Monthly Archives: May 2013
If your a master at mastering, you can probably get good results with any tool. For the rest of us, a good tool is essential. Is Izotope’s Ozone 5 that tool?
by A. Arsov, May 2013
I’ve tried them all … well, almost all. In times past I did my mastering with T-Racks, then with Maximus, and now I have switched to Ozone. Mastering is an art and if you are a mastering guru, then you can produce a good master with almost any tool; but most of the people that I know, producers, musicians and even some studio technicians, are not so good on in the field of mastering, at least without having a good “all in one” tool. The better the tool is, the better the end result will be. The main problem with all these mastering issues is that we live in a 2013 and not in the old good times described by the fertile but slightly senile old gurus. Nowadays everything should be extra wide, crisp, with sparkling open high end frequencies and a tight well defined low end, and the whole thing shouldn’t be over-compressed but still loud as hell.
Hmm … it looks like that I’ve just described Izotope Ozone in one sentence! Yes, I know, most high tech software mastering tools have similar ranks of effects, but it happens that one doesn’t have an exciter while some other doesn’t have a good stereo imager, and therefore the end result can be pretty good but still not similar to the hits which are mastered in big studios. There was a time when you would need to stick out from the crowd to succeed, but now you should fit nicely in a row with other so called “overproduced” songs that you hear on the radio. Overproduced is just a term that badly produced musicians use when they want to describe top hits. My dear fellows, pay a decent amount of cash to hire a good mastering studio and repeat that on every album, or buy Ozone and become one of the “overproduced”. Why Ozone? Because it comes closest to that “million dollar sound” compared to all its competitors. After years of using other mastering tools I watched few video tutorial clips from Izotope, tried almost all presets in Ozone. I found the one that covered all my small mixing mistakes, sounding almost perfect, made few improvements that I’ve learned from video clips, and “voila!” One setup for electro songs, another for live and tweak here and tweak there and the album is ready for print.
Let’s start with the most banal reason, but I found it very important: all top mastering tools have very similar metering tools but nevertheless I found that Ozone metering tools are very informative, with transparent color for the fast peaks and stable for the RMS, so you always know where you are regarding the compression level and how loud your song actually is. This is very important when you are mastering the whole album as this is the only tool that will help you to find some common level for all songs. Meter bridge also gives you essential information about the phase. There are also various spectrum analyzers, very tidy and well regulated.
Talking about other effects or tools that we find in Ozone, we should mention first that all effects are multi-band, at least the ones for which multi-band makes sense. I found this to be an essential feature, as I lost too much time trying to find good balance with some other mastering packages that don’t offer this capability. Secondly, the entirety of Ozone is pre-stocked with various presets, from the general ones to those that we can find in separate effect sections. Most of them are very good and it is not hard to find one which is close to that what are you looking for (even when you don’t actually know what are you looking for J ) .
First effect in the chain of effects is equalizer. It is an eight band EQ with a nice spectrum analyzer allowing you to separately tweak center or left and right side. Increase the top end on a side decreasing the low end along with increasing slightly the low end on a mid, adding smile in the middle of the both mid and side curves, and you get a well-defined mix just with the EQ.
Next is a high-quality reverb. I usually don’t use it in mastering as I prefer adding reverb on tracks, but I tested it along with my favorite ones and found that it have a nice well defined sound, so it could be more than useful to add some common reverb to your mix: room, plate, hall, theater, cathedral or arena, whatever your preference. Of course I start with presets and then fine tune the settings, getting really nice results. Not many other mastering bundles have reverb in their arsenal and this one is definitively a nice addition.
Harmonic exciter is a tool that I miss on many other bundles. Three or four band, it is up to you, but it is absolutely the tool that will make a difference, especially in high registries. There are a few saturation types such as Tape, which should be used with care as adding it too much it can send your song directly to hell, but it so nicely brings up the side instruments that I have hard time to not use it. However, in busy mixes, and Tape simulation can be a bit too much, in which case I end up using Tube, constantly rumbling between Tube, Warm, Retro, Triode or Dual Triode types of saturation. Decisions, decisions, oh how hard life can be. I know that I’m a bit picky, having it all yet wanting more. But dreams would come true if there were an option to have Tape for high ends and Tube for low end. OK, I’m not sure if this is possible and whether this combination even makes any sense, but I love the high ends of Tape saturation, although it slightly overdrives my low end no matter how little I’ve added. As I already have slightly overdriven bass, Tape saturation overly enhances.
Dynamics, or let’s call it a multiband compressor, is pure poetry. Easy to navigate, already well stocked with the presets, the only thing that you should tweak is the release for low ends (to invigorate your bass in accordance with the general tempo of your song to obtain the desired result.) It does its job perfectly. Having a multiband compressor on mastering stage is a must, and having such a good one is a blessing.
Stereo imaging is a tool that can save your mix. I was advised by my friends a long time before I got Ozone that Ozone is the only package with stereo imager that really does its job. It can make your mixes wide without spoiling them. The Advanced version also has a Stereoize function that adds mono compatibility to your widening efforts. Use three or four bands depending on your music, but I would bet that you will always end up narrowing the low end and widening the top one. Along all other controllers, you can always check what you are doing with the correlation meter and vectorscope to see if you are totally out of phase or if you are still where you should be. Phase problems are something that you should fix in the mix. They can be fixed with Ozone, but there are things that sound better if you deal with them early rather than fix them later. Phase problems are definitively in that category.
Post equalizer is the second effect available for using anywhere in your signal chain. Did I mention that you could change the order of used effects? No, so this one could be useful if you need some extra correction after the dynamic processor or if you need to sort out some mid/side frequency issues. Maybe those are the mushrooms or just so-called psycho-acoustic phenomena, but I had a feeling that mix sounds a bit more defined if I just turned on this post equalizer at the end of the chain without boosting or cutting any frequency. OK, it could be a mushroom issue, but the Izotope technician will have the last word according to my presumption. One way or another, it doesn’t hurt to have it there, just in case.
The last thing in the chain is a maximizer along with dithering. There are only two kinds of maximizers in the world: the ones that sound good (pretty rare animals) and those that don’t sound so good (pretty common animals). This one sounds good. It has few different modes: three with fancy names IRC I through IRC III, an intelligent digital loudness mode as they call it, and finally the Hard and Soft mode where the “omen est nomen”. Fancy or not, I tried them all, pressed buttons like a mad monkey and found myself happy with IRC I. I can’t say why that’s my preference other than that it simply sounds good. And you know what? That’s the main point with all Ozone issues. I could spend more time describing technical data and describing this controller or that additional tool, but all in all, the end result is that songs mastered with Ozone really can sound good. If you have done your mix well, then you can easily elevate your song to a whole new level, making it sexy and exiting with a groovy bottom and sparkling high end. I’ll repeat the first sentence of this review: I’ve tried them all and what resulted is that I ended up with Ozone. This could tell you only one thing: that Ozone not only sounds good, but it sounds better than any competitor. You can get Izotope Ozone 5 for $249 USD (the approximate price that you will pay for mastering five songs) or you can choose the Advanced version for $999 USD. This one offers all 7 modules separately as a plug-ins that you can use in your mixes, along with offering some extra controls in each module, a 3D spectrogram and a few other goodies.
Izotope Ozone is a life saver for hobbyist musicians as well as pro musicians. It is definitively the best thing that could happen to your music. At the moment it is the finest mastering tool on the market. So, let use an old Ozone joke for the end of my review: what’s the difference between your song and the songs from the official charts? The answer is very simple: there is no difference – and that’s the whole point with Ozone: no difference at all. It’s a pro mastering studio for every budget. Izotope Ozone could be yours for $249 or Izotope Advanced for $999
More info on www.izotope.com
We continue our interview with Stephen Howell of Hollow Sun. In this segment Stephen tells us the history of Hollow Sun.
Sound Btyes: So, how did Hollow Sun come to be and how did the initial product line evolve?
Stephen Howell: Hollow Sun actually dates back a long time…
When I gave up the day job in 1980 and opened up my little studio for hire, I thought it needed a name. Couldn’t think of anything. Troubled me for ages. But for reasons I will never know, I woke up with ‘Hollow Sun’ in my head. No … I don’t know either. But it stuck.
But when I started working with Akai Japan around 1985, the studio was kind of disbanded. However, when I started up in on-line sample distribution in 1998, making samples available for my S5/6000, I resurrected the name – it seemed to be appropriate. And it seems to have worked – quite a memorable name it would appear.
The product line? Well, initially that was just an extension of what I was doing with Akai. I dropped support of the S5/6000 because it was a non-starter, and I switched to Kontakt. At first, they were fairly basic – just using Kontakt as a playback engine but then I got into scripting a bit (actually, being honest, reverse engineering NI’s own scripts and tweaking) … just very basic stuff inn Kontakt 3 … but hooking up with Mario Krušelj [ed. note: Mario is well known on the KVR forums as user Evil Dragon] and switching to Kontakt 4 opened up new possibilities in terms of scripting and graphics and GUIs – this young man is a genius. And so was born the Music Laboratory Machines.
SB: The Music Laboratory Machines (MLM) series seemed to establish a unique and unmistakable image for Hollow Sun. Do you feel that way? What inspired the MLM series?
