Review: S-Layer, The New Sampling Creature of Twisted Tools
After several fantastic effects, sequencers and sound manglers, the crazy minds at Twisted Tools have released a new sampler called S-Layer.
It’s basically a sampler for Reaktor focused on the interaction and control between sound layers, allowing you to rapidly create all kinds of sonic combinations. S-Layer allows to add up to eight layers of sound and manipulate the way they get combined and modulated using different processes. Each layer has its own controls and options, including envelope functions, effects and modulation.
Personally, I was thrilled with the idea. It’s pretty crazy no matter if you’re trying to get something specific with it or you’re just randomly playing with the stuff. I contributed with some sounds and snapshots, so I’ve been working with the instruments since early stages. Below I’ll share some of my opinions about it, plus sharing experiments and comments from sound designers who work on the instruments, including Richard Devine and Jean-Edouard Miclot.
I’m not going to explain you the instrument in detail, but give you some ideas and opinions. If you need a short description, I’d say this is a dream tool for any sound designer who wants to be surprised by controlled “accidents”. S-Layer is an infinite box of happy accidents. It’s an instrument any sound designer will enjoy, since allows not only to create intended sound effects and sequences, but also random and suppressive results. It’s amazing the amount of usable material you can obtain with this thing.
If you want to get a basi idea of how this monster works, take a look at this nice video created by Matt Cellitti of Dubspot, who explains everything about S-Layer:
S-Layer is an instrument like no other. There’s a bunch of sampling tools in the market, but this one has a very interesting approach that I’ve not seen on any other instrument, since it lets you to create amazing combinations of sounds by doing very basic movements and changes in the software. You may think it’s an instrument created for doing crazy random designs, and although that’s true, you can also create specific things and more specific sounds. For example, you can process one or two layers in order to find hybrids of specific types of sonic materials. You can even use just one sound and listen to lots of variations S-Layer can create with it. For example, check out this crazy example of experiments by Richard Devine:
Besides the concept, the best feature of S-Layer is the graphical interface. It’s very optimized for doing very quick and effective processes on the material, featuring a color scheme to identify the layers and putting lots of useful options at hand, very graphical, very intuitive. You can alter pitch, you can do reverse, stretch time, add efects and draw envelopes, everything with pretty simple steps and organized in different sections divided in tabs.
The effects are fantastic. It’s amazing to hear how sounds get transformed when you start to combine FX parameters. There’s a filter with cutoff, resonance and frequency controls, and also a granular stretching processor with pretty extreme limits, something common on Twisted Tools creations. Also, you can add your own Reaktor effects manually and summed to that there’s a modulation section, which is really fun, having a wrappers section capable of modulate different parameters and also a dedicated section with four different sequencers that allow to modulate all kinds of parameters in order to create different movements, sample changes, filter sweeps, specific stretching changes, etc. There are even lots of randomization options that makes the whole instrument a crazy sound generator machine.
Other great things are the ability of controlling scenes of configurations with the keyboard, which can also be used to transpose the material as in any other sampler. There’s also the possibility of routing each of the eight voices to an independent channel of your DAW, so you can record each layer individually, having the rest synchronized to it, so you end up with the structures created by S-Layer but getting the flexibility of editing each layer created by the instrument. Sound designer Jean-Edouard Miclot shows that feature in the following video, where he also shows the possibilities of controlling the instruments with a Wacom tablet through OSC.
Also, Jean-Edouard, who participated on the creation of this amazing instrument, shares his thoughts about it:
The origin: It all started after my collaboration with TwistedTool on Transform and a discussion I had with Josh Hinden about layering sounds. One of the main tasks of a motion picture sound editor is to brainstorm the right choice for the right sound at the right moment of a film. The ideal would probably be to record what we have in our mind and that’s probably why we often try to mimic with our own mouth what we want to express. Very often though, there isn’t anything like that in the real world so we have to come up with an artificial solution that can be as convincing and credible as what we thought. Comparable to cooking, sculpting and painting, you start by mixing your own ingredients in a bowl and shape it with your bare hands. You turn this idea that was only residing in your brain into something that other people can sense and feel, it’s what I call a ‘social transduction’, the same kind of creativity that the Cro-Magnon man experienced 43,000 years ago in the Lascaux cave of France and that we’re still experiencing today almost everywhere. Some people like Josh and Igor at TwistedTools understand the needs of the artists and try very hard to bring new tools to the audio community to help them bring their ideas as far as they can go. That’s where S-Layer comes from.
