Iota stands apart from your average granular synth engine by focusing on the spectrum of a sound. At the centre of Iota is a spectrogram, which differs from a normal waveform view by showing frequency, rather than amplitude, in relation to time. Selecting a wide but short loop creates a large (that is to say, long in time) grain with a narrow frequency range. If you instead select a tall and thin loop region, the grain will be quite short but contain a larger range of frequencies. Granular synthesis is so enmeshed with descriptive, almost poetic terminology (sowing grains, spray and texture) rather than technical language that this is a bit awkward to put into words. But after playing around for a few minutes with Iota, the jargon makes more sense.
The controls for setting your loops span the left-hand side of the spectrogram. Clicking the quarter note icon toggles a beat grid overlay, in case you wanted to quantise your loops. The pencil is used to draw your loops, the hand selects and moves them around and the resize icon lets you… resize them. Along the top of the spectrogram are the controls for rearranging your loops from back to front as well as pasting or deleting specific loops and a handy clear-all function.
On the other side of the spectrogram are the loop parameters. When no loops are selected, there are three offset controls, affecting all loops, for Pitch (alters playback speed), Filter (vertical offset) and Position (horizontal offset). When a specific loop is selected, these parameters are joined by a Pan control, Playback Direction, Fade (the amplitude envelope of the loop) and an inline Delay effect. Interestingly, the filter can be switched between FFT mode (which, according to the brief manual, "only allows the selected frequency range to pass through; no slope") and a Slope mode, which uses a high- and low-pass biquadratic filter pair with adjustable peak.
You also have a few different options for loop playback. The lock icon toggles whether the loops run free or only play when Live's transport is on. Alternatively, each loop can be mapped to a MIDI note and triggered with a keyboard. When this mode is enabled, an ADSR control appears that affects the overall volume of each triggered loop.
Iota's main selling point is discrete control of individual grains. But this key feature ends up causing a fair amount of lost functionality in other areas. Because of the unlimited amount of grains Iota offers, each loop's individual parameters can't be controlled by Live's built-in automation. To make up for this, Iota has its own automation recorder, but it's not the most ideal compensation. Iota's automation recorder functions almost exactly like a low-end looper: you make a change, the change loops and there's no way to fine-tune the automations once they are recorded. Furthermore, the automate-able parameters don't include each grain's Mute/Solo settings, which become pretty crucial once you've got a few too many grains going to keep track of. Other than that, pretty much every parameter change of a loop (including position/size) can be recorded. However, I did notice that clicking seemed to be an issue here—parameter changes that didn't cause clicks the first time around became noticeably glitchy once played back by Iota's automation.
After a little playing around, it becomes clear that Iota has more in common with something like Mutable Instrument's Clouds module than Granulator. Like Clouds, it shines more as a rich and somewhat unpredictable effect or ambience generator than a traditional synth. However, the flexibility and programmability offered by Clouds and the tight Live integration of Granulator leave Iota in the dust as far as advanced features go. Short of opening up the device in Max and reprogramming it, there's not much here for users who need precise, continuous control over Iota's parameters. While Max is definitely a great prototyping environment for something like Iota, it has some limitations of its own and perhaps some of these issues could be more effectively resolved if Iota was a standalone synth rather than a Max for Live device.
As a tool for quickly creating new sounds and textures from old samples and recordings, Iota is pretty good. As an entry-point for musicians new to granular synthesis and spectral processing, it's better. Iota is in many ways easier to use and understand than most other complex granular synths, but its limitations can become frustrating after a while. It's definitely an interesting idea and is great at sound-mangling, but it doesn't seem like the functionality necessary to make Iota really shine is fully there yet.
Ease of use: 3.2