I've had this for a couple of months now and it still impresses me every time I load it up and start playing with it. I don't think it's sound will suit everyone but if you like to experiment you might find Substance strangely compelling. Its workflow is also refreshingly different and shows incredible attention to detail. It really is a joy to dive in deeper and deeper to precisely tailor the sound to your needs or liking. It's sound is of the highest quality - putting it into a mix instantly makes it sound slicker and more professional.
Installation Substance is a Kontakt sample library with a custom front-end. It works in the free Kontakt Player so you don't need to spend extra to get it up and running. Output have their own assistance app but if you have NI's Native Access, I'd recommend that you install and activate through that so that all your content goes to the same place as the NI stuff. Either way, though, it's pretty straightforward. You'll need about 4.5GB of free space to fit it all into. Once it's installed and activated, you load Kontakt (or the free player) into your host software and you can select and load Substance from Kontakt's browser.
Overview In essence, Substance has three layers of samples that each run through their own filters, modulation and effects. The front panel is deceptively simple, hiding a wealth of features, with an emphasis on rhythm. The simplified front panel hides a full-featured synth engine with filters, ADSR envelopes, LFO and multiple effects for each layer and for the overall patch. Four Macro controls on the front panel can be set to multiple parameters each, which means you can make changes to the timbre without having to dig into the the rest of the GUI, which is accessed via a row of tabs across the top. There is also a very powerful and flexible arpeggiator that really makes things pump.
Unsurprisingly, given the focus on rhythm, most of the sounds that come out of Substance are rhythmical phrases, powered by the LFOs and arp. There is everything from percussive noise loops to groovy bass guitar, with lots of quirkiness built in. Of course, it does quite a few standard synth rhythms, too, so you can use it for bread and butter stuff as well as the fancy bits and pieces. Each of the three parts tend to play different rhythms that overlay one another to create complex, evolving rhythms.
Usability Using a sample-driven instrument like Substance is a very different experience to your average V/A synth or even to a ROMpler. This can lead to some very different results in a remarkably short time. It's incredibly inspiring and I think it is bound to change your sound, almost certainly for the better. You can spend hours just playing with the presets, which cover a lot of sonic territory. All up there are 81 different samples sets, arranged in nine groups of nine, for you to use as starting points. it's like having 81 oscillator waveforms to choose from in a 3 osc synth.
Although the emphasis is firmly on rhythms and basslines, there are some amazing pads and great orchestral atmospheres that would be perfect for film scores and the like. Sometimes the macros have a big effect, other times they don't but you can always go in and make your own changes quickly and easily. It's all very straightforward, logically laid out and easy to navigate. Once you start playing with the arp and rhythm tabs, you can lose yourself for hours. I find it a joy to use and I manage to find something for it to do in pretty much every new piece I work on.
Because it runs inside Kontakt, CPU use is higher than you might expect from a sample-driven instrument but it's still not too bad. The UI is a handy size for me, which means it might be a little small for some. The preset browser allows you to use multiple tags to finesse your list and get to similar sounds easily. You get 300 presets with the instrument and new presets you make are added to the end of the list (there are no banks).
Summary Substance takes a different approach and is all the better for it. Every part of it feels beautifully crafted by people with an intimate understanding of the production process. It's absolutely made for musicians and producers who want to do something fresh and different. It's uniqueness means it is not going to replace anything you are currently using, it is going to add something new and amazing to your sonic arsenal. Whilst it's not cheap, it is still an absolute bargain. If you're in a bit of a creative rut, this is just the tool to inspire you to pull yourself out of it and get on with making music.