SH: I was always huge fan of early electronica and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Dr Who, Delia Derbyshire and all that as a six-year-old), Louis and Bebe Barron (who did the ‘electronic tonalities’ for the classic sci-fi movie ‘Forbidden Planet’) and loved the weird old gear they used to make/use, so Mario and I were able to design and create, using Kontakt, weird and wonderful things that flew in the face of, shall we say, more ‘conventional’ modern synths and sampler instruments. We make a good team. Though I say so myself, I’m not too shabby with graphics and product ideas, sampling etc., and Mario is just excellent at making them work in Kontakt with his enormous scripting talents. And now we’re doing the Alien devices series and have loads of ideas for that.
Oh – the MLMs have been very successful. And this is encouraging for me as it shows that not everyone is into techno loops and hip-hop but want to dabble in the more experimental – and interesting – side of electronica. But the fact is that they are great fun to do, great fun to design, to create and make, and the fact that people like them is icing on the cake as are the many emails, user tracks, their use in TV and film soundtracks, on albums and so forth. There are a lot of very enthusiastic MLM users out there … which is nice.
And now we have the Alien Devices range which has proven to be very popular … Pulstar, SOTU (Sounds Of The Universe) and more in the pipeline.
My life is charmed, it truly is. I have the good fortune to be surrounded by very excellent and talented friends from all over the world, and we work together, a co-operative, if you like. Some require payment but others give their time and talent freely because they support Hollow Sun. But I repay where I can … like Hideaway Studios and more recently, Atomic Shadow – they have been great contributors to Hollow Sun, so I do graphics and GUIs for them and have Mario do their scripting. It’s nice – like a little community of sample developers doing off-the-wall and high-quality stuff at affordable prices for people to have fun with. And I have a great bunch of customers, many of whom are friends rather than sales transaction numbers
SB: So after MLM, you’ve got the new line, Alien Devices, emerging. Is MLM complete? Can you tell us anything about future developments for the Alien Devices line?
SH: The MLM line isn’t finished … it can run and run as mad ideas come my way. The Alien Devices range is a parallel development, even though they might kind of, sort of, overlap a bit with the MLMs and vintage line.
I can’t really say what plans we have in future for any product line, not because of trade secrets, but because it’s largely skin-of-the-teeth improvised … sort of waking up with a mad idea rather than some big plan. But I will say this…
We have plans for an Optigan instrument and have secured licensing for that [it’s just been released – ed]; I have a Roland MKS70 ‘Super JX’ so that’s on the cards, and I bought a Blofeld recently, so that’s another potential product at some point – I’ll shove it through my Dotcom modular with its analogue filters and fixed frequency filter … using it, essentially, as a digital oscillator with the modular and blending it with analogue VCOs. Could be fun. And I’ve been sitting on a product I call the Electrophon which is a kind of steampunk-styled synth. But there are loads of mad doodles I’ve done that could materialise as products at some point … like the Comptomotron, for example! Mario has also suggested a truly bonkers Alien Device which I am thinking about.
But this is the great thing about what we do … I (or Mario) can wake up with some silly idea – or maybe a customer will suggest something. I can design it, do all the knob/switch animations, sample as necessary, throw it at Mario to make it work and put it out, see what happens – some will love it, others not. But that’s fine, just so long as people have fun with them … which is my main intention.
But that’s not to say or imply we’re putting any old crap out – my measure is “Would I like/use this?” If it ticks that box, it’s a potential go-er because other people will as well.
SB: What are your musical/synthesis influences?
SH: Oh – dear me … loads! Sacred music dating back to plainsong (which I adore – so pure), Bach, then fast forward to Debussy, Ravel, Prokoviev, Stravinsky and then the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Delia Derbyshire, White Noise, the Barrons, Morton Subotnik, Walter/Wendy Carlos, Tomita, early Tangerine Dream, early Gabriel-era Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Vangelis, Jean Michel Jarre … but lots of other stuff as well – Jan Hammer, Chick Corea, Brand X, Depeche Mode, Go West, Stevie Wonder, Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw, Freur (who became Underworld) and more recently, Geigertek, Martin Walker and others … Atomic Shadow and, of course, a lot of Ian Boddy’s projects and so on. But the thing is, I am as likely to put some Prokoviev on as Alexander O’Neal or Klaus Schulze, whatever, depending on my mood.
But in terms of primary synthesis influence, it has to be Tomita (the ultimate synthmeister in my opinion) and the more abstract stuff such as the Barrons and the Radiophonic Workshop used to do.
I recently moved HS Towers [pictured on right] to a more rural location in the Vale Of Glamorgan in South Wales – one could say that I have retired to the country. I severed my ties with the major manufacturers because I was fed up with topping and tailing drums and other dull stuff and just wanted to do my own thing, something interesting and different, unhampered by corporate and commercial pressures … so that’s what I do now. Better still is that a lot of people seem to like what I/we do and, as I suspected, there are musicians out there who want something different and interesting.
But it’s amusing as well…
There are no neighbours here so I can let rip, but passers-by hear the odd noises emanating from the studio, and when I first moved here they would ask “Are you the bloke who makes the weird sounds?” Guilty as charged! So now, in this little rural community, surrounded by burly farmers concerned about their heifers, the lambing season and udder rot, I’m the bloke who makes weird sounds! Hahaha! It’s a great place to live though. The pace of life is so calm and relaxing … it’s like living in an episode of The Archers, haha! (The Archers is a BBC Radio 4 series of rural life and has been running since 1950.)
SB: You mentioned Peter Gabriel as a major influence. I think you told me once that you worked with him. How did that come about?
SH: Again, by chance! I was touring the UK with Akai, demonstrating the then new S1000 to the dealers and their customers – a road show, I guess. We were in Scotland, and I was in the middle of the demo, answering question, etc., when a woman comes out from the office to tell me that someone was on the phone for me. I said I’d call them back but asked her to enquire who it was first. She came back out and told me it was Peter Gabriel!!! I told her I’d be right there!
So I spoke to Peter on the phone. He told me he’d just bought some new sampling system (an improvement on his crusty old Fairlight) but no one could figure out how to use it. I can’t remember what it was called but it cost around ￡30,000! So he asked me down to Real World that weekend for me to operate it. Well, the reason no one could figure it out was because it was clunky, buggy, unreliable and with a cumbersome UI. The irony was that it basically had the same specs as the S1000 I was touring. Well, I/we spent all weekend but couldn’t get it to work, so I tried to get hold of a spare demo S1000 but there were none available so I suggested to Peter that we use his S900. He was dubious (mono, 12-bit) but I said we didn’t really have an option so we tried it.
Now, Peter built a lot of the tracks up through jamming with the many-world music musicians used on the soundtrack but he would also run a DAT machine so he had a box full of DAT tapes with all these world instrumentalists on them – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Youssou N’Dour, L. Shankar, Baaba Maal and others. He handed them to me to see what I could do with them. It was impossible to make perfect, multi-sampled instruments so I just grabbed bits from the performances that sounded interesting. After I’d done a few, I played them to Peter and he loved them – called them ‘character samples’ and told me to continue. I managed to grab lots of earthy and breathy drones as well. They’re all over the soundtrack.
Unfortunately, I didn’t receive a credit on the album (Peter fought hard for it but I was just a lowly and unknown assistant), but whenever you see S900 credited, that’ll be the stuff I did, but it’s also dotted around the rest of the album, too. I did get a signed copy of the album from Peter but some bastards stole it some years later when we were burgled!
Peter is an absolutely lovely bloke – an absolute gent. I took my then girlfriend to Real World one day. She was a diabetic and had a low blood sugar episode. Peter found her sitting on a step looking a bit dazed. Peter stopped and asked if she was alright, offering to drive her into Bath to see a doctor. She just told him she just needed orange juice or anything sweet to get her blood sugar up. So off he went and brought her juice, biscuits and chocolate and stayed with her until she recovered then came and got me, told me stop working and attend to her.
But he was also the inspiration for Hollow Sun on-line samples … We were having dinner one evening and we were talking about this new thing called ‘the Internet’ which was in its infancy then. He said he imagined a time when people would be able to buy and download sounds from anywhere in the world any time of day and night to load into samplers. We all smiled politely thinking “You’re bloody bonkers!” … And ten years later, when modems had become fast enough to handle such downloads, I set the Hollow Sun website up … selling downloads exactly as he’d predicted! He’s bought a few of Hollow Sun’s titles.
SB: Wow! That’s quite a story. It must have been a great experience.
SH: Oh! It was. I’d all but idolised the man since I saw him leap onto the stage of the Top Rank in Cardiff after the Gothic Mellotron chords of ‘Watcher OF The Skies’ when they were debuting ‘Foxtrot’ on The Charisma Tour in 1971/2, and here he is, sixteen years later, making me breakfast and bringing me cups of tea. Hahaha! I remember we were watching MTV over breakfast, and a Michael Jackson video was on. As we walked to the studio to start work, I said “See – that’s where you’re going wrong, Peter – you need to moonwalk.” He laughed and said “Yes … maybe … but I’d probably do it wearing clogs”!
SB: Delightful! Anyone else famous you’ve worked with?
SH: Holly Johnson (ex-Frankie Goes To Hollywood). Did the keyboards and programming on his solo album, ‘Blast.’ That was great fun. We’re still good friends now. Jean Michel Jarre and I are fairly regularly in contact, and he’s bought quite a lot of HS titles.
We conclude our interview with Stephen Howell of Hollow Sun. In this part Stephen shares his opinions about the current state and future directions of sampling technology.
Sound Bytes: Why are your libraries not available for use with the free Kontakt Player?
