Monthly Archives: September 2014
Good sample libraries make realistic playback look easy, but there’s a whole lot of sophisticated planning and technique under the hood that makes it all possible. Learn about it in this revealing close-up look.
SoundBytes, Sept. 2014
Introduction by David Baer
Indiginus is a sample library vendor best known for a collection of guitar libraries for Kontakt. But for me, their most inspired product is the Solid State Symphony, reviewed in the Nov. 2013 issue of SoundBytes (read that here: http://soundbytesmag.net/indiginussolidstatesymphony/ ).
Tracy Collins, the “Chief Indigineer” (his words, not mine) at Indiginus knows his way around the inner workings of sample playback software technology. Tracy, pictured right, generously shares his knowledge with us in this introduction to what makes for a superior sample library.
Sample libraries have become an indispensable tool in 21st century music production. From dance music to music scores for major motion pictures, they are everywhere, pretending to be what they are not; acoustic instruments, vintage drum machines, synthesizers, or even complete symphony orchestras. They can be as simple as a few samples (or even one) spread across a keyboard, or complex, interactive affairs with splashy graphic interfaces that allow us to control how the instrument reacts to our playing. But, what does it take to create a sample library, or a sampled instrument? What is going on “under the hood”?
Not so long ago samplers were rather expensive pieces of hardware with audio input jacks right on the front panel, which was a good thing, since there wasn’t much in the way of sample data to load in. Sampler manufacturers did provide a few sounds on floppy disks and later CD-roms, but they were usually pretty disappointing, which was a great excuse for plugging in a mic and making sound with whatever was available. For many of us (OK, for me), this began with a trip to the kitchen, just to find out what a mixing bowl struck with a fork sounded like when played back on a keyboard. Sampling was like magic.
Anatomy of a Sampled Instrument
In recent years the hardware samplers of old have, for the most part, been replaced by software versions. This has made possible several improvements that have drastically changed how samplers are used. Disk streaming allows samples to be played directly from a disk drive, overcoming the RAM limitations of the old hardware units. This makes it possible to load instruments that contain hundreds of megabytes or even gigabytes of sample data. The sampler just pre-loads the first few kBs of each sample, giving the computer time to access the rest of the sample from the disk in real time. Another advancement made possible by the move to software is the use of scripting, which allows for a much more functional and gratifying visual interface for the user, as well as providing new ways to manipulate how the samples are played back, as in legato and round robin functions. One thing that hasn’t changed, thankfully, is the concept of the sampler as an empty device to be loaded with sounds of the user’s choice.
It All Starts with a Single Sample
The most fundamental component in a sampled instrument is a single sample; a recording of an individual musical note or other sound that has been assigned to play back when a key or series of keys are depressed on a keyboard (or some other MIDI controller). In Kontakt, a single sample is referred to as a zone, and in SFZ-speak as a region. Most samplers have a graphic mapping interface for arranging the samples horizontally (key zones) and vertically (velocity zones). You might be surprised how much playability you can get out of a single sample, especially with simpler sounds like a pad sound from an analogue synthesizer. If you take that single sample, say a recording of a synth pad playing a C4 note and assign it to play from C3 to C5, the sampler will change the pitch of the sample depending on MIDI note received, or stretch it, to play over that two octave range. So far, so good, as long as you don’t want to play a sustained note that is longer than your original sample, in which case your sample will end even though you are still holding the key. The solution is to create a sustain loop, where the sampler repeats part of the sample continuously until the MIDI note is released. The length of the loop can be from several seconds, as might be needed with a complex sound like a violin section, down to a single wave cycle of a synth sound, and usually begins after the initial attack of the sound. In other words, after the sound has “settled down” to a relatively constant state. Cross-fading is a technique that creates a fade-in at the beginning of the loop each time it repeats to avoid clicks and bumps in the sustained note. Creating seamless sustain loops can be the most difficult and time-consuming part of editing samples in a library. However, for instruments whose sounds are struck and die out, like piano or guitar for instance, sustain loops are unnecessary.
A single sample of a synth pad will sound fairly decent, but for more complex sounds you’re gonna need a lot more samples!
Arranging the Samples into Key Groups
A piano has 88 keys, so the most accurate way to represent a piano would be to record the sound of each of its keys being struck, and then assign those recordings (samples) to the corresponding 88 keys in the sampler. This way, no samples need to be stretched to cover adjacent keys. However, in the real world sample library creators must weigh the benefits of sampling each note (chromatically) against the practical limitations; namely, the size of the library they want to create, which effects memory footprint on the user’s computer as well as the time it takes to download the library after purchase (for libraries distributed by download). Most higher-end libraries are now sampled chromatically, but this is not necessarily the case for many libraries that have been around for a while and many “lite” versions of more expensive libraries. They may be sampled in whole tones (every other note), or minor thirds (every third note). I have been surprised to find that many of my favorite libraries have “stretched” sample regions and sound brilliant! Sometimes leaving some samples out, particularly odd sounding notes of an acoustic instrument, will improve the overall sound and consistency of the final product.
We could now play our piano. If our sampler is set to respond to the velocity of incoming notes, it might sound pretty good, depending on the quality of our recorded samples. If you played a stage piano or the piano sound from a keyboard workstation built in the 1990s this is essentially what you would have. But, this is the 21st Century, and we know that soft piano notes and loud piano notes sound completely different, and we have the technology to create the same effect in our sampled piano! The vertical axis of our key map allows us to assign more samples to be played back depending on how hard we hit our keyboard, or keyboard velocity. We can now go back to our piano and record each key again, this time striking the keys softly to loudly, letting each note decay all the way out. Then, we can assign our new, more dynamic notes to play back at different velocities. Most piano libraries will have at least five velocity levels recorded, but can have ten, twelve, or more. As with chromatic versus stretched samples, having more velocity levels generally makes for a more accurate playing experience, but not always. Velocity zones are also used to control instrument articulation. For instance, a guitar might have mutes assigned to play at lower velocities, and sustained notes at higher velocities. The same technique is sometimes used to control orchestral instruments, to switch between staccato and sustained articulations.
Our piano is probably sounding much better with the new velocity triggered dynamic samples. But, if we play our sampled piano next to the real thing, we’ll still notice some differences, particularly when playing fast, staccato notes. With each release of the real piano’s keys, there is the sound of the damper stopping the strings from sounding. So, of course, it’s back to our piano to record some release samples. Here, we begin to get into techniques that will vary from developer to developer, but it basically involves playing a staccato note on an instrument, in our example piano, and isolating the sound that occurs after the note is released by editing out the rest of the note. We could go further and record release samples at different velocity levels. Most samplers have a release function that allows the triggering of these samples when MIDI notes are released.
Let’s say you’ve loaded up your favorite solo violin, and away you go, playing a brilliant staccato line in your latest opus. Your sampled violin was chromatically sampled, has several velocity layers, and release samples. So far, so good. But, now you notice that every time you play an A4, the same sample is playing; a dead giveaway of a sampled sound. The solution is to employ a technique known as “Round Robin,” where the instrument alternates between several sets of (hopefully) almost identical samples in sequence or at random. This way, when you repeatedly play your A4, you don’t hear the same, stubborn sample each time. The tradeoff is in RAM/disk usage for the user and added time and expense for the developer, since the number of samples required increases proportionately. If an instrument’s sample count is initially 100, making it 5x Round-robin (5 sets of alternating sample sets) requires 500 samples! The difficulty here is to record enough samples that you have enough “almost identical” samples to choose from. This is especially important for staccato instruments, where slight differences in the attack time in the samples can cause real problems for a composer when the timing of a phrase may change slightly each time it plays! Because of this, some libraries now allow the bypassing or resetting of Round-robin features.
Well, the staccato violin phrases are sounding quite convincing, but now you come to the soaring violin melody that requires long, sustained notes. But instead of a beautiful, connected line, what you actually hear is the attack portion of the violin notes sneaking in with each new note in your melody. One way around this is to simply make the instrument monophonic, and cross-fade quickly into the each new note, bypassing the attack portion of the new note’s sample. A better, but more complicated way is to use legato transition samples, where the transitions between intervals have been recorded by the original musician. Each interval would need to be recorded, starting with every note in the instrument’s range and playing from that note to each interval above and below, usually to an octave both ways! Then, the actual transition portion of each recording is isolated, which is usually a fraction of a second in length. Then, when you play a connected note (by not releasing the first key before you hit the next one), like an F4 to an A4, a script fades out the F4, fades in the tiny F4 to A4 transition sample, then cross-fades to the A4 sample. Some libraries forgo a separate transition sample, and record the transition as part of the target sustained note, which then requires only a single cross-fade.
True legato can make all the difference in creating a believable musical phrase, but it still often requires some patience to use. The legato transitions take a bit of time to happen, and can make the instrument feel sluggish. Even more than in the case of Round-robins, legato instruments require substantially more samples, and therefore more RAM and computing power. When done well, though, legato programming allows us to get about as close as we can to the real thing.
Key-switching refers to the use of, otherwise unused parts of the keyboard, as a way to control the instrument, most often by switching articulations. For instance, hitting a C1 note could bring up a violin’s legato setting, D1 the staccato setting, E1 the tremolo, and so on. The advantage here is that you could use a single instance of the violin to cover all these styles instead of loading up separate instruments on different MIDI channels. Through scripting, it is possible to use key-switches to control many other functions, as well.
Samplers and sample libraries have changed the way music is produced. We can now have the sound of a symphony orchestra tuned up and ready to play by simply booting up our computers … or perhaps a virtual guitarist or a drummer or a bagpipe player. We can resurrect the synthesizers, drum machines, and other musical machines of old and make new music with them. Today’s samplers are equipped with filters, LFOs, envelopes, and more wonders borrowed from synthesizers, making them sound design playgrounds for those willing to dig in. So grab a microphone, get in the kitchen, and hear what happens!
In this review, we look at Launchpad Mini, a smaller and much less expensive, but exceedingly capable, version of Launchpad S.
by A. Arsov, Sept. 2014
Launchpad Mini is a smaller brother of Launchpad S. It has the same number of pads, same number of buttons, same functionality, but is smaller and cheaper. It is supposed to be a hardware controller intended to trigger loops and sounds. But as human nature is a bit of a tricky thing, there is one fellow, Henri David, who released an alternative driver (Launchpad 95) for whole Launchpad series, adding some fancy new features making that small Launchpad that you can get it for €99 EUR an all-around monster with some extra functions that you can only find in Push from Ableton that costs over €500 EUR.
So, as you can imagine, I visited Launchpad95 site downloading those alternative drivers the day before I got my Launchpad Mini. Not the original Novation drivers are bad or anything like that – I just simply wanted more than what I paid for.
This hardware is a Novation USB powered controller made especially for Ableton Live and FL Studio, armed with 64 launch pads and 16 buttons. Its main purpose is to trigger so-called scenes, i.e. pre-prepared clips or sounds, launching them in sync with a host. It becomes some sort of standard for live Electro gigs, where you can build your arrangement on the fly, reacting to a response from the crowd. But it is also a good arranging tool in a studio where you can record your Scene improvisation on the fly, triggering various elements. Ableton Live is all about catching the moment of inspiration, and Launchpad Mini or even S is an ideal tool for that purpose. With Launchpad’s pads and buttons, you can select an empty scene cell pressing the record button on Launchpad and record a new clip, audio or MIDI along with triggering all other clips from an arrangement. After spending few days with this tool, I find it almost indispensable, as it opened some new perspectives in my workflow.
Launchpad Mini offers three general modes that you can select through upper row of buttons. The first and most often used is:
In this mode you can select any channel or clip, by pressing the appropriate pad for the Scene’s cell, and if the cell or channel is out of range, then you can browse through the channels or rows of cells up and down, left and right with the first four left upper buttons on the Launchpad, reaching any clip or channel that is out of visible range. With some other buttons that are positioned right from the 64 cells, you can start recording at any selected scene or to select recording enable (Arm) sequencers button on any channel.
The yellow pads shows cells that contains the clip, green represents cells with active clips and, and red represents cells during the recording stage.
In the mixer mode you can use pads to control volume and pan on every channel (using left and right upper buttons to reach more than eight channels). In this mode you can also control the level for two send effects. It would be easier to do that with knobs, but obviously it could be done by dragging with fingers through row of pads changing all those parameters.
User Mode (Instrument Selecting Mode with Launchpad 95)
This is supposed to be a mode where you can trigger some synth or drum notes, playing simple melodies, trying to find which pad represents a particular one, or programming some simple drum patterns, or maybe just spending eons of time programming something more useful if there happens to be no Henri to program some additional functions for you. He made a Cadillac out of Launchpad by adding the instrument selecting mode, similar to one that we can see on a Push controller. In this instrument selecting mode, we have a rank of notes representing only notes that are in a selected scale. So if you choose a C major scale, then the orange pads will represent root note and all further green cells will represent all other notes that are in C major scale. Notes that are not in particular scale are not presented on pads, so there is no pad for C sharp or G sharp or any other sharp or flatted note in the C major scale. Whatever you play will be always perfectly in harmony with C major. Pressing every second cell with three fingers will give you appropriate chord for that scale according to the first cell you pressed in that triad. Both of my sons learned how to play chords with Launchpad in a minute!
At the bottom of the article you will find a table with some essential chords that you can play with Launchpad. It is dead easy and fun. Actually I found that working with Launchpad will lead you to use some different harmonies than when you are playing or programming progressions through a keyboard. It is a great creative tool, allowing you to overcome your old habits and bring some fresh air in your compositions.
The main difference inside the instrument selecting mode in Launchpad and Ableton Push is that Ableton Push supports velocity and aftertouch, giving much more controlled, softer results. Also Launchpad is not the best tool for playing some fast drum or synth sequence as pads need some time to return back in starting position after they have been pressed by finger (a few milliseconds, but enough to miss some fast repeated notes). Cells on Push don’t go so deep inside in the main box when you press them, so it is possible to play some faster passages. Don’t get me wrong – Push still offers plenty of other additional functions that makes it worth the money, allowing you to control a great number of other parameters inside Live effect racks, tracks and instruments. This puts the whole thing on a completely new level, allowing you to make almost entire songs, playing only with Push and almost forgetting that your sequencer is running on your computer. All I want to say is that Launchpad also offers some extra functionality that makes it far more than just a good buy, especially considering the purchase price.
