Monthly Archives: January 2015
Santa brings a big collection of third party toys for our Ableton Live. A pack of instruments plus instruments inside packs … and that’s not all.
by A. Arsov, Jan. 2015
It’s a new year and a time for new challenges. This time we will cover some really exiting tools and sounds, so let’s start with the one that deserves a special attention. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing …
Sample Magic – Magic AB
The only way to make solid master is to compare your song with other similar songs from the same genre, but I assume you already know that. We all compare mixes during the mastering stage, listening to suitable songs from the same genre and comparing them with the song we are working on at the moment. But that’s a time consuming task, demanding a great deal of attention switching tracks in and out in the DAW and changing this and that. Well, it’s not any more. Magic AB is a dream-come-true plug-in. I watched video clips first, getting the impression that it is a bit complicated, but after installing it, I realized how dead-easy it is to use. You just need to install it after your mastering plug-ins, loading few similar hit songs in the free slots inside the plug-in and then just pressing A and B button for switching between your mix and the reference mix or mixes. I assume that you have a million different tools for your production, but I guarantee you that this one will definitively make you a better producer – period. Magic AB can be yours for €44.44 EUR.
Cableguys – VolumeShaper 4 – FilterShaper 3
At first I thought “what this could be good for?”, but after seeing the video “Hands-on-with VolumeShaper 4” from Computer Music magazine, I’ve changed my mind. What seemed to be a useless plug-in has proven to be a more-than-useful multi-functional tool. As you can freely draw volume and LFO curves in wave editor, even separately for selected frequency range, this one becomes a secret weapon for taming kicks by fine-tuning ADSR envelopes for the low end and then setting different values for attack on higher frequencies. It is also an indispensable tool for improving or even removing some parts of a drum loop or for making crazy gated patterns from a pad, letting the low end be constant while adding mad patterns just on the high end. It comes with a nice set of presets, so it is not difficult to find a perfect starting point, and that’s only the beginning of volume madness. VolumeShaper 4 will cost you €30 EUR.
Filter Shaper 3
I also started watching the “Hands-on-with Filter Shaper” video for this one, realizing after almost fifteen minutes that during all that time we are listening one long musical loop in the background that is manipulated live in the video explaining all the functions on the fly. My bullshit detector always warns me when the same loop goes over and over lasting too long (my maximum tolerance is about eight bars), but it happened that I didn’t noticed that during all the changes that Filter Shaper implemented to the manipulated material. The plug-in offers separate windows for the left and right sides of the sound signal in which you can draw independent filter curves, going absolutely mad in all details. Filter Shaper 3 is a life saver. Instead of adding more new elements to your arrangement, you can simply tweak your loop in real time making havoc out of just a few elements. An absolute stimulatn for all those “I’m out of inspiration” moments. That’s also a reason why the price is a bit higher than for most other things presented in this column. It is €69 EUR.
How To Make Electro House In Ableton Live 9 Like Bassjackers, Henry Fong, R3hab, Deorro & Firebeatz – that is the full name of an Ableton live project that you can buy from a YouTube site.
Time Zeithgeist doesn’t have a home page, but the project is so well done that you definitively can learn plenty of useful things from it. This is a pearl between many other projects – highly recommended. It costs only €7.49 EUR.
Spectral Textures by Ableton
This one is included in this article because it simply is too odd and interesting to skip. It is an Ableton Live pack containing out-of-this world sounds. Various metal and wood objects are processed with some reverb and delay, a bit of programming magic, and we get an industrial, atmospheric library that is perfectly suitable for cinematic purpose, but it can be a real life saver for all sorts of down-tempo, chill-out, industrial or other atmo-oriented types of music. You can recognize the source of most of the sounds, but they still sound very original and very appealing and unique. “Can” and “tin” at their best.
Half of the library was compiled from field recordings (er … more dumpster or factory than Mother Nature), and the second half is compiled from processed sounds from various synthesizers. It is absolutely one of those “before aliens attack” libraries. This one is too odd to skip. All these sharp, attacky can sounds will cost you €39 EUR.
Autobeat from K-Devices
Autobeat is a very interesting beat-editing Max for Live MIDI editor. Load any drum rack, program a pattern in the AutoBeat eight-step sequencer and AutoBeat will add slight variations during the time based on how you set a velocity-like parameter for each step in a row for a selected hit. If you set the parameter to a maximum value, then this hit will be played in every cycle of the repeated loop. If value is lower, there’s less probability that the selected hit will be triggered inside a loop.
Each voice, hit or drum element, has a few additional editing options along with the randomization factor, and you can also choose between various random modes. It take some time to get a grip on all of this, but after you get the idea, AutoBeat proves to be a nice tool for adding variations to the main rhythm. The best thing is that you can simply drag the pattern with all variations to a free clip window at Ableton, compiling MIDI elements for your drum track. AutoBeat works nicely also with a melody elements and not just a drum elements. Price is €29 EUR.