Hollow Sun Towers
Stephen Howell: Well, they kind of are, but as I make clear on the website, the Player will be in ‘demo mode’ and time-limited. But it CAN be used. However, the full version of Kontakt is recommended, obviously, for unlimited use.
But the reason it’s not fully compatible is because it’s bloody expensive – like a five figure Euro sum for a license. [Ed. note: some vendors offer Kontakt libraries that do not require their customers to own the full version of Kontakt, but these are inevitably much pricier than other libraries which do because the vendor must pay NI an up-front royalty for the “rights”.] Which is fine, and I could take that risk, but I couldn’t sell my stuff for the price I do – instead of ￡10, they’d have to be ￡100! My intention has always been to provide sounds that are affordable so that as many people as possible can enjoy them but that requires a full version of Kontakt. That said, my stuff CAN be used with the Player and many people do use it – they just have to be quick!!
I wish that NI would release a low cost player with no limitations, but I can understand why they won’t – it may well kill sales of Kontakt.
SB: You’ve been commercially tied specifically to Kontakt for quite some time and are in a better position than most to offer a critical opinion of that technology.
SH: Well, I am not ‘commercially tied,’ but it is the ‘industry standard.” It’s also very, very flexible and modular.
I flew the flag for hardware samplers for a long time because they were what I was used to, but once I got into Kontakt, I was impressed – amazed even – at what it was … IS … capable of. Just being able to apply any filter or processor or modulation source, whatever, is staggering. But for me at least, as a developer, it’s the scripting that sets it apart … it allows me to design my own synths and products pretty much exactly as I want them. It’s very liberating … and great fun.
Oh – I still like hardware … there’s a certain immediacy and simplicity about it but it’s hard to compete (or should that be ‘Kompete?!’) with Kontakt. That said, the new Mach 5 from MOTU is good too … maybe better … but Kontakt (for now) is the market leader so is the one to go with.
I do get a little confused when I read about people not liking ‘the sound’ of Kontakt – maybe I am cloth-eared in my dotage, but it sounds fine to me, and there are various playback quality options. And some people complain about the cost of it. Come on – it wasn’t that long ago we paid ￡2,500 for a sampler (the Emulator II was nearly ￡10,000 FFS [for f’cks sake – Ed. 🙂 ]) and they came with a handful of floppy disks. Kontakt is $300 USD or so and comes with squigabytes of library – in my eyes, it’s a bargain. Not just that, but NI do their sales offers – I picked up Kontakt 5 from them recently for $150 USD – or was it Euros – whatever. Cheap. An initial outlay perhaps, but cheap. But whatever – I realise everyone has their own budget they have to justify (especially if they have a ‘significant other,’ kids and what not!). Even so, even as a modest hobbyist, I consider Kontakt to be a good investment as there is a whole universe of sounds out there from free to cheap to moderately priced to silly priced stuff. It’s a damned good tool to have. Komplete could keep you amused for years.
I am not affiliated with NI, by the way, in any way, shape or form.
SB: What’s missing from Kontakt that you’d most like to see in terms of being able to improve your own products?
SH: Hard to say as it’s fairly complete (or should that be ‘Komplete!’ with a ‘K’). I’d love to see a ring modulator in there – probably wouldn’t suit everyone but would open up possibilities for my weird synths and stuff. It’d be nice if they had an oscillator and noise generator in there as well so that you could build a synth without shedloads of looped samples.
I (personally) could lose the sample editor – it’s just rubbish in my opinion … so clunky and cumbersome. But I know some people use it. To them, I’d say, “Use a proper wave editor” … but whatever.
SB: Do you feel that sampled synths are somehow bogus as some people claim … that real musicians only do the real thing?
SH: Oh God no. Look… if anyone knows about ‘real’ synths, it’s me – I have a bloody great analogue modular sitting next to me here … I built it myself. I know analogue and synths intimately since the early days of the 70s … it’s what I grew up with – Moogs, ARPs, Oberheims, Rolands, Korgs, etc. If I thought for one second that sampling wasn’t up to it, I’d be buggered. But I don’t. If anything, read some of the comments on the HS website and you’ll see many people saying my stuff doesn’t sound ‘sampled’ at all but ‘organic,’ especially the MLMs. It’s all down to how you sample it, I suppose and I guess I might have the knack! I don’t know how or why … perhaps keeping it simple perhaps. I don’t believe in processing the crap out of stuff – just sample the thing and present it as is. In many ways, it’s the imperfections that count – like people … it’s the imperfections that create characters and not bland ‘me too’ dullards. You only have to look at politicians for evidence – so bland and eager to please and not offend that they end up being useless. The same can be said for a lot of music acts these days as well. Give me character, personality, imperfections and eccentricity all the time – I don’t like bland. But that’s just me I guess, being imperfect and eccentric myself!
But I don’t like imperfections if they are ugly – there has to be a beauty there, an ‘intelligence’ perhaps. I dunno … I suppose I like perfect imperfections! Hahaha!
Inside Hollow Sun Towers
SB: So what can we expect from Hollow Sun Towers in future?
SH: F’ck knows. I wing it half the time, making it up as I go along. I just want to make interesting and intriguing stuff that’s affordable so that lots of people can have fun with it. Some of it might be a bit esoteric and niche but bollocks to it – people like it and have fun with it and some make a living from it, and I do OK out of it so win-win! It’s always good to get a few quid out of a sale but I am happiest when people send me stuff they have made with my work, especially when it features in soundtrack work. One customer contributed soundtrack work to a BAFTA Award-winning programme and the MLMs were instrumental in that – according to the producers of the programme – they provided that ‘other worldly’ element, a hint of mystery that they wanted.
And then there’s the use of the Novachord by Petri Alanko in the award-winning Alan Wake game – Petri said it added an air of mystery and sat well in the mix. But others, too, who use HS stuff, either as hobbyists to full on LA soundtrack pros. And I have a very loyal customer base. One common (and lovely) comment I get is “I don’t even listen to your demos anymore – I just buy” which is enormously satisfying. Some of them send me what they’ve done with it which is even more satisfying, because it’s always interesting to hear what people do with the stuff; a lot of it quite unexpected. I have a vision for something but it’s always beguiling to hear how people use – or abuse – it.
SB: And your thoughts on piracy?
SH: Bollocks to them. Some people say they represent lost sales. I disagree – these people will never buy anything, they expect everything for free. I call them ‘digital magpies’ going after any and everything that’s shiny and grabbing it even though they quite possibly don’t know what it is they have. I don’t accept the argument that people get pirated copies of stuff because they can’t afford it – I know people with good and well-paid jobs who scour the Internet of an evening getting illegal stuff … they just want stuff for nothing. And the pirates’ silly stance on “We’re promoting the product” is just arrant nonsense! How? By giving it away? But lost sales? Probably not. Some perhaps but these people don’t buy anything – they expect it for free.
Me? I’d rather make friends with people who buy my stuff rather than chase after the sad individuals who steal it and whose efforts will come to nothing.
And I don’t accept the nonsense of “I can’t afford it” – people have pirated my ￡1 special offers … Christ – they’ve even pirated my freebies!! But, in my opinion, you just have to ignore it as best you can … like a corner shop has to accept there will be some shoplifting – fight it where possible but don’t become obsessed by it else it will drive you insane.
SB: What annoys you most about your business?
SH: Apart from accounts and the paperwork? Hahaha! God, I hate all that! But anyway…
People who judge a library by its size, sampling rate, bit depth, price – like if it’s not gigabytes at 96/24 and only costs 20 quid, it must be crap. That is just SO wrong and mistaken.
SB: How do you see the future of sampling?
SH: Oh God – I don’t know. No doubt more and more features will be added, some useful, many just added bloat.
The fact of the matter is that sampling can be bloody hard work and there’s no getting round that if you are to do the job properly and it can be quite tedious a lot of the time. But the end result is usually enormously rewarding. It’s a bit like sculpting, I suppose – chipping away for weeks or months on end, sanding and polishing, etc., but ending up with a beautiful statue. Or gardening, perhaps – you can’t just throw some seeds on the ground and then ‘batch process’ them all to produce beautiful flowers or vegetables in two minutes … it needs nurturing and careful attention and effort and time … and love, I suppose.
But I do suspect that the days of the big, expensively priced libraries might be on their way out. Let’s face it, probably 90% or more of this market are – with all respect – hobbyists, enthusiasts, semi-pro … they can’t be shelling out $100s USD for libraries and for many, ￡10 or ￡20 is their price range, some even less, and I suspect that more and more library will be entering into that ‘no brainer’ territory. In fact, we’re already seeing it. The only problem with that is that some pros look at the price and dismiss it for reasons stated earlier.
SB: And the future of Hollow Sun?
SH: No idea – just keep on doing what I/we do until A) people don’t like it any more or B) my health and stamina gives out. Fortunately, I/we don’t seem to be short of ideas. If the worst comes to the worst, I can get some heifers and concern myself with udder rot creams. Hahaha!!
SB: Nice to chat with you, Stephen. Thank you so much for your time.
SH: Likewise. Thanks for your support of Hollow Sun and good luck with your new magazine. Always a pleasure dealing with you. And to anyone reading this, David [Ed. note: the interviewee is talking about the interviewer here] is a genuine customer, not someone given NFRs and freebies.
We speak to Stephen Howell, the mad (in a wonderful way!), inspired mastermind at the helm of Hollow Sun and developer of some of the most innovative Kontakt sounds available today.
by David Baer, May 2013
This is the first installment of Points of Kontakt, an ongoing series in which we’ll look at noteworthy Kontakt libraries, concentrating mostly on those featuring non-acoustic sounds like classic synths, and the like.