By the way, I find that normal User Mode (with default Novation drivers and not the one from Henri) works even with Cubase. Of course you can’t set any scale or bring in some other extra functions, but it works fine for triggering some wild bass patterns or drum hits. Every pad represents the next note on a keyboard. C, C#, D, D# and so on, with the little twist that higher notes are in a lower rows and not in a higher as it is the case in FL Studio and Ableton Live
Scale Edition Mode
In this mode you can select which scale will be used in Instrument Select Mode. A row of cells simulating keyboard’s black and white keys, pressing appropriate notes will select the appropriate scale. In lower rows we can find a sizable array of additional colored pads in green, representing various scales. The first pad is for Major scale, the second for minor and all other pads represent many other scales, like Arabian, Mixolydian, Dorian, etc., etc. So, all you have to do is to select the root note and the desired scale and off you go – always in tune and always in harmony.
Drum Step Sequencer Mode
This should be User 2 Mode, but here comes a Henri again. It is a mode where you can program your drums in a conventional way, selecting how many bars the step sequencer will have, then selecting various drum elements and programming on the fly by adding notes in one of the pads inside the row representing the step sequencer. After spending some quality time finding how to set the proper number of bars and to find the right kit element (I have not used step sequencers for several years), I found this Drum Step Sequencer thing quite useful and delightful, getting a bit different results than when I’m doing that through the keyboard.
A button away is a multi-note step sequencer mode, where you can build your melodies step by step combining buttons and pads. When doing that, I felt like Pet Townsend in one of those pictures where he was toying with one of the first hardware step sequencers for Who’s Next album. A bit retro, but yes, after you get used to it, it proves to be much easier than drawing notes by hand in any of supported DAWs.
All in All Mode
Launchpad Mini, a younger brother of Launchpad S is definitively a pocket Mercedes on a budget, being small enough to take everywhere you go. Even if you don’t use the Launchpad 95 driver, it is still an ideal tool for trying new combinations during the arranging phase and almost indispensable for performing live. With the additional driver, Launchpad Mini becomes a pure fetish. At first I was a bit skeptical regarding the Instrument mode, being used to inputting every note just via keyboard. I was thinking “why should I need this, as this is more for those who don’t know much about harmonies”, but soon I realized that different approaches give different results. It is like getting a partner for composing, a partner that “thinks and reacts” a bit differently than you.
Launchpad is made from very solid and robust plastic, and is not the least bit fragile. You should definitively bang those pads a bit harder than you are used to with a normal non-weighted keyboard, but I borrowed Push during the final test stage to compare it with Launchpad, and I noticed that this is obviously the case with all similar trigger boxes. No matter that pads on Launchpad Mini are smaller than on Launchpad S, I didn’t notice any problems hitting the right pad. I even expected many more problems to adapt myself to the whole concept, but after seeing few video clips on YouTube, I got started in a minute. I only needed day or two to get used to knob hardness in Instrumental mode, but Launchpad is not to blame – it is just a matter of using the different tool or instrument – and it always take time to adapt yourself to a different controller.
Launchpad Mini is a tool that you won’t miss until you try it. After that, it is hard to imagine a life without it. It is not an unmissable tool for music production, but on the other hand, it brings a whole new level in your workflow, opening a universe of different approaches that could drastically change the way your music sounds.
Chords with Launchpad Mini
More or less, as Henri copied the scale system from Ableton Push, the chord positions that you can play with Launchpad are the same as those on Push.
I made a list with some basic chords that can help you start making some harmonies with Launchpad Mini, putting all those chords inside a one octave range. Maybe this looks a bit complicated, but basically you can become a Launchpad virtuoso keeping the same finger position as it is presented for C major chord (root pad, third pad right from root and one between the root and third in upper row) playing it from any other pad. You will be on a safe ground, getting all basic chords in scale just playing that position up and down horizontally. One pad further right from root note and you are playing D major, another pad further right and you are playing E minor, one more and you are playing F major, one more G major. Don’t forget – only notes that are inside the scale are represented on pads. So having your fingers in same “C-major-like triangle” position, banging around the pads will make you a harmony master. This is an ideal tool for all cannot-read-music musicians. Other chords on a list are there only if you want to impress your mate, showing him that you can do a bit more than just climbing up or down with same finger figure. 😉
That’s all for now. Enjoy…
More info on
Launchpad Mini could be yours for €99 EUR (more or less the same price in US dollars.)
It works also with iPad. With Launchpad Mini you will also get a downloadable version of Ableton 9 Lite.
by A. Arsov
In part Three of a three-part series on dynamic equalization we delve deeply into “spectral dynamics processing” with Meldaproduction’s unique and versatile MSpectralDynamics plugin.
by Dave Townsend, Sept.2014
Welcome to Part Three of a three-part series on dynamic equalization with emphasis on Meldaproduction plugins.
Editor’s note: this article is split into two parts, both appearing in this issue, due to the length. The author is referring to three installments, the first and second of which were seen in previous issues of SoundBytes Magazine issues. Now back to our regular programing.
In the first two installments, we examined two plugins that straddle the line between equalizers and dynamics processors: MDynamicEQ and MAutoDynamicEQ. In this article, we’ll look at a relatively new class of processors that blur that line even further: spectral dynamics processors. In particular, we’ll dig deep into MSpectralDynamics from Meldaproduction ($273), as well as a couple of its precursors, notably Voxengo’s venerable Soniformer, for context.
Chances are you don’t presently use MSpectralDynamics or even know anything about it. That’s because despite being on the market for five years it hasn’t generated a whole lot of buzz. That, I think, is mostly because potential users just aren’t quite sure what it does. That’s understandable because it’s unlike anything else you likely have in your kit.
If you have heard of it but aren’t sure what it is, I’m going to try to dispel some of the mystery. If you’ve never heard of it before, then you are going to thank me for introducing it to you. You’re welcome.
So What Is It?
Just what IS a “spectral dynamics processor”? I wish I had a concise one-line description that could convey what it is. So does the developer, I think. The Meldaproduction website [LINK: http://www.meldaproduction.com/plugins/product.php?id=MSpectralDynamics] says it’s “a dynamics processor which works in the spectral domain allowing you to work with individual frequencies”. Yeah, I know, the first time I read that it didn’t exactly inspire an “ah-ha” moment for me, either.
The best short descriptor I’ve been able to come up with is “a processor that equalizes through compression”. Oh, you’re thinking; a multi-band compressor, right? Or maybe a dynamic equalizer? Well, yes, it is kind of like those things, but not really either of them. It’s something different, as we’ll see.
My Own Introduction to MSpectralDynamics
I initially tried MSpectralDynamics solely out of curiosity. It seemed unusual, so I downloaded the demo and tried it out. Not knowing what to expect, I dropped it onto the master bus with the intention of twisting knobs to see what they did. It had a LOT of knobs.
What happened next took me by surprise. Simply inserting the plugin into the master bus made an instant improvement in the clarity of my mix, without me doing anything at all. Oh, I said to myself: that’s different.
I started pulling up project after project, dropping MSpectralDynamics onto the master bus of each one. In many of them, I heard a noticeable improvement, again without tweaking anything. Or even having the first clue as to what I, or it, was actually doing.
By then I was starting to get pretty excited. Could this possibly be the mythical holy grail of audio plugins, the elusive Sound-Gooderizer you just slap on, sit back and enjoy? Well, not exactly. The Gooderizer plugin remains an elusive dream. But if this plugin is any indication, we do seem to be on track to get there someday.
MSpectralDynamics is essentially a massively-multiband compressor/expander. It defies categorization because although it’s a dynamics processor you don’t necessarily use it like a compressor. Not even as a conventional multi-band compressor. Ultimately, it works more like an equalizer – but it’s not an EQ, either. It’s all of these things and none of these things. Yeah, I know, I’m not making this any clearer, am I? Bear with me.
Probably the easiest way to visualize a spectral dynamics processor is to look at it from a historical perspective, to see how the concept evolved.
The Evolution of Spectral Dynamics Processors
In the beginning, there were equalizers and there were compressors. Although typically used together, they performed separate duties with little functional overlap. That began to change with the introduction of the split-band compressor in the early 60’s, which used crossover filters and two compressors, allowing low and high frequencies to be compressed separately.
This solves a problem in mastering that stems from the fact that the vast majority of a song’s energy is contained in the low frequencies. That means broadband compressors are almost always responding to low-frequency elements within the mix, such that high-frequency elements are being reduced along with the lows. Every time you squash a loud bass guitar note, an innocent shaker or tambourine takes the hit along with the bass.
Although splitting the spectrum in two helps, it doesn’t solve the problem completely. It just pushes the problem down the frequency spectrum. You’ll always have to choose an arbitrary split point, and within each resulting band the same problem continues to exist: lower frequencies’ amplitudes determine the amplitude of higher frequencies within the same band.
The solution is to add more bands. A three-band compressor gives even greater control. Four bands, better still. However, in the realm of hardware it’s just not practical, cost-wise, to keep adding bands. (A modern multi-band hardware compressor might set you back up to 5 grand!) But in the realm of software, no such cost limitations exist, so four-, five- and six-band compressors quickly became commonplace for digital mixing and mastering.
The Digital Multi-band Compressor
The C4 from Waves, so-named because it features four compressors, has been around since c. 2000 and set the standard for this style of multi-band compressors.
The bottom half of the display contains controls for four identical compressors. A later version added two more bands and is named – surprise – “C6”. There never was a C8, probably because they were running out of room for all those controls. It gets pretty crowded when you’re replicating compressor controls four or six or eight times.
As computers grew more powerful it became practical to add more and more bands, with each compressor handling a smaller and smaller portion of the spectrum. This allows for very detailed control over specific elements of a mix such as taming narrow resonances, as well as overall smoothing of the spectrum and volume maximization.
Let’s take a look at one such massively-multiband compressor, Voxengo’s Soniformer. It’s been around since 2003 and remains a popular and very useful processor. In the evolutionary family tree, it falls between a multi-band compressor and a spectral dynamics processor.
This plugin features 32 fixed bands, each covering just ¼ octave with independent attack, release, threshold and ratio parameters for each band.
The challenge for a plugin developer is presenting all those controls (256 of them!) in a way that isn’t overwhelming to the user. With Soniformer, that challenge was elegantly addressed by dedicating a separate view for each parameter rather than for each compressor, with a drawable curve to more easily set their values en masse. A real-time spectral display is then overlaid atop all of them for reference while making adjustments.
In the screenshot to the right, we’re looking at compression ratios for all of the 32 bands (talking about the lower panel; the upper panel is a gain-reduction meter). Click on one of the buttons along the bottom to select a different view. There are similar screens for threshold, range, attack, release, side-chaining, panning and makeup gain. It sure doesn’t look like your typical compressor, but it’s a clever and practical way of packing in a whole lot of controls without making it all hopelessly confusing.
The green bars are RMS signal levels, a spectrum analyzer that divides the signal into each of the 32 bands. The little white lines floating above it are peak values. These two pieces of information help the user set up compression ratios, as configured and displayed by the segmented white line running horizontally across the whole thing. The same information is provided for each of the other views, making it equally easy to adjust thresholds, reaction times and makeup gain for all 32 compressors at once.
Soniformer, despite its complexity, is easy to understand and surprisingly quick to get good results from. If you have problems with resonances due to less-than-ideal acoustics in your room, or hard-to-mike acoustical instruments such as a standup bass, then Soniformer can save the day. In addition to remedial applications it can also be used in the conventional way multi-band compressors are used for mastering, and it’s well-suited for maximizing volume in bass-heavy genres.
The main concept I want to point out with regard to Soniformer is the idea of drawing a curve to visually configure many parameters at once. The curve paradigm lets us manage great complexity by presenting it as an easily-visualized shape, allowing us to draw a curve that’s then imposed upon the spectral content via compression.
Spectral Dynamics, the Next Step
Using drawn curves to configure many parameters at once, it becomes practical – from a user standpoint – to expand a multi-band compressor to crazy numbers of bands. Get the number of bands high enough, a few hundred or a thousand of them, and we’re no longer thinking in terms of bands at all, but rather just about the spectral shape that they collectively define.
The more you start thinking in terms of spectral shapes, the more the plugin starts looking like an equalizer. After all, that’s what you do with any paragraphic equalizer, right? You specify the shape you want the frequency distribution to take. MSpectralDynamics does indeed look a lot like an equalizer. But it’s not. It’s a compressor that equalizes.
This class of processor truly straddles the line between equalizer and compressor, because although it uses compression and expansion like a dynamics processor, it does so primarily to smooth and shape the spectrum rather than to control dynamics. Although it can replace a conventional multi-band or dynamic EQ for some applications, it’s really distinct from either of those tools.
MSpectralDynamics can play a variety of roles. I use it primarily for mastering and vocal busses, but it’s also a pretty good de-esser and general spectral problem-solver. It can even do noise reduction, no kidding. And it can also play at least one role you probably didn’t even know you were missing: spectral ducker. We’ll talk more about that later, because it’s a very cool application.
My experience has been that the plugin quite often does something good to full mixes even without touching any controls. That’s handy, because there are an awful lot of controls. The good news is that there are just four of them you need to understand in order to get started:
- Attack and release
Familiarize yourself with those four and you’re on your way. (OK, nitpickers, attack and release are really two separate controls, but if you get one you’ll get the other. I’m counting them as one.)
Sidebar: Easy Mode vs. Edit Mode
Like most Meldaproduction products, MSpectralDynamics has two modes: easy and advanced. By default, the plugin comes up in Easy Mode. Personally, I almost never use Easy Mode with MSpectralDynamics. With the exception of the de-noise example in the usage notes, the rest of this article will refer exclusively to controls on the Edit (advanced) Mode screen. Click on the Edit button to close Easy Mode and enter the “real” user interface.
OK, time to dig into the meat of this thing, starting with the biggie: Slope. Hang in there with me, because I’m going to take the long way around…
Take a look at the following four spectral graphs. These are from four different genres and four different eras. Although not identical, the similarities should be obvious.