Skinnerbox – Time & Timbre
This is a Max for Live drum machine with some unique features. It’s one of those instruments that can convince you that your investment in Max for Live was not a bad decision. Actually, Time & Timbre reminds me of Tremor from Fxpansion, a very powerful drum machine. It comes with a very flexible six-channel step sequencer in which you can set various time measures for every implemented drum element, constructing beats with your imagination being your only limit. Time & Timbre also provides five drum modules with powerful set of controllers, among them four LFOs that can be connected to control any parameter on any other Ableton Live plug-in. You can even tune your drums, in the absence of more inspired ideas – there is a random button that still produces usable results (not always the case with such buttons)
All the above features are just a good beginning. Making out-in-space polyrhythmic rhythms is just a matter of few clicks. Filtering, reverse, shifting, making mad rolls, you can then store them in one of the 64 patterns divided into one bank. This is absolutely the most impressive instrument I have seen lately. If you can’t make any decent music with Time & Timbre, then maybe it is time to change your hobby, picking up embroidery or something similar. This amazing instrument could be yours for just €39 EUR.
Function Loops – Vocal Loops Only 3
This one consists of 1.2 G of pure, uplifting vocal phrases, simply begging to be used in your EDM production. Vocal packs are definitively the strongest part of the Function Loops company. They also sell all kinds of other sound packs and synth presets, but their vocal packs really stand out of the line. In a next issue we will represent more vocal packs from this vendor.
Vocal Loops Only 3 is a vocal pack bundle, compiled from various best-selling vocal packs released in 2014. A number of short vocal snippets, one-shot samples, various words, vocal loops and even complete vocal tracks, all come in two basic variants – dry and wet. You just need a scissors and good musical background, everything else is already here. Vocal Loops Only 3 costs $29.90 USD.
That’s that for now. See you in the March issue with new packs, new tools and new sounds – all for you and all for Ableton Live.
A new year and a new version of one of the one of the oldest DAWs in the market. A brief example how a good thing can become even better.
by Alex Arsov, Jan. 2015
A Brief History of Time
I have a long history with Cubase. I also have plenty of other DAWs on my computer, but there are some specific features that keep me coming back to Cubase over and over. I end up making most of my projects exclusively in Cubase. First of all, Cubase has one of the most detailed MIDI editors in the PC market. Also, so far, at least for me, it proves to be one of the best DAWs for working with large number of big audio clips.
Over the years Steinberg has added many useful functions that make my music-making process much more effective. For instance, there’s the arranger track that can work wonders if you are unsure about the structure of the song, trying various combinations on the fly. It is actually a very interesting alternative to the Clip system that some other, more electro-oriented DAWs have. The arranger track has some advantages, making it easier to see the big picture, especially if you are working with longer structures, or more rock-oriented songs. Additionally, there is audio quantization offered directly from the arranger window. Then there are track versions, suitable for experimenting with different intros, outros or breaks. Of course, there’s the chord track for all of us who slept through most of the classes in music school. VST Expressions 2 allowing you to change attributes, like pitch or modulation, to every note in a MIDI chord separately. And my favorite is VariAudio 2, for taming pitch issues on bad vocals or adapting a melody to the song key when using various trumpet, vocal or other sorts of audio samples that come with sample packs or libraries. And let’s not forget the harmonizer that can automatically add some harmonies to your main track, duplicating the main track and re-pitching it to regular thirds, fifths or some other harmonies. Also, Cubase has always offered a very detailed audio editor for audio clips, one that has covered all my audio needs over the years, eliminating the need for other third party audio editors. All these functions and additions are pretty crucial when you want to do something as fast as possible, achieving best results at the same time. But the truth be told – there was and still is a room for improvement.
Old Cubase – what a nice fairy tale, but the Boogie Man part begins when you complete the final phase, finishing the arrangement and preparing everything for the mixing stage – I always lost some quality time adding group channels, routing synths and guitars through group channels, recording channel by channel, since there was no other way to render MIDI or even audio parts. Now Cubase Pro 8 finally offers a render function with a nice selection of options. Now you can finally bounce all those tracks with a single click. I know that Steinberg advertises some other options as the most desired and sexy in this new creation, but trust me, rendering is something that makes this version really special.
Another thing that made me a bit unhappy with previous version is the track equalizer. It was good but not good enough, so I was forced to use third party equalizers on every channel. Cubase 8 has finally added an additional low and high cut filter band with various slopes along with the standard four EQ bands, not to mention a spectral analyzer and a “mouse over” display of note pitch information. Now you can even type a note pitch instead of frequency and the EQ band will jump automatically to that location. I know that many people complain that Steinberg doesn’t listen to their users, but it looks like that this is not the case anymore.
VCA faders are another new addition that can make our life a bit easier. VCA fader is a mix fader that you can add to selected number of channels to control the general volume of the whole group. In a past we had a link option for that task, but VCA faders are much more flexible because they allow you to adjust volume relations between the linked channels without ungrouping them first (as it was the case with Link option).
Talking about groups, it is now finally possible to select more channels and add groups to them. The only thing that I still miss is the ability to route new channels automatically to the appropriate group when the new channel is inserted inside the grouped channel.
