I think – are looking at an audience that is capable of listening through the detuned and dissonant sound waves and shape a new form of music.

This is probably the reason why so many of the pre assembled patches dive the user full speed into total sound design territory; however, and this is another important point of criticism, this is sound design that has already been done for you… A lot of the BT patches, in particular, are clearly BT patches, using them as they are means you are simply redoing something that has already been done before, and, despite with a very experimental feeling still strongly present, it’s not totally unheard or new.

For example, I also happen to have Break Tweaker and Stutter Edit (tools that also originally come from BT), and I could not resist to the temptation to play something that resembles BT work on “This Binary Universe” or “_” (fantastic albums)! While this seems exciting – BT in a box! And you can also see the democratising aspect of BT Phobos, I can do that in half hour instead of six months of manual CSound programming! – it’s an unfortunate and artificial limitation on a tool that is otherwise a very powerful enabler, capable of bringing complex sound design one step closer to the general public. Having the ability to process your own sounds would mitigate this aspect I think.

I do see how this is useful for a composer in need of a quick solution for an approaching deadline even with the most experimental tones, though: those patches can resolve a deadlock or take you out of an impasse in a second.

The potential for BT Phobos to become a must have tool for sound design are all there, especially if Spitfire Audio keeps adding content, perhaps more varied (and even better, allow to load your own content). The ability to shape the existing sounds already make it very usable. I don’t think it’s a general tool at this stage, though, and definitely it should not be the first synth or sound shaping processor in your arsenal, especially if you are starting out now.

But it’s not just a one trick pony either, it does offer you quite a lot of possibilities, and the more you work on that, the more addictive it becomes, and I can see Spitfire Audio offering soon this synth within a collection comprising of some of their more experimental stuff like LCO and Enigma, which would be very nice, indeed.

It’s unfortunate that Spitfire Audio does not offer an evaluation period: contrary to most of their offering, BT Phobos needs time to be fully grasped and it’s all but immediate (well, unless you are happy with the default patches or you really just need to “get out of troubles” quickly, but be careful with that because the tax is on the originality), but it can, and does, evolve, as its convolutions do, over time and it can absolutely deliver total awesomeness if used correctly.

Most patches are also usable out of the box, and especially by adding some reverb or doing some post processing with other tools, it’s possible to squeeze even more life out of them.

Overall, I do recommend BT Phobos, is a wonderful, very addictive synthesiser.

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