It’s no coincidence that these four graphs look similar. Those frequency distributions weren’t arrived at by some committee, but by literally billions of people agreeing on what sounds good over hundreds of years. Beethoven didn’t have a spectrum analyzer, but he nevertheless intuitively chose arrangements, voicing, instrumentation and stage placement that resulted in just this type of spectral signature. (By the way, Beethoven is represented in picture D, above. That’s his Fifth Symphony. The other three are prog rock, pop and soul tracks from Rush, Pink, and Seal, respectively.)
Here’s a generalized picture (right) of what you’ll normally see in spectral analyses of full music mixes. There are usually three distinct segments representing low, mid and high frequencies, each with their own “slope”, or rate of change.
The main differentiators between one spectral graph and another are the frequency of pivot point A, the frequency and relative amplitude of pivot point B, and the slopes of line segments C, D and E. We’re most interested in the middle line segment (D), which represents the most significant frequencies in any mix. In particular, we’re interested in the relative amplitudes of A and B, because they determine the angle of segment D’s downward slope.
OK, you weren’t expecting geometry. Sorry. The point of this is that it’s the slope of line segment D that is the primary determiner of the overall perception of brightness of tone. No, it’s not segment E as you might think. Rather, it’s the rate at which levels drop from around 70-100Hz up to about 3-5KHz – often referred to as the spectrum’s “slope”.
The slope is never a perfectly-straight line like the idealized graphic above, but it does follow a clear downward angle. Fortunately, we don’t have to talk about this angle in degrees, but rather as decibels per octave. If frequency ratios decrease by 3 decibels for each higher octave, we say that the graph has a “3dB per octave” slope. (Pink noise is, by definition, white noise filtered for a 3dB per octave slope.)
Slopes can vary from shallow (e.g. 3 dB/octave) to steep (e.g. 6 dB/octave). Pop and electronic dance music, being generally brighter, will tend toward the shallower range of slope, often between 3 and 3.5 dB per octave. Naturalistic genres such as classical, folk and traditional jazz will usually be 4.5 to 6 dB per octave. Classic rock typically ranges from 4 to 5.5 dB per octave.
I’m a classic rock guy but prefer a somewhat modern sound, so for me the sweet spot is between 4 and 4.5 dB/octave. If you’re into contemporary electronic dance music, you’ll probably aim for a much gentler (brighter) slope, perhaps 3 dB/octave or even lower.
So where to start when choosing a slope? My advice is to grab a spectrum analyzer and take a look at some of your favorite songs that you’d like to emulate. Using either Voxengo SPAN or Meldaproduction’s MAnalyzer (both free) you can easily determine the slope of any mix, whether it’s your own production or a commercial reference. (See the sidebar “Determining the Slope of a Mix”.)
Sidebar: Determining the Slope of a Mix
Spectrum analyzers also have a “slope” adjustment, but it has no effect on the sound passing through it. Instead, its purpose is to filter the spectrum with positive gain for display purposes.
For example, if the signal under analysis has a 3 dB per octave downward slope, the analyzer can apply a +3 dB per octave compensation so that the resulting visual is more or less horizontal in appearance. This is a nice convenience, because it’s easier to match a slope target when your goal is a horizontal line.
You can use this feature to determine the slope of a reference mix. Import the reference into a track in your project and insert a spectrum analyzer there. Set it for slow averaging (infinite averaging if your analyzer offers it) and one-octave smoothing. Play back the file for at least a few seconds (you might want to skip intros and fadeouts, as they’re often not representative). Adjust the analyzer’s slope control until the display takes on a more-or-less flat appearance and note the slope value. It’s as easy as that.
The preceding dissertation about slopes merely serves to bring us to an understanding of the most important knob on the MSpectralDynamics plugin: Slope. Its value is entered in decibels, from 0 dB per octave up to 6 dB per octave. This setting imposes a shape onto the compressor threshold curve for the plugin, a sloping line tilted at the angle you specify. The higher the value, the more aggressive the compression will be at higher frequencies. Or, put another way, the higher the value the less trebly the mix will sound.
Insert MSpectralDynamics on the master bus of a mix and move the Slope control up and down. You’ll easily hear the effect it has because it’s not unlike the Treble knob on your stereo, just in reverse. Turn it counter-clockwise to make the overall mix brighter, clockwise to make it darker.
I usually start at 4.5 dB, but the slope you end up with will be largely genre and style dependent, as well as a matter of personal taste. You might choose the slope based on the genre you’re trying to emulate, to match up multiple songs in an album, to brighten up a dull mix or to soften harshness in an overly-bright mix.
Wet/Dry Mix Control
Normally, you’ll adjust this control last. So why talk about here rather than at the end? Well, earlier I alluded to four controls that are the most important to understand with this plugin. Slope was #1. The wet/dry mix knob is #2.
The wet/dry mix parameter is exactly what it says: it mixes the compressed and uncompressed signals together. Bringing the dry signal in results in upward compression by raising the level of quiet portions, a technique known as parallel (or “New York”) compression. 0% is fully dry, or bypassed. 100% is fully processed. You use it more or less the same way you’d do with any compressor that features a wet/dry mix knob.
Conventional parallel compression typically entails high compression ratios (e.g. 8:1 or 10:1) mixed underneath the dry signal. However, high ratios aren’t the norm in most scenarios where you’d likely be using MSpectralDynamics. With this plugin you’ll more often be using gentle compression ratios of 1.5:1 or less, using the wet/dry setting as a broad adjustment for softening the overall effect and restoring some of the natural dynamics.
I usually keep this knob at 100% until everything else is set, then start backing off the wet/dry mix until the effect becomes barely audible, and finally set it about halfway between there and 100%. More often than not, for me it ends up at around 80%, although it might be as low as 40%-60% if I’m after a subtle effect. But if I’m using MSpectralDynamics for remedial purposes such as squashing resonances on an instrument or vocal track, it’ll most often remain at 100%.
Attack and Release
As with any compressor, attack and release times have a big effect, but it’s especially true for this type of compressor, and especially on the master bus. In that role, you’ll often get the most pleasing effect with a fast attack and short release. Long release times tend to suppress ambience and reverb tails, so start with a release around 100ms and gradually lower it until the ambience and reverb come back. I often end up as low as 10ms, but it depends on the mix.
On individual tracks, longer attack and release times with higher compression ratios may be more appropriate. Try release times as long as 500-700 ms for vocals, although 150-200 ms will work most of the time. When adjusting attack times on vocals, start short (1 ms) and listen to the hard consonants, pops and sibilance as you gradually increase the attack. If you’re using an entry-level condenser, you’ll probably prefer a faster attack, since cheap condensers often exaggerate those types of sounds.
Normally, release times are much longer than attack times, but there is at least one application where an attack time longer than the release time may work best, and that’s when you’re sidechaining MSpectralDynamics for a ducking effect. More on that later.
There is also an automatic release option. In this mode, the plugin automatically adjusts the release time based on an analysis of the incoming dynamics. Personally, I rarely use automatic release except occasionally on the master bus. As a general rule of thumb, automatic release is most helpful when there is a great deal of variability in the material, such as in a full mix. For instrument tracks and sub-busses, I prefer the sound-shaping possibilities of manual release settings.
The Smoothing parameter determines how the frequency analyses are averaged. Turning this parameter clockwise effectively reduces the number of bands and makes them broader. Turning it toward its minimum setting makes the bands narrower. Here are some examples with different Smoothing values:
For mastering, I usually set no higher than 2%, and for very busy mixes 0% might work best. For individual tracks that only need broad smoothing (as opposed to severe remedial treatment) you may want to go as high as 5%. If you’re only after volume maximization, you can go all the way up to 20%, which gives you essentially a wide auto-adjusting tilt-EQ.
CPU usage will be highest with the lowest Smoothing values, so there’s an added incentive to turn the knob up if you don’t need high resolution. With higher Smoothing values you can also switch to either the Low or Medium Quality setting (lower-left of the same panel) and save even more CPU.
Wait a Minute…What About Threshold?
The four controls described above are what I consider to be the most important ones for this processor. You may be wondering why Threshold isn’t among them. After all, it’s by far the most critical adjustment on normal compressors. But with MSpectralDynamics you’ll typically set the threshold at minimum (-80dB, essentially silence) and leave it there.
That’s because, more often than not, you’ll be using this plugin for a general smoothing/leveling effect. With the threshold at minimum, the compressors are always engaged. You might expect such a tactic to result in bland, featureless mush with the life sucked out of it, but surprisingly it does just the opposite: it will actually bring out subtleties in your mix that you forgot were in there! No kidding.
Which is not to say the threshold adjustment doesn’t serve any purpose. On individual tracks especially, it may work better with a high threshold and high ratio, much like you’d typically use a multi-band compressor.
You may also have occasion to alter the threshold curve in order to emphasize or de-emphasize certain frequencies. As we’ll see, MSpectralDynamics lets you do anything you want with the threshold by defining a custom curve.
Customizing the Threshold
Sometimes, you may find that initially the plugin is compressing certain frequencies too aggressively. You might be losing the very low end or over-emphasizing the very high end, or in some cases might see an unwanted bump in the frequency response around 2-3 KHz. Sometimes, you just have a nasty resonance or sibilance that you want to address, or maybe a track that’s overly bright in places. For these scenarios, the solution is to modify the threshold curve.
Click on the Threshold button above the spectrum display to enter the threshold edit mode. A black line will appear along the bottom of the display representing the default threshold, which is flat. You can drag this line upward to raise the threshold, the same as turning the Threshold knob clockwise.
To change the shape of the threshold curve, you break the line up into smaller segments and adjust them individually. Double-click on the line to create a node. Create two nodes and you have a new line segment that you can move up and down by dragging the line. Nodes can be moved independently, allowing you to alter the slope of the line segment between them. Multiple nodes may be moved as a group by dragging a rectangle around them.
As you move a line segment upward, it reduces the amount of compression for that frequency range by raising the threshold. If you move it up until it’s above the average signal level, you’ll remove the effect entirely for that range.
You’ll want to audition your custom curve and compare it to the default flat threshold. Just click on the Threshold button to revert to the default threshold, and then click it again to return to your custom curve.
The Input Gain knob boosts or lowers the signal coming in to the plugin. Be forewarned: this plugin does not like to be overdriven! If you see the slightest indication of flat-topping on the spectral display, use the Input knob to lower the incoming signal. This affects only the main signal; it has no effect on the sidechain input.
Temp Gain can be used to add (or subtract) up to 24 decibels of gain to the signal prior to the detector. Some temp gain will be needed for all but the highest signal levels. You’ll be able to see the temp gain reflected in the Analyzer window, and hear its effect as the amount of compression increases with the temp gain level. Just be careful not to turn it up so high as to cause internal clipping, which will also be evident in the Analyzer window. If you’re using the sidechain input, Temp Gain controls the amplitude of the sidechain input.
The Resolution knob changes the FFT bin size, or in other words the granularity when analyzing the spectrum. Lower numbers represent higher resolution (and greatest CPU usage). The default setting of 10 ms works most of the time, but Resolution should be equal to or less than the attack time. So if you’re using a very fast attack, such as when using the plugin for de-essing, you’ll probably want to lower the Resolution setting accordingly.
Attack, Release and Ratio all work like you’d expect. Use the same rules of thumb for this plugin as with any other compressor. For mastering, I like a low ratio (1.2:1), fast attack (1 – 2ms) and fast release (10-20ms). However, if you hear your reverb tails being overly emphasized, increase the release time to 40 or 50ms. For maximum transparency, try slow attack (20-50ms) and slow release (150-250ms).
Negative ratios (e.g. 1:1.2) are supported, too. This causes the processor to work in reverse, as an expander rather than as a compressor. Some interesting effects can be achieved this way, but be careful; it’s possible to inadvertently peak into the red.
Naturality is a non-obvious parameter. What it does is cause each band to interact with its neighbors, so that when one band compresses, adjacent bands are also affected, blurring the delineation between bands. The effect is subtle, and can often be turned off entirely. I normally set it to 0, 1 or 2 percent.
Quality sets the resolution for frequency detection, or how many discrete frequencies can be identified by the spectral detector.
(Technically, it selects an FFT size of 2048, 4096 or 8192 bins, which in turn determines how many different frequencies can be measured. Even at the lowest Quality setting, it can still distinguish frequencies that are only 10Hz apart.)
The vendor recommends leaving Quality at its default setting of “High” unless you’re running out of CPU and need the plugin to operate more efficiently. However, the Low and Medium settings are fine in conjunction with high Smoothing values.
Despite its name, this setting does not affect sound quality. It does, however, affect the way other parameters work, so unless you’re willing to start over from scratch it’s best to not change it mid-project.
Range determines the maximum amount of compression that will ever be applied. This isn’t a common feature on general-purpose compressors, although it’s becoming more so, and is fairly standard on many multi-band compressors and dynamic equalizers (e.g. Waves C4, Fabfilter Pro-MB, Voxengo Soniformer). Left at its default value of 96dB, the Range option is disabled. Change it only if the material is so extremely dynamic that the plugin is occasionally applying an unnatural-sounding amount of compression to the loudest parts.
Look-ahead enables a look-ahead buffer, which allows the plugin to see what’s coming in order to respond to large amplitude changes in a smoother, less obvious way. In other words, it can start responding to future events that haven’t actually happened yet. Ignoring time is just one of the cool things that digital compressors can do that analog devices cannot.
For most MSpectralDynamics applications, though, look-ahead isn’t needed and increases both latency and CPU overhead. If you don’t know what look-ahead is good for, and under what specific circumstances it’s called for, just leave this option off.
AGC, which stands for Automatic Gain Control, is a feature that automatically compensates for level reduction caused by compression. This is off by default, but you may want to enable it because it can help prevent the self-deception that occurs when you think something sounds better or worse just because the volume has changed. Be aware that if you’re using long attack and release times (> 100ms) AGC can cause pumping and should be turned off. I usually leave it off anyway.
Limiter: the plugin has a built-in limiter that you engage via the Limiter button on the right-hand column of controls. The limiter has no controls and is permanently set to brickwall at 0dB, so most users will have no use for it. Leave it off and save the CPU overhead.
This option can be found under the main Settings context menu, via the Settings button at the very top-right of the screen. When enabled, MSpectralDynamics makes use of your video card’s processor to offload some of the graphics overhead from your computer’s main CPU. It makes animations smoother and lowers CPU usage.