I will still continue to use my S-Gear, Amplitube and Guitar Rig, but have to admit that the new VST Bass Amp along with VST Amp rack from a previous version have become truly useful and mature guitar amps with all sort of effects, amps, cabinets and microphones, sounding at least as good as those other aforementioned products (considering that every of the named products has its own color and sound). The new VST Bass Amp is pretty light on CPU and is definitively sounding good enough to end up in my main song template.
The really good news is that we get Groove Agent 4 SE Acoustic Agent with Cubase 8. This is a much more advanced drum sampler than Groove Agent One was, and it contains a very good sounding acoustic drum kit, having a nice number of editing options and it even comes with twenty different sets of a drum patterns. You can change those patterns on the fly with XY editing window, changing the intensity of playing with X scale and adding or reducing some beats in pattern with Y scale. The best part is that you can easily drag and drop MIDI patterns inside the Grove Agent 4 SE pattern window, just as you can simply drag them from Groove Agent 4 SE to the arranger window. The bad news is that there are some problems with 64-bit version of Acoustic Agent, so it is pretty hard to find that Acoustic kit, but I presume this will be fixed with the first update in the near future. More bad news is that you are forced to manually install Grove Agent One if it happens that you have some projects that contain Groove Agent One. It would be a much better solution if Grove Agent 4 SE could load those old Groove Agent One tracks automatically.
More good news is the dockable MediaBay, which offers a much faster approach to using VST instruments and all the presets, sounds, loops, MIDI files and similar “Search and you should find” trumpery. After a while I found a way how to browse through the directories in the docked MediaBay, but as soon as I selected audio file, the docked MediaBay switched view back from “Local Hard Disks” to “Samples” or “Rhytmic Loops”, therefore I should have selected Local Hard Disks in the drop down menu again, pressing the “Deep Results” button at the right and browsed through all the disk until reaching the next directory. The only shortcut is to press the “Browse Containing Folder” upper arrow in the left corner several times to arrive back at the root directory. If it sound complicated – it is complicated. OK, I’m running version 8.0.0, having had the privilege to use the very first release, so I presume this should be also fixed in the near future.
Quadrafuzz 2 with four band distortion, Multiband Envelope Shaper, Multiband Expander and a very updated Multiband Compressor are tools that make a difference. I already blessed some tracks with Quadrafuzz 2, which adds nice strong distorted color to a clean or already-distorted clip. It avoids sounding annoyingly cheap and too aggressive in the high frequencies like many other digital fuzz and distortion effects often sound. Also, the Multiband Compressor has become my new best friend. It looks somewhat different than the previous version. Actually the whole of Cubase Pro 8 looks somehow more up to date, more modern. I know most of the audio geeks claim that the sound and not the appearance is important, but if you are sitting in front of the program for several hours, day after day, then I presume it is not so unimportant to feel good and comfortable, not staring in something ugly and dated.
More and More
A new MIDI tempo detection capability is something that will definitively make my life much easier. It was really much too time consuming to find the right tempo before starting to record a new song. I was always concerned time that I would forget what I had played previously, thus improperly setting the wrong tempo for the upcoming recording. Chord Pads are also a welcome new addition for all those producers that are not particularly skilled with harmony. I don’t have many problems with harmony, but find this addition useful anyway, as it brings me some new ideas.
I forgot to mention a Constant Delay Compensation button, a very useful one that will compensate all plug-in delays when you are recording new material. It works fine with keyboards and guitars, but what is most important is that I will finally be able to record a vocalist using all effects without listening to constant complaining about they are so dry during the recording session and if there really is no way to record with some effects. So, switch on effects and then be prepared to listen to a new set of complains that they can’t record anything with a ten millisecond delay. Never-ending story. Thanks Steinberg for this one. You have made my day.
VST Connect SE 3 looks like a great addition. I haven’t tried yet, but I presume that VST Connect SE 3 will become my best friend. I live in a small city 50 km out of capitol, while most of my vocalists are from the capitol or even further. In the past, Dropbox was my VST Connect SE 3, so can’t wait to work on my first vocal song in Cubase 8 to try this feature.
Far from unimportant is the news that Steinberg rewrote the whole sound engine. The new version of Cubase will use significantly less CPU than the previous version. At least some well-known mastering plug-ins will not kill your machine anymore. More tracks and more effects for everyone – liberté, égalité, fraternité!
There are also a few other new additions aimed to improve the work-flow – the new tuner. And then there’s the plug-in manager with which you can save various combination of plug-ins in groups and then select which groups are to be viewed as default in your track inspector whenever you are looking for a new effect or instrument. Wave meters, an option for displaying upcoming events in a shape of a wave forms inside the Cubase Pro 8 mixer.
Steinberg has released several implementations in last few years which make this program feel more and more like a real sound-recording studio. Also from version to version, they finally tamed some things that users have complained about for a long, long time. Cubase 8 brings some essential improvements, adding some additional tools that make this DAW totally self-sufficient. So it is definitively worthwhile to upgrade.