But in this first installment, we have the pleasure of hearing from Stephen Howell (pictured on the right), the man responsible for Hollow Sun. I’ve always been a huge fan of the creative output that Hollow Sun is becoming so well known for, so for me this is a special treat.
Hollow Sun has provided unique and inspired recreations of vintage electronic rarities since 1998. For some time now, Hollow Sun has focused exclusively on sound libraries for Native Instruments’ Kontakt and is one of the premier providers of third party content for Kontakt. Those familiar with Hollow Sun’s offerings have become accustomed to uncompromising quality and delightful doses of whimsy along the way.
In the first of three parts to this in-depth and wide-ranging interview, Stephen talks about his background and association with a number of classic hardware sampler technologies that have brought us to where we are today in the world of high-quality sampling technology.
Sound Bytes: When you meet someone for the first time and they ask what you do for a living, what do you tell them?
Stephen Howell: Ermmmm… I make sounds!
Naturally, this normally causes confusion so I don’t go into detail … I just say “You know those electronic keyboards … well, I make the sounds that go into those.” That’s usually enough but some people are a little more switched on (you can kind of tell) so I explain that I make sounds which I sell at my website which people can use on their computers.
But it can be quite interesting…
I’ve had a few dental woes of late and at the dentist, he asked me what I do so I (kind of) told him … and his dental technician assistant piped up, “What? For Logic or Kontakt?” I was quite surprised – it transpires that her husband has a Mac and uses Logic and Kontakt and does local production work. Small world.
But there’s also a local greengrocer where I get my veg from (I refuse to use the übermarkets – get fresh, local produce … cheaper and better), and the lad there asked me what I do so I kind of explained, and he was fascinated, visited the website and the following week when I was there, he told me he was thinking of getting into making music because he liked what he heard. I hope he does.
But I quite liked what Eno used to say at parties, etc. … “I’m an accountant.” That usually ends the conversation. There was a time when I said I was an astronaut, but that just led to further complications!
But yes, it can be awkward – it’s an unusual occupation. Even my nearest and dearest don’t fully understand it … sometimes, I don’t. Hahaha!
SB: So how did you end up doing this?
SH: By chance!
SB: Tell us first about your academic background and musical training.
SH: How far do you want to go back?!
My father was always in choirs and presumably thought I should be too, so at the tender age of four, he had me enrolled into the local parish choir. F’ck me, that was a baptism by fire. But I must have been pretty good because the choirmaster recommended that I be entered for a scholarship at a local preparatory/choir school. Suffice to say, I passed the entrance exam and, aged eight, became a boarder at the school. Pretty frightening at the time, but in hindsight it was a hell of an experience and a good one at that.
We sang some of the most sublime sacred music, I met modern composers such as William Mathias, John McCabe and Alun Hoddinott, was picked personally by Benjamin Britten to sing in one of his operas; we toured the country, sang for the royal family at Windsor Castle chapel; I met Prince Charles several times and we recorded an album for Decca on which I was selected to sing in the boy soprano trio of Parry’s ‘I was glad.’ It was quite lucrative too … payment for the record and the 2/6d (25p in modern money) we were paid for singing at weddings. Doesn’t sound like much now, obviously, but back in the late 1960s, it was a fortune, especially to a ten-year-old!!!
It was a fairly severe regimen though – compulsory piano practice at 6:30 AM in some freezing cold room, breakfast then off to choir practice, back to school chapel to sing matins, then academic lessons, lunch, more lessons then grab a quick late afternoon meal then off to the cathedral again for more practice, and then evensong. And Sunday we had two major services a day (morning communion and then evensong). Don’t even mention Christmas and Easter – on the go all the time with several services every day … when most kids were opening their Christmas presents or chomping into chocolate eggs, we were practicing or performing in the cathedral … or on a coach to perform in some other church or cathedral … voices for hire. But it was a good discipline.
My parents were not well off – I only attended the boarding school because I achieved a scholarship and the fees were waived so, come 13 (which is when you leave prep school), I didn’t go on to further private boarding school and attended a state school instead. That was interesting – whereas the cathedral school inspired us to think, to question everything, the state school just had us sit down, shut up and learn by rote … which was kind of dull, actually very dull. So I rebelled!
My father had lost his job and couldn’t afford to give me pocket money, so I took on paper rounds … that is, delivering newspapers – unheard of these days. Earned me a few quid a week. I also got a Saturday job at a local gentleman’s outfitters which earned me a few more quid. I saved this up and bought an electric guitar and then effect pedals and bought loads of albums. My state school’s music teacher, knowing of my choral background, roped me into the school choirs and orchestras; she had me learn to play double bass (or contrabass) which I took to easily.
But it was also around this time (1971 or 1972?) that I first heard Walter Carlos’s ‘Switched on Bach’, saw Genesis debuting ‘Foxtrot’ then heard Tomita’s ‘Snowflakes are Dancing’ and Tangerine Dream’s ‘Phaedra,’ and I was hooked. Synths became a rather unhealthy obsession. In class, when the other pupils were copying notes off the blackboard, I was doodling with synth designs!
The state education system was so mind-numbingly stifling and uninteresting and seemingly irrelevant, I kind of gave up on it and pretty much came away with nothing, but I had a passion for synths. As a 14-year-old, I’d written to ARP and Moog, and they sent me their brochures; but EMS’s were the best – they sent me the operator’s manual for their VCS3, and for some reason it all made sense. I also had a brochure from a small UK company called Dewtron who made synth kits. I saved up and bought some of those from my paper round and Saturday job money and built them … with varying degrees of success. Gave me a taste though.
Anyway, I came away from school with enough to get me into the Welsh College of Music and Drama (or mucus and trauma as we called it), but I’d got a summer holiday job with the civil service. The work was deathly dull – actually, it wasn’t always … it was the Ministry Of Agriculture, and I was out at farms and later was seconded to the cartography department mapping out the locales and peoples’ farms. But I liked earning money so turned down college, took a full-time job with the Ministry of Agriculture and took out a loan to buy a Mellotron and ARP Axxe. My parents very kindly bought me a Sony TC377 tape recorder for my 18th birthday – quite an expenditure for them … they couldn’t really afford it but they understood my passion.
It was liberating – I could do basic ‘sound-on-sound’ multitracking, and one thing led to another. I saved up and bought another TC377 so I could bounce back and forth in stereo … then a 4-track, a crusty tape echo that wowed and fluttered, then a bucket-brigade echo box and a cheap and nasty spring reverb along the way. This was around 1978 or 1979.
I was using all this to make soundtracks for local theatrical production which led to TV work and subsequently local session work until it got to a point where I was so busy, I had to give up the day job. I finished on the Friday, had a celebratory weekend but woke up on the Monday thinking “WTF have I done?!” My father wasn’t too helpful – he’d always been quite supportive, but now thought I was an idiot and that I should have stuck with the civil service and done this as a hobby.
But I was so busy – working with bands, mixing their live gigs, having them in to record in my little studio and ‘producing’ them, writing for TV and stuff, doing my own stuff, etc. Not enough hours in the day. I was doing session work through the night or gigging and going straight to work the next day with no sleep. It was unsustainable, so the day job – and regular income – had to go. There were some very lean times … was seriously skint a lot … well, most of the time, actually.
I was also writing for various UK music tech magazines like Electronics And Music Maker, Home And Studio Recording, Music Technology and, later, Sound On Sound and teaching a synth and recording course at Gateway Studios in London.
But to answer your question … no formal qualifications – there are none really in this business and frankly, all these ‘Music Technology’ degrees today are pretty pointless. But that’s another story.
SB: What came next?
SH: Chance again.
I’d bought an Akai AX80 (a very underrated analogue polysynth) and an S612 sampler (neither of which I could really afford, but what’s a chap to do?). But the AX80 seemed faulty, so I called the new, at the time, Akai UK and explained the situation and was asked to bring it down. The fault was confirmed and it was exchanged. But in the process, while the MD and I were chatting, I said I’d also bought an S612 and he asked if I had any sounds/samples because they didn’t have anything. As it happened, I’d taken some Quickdiscs with me, and he liked the sounds. I left them with him and thought that was that.
Next thing I knew, he wrote to me (by letter … pre-email days) commissioning me to make sounds for their new and upcoming S900. I duly obliged and next thing I knew, I was off to Japan – they heard the sounds and liked them. I was with them for some 20 years, at first just doing sounds but then they discovered I could write so had me doing manuals as well and through dealing with the engineers, I was contributing to feature ideas and the UI and was then being asked to design gear for them. I did the S3000, S3000XL and S2000 but I suppose my greatest claim to fame were the S5000 and S6000. The head of R&D in Japan had sourced a large LCD and asked me to design a UI from scratch. That was a challenge! I also had a fairly major hand in the design of some of Akai’s disk recorders, notably the DD1500 and DPS24.
But the point being is that if my AX80 hadn’t been faulty, who knows how things might have turned out?! Chance meeting and more than a hint of ‘right time, right place’.
