Alchemy Synth: A Review
I was heading home from a short tour this last weekend when one of the guys on the tour bus asked what I thought about Mainstage’s new Alchemy synth. Did I like it? What did I think the strengths were? I rattled off that I hadn’t really messed around with it yet, and then pulled out my iPhone and googled “Alchemy Mainstage synth”. In the perpetual sleep deprivation that is being on the road with a band, I’d completely missed that Apple had bundled a $250 synth for free into what should have been a minor 10.2 update. Apple 1, Eric 0.
When I got to the hotel room that night, I hooked into the painfully slow internet and waited for the update to download. The next day while the rest of the group was sleeping off a long night of playing music, I grabbed a nasty expresso from the hotel lobby’s vending machine and dug into Mainstage 10.2, and more specifically, Alchemy. Here’s my initial thoughts:
My go-to synth in Mainstage has always been Logic’s venerable ES2 synth. It’s powerful, and everyone from Lady Gaga to Flo Rida uses it on a regular basis. But it only has some basic oscillator styles (sine, saw, square, etc). Alchemy completely blows the fences away, giving you everything from traditional wavetable and analog, to bizarre and rare synthesis types like spectral and granular. In non-geek language, that means you have a sonically massive palette to use when crafting sounds.
More importantly, it sounds great. I mean really, really warm and smooth. I regularly play high end synths like Omnisphere, and this thing is right up there. Suddenly it’s really hard to justify dropping $500 on Omnisphere when I can get the same tones out of Alchemy.
My first real-world experience with the synth was on a pop single I’m working on with Seattle-based artist Philana Goodrich. Her sound is similar to Lorde meets Kesha, and I figured I’d never get a better chance to put Alchemy through it’s paces.
I started working with it’s presets. My intro sound started with the preset “Titanic Anthem”. It was so warm, I actually had to dirty it up with a bit of clip distortion. With a few easy tweaks of the cutoff, I had just the sound I was looking for.
Next up was an arpeggiated bass sound. I cranked the oscillators low, and created a resonance saturated filter. Beefy, powerful, and organic immediately came to mind. This thing has so much power in the bass end with the 4 oscillators and warm filters.
The final track was a high pad sound. I dialed in some granulated sounds, brought down the filter cutoff, and got a smooth high pad perfect for the track. Again, all the transients just worked, and the sound was rich and clear.
The usual suspects come up with this synth- like Apple likes to do, there was more focus on quality of sound than CPU usage. This things runs at roughly 3x the CPU of a ES2 plugin, in my testing. Apple gets around this with a button in the RH corner of the window that lets you adjust audio quality, reducing CPU drain. I found this to work really well.
The other downside is the complicated controls. Alchemy takes a cue from the design philosophy of the ES2 with it’s semi modular nature, and it can be difficult to figure out what does what. If you’re looking for a quick down and dirty synth to use, I’d recommend a simpler plugin. With the tremendous power of multiple sound generation types and powerful routing features comes complications that the pro probably won’t mind, but might be frustrating to the beginner. If you’re just starting out with synth design, I’d stick with the presets in the machine. They’re great by themselves.
I would be recommending that my readers buy this synth if it was $200 by itself. With Logic Pro hovering at $199 and Mainstage at $30 on the app store, this has to be the easiest buy ever. If you haven’t already jumped on the Mainstage bandwagon, you’ll never get a better excuse.