Optimization of CPU usage, render in place, VCA faders, improved channel strip EQ, direct routing for group of tracks, effects or VCA tracks along with new Groove Agent 4 SE plus three new multi-band plug-ins along with a new dockable MediaBay have made this update pretty essential. They did it again.
Of course, there is still room for improvements. It would be nice if additional MIDI outputs in multitimbral instruments could be directly linked with additional audio outputs. I hope this is just overlooked by Steinberg and will be fixed soon.
Also it wouldn’t hurt if we can have an option to stretch just one or two hit-point lanes directly in the arrangement window after the quantization. Sometimes it happens that in a whole take only one beat was stretched to the wrong lane, and I’m not really keen to slice the whole track for taming just one beat. And my last wish – that “Automation follows Events” comes as a default option, not making me poke around on Google trying to figure how to set this simple “one-click” solution.
But in spite of all my complaints, this update is a true life saver. An excellent program has become even better, offering drastically improved work-flow options along with adding some great specialized tools that are usually available only through third party vendors. You can update from previous version for €99.99 EUR or buy a new one for €549 EUR. There is also a Cubase Artist 8 for €299 EUR, a streamlined but still very powerful version.
All you need is love… and Cubase Pro 8, of course.
More info about Cubase Pro 8 can be found at:
Tracktion is a DAW from Tracktion Software Corporation. We relate the product’s checkered history and make the case that not only is it back from the dead, with version 5 it’s actually become a contender.
by Dave Townsend, Jan. 2015
It’s been a while, but you remember Tracktion, right? In the larger DAW ecosystem, Tracktion has long been regarded by many as a simple entry-level product for casual users who weren’t too deep into music production technology. It was rarely mentioned alongside the heavy-hitters such as Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase and SONAR. It was just something you got free with your mixer and hadn’t had a major overhaul in years.
Well, I’m here to tell you that – surprise! -Tracktion is not only alive and well, it has a bright future.
With last fall’s release of version 5 this often-overlooked package is finally showing signs of becoming a true contender. Don’t let the $59.99 price tag put you off; this is a real DAW that deserves to be taken seriously. Yes, it’s been a long road getting here.
The Tracktion Saga
If you’re reading this, chances are you fall into one of two camps: either you’re a longtime Tracktion user who originally got the software free with a Mackie mixer, or you’ve never even seen it before and are simply curious about what else is out there in DAW-land.
If you’re in the first camp, you probably already know the Tracktion saga, but I’ll tell the story anyway for the benefit of those who don’t.
Tracktion was written by one Julian “Jules” Storer, an Englishman now based in Kirkland, Washington, USA. (Kirkland is the more residential next-door neighbor to Redmond, Microsoft’s home town.)
Tracktion came to life around 2000 and quickly became an underground hit in the still-new subculture of digital home recording enthusiasts. In 2002, Jules started a company called Raw Material Software and released Tracktion 1.0 as its flagship product.
Tracktion was ahead of the curve in those days, featuring such then-cutting-edge features as on-the-fly sample rate conversion, 32-bit processing and support for the Ogg-Vorbis file format (that we all thought would be the Next Big Thing, but wasn’t).
Jules was soon approached by Mackie, based in Woodinville, Washington (Redmond/Kirkland’s slightly more rural neighbor). Mackie was branching out from its core business of making mixers, going digital and cashing in on the exploding home recording phenomenon. They had already started selling studio monitors and had just acquired the Echo brand of audio interfaces. The missing piece to fill out the product line was a software component, and Tracktion seemed the perfect solution.
So Mackie acquired Tracktion and took over distribution and support. They’d make Jules rich and famous, while relieving him of the drudgery of sales and marketing and the daily minutia of running a business that coders aren’t keen on anyway. The deal kept Jules on as Tracktion’s primary developer and he relocated to America. I expect Jules probably thought his ship had come in.
Unfortunately, Mackie was/is a hardware company, and hardware companies have a notoriously bad track record when they’ve attempted to diversify into software.
Software is an entirely different game. Nobody calls you up to ask how to use their mixer years after they’ve purchased it. You aren’t expected to supply new features to old mixers year after year. Mixers don’t suddenly stop working because some other piece of gear has been added to the rig. Users don’t stick third-party components into a mixer and expect you to make them work.
Mackie may have been unprepared to become a software company, and by all accounts did not do a great job of it.
But mostly it was a case of bad timing. The global economy took a nosedive, and Mackie needed to cut expenses and staff to stay viable. Slow-moving and marginally-profitable products were dropped. With the company in survival mode, Tracktion became a low priority.
2007 saw version 3.0, and it was a hit among users. However, it was also to be the last major release under Mackie. Years went by without an update. Bugs weren’t getting fixed; new features weren’t getting added as other DAWs passed Tracktion by. Users became discouraged and many moved on to other DAWs. Tracktion was on its way to becoming a historical footnote.