GPU acceleration is turned on by default, and that’s usually best. But if you experience weirdness such as incomplete graphics, freezing or flickering, try turning it off. With some video cards, notably ATI cards, strange things can happen when multiple plugin UIs from different vendors are onscreen simultaneously that all use GPU acceleration (Waves plugins are especially susceptible). If you have vision limitations that require you to use a screen magnifier, it may also be incompatible with GPU acceleration.
By default, the compressor’s threshold is set to silence. That means it’s always working, always compressing to some degree. The amount of compression increases as the signal level rises. This results in a gentle leveling effect that smooths the overall spectrum along the slope that you specified.
You can, of course, raise the threshold (often compensating with a higher compression ratio) but for mastering I find it works best to keep the threshold low.
Another option for softening (or hardening) the effect is changing the knee. “Knee” refers to the rate at which the compressor transitions from gentle to high compression. As you turn the Knee control counter-clockwise toward 0%, the transition becomes sharper, until at the leftmost position it becomes a “hard” knee.
The default value of 25% gives a reasonably smooth transition and is suitable for most applications. Increase it if you want softer, less-pronounced compression, such as when mastering a mix that doesn’t have a lot of big peaks in it. A hard knee is more appropriate for higher ratios on individual tracks.
Note that Knee Size, along with the Ratio and Range parameters, is overridden by a custom processor shape, as described below.
Processing Shape: Custom Transfer Function
The term “transfer function” refers to how a compressor reacts to different levels of incoming signal. When you change the Ratio value, you’re changing the slope of the transfer function. MSpectralDynamics lets you completely customize the transfer function, which it refers to as “Processing shape”.
To enable editing, click on the little zig-zag button to the left of the question mark. The same editing controls described above for creating a custom threshold curve also apply for defining a custom processing shape, e.g. double-click to create a node, double-click a node to remove it.
The initial shape will correspond to the previous knee, ratio and range settings. Once the custom processing shape is enabled, though, those previous parameters no longer apply.
In this screenshot, I’ve created two segments. What this particular curve is going to do is implement two-stage compression, such that quiet signals are more compressed than loud signals (downward expansion).
By moving the nodes around, you can define all sorts of behaviors, such as downward or upward expansion and multi-stage expansion/compression/limiting.
Each node has its own knee setting, which determines the abruptness of the transition. New nodes are hard-knee by default. Drag the little horizontal arms outward to soften the knee.
Each line segment has a grab point (the little circle) that you can drag to create smooth curves. There are also presets (right-click to see them) that may be applied to individual line segments. They range from practical to bizarre.
WARNING: Unlike the custom threshold feature, you cannot disable and re-enable the custom curve to A/B with and without your custom curve. Once you click off the edit mode in the Process Shape editor, your custom settings will be discarded. There is, however, an A/B function in the plugin that allows you to easily compare two settings, so use that feature instead.
Using Secondary Processors
You can enable a second compressor section, as well as an optional gate. Using two processors allows you to set up two separate thresholds and two compressors with different characteristics. For example, you might want gentle compression for average signal levels and greater compression for unusually high peaks. Or, alternatively, the second processor can be made to work like an expander.
To enable the second processor, click on the Enable button next to “Processor 2”. This will enable a second panel identical to the first. You will also now see a second (red) threshold line in the Analyzer window for the second processor. However, this one is always a straight line that cannot be customized like the primary processor’s threshold can.
Click on the triangle button next to the Enable button to turn the processor into a downward expander. In this mode, the processor responds to levels below the threshold. This makes quiet parts quieter. It’s actually the same as using a negative ratio (e.g. 1:2) in normal compression mode. Using a negative ratio in this mode causes the opposite action, making quiet parts louder.
Keep in mind that it’s a spectrum-sensitive expander, not a normal broadband expander. You may therefore hear unexpected tonal changes in a track (or, even weirder, in reverb tails) as certain frequency components are pushed down by the expander. It’ll generally work better on tracks and drum busses than on the master. On a drum bus it makes for a pretty good de-verber, taking out a lot of the room ambience.
The gate mostly works like every other gate you’ve ever used, with one very important difference: its trigger is the spectrum analyzer. This means it respects the threshold curve, which means it can be frequency-sensitive. With a custom threshold curve, you can make the gate respond only to the kick drum, for example. Or ignore the kick drum.
Other Settings and Features
As you dig into this plugin’s massive number of controls, it may seem like a bottomless pit of mysteries. I’ll have to leave it to the reader to delve into them all, lest this article become so long as to be unreadable. But on your next rainy day, take a moment to at least have a look at some of the things not mentioned in this article, such as…
- Custom attack and release shapes
- Alternative detection modes
- Curve presets
- Mid/Side mode
- Equalizer customization
- Spectrum capture for matching and conflict resolution
- Oscilloscope display
Mix and produce your tunes with best freeware tools. Tomislav Zlatic shows us what some of these treasures are and where to find them.
By Tomislav Zlatic, Sept. 2014
Dear readers, now that the summer is behind us, it’s time to spend some quality time in the studio and use those happy summertime memories as inspiration for new songs. Since we know for a fact that it’s nice to start the new season with some fresh tools, we’ve prepared another list of free goodies which you can to add even more power to your studio!
Ministepper by WOK
WOK is well known for releasing minimalistic and streamlined VST plugins which are designed for handling a single task without any redundant features and unnecessary clutter. His latest freebie release is a neat little MIDI step sequencer in VST plugin format, which follows the same proven concept of clean, bloat free design.
The central part of the Ministepper interface is occupied by the eight-step sequencer, with velocity, gate length and mute parameters for each step. In addition to that, the plugin supports different play directions, as well as on-the-fly tweaking of sequence length, which can be quite useful in live performance scenarios.
Additional features include sequence transpose via incoming MIDI notes and chord playback. Of course, the plugin syncs to the host tempo automatically and the time signature can be chosen manually. All things considered, this is a pretty awesome step sequencer for the price, whereas users who need more than eight steps may consider purchasing the commercial sixteen-step version of the plugin.
Perhaps the only drawback is the fact that the plugin is available for use exclusively on the 32-bit Windows platform. This may change soon, though, because WOK has started releasing experimental versions of his plugins for Mac OS X, as well as for 64-bit Windows.
CH4D by J1000
Jovan Koncar has recently released CH4D, a simple freeware chorus effect which works very well for achieving that classic “ensemble” type of effect. The chorus sounds particularly nice when used on vocals, although we’ve also had good results when processing guitar tracks with CH4D. Same goes for synthesized leads, which sound fatter and wider when processed with this neat little chorus unit.
CH4D features four stereo delay taps and a pair of resonant filters. In order to achieve a more natural sound, the developer has implemented a low frequency oscillator which modulates the pitch of the four voices. The plugin is incredibly easy to use and all the on-screen parameters are clearly labeled and easy to understand.
CH4D is available as a 32-bit VST plugin for Windows based digital audio workstations, made with SynthEdit.
Solo Viola Lite by Northern Scoring Tools
We know how expensive orchestral sample libraries can be and that’s why it’s so great when some generous sound design company releases an orchestral instrument pack for free download. The latest free instrument of this type is Solo Viola Lite, which is a great-sounding free viola sample library for Native Instruments Kontakt.
Northern Scoring Tools have built a highly usable viola sample library, featuring true legato performance and two whole octaves of sampled sounds. The performance sounds very natural and it’s hard to spot any artificial sounding tones when playing the instrument.
Solo Viola Lite requires the full version of NI Kontakt 4.2.4 or higher. A Facebook account is required in order to receive the download link.
Ace by Shattered Glass Audio
In the last five years or so, we’ve seen an influx of fantastic sounding guitar amplifier emulations which were being released for free by talented plugin developers such as LePou and Ignite Amps.
Although we have more than a couple of dozens of freeware guitar amplifiers to choose from, the reality is that most of these freeware amplifiers were designed for use in metal music and that good sounding clean amps are a bit harder to find.
Shattered Glass Audio has appeared on the scene with Ace, a freeware emulation of the Fender Champ tube amplifier from the 1950s. The amp sounds surprisingly well on cleaner settings, with a nice round tone and great dynamics. You can really hear how the amp reacts to your playing style, as if you’re playing your guitar through a real tube amplifier.
Even if you own commercial software such as Guitar Rig or Amplitube, you should still give this one a try, especially if you play classic rock or indie music. The sound of this little virtual amplifier really caught us by surprise, especially considering the fact that it’s the first ever release by Shattered Glass Audio. We’re looking forward to seeing what they’ll come up with next!
ACE is released as a 32-bit and 64-bit VST and AU plugin formats for Windows and Mac OS X based host applications.
White Noise SFX by Elias Pettersen
Good free sound FX collections are a bit hard to find, however a talented young sound designer and music producer from Norway called Elias Pettersen has done a brilliant job with his free White Noise SFX sample collection.
His intention was to build the ultimate collection of sound effects which are made with white noise as the sound source and he’s done a pretty good job with it. The library contains a wide range of tension builder type of sounds, risers, swooshes, and sidechained background textures for use in house and techno music. All included sounds are synced to 128 BPM.
The download pack also includes SFZ mappings and a handy Kontakt 5 instrument based on the samples from the library.
KVR Developer Challenge 2014
Before we finish this month’s edition on the freebies column, we’d like to draw your attention to the KVR Developer Challenge 2014 which ended two weeks ago. KVRDC is an annual contest organized by KVR Audio, in which talented software developers and sound designers from all around the word participate with their original free-to-download audio tools.
This year’s winner is Multiply by Acon Digital, an advanced chorus unit featuring a unique phase randomizing filter which serves the purpose of eliminating unpleasant comb filter effects.
Some of our other favorites from this year’s edition of the contest are the Lokomotiv virtual analogue synthesizer which was developed by Archetype Instruments and the absolutely fantastic Nova-67P dynamic equalizer by Vladislav Goncharov, which is probably the first of its kind in the freeware world.
Visit the official KVRDC 2014 page to get the download links: http://www.kvraudio.com/kvr-developer-challenge/2014/
Tomislav Zlatic: http://bedroomproducersblog.com/
Spark is a groovebox-like pattern-based sequencer. Add the SparkLE controller and you’ve got a groovy thing going.
by Jon K. Carroll, Sept. 2014
Being a user of a couple different ‘groovebox’ type electronic musical instruments, and a user of Arturia softsynths, I was greatly excited when Arturia announced the original Spark. When the SparkLE came out, I was glad to see a better price point. It is also available in pure software form without the controller, coming in the form of Spark 2 Drum Production Center, which is the full “kit” as it were with a more extensive sound set, Spark VDM (Vintage Drum Machines), Spark EDM, and Spark Dubstep. The Genre-focused versions of Spark contain a reduced sample set and reduced number of presets, and cannot use the expansion packs that are made for Spark, but are much cheaper.
I received the SparkLE with Spark 1.7, before Spark 2 was announced at Winter NAMM 2014. So I had to wait for the release of Spark 2 with everyone else. So, I will occasionally mention some things that are of interest to Spark 1.x owners wondering if they should upgrade.
The main screen of the Spark software looks like an abbreviated version of the controller. Once the controller connects to either the standalone or plugin versions of the software, the main screen responds almost immediately to your actions on the controller, and things like the lit pads on the controller respond to your actions in the software. This goes a long way toward reproducing that “groove machine” feel. Basic and even complex operations in Spark can be done using the controller and just this screen, so if you’re using Spark you’ll be spending a lot of time here. If you’re using Spark live, you’ll likely be entirely on this screen while playing it.
Like most hardware grooveboxes, Spark 2 uses a pattern-based sequencer. Patterns are arranged into “songs” by chaining one pattern to another, then another. The various parts can be sequenced separately as in a conventional hardware drum machine or groovebox, or in the sequencer interface using the mouse. There are provisions for both step recording and live recording, including recording knob manipulations and use of the X-Y pad. This can also be helpful in certain styles of live play where you are starting from a base sequence and building off of it as you go.
The Studio page shows each of your instruments as separate items and is where you can access the top-level adjustments for each instrument as well as the two effects channels for each instrument.
The Mixer page shows you the effects of all the instruments as well as their pans, levels and the two aux sends. On top of that, it also allows you to access the two Master effects. Here you can see I use the Master effects channel to add reverb to the whole mix.
One thing that Spark 2 adds over the previous versions is the Modular interface page. This allows you to get into the guts of the synth, as it were, and really work on the sounds. It also tells you a lot about how the sounds for Spark are made- as you see above, the vintage drum sounds, which I found to be good starters for making your own vintage-sounding drums, if not spot on, aren’t made from independent modeled components, but from generic components that are built together to sound like the vintage units. What that means is there isn’t an ‘808 oscillator’ and a ‘909 oscillator’, but a generic analog-style oscillator (and generic analog-style filter) built using Arturia’s TAE technology, that are arranged to sound similar to the instrument. Sample based drum machines (or loading your own samples) use a sample import module in place of an oscillator (and, yes, you can mix them pretty freely). There is no demarcation between a digital filter and an analog one so the dry, clean sound of vintage digital drum machines can be hard to nail down. Spark also has physically-modelled type drums and these are a bit more CPU intensive than the analog style (which are, again, more computationally intensive than samples) and can once again be mixed in with the other types if you want to create really deep layered sounds.
Different controls can be mapped in through the modular system, including the knobs, X-Y pad, and external MIDI messages. You can have the X-Y pad controlling similar or different things in multiple instruments at once, in addition to controlling things like the filter.
Beyond that, the X-Y pad can also be used to control the roller (for rolling drums and for drum loops) and slicer (for beat slicing effects) which expands the capabilities of Spark a bit beyond what most hardware grooveboxes are capable of.
For users of Spark 1.x, mapping samples to drum pads is much easier in Spark 2. Under 1.6 and 1.7, I had problems getting samples to load and to ‘stick’ on a pad once loaded and the redesigned interface and slightly different methods of handling things in Spark 2 greatly resolved that.
The controller itself is of very robust construction and, being primarily metal, heavier than you would expect. Even though the knobs are surface mounted instead of panel mounted, they have very little wiggle. The pads are nice and responsive, and have some give to them without being squishy… without being as stiff as the [pads on some other pad controllers. The pads can be calibrated so you can get the specific velocity response you like.
