Signal is an instrument hosted through Native Instruments' Kontakt (or the free Kontakt Player). Rather than offering its instruments via dedicated, separately-loadable programs, Signal only offers a single program through which its comprehensive sounds can be chosen and edited. On one level, this is great, as it means you don't spend time staring at long lists of preset names. But the downside is that Signal is huge, an 18 GB instrument. This equates to a long load time for anyone not working on SSD drives.
Thereafter, Signal works as follows. It offers two sound-generation engines, both of which can load a sample from Signal's library. Clicking on the instrument type launches a window in which waveforms are categorised into instruments and synths. The combined sound can then be tweaked in all of the ways you'd hope for, with volume and pan offered to balance the two sound sources against one another before dedicated parameter lists take you deeper. These include volume and pitch envelopes controlled at the middle of the interface. A modular system is employed on either side of that to list the modules connected to each sound source, with filter and effects settings shown. Clicking one of these modules launches a dedicated edit window. The audio content is derived from a wide variety of sources, including a generous selection of classic synths and organic instrument recordings. But so far, almost everything described above could apply to a whole host of plug-ins.
Signal's approach is different, as its instruments can benefit from its Pulse Engine, the term given to a series of rhythmic and sonic modulators that can be applied to each of Signal's sound sources. If you think about all of the ways modern producers can create movement in sounds, the list becomes pretty extensive. Many plug-ins feature built-in arpeggiators and pattern sequencers, and almost all feature LFOs that can be clocked to tempo to produce movement in time with your tracks. Side-chain techniques allow you to grab one element of a production and force its rhythmic shape upon another, while gating techniques work by taking more sustained sounds and punching holes in them to inflict rhythmic shapes. Effectively, Signal provides all of these approaches (and more besides) by animating the sounds you choose in myriad ways. Better yet, not only can you apply contrasting rhythmic engines to both sound sources—there are actually two dedicated Pulse Engines per side, meaning that four different rhythms can be triggered within a Signal program.
To best understand this, it's worth focusing on one side of a Signal sound and just one Pulse Engine. From the main page in the synth engine, you can select the rhythmic pulse type with categories including Wave, Step, Arp and Loop. Wave offers LFO shaping of the sound and, having chosen this as your pulse type, you can then click next to the icon to select the speed at which the LFO will begin to work, with a set of quantisation values ensuring that all movement will follow the host tempo. Below a graphical display of the wave, you can click a Shape button to launches an enormous collection of possible waveforms. Whereas synths regularly restrict you to a handful of LFO shapes, Signal is jam-packed, with waves sub-categorised into Simple, Medium and Complex pages.
Next comes the option to use a step sequence, with a collection of preset patterns act as a starting point. These are organised into Simple, Syncopated and Triplet pattern figures. Having clicked on one, however, it's extremely easy to further edit the loaded shape, so you can easily customize and personalise your selections. Next comes the arpeggiator and by now you're probably getting the picture—pick a pattern from the long lists of options, choose the speed and away you go. It's worth adding that the arpeggiator also offers a wide range of modes from which to choose, so whether you want traditional up/down and random to less standard choices. Last up is Loop mode, which builds a rhythm by cycling round a user-defined selection of the chosen wave, allowing you to focus on a particular area of the sound's decay tail to produce a radical reworking of a core sound's sonic properties. Remember that once you've configured a Pulse Engine for one of the two sound generators in your program, you can then design a second one, before switching to the other side and designing two independent pulse engines for that as well.
Signal loads as a single instrument for a reason; rather than loading a new program for each of its sounds, it adopts a matrix-style approach to preset surfing that NI synth users will be familiar. Via a series of categories, you choose the properties of the sound you're seeking, and Signal filters its comprehensive list of sounds accordingly. Towards the top of the interface are four dedicated macro sliders that act as global controls for key parameters. These vary from program to program, but they're all labelled to be as self-explanatory as possible, so expect sliders with labels like Less/More, Tight/Long, Soft/Sharp, etc. These macros often control several parameters at once; by diving into the advanced pages, you can either edit these behaviours or completely change them. So while Signal is designed to provide great sounds from the off, it's not forcing you into a corner.
Another way to put your own stamp on Signal is with its comprehensive effects section, reached from its own tab on the main page. Here, up nine global effects can be chained together, with power buttons below each effect type enabling them in turn. Then, by clicking on the icon for each effect, you can tweak its parameters. Many parameters can be assigned to MIDI control messages, too. A separate chain of effects can also be applied to each Pulse engine, with separate power buttons for each side of a Signal program. The macro controls at the top can be assigned to parameters here as well.
Signal strikes a wonderful balance between providing out-of-the-box patches, whose presets inspire creativity, and a comprehensive collection of user tweaks. More importantly, it has plenty of surprises, not the least of which is that I've regularly turned to Signal even when I want sounds that don't use Pulse Engine technology. Though the enormous number of ways that sounds can motor and morph are central to Signal's philosophy, it's also a fantastic collection of raw sounds that can be polished, distressed, honed or combined without an arpeggiator or step pattern. However, if you like your sounds to pulse, drive, motor, chug or move in a range of other ways, Signal comes thoroughly recommended.
Ease of use: 3.7