Meanwhile, Jules wasn’t idle. He’d packaged the fundamental low-level building-blocks of Tracktion into a set of C++ class libraries and developed them as a separate product that Mackie didn’t own. Calling it JUCE (Jules’ Universal C++ Extensions), he released it under the GNU Public License (GPL), which means anybody can use it to build their own audio programs. It was distributed under Jules’ Raw Materials Software brand.
JUCE is multi-platform, meaning it can be compiled on Windows, OS/X, and most flavors of Linux, including Android. It’s why Tracktion runs on every major platform, in both 32- and 64-bit versions.
JUCE became a huge hit with audio software developers. You’ve probably been running some of Jules’ code and not known it, even if you’ve never touched Tracktion. Are you a Studio One user? That’s a JUCE-generated UI you’re looking at. Ditto for the Overloud effect suite bundled with SONAR X3, the Sonalksis-authored effects in Toontrack Superior Drummer, the UVI sampler and dozens of other audio applications and plugins from companies such as Korg, Akai, Arturia and M-Audio. JUCE is everywhere.
JUCE has recently (November 2014) been sold to another company. That decision, I suspect, was made in order to help get Jules’ new company, Tracktion Software Corporation (TSC), off the ground. Despite selling JUCE and starting a new company of his own, Jules remains JUCE’s primary architect.
In 2012, Jules worked out a deal to buy Tracktion back from Mackie and revive it. Tracktion 4.0 was announced at the 2013 Winter NAMM show. On the surface, it appeared to be Tracktion 3.0 with some long-awaited bug fixes, but in fact had an entirely new audio engine inside and a lot of cleaned-up and rewritten code. It would provide the framework from which a revitalized Tracktion would spring.
Then, in the summer of 2014, TSC showed the world it meant business with the release of Tracktion 5.0.
The brand may have been taking a nap, but Jules clearly wasn’t. Version 5 adds gobs of new features. There is still a long wish-list from users, but there is no longer any doubt that Tracktion has survived with its original vision intact, and is now a serious, if not yet major, player.
Tracktion’s greatest strength has always been its straightforward, immediately accessible user interface. You don’t need to learn any secret tricks or discover hidden menus to get things done. Everything’s right there on one screen. Signal flow is logically laid out in a left-to-right manner with inputs on the left and outputs on the right.
Tracktion has probably the gentlest learning curve of any DAW on the market. This not only makes it suitable for beginners but also for composers who just want to think about the music and not the software. And really, isn’t that what any DAW should aspire to – to just get out of the way of the creative process?
But easy doesn’t mean limited or dumbed-down, just – easier. All the essential features are there. I found very few tasks that I could do in my regular DAW that I couldn’t also accomplish easily in Tracktion.
I did, however, note a few things that had taken days to figure out in my regular DAW but took only minutes to master in Tracktion.
Terminology and Concepts
The new version brings lots of very cool and useful features, but we’ll have to explain a few terms before some of them make sense to non-Tracktion DAW users. Although the UI may be immediately accessible, some concepts are just – different.
Some of these features are very forward-thinking concepts that might be lost on new users, but longtime home-recording enthusiasts will surely appreciate them once they’ve been explained. Especially when they realize that their “serious” DAWS don’t currently have these features.
Think of an “Edit” as one view of a project. Initially, a new project starts out with a single view much like any other DAW. In Tracktion-speak, it has one Edit.
As projects grow, we often need to organize tracks so as to not become overwhelmed. Many DAWs provide track folders, and so does Tracktion. Edits take that idea to a whole new level, allowing you to ignore most of the project while you work on a particular subset of it. But it’s far more than an extension of track folders or simply hiding tracks.
In an Edit, you can bounce entire sections of your project to a temporary wave file. For example, imagine that you have multiple tracks of string instruments but that’s not what you’re working on at the moment. Create a new Edit where the strings have been automatically bounced down to one track, freeing all their CPU overhead and memory usage while you work on other things. Now you have a second project view, or Edit, in which the entire string section is represented by a single stereo track that can be expanded back to its multi-track form by simply switching back to the previous tab.
Similarly, you could have a Vocal Edit where the entire project, busses and all, have been condensed into a single stereo wave so you can record vocals with minimal latency. Switch back to the main Edit and the project is automatically expanded back to its separate tracks. You can have as many Edits as you like, and you can have as many of them open at once as your RAM will allow. Switching between edits is a single mouse click, and changes to one Edit are automatically reflected in all the others.
Concept: Edit Clips
Whereas an Edit is comprised of some subset of a project’s tracks, an Edit Clip is a vertical cross-section of a project. It can comprise any section within a song (e.g. a verse or chorus), spanning all tracks within that section. It’s unique enough that TSC has applied for a patent for the concept.
An Edit Clip may be moved into its own tab as a single audio clip, where it can then be treated as if it were just one file. Edit Clips can be looped. You can move and copy Edit Clips to try out different arrangements without actually modifying the original project. But because the Edit Clip is just an alternate view of a piece of the project, any changes made via other Views are automatically reflected in the Edit Clip.
Concept: Freeze Points
Freezing tracks is a common capability of most major DAWs. It’s essentially a quick and convenient way to bounce tracks, and to optionally un-freeze them later for editing. Nobody but Tracktion lets you partially freeze a track.