All in all I found Spark to be very good at what it is meant for- pattern-based sequencing like you’d do with a groovebox. The SparkLE controller is very helpful in that, especially when placed near the screen so you can glance back and forth. If you’re considering Spark, though, you might want to look at the original Spark controller instead of the SparkLE. The expanded controls and the display on the original controller make for a much better head-down “groovebox” experience and mean you spend a lot more time focused on the controller itself instead of looking back and forth to the screen. That said, once you learn where things are on the SparkLE controller it becomes like using any other groovebox-type hardware – albeit one that is tethered to your computer and has effectively infinite storage instead of the comparatively tiny storage in most hardware units, with a much deeper synthesis section that you can actually get into and create your own sounds.
Systems used for evaluation:
Samsung RF710-S02us, Intel Core i7-720QM processor, 8 GB RAM, TASCAM US-1640 audio interface
HP z600, 2x Xeon E5520 2.26 GHz, 24 GB RAM, Echo AudioFire 2 audio interface
We look at the 8Dio Adagio String Bundle, a huge string library offering much warmth and nuance, in this review.
by Per Lichtman, Sept. 2014
The 8Dio Adagio String Bundle is a huge string library (currently $1099 USD and available only directly from www.8dio.com) for owners of a full version of Kontakt 4 or Kontakt 5 (tested here with Kontakt 5) that is comprised of Adagietto as well as the first (and thus far only) Adagio volume for each of the instrument sections (violin, viola, cello, bass). It should be noted that shortly before publication, 8Dio released “Agitato Grandiose Legato for Violins” as a compliment Adagio Strings Bundle, which is not covered in this review (but will hopefully be addressed in a future issue). Adagio takes a different approach from other string libraries by specifically targeting emotive performances (often with many variations) and tailoring its legato program to an adagio tempo range (though sustains and shorts obviously function well at the full range of tempos). For each instrument, there is a full ensemble size, divisi ensemble size and solo instrument, but no second violin section was recorded. Two stereo mic positions were used during recording and are provided (close and far) and for the Adagio sections (but not Adagietto) there’s a mix position available as well.
It’s worth noting that 8Dio has started augmenting the Adagio series with the aforementioned Agitato series, with the first entries representing ensemble and divisi violins released in the weeks leading up to publication. As the name suggests, the Agitato series so far appears to cover quicker legato transitions and dynamic bowings outside the scope of the original Adagio series – so it should be thought of as a supplement to Adagio, rather than a replacement for existing volumes. There should be little (if any) overlap with previous releases.
Adagio works off the premise that dynamics are best captured in the original performance and the crossfading between dynamic layers does not tend to yield good results. This means that has an abundance of patches that change dynamics within the recorded performances themselves (often very beautifully and effectively). Every section in every size (ensemble, divisi and solo) offer “Dynamic Bowing(s)” patches that fully exploit this: crescendos and decrescendos starting and stopping at various dynamics, often both with and without sordino. The violas, cellos and basses (but not the violins) all have Dynamic Bowings patches that take advantage of the new Time Machine capabilities in Kontakt 5, but all of sections (including the violins) offer versions designed for Kontakt 4.
The flipside of 8Dio’s Adagio approach is that crossfading dynamic layers is not emphasized to the same degree as in competing libraries – though the first place to look for that is the Sustain or SusXFade options. If you are using the legato patches the “SusXFade” key-switch often has three dynamic layers – which is about middle of the road for libraries of this kind with some having more or less. Using the solo violin as an example, the crossfading tends to be somewhat more noticeable than I’ve grown accustomed to. A good example is would be moving the modwheel (MIDI CC1) through the values 85 to 95 and back in the General Articulations for the Divisi violins. Here you can hear the top dynamic layer coming in and out, while certain competing products make the transition from one layer to the next more transparent. You’d mainly notice it an a more exposed context, but often I would say that setting the dynamics at the start of a line and then using expression control to vary the volume can yield better results. Considering that, it might almost make more sense to map the dynamics to the velocity, which is an unusual recommendation for me.
With that said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t emphasize that the recommended way to use the library is to use the modwheel (Dynamics) and expression control (Expression) together to shape the line. In fact, sometimes I would right click on the “Expression” knob for a given patch and map it to the modwheel (CC1) which also controlled the dynamics. If you’re used to working with the Niente patches in Hollywood Strings, for instance, this will give you the wider dynamic range you’re used to.
Vibrato is a huge deal. As a novice violinist, I would be loath to subject another human being to the sound of the vibrato while I play on my own violin but the vibrato throughout the Adagio line is something entirely different. Here, there’s a sense of ebb and flow that’s very organic, making it somewhat more difficult to place up-front in a mix than some of the other libraries I reviewed, but very easy to blend (and very difficult to sound artificial) – a desirable thing indeed. In fact, it’s about as far away as you can get from the synthetic sound of the looped vibrato in many early sampler libraries. The character of the vibrato ranges from Romantic-era to 20th century to more ethnic or folk, but it is consistently on the more expressive side of things. This is not the vibrato you’d turn to when attempting to render a piece from the high classical period in the currently accepted precise and drier style.
In fact, the library has almost all been performed with vibrato (with obvious exceptions, such as many of the shorts, etc.), differentiating it from libraries such as the Embertone and SampleModeling offerings that give users more direct control of the vibrato through modeling. While some patches feature a vibrato control, the spectrum is “vibrato” to “more emphasized vibrato”, so those wanting to manually vary the onset of vibrato should look elsewhere. Adagio often provides several variations of vibrato through different recordings, however, so it is definitely worth the user’s time to explore all the variations to find the one best suited to the line.
Short Notes – Adagio’s Most Overlooked Strength
For a library called Adagio, could be forgiven for thinking that you wouldn’t find much that would work well in faster orchestrations. Of course, the only way to actually believe that if you have the library is in your hands is to completely ignore all of the short notes. As a group, the short notes have lots of body, work well in a wide range of material and (to my ears) benefit greatly from the approach to the “close” mics that the library has employed. You can bring these notes up pretty close to the listener without sounding edgy or at all thin or you can add additional reverb and have them fill the space, but with clear definition. They also often have several round-robins and they sound great. In fact, when I rendered mock-ups that only used shorts with multiple libraries, my clients often preferred the ones in this bundle.
I found the labeling and organization of the short notes a little odd – especially with regards to the way it’s handled in Adagio vs Adagietto. You can read more about that later in the “Documentation and Organization” section of the article but I’ve done my best to simplify it below. I divide the shorts into five groups: spiccato, staccato, marcato, pizzicato and col legno (battuto), using the ones from the full ensemble sizes. The divisi and solo sections feature fewer short articulations.
The spiccatos make up the bulk of the short articulations in the library. The exact ones on offer vary greatly from section to section, but violas and cellos include both normal ones and con sordino options. The only spiccato for the basses is feathered spiccato but the remaining three sections feature feathered, bouncing and arp spiccati while the violins and violas also feature tapped spiccato.
Feathered spiccati feature a less pronounced attack than the other articulations, making them useful for more delicate, receded or subdued parts. Spiccati on bow have the most robust attacks and can get louder than the other spiccati. Tapped spiccati are lighter than than spiccati on bow but have the most distinctive releases capturing an eccentric sound very vaguely reminiscent of col legno battuto, though on a more subtle level. As a side note, tapped spiccati are perfect for a “ticking clock” type of effect, should you desire it. The arp spiccati play the note twice: once when you press the note and once when you release it. The bouncing spiccati play a short series of repeated notes, not entirely unlike a tremolo – which brings up a unique consideration when playing them, not shared by the other shorts (except the marcatos). If you sustain a bouncing spiccati note longer than the length of the phrase, it will still trigger a release sample on release – which can be distracting. So my suggestion is to trim the length of these notes in your DAW after the fact to avoid the effect or learn the duration carefully and not hold the note longer than sampled performance (which takes a little practice). Regarding additional spiccati, sometimes further descriptors are used “such as fast” or “up down” and sometimes not, but there are certainly a lot of articulations in this category.
The staccato category is a bit different. There’s a single staccato for the violins, violas and basses and none for the cellos. The articulation is performed similarly across the different sections and is longer with more pronounced pitch than the spiccati, as well as greater volume (as one would expect).
The marcatos sound nice and are included in each section. The violas also feature a con sordino variation, while all sections (except the violins) include an articulation that layers marcato with a spiccato. The marcatos here are of a specified short duration, as opposed to marcato sustains which could be held down for much longer. As mentioned with the bouncing spiccati, if you hold a note down past the end of the marcato note, it will still trigger a release sample when you let go so you’ll have to pay more attention to the note releases.
All sections include both pizzicato and Bartók pizzicato (also called “snap pizzicato”). The range for the Bartók pizzicati is often narrower than for the normal pizzicati. The normal pizzicati are very round without sacrificing detail. The Bartók pizzicati ring out and are among the very loudest shorts.
Only the violins and cellos include a col legno battuto – the col legno articulation most commonly meant when someone simply says “col legno” but in contrast to “col legno tratto” which is bowed rather than struck. The col legno patches here have a roundness and heft to them, not entirely unlike the normal pizzicatos. It’s a shame that the violas and basses do not include them and I hope 8Dio adds them in a future update or library.
Legato: A Brief Note
Before we get into the individual legato programs, I should mention that Adagio takes a slightly different approach to key-switching with legatos. In essence, the line always starts with a sustain sample, but whatever key-switch you’ve currently selected plays at the end of each interval. So if you start on middle C and keep holding it as you transition to D, then the interval sample will play (and which one depends on the legato patch you’d loaded) and then the sustain you’ve selected with your key-switch plays. It takes a little getting used to, and this means there’s really pretty much just one way to start a line in a given patch (something 8Dio appears to have remedied in their forthcoming Agitato legato patches). The flip side is that you have several choices for the shape of the line after that. Some patches have just for our five key-switches but some have twelve or more, ranging from subtle dynamics arcs, to dramatic crescendos and decrescendo, as well as short bows and loures. This is one of the biggest differences in using Adagio as compared to other libraries.
It’s worth mentioning is a handful of sustains do not have loop points (though most do). For instance, the low E and F on the solo bass did not loop in the version I reviewed while many other notes in the same articulation did. Such issues are uncommon in the library and can often be worked around, but this is nonetheless an area where some other libraries, like the VSL products I’ve worked with, currently offer greater consistency.
Legato: Large Ensembles
Adagio (Ensembles): The bass section has two interval legato variations: one normal and one portamento. All other sections contain four normal interval legato variations, at least one interval legato con sordino (two for the violas) and two types of portamento. The naming and style of these variations vary greatly but I’ve divided to talk about each in terms of those three groups (“normal”, portamento and con sordino) except the basses. I’ll use the term “portamento” instead of slur to describe a prolonged pitch transition in order to minimize confusion when comparing other libraries – not in order to advocate the use of one term over the other.
Legato: Large Ensembles – Violins
For the violins, the first group includes Dolce, ET, Instinct and Village. These cover a wide range of different colors. Village is the sweet, quietest, roundest and mellowest of the group. Instinct is the “bread and butter” of the group, with the fastest and most forward transitions (with three round-robin variations) a noticeably louder dynamic than Village and a pleasant timbre. Dolce has the longest transitions of the group and is great for the times you have a slow line you really want to make the most of, feeling almost like it “hovers” or “floats” for a moment between notes. ET is closest in sound to Dolce but moves along a bit more quickly and to my ear sounds just a little bit sweeter and less dramatic. In my own use, I found that I often used ET and Dolce for the highlights of slow lines, Instinct as my general use legato and Village for the quietest passages.
The second violin group contains Emo Slur and Soft Emo Slur. I’ll start with the Soft Emo Slur because there’s something special about it that best captures the feel of the lush, romantic film scores of some earlier eras out of the non-muted legato types offered for the violin. It seemed appropriate to some of the slower passages in Francis Lai’s “Theme from Love Story”, for instance. For Soft Emo Slur, the portamento was noticeable but for smaller intervals didn’t seem overdone, especially when descending. At larger intervals, the effect became more pronounced as one would expect but I think that “soft” remains a fair descriptor. The Emo Slur patch on the other hand is louder, more driving and better suited to more dramatic parts where the portamento is meant to be featured more prominently – and works surprisingly well in a late-Romantic and post-Romantic context. As with any portamento patch, be careful of overusing the patches just because they sound good, especially in repeated lines, as it can easily fatigue the listener’s ear – but these patches sound great when called for.
In the final violin group we find Perdition Sordino. Both the transitions and the overall con-sordino timbre lend themselves beautifully, and this is one of my two favorites for lush romantic (but quiet) passages, alongside Soft Emo Slur. I’m not sure what else to say about it other than out of the con sordino violin sections I’ve been provided with for review so far, this is my favorite timbre.
Additionally, the Legato Master patch crossfades between Instinct and Village using the modwheel but triggers Emo Slur at lower velocities – not unlike the portamento triggering approach used in some other libraries.
Legato: Large Ensembles – Violas
For the first group in the violas we find Cantabile, Colin’s Favorite, Instinct and Village. I’ll just cover Cantabile and Colin’s Favorite here since my comments about Instinct and Village from the violins apply here as well. Colin’s Favorite has a bit more portamento in it and is perhaps a bit rounder. Cantabile is lyrical, robust and full – it’s got more heft and color to it than Instinct. Going back and forth between Cantabile and Instinct was helpful technique in writing my lines.
In the second violas group we find Emo Slur and Sweet Slur. The violas’ Sweet Slur sounds a little less lush and yet a little smoother and clearer than the Soft Emo Slur for the violins. My comments about Emo Slur generally translate from the violins.
Unlike the other sections, the violas feature two con sordino articulations: Perdition and Perdition Soft. Perdition Soft has an even rounder, warmer transition than Perdition (which sounds a little more pointed and specific by comparison). I really like the sound.
The violas do not include a Legato Master patch.
Legato: Large Ensembles – Cellos
For the cellos I think of the legatos in three groups. In the first we find Cantabile, Dolce, Instinct and Village. My notes on the types from earlier sections still apply here, especially about the potential for alternating between Cantabile and Instinct legato types to help shape the cello part. In this case I would add that for the cellos it becomes especially apparent how well-suited Cantabile is to parts that may be a little too brisk for some of the other legato types.
