Robotic Bean Portatron Review: A very good idea with a few things missing

Main window of Portatron, from Robotic Bean.

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When you spend several hours every day looking through the releases of musical instruments and tools, there comes a time when it is difficult for something to attract your attention in a special way. Basically because most of what manufacturers offer is very similar to each other. Something logical, and that in the end is what happens in all markets, whether they are car manufacturers, television manufacturers, or whatever it is they manufacture. And while Robotic Bean’s Portatron is by no means a turning point in the development of virtual musical instruments, it does pack a set of features that caught my attention right from the start.

What is Portatron

Portatron is, in the words of its creators, a tape synthesizer. Or put another way, a tool that, Inspired by the look and sound of a 4-track tape recorder, it allows you to manipulate recordings and audio samples like an instrument. What is not entirely clear to me is if the word “synth” is the one that best describes Portatron. I would surely place it more within the framework of creative samplers, although this is more of a semantic issue without too much importance, especially since a sampler is also a synthesizer that uses audio instead of oscillators to generate new sounds.

Interface

Visually, Portatron is a real candy. The interface is nice, clean and it shows that they have put work into it. At first glance, we have what appears to be a 4-track tape recorder, with 4 channel strips on the left and a few editing controls on the right. Beyond that, there is only one additional window called Tape Editor from which you can load samples, order them in time and edit their start and end points, as well as being able to reverse them. For its part, each channel strip includes controls for drive, basic eq, sends for delay and reverb, pan, volume and mute and solo buttons. The editing controls on the right hand side are there to set the RTZ (Return to Zero) functions and the locators, but also to adjust the noise levels, the amount of imperfections that the tape will introduce, the tape wobble and the controls. Lag and Tape Speed, two small knobs that, as you will read later, are really great.

Beneath the main area are the onboard delay and reverb processors. In true Alesis half-rack style, these modules, while simple, allow you to edit enough parameters to be usable, and most importantly, Sounds very good. I didn’t expect them to sound so good, really.

The interface also hides (literally) a small menu with expanded options for Noise controls, Dropouts, etc., from which you can edit their behavior with a bit more precision. I have to admit that once you discover it and open it, it’s pretty cool, but I think it would be more useful to be able to access it more quickly than having to go to the general menu to open and close it. As a final note about the interface, say that the guys at Robotic Bean have designed 15 different ribbon models that can be changed by clicking on it. And although the different tape changes do not affect the sound at all (although there is a switch to select normal or chrome tapes), I personally applaud this type of “frivolity” because, to begin with, it makes you smile, and because it shows a marked attention to detail by the developers.

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Portatron Tape Editor window, from Robotic bean.

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How does it work

In practice, Portatron offers a 4-track sampler disguised as a Portastudio. Each of these tracks allows you to load audio files (they can be long recordings or short samples), which can then be played in sustained mode following the DAW, as a 4-track looper, or mapped to the keyboard in a 3-octave range. . Without a doubt, the latter is the most interesting and fun optionand not only because it allows you to play those samples chromatically, but because of how it allows you to do it.

Once the samples are loaded, Portatron can be configured so that each note press takes us to the initial playback point (Return To Zero) as would happen in a traditional sampler, but also to have playback continue through the sample at the pitch defined for each note beat from the point where the beats are made. And he does it with surprisingly fluid and smooth transitions between notes. The truth is that, without having tried it, it is difficult to explain because it is very well achieved, in part thanks to the Lag parameter, which basically defines the starting and braking times of the tape, and which would come to behave as a kind of glide every time. time we press or release a key.

There are also three locators (L1, L2 and L3) that allow you to choose three points in the playback that you can jump to at any time by pressing the corresponding key on the keyboard, since the keys of the C1 scale are mapped for the RTZ function, locators and transport controls. Y It’s when you use all those controls combined that things really get interesting.because while with the right hand you play sustained notes or melodies, with the left you activate the locators, the RTZ and the transport. And I can assure you that crazy things can happen. And if you already put wonderful tape speed control in the equationPortatron can keep you hooked for hours if you’re one of those who likes to improvise and experiment with sound, among other things because, once you get the hang of it and combine everything, it’s very difficult to anticipate what’s going to happen. Portatron is a factory of “happy accidents”. Of course, I recommend that you always resampling or recording the Portraton track in MIDI, because if not, it may be impossible for you to reproduce many things that you are doing.

How it sounds

And we come to the critical point of any musical instrument or audio tool: how it sounds. It doesn’t matter that a musical plugin is visually and functionally impeccable if, when it comes down to it, it doesn’t sound good (unless it’s designed not to sound good, of course). Y the truth is that Portatron sounds very good. The Portastudio emulation is very well done, and the options to adjust the particularities of the tape recorders allow from subtle results, to things much more bizarre. But above all, Portatron sounds very organic. It really does give you the feel of using a tape recorder, especially if you map some of the controls to a MIDI controller and play them live. The Tape Speed ​​control is really fantastic and believable, and combined with the Lag control and the possibilities offered by the jumps between locators, you can achieve very interesting results. really sounding like a Portastudio, but doing things a Portastudio can’t even dream of doing.

Of course, Portatron is still a sampler, and like any sampler it will sound like the material you give it to play, but if the material is well worked (and the channel samples well combined and at the right tones), what make sure it will sound good.

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Hidden menu of advanced functions of Portatron, from Robotic Bean.

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What I liked least

As you have been able to read, Portatron has many things that I liked, but it also has others that I think Robotic Bean should polish, or at least consider. For a start, Portatron is monophonicso it is not possible to play more than one note at the same time. This is undoubtedly due to the complexity of the playback system that I mentioned above, since it plays 4 tracks at the same time. And a polyphonic version would be a technical nightmare and would consume a lot of resources, but today we have very capable machines that could take on that job. It is true that having 4 channels available, you can always load the same material in different tones on each channel, in order to simulate pad chords and other sounds that lend themselves to it, but doing so is cumbersome, among other things, and this is the second thing i don’t likebecause Portaron doesn’t have separate pitch controls for each track, which would be great, and technically shouldn’t be too hard to do for future releases.

Another thing that I didn’t like at all about Portatron is that controls have no MIDI learn or CC assign function (or I have not found how to do it), so everything you want to map will have to be done through the DAW, something that becomes slow and unintuitive, and Portatron cries out for manual controls, to start with the track volumes, but also of other parameters such as the send effects and, above all, of the Tape Speed. They have also not implemented support for editing controls through the mouse scroll wheel, a function that some users use a lot. Interestingly, I think that these two shortcomings could be due to the fact that Robotic Bean is a company that has been developing tools for Reason in the Rack Extension format for much longer (in fact, Portatron is only the company’s second VST plugin), and neither of these options are contemplate in RE complements.

And it would not have been bad to have taken advantage of the Master channel to add some additional processing (site there). Perhaps a bit of EQ, a basic compressor or, in short, something that helps to give more sound cohesion to the final result, which is always appreciated.

conclusion

After having thoroughly tried (and enjoyed) it, I have the feeling that Portatron is a different tool with which you can achieve different things. It sounds good, it looks great and, although I think it has some details to improve, for the right user (I don’t think it’s for everyone either) will be an instrument (in all the extension of the word) that It will provide new ways of achieving sounds and soundscapes that I find difficult to achieve in any other way.especially if you spend a little time to understand how it works and take advantage of all the possibilities it offers.

And I close the review by reminding you that Portatron has a demo version for those who want to try it, and that it will be on sale until May 1, at a introductory price of €89. Then it will cost €129.

More information: Robotic Bean