In most DAWs, a track is either frozen completely or it’s not frozen at all. Many of them give you the option of including effects in the freeze or leaving them active, but that’s the only option. In Tracktion, you can actually freeze part of a track or some of the effects.
A “freeze point” indicates where the frozen section ends, splitting the track into frozen and unfrozen parts. Freezing up to a specific point is as simple as dragging a Freeze Point into the track.
The underlying technology also lets you freeze individual effects while leaving others active. For example, you could elect to freeze a resource-intensive effect such as convolution reverb, while leaving an EQ on the same track active for subsequent tweaking.
(On a related note, another very cool feature you don’t see every day is a handy breakdown of CPU usage and latency for every plugin in the project. This will help guide you in deciding which effects will benefit the most from freezing.)
In Tracktion, a “Rack” is not unlike an FX bin you’d see in any other DAW. However, as with many other concepts, Tracktion takes the idea several steps further than anybody else.
The biggest gee-whiz feature of Racks is that they let you split the signal path within the Rack. This allows you to create multi-band effects and parallel processing paths that you’d otherwise have to invest in special plugins to accomplish. Now, any plugin can be operated in parallel without having to use a bus. Now, any plugin can be made to affect only a specific band of frequencies, or just the wet or dry part of a reverb or delay – all in a single track.
The experienced mixer will easily imagine of all sorts of ways to use Racks, from the mundane to out-there experimental. Want to stack two or more software synthesizers and drive them from a single MIDI track? Many other DAWs can’t do this with just one track, but a Tracktion Rack can. Or, imagine multiple effect chains that you can easily crossfade between with automation.
In addition to allowing elaborate effects routing, Racks can also be used for routing across multiple tracks. This is called “track spanning”, and you can think of it as an unlimited number of aux sends that you define within a Rack. Racks can therefore be used to accomplish pretty much any convoluted routing you can imagine.
Once you’ve built a Rack, you can save it for re-use in subsequent projects. Put your favorite mastering chain into a Rack for future projects, or maybe build a standard multi for orchestration in Kontakt. Racks can be copied and pasted into other tracks, so that once created, even the most elaborate effect chains can be quickly and easily inserted into as many tracks as needed.
Terminology Clarification: Filters
Technically, Digital Signal Processing theory defines any processor that modifies the signal (output does not equal input) is a “filter”. The word does not apply to just digital emulations of analog filters, such as a parametric equalizer, but to all signal processors. In Tracktion, all effect plugins are “filters”. That may throw some users for a loop, but it’s actually the correct use of the term.
I do see that since 5.0’s initial release, they’ve changed the popup menu text to use the term “plugin” to avoid confusing users, but the context help balloons still say “filter”. So to avoid confusion, just think “filter = plugin”.
You can download Tracktion from tracktion.com\downloads. It’s only 8 MB in size. The demo is not time-limited and has no functionality restrictions, just periodic low-level noise bursts.
Run the installer, and in seconds it’s ready to start up in demo mode. There are only a couple things to set up before you can get started, so start by clicking on the Settings tab at the top of the main window.
Settings are neatly organized by category in a list-box on the left-hand side of the screen. Audio Devices is at the top of the list since that’s where you’ll most likely need to start if you’re not using your computer’s built-in audio interface.
If you’re using an external audio interface, you’ll have to tell Tracktion to use it by picking it from the dropdown list. Tracktion will assume you want to keep using the same sample rate and buffer size that’s already configured in your interface, so you probably won’t have to set any of that stuff.
Click on the next category down and verify that Tracktion has correctly identified your MIDI controller, if you have one.
Next, scan for plugins. Select the “Plugins” category from the list and then click the button labeled “Scanning and Sorting” below the initially-empty list of plugins. If you want to try out your already-installed plugins, just add the path(s) to their folder locations before starting the scan. It takes a while to run the initial scan, so be patient. The good news is that subsequent scans go much faster because Tracktion smartly knows to initialize only newly-added plugins (I wish my regular DAW did that).
That’s pretty much all you need to do to prepare Tracktion for first use. If you subsequently decide to purchase a license, you won’t need to re-install the program, just enter the serial number to activate. (You can run Tracktion on up to four computers with one license, which is great for those who have both desktop and mobile rigs.)
Walk-Through: New Project
Now that Tracktion has been installed and set up, let’s walk through starting a new project. First step, as you’ve probably already guessed, is to create the project. At the top of the screen are two tabs, labeled “Projects” and “Settings”. If we had any existing projects, we could just pick one from the list. But because we’re dealing with a new installation, click the “+” tab at the top of the screen and select New Project from the context menu. Give the project a name and a path to store it in. (By default, everything for a project is stored in one folder, making backups easy.)
Initially, there’ll be one Edit, named “Edit 1”. Click on the “+” tab to create additional Edits, which will be named “Edit 2”, “Edit 3” and so on by default. If you have a lot of Edits, it’s a good idea to give them more meaningful names, such as “Vocal Edit” or “Just Drums”.