The cellos offer Emo Slur and Soft Slur on the portamento front. I would note that despite the somewhat similar name, Soft Slur is very different from Soft Emo Slur and Sweet Slur. Soft Slur takes considerable time to reach the target note and has the most obvious portamento. However, even Emo Slur comes across as taking a bit longer on the cellos than on the violas and violins.
As far as the con sordino articulation, Perdition, I offer the same praise as for the previous sections. I think part of what I like about the way the recording render the con sordino articulation for all the Perdition patches is that they come across as capturing a lot of the air and lift without overemphasizing the buzz (which would be a very easy pitfall to fall into).
The cellos are the only section besides the violins to include a Legato Master patch and it is used in exactly the same way.
Legato: Large Ensembles – Basses
For the basses we have Cantabile and Soft Slur. The portamento in Soft Slur is rather subtle (especially compared to the similarly named patch in the violins) and I tended to use the patch more when I wanted a softer feel overall, where the transitions took a little longer to land, as opposed to for a featured portamento or gliss. The Cantabile patch is more straightforward but very much on the lyrical and melodic side of things. In fact, to my ear these are some of the most pleasing melodic bass patches I’ve heard recorded to date in any library.
Divisi performances are contained only the Adagio Vol. 1 sections, not in Adagietto. Each section has two interval legato variations that vary widely in style and labeling.
The legato patches for the violins are Lost 1 and Lost 2: Lost 1 has more pronounced vibrato and is a bit more energetic, direct and up-front. Lost 2 is more delicate, subtle, soft and sweet with less pronounced vibrato. Each color is clearly differentiated from the other and both tend toward the sweeter end of the spectrum (never sounding pinched or nasal), and between the two of them cover piano through mezzo forte (or a less aggressive forte) well. They are better suited to slower tempos (as one might expect), sounding unnatural when played too quickly (an area where other collections have an easier time) but they add greatly to the expressiveness of slower lines, even without any CC or key-switching.
The legato patches for the violas are Instinct and Sweet Slur. Instinct has the more straightforward and traditional sound (less dramatic than Lost 1 in the violins), while Sweet Slur adds portamento and emphasis to the transitions.
The legato patches for the cellos are Allegretto and Anima. Anima has the more intense and up-front performance while Allegretto is warmer and rounder in timbre – thus I found that Allegretto was better when I wanted a line to recede or support while Anima helped it come forward and stand out.
The legato patches for the basses are Cantabile and Soft Slur. Cantabile a straightforward performance with a bit of heft and bounce and tended to keep up with the speeds I use most frequently in the basses while Soft Slur is a smoother portamento patch that needs to be played more slowly and keeps the transitions a bit more receded in the mix. I feel I should emphasize that both Cantabile and Soft Slur sound great all the way from the (sounding pitches) of extended low C all the way to the C# a half-step above middle C. These are some of the most beautiful and melodic bass intervals I’ve heard in a library to date, which is especially surprising considering that they were performed by two players (which is commonly held to expose tuning difficulties more readily than three).
The violin only has Schindler legato and it is a very useful and unusual legato type with a lot of passion, but I wish there were more – especially since only one violin was recorded and you need two for a quartet. Every other solo instrument gets two legato patches.
The solo viola gets Instinct and Sweet slur, just like the divisis and my thoughts are largely the same.
The solo cello also has Instinct but the second legato type is Geisha, a lusher, more flowing type that is one of my personal favorites from the library. This also means that unlike solo viola and solo bass, no slur type is included.
The Geisha type is also included for the solo double bass and works just as well here. It’s full of body and speaks more quickly than the Cantabile type included in the ensemble and is a very expressive patch overall. The second type is Emo Slur but my notes from the divisi section largely apply here as well.
Reverb and Tails
Adagietto’s legato articulations pretty much call for the use of a reverb plug-in, despite the pleasant acoustics of the space used for recording. That’s because for the legato programs, if you stop playing a note, the release is so short that you do not hear the space ring out, even in the far mic position. The ring out is shorter than every other section library I tested for this issue, including both Hollywood Strings and CineStrings Core – both of which were recorded in less reverberant spaces with shorter RT60 times
The claim that the church is “acoustically similar to AIR” is not showcased in the samples of Adagietto or Adagio. Even in articulations where one might be able to hear longer tails (such as using the Far position on staccatos on the bass) do not have the long, grand, hall sound of AIR Lyndhurst.
However, 8Dio Adagio’s samples are surprisingly good at intimacy, even when used with larger sections, at the same time as they can sound very epic: an impressive and unusual combination. One listener that I was playing comparison tracks for referred to a cue using shorts from the 8Dio Adagio series with external reverb (same settings as all the other libraries) as being like the other tracks “on steroids”, even when compared to libraries using larger sections. The potential power and scope of the recordings should not be underestimated – they have an unusual sweetness and color.
Documentation and Organization
The documentation contains very helpful descriptions of the different legato types and gives a lot of technical information (as well as helpful notes on performance). It contains several important omissions, however. As of the time of writing, there was no master patch list for each section, let alone a master list after all. In many cases, the manual left out helpful information posted on the product page of the 8Dio site. So here are the verified ensemble sizes, to help address one uncertainty.
For the ensemble size in Adagio (the only Size in Adagietto) there are 11 violins (single section recorded), 7 violas, 6 cellos and 4 double basses. The divisi sizes are 3 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos and 2 double basses. For the solos, there’s 1 violin, 1 viola, 1 cello and 1 double bass.
One of the biggest areas I had an issue with was in regards to the short notes in the Adagio volumes (though not in Adagietto). I’ve worked with string samples for around a decade-and-a-half and I play violin – I don’t play well, but enough to know how most of the articulations and effects I desire in my compositions are executed on the instrument. So I was really surprised that I had to put effort into discerning the spiccato articulation descriptors in a way I rarely had with any other library before. That in itself took some time to get used to but then there were other oddities in terms of omissions for given sections. All sections except the cellos have an articulation labeled “staccato” but the cellos do not… except that there’s a staccato articulation drawn from the cellos in Adagietto.
However, once I made it through dealing with these types of issues, I found personally found that it was completely worth it. The Adagio Bundle has one of my favorite sounds in sampled strings today.
Adagietto: A Different Approach
Adagietto uses samples from the full ensemble section sizes in the Adagio series but organizes them very differently. First of all, there’s an “Ensemble” folder that includes all the sections mapped across the keyboard together for both shorts (five types) and longs (including several dynamic bowings and FX as well as sustains). Legatos are not included in this folder. They are quick, easy to use and sound great making it a viable option for rapid mock-ups, both in terms of workflow and sonic results. Just keep in mind that a reverb plug-in is still more important here than with libraries recorded with more obvious tails (such as Berlin Strings, Cinematic Strings 2.1 and Spitfire Audio’s offerings) but that it’s also similarly a little more clearly defined for up-front use.
There’s also the “Legatos” folder, which is much simpler to learn than legatos in other Adagio volumes. Here there are just four patches: one each for the violins, violas, cellos and basses. These are all “Legato Master” patches using the same approach as Legato Master patches for the violins and violas volumes in the Adagio series: modwheel crossfades between Instinct and Village legato types and low velocities trigger Emo Slur instead. The exception here is that the basses omit any portamento so that the patch does not switch to Emo Slur at the lower velocities, unlike the other sections.
The third folder is labeled “Individual Sections” and this is where you find twelve patches (or eleven in the case of the basses), each of which contains a single articulation. The organization is very consistent and simple. Instead of keys-witching it uses a one-MIDI-channel-per-articulation approach that is a little less well suited to live performance but make it much easier to swap in to replace older libraries in your templates. Here are the articulations offered.
- Bartók Pizzicato (snap Pizzicato)
- Dynamic Bowing 1 (except for the basses)
- Dynamic Bowing Sord 1
- Sustains Sordino
- Trills Major Second
- Trills Minor Second
Adagietto features two microphone positions (close and far) but omits the Mix position included in other volumes. Personally, I basically didn’t use the Mix position so that doesn’t make much of a difference in my workflow. However, the violin section doesn’t include the “2nd Violins” button that Adagio Violins Vol. 1 does, which means you’ll have to spend a little longer setting up one of your own using the normal Kontakt bag of tricks, should you require it.
Adagietto doesn’t offer everything that the other Adagio volumes do (no divisi, no solo, fewer articulations, fewer legato types, etc.) but it offers the same sound quality and most of the main patches you’d want to use for the full ensembles. The organization is also clearer and the learning curve is a lot shorter. If you’re just getting started with Adagio series and don’t need solo or divisi, I would definitely start with Adagietto.
The Adagio bundle covers a lot of ground and I think the section sizes are a huge boon. I spent more time working with the solo and divisi strings than the ensemble ones, despite the wider array of articulations available in the full ensembles. It’s really great for cluster writing, though if there had been a second violin section it would have been even better. The library has a nice warm sound, the legatos are full of color and life and work very well at slower tempos (not so well at faster ones but the early indications are that the Agitato release will address that issue). The shorts are both warm and focused – while at times being capable of more bite (especially in the ensembles). The loures are great and I wish every library had them. Dynamic patches are useful but more so for refining a line than playing it live.
I found I used the close mics almost exclusively (ignoring the far mics for the most part since they didn’t add much tail) and often added external reverb. The library requires you to do some mixing, even though it has multiple mics, since everything is recorded in center, but this also makes flexible mixing easy to accomplish.
The library had one of my favorite timbres and some of my favorite legato programs, so I definitely recommend it. Just be prepared to spend more time setting up templates, and often a bit more time overall than with some competing products. That said, if you are doing divisi writing using legato patches, the whole things moves along very quickly. Personally, I find that the time is worth it for the results and the fact that it can get some good legato results with key-switching alone is a unique asset.
Impact Soundworks claims Shreddage 2X is the “Absolute Electric Guitar”. Those words are a lot to live up to, and our reviewer thinks they might have actually delivered on that claim.
by Rob Mitchell, Sept. 2014
Impact Soundworks are the producers of many fine sampled instrument libraries, including Vocalisa, Juggernaut, Celestia, and many more. For this issue of SoundBytes, I will be reviewing another product of theirs that is called Shreddage 2X. The original version was released in 2010, and later on it received many improvements for v2. With Shreddage 2X, they’ve added even more useful features.
What exactly is Shreddage 2X? It is a sampled electric guitar that can be loaded into either Kontakt or the free Kontakt Player. It has built-in effects, many articulation controls, and is very easy to use. The first time I heard the demos for it, I thought there was a real guitar player going at it in the studio, as there is just so much realism in its sound.
So how was it recorded? The guitar they used was a Musicman JP12 (seven-string guitar) going through an Avalon U5, then in to a RME HDSPE interface, and recorded in 24-bit audio.
Shreddage 2X is priced at $139 USD, and there is an upgrade price of $99 USD if you own the original Shreddage.
It does take a while to download Shreddage 2, and when you install it, it will take about four gigabytes of hard drive space. It uses a serial number for copy protection, and you will have to enter that number in the Service Center that Kontakt uses.
Besides the hard drive space, the requirements that you need are Kontakt 5.3 or Kontakt Player 5.3, a PC with Windows 7 or 8 (32-bit or 64-bit), four gigabytes of RAM is recommended, and at least a Core 2 Duo processor. For the Mac, you’ll need an Intel-based Mac with OSX 10.7 or higher, and four gigabytes of RAM is recommended. Peavey’s ReValver HPse is included, and requires a VST or AU compatible host to use it with Shreddage 2X.
For my review, I used the free Kontakt player which can be downloaded from the Native Instruments website. You can also use the full version of Kontakt. I used SONAR X3 Producer as my DAW for this review. Alternately, you can use Shreddage 2X as a standalone plugin using the Kontakt player.
After you get it running, you then have a choice of three different instrument files to load into either Kontakt or Kontakt Player. Most of the time, you will probably be using the Shreddage IIX file, as it has the main guitar sounds that you’d use in your songs. It has all the strings sampled on every fret, and in all sorts of ways; including staccato notes, power chords, unison bends, the list goes on!
There is another one called Shreddage II FX which has many pick slides, muted rakes, various whammy bar sounds, and more. They’ve also included the older version called Shreddage v2i.
Without even changing anything in the settings, you can get a great sound right away from Shreddage 2X. Many of the defaults are fine the way they are, but you can go in and change nearly anything to your liking.
One feature which is very cool is its ability to do double-tracking or even quad-tracking. It is easy to set this up with the outputs going to separate tracks. One way to use this is to have two guitars panned to the left and right, and use different effects on each of them. When you play any notes on your MIDI keyboard, it will trigger both guitars at the same time.
The Perform screen has many buttons to switch articulations on or off. These include sustain, mute, staccato, hammer-on/pull off, portamento, tremolo, and pinch. You can also fine tune them to your liking by clicking on the label below the corresponding button. On the right side of the Perform screen, the Quick Edit area will show you some parameters you can adjust for the selected type of articulation.
The effects work the same way, where you can turn them on or off, and clicking the label below the buttons will let you adjust the settings for them.
If you prefer to use your own effects, just turn them all off, and use the plugin of your choice to add distortion or whatever you’d like. The guitar in Shreddage 2X was actually sampled with a clean sound, so it works well this way.
There are some nice sounding effects built-in, and you can also use the Peavey ReValver HPse plugin, but you must have Shreddage 2X and Revalver loaded into a DAW for this to work.
Fret Board Screen
This is where you can see the how the fingering is working in relation to the fret board itself. The controls on this screen can change hand size, minimum/maximum fret preference, chord time, and fret reset.
The “Hand size” control enables you to set a larger hand setting, and then causes it to reach across more strings and frets to get to the notes. If it is set to a smaller hand size, it just doesn’t reach as far to get to as many places on the frets to hit the same notes. On a guitar, (unlike a piano) it is possible play the same note in two or more places on the fret board. They will not sound exactly the same, but it gives the sound more color and variation.
The minimum/maximum fret preference is similar to the Hand size control, but it’s more geared towards the frets themselves. It will set the range of how far Shreddage 2X will go up and down the fret board’s range of frets to play the notes.
“Chord time” detects if a chord is played, and changes the way it will it play it back using up strokes, down strokes, or it can use different fingering. The range for the setting is from 0-1000 ms. If you set it to 190 ms, for instance, it will figure it is a chord being played if each of the notes are within 190 ms of each other. “Fret reset” will delay the reset of the finger/fret positioning after the all of the notes have been released.
