Review NI Massive July 27, 2015 13:21
A newly edited form of my review originally published in February of 2014.
At first glance it's easy enough to dismiss Massive with today's vintage analog style offerings. Computer power and analog modeling have come a long way since its release, but there is a huge world of sounds outside of what analog synthesis can provide and it's in that domain that Massive shines.
Massive sports three identical oscillators, a modulation OSC and a Noise sample playback osc. The first three are where you will find your wave-tables. The raw VA waveforms sound full and deep. Its quick work creating trance basslines, plucks and supersaws in Massive.
The action is of course in the oscillators. With some 100 waveforms you have a lot of exploring to do straight away, before engaging any other parts of the synth or the extra features such as wave bending.
The waveforms themselves are excellent and the combination of waveforms alone has huge potential and this is why Massive is so useful in so many genres. Once you get familiar with the sounds of these waveforms you begin to hear them everywhere in contemporary dance music, in electro and dubstep in particular. The Modern Talking waveform is a prime example. It's the lower male vocal sound you often hear.
As I alluded to above, another brilliant feature of Massive's oscillators is the ability to further manipulate the playback of these wavetables. The five modes available are: Spectrum, Bend+, Bend - / +. Bend - and Formant. The manual goes in detail about what these do, so I'll just give an overview in my own terms as I understand it: Spectrum filters out the high frequencies and is useful for toning down the top end of the waveforms without having to use another filter. It's much more handy than you'd at first think.
The bend functions compress and expand the waveform at different sections depending on the position of the intensity knob. Bend+ for example, expands the waveform at the beginning and ends while compressing the middle. By compression and expansion I am referring to the playback rate, not compression and expansion as is used in audio level processing.
In practice it's not usually always a dramatic effect, but it can be depending on what further processing you have. It gives you even more mileage from the supplied wave-forms, which is good, as you cannot load your own.
Formant is as you'd expect if you've ever hear a formant sound before, I like it, I've seen people turn it on and leave the dial all the way to the left for bass sounds. While there is no oscillator sync there are sync waveforms which produce the same sound. Sync is usually hit and miss for me anyway, on some synths I really like it, on others I don't so much, in this case I am ambivalent but it's useful to have.
The filters for me often make or break the synth. They have to be smooth and have character. Some synths give you a whole bunch of filters and not one of them is particularly impressive, but Massive's got some decent offerings. You get two filters per voice and the filters have a distinct character.
You get a nice 12dB and 24dB low-pass and high-pass, but you also get band-reject and double notch. My two most used are probably Daft and Scream. I love how much of the bass is preserved through Daft and how much character and distortion you can get from scream. They are sensitive to gain-staging, giving you the option to overload them and get some saturation effect. Yet another great feature is the feedback, which can give you really wild sounds. You can also run them in serial, parallel or a mixture of both routings.
What adds to all this, and makes Massive quite deep is how they can be combined with the inserts in various configurations. Which brings us to:
EFFECTS & ROUTING
Some users see effects simply as embellishment, but they can take a synths basic sound to new levels. In this respect the effects on Massive are of first rate. Not only is the reverb very usable for it's basic character, but it's nicely configurable without being overly complicated. One of the great things about Massive's effects section is how it can be modulated. Assigning an envelope to the Reverb mix for example, in a negative amount, can duck the reverb as you press a note. It can have a big impact on the character of the patch.
The dimension Expander is very useful. A lot of wideners can sound really wrong, to the point where you'd hesitate to ever use them, but this one really good and gets used all the time, especially in small amounts. The phaser is great though it's not got quite the magic as Diva's or the Virus TI's phaser. The chorus modules are very good and useful, the fact that mono options are available shows attention to detail as you don't always wan't a stereo image with your synth sounds
Speaking of the flanger it's okay but to date I think I've only ever found one built in flanger that I liked a lot and that one is in Diva (and now HIVE). No coincidence that I think the flanger in the uhbik bundle is one of the best vst flangers available. For me flangers = Zero through, that moment when the signal just about disappears and then comes back, and there are so many flangers that just don't do this.
The distortion effects are done very well and add a huge dimension to Massive that it simply would not have without them. There are three and each one does indeed sound different in it's character. It's true that there are better 3rd party distortion effects out there, but on the whole, for something included in a synth these are extremely useful, especially since they can be modulated.
Besides all this, there are insert effects which can be routed before, after or in between the two filters. There are two of these insert slots available at any time. They are all very useful, clippers, shapers, bit crushers, Sample & Hold, but in particular one feature I don't see on many synths: the Frequency Shifter.
These insert effects do not include most of the final stage effects, however. You cannot, for example, place your reverb before your filter, or before a distortion stage. That would have been a lot of fun and I think it's a shame they don't let us choose this configuration. Another complaint I have, is that really just 2 insets and 2 final effects can be limiting. I'd have loved just one more slot for each.
ENVELOPES & LFO'S
The Envelopes in Massive are feature rich. You can have linear or Exponential decays and each stage of the envelope can be modulated. There is a loop point with a huge amount of curves to choose from. In fact you can choose two and morph between them and specify how many times it loops.
There are a number of triggering options and you can save your envelope settings and make your own envelope presets. This is probably as flexible and usable as any envelope section you will find.
The LFO's are undoubtedly a part of what's made Massive popular. There are three LFO modes, standard, stepper and performer. This last mode is not unique to Massive, but it's implementation is exceptional. Instead of drawing your own curves which can be tedious and time consuming you can select from a number of pre-made curves. All together you can just about come up with any sequence you want but importantly you can do this very quickly and repeat your results with accuracy (And you can save them too). In fact you can create two sequences and fade between them. You can create some brilliant sequences with this tool.
This does bring me to another criticism of Massive. There is no arpeggiator or step sequencer. The stepper LFO is the closest we have here, but it's not a real replacement. An arp or step sequencer will actually re-trigger the envelopes (any anything else that is set to reset on trigger) on each note whereas what we have here is just continuous modulation. One could argue that it's already complex enough, but I don't think it would complicate it much further and it could have really opened the door to beautiful arps and sequences.
So, Massive is about 7 years old now and CPU power has increased a lot since then and some newer synths have taken advantage of this and given us richer and higher quality synthesis.
As far as I can tell Massive is still in popular use. No doubt Serum has replaced it for a lot of users though, and I half expect to see NI step up with a new version of Massive some time soon. In the meanwhile, even though I think Serum is fantastic, I personally think Massive has still got a lot to offer. It's just got so much depth and it's wavetables are really interesting. I find it immediate, versatile and inspiring.
What do you think? Are you still into Massive? Let me know below!
Check out my soundbank demos to hear what I've done with Massive