By default, new projects open with 8 tracks pre-created for you. This behavior can be customized, though, using project templates. But for our walkthrough, the default tracks will be fine.
Notice that these tracks are not identified as “audio” or “MIDI” or “instrument” tracks. That’s because Tracktion tracks can be anything you want them to be: stereo or mono audio, MIDI, bus or track folder. They all start out as generic “tracks” whose subsequent behavior depends on what you choose for inputs. If you want an audio track, simply select an audio source as the track’s input. If you want a MIDI track, choose a MIDI source.
The Properties Panel
When you select a track, its editable parameters appear in the Properties panel, a window at the bottom of the screen. It took me a while to get used to looking down there. Any time you can’t figure out how to do something or other, look down there. In the screenshot above, I’ve gone to the Properties panel to name the first track “Piano”.
What specific information you see in the Properties panel depends on what you’ve selected in the main screen; click on a plugin and you’ll see settings for that plugin. Click on a project in the Projects tab and you’ll see information about the selected project. Need to adjust input gain on an audio track? Click on the Input box for a track and you get input options down in the Properties panel, including gain.
For audio tracks, the panel features a nifty (and, as far as I know, unique) input gate, which you can set so that recording doesn’t happen until the input signal exceeds a given threshold.
The Input Section
Let’s take a closer look at a Tracktion track, starting with the Input section. Signal flow is left-to-right, so naturally the Input specification is the first thing on the left.
The Input box contains three items: the name of the input source, an input level meter, and the Record button. By default, in a new project the first two tracks will be automatically assigned to the first two audio inputs of your interface, but that’s just for your convenience. You can pick any source as the input, even another track. If the Input box is empty, it means no input has been assigned to that track yet.
Click the “R” button to arm a track for recording. Press the “R” key on your keyboard to start recording, or click on the transport. The procedure is the same for MIDI tracks, except you’ll choose a MIDI source.
In the screenshot below, I’ve recorded one audio track and one MIDI track.
The Inline Mixer
Now that we’ve got a MIDI track, let’s insert a software synthesizer. Shift your attention now to the right-hand side of the track. This section is called the “Inline Mixer”, but I think of it as a customizable channel strip.
You may have noticed that Tracktion does not have a separate Mixer window like most DAWs. Some users have complained about this missing feature, but it makes perfect sense to me. My regular DAW has a gorgeous Console View – which I never use. I like to do my mixing entirely in the track view, and that also happens to be a key principle of Tracktion’s design philosophy: everything on one screen. If you’re not used to working this way, it might seem weird at first, but it suits me just fine.
The inline mixer section initially contains three things: a volume and pan plugin, a level meter, and Mute/Solo buttons. To insert an effect or soft synth, just drag the “+” icon above the mixer section into the inline mixer, at the point in the signal chain you want the plugin to go.
Note that these default modules are actually plugins. That means you can have more than one meter, more than one volume control, more than one of anything. Want to watch levels before and after a compressor? Just insert a meter before it and another after.
Some people have expressed disdain for the in-line mixer, but I think it’s brilliant. Why do we continue to emulate hardware console channels anyway? In the digital world we can essentially design our own channel strips any way we want! In Tracktion, even aux sends and returns are implemented as insertable plugins. There’s also a ReWire plugin.
Inserting a software instrument is as easy as inserting any other plugin. Here I’ve dragged an instance of Omnisphere into the inline mixer, inserting it after the volume control and before the meter:
There is no need to create a separate audio track for this synthesizer. The inline mixer is smart enough to know that the signal coming into this module is MIDI and that the signal going out of it is audio.
Even if you’re using multiple outputs in a multi-timbral synth such as Omnisphere or Kontakt, it isn’t necessary to create multiple audio tracks. That’s because of those versatile Racks. You can attach a Rack to a specific synthesizer which allows you to create separate signal chains within a single track for synthesizers that feature multiple outputs. Of course, if you prefer the versatility of separate audio tracks, you can do that, too.
OK, now we’ve got an audio track and a MIDI track feeding a software synthesizer. What’s missing? Why, a bus, of course. But wait a minute, where are the busses?
Somebody once told me that Tracktion “sucks” because it doesn’t have bussing. That didn’t sound right to me. How can a DAW not support bussing? Isn’t that pretty fundamental? Well, yes, it is. And it turns out that Tracktion does indeed provide bussing, and in fact does so quite elegantly.
Remember that Tracktion draws no distinction between a track and a bus. When you want to combine two or more tracks, you simply add a new track and route the others to it.
This can be confusing to old guys like me who grew up with hardware consoles in which busses were physical things, finite in number, and often even separate boxes. But in the digital world, there are no “tracks” or “busses” really, just virtual lists of numbers and the order in which they’re to be processed.
Note that the “master fader” is not a master bus. It is hardwired and need not be created, nor can it be deleted. It also cannot have effects inserted on it. What Tracktion calls the “master fader” represents the final output to the audio driver, like the master volume control on a mixer. If you want a conventional master bus with effects on it, you’ll have to create it.