The Articulations screen is basically the same as what is on the main page, but all the controls are in view at once. You can set minimum/maximum velocity values for each of the included articulations. For an example, if you hit the note on the keyboard softly, but if the range isn’t set low enough for the “PINCH” setting, it won’t play with a pinched “squeal” type of sound. You could also force that type of sound to occur using key switching. This gives you a lot of control over the sound and realism of the notes being played.
I really love how easy it is to set it up the way I like, and the sounds blasting out of Shreddage 2X are phenomenal. If you have a MIDI keyboard with 49 keys or more, you could get a lot more out of the key switch feature, as you could use the lower keys to trigger muted or pinched notes, or even tremolo picking. Even if you have a smaller keyboard, you could automate the key switching in your DAW.
When you play live, you can activate a certain articulation for a few notes using your left hand, and play the guitar part with the right hand. Even if you have smaller keyboard (25 keys for instance) you can still set velocity ranges to control the articulations instead of using the keyboard to switch them. Also, if you need to save some memory, you can turn off any articulations you might not need.
The Portamento control section is very cool, and lets you blend from note to another. It sounds just like if you were sliding up or down to the next note. They’ve also included this as a feature that will work with the built-in power chords. When you play one of those, and then play another one, it slides up or down to that next power chord that is played. They’ve included controls for the portamento transition and sustain volume settings, as well as a speed control.
In addition to the power chord portamento feature, there is a power chord staccato sound which gives it a great, grungy, metal-type of quality. This can also be turned on or off with a key switch.
The Engine Screen
The Engine screen has many controls for the overall sound, including settings for velocity, pitch, and different types of realism settings.
The Velocity to Volume control is exactly what you’d think: If it is turned up, the harder or softer you hit the note, the louder the sound is. It isn’t just a louder volume however, as the string also sounds like you’re really picking with more strength. Release noises are adjustable too, adding a little bit of noise after a note has ended. It’s the same sound you’d hear when you have let the strings go on a real-life guitar.
The Extra Pick settings add a certain amount of that edgy pick sound at the beginning of the note that’s played. It has controls for the extra pick’s time (basically a delay setting) and the variation of the samples that are used for it.
They seem to have thought of everything, as they’ve added additional controls to adjust hammer-on and pull-off realism. When these are enabled, the volume and amount of hammer-ons/pull-offs will decrease over time until a new a new note is played.
One thing I wanted to mention right away is the vendor’s support. I had asked a few questions here and there during this review, and they were always quick to get back with an answer for me. A manual is great, until you get stuck, and you wonder how to proceed. Kudos goes out to the Impact Soundworks support, thanks guys!
A few other features in Shreddage 2X that I want to mention are the round robin (RR), the presets, and the keyswitch latch.
Round Robin is a feature that automatically cycles through slightly different samples of whatever note you’re on. This can steer it away from sounding like a robotic/repetitive type of a sound, where all the notes are exactly alike.
If you have set it up a certain way with the articulations and effects, you can save that as a preset to load up again at a later time.
The key switch latch is very handy, as you can just tap a key switch and it will stay on. That way, you don’t have to manually hold down that key to make it trigger a certain articulation. It will stay on till you hit a different key.
Impact Soundworks have really outdone themselves with Shreddage 2X. You’ll have a tough time if you’re trying to find a competing product with this much realism, especially at this low of a price. It is definitely a must-have for producers who need some realistic electric guitar in their compositions.
The clean direct-in recordings they have produced can work with basically any style, as you could add just a few effects or an amp simulation, and you’re ready to go. Nearly all the demos I have heard of it are heavier rock/metal oriented, but it can do anything actually: jazz, country, classic rock, pop rock … you name it. For certain types of styles, you may just want to adjust your effects a certain way, and then save them as presets. You could always use some EQ to get more of a twangy type of sound, or even a gentle/mellow jazz-guitar type of sound.
The library has a huge amount of great samples covering every nook and cranny of the electric guitar, and it really is of the highest quality. Once I started to use it, I could tell that they must have put in a gigantic effort into the scripting, sampling, and design of Shreddage 2X.
What more can I say? I’d sum it up by saying it’s easy to use, has extensive options for articulations, sounds even better with its effects, and yet it can have a pristine, clean sound as well. I highly recommend it. When they say “Absolute Electric Guitar” on their website, those words are a lot to live up to. They have achieved this with a brilliant product, great support, and an awesome sound.
You can get more information and hear demos of Shreddage 2X on their website here:
If you like strings that are big and round, recorded in-place in a concert hall and prefer working quickly to a wide range of articulations, then this might be the string library for you.
by Per Lichtman, Sept. 2014
Cinematic Strings 2.1 ($399 USD from www.cinematicstrings.com) is a Kontakt Player library with one heck of selling point going for it: it has the shortest learning curve of any major string library I’ve ever run on computer in the last fifteen years and can be used without any additional FX (though it benefits from them, of course). If you like your strings big and round, recorded in-place, in a concert hall and prefer working quickly to a wider range of articulations, then this is definitely a library you should read about.
Working Surprisingly Quickly
First, a little background. Before I started reviewing string libraries for this issue, I had gotten to the point where I used Hollywood Strings for almost all of my ensemble string needs. I’d spent a great deal of time setting up large templates to have the widest range of articulations I might use at my fingertips and the template itself took a long time to load. The library was pretty dry so I usually added convolution reverb to get smoother note releases at the very least. It sounded (and sounds) great but it takes a lot of resources and a lot of time to make it work well.
So why did I just mention that? Because Cinematic Strings 2.1 (CS 2.1 from here on out) is as far away from that process as you can get. You just load one patch for each of the strings and the pre-mixed mic blend has everything panned and enough tail from the hall (found in Sydney Conservatorium of Music) that you can just start playing immediately. You can load five tracks (one for each string section) and be ready to start composing immediately, with every sound the library offers at your fingertips. Did I mention immediately?
The library can run without an SSD. The system requirements are 22GB hard drive space once installed (45GB during installation) and 4GB of RAM but I think you’d be happier with a minimum of 6GB, but anyone with 8GB or more will not have to think about it.
CS 2.1 isn’t the only library that’s quick to use (CineStrings CORE being one that seems to be aiming towards similar ease of use) but it’s nonetheless still both the simplest and fastest to learn – and the only ensemble library I’ve encountered that mixes complete consistency in articulation and key switches from section to section with a single patch design. There’s something really nice about loading just one patch and never having to worry that you’re missing anything – and the fact that each section has the same articulations and key switches makes it so very easy to learn.
Ensemble Size and Hall Size
The ensemble size in Cinematic Strings 2.1 is noticeably smaller than Mural, LASS and Hollywood Strings (all of which feature 16 first violins), a little smaller than Miroslav String Ensembles 2.01 and VSL Orchestral Strings (which both feature 14 first violins) let alone the 18 violins in Quantum Leap Symphonic orchestra’s first section or the 20 in VSL’s Apassionata Strings. Its first violins are closest in size to 8Dio’s Adagio large ensemble (11 violins), larger than the sections in Berlin Strings and much larger than chamber or divisi libraries.
So what are the sizes? 12 first violins, 8 second violins, 7 violas, 7 cellos and 6 basses. So the sections are all a little larger than 8Dio’s Adagio series – except for the violas (which has one player less) and it features a distinct second violin section. The similarity is interesting to me because in the demos where I was using the close mics from each library, with a large hall reverb applied to rapid dramatic rhythmic shorts in each, they were two of the libraries that got picked most often in blind tests by some friends I roped into listening. I mention that because my preconception had been that people would choose the largest ensembles for that test and wanted to share my anecdotal experience with those that might overlook the library on that basis.
But you obviously don’t need to use additional reverb on these samples. The hall they were recorded in has nice tails on its own. They aren’t as large and grand as AIR Lyndhurst, but they have a real roundness to them that can be especially helpful if you are writing simpler material that you want to fill the space, rather than lots of intricate lines. In fact, I think that hall is part of the reason that library “feels” much bigger than the ensemble size would lead me to believe.
The Mics and Hall
Remember that test were I used the close mics with lots of verb and people really liked the sound? Those were mono mics – yet another preconception people may want to consider. Now, obviously the mono mics become more of an issue if you’re using them exclusively and trying to place the listener very close to the string, but even then there things you can use (like ReStereo from Numerical Sound) to expand the field if you really want. Anyway, the close mics are one of three distinct original microphone positions: Close (mono), Stage (stereo) and Room (stereo). There’s also a Mix position created from the other three positions – and if you activate it, the other positions will mute. If you want to fill space and keep a fair amount of detail, the Mix position works well and uses less memory than combining the other positions, so it’s a good starting point. However, if you find that your mixes are getting muddy or you want more definition, I would suggest relying more on the closer mics – and obviously it’s possible to create a more ambient mix if desired, too, though I would say the default mix does give a lot of the room sound.
In terms of the hall sound, it’s a concert hall not a church or soundstage so the sound is different. The tails are longer than LASS, VSL, Hollywood Strings, Adagio and Cinestrings CORE – so like Mural or Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra, you can use the recorded tails alone without additional reverb. Speaking of reverb, you can go ahead and disable the built-in one – it uses the built-in Kontakt algorithmic reverb and given that there’s a whole host of reasons to disable built-in algorithmic reverb in even the best of case, this really isn’t an exception. Built-in reverb like that is included so that people can tweak the sound right out of the box to sound big – but I strongly advise that if you want to use additional reverb, use good mixing practices, such as sending the various tracks to convolution reverb plug-in. As mentioned earlier, you can do surprisingly well without any additional reverb at all. The samples are all edited well and I never felt frustrated by their cutoffs (a criticism I’ve had several times with some other libraries).
The legato has some nice sweetness and a bit of air to it. The attack is on the slower side so it features a switchable staccato overlay, but I didn’t find this changed my impression of the speed in extended lines, just the start of the line (which I’m guessing is the intention). As a result, the library is good for a lot of the slower bread-and-butter legato lines but less well suited to quicker lines than for instance Hollywood Strings or CineStrings Core. The sampling isn’t as deep as Hollywood Strings, and there’s not portamento or bow-change legato, but like that library it features switchable playing position: HS uses first, second, third and fourth positions switches while CS 2.1 simplifies to switching between high and low. The vibrato is also controllable via a CC mapped to the crossfade and the library has a warmer vibrato than CineStrings CORE. The interval legato samples can be switched on or off at any time.
The library offers staccato, staccatissimo and pizzicato shorts. The staccatissimo samples were apparently created through custom modifying the staccato samples but they register to my ears in a distinct way and don’t come off sounding like a “cheap re-hash” at all. I found them very useful and they held up well, even alongside the staccatissimo samples that were performed and recorded for Hollywood Strings (though obviously each has a unique sound). That’s important because there are no spiccato articulations on offer, so the staccatissimo carries the full weight of the faster lines (as opposed to CineStrings CORE which offers spiccato but no staccatissimo). The four round-robins fared well in practice and I enjoyed playing rhythmic lines, especially with the staccatissimo samples.
There are no extended articulations on offer like col legno battuto, short harmonics, sordino shorts, sul ponticello or sul tasto shorts and this seems to be in keeping with the simplicity that CS 2.1 offers. Nonetheless, I’m glad pizzicato was included at least.
Large vs. Intimate
Despite the smaller sections sizes, I found that combination of hall, performance style and recording approach made cs 2.1 less suited to especially intimate pieces or more traditional performance style. It makes more sense for pieces from the late-romantic or post romantic eras or for larger game and movie score compositions. Sci-fi, combat, brooding, and a lot of “blockbuster friendly” settings can be well-served by it. It can be sweet but that sweetness is better on a broader canvas than a specific, detailed one where the performance and writing considerations may be different. Obviously it’s not a library designed for divisi writing, either.
It’s all by design and a fair trade, I’m just emphasizing it so that you know the sound you’re getting because far too many people buy a library without really getting specific about what the sound they want is or how they want to use it. Now, it’s not that you can’t use it for classical or neo-classical work at all. I had a lot of fun using the shorts for a neo-classical piece inspired by some of the western European dance forms, but the pieces will sound big and they will sound round – not specific, delicate and refined.
A Minor Quibble
I don’t like velocity-sensitive key-switching, so I wish that that staccato and staccatissimo each had their own key switch. It’s counter-intuitive to me to have to worry about the velocity of a key switch when I’m focusing on dynamics. Moving on.
There’s also a “runs” key switch that adds some “messy” samples that can help glue runs together. I don’t like it as much as the Hollywood Strings Playable Runs but it does provide a welcome improvement over both playing runs without them and over what many other libraries offer. There’s also a tremolo, whole tone and half-tone trills and each of the three has its own key switch. Their quality is consistent with the rest of the library. There’s also a marcato sustain articulation that pretty much marries the sound of the sustain and staccato – functional and fine but nothing exciting compared to the basic sustain, staccato and staccatissimo.
The library also has a “live mode” that modifies the samples slightly as you play to add some flow through imperfections. I liked the effect and general left it on and set to high. The intensity can be set through the advanced page (a tab accessed near the center of the screen) alongside many other helpful customizations. For instance, on that page, the controllers can be change using a pair of easy to work with dropdown menus.
I used this to try layering cs 2.1 with Hollywood Strings using the same MIDI data as for the Legato Powerful System patches in HS by simply remapping the controllers in a matter of seconds. I just set both the velocity x-fade (dynamics) and expression to CC11 and vibrato control to CC1 and it worked very well. If you’re used to using the aforementioned patches in Hollywood Strings, be aware that mapping the controller to Velocity X-Fade alone will give you a much narrower dynamic range than you’re used to because Hollywood Strings does the equivalent of mapping expression to the same control as well.
Cinematic Strings 2.1 does exactly what it sets out to do: make it quick and easy to write with some of the most common articulations with a sound that’s big and forgiving. There are lots of string libraries out there and you should listen carefully to see which one offers the sound you want as well as think about what articulations you want or need … but if Cinematic Strings 2.1 has got it, there’s no other library that’s as fast, simple and easy to use that I’ve ever ever encountered. That’s a heck of an accomplishment.