It was great fun working with Akai Japan. I travelled the world, did all the major – and minor – trade shows (which became a bit tedious after a while … sorry if that sounds ungrateful or ungracious, but they are so noisy, and when you’re doing them back to back, you quickly tire of them) and was lucky to meet some fantastic people – the Michael Jackson band, Ricky Lawson, Roger Linn, Gary Numan, Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, Bob Moog, went to Wendy Carlos’ brownstone studio … had her cat on my lap, THE ‘Switched On Bach’ Moog and recording equipment behind me, and her serving me a nice cup of tea. I was also working with the legendary David Cockerell (formerly of EMS – he designed their gear), Chris Huggett (he of Wasp, OSCar and now Novation fame) and some of the finest engineers and people in the business. A real privilege. I also ate at some of the best restaurants and learnt to speak Japanese. (I pretty much lived in Japan for about 3/4 of the year at one point in the 90s and had to survive.) It was a fine time.
But Akai’s fortunes changed for the worse around 2003/4 … they couldn’t compete with Kontakt and the like which, with faster computers, etc., were now more viable and so Akai were bought out by Numark (primarily for the technology and the MPC range). A few things killed the ‘old’ Akai off – they’d lost their founding visionaries (Mr. Toshio Tamaki and Jack Sugino) and without their guidance, made the ill-fated Z-series samplers rather than developing upon the successful S5/6000 – they made a sampler with a smaller screen, less outputs, and it was more expensive! Ermmmm. And then, to compound things, they decided to give their Z4 (the worst selling sampler in their history) a new paint job, give it a silly name (Boreas) and thought it would be a success. Errmmmm… not quite! Akai cocked up big time, but the MPC1000 kind of – almost – kept them going. But we weren’t getting paid some months. Difficult times. Which is where Numark stepped in.
But Numark also owned Alesis and they were having trouble with their new Fusion, so I was taken on to ‘rescue’ that which was good fun – free rein to make great sounds for this underrated synth/sampler. We gave the sounds away for free and that, with some price reductions, kind of saved the Fusion until it was discontinued. It was a bloody good piece of kit, actually, and a shame in a way that it wasn’t developed further. But kind of understandable. After that, though, it was drum samples, and believe me, topping and tailing hundreds upon hundreds of drum samples day in, day out is not a great deal of fun. That said, I was asked to design the UI for the DM10 eKit which turned out well. I was also doing a fair bit of stuff for the Akai MPC5000 … samples and so on and also had a hand in the design of the built-in synth, but it was a bit unsatisfying. The final straw was being asked to create a massive hip-hop library for the ‘MPC Renaissance’ – sorry, I was 54, wear tweed and brogues, was brought up on choral music, prog rock and weird beard electronica, and am not down ‘wiv da home BoiZ.’ Hip-hop is well outside my comfort zone, so I tendered my resignation to concentrate on Hollow Sun.
We all know it’s a bad idea to throw a wrench into the works … but maybe you might want to think about occasionally throwing a few into your mix.
by Robert Halvarsson, May 2013
8Dio have, during the time they have been part of the audio business, grown quite a reputation. Deep sampled instruments ranging from violins to the bazantar, a unique contra-bass, no matter what they do, it seems like it turns out for the better. So when they released a sampled set of wrenches, packed with tuned percussive quality – this reviewer got quite exited.
Wrenchenspiel was created by Troels Folmann, a very seasoned sample-library creator and one of the main folks behind 8Dio. The wrenches themselves were modified to generate a perfect tune; these pieces of metal were then played with different attires, mallets and other tools, to capture everything from the soft to the outright strange, the odd to the melodic.
Listening to their earlier repertoire I wasn’t surprised to hear the quality of the instrument. For the creative musician searching for inspiring sounds, this instrument can be an inspiring addition – the more odd qualities themselves being inspiring in stale and lifeless productions.
These instruments are shipped in one Kontakt .nki file, in which you can navigate between different articulations in the Kontakt-player itself. This is a good choice, as it makes it easier to try out different variations to see what fits your specific context. Loading different instrument files can be quite tedious, after all. When you’ve chosen the preset, you can also add effects and convolution reverbs, which are built into the instrument. This is nice, and the effects cover everything from lo-fi to different distortions!
Another very nice addition to this instrument, aside from the many varieties of playing styles of wrenches, is the sequencer. You here have an arpgeggiator/sequencer in which you have access to velocity levels. Playing with these levels can be fun and quite addictive. Add a few notes and listen to it play it as an arpeggio, in different styles as you change the settings, adding swing and speed.
The Wrenchenspiel, like many other third party libraries, does need the full Kontakt player from Native Instruments though. But if you have it, you can keep in mind that this only uses up one gigabyte of that precious hard-drive space. And that’s quite good, judging by the versatility of this instrument.
Company: 8Dio Website: http://8dio.com
Welcome to Sound Bytes Magazine! We’re glad you’re joining us on our maiden voyage and hope you’ll be returning on a regular basis.
Welcome to Sound Bytes Magazine! We’re glad you’re joining us on our maiden voyage and hope you’ll be returning on a regular basis. We feel we’ve got enough to offer you to justify opening for “business,” but you will hopefully see improvements as time permits. For one thing, we anticipate establishing a Facebook page where our readers can communicate with us and each other. And when that happens, we hope to hear from you with suggestions on how we can improve.
First let us tell you who we are and what our aims are for this magazine. The editors and writers of Sound Bytes are a diverse bunch of volunteers from around the world. We are music professionals or, at a minimum, enthusiastic dabblers in computer sound. We’re doing this because we are passionate about music and enjoy sharing our enthusiasm with others through writing.
Sound Bytes will be free of advertising. It costs so little to host a web publication these days that we do not need advertising revenue to sustain the operation. Somewhere down the line, we might add a voluntary contribution option, but there are no plans for even that at the moment. There will be one exception to the no-advertising policy, however: any developers that author articles for Sound Bytes will be given space to promote their products. We think that’s a more than fair tradeoff.
So, you can trust that our reviews are not influenced by advertising revenues. However, in the interest of full disclosure, we should tell you that the writers will sometimes get free, not-for-resale (NFR) copies of software for review. While that may motivate us to write about a piece of software, it’s not the real reason we do this. Most of us already have more synths, compressors, EQs, delays, et al. than we know what to do with in the first place. Yes, Free Sh*t ™ is fun to acquire, but that novelty wears off in short order. No, we do this because, no doubt like many of you, music software and production techniques are topics we find endlessly fascinating.
In the coming months, you won’t see much in the way of bad reviews in our pages. Don’t interpret that scarcity as just us being shills for developers so we’ll get more free goodies. The truth of the matter is that, like many of you, we want to support small developers. Producing and selling music production software is hardly a path to easy riches. In fact, in today’s economy it’s more likely a shortcut to the poorhouse. The long and short of it is that, rather than write a bad review of a second-rate synth or effect, we’re likely to simply not write the review in the first place, moving on instead to something for which honestly gets us excited. There’s way more gear out there than we’ll have the bandwidth to cover here in any case.
And … speaking of developers contributing, we hope we will attract that level of expertise. We want to offer more than just review after review. We look forward to also presenting interviews with experts and insiders, tutorials, and more. Do you have some special expertise that you’d like to share with your peer computer-sound enthusiasts? If you do and enjoy writing, then please get in touch with us. We’d love to give you a platform to share your expertise and wisdom.
As for the rest of you, just sit back and enjoy the journey!
Expressive sequenced music is not easily accomplished. Read this to find out how to achieve the fluid timing that’s a key part of the solution.
by David Baer, May 2013
The Virtuosity of Technology
Computer-based music production offers the opportunity of creating musical performances manifesting inhuman levels of virtuosity. An individual with extremely limited keyboard skills could nevertheless construct a note-perfect performance of Chopin’s Minute Waltz that can be shredded out in twelve seconds without the DAW raising a sweat. This is not only true today, but it was possible using a sequencer running on the Intel 286 that constituted my first music computer twenty years ago. Step entry, or note entry using a slowed tempo with subsequent quantization, makes all this possible (no doubt accompanied by edits to move or delete incorrectly placed notes) for even those with limited keyboard chops.
Naturally there is a downside. Performances that are artificially constructed are very difficult to make sound other than mechanical. With a MIDI sequencer, we can easily get notes perfectly placed and polish dynamics to a flawless state. But making the tempo sound not only human but also engaging is not so easily accomplished with modern DAW technology.
Real-time performances recorded on a DAW often need to be the slave of a metronome. This is not that big of a restriction with many forms of contemporary popular music, but stray from that familiar ground and it rapidly becomes an onerous constraint. Both jazz and “classical” forms need room to incorporate much fluidity in pacing. As to “classical”, I’m not even talking about the grandiose flourishes of the Romantic era or the mystical musings of the Impressionistic movement. Even the prim and proper compositions of the Baroque and Classical periods are well-served with the freedom to incorporate ebb and flow in tempo.
Need proof? Consider this performance of Mozart’s Pianoforte Sonata 13 (below) played by Vladimir Horowitz that can be seen in the YouTube video:
This particular example was not cherry-picked to illustrate my point. It was almost the first one I came across when looking for something to use here. The graphic below shows a tempo map created in SONAR that tracks Mr. Horowitz’s playing with reasonable accuracy. What you see are the tempo changes that occur every eighth note. Hardly metronomic, I hope you’ll agree.
One final point. You might think this territory is the exclusive domain of soloists, but that’s just not so. Listen to a string quartet that has played together for years. They can play as if they are psychically linked, with as much tempo fluidity as any single performer. Even a large ensemble like a choral group comprised of 100 singers can deliver tempo magic when they know the music sufficiently well and know how to follow their conductor.
