New Software Review: BioTek 1.5 by Tracktion

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BioTek 1.5’s attractive and intuitive GUI, marked by a distinctive control wheel, allows for unique tones with randomized components.

Tracktion’s BioTek 1.5 is full of promise and innovation, allowing you to blend sounds of urban infrastructure, suburban rhythms, and pastoral textures for a unique take on synthesis.

Wolfram Franke and Taiho Yamada are responsible for this synth and its sound design features, while composer Mike Wall is responsible for capturing the sonic landscapes that come included as samples. Wall’s field recordings for this project span a whopping 20 years, gathered from various locations and regions around the US. These elements are brought together visually in a memorable graphic interface design by Kristina Childs.

If Tracktion isn’t on your radar yet, it will be now. Although the very first iteration of the Tracktion DAW was developed in 2002 and quickly picked up by Mackie for distribution, Tracktion the company is essentially a new startup—a small spinoff that launched in 2012, comprised of a crew devoted to continuing to upgrade this cult-favorite software line.

If you are already familiar with the first iteration of the BioTek synthesizer, this newest update brings a whole new host of sought-after features, mostly found in the “Edit” page, which is an entirely brand-new addition in this version.

In the first iteration of BioTek, users only had access to the “Wild” page—now the main, front page, which features the unmistakable wheel design. In the new Edit page, the creators of BioTek heeded requests for various features, and did so with aplomb and attention to detail.

Features

BioTek 1.5 is a virtual instrument available in AAX, AU, VST, and Linux VST formats at 32/64 bit.

This “organic synthesizer” lends a fresh approach to virtual instruments through a beautifully designed “XY” grid that can be manipulated using a large central wheel, giving users a simple and potentially tactile design that blends across parameters as they choose.

This approach allows you to intuitively synthesize and blend sounds to create a myriad of fresh tones and evocative, immersive soundscapes without much thought. But now in version 1.5 you have the ability to dive much deeper and tinker further, to construct your own instruments.

Under the hood, BioTek is based on “Acktion Technology” sampling synthesis—a unique platform created by Tracktion, which incorporates freshly-created and recorded sounds from their in-house team.

Acktion’s engine was designed with BioTek in mind, and I found it to be a powerful one. Being a sampling sequence instrument with elements that can be randomized, it is a platform that is capable of constantly evolving—and, if desired—of never putting out the same exact sound twice.

To allow for incredible variety, BioTek includes a massive “Mod Matrix”. I was lucky enough to have a quick chat with Woody Woodburn at Tracktion, and as he explained, “[Designer] Taiho [Yamada] wanted flexibility—enough mod routes that could allow more organic random life into the sound patches.”

A closer look at Bio Tek’s central control wheel found on the Wild page.

The main GUI of BioTek is visually pleasing, featuring the distinctive control wheel on the Wild page, and you can really start to see the design and engine at work underneath when you dig deeper into the Edit page.

Part of the beauty of BioTek is that it requires some time and exploration to fully grasp how much the sounds are designed to evolve. I was especially impressed when trying out the preset “Data Cyclone”.

During our talk, Woodburn said that if you delve a bit into the Data Cyclone preset, “You can see the random event generation controlling the delay mix.” This is why the output of BioTek never sounds looped, even if it is sample-based at its core.

As you delve deeper into the plug-in, along the bottom of the main page, you’ll find four oscillators per sound layer with capabilities for FM Synthesis, Virtual Analogue, Sample Playback and Karplus-Strong. There is also access to Sync, Ring Mod, PWM, and wave shaping. If control is your thing, you’ll have plenty of it to toy with here.

In addition to the Oscillators, there are two multi-mode filters in series with a distortion and EQ. The filter types included are 4-Pole & 2-Pole LP, BP, HP, BS (Notch), 1-Pole LP, HP Comb, and Redux (a Sample Rate and Bit Reducer). All of this allows for 200 Modulation Routes and 32 Modifier routes. That’s quite a bevy of nuance to add to your creative control!

Once you’re in the Edit tab, you can see that there are 8 unique “Flow LFOs”. Each of these feature 8 individual parallel-sync-able sub LFOs for each sound layer, which can also be crossfaded in real time.

Tracktion has even made it so that users have the ability to loop sustain and release stages, as well as change curvatures for each stage. Another thoughtful design feature is in the LFO implementation where you can, for example, flip the LFO phase by inputting negative values, or change any of the other note value parameters.

Beat makers rejoice: Tracktion has also made it so that you can load your own drum patterns inside the edit panel. The drums are arranged according to the general MIDI drum map, so not much note editing should be needed, which makes this not only a wonderful creative element, but also a time-saver for keeping the workflow seamless and quick.

Under the Effects tab area on the Edit page there are 4 effects in series groupings: Reverb Delay, Compressor/Limiter, Distortion, Chorus Flanger/Phaser Redux.

Lastly, you can import MIDI file oscillation and arpeggiation information, for building up sounds from your own patterns. There’s also an onboard arpeggiator, which can be switched on and off, allowing you control over additional rhythmic patterns.

In Use

My initial attraction to Bio Tek 1.5 was the lure of being able to blend some sampled environmental tracks through a unique, randomizing engine to create a different palette of sounds from what might be available elsewhere on the market. However, after having spent a bit of time with BioTek and learning the new features added in 1.5, the real value seems to be in how it fosters creativity, and how each of the presets are so creatively designed within the Acktion engine, capable of being driven far from their original state with ease.

Tracktion have gone to great lengths to source authentic environmental samples for their robust Bio Tek 1.5 sample library.

Tracktion has really gone the extra mile in giving their users insight on how to most effectively use the newest and most advanced features by posting succinct and clear tutorials, led by the creators themselves. No hunting around on YouTube required: You can get the info straight from the source! This really goes a long way in helping to get the most out of BioTek, quickly.

In use, the plug-in does not have the steep learning curve it might have had, considering the deep layers of control that it offers. One thing that seemed intuitive in my own use for example, was the double click feature, which effectively zeroes out any modifications done to a given parameter, taking you back to the original setting. This certainly makes trying things out a bit simpler.

The ability to manually control wave shapes and other parameters so simply makes this plug-in quite easy to add to your existing workflow. I could see BioTek even becoming integral to some, especially those in need of detailed and intricate sound design. Its layered processing capabilities and randomizable elements make so many uniquely creative sounds easy to achieve within a single plug-in.

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