Mystica is a sample library that incorporates a beautifully sounding women’s choir into a user-friendly programmed library – our reviewer may be in love.
by A. Arsov, Sept. 2014
Eduardo Tarilonte is an award winning producer of sample libraries. Lately he has mainly focused his production on vocal libraries, making a whole series of various vocal libraries covering almost everything, from male and female choirs to various solo voices. This time he decided to sample a classical chamber choir: eight ladies, twice as many microphones (just my guess) and plenty of recording and programming. The end result is on the same high quality level as all the other award-winning libraries by this author. Notably, Mystica covers types of vocal material that fits perfectly with so many different genres. You can easily imagine the voices of this chamber choir with D’nB rhythm, not to mention how easily it could be used with all sorts of atmospheric, chill-out or down-tempo types of music. At the same time it is simply born to be used inside any sort of cinematic tracks. It sounds so James Bond-ish that you can almost hear all those fast staccato strings around the voices whenever you put your fingers on a keyboard.
You will need a Kontakt player (included) and five GB of a free space to experience these mystical voices. Everything else is a piece of cake. Load one of the included instruments, or we should rather call them presets, and off you go. In the main directory we can find a preset called Mystica – Chamber Choir, where the choir voices range through two octaves, followed by an octave and a half of various sighs and “Shh” sounds. On the lower part of a keyboard we have two octaves of various articulations; actually different short words and syllables are used as key-switch elements for changing the voice of a melody when you are playing a melody in the main two octave voice range. All those words and syllables naturally resolve into a legato vowel courtesy of the implemented “True Legato” technique (don’t ask – never mind – it works). And below those basic key-switch elements in green are another set of key-switches colored in red for switching between various vowels with one additional B1 key (it is out of a visible range of a Kontakt’s internal keyboard, so it is a bit tricky to find) for murmuring “Mmm” articulation.
Maybe I’ve lost you during this description, but it is actually very simple. With the right hand you can play your melody, changing articulations on the fly with your left hand. Nothing new really, but on most of the other libraries that use this same principle, it can be pretty tricky if you are not a skilled keyboard player, somewhat trained with that approach. But doing this with the Mystica choir produces very natural sounding results, even without any further programming in case keyboard is not your main instrument. With all those libraries it is always the same scenario – there is always a need for programming. If the developer didn’t do that for you, than you must do it. Thankfully, Tarilonte did this for us.
And This Is Only the Beginning …
On the same preset, only one click away is a phrase/word builder, where you can combine twenty eight different words with almost one hundred voice elements. Of course the words are in Latin language, so there will not be any “I love you honey bee” sort of combinations, but it still sounds very natural, mystical and joyful. You can even export and import your phrases using them for any other project. Every new note brings a new word. You can also fine tune your phrases or melodies (working also with basic vowels, not only with word-builder) with Envelope Attack and Release sliders, along with additional sliders for reverb, vibrato intensity and vibrato rate. The library offers also a few more exotic additions, like Autovowel, which causes the last vowel in a word to also be used for the next note, as long as the notes are played legato. It is ideal for remaking the well-known Kajagoogoo hit “Never ending story-yyyy aaa-aaa-aaa” in the Latin language. There is also a solo mode (which does not work with word-builder), which puts your choir in monophonic mode. Another interesting option is a Hold mode, where two words or syllables could be connected together in wordbuilder by pressing the hold button while playing legato notes, but I’m just not so sure where I could use it since I don’t speak the Latin language.
Further Up the Road
The next preset is called Mystica Phrases where we can find various melody phrases, even not-so-short ones, ranging over two and a quarter octaves – very useful if you just need a preprogrammed phrase or two to spice up your arrangement. This is perhaps not so essential, but it is still nice to have. There are also two more directories with additional set of presets: one directory with effect presets in which we get various whisperings and lamentations ranging over the keyboard, and another directory with soundscape presets in which various vocal phrases are floated around space soaked in reverb and delay. Maybe that doesn’t seem like much to you, but the main “Mystica Choral Choir” preset actually offers so much that, even without all those soundscapes and effects additions, this would be the best library in the vocal series from Tarilonte. After all we have a very realistic sounding women’s choir in which all those different voices, vowels and syllables could be very easily applied to any arrangement almost without any further editing. At least, this is my personal opinion. Mystica proves to be one of the most useful voice libraries that I have ever reviewed, incorporating a beautifully sounding women’s choir into a very user-friendly programmed library. So, this time the compliments not only goes only to Eduardo, who made all that possible, but to the ladies who did their job as only ladies can do – perfectly. They absolutely deserved to be named here: Rosa Plata, Verónica Plata, Ruth Over, Conchita Cortés, Estefa Alcántara, Solomia Antoniak, Maribel Rueda and Susana Casas.
Ten out of ten stars for this one – for the ladies and for Eduardo Tarilonte.
If you have a synth that just has knob markers for filter cutoff, etc. and you’d like to know what those values correspond to, here’s how to discover what’s going on under the hood.
by David Baer, Sept. 2014
This is a discussion of what it takes to calibrate a synth. The first obvious question is “what do you mean by ‘Synth Calibration’”? Once answered, a second obvious question is “why would you ever want/need to do that”? Let me answer both.
Although many synths have digital readouts for parameters like filter cutoff frequency, envelope attack time, etc., many do not, especially those synths that in some way model old analog equipment. So, it can be useful to do a little digging and discover those things yourself. A filter-cutoff knob, for example, might have eleven position markers between the 7:00 and 5:00 clock positions. But to what frequency does, say, 1:00 correspond? Finding such correspondences is what is meant by “calibrating a synth”.
Why go to the bother? Accomplished sound designers will just use their ears in the first place. But many of us are, at best, neophytes when it comes to sound design. A highly effective way to learn synth sound design is to recreate a patch from one synth on another. Since most subtractive synths have similar architectures (filters, envelopes, et al), this is often eminently doable. But first, it helps to know the from-patch and the to-patch parameter values. So let’s get started.
Introducing the Patient
In all the examples that follow, we’ll be using NI’s sadly discontinued, but delightful, Pro53 synth. This has no readouts of any kind, so it’s a perfect specimen for our probing.
It has one LFO, two envelopes (dedicated to amp and filter cutoff respectively), one filter (normally configured as low-pass) that has a 24 dB per octave slope, and a delay. What we’ll be determining is filter cutoff, LFO rate, envelope attack/delay/release times and delay times.
Filter Cutoff – the Most Important Thing
The filters are often modelled on classic designs, and filters on different synths will often have different audio characteristics. There’s nothing we can do about that, but we can at least get two filters in the same ballpark in terms of cutoff frequency. And it’s extremely easy to discover what cutoff values are.
When it comes to measuring values in this and all the other calibration chores ahead, you may be comfortable with getting approximate values – two significant digits is plenty of accuracy. Don’t sweat differentiating between, for example, cutoff values of 508 Hz Vs 514 Hz. Just call it 510 Hz and move on.
To find filter cutoff, we need a frequency spectrum display. Voxengo’s invaluable (and free!) SPAN effect will get the job done nicely, but feel free to use whatever you have at hand. There may be one included in your DAW software.
To find the cutoff frequencies, there are a few things you need to do to set up for measurement: it is important to turn off all modulation of filter cutoff: velocity, envelope, LFO, and most importantly key-tracking. Have an oscillator (one will be sufficient) set to saw wave. Turn filter resonance all the way up. Turn the cutoff control to the desired measurement position. Play a handful of adjacent notes low in the keyboard range (e.g., the five notes between C1 and E1, C3 being middle C). The reason is that this cluster of notes playing saw waves will be guaranteed to produce a lot of partial frequencies in the cutoff area of the frequency spectrum no matter where that happens to be. Observe the frequency spectrum and the cutoff will be obvious, as shown below. The resonance spike at the cutoff frequency is hard to miss.
Repeat this for a reasonable number of control positions. If you have markers at the “o’clock” positions, do it for all of those. You don’t need to go overboard. Eight or ten readings will be sufficient. Also, you should expect the readings at the lowest cutoff frequencies to be a little vague. Don’t worry about it. Make your best guess and leave it at that.
Now, we’re almost done, but not quite. The other important thing that needs to be determined is the key-tracking pivot point (assuming the subject synth has that feature, of course). Sadly, synth documentation rarely includes this important piece of information.
This is also quite easy. With the resonance knob all the way up, play notes with no key-tracking for cutoff and then with full key-tracking. When you play the note at the pivot point, it will sound identical without and with key-tracking. If in doubt and you cannot decide between several adjacent notes, use the spectrum display to identify your final choice. But with resonance on full, you will be unlikely to need it – it’s probably going to be quite audible. It turns out that on the Pro53, the pivot note is the B natural at MIDI note 35. Who can fathom why that odd choice was made?
OK, now we have this information (for the Pro53, this shown to the right). How do we use it? If a patch has no key-tracking modulation of cutoff, then just duplicate the cutoff reading of the from-patch into the to-patch. Easy peasy.
If there is key-tracking used in a patch, then we have to take the pivot point into account. If the from-synth has a pivot point of, say, middle C (MIDI note 60) and the to-patch has one an octave lower (MIDI note 48), you can’t just set the cutoff to the same value on both. The to-synth patch will be noticeably brighter. To compensate, you need to set the to-synth cutoff one octave down. If the from-synth has a cutoff of 800 Hz, then make the to-synth cutoff 400 Hz.
If this is confusing, just consider this. On the from-synth, when we play MIDI note 60 (the pivot note), the key-track-influenced cutoff will be 800 Hz. If we set the cutoff on the to-synth to 800 Hz, when we play MIDI note 60, the key-track-influenced cutoff will be 1600 Hz since the note is now one octave above the pivot. But if we set the to-cutoff to 400 Hz, then playing MIDI note 60 will get us an octave higher and we’re back at the desired 800 Hz courtesy of key-tracking.
Of course, you probably won’t be so lucky as to have them one octave apart where the math is just a matter of multiplying or dividing by 2. It’s still not very difficult to calculate to-cutoff values for the general case, but you will need a calculator that can do exponentiation. If N is the number of notes between the from- and to-pivot notes (i.e., MIDI note number of higher minus MIDI note number of lower), then calculate:
To-cutoff = From-cutoff * (1.06 ** N), if the to-pivot is higher
To-cutoff = From-cutoff / (1.06 ** N), if the to-pivot is lower
In the above octave-apart example, To-cutoff = 800 / 1.06 ** 12, which equals 397.58 Hz – plenty close enough!
If the 1.06-to-some-power calculation puts you off, there’s an alternative that just requires plain old division. Find the frequencies of the two pivot notes and calculate their ratio. For MIDI notes 48 and 60, these are respectively 261.6 Hz and 130.8 Hz for a ratio of 2. MIDI note frequency charts are easily found on the Internet. This second way is easier and you can do without a fancy calculator, but you do need the frequency chart.
The Rest is Easy
If what’s come so far hasn’t scared you off, the remainder of calibration measurements is child’s play – although it now gets a little tedious. We are interested in timing calibrations for envelopes and LFOs. It will help if your DAW has a feature found in SONAR. When you freeze an instrument track in SONAR, the project window track shows the waveform. Cubase, doesn’t do this, so there will be an extra step or two for each measurement. When you freeze a track, you’ll need to pull up the wave form in a separate audio file viewer or editor.
The most important timings you need are the envelope times. But let’s start with LFO rate because it’s the easiest to describe. All we need to do is set up a patch on the subject synth that has no envelope modulation and just one LFO. That LFO can modulate amplitude (if available) or filter cutoff. The Pro53 cannot modulate amplitude, so we’ll use filter cutoff.
In this and following measurements, we’ll need a simple MIDI track containing one note of sufficient length to allow measurement of the longest possible envelope attack and decay times and/or longest LFO cycle time. Use a high note in this case to avoid confusion between the waveform itself and the modulation.
Set the filter cutoff low, set the LFO to a square wave or saw wave – anything that makes a cycle start is easy to see. Modulate filter cutoff with the LFO. Set the LFO to the measurement rate you want to capture and freeze the track. Look at the resultant wave form at the appropriate zoom level and note the time difference between the start of two adjacent cycles. Divide 1.0 by that and you’ve got the LFO rate. In the example below, the rate is 1.1 Hz.
If we want to capture the timing information for the delay, it’s much the same process (although the Pro53 delay, which is intended to serve as a phaser and chorus unit as well as conventional delay, has complexity we don’t need to go into here). Set up the simplest of delays, with a brief pulse as the initial signal. Set dry/wet levels to 50/50 and freeze. The resultant wave form should look like something in the image to the right. The time distance between the two peaks is the delay time.
Attack, Decay and Release
By now you can probably figure out how to proceed with envelope measurements. I won’t bother walking you through the process – it’s much the same as what we’ve just been looking at: make the envelope settings, freeze, examine the waveform and determine the time between the start and the end of the envelope segment. Attack is easy. Delay is also straightforward, but there is one nuance. Does the delay setting designate a time or a slope? If the former, the delay is independent of the sustain level. We see that with the Pro53, the time to get to a 0% sustain level and a 50% level is about the same.
If decay governed slope, then we’d need to take that into account and modify settings accordingly. In other words, if we wanted a two-second decay and sustain was at 50%, we’d dial in a four-second decay and the end result would be two seconds. But other than that, this is all very straightforward. At the right are the measurements for the Pro53.
The Filter – Not Again!
One final point should be mentioned. You synth documentation will likely tell you what kind of low-pass filter is present (24 dB/octave, 12 dB/octave, maybe there’s a selection). If it does not, you need to find out. If you are duplicating a patch that uses a 12 dB/octave filter and you only have a 24 dB/octave filter on the to-synth, you’ll need to nudge the filter cutoff higher to make up for the more aggressive attenuation on the to-synth. Now, we know the Pro-53 has a 24 dB/octave filter because it’s in the documentation. But if we did not know that, look at the two images below. Both show the results of a cluster of saw waves played in the lower range of the keyboard. In the first, the filter is wide open. In the second, we’ve closed the filter down quite a bit. The first image shows us that between 1 KHz and 2 KHz, the level drops about 6 dB with the filter open. In the second, with the filter in effect, we see a drop of about 30 dB. Subtract the 6 dB drop that’s in the unfiltered signal and we’ve got a 24 dB drop in one octave caused by the filtering.
In closing, let me express my gratitude to Voxengo for making the wonderful, indispensable SPAN VST freely available for download. Computer sound geeks worldwide appreciate this generosity!