My DAW Ate My Tempo
There is a class of DAW users that don’t care one whit about MIDI tempo control. They use their DAW to record real-time performances without ever turning on the metronome, and they simply let the time signature and initial tempo to remain at their default values. More power to you if you are that type of skilled musician, and you will have no interest in what follows. On the other hand, when MIDI is involved, irrespective of how the data is captured, there are various reasons why aligning the MIDI tracks with measure boundaries is beneficial or even necessary. Once measure alignment enters the picture, if one wants fluid tempo playback, we need to resort to the use of a tempo map.
Although I use only SONAR, I have investigated other DAWs to see if they offer better solutions for creating musically satisfying tempo maps. SONAR in this regard isn’t bad, but it isn’t great. Unfortunately none of the other DAWs I’ve looked at apart from Cubase appear to offer anything superior, and many don’t come close to what’s in SONAR. Cubase looks like it deserves the best grades, but that opinion is based only on what I’ve read in the documentation, not hands-on experience.
In the discussion that follows, I’ll be using SONAR as the basis for some examples, but most SONAR features discussed have equivalent functionality in other DAW brands. If you use a DAW other than SONAR, there’s something that may be of considerable interest to you a bit further on, so please don’t bail out just yet.
Let’s start with randomization of MIDI note-on event start times. This trick just introduces some “slop” in the placement of notes. It can get you a little distance from a mechanical feel, but it’s of very limited use.
SONAR has another feature called quantize to groove that’s more helpful. Here you can apply an external “groove” file (effectively a click track) with which the notes in a MIDI clip can be aligned. You can use your own groove file or one created by a third party. This can be an excellent solution for popular forms where the overall pacing stays loosely in sync with a constant tempo.
The most powerful solution in SONAR is a feature called fit to improv. The idea here is that you have a performance of one or more tracks recorded without a metronome that you want to align with measure boundaries. To use it, you create a click track of MIDI events, exactly one per beat and in sync with the “improv” material. When invoking the process, a tempo map is created so that the playback pacing of the original “improv” is duplicated. Audio data in the project is left alone; that is, it plays back exactly the same way before and after fit to improve is invoked. But MIDI data in the project that is beat aligned now “grooves” along with the original “improv”.
Fit to improv is powerful but has several limitations. To begin with, and this is a major shortcoming, it’s all or nothing. There’s no way to apply it to other than the entire piece. Next, you’re limited to a beat granularity dictated by the time signature. If you’re piece is in 4/4, you cannot “conduct” in eighth notes, for example. Finally, if your project contains MIDI tracks that are already beat-aligned and you want to alter the project to conform to a separately created click track, you need to remember to lock all the MIDI clips before applying fit to improv, or event times will be changed.
Finally, there is the tempo view in which you can enter or edit tempo events. The tempo view (which you saw before in Fig. 2) is great for making spot corrections to a tempo that’s approximately correct, but it’s practically not possible to visually create a credible tempo doing it visually beat by beat.
What’s really called for seems apparent, but it’s a feature that fully exists in no DAW as far as I have been able to ascertain. That feature would be a “conduct” function. Select a range of measures. Specify a conduct-beats-per-quarter-note value. Click start. Beat out the desired tempo on a MIDI controller. Click stop. At this point the DAW would use the time intervals between the note-on events to calculate the tempo map for the selected region.
This seems to me be an obviously useful feature, and yet it’s nowhere to be seen. That’s not too surprising though. Given that the considerable majority of DAW users are focused on creating popular forms of music, where tempo flexibility is less of a perceived need, there’s no doubt insufficient pressure from the user community for improvements.
The Maestrolizer to the Rescue!
With no expectation of a “conduct” feature forthcoming any time soon, it occurred to me that one could be created that would run externally to any DAW that can do the following three things, none of them a stretch by any means:
• save a MIDI track or clip as a standard MIDI file
• open a standard MIDI file
• do a copy-and-paste of MIDI data that includes the tempo information from a standard MIDI file
Using an external utility to create a tempo map from a click track isn’t as effortless as using a built-in DAW function, but it’s certainly better than not having that capability at all. And as things turned out, the workflow isn’t all that disruptive once you’ve done it several times. After all, in the grand scheme of things, creating a “conduct” track is a very occasional activity.
The utility is called Maestrolizer. It is freely available for download here: Maestrolizer
It was written in Java and thus runs on PC or Mac, but it does require the Java run-time to be installed. Details on this can be found in the read-me file included in the download. For those wanting to know a little more about the implementation, see the side bar below: MIDI in Java – a Class Act.
Usage is very simple. I’ll describe how you’d use it in SONAR. From that you can probably work out the steps to using it in your on DAW easily enough. With your DAW running, launch the Maestrolizer (its user interface can below). Go back to your DAW.
You may use a new project with a single MIDI track. Depending on the capabilities of your DAW, you may create the conductor track in an existing project (with audio muted or not as desired). Determine which portion of the piece you want to create a tempo map for. Turn on record (with the metronome off!) and play notes at the pace your mental conductor is directing or as the audio dictates. There must be exactly one note-on for each conductor beat. In other words, if you are in 2/4 and conducting in quarter-note triplets, you are supplying six click beats per measure. The software will not know if you’ve skipped a beat, so you must not do so. Include the first beat of the measure beyond the region for which you’re creating the tempo map. Stop the recording and save the recorded clip as a standard MIDI file. If the conductor track is the only MIDI track, you can just save a SONAR project as a MIDI file. Otherwise, copy the clip and paste it onto the desktop or into a folder (or drag and drop the clip from SONAR).
Switch to Maestrolizer and create the tempo map. We’ll discuss this process in detail shortly. Maestrolizer will create a standard MIDI file containing the tempo map. Return to your DAW. Do a File/Open on the tempo map MIDI file (in SONAR, this starts a new project). Select the track, then copy it. Switch back to the main project, position the Now Time where the tempo map is to start, and do a paste. That’s all there is to it.
Let’s discuss a few nuances: The tempo track file will be named the same as the click track, but with a “TT_” prefix. You may save the conductor track as a type 0 or type 1 standard MIDI file, but if it’s type 1, all the note-on events are expected to be in the first and only track or all the notes are in the second (of two) tracks. It does not matter what the time signature and original tempo of the click track is, but you may not have tempo events in the track beyond the first one.
The fastest tempo SONAR supports appears to be 1000 quarter notes per minute, so that is the upper speed limit allowed in Maestrolizer. If your DAW supports a higher rate, then good for you. But I can’t imagine ever needing anything close to this rate in a conductor track. In any case, should two note-on events dictate a tempo that exceeds 1000 quarter notes per minute, Maestrolizer will flag it as an error. Chances are you “fat-fingered” one or more of the beats in the click track, hitting two adjacent notes at once.
The user interface of Maestrolizer is very straightforward. Identify the click track by using the Browse button. Specify the time signature of the target piece in the obvious way. Then specify the conduct beats per quarter note. This is exactly what it says. If your time signature is 6/8 and you’re conducting in eighth notes, the number in this control is 2. If your time signature is 2/4 and you’re conducting in quarter-note triplets, the number is 3.
Finally there’s the Dummy MIDI Event Number control. I found that things work a little more smoothly in SONAR if there is actual MIDI data other than tempo events in the track. So Maestrolizer will supply two dummy controller change events with a controller number specified in this control and a value of zero (one event is placed at the start of the tempo track and one at the end). You may select None and no controller change events will be included. The other possibilities in the drop-down list are all the undefined controllers in the MIDI standard, so you have many choices. In all likelihood, the dummy events will do no harm if left in the project, but they are easily removed or avoided in the paste operation if they are of concern.
Using Maestrolizer the first few times feels a little awkward, but it quickly becomes second nature. And the results are as accurate as you could hope for. I conducted a test where I entered a series of notes of random durations to use as the conductor track. From this I created a tempo map and applied it to a series of step-entered notes with precisely equal durations. I created an audio track from the initial conductor track and the tempo-map-controlled track, feeding both to a synth preset with a pronounced initial transient. Lining them up one above the other, any timing differences were imperceptible, both by eye and by ear.
So, there you have it. I hope at least some of you find this tool to be of value, at least while we all wait for the DAW developers to bring the tempo specification capabilities up to the level of the many fully developed capabilities of this amazing body of software technology. Now, go forth and conduct yourselves with dignity.
MIDI in Java – a Class Act
I wanted Maestrolizer to be both PC and Mac compatible, and since it’s not a VST, I had the freedom to choose Java as the implementation language (why I have a dim view of C++ isn’t really relevant here). I first expected needing to develop a set of Java classes to encapsulate the characteristics of MIDI files. Imagine my delight when I found there to be a robust solution already available in the Java JDK and free for the taking. Music-geek meets code-geek … a marriage made in heaven!
Briefly, we have the following classes (not a complete list):
• Sequence – the highest level container for MIDI data; an in-memory MIDI file, if you will; contains Track (and possibly other) objects and timing information global to all tracks
• Track – just what you’d think it is
• MidiEvent – represents a MIDI message and timing information expressed as ticks
• MidiMessage – the message in a MidiEvent
• ShortMessage – subclass of MidiMessage; used for all the bread and butter MIDI events like note-on/off, controller message, etc.
While a full-fledged tutorial on how these classes are used is beyond the scope of this article, I have included the Maestrolizer source code as part of the download for anyone who’s curious. I think you can puzzle out how these classes work together with a quick examination of that code. In any case, as is typical with Java’s type-safe coding philosophy, it’s difficult to use these classes other than as intended because the compiler will tell you when you’re attempting to use the wrong class type in an assignment or method call.
