Music software instruments are entering something of a mid-life crisis – and one landmark is the cancellation this week of Absynth by NI/Soundwide. Creator Brian Clevinger has recorded a statement.
Native Instruments changes in ownership and leadership have already brought with them significant cuts to key designers and engineers, through layoffs and other attrition. Absynth is now the first major visible product casualty at NI and its new parent Soundwide. (Worst corporate name ever. Best brand name is still Mark of the Unicorn. Try harder, folks.)
Here’s what the product’s original creator, Brian Clevinger, has to say about its demise after 22 years:
Too Long:Didn’t Read/Watch:
- Absynth is dead
- Brian would have been happy to work with NI on a new version/reboot, and NI wasn’t up for it
- You can still enjoy Brian’s software at Rhizomatic
- 22 years was a pretty good run (agreed)
I’ll look at Komplete 14 separately; I know for many users their interest won’t hinge on Absynth.
Absynth is a peculiar instrument, and one that was badly in need of an update – no one would argue otherwise. But creator Brian Clevinger, who continues to develop software at Absynth’s original parent Rhizomatic, does confide that he was more than willing to return to NI to reboot his instrument brainchild.
And with Komplete 14, Native Instruments is effectively down one flagship soft synth. Reaktor is still there, and various instruments created on it, but you’ll notice that the K14 marketing doesn’t really mention synthesis at all. That’s, how shall we say, peculiar. The production community goes crazy about obscure modular synths, even as corporate marketing seems to only want to talk about sound packs.
I’m not sure any bundle that includes Reaktor really needs anything else, let alone another soft synth. But it does raise the question of why one of the developers that popularized the software synthesizer seems now to shy away from actually talking about them.
There are a couple of patterns to notice here. One, while it made a big difference in 2000 that Absynth was discovered by Native Instruments, I’m not sure that developers need big publishers to achieve success anymore. Remember that in 2000 people were even still buying software in boxes. Now customers are more than happy to grab independent software from developers a la carte – which also means, NI, they may not much care that there’s an updated version of Native Access that lets them search by genre. (That is, Native Access has to compete with Google and word of mouth for the same task.)
Two, the focus on business cases by big brands seems to eclipse any interest in instruments and personality. Never mind that the production community found Massive and Serum on their own and eagerly exchanged tips on how to use them. Corporate music tech marketing thinks you need a helper app that tells you which sound packs to use to get a particular genre.
And I’d argue there’s another trend to observe: we’ve reached the point in software instruments where, like hardware, older titles might weirdly be set for revival. That’s not just as a business case for people who used them the first time around. Because of how design ideas in technology tend to come in cycles, it means we’re now set to reevaluate software from the 90s and 2000s with fresh eyes.
And it’s weird on some level that software makers haven’t worked out how to capitalize on that. The DAW on some level is its own franchise – Logic, Performer, Reason, Ableton Live, Pro Tools, and Cubase all now carry the banner of their past releases. But that means a lot of ideas have fallen through the cracks.
Music developers might take a look at games, especially with parts shortages threatening to limit hardware growth. The gaming industry has problems of its own (does it ever), but at least the games business has found it can plumb creations from past decades and make enormous profits, partly because people like the stuff from that era – folks who played it at the time, plus new customers. Heck, you can subscribe to video game channels by key composers and game designers, play 90s titles (Live A Live was a big hit this summer), and buy limited-run physical editions of all kinds of games that already came out years ago. Music isn’t quite like games, but on the other hand – given the appetite for vintage hardware, why has no one figured it out? (See below – Bram Bos did figure it out, re-releasing an instrument he created before Brian, and a bunch of people bought the result.)
At the very least, it may well be time to start to write the history of the soft synth, especially since even the creator of Absynth it appears is forgetting some of that history. He’s right that he was is the creator of one of the longest-running instruments, but I think a little off that only Reaktor and Max share that category. Let’s set the record straight there. Just a few non-NI examples:
1996: Pure Data (no big deal, only runs in your modular and powers a ton of iOS games and apps)
1996: SuperCollider (no big deal, only helped launch a worldwide live coding movement…)
1997: Bram Bos Hammerhead (and now it’s on your iPad! and … brilliant, actually)
2000: Propellerhead (now Reason Studios) Reason
2000: Emagic ES1 (and the UI is exactly the same today in Logic – no, seriously, have a look!)
2000: Emagic EXS (then called the Emagic Xtreme Sampler 24 Bit (EXS24))
2001: Steinberg HALion (someone can probably dig into Steinberg’s history and suggest an earlier version since VST is their invention)
1958: Csound (okay, okay… 1986, I’m being cheeky, though you could make an argument for 1958 if you wanted)
That leaves out trackers and so on, which are directly intertwined with what has happened with gaming hardware and software.
This is not a comprehensive list, but it’s not lost on me that there are two general patterns – either open source, community-developed efforts on one hand or tools that were part of a DAW on the others. (Surge is a youngster from 2005, so that doesn’t count, but it sure has a shot at longevity now!) I think it’s tough to extrapolate what this would look like in 20 years, though. Well… it’s tough to extrapolate how anything looks in 20 years.
Anyway, if anyone wants to get in touch and help me write the Big Book of Soft Synths and/or share a limited-run physical release of your long-lost synthesizer on a golden floppy, I am of course There. For. It.
Probably Gen Z and younger will get the idea of collecting floppies of old instruments even faster than the old folks. I’ll bet you my Kensington trackball.
Go read Sound on Sound’s review of Absynth from 2001:
Here’s the music by creator Brian Clevinger from the video, made in Absynth:
And maybe you should just ignore all the above and … we should just focus on Plasmonic. That’s the new Rhizomatic physical modeling synth and a reminder that there are new ideas, plus new features like MPE:
And here you go – here’s a tutorial for getting started using Absynth from the NI blog. (Uh oh. I hope we didn’t just Mexican Pizza the thing. NI, if you suddenly see surging demand, let’s talk.)