iZotope BreakTweaker, a sequencing machine for cinema & video shooters

Cooperation between a software developer and a celebrity hardly ever results in something as powerful as iZotope’s BreakTweaker, a drum sculpting and beat sequencing machine. BreakTweaker is a virtual instrument for your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). It is the result of a cooperation between iZotope and world famous producer and technologist BT. There are two aspects to BreakTweaker: it’s immediately usable by end-users and designers will love the infinite ways to create unique rhythms. For example, if you create movies and want to add a rhythmic score to your picture quickly, you’ll buy the Expansions (there’s one for Cinematics) and play the samples you feel are fitting with the style and mood of the picture. If you want to create something unique, you’ll create a BreakTweaker sequence yourself. With both options, the possibilities are truly endless.

BreakTweaker has a polyrhythmic sequencer with six tracks to play with. Each track can have a different length independently of the others, enabling unique isorhythm. In music, the organising principle of much of 14th-century French polyphony was characterised by the extension of the rhythmic texture of an initial section to the entire composition, despite the variation of corresponding melodic features. This was called isorhythm in the late 19th Century and BreakTweaker allows for a 21st Century interpretation.

iZotope BreakTweaker interface

Ordinary beats can be made unique by controlling pitch, rhythm and texture. Tracks can be assembled from samples and/or synths, creating unique drum sounds — although you can set BreakTweaker to play a sound for long enough not to be called a drum sound anymore, that is what most designers will use it for.

I was given the chance to try out BreakTweaker, its 2GB factory sounds bank and the Cinematic Expansion. I spent three whole days experimenting with BreakTweaker inside Logic Pro Studio, and briefly in Logic Pro X and even GarageBand. For the experiment, I used one sample and one synth shape (the basic one) and I have yet to find a sound that even closely sound like the one I created earlier.

Through its three modules, BreakTweaker enables you to combine LFOs (Low Frequency Oscillator) and sound envelopes in so many ways you’ll be hard pressed into creating two identical sounds with it. Just as good, then you can save sounds and the settings combinations as presets. The Sequencer module is closest to a drum machine interface with the exception of the ability to have unique tempo and step length for each track (which in turn is responsible for the isorhythmic quality of BreakTweaker).

iZotope BreakTweaker Generator

The Generator is where you sculpt sounds and textures. The infinite tweaking capabilities of the Generator module come from morphing wavetable synthesis, dual-stage distortions which you can set at a fixed value, apply Envelopes or LFOs to modulate between two parameter values and the ability to have three Generators combined per track!

The last module is the MicroEdit Engine. The MicroEdit Engine is where you’ll further process your Sequencer Steps. It divides the steps granularly into potentially thousands of slices. You’re actually changing the sound of the Generator that is triggered by a Sequencer Step, but it’s the step being chopped, not the Generator itself. This opens the door to unique Sequencer steps because the MicroEdit Engine again offers a whole slew of sound alteration settings. The BreakTweaker user guide says: “By pushing the limits of the brain’s ability to perceive sound, the MicroEdit Engine blurs the line between rhythm and pitch, inspiring beats you’ve ever heard before.”

Controlling BreakTweaker

BreakTweaker is a MIDI controlled software instrument, so you can feed it with MIDI notes from the DAW’s piano roll or an external MIDI controller. One track can have 24 patterns and each pattern is assigned to a MIDI note, from C2 through B3. If your MIDI notes overlap, the BreakTweaker playhead will play the associated pattern from where it left off when you played the previous pattern. If your MIDI notes do not overlap, the playhead will return to its starting position with each pattern being played.

This again increases the number of combinations, although when playing instead of creating. THere’s yet another way to have different sounding music at playing time: Gate versus Latch mode. In Gate mode, releasing a key stops playing the pattern. In Latch mode, pressing a key starts playing the pattern until you press again. In some patterns that I created, Latch mode allowed for a full listening experience of all the chromatic and harmonic sounds of (some of) the combinations I created.

MIDI notes C1 through F1 will play the sounds of tracks 1 through 6. Changing a MIDI note’s velocity will also change the sound’s volume. You can also preview sounds with a button in BreakTweaker, but if you don’t have a MIDI controller, playing with the Mac’s keyboard as a virtual MIDI controller gave me a better understanding of what I’d created in a real-world playing environment.

BreakTweaker’s presets

There are two kinds of presets in BreakTweaker: Global and Generator presets. the Global ones store both sequencer patterns and generator sounds. The Generator presets save the state of the three Generators per track.