Waves introduces something new (for Waves, anyway), a software synth. Will it make waves in the market place? Find out more in this review.
by David Baer, May 2013
Waves is one of the largest players in the VST marketplace, having a wide market penetration and possibly the biggest catalog of offerings of any plug-in vendor. But until recently, they offered only effects. So when, after all these years, they decided to add a synth to their line, a great many people took notice, and much chatter was to be seen on the computer music forums like KVR. We’ll take a look at Element here, and you can decide if all the hoopla is merited. According to Waves, Element was “designed to provide fat analog sound in the tradition of the classic analog synths.” The secret sauce here is “Virtual Voltage ™ , which connects its various generators and transformation filters, envelopes and modulators” (again in Waves’ own words). Whether this promise holds substance or is an invention of the marketing department is a little hard to say. On the one hand, Element can sound very rich. On the other, unlike other recent synth offerings that promise analog goodness and gulp CPU cycles (DIVA and LuSH-101), Element merely sips at them, even with high polyphony and HD mode enabled.
One thing is immediately apparent about this instrument. Element is a down-to-earth subtractive synth that sports few bells and whistles compared to most of its competition. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The fact that all the controls are right in front of you on the main (and only) panel, pictured above, makes for a very efficient work flow designing/tweaking sounds. In fact, a case could be made that someone wishing to learn the craft of subtractive sound design could not find a better vehicle upon which to hone their skills. I should hastily point out that Element is also capable of some fairly rudimentary FM synthesis as well, but that’s not what this instrument is really all about.
Quick Tour of the Basics
The documentation for Element is thorough and complete, and yet is less than twenty pages of large type text with lots of white space. In other words, the instrument doesn’t have all that many features to explain in the first place. Present are basic, bread-and-butter synth components with nothing exotic. This is not a bad thing in itself. If nothing else, it goes to show just how good sounds can be made with only the fundamentals at one’s disposal.
We start with the oscillators of which there are two mostly identical ones. Each has four wave types (sine, saw, triangle and pulse) of which only one may be selected. These are set to between two octaves down and two octaves up, with another twelve semitones adjustable via the Tune control. A PW control adjusts the pulse width if the pulse wave is selected. Finally, a VCO/DCO button switches between digital precision and analog “slop” in which the phase at note-on is random.
Unique to Osc 1 is a Sine Mod control that allows simple FM modulation with an auxiliary sine wave, the C/M ratio in this case being controlled by the Octave and Tune parameters. Oscillator 2 has an FM control that allows FM modulation by Osc 1. Further, the phase of this oscillator can be modulated by Osc 1 via the PhM control. Finally, a Sync button lets you make Osc 2 a slave of Osc 1.
Below the oscillator controls is a mix panel that allows you to add in triangle wave as a sub-oscillator (good choice!), noise and/or ring modulation. Typical mono/legato/portamento capabilities are on offer. A limited unison capability is present, but it only doubles the number of voices. Neither detuning nor pan position can be specified for unison mode.
The filter is simplicity itself, but this is one of the more attractive features. First and most importantly, it sounds good and has real character for a computationally efficient software implementation. Everything you need to control the filter is right in front of you: cutoff, resonance, envelope depth, envelope ADSR values, keyboard tracking and velocity modulation. There are four choices for filter type: HP, LP, BP and BR with 12 or 24 dB/octave roll-off available for all. You can FM modulate the cutoff with Osc 1. Finally, the Shape control dictates the convexity or concavity of the envelope curves.
When changing the cutoff (or other settable parameters) via mouse dragging the knob control, there is a “steppy” quality to the tonal changes as opposed to smoothly gliding changes. This seems to be attributable to some sort ballistic movement simulation of the knob controls, the perceived value of which mystifies me. Fortunately, this is not an attribute of the filter itself, the cutoff for which changes gracefully when modulated by an LFO or envelope.
Next we have the volume envelope, and again simplicity rules the day. The volume envelope sub-panel seen in Fig. 1 is self-explanatory, except for the Punch button. This “controls the dynamic transient enhancer which makes for a ‘snappier’ attack.” In other words, set by ear.
There are four LFOs, two of which are free running and which cannot be synced to host tempo. The other two are per-voice modulators that are always synced to host tempo, running at some multiple of a musical beat. Wave forms include the usual ones: up and down saws, triangle, sine and sample-and-hold random. Lacking is a gradually changing random option, an unfortunate omission in my opinion.
We’ve already looked at the two dedicated envelopes for amplitude and filter cutoff. Element supplies a third envelope that can be freely assigned to anything via the mod matrix. The mod matrix is a pretty limited affair with only six routings available. Worse is the fact that if you want to control, say, the amount of vibrato produced by an LFO via the mod wheel, you need to use up two slots.
An arpeggiator/sequencer is present. It is relatively basic but eminently serviceable. In fact, the factory preset category of Arps is an absolute delight which can easily distract you for an hour or more just noodling around. Personally, I’ve never regarded the Arp capability of any instrument to be a make-or-break feature, and I have nearly zero use for sequencers. For those to whom these features are important, you will no doubt have more well-established criteria upon which you judge these things.
Finally we have the effects section, offering distortion, delay and reverb and chorus. These are about as bare-boned as you could get and still call them effects. Reverb and chorus have only an “amount” control. Delay is a little more elaborate, with separate left/right times, feedback and wet/dry control. Apart from distortion, you have no control of what order these are placed in the signal path. Distortion does give you the useful option of having the effect pre or post filter, and it’s applied per-voice. In addition to distortion/saturation coloring, a bit-crusher distortion effect rounds out the distortion section.
OK, the above “finally” was a little premature, because there’s one more thing to mention. It’s simple but I found it to be surprisingly valuable. This is the four-band graphic EQ control that’s right there on the panel in front of you. I don’t recall another synth that makes this so easily accessible and therefore I never appreciated just how easily it can be employed in effective sound tweaking. I now wish every one of my instruments had something similar.
Element comes with a generous number of factory presets accessible via a two-level menu structure (pictured right). They all reside in a single file, so I can’t tell you the exact number, which would be easy to do if each was its own file. Suffice it to say there are more than you’d care to try to count.
They are organized by category: Sequences, Gated, Arpeggiators, Keys, Pads, Bass, Leads, Percussion, Motions, Polysynths, Inharmonic and SFX. Some presets are quite good while many are nothing special. But sound preferences being highly individual, you’ll have to judge yourself. Many of the unmusical sounds (those in Inharmonic and SFX plus some of the sequences) will be of extremely limited use. Others could become go to favorites. One thing you do get is as lot of variety.
So, is Element for you? This doesn’t have an easy answer except to observe that at its retail price of $199, there are better alternatives to consider. However this is Waves, and Waves gear (or at least most of it) seems to be perennially for sale at significant discounts these days. People have reported acquiring Element for less than $75 at third party Waves distributors like Audio Deluxe. At that price, it’s definitely worth considering.
If your budget does accommodate a $200 acquisition, you’d be well advised to compare Element with two other recent subtractive emulations, DIVA from u-he and LuSH-101 from the D16 Group. They cost more than a discounted Element, but they deliver much more. However, both those instruments have hearty appetites for CPU cycles, so if you’re stuck with an aging machine, Element still may be a good choice.
Element would also be an excellent first subtractive synth for those wishing to learn sound design. Element’s straightforward user interface makes it an ideal choice for such a pursuit. Furthermore, the variety of preset sounds offers an encyclopedic study guide.
Waves makes Element available for a largely unrestricted seven-day trial (although you can only run the standalone version). If you already have some Waves gear on your DAW, you’ll have the wherewithal to easily register the demo. Otherwise you’ll need to wrestle with the registration process a bit. However, don’t let this deter you. There are a lot of first-rate Waves plug-ins available at great prices these days if you’re willing to wait for the right sale. Sooner or later you may very well find the need to register something with them anyway. So it’s certainly worth a small effort to get the Element demo to play with for a week. Just stay away from the Arpeggiators bank until you’ve otherwise come to an informed decision. The Arp bank is simply too much fun!
But you’ll normally be able to get better prices at one of several third-party distributors.
We take an up-close look at the ANA software synth and see how it uses Analog, Noise and Attack to accomplish its purpose.
by Rob Mitchell, May 2013
The software synthesizer market is vast, filled with all types of useful plugins. Not all of those are top notch; some are mediocre at best, while others become legendary over time. With so many synths already available, new synth plugins have to stand out from the crowd.
Recently I checked out Sonic Academy’s ANA 1.5 (Fig. 1), which is named using an acronym for Analog, Noise, and Attack. That name is derived from the structure of ANA itself. It has a total of 6 oscillators. The first 3 are of the analog type. The fourth and fifth are noise oriented, and the sixth one is for the attack section.
Oscillators and Filters
In the Virtual Analog section, you can choose from over 60 different waveforms for each of the 3 oscillators (Fig. 2). There is a great variety of sounds to choose from. Some of the ones included are pulse waveforms, sine, saw, triangle, comb filtered, and many digital types. There are up to 8 voices per oscillator, and they have detune and width controls, among others. One of those controls is called Filter Out, and is used to send the signal to either of the 2 filters, or to both of them. Turned all the way left sends it to Filter1, and to the right, Filter2. If it’s in the middle, it will be sent to both.
