Rob Papen BladeReview by: Jason D. Buchwald
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Contact Info Overall Rating—Product Summary
As you can see, the screen is divided up into multiple (nine!) areas, and some are multipurpose when you click on them. While perhaps initially intimidating, as there’s a lot going on, once you use Blade a little bit, it’s actually pretty easy to navigate. As the knobs are fairly small (there’s so many!), it’s useful that you can enlarge the panel—and a good-sized monitor proves especially handy. Unlike other familiar synth plugins, there are no seizure-inducing colors here—black, white, and blue are what you get.
Additive synthesis creates Blade’s sonic landscape by combining sine waves, called partials. The fundamental, for example, is the first partial, the second partial is twice that, the third partial three times that, and so on. Rather than addressing every partial individually (there are ninety-six partials in Blade), Blade uses controls that affect the whole spectrum at once—and those are called the Harmolator. The Harmolator is the key oscillator of Blade. Even better, Blade incorporates visual representations of what you are hearing, which is seen in the bottom panel’s Spectrum window, below the X-Y screen.
Blade has sixteen voices, as well as a sixteen-step arpeggiator. You also have fourteen filter types, including band pass/notch, vocal, comb, and low/high pass filters. The X-Y pad offers twelve different controls to choose from, and these can further modulate the Harmolator parameters. While an X-Y pad may not be revolutionary, what is very cool is that you can record your X-Y movements in real time graphically, and then make that part of the sound. Once recorded, you can then further edit—changing the speed and smoothness of the changes, and you can sync it to other parameters as well. Right-clicking will show a list of X-Y parameters you can choose from, allowing quick access.
For those who just want the basics, there is an Easy button. No, really—like those office supply commercials, there really is an Easy button. When pressed, the screen simplifies to only a few controls, but still provides basic editing without too many distractions. Once you get your sound, you can right click and bring your work to the main screen with all the bells and whistles for editing.
Of course, Blade contains plenty of presets to get you going. These are accessible at the top of the panel, and you can click on an arrow to move to the next patch, or you can click on the name and get a pull down menu of subtypes and names. The Manager button pulls up all sounds available, which can be auditioned by clicking the preview button.
To round things out, you have twenty-one distortion types—per voice, and fourteen filter types. There are two effects units with twenty-seven effects each, and even tape delay is one of your choices. The sixteen-step arpeggiator allows each step to have pitch and velocity edited.
Clearly, there’s plenty to keep you busy!
We used the Blade on our Macbook Pro i7 2.2ghz laptop with 4 GB of memory. Installation was simple: download, install, and enter a serial code. Registering gets you a second serial code for an additional installation, which is great for those who have a desktop and laptop they pass projects between. It is available in RTAS, AAX, AU, and VST formats, though the AAX/RTAS version is only 32 bit (the others are 64).
As mentioned previously, there’s a lot to look at initially, but there’s nothing to fear except fear itself. One could easily just go through all the presets and be quite content with a great sound, but you really would be missing out on so much more. Being able to have instant visual feedback on your sounds offers an innovative and helpful way of creating sounds. To quote Rob Papen himself, the Harmolator “is an oscillator which offers control over the harmonics, also called partials.” As mentioned earlier, there are ninety-six partials, and the first one is called the fundamental, which determines the pitch you hear. Changing the partials changes the quality of the sound, and the Harmolator gives you nine main controls for this purpose. All of these, by the way, can also be modulated by the X-Y pad, offering tremendous possibilities to sculpt your sound like… yes, a blade. One of these controls (knobs) is the Base, which controls your fundamental. Rob Papen likens this to a high pass filter (when you hold a key). Next to this is the Range knob, which controls how many partials are part of your sound—to the right results in more harmonics, left is less.
The next control is the Symmetry knob, which controls the balance in volume of harmonics lower and higher than the base (fundamental). Next, the Timbre knob controls the mix between basic harmonic (the fundamental, or “main” pitch) and timbre harmonics (the other frequencies that make up the rest of the sound we hear, also known as overtones). The Symmetry knob adjusts the level of harmonics above or below the base partial (the fundamental). Turned to the left, the effect is similar to a low-pass filter; to the right, it’s like a high-pass filter. Beneath the three rows of control knobs, the Harmolator has a pull down menu of Timbre types for you to choose from. Some of the other controls are Even/Odd (to choose between odd or even number partials to be present, essentially affecting the wave shape of your sound), Ripple and Ripple effect (creating peaks in your spectrum at patterns you choose; further Ripple pull down menus are below the knobs). The Harm knob, with the Harm Volume and Shift controls, allow control over a second spectrum, therefore allowing control over additional overtones. A sub-oscillator is also part of the Harmolator, allowing you, for example, to add a square wave at an interval you choose. A spread control lets you handle detuning, and you can choose between two or three Harmolators to detune from.
The above may seem daunting, but it’s actually pretty easy once you start using it. The X-Y control, in the center, is also cool in that you can place the X-Y Pad in record mode and literally grab the blue ball on the grid and move it around to your heart’s content, then use that recorded motion as your new sound. Perhaps it is coming, but it would be even cooler if you could use an iPad as a controller for your X-Y Pad, something we’ve seen in other apps. Certainly not a big deal, but it would be a great feature!
The control screen is rounded out by the effects section in the bottom right, and below the X-Y Pad is a sixteen step arpeggiator—both of which were graphical and straightforward in use.
We did appreciate the Easy button, which simplifies controls down to nuts and bolts. But a very cool feature is that once you get something you like, you can bring it to the regular page with all your settings intact with a click. This was well thought out! For example, when you press the easy button, the Harmolator section goes from three rows of four knobs with several pull down menus to just three large knobs with three small knobs. Less clutter, less distractions. We tried out Easy mode, made some changes, and then clicked on the Easy button a second time to go back to regular mode. We were pleased to find our sound was unchanged when flipping modes, and any changes in easy mode were reflected in the regular screen too. It was very refreshing to not have to start from scratch when switching modes. Kudos to Rob Papen!
It isn’t often that something strikes us as truly different, but we thought Blade’s sonic landscape went into areas not travelled by others before. Ballsy, lush, intricate sounds that don’t sound like your other synths are on tap here. This, plus all of the control you have over the sound engine makes for a fun and rewarding experience.
As an example of something “easy,” look no further than the preset “1FINGSEQ JOMAL.” As you can guess, one finger gives you a moving sequence that’s not only pathetically easy to play, but sounds cool, too. We took this pattern with a simple beat, and it sounds like this:
Many of the pads have nice movement to them, and one in particular that caught our attention was the pad “tempo blade.” Again, with a simple beat, it sounds like the sample below. We also liked the gritty, slow, lead sound “distq jomal.” We could go on with many examples, but we suggest you do what we did: just play!
Nearly all the sounds inspired us to stop the reviewing and start recording into our DAW for new song ideas. This was inspirational stuff! While we were certainly familiar with Rob Papen in general, this was our first real opportunity to spend quality time with one of his synths, and boy, we were not disappointed. If you’re looking for inspiring sounds and relatively easy access to create more, you owe it to yourself to check Blade out.
At $139 USD, Blade it is a very good buy. There is a learning curve, but relatively small compared to others, and there is very good documentation on how to navigate around and discovering what all the controls do.
Currently, Blade is offered in a limited EDM Bundle (Elecktronic Dance Music Bundle). This bundle consists of three Rob Papen products: Blade, Predator (an analogue synth) and Punch (drum machine). For just $199, this is almost a no-brainer compared to buying Blade alone. In our brief initial testing of Predator, it offered as much sonic promise as Blade, so this Bundle should definitely be considered if you are thinking of buying any one of these products by themselves.
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