• Opal is a new Ableton device from Ess Mattisson.
  • Mattison also designed the legendary Digitone FM synth. 
  • Software offers more options than hardware, but it’s easy to get lost.

Opal synthesizer software adjusting various audio parameters

Opal is a new drum machine plugin from legendary hardware synth designer Ess Mattisson, and it will change how you use Ableton Live.

Mattisson developed the equally-legendary Digitone synthesizer for Swedish music company Elektron, so when he launches a new product, electronic music nerds take notice. He describes Opal as a “rhythm machine and drum synthesizer,” but that only tells the beginning of the story. Opal is a device used inside Ableton Live, but it’s so cleverly designed and sounds so great that you might end up using Ableton’s $749 Live Suite just to host this $50 plugin. 

"The degree of freedom in software is so much wider than hardware. You're always working with constraints in hardware; be it the processor, physical interface, etc., there are clear limitations to adhere to, and I think this facilitates the design process a lot," Mattison told Lifewire via direct message. 

Opal Fruit

To understand Opal, let’s first look at the Digitone, the hardware FM (frequency modulation) synth Mattisson helped develop at Elektron.

FM is a notoriously hard-to-control method of synthesis. Famously, the 1980s synth-pop-favorite Yamaha DX-7 (which you have 100% heard in thousands of songs) was a real pain to use. 

With the Digitone, Mattisson made it easy not just to create FM sounds but to manipulate them on the fly. The Digitone is also a sequencer that lets you create four tracks using completely different sounds, so it can be a luscious or totally grody synth while simultaneously being a rhythm machine and drum synthesizer. Sound familiar?

Elektron Digitone synthesizer

Without getting into the dirty details, the way Mattisson made the Digitone great was to remove the complexity of FM by making some audio design decisions up front, then making the rest both intuitive and fun to use through clever design. 

With Opal, he's done this again. 

“With a hardware synthesizer, you are limited to the features and capabilities of the physical device. With a software synthesizer, you have access to a much wider range of sounds and can experiment with different parameters and settings to create unique and interesting sounds,” touring musician Arnold aka theRave, told Lifewire via email.

Design First

I asked Ess about his design process, which is pretty low-tech. 

“I usually start out just making rough sketches of the layout with a pen and paper,” said Mattisson in a post on the Elektronauts forum. “I’m an interface-first kind of designer, so often the functionality and visual design/layout goes hand in hand.”

Take a look at Opal or any of the other devices from his post-Elektron company, Fors, and you'll see that the graphics are both representative of their purpose and inviting. The interface draws you in, and the depth keeps you playing.

"I've seen the exact same reverb algorithm released across five different devices, with slightly different looks and control. People thought the reverb sounded different on each device because of how the interaction and visual design was different. It's extremely important, our auditory sense is more guided by our visual one than we think," Mattisson explained to Lifewire via direct message.

“Yes, with software, there is so much more scope to do anything, and this can lead to confused products. It is important to make sure that the user interface is intuitive and easy to understand so that users can get the most out of the product,” musician and music blogger Graeme Messina told Lifewire via email. 

Ableton Groovebox

Ableton Live is a DAW, or digital audio workstation, a place to play music, record it, control external instruments, add effects, and edit everything. It’s amazing and super easy to use. But with Opal, you could ignore all of the features in Ableton and just stick with Opal and its various devices.

You can either use the whole Opal mini-suite, using its built-in sequencer to control not only its sounds, but to alter its effects and other parameters on a per-step basis. In this case, you might only use Ableton to record the result.

Or you can use Opal’s five separate sound engines as standalone devices and incorporate them into Ableton’s other tools. I’m not aware of any other Live devices that allow you to split their component parts in this way (although they surely must exist somewhere).

The combination is a ton of fun and—just like the Digitone—makes it almost trivial to create great, interesting music. Bangers just fall out of this thing, which is about all you could ever ask for.

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