Hamburg Audio Nuklear Review


Hamburg Audio’s Nuklear is a fairly conventional synthesizer with one difference: Its oscillators do not create looped waveforms at differing frequencies to generate its raw materials of timbre and pitch. Rather, the speed at which the waveform is output can be independent from the pitch of the note.

This decoupling of frequency from wavelength (or more technically – duty cycle) means a whole family of new oscillator sounds are available for testing. For example – in full Pulsar mode, formants become decoupled from frequencies, meaning whatever note you play, it will have the same spectral shape, it’s harmonics conforming to the same profile in much the same way one might find in a resonating body in the real world.

How this looks on an oscilloscope is that each repetition of a wavecycle could have any amount of silence after it. The lower the note, the more gaps between each blast of the selected waveshape, with the duration of each blast never changing (unless you modulate or alter it manually). Higher notes, as one might expect, can trigger a new cycle before the last one has even finished, and in this case, old pulses are added to new ones. There’s an option tucked away in a settings menu to set a maximum to this amount of overlap, allowing you to lower it to save CPU cycles, but this will limit how much you can modulate certain parameters.

If this is all a bit academic, just bear in mind that you can create sounds with fixed formants, regular oscillator tones, anything in-between these two extremes, and you can modulate the pitch of these formants independently from the pitch of the actual note, creating a whole family of sounds which can be comb-filtery, band-passy, exotic or quite natural sounding. Got that? Good!..

Nuklear Precision

… Because now we can move on to the other oscillator settings, and these are just as unusual as what has come before. A waveshape selector is provided, offering saw, square, triangle, white and pink noise, and over 20 more shape selections culled from the world of physics and granular synthesis (to which Nuklear’s synthesis shares some heritage and concepts).

I’m not going to go into massive detail from here on, but you can alter the spacing of every other pulse, giving an effect similar to pulse width modulation, and you can alter the stereo depth of the pulses by having them either mono, alternating from speaker to speaker (yes, at audio frequencies!), or having the left channel of pulses an inverted version of the right. These opportunities are afforded by the Width and Phase knobs, which allow continuous alteration and blending of these aspects of the sound’s timbre and stereo perception right at the pulse level. Modulating these can create weird, spatial, octave-bending sounds.

There is a selection of four shaping envelopes you can apply to each pulse as it happens. Think of them as micro-envelopes or windowing functions for each blast of sound. Mostly they have a mild effect on the sound, softening it in some way or giving it a more refined character.

Last but not least is the pulse micro-sequencer, the two rows of little triangles. One row determines how many steps to the micro-sequence, and the second lets you turn on and off pulses for each step. Once again, this is audio-rate, pulse-by-pulse sequencing, so unlike most sequencers you’ve used, this will alter only the timbre, but it will alter it wildly, doing anything from thinning out the sound, making it more raspy or sound like it is choking, creating sub-harmonics, sub-oscillator effects, engine noises and drones, and – depending on settings – really messing with the pitch perception and overall dissonance of the sound.

The Big Picture

You have four of these pulse train generator oscillators to play with. They can be detuned and set at intervals against each other, mixed and panned together at various levels, and routed through two rather standard filters, which can be in serial or parallel and feature low, high and band-pass modes, 2-pole or 4-pole filtering, and variable resonance.

Already, without looking into modulation, you can imagine just how many sounds Nuklear can produce. In place is a copy and paste function for the oscillators, meaning you can create a sound, then mix it with variants that differ slightly – perhaps in formant pitch, in stereo spread, pulse micro-timing. I’m sure by now your head should be spinning with possibilities! What makes Nuklear exciting is this somewhat experimental nature. It’s based on principles, research and paradigms highly uncommon in the VST world and synth world at large. If you want to experiment, that’s the main draw in my view. The two filter busses may also be ring modulated together, in case things weren’t already crazy enough!

On the modulation front, there are eight ADSHR envelopes, eight LFOs which are simple but effective, delay and distortion effects, and a sequencer of the non-micro variety, operating at the more familiar time-scale of beats and bars, that lets you set up note sequences and up to 8 modulation patterns for the sound engine. This is particularly neat, not just because there are eight of them, but because they are well fleshed out with a lot of features, such as allowing values to slide or jump on a per-step basis, the creation of polyrhythms, and the use of control keys to switch between different patterns. It’s a tad cramped and unintuitive, but opens up a lot of possibilities after a bit of manual reading. Looking at the stats, you can see this is a LOT of modulation at your disposal! I’d like to also make note of the envelopes, which can be quite snappy and have variable curves for each stage of the envelope. As there are a staggering eight of them, you can stack them to create complex multi-stage envelopes.

The LFOs can go up to 100 Hz, somewhat into the audio range, but have only the staple four waveshape selections – none of which include any type of noise or chaotic functions – but they do have the ability to be delayed and have their amplitude faded in for up to about a second. Retrigger and phase options allow various fixed shapes of modulation for each note. These modulation and effect features are tabbed to keep everything on one page, showing one envelope and one LFO at a time. More on this later.

The Matrix Defence

Modulation isn’t created inside the usual matrix one might expect to find in a synth with such a layout and credentials, but instead is done in a way which is both more direct and less convenient at the same time. Clicking on most knobs brings up modulation information in the top right window of the GUI, where you can select two mod sources and two modulation intensities, as well as ways of scaling each amount, either by another modulator (ex: an envelope to bring in vibrato), the mod wheel and velocity, or a midi control which can be learned.

This is quite sophisticated, intuitive and quick to do – modulators can modulate modulators. And selecting each modulator – for example – Envelope 6, will bring that envelope tab up so you can tweak it after assigning it to something… but without a centralized matrix page, it can be hard to keep track of more complex patches, make quick holistic adjustments, or see how other patches work (including your own that you maybe haven’t seen in a while). There is an option that brings up a simplified list of what modulates what, but you can’t see or make value adjustments as best as I can tell, and a full matrix in it’s place would be most welcome.

