Guest Review: BitRate by Icebreaker Audio

 This is a guest review of Icebreaker Audio’s BitRate ensemble for Reaktor that was originally posted on the KVR forums by Sendy (Alexandra Cornhill). BitRate is a first-rate lo-fi tool and this is a well written review so I asked for permission to repost it here rather than seeing it scroll off into forum infinity. – Pete

BitRate – Verdict: 9/10

If you have an interest in chip music and have Reaktor, just get this now. If you’ve got any doubts beforehand, check out the audio demos and then buy it. This is living the dream – the dirty, pixelated, large-grain-parametered, limited yet limitless dream which is working with 8-bit and lo-fi gaming audio devices.

I’m a fond user of Plogue Chipsounds, and pretty much the only thing Chipsounds got wrong was that it was a tad too academic if you wanted to really reach into its guts and pull moves like Hubbard. While it would have taken Hubbard painstaking hours of tapping away on a machine code monitor to create his best patches, having to do so in this day and age, can be offputting for some. While BitRate is nowhere near as flexible as Chipsounds, it turns the academic problem on its head, allowing you to get experimenting and grooving right away. And in accordance with its GUI it has all the fun of making music on a portable handheld device.

Presumably the name BitRate comes from the fact that most sounds are derived from a master clock or pulse, which interacts with the frequencies its tone generators are asked to produce, creating plenty of grit. This aspect of the instrument really comes over as sounding authentic and all of your sound production decisions are limited in ways similar to the original hardware that inspired it – for example, the pulse wave can only produce four pulsewidths – the envelope rates are quite coarse on a lot of modules, often you’ll get a rhythmic clicking sound around the attack or release which under normal circumstances would be annoying, but in this case just adds to the delightful abandonment of Hi-Fi sensibilities that working with outmoded technology embodies. And having less resolution to tweak things often means you spend less time tweaking and more time rocking out. There’s a lot you just can’t do, like assignable envelopes or LFOs, though this is made up for somewhat by providing two step sequencer modulators per sound. These are quite limited because you can’t create smooth transitions, but it’s enough to really open up the sound possibilities and add expressiveness and variety to your sounds.

So, the sounds are authentic and tweakable enough to allow you to apply your vision to them. The NES is represented in full, as is the Gameboy’s wave channel (which you can modulate for cheap-arse wavesequencing fun!), cruddy 2-op FM from the Dos days also makes an appearance, as do cheap sampled Casio-style percussion sounds (which can even be circuit-bent… one parameter is called “Crap out” which is good for making the sound, well, crap out!). The final bunch of sound varieties come from the Glitch modules, which use experimental clocked oscillators in various configurations of cross-modulation and filtering. The results are simultaneously very unique and yet immediately suitable to their context.

One gripe with the modulation section – and this was pretty much one of the only problems I had that I considered down to bad design – when you choose a Wave channel to work with, you’re given 16 waveforms which you can modulate between. However, if you set the modulation range to maximum, and create a ramp up and down, not every wave will get a chance to play, because there are actually more waveforms than there are possible modulation values! To make matters more annoying, it took me a little bit of scienceing to work out that… get this… waves 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 13, and 15 are the ones that can be visited, and the other waves are virtually irrelevant unless you gang modulations in a complex way or reduce the modulation range – but then you have even less waves to work with, so why would you do that? It’s just really unintuitive but now I’ve explained it, it’s not a problem anymore. Go me!

Finally, the GUI and sequencing options play their role perfectly. As I’ve said before, the graphics really give you that “I’m working on an old handheld” feeling. Parameters and modulation options are quite granular, you have only four patterns to work with and limited resolution… But oddly these limitations, which I didn’t like much at first, do their job wonderfully of giving you that sonic aesthetic associated with chip music. You’ll be banging out Megaman stage themes and soundtracks for long-lost platformers before you know you’ve even learned how to use it. And if you want to get more complex, my advice is to layer instances, and/or sample your work in BitRate and arrange and augment it in your DAW.

Should you fail miserably, lose all your lives and get a Game Over in your quest for epic 8-bit beats, the presets are pretty killer, too, so there’s always that to fall back on.

Here are some more audio demos of BitRate: