OctoCell is a new Max for Live synth co-developed by Michel Geiss, studio technician for synth legend Jean-Michel Jarre. On paper, it resembles Ableton’s own Operator synth with a combination of Additive, FM and subtractive synthesis, but after spending a few minutes with OctoCell it quickly becomes apparent that this is one very unique synthesizer.
The primary interface which sits in Ableton Live’s Device View provides global control over the eight partials, and a more complex editor can be popped out for precise control over their individual parameters.
Each of the eight additive partials can produce a sine, saw or square wave. When sine is selected, a partial is paired with a modulator oscillator for FM. The basic editing interface also offers a variety of filter types for subtractive functionality. This puts all three methods of synthesis right up front for immediate accessibility. Random tuning fluctuation can also be added in this view, which is great for adding a less predictable, almost organic quality.
As expected, partials are by default tuned to the harmonic series, and FM modulators are assigned a relative tuning ratio. You can of course open the editor window and precisely tune each partial or modulator, however, you’re also given the option to scale their tunings via a pair of harmonicity dials. Turning clockwise scales their tunings upwards and vice versa. A pair of envelopes applies a similar operation to their respective levels. Overall, there is a lot you can accomplish via the deceptively simple primary interface.
As mentioned, the editor window gives precise control over individual partials with dedicated envelopes and tuning controls for each partial and modulator (!). It also houses three modulation sources, those being a step sequencer/modulator, and a pair of ominously titles ‘modulators’ which combine LFOS and Envelopes and probably deserve their own article. These are routed via the central modulation matrix.
Taking all this into account, OctoCell is a unique and expressive synthesizer and a lot of fun to both program and perform. Ableton’s own Push 2 provides polyphonic aftertouch control which is great for harnessing OctoCell’s depth and expressivity, and you can go even further with a dedicated MPE capable controller.
For a glimpse of what OctoCell is capable of, check out our First Look video. But be warned, things get a little wild towards the end…