Among the modulation sources is keyfollow. This is important, since there is no keytrack knob for the filters. You can use this to make the filter track the keyboard, but more interestingly, to adjust formants and other aspects of the pulse trains over the keyboard, creating very weird sounds. Imagine a sound where the higher you play, the lower the formant is, yet bass notes have a high formant? You can do that. It’s fun! Note that not all knobs are modulatable – on the blacklist are things like LFO and envelope times and FX parameters. An understandable and fairly common omission which makes sense given how complex the synth is already.

Use Of Space

In general, the GUI is quite well laid out. Everything apart from patch browsing and preference settings is on one logically arranged set of panels. The aforementioned tabbing between effects, LFOs and envelopes is slightly fiddly, since we’re given a series of small dots to click on to get to each page. Larger circles with numbers in them would have been much more welcome and immediate here! Copy and paste functionality and clicking the name to turn sections on and off make the oscillator section the most easy to use. It’s here where the synth shines both in design and features, and where much of the fun of Nuklear is had.

Least intuitive in layout is the tiny sequencer panel, which has eight dots for tabbing around, eight squares directly beneath (which represent patterns within each tab), and some other confusing symbols. The manual explains it fairly well and I’ve hinted at how cool it is in this review, but basically they crammed a lot of cool stuff into a small space, and the result is quite confusing and obtuse at first glance, but is far from unworkable.

Spectral Analysis

Nuklear is, by concept and sound, somewhat on the cold and scientific side, at least in the raw. It is not an analog emulation, and the technique of spacing out blasts of sound with variable lengths of silence to dictate pitch tends towards sounds rich in everything except bass. Mixing in an oscillator with Pulsar set to zero will create a regular, full, analog-style oscillator good for filling out the low end.

With seemingly no way of creating chaotic or random modulation, detuned analog emulations aren’t possible in Nuklear, but warmth can be coaxed. I managed to make a genuinely warm pad with the low-pass filter and detuned oscillators, and a square wave routed through a moving high-pass filter with just the right amount of resonance and the distortion effect active provided a visceral and alive sound, so it’s not all space, robots and science. Pitch drift and pseudo-randomness can be emulated by layering several irregular sequencer patterns at different speeds. These are a few ideas for creating more warm sounds in Nuklear, but I’m sure a touch of tape emulation and the like is also another fruitful avenue for these kinds of sounds.

Another pleasing aspect of the sound quality is in the effects: Low-cut and low-shelf filters have been added to the delay and distortion, in addition to the usual high cut and damping type filters. Delays without some kind of low frequency clean-up can get muddy at extreme settings, so it’s nice to see this oft overlooked feature here.

Nuklear can make pretty much any sound, though it steers me in the direction of huge, abstract and ethereal pads, modulated mid-range basses, experimental synth lines and wide basses (which would no doubt be best processed with a stereo imaging plugin afterwards, to make the lowest frequencies mono).

Overall the basic sound quality, but not architecture, reminds me somewhat of Massive. At source very scientific, straight edged and precise, but like Massive, it can go a large amount of places, and experimentation and synth knowledge are rewarded.

The Sound

Here are a few brief highlights from my testing sessions with Nuklear, including the unique sound of a single oscillator, and some presets I created while testing. I recommend trying the demo yourself if you’re after something a little bit different and, like me, enjoy exotic oscillator setups.

The Verdict

Hamburg Audio’s Nuklear perhaps isn’t for everyone. Born at the intersection between interstellar physics and an obscure branch of granular synthesis, it makes no effort to hide it’s scientific heritage, from the front end which makes it look like scientific gear, to the very neutral starting tone of the oscillators which can be bent any which way by those willing to don the lab coat and experiment, Nuklear is for those looking for something new.

It reminds me in some ways of Tone2’s Rayblaster – with a similar base philosophy of disconnecting the wavelength and frequency of the waveforms being played back – but is so different in almost every other way that the two can’t really be seen as replacements, but rather if one enjoyed one, I’d recommend the other (I had to have both, personally). Similar sounds can also be gotten from granular synthesizers such as Steinberg’s Padshop, but while there is some overlap, the universe of sounds in Nuklear are very much one-of-a-kind.

It can be a bit hard on the CPU. Without going into specifics, an expansive pad with all four oscillators running, a nice decay time and five note chords racked up 40% of my CPU power on my overclocked, quad core music computer. I see this as the price for cutting edge sounds, and this kind of sound represents an extreme amount of work for the computer. Less extravagant sustainer patches, leads, basses and other typical patches barely make a dent and you’re getting something you can’t really get elsewhere. Whether you need these sounds is of course, up to you. There is a demo available, so try it out if you’re interested.

Hamburg Audio Nuklear Review

8.3 Awesome

Hamburg Audio’s Nuklear perhaps isn't for everyone. Born at the intersection between interstellar physics and an obscure branch of granular synthesis, it makes no effort to hide it’s scientific heritage, from the front end which makes it look like scientific gear, to the very neutral starting tone of the oscillators which can be bent any which way by those willing to don the lab coat and experiment, Nuklear is for those looking for something new.

  • Features 9
  • Workflow 8
  • Stability 8
  • Design 8
  • Sound 9
  • Pricing 8
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About Author

Sendy has been making music in her bedroom since she was 14 using computers, synthesizers, samplers, and whatever else was at hand. She does not subscribe to any one genre but enjoys energetic, constantly changing rhythms, disorienting synthesizer manipulations, and heroic chiptune melodics.

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