The development: Being involved at the early stage of the R&D was a privilege. Josh would send me some screenshots then some beta versions and I would test it and send him my feedback. At the end, I really think they brought it way further than what I initially had in mind by adding all sorts of envelopes, modulations, internal sequencers and any useful controls. They really have a keen eye for details and pay a lot of attention so that everything looks as clear and simple as possible but always with something in the back if you want to dig a little bit deeper. There are tons of samplers on the market but I’m pretty sure there’s nothing like S-Layer. Most of the big samplers tend to show the same features whereas TwistedTools always deliver a unique and specific approach when a new tool is released. You know, you could choose between a Swiss Army knife that can do pretty much everything and even if it might help you in most of the situations, you might be stuck the day you end up with something too thick to cut. Or you could get a full set of knives, each with a specific type of use and then you can be confident to face any kind of situation that will be thrown your way ;-)
Real-time performance: When looking at the interface, you see 4 big knobs that call your attention and say “play with me!”. Audio is unfortunately intangible and we always feel the need to touch it and control it like a musician does. Having the ability to control 1 to 4 parameters in real-time is a great way to compensate this issue without making it too complicated. One of my favorite devices interfacing with the computer is certainly the graphic tablet that is intuitively easy to use and extremely precise. I’ve made a tutorial for the mac users that explains how to control S-Layer in real-time with a graphic tablet connected through OSC (Open Sound Control) and how to record a live performance in Pro Tools using the 8 stereo channel routing of SoundFlower as well as a stereo mixdown in parallel. This is the most satisfying and flexible solution for me as I enjoy the spontaneity of the real-time gesture but also need to keep all the voices (tracks) separated if I need to edit the performance later. I also explain in the tutorial a very good trick that I got from Josh about how to create in 2 seconds your own maps in Reaktor. I know Reaktor can still be quite obscure and I tried to demystify it by showing how useful and easy it actually is in this 6 minute long tutorial.
Randomness: I recently read a book about another tool called “Kyma and the SumOfSines Disco Club“. The author ‘Jeffrey Stolet’ explains towards the end what is really random: “If i close my eyes and reach into my closet, and grab out a shirt to wear, in one sense that is random, but not really, because I put all the shirts in my closet. In other words, only certain results are possible, and if I like my own taste in shirts only good results are possible. As a result, something closer to random would be if I reached into my closet to grab one of my shirts and it rained in Bolivia, a 3rd grade teacher in Norway started speaking Japanese, and my neighbour’s gun discharged killing its pet parakeet, now that’s closer to random”.
In S-Layer, if you toggle a parameter to be affected by randomization, its value will change every time you hit the “Rnd” button at the top of the interface. The great thing about S-Layer is that almost every parameter can be affected by randomization. I’d like to point out though that it can result in a total cacophony if you’re not careful about what you do. Also, I try not to be too focused on the interface (I say that because it’s quite visually fascinating), it can draw your attention away from paying attention to what comes out of your speakers. Turning your screen off might be a good alternative! Like with every audio manipulation, we always prefer to start to mess around with one sound, react to it and make our changes. In this case, it feels more intuitive this way than taking a white page and starting to write down our action plan. The random behaviour of S-Layer is an extremely powerful tool to generate happy accidents and it will propose to you a wide palette of ideas. You can end up with hundreds of sound ideas in a minute though and it might be overwhelming once you have to go through all the recordings of your performances. Personally, I like to keep things simple, organic, emotional and believable, specially if your intent is to create audio for the big picture and that your goal is to support a storytelling. One cool trick that I got from Josh again, is to select only one sound on voice 1 with no random and set the other voices randomized. It’s a super easy quick trick to find a sweetener for a sound that has a lack in a specific frequency range, modify its texture or even find several variations for a sound that you like and that you have to iterate for a video game purpose for example. I don’t think we have been through all the different possibilities that S-Layer opens-up and we’re hoping on the rest of the community (sound designers and music producers) to bring its level to the next stage. I’d like to thank Josh Hinden and Igor Shilov for their hard work because they really deserve all the credits.