The Preset Manager is a bit more flexible than just allowing you to recall entire patterns or generator sounds. You can opt to “Load Kit Only” as well. If you’ve built a sequence you’re happy with, but you want to try out a different sound with it, this button is your lifesaver. It’s basically an audition capability.

You can also export presets for sharing with someone else. The exported preset contains all sequence information as well as the samples used in the generators.

Designing sound with BreakTweaker

You can either start from an existing preset or from scratch. I tried starting from scratch. When you do, you’ll be presented with a Sequencer containing six empty tracks. Next to each track is a Generator icon and that’s your starting point. The Generator opens to an empty canvas, and the first thing you’ll want to to do is load a sample or a synth type. Of the latter, there are a number of presets ranging from basic and simple (like a sine wave) to complex and multifaceted.

iZotope BreakTweaker Generator Synth type

With a generator based on samples you’ll need to decide again whether you want to use a sample you created yourself or use one of the many presets available. If you have samples you made yourself that you’d prefer to use you can simply drag them into the sample window of the generator to load them. You can also press the “Discover” button, which works with Factory content only — it will search iZotope’s servers for a similar sound to the one you’ve selected.

Once your sample or synth has been loaded, you can start moulding the sound using filters, mix options and pitch adjustments. My workflow was to create envelopes and LFOs as I went, but perhaps a better workflow would be to create envelopes and LFOs first and then experiment with these as you go.

I can’t imagine even a sound engineer will be able to predict what a sample may sound like after he has run it through three or more of the envelope/LFO driven changes that are possible within one generator, let alone what a pattern will sound like when he has used three generators combined to form one sound. Experimenting is the way to go for most people, as far as I could see — it’s also part of the fun.

One note of advice though: if you’re going to be using BreakTweaker with an older iMac (mine is a mid-2011 i5 model) then you’ll better not use too many generators, LFOs and envelopes to sculpt your sound as the CPU of these older models simply isn’t up to the job. This is not a problem per se, as all Factory presets and Cinematic Expansion presets played fine — my guess is that none of these use that many sound sculpting tools anyway.

However, you should definitely have a newer Mac when you’re using Logic Pro Studio. That version uses only one CPU and BreakTweaker managed to fill it up very quickly, resulting in distorted sounds when playing back — I did not try exporting from that one.

The collection of the six tracks is a pattern, but there’s no obligation to use all six of them. If you’re happy with the way it sounds and you’ve only used three patterns, that’s fine too. You’re also not forced to use all 24 possible patterns, of course.

Steps can be made less loud by simply dragging the upper handle. They can be made to stretch more than one beat by dragging the left or right handle. They can also be turned into a choke step, which makes the one immediately in front of it abruptly stop sounding.

While working in the Generator module, you can add steps to the timeline and give each step its own MicroEdit Engine settings. With all the different settings and alterations you can give to each step , you’ll be spending between 15 minutes and an hour if you don’t get a hold of yourself, which is why Factory presets and Expansions are a blessing in a production environment.

I could spend another 3,000 words or so to BreakTweaker’s many capabilities and resulting sound effects, but I’m not going to (a sigh of relief is now heard across the crowds). Suffice to say BreakTweaker is a lot more than a simple drum machine. It’s a sound sculpting machine that enables you to discover new sounds never heard before.

The BreakTweaker Cinematic Expansion

The Cinematic Expansion is a collection of presets specifically designed for use with movies and documentaries. The sounds you can make with BreakTweaker and the Cinematic Expansion are based on presets categorised as Abstract, Action or Tension.

I played a large selection of these preset patterns and found 90% of them to correspond well with the description, which basically means you can use them quickly without the need for tweaking or changing anything (unless you want to be absolutely unique, which takes us back to the previous chapters…). Even with the Cinematic Expansion presets as they are, you can achieve a unique sound “fingerprint” for a scene through the way you combine the patterns using the MIDI controller.

None of these presets are music samples, though. They are mood creating sounds much like specific types of colour grading create moods for a movie or video.

It could be me, but I also found many of the presets to be “on the dark side”, while BreakTweaker definitely allows for cheerful results as well. Nevertheless, if you’re serious about setting a (sound) stage for a video, documentary or fiction movie, BreakTweaker’s Cinematic Expansion will get you more than just on your way.

BreakTweaker is available in two versions. BreakTweaker by itself with its Factory Presets costs Approx. €183.00. With the three available Expansions the price is approx. €219.40. Fir a limited time only, iZotope is offering introduction pricing.

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