Substance Designer 5 Review
May 7, 2015 12:58 pm
Some time ago, I wrote about Substance Designer, a procedural material generator by Allegorithmic. In this opportunity I am writing about the latest release of that software, Substance Designer 5. SD can be used to create materials that can be used for 3d rendering and videogames or real-time graphics. As an introduction to those who are not familiar with Substance Designer, I can tell you it’s a node-based procedural material generator. If you have used node-based material editors before, Substance Designer shouldn’t be too hard to pick up. The main difference is that material editors generate materials since all your connections end up in your global shader node, while connections in SD end in different “outputs” (textures to be used in your host application’s material editor).
Substance Designer 5 features a lot of interesting new features. The first one I noticed is the New Substance wizard. Basically, the wizard is a small window that allows you to set the starting parameters for your new substance. You can choose the type of substance you want to create, as well as the inputs you want it to have. This allows you to quickly set a starting point for your substance, but if you constantly generate substances with specific outputs, you can store that as your own template to be used later.
The second thing I noticed is that SD5 gives more importance to physically based rendering. The software has a new substance engine, allowing you to work faster, and an improved viewport that not only works faster; it has better quality as well. Keep in mind that Substance Designer exports pixel data to your host application, not materials, so the look of your material in Substance Designer will look similar to that in your game engine or 3d renderer, but it will not be exactly the same.
This is a very important point, and it can be somewhat confusing at first. Substance Designer exports “textures” to your host application, but they can be procedurally modified in your host application (based on the parameters you exposed in SD), so while they can be considered textures, they are not images that can be modified in Photoshop. For this reason, the final look depends on your host application’s renderer, because the shader (material) itself is not exported by Substance Designer.
Another feature that caught my attention was the Base Material node. This is a PBR material that has a lot of different settings to tweak the material so you get the look you want. For example, you can set the material type (from metal to wood), color, specularity, grunge level and so on. At first you tend to believe PBR materials are only used for metals (and the fact that one of its settings is actually called “metallic” only adds to the confusion, not to mention that PBR images you find on the Internet usually feature metals), but the fact is that PBR should be able to reproduce any kind of material, from metal to fabric and possibly even skin. If you master the Base Material node, you’ll be very close to reproduce any kind of material you want.
Color fidelity is a very important part of rendering, so Allegorithmic added another useful node when it comes to BPR materials is the Safe Color node. The node is very simple, but can be very helpful to keep your colors in range, as it will correct the colors of your color texture so they fit in a specific range that works better for PBR.
Substance Designer 5 allows you to transfer textures from one mesh to another. I am pretty sure you’re familiar with this scenario: an artist models a character and creates the UVs, you proceed to paint the textures but at some point down the pipeline the artist decides to change parts of the model for some reason, and UVs need to be recreated, so your textures are now useless. Substance Designer 5 solves this problem easily, since you can bake the textures from one object to the other one, which is a good thing because you no longer need other apps (like Mudbox or TopoGun) to do it.
Another interesting feature is the Dynamic Gradient. This node lets you remap a gradient to a grayscale image, so you can generate patterns to be used for different things, like a camouflage pattern for your character, or an organic slimy look for your creature. Experimenting with this node should yield very interesting results for organic texturing (and even non-organic objects).
One thing to keep in mind if you use any of the built-in noises as a grayscale input: they are mapped onto your object as 2d textures, so you will surely get some seams along the surface. Luckily, Substance Designer 5 includes another utility that can help with that, the Tri Planar node. Basically what this node does is to wrap the texture around the object in a way that seams are not present. That’s really useful, since seams can be a really big problem for texturing. To use the Tri Planar node you need to have position and world space normal textures, but that’s not really a big problem in Substance Designer, since you can use the mesh baker to generate those textures (textures are then automatically linked to your substance, so it’s as simple as pushing a single button).
Substance Designer 5 is a big improvement over the previous version. With major engines going “next-gen” and implementing physically based rendering, Substance Designer 5 should be ready to take on current texturing demands. If you are a game developer, Substance Designer 5 can help bring your texturing to your next level.
Allegorithmic has a variety of texture painting applications in addition to Substance Designer 5. Be sure to visit the Allegorithmic.com website for more info and complete system requirements. Substance Designer 5 is available in the Pro version for $590 and in the Indie version for $149. You can read about the differences between the two licenses at this link.
Sergio Aris Rosa [nemirc], is Sr. Staff Writer for the Renderosity Front Page News. Sergio discusses on computer graphics software, animation techniques, and technology. He also hosts interviews with professionals in the animation and cinematography fields. You can follow him on Twitter, and if you want to see what he's up to you can visit his blog.