There are 38 different waveforms for each of the 2 oscillators in the Noise section. This part of the synth has many useful sounds, not just the usual pink or white noise types, though they are included as well. There are choir sounds, bells, chords, and many more to choose from.
In the attack section, you can pick from a whole different set of 31 waveforms. These are great for the “attack” part of the sound, where you might want to beef up the sound a bit. For instance, you can use the “Kick Click” to give a kick drum sound you’re designing a bit more punch. Or add a guitar sound to the beginning section of your preset’s design. There are many other useful ones included: a few of them are strings, bass, bell, EP, and a pizzicato (plucked-string) sound.
ANA 1.5 has 23 different filter types (Fig. 3), including 2 and 4-pole (plus HP and BP versions), and 4 different Formant filter types, just to name a few. For the filter called LP + Dist, there is a distortion built-in to it, and it uses the Res knob to control the amount that is added. The filters can be run in series or parallel.
Each envelope section has standard ADSR controls, and there are 3 selectable envelope curves for the Filter, Amp and Mod Envelopes.
Modulation, FX and More
The G-Env is an envelope you can edit and assign to the Osc attributes, LFOs, EQ, Filters, and even the FX. You just right-click on the envelope to create a new point and then drag that point where you want. You can add up to 16 points. It’s great for getting even more control over the sound than you would using the ADSR envelopes alone.
With the 2 LFOs, you can assign them the same way as the G-Env, but they each have 2 targets available, versus the one target of the G-Env. The LFOs have 14 shapes available. There are Monopolar and Bipolar versions of Sine, Triangle, Saw Up, Saw Down, Pulse, Random, and Sample and Hold.
Mod1 and Mod2 can be assigned a source and a target. You can pick (for instance) the Mod Wheel as the source, and have it point to reverb amount as the target, or any other of the same targets that the G-Env and LFOs have access to. In addition, you can assign the G-Env as the source, and give it yet another target. The Mod Env also has the same target choices as the others.
ANA ships with 6 different effects: phaser, chorus, distortion, compressor, delay, and reverb.
These all work well, but I especially liked the improved reverb included in version 1.5.
A nice addition is the option to just have the wet signal of the effect go through. Like I mentioned before, the effects can be modulated from within ANA. I really like this feature, and wish it was implemented in every synth I have.
When you want to save a preset, you can make different banks and categories (leads, pads, FX, etc) within those banks. It works great, and helps to keep everything all organized.
One more cool feature built in to ANA is the “Chord Hold”. This lets you pick certain notes to make up a chord, and save it to a preset. You just click “Learn”, and then hit the keys you want one after the other. You could also just hit a chord all at once. Then unclick “Learn”, and it will remember that chord you have entered, and save that setting with your preset. It will then play back the chord if you hit a key on the keyboard.
If you want to use a sound in your preset that uses a chord already built-in to it, (the “Noise” section has many of those) you can turn off the Chord Hold feature just for that particular oscillator if you’d like. That way, it’s not playing a different chord on top of the chord you setup, which can get a bit messy sounding. Of course, it depends on the chord you are using. A bit of dissonance can sometimes be useful in a preset.
In the “Settings” section, you can change the amount of the filter sampling quality. Usually you would probably just leave this on the high setting, unless you’re having some CPU issues, and want to lower the setting to help it out a bit.
ANA has a randomize feature that works pretty well. Just like with any synth with a randomizing button, it might not always get a usable sound. There is a section in “Settings” however, where you can have it keep certain parts of the sound that you don’t want the randomize feature to change. This is very useful if you find you like what is going on with the oscillator section, but then want to change others. Click “Hold OSCs”, and click Randomize again. You can also change the G-Env control in “Settings”, so instead of a right-mouse click to add a point to the envelope, you can set it to double-click or alt-click. This can be helpful, especially if you have a Mac with no right-mouse button.
For now, there is no pulse width modulation, sync, or FM, but I was informed by Sonic Academy that they may add one or more of those in the next major update. It is nice that they included a goodly amount of pulse waveforms of different width settings, since the pulse width can’t be changed. I would like to see an arpeggiator added, but don’t want to be too greedy.
One other item I thought might be handy is a type of “solo” button for the oscillators. It would be nice to have, so you wouldn’t have to turn down the volume on all the others just to hear one you want to fine tune. Maybe a right-click on the “Osc 1” label for instance (up at the very top) would change the color of the label/title for that Osc, and then solo it.
There isn’t too much negative I can say about this synth, except maybe the aforementioned features I’d like.
ANA’s CPU usage wasn’t too bad in my testing. I checked it out on an older dual core PC, and most presets weren’t CPU killers, though some can get a bit high on the CPU usage. That’s basically how it is with many other synths released in the past couple years, so there’s no huge surprise there. You can also use its “Poly” setting, which lets you limit it to say, just 4 notes if needed. That way, if you’re hitting chords over and over that have a bit of a longer release time, the number of voices doesn’t just pile up, and totally take over your machine. The Poly setting can be adjusted from 1 all the way up to 32.
ANA 1.5 ships with over 400 presets, and it costs less than $80.00, which these days is a bargain. It is available in 32/64 bit versions for both PC and Mac OSX (VST and AU).
I really like the structure they designed for this: three main oscillators with the options of two additional noise oscillators, plus attack waveforms that come in handy for adding punch to the sounds front-end. It’s well-rounded for sure. Also, it’s very intuitive; everything is on one screen, so you won’t get lost looking for a certain control.
With its large number of waveforms, excellent modulation, big sound, and great price, I think it will definitely be a hit. ANA easily stands out from the crowd.
Website with more info for ANA:
SoundBytes wanted to have a few words with Jo from MuTools, so we contacted him to briefly ask a few questions. We think you’ll find what he has to say of interest.
by Robert Halvarsson, May 2013
MuTools just released the fifth installation of their growing DAW, MuLab. This version has bought repeatedly requested features such as multi-core enhancements, as well as clip functionality and multi-monitor support.
Readinxg the change-log is a daunting task. There have been a lot of changes recently. But some things remain the same. MuLab is inexpensive, costing less than 70 euro’s for MuLab Ultimate, it also sports a modular interface where power-users can create their own effects, and route things nearly freely through the interface. The aesthetics remain quite simple – too simple for some people’s taste while others find it beautiful. But despite different tastes when it comes to what an interface should look like, it would be stupid to neglect the power this superficially simple workstation.
Like many other digital audio workstations, it comes with its own set of instruments and effects, but can be made to work equally well with the immensely popular VST-standard. Being made to work with multi-core support, at long last, the user will not be restrained as previously to limit the track-amount or use of instruments due to legacy code. Good news for those of us who like to write complex tracks.
SoundBytes Magazine wanted to have a few words with Jo from MuTools, so we contacted him to ask a few questions.
SoundBytes: How does it feel to see MuLab 5 released to the public?
Jo, MuTools: I’m happy and proud! It has been an intense trip towards MuLab 5 with the R&D of multi-core support, the integrated browser, etc. At the same time releasing M5 also creates eagerness to start designing the next M6
SoundBytes:Which is the most prominent new feature in your opinion?
Jo, MuTools: Multi-core support, without doubt. Parallel audio processing is a key feature these days and the importance will grow even further the next years. So now MuLab users can insert more synths and effects before reaching the bounds of the system, and of course that improves the musical workflow. Because the less musicians have to think about technical aspects, the better for their musical workflow!
SoundBytes: Tell us about MuClips, what makes it original to some of the systems we’ve seen in the competition?
Jo, MuTools: Even though it may not be a pure original feature, sometimes you just need to add more standard features so as to make MuLab more complete. It’s part of the growth process. MuClips are definitely a key feature in consolidating all those little sketch ideas/jams musicians create for now, these ideas can be easily reused in other sessions and/or combined with each other. MuClips are also handy for creating preset drum patterns, bass loops etc., it’s a very [production-oriented] feature!
SoundBytes: Seeing how many improvements there are, how did you manage to pull this off?
Jo, MuTools: Good question! Sometimes I wonder myself. Well, it has been very intense months with long working days. But at the same time it was a very creative period and creativity also creates new energy. I’m thankful to life and my creativity. I’m also very thankful to all power users for their vital feedback!
SoundBytes: Do you already now have any plans for future enhancements to Mu lab?
Jo, MuTools: Absolutely! There will certainly be some MuLab 5.x updates with nice further developments. But I’m already also dreaming about MuLab & MUX 6. It will be a combination of adding extra ‘standard’ features (e.g. support for REX, parallel editing…), also extending the sonic power of the MUX (e.g. FM synthesis, step sequencing), and last but not least I have some nice dreams regarding new ways of workflow which can boost the musical creativity. I can’t say much about that now because they still are dreams and I need to research them in order to work out a concrete plan. That’s what will keep me busy the next few months.
SoundBytes: When you first started creating Mu lab, did you imagine that this project would grow to where it is today?
Jo, MuTools: Yes, step by step MuLab and the MUX are growing in the direction I always dreamt of. With my previous project, “Muzys”,I could already reach a nice level in realizing my dream about the ‘ideal’ music workstation. Unfortunately Muzys died in a cooperation deal accident. Now with MuLab 5 i think most of the magic of Muzys has been reincarnated, while MuLab already has become much more than Muzys ever was. Yet I’m looking forward to put the cherry on top of the Muzys reincarnation cake and meanwhile push MuLab and the MUX to new creative levels.
SoundBytes:Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions.
Jo, MuTools: With pleasure! Cheers!