To create a bus, simply add another track to serve as the bus. Then select the track(s) you want to send to it and select the destination via the “Track Destination” dropdown list in the Properties panel. That’s all there is to it.
Where’s the Help File?
Tracktion does not ship with a help file, user manual or tutorials. All references are online – which can be a problem if your DAW is not connected to the internet. However, it’s a reasonable trade-off for always having up-to-date documentation. It also means the information is available for those who are just checking out Tracktion but haven’t installed it yet.
There are, however, popup context help balloons that are enabled by default. These will usually give you enough guidance to get started. After a few days, however, they will become annoying but are easily turned off by clicking the Help button in the lower-left corner of the screen.
Another great resource is the tutorial videos from Groove3, which you can purchase here: http://www.groove3.com/str/Tracktion-Software/. A few excerpts may be viewed for free on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLGhDPxpNTpsrcpwBGYDYUNxtPy8-TaBtb
While we’re on the subject of what’s missing, we should also mention that there are almost no third-party effects or synthesizers bundled with Tracktion. But there are good reasons for that:
- Keeps the price down. You pay for those third-party goodies that come with other DAWs, whether you use them or not. Tracktion is only $59, and we’d like it to stay affordable.
- Keeps the download size small. It takes only a few seconds to download Tracktion and about as long to install it. The whole shebang fits easily on a thumb drive, and can even be run directly from one.
- All your third-party plugins will work fine in Tracktion. Many of us old-timers have accumulated an extensive collection of plugins that suit our own preferences, and we don’t often use bundled plugins anyway. I tested plugins from FabFilter, Meldaproduction, Voxengo, Waves, iZotope, Blue Cat Audio, Native Instruments, Spectrasonics, U-he, IK Multimedia, Overloud and ValhallaDSP. All of them worked great. Only one plugin failed to register out of over 300 in my collection, and it was a beta version.
- The one third-party tool that you do get is a monster: Melodyne.
Other Cool Stuff
Here are some miscellaneous features that struck me as being particularly strong.
Project management. The Projects tab presents a list of every project you’ve ever created in Tracktion. This would eventually turn into a horrible mess if not for the ability to create categories and sub-categories for them.
Loop handling. I’m not a loop user myself, but then I’m an old dinosaur who still thinks music must be made by hitting and blowing on things. But I know that for many others, loops are an important ingredient. And they tell me that Tracktion handles all aspects of looping very well: browsing and auditioning loops, inserting, stretching and duplicating loops.
Track folders. A track folder in Tracktion can be a simple organizational aid like in other DAWs, or it can be a sub-bus with a common volume control for the entire group of tracks. The only thing you cannot do with a track folder that you can do with a proper bus is insert effects into it. However, that’s not much of a limitation considering how easy it is to create a bus in Tracktion.
Flexible routing. I haven’t found anything that I can’t do in Tracktion as far as routing goes. Send one track to another. MIDI to outboard hardware synths or audio to external hardware effects or separate track outputs to a console, no problem. Pre-fader and post-fader sends on the same track, even multiple aux sends at different points in the effects chain. Multiple headphone mixes. Audio to six separate effect paths and then recombine them on the same track? Not easy in most DAWs without third-party tools, but trivial to accomplish in Tracktion.
CPU Usage Management. If you’ve got a high-spec industrial-strength computer with 8 or more cores, then you might not care about this feature. But if you’re like the rest of us you need to keep an eye on CPU usage so as not to hit that dreaded wall where dropouts begin. If and when you do hit the limit to what your computer can keep up with, you’re going to want to know which plugins are eating the most CPU cycles and memory. I know of no other DAW that gives you as much detailed information as Tracktion does, making it easy to see which plugins are making the greatest demands on your system. And get this…you can freeze those hungry plugins right there in the CPU Manager window with two mouse clicks.
There is also a button on the CPU Manager screen for low-latency mode. What this does is render your entire project so that Tracktion is using the absolute minimum amount of resources, and then lowers your buffers for the shortest latency possible. All with one mouse click.
Marketplace and Master Mix
There is only one version of Tracktion – no “lite” version, no “pro” edition, and few add-ons to nickel-and-dime you with. There is, however, an in-product purchase screen called Marketplace where you can conveniently shop for plugins, loops, instruments, and whatever else they decide to throw up there.
One of the items you can buy there (and Marketplace is the only place you can buy it) is a multi-effect suite called Master Mix.
Although this plugin has “Master” in its name, it isn’t quite an all-in-one mastering suite along the lines of iZotope’s Ozone. Master Mix does have much of the same stuff (EQ, multi-band compression / expansion, gate, DC offset removal) but lacks some features you’d expect from a plugin whose name implies the last stop in the signal chain. It does not have dither, inter-sample peak protection, or a limiter (although it does have a soft clipper, so I guess that’s sort of a limiter).
If you’ve used Acuma Labs / Mackie’s popular but long-in-tooth Final Mix plugin, you’ll know what Master Mix is about, because the latter is based on the former product. Actually, it looks exactly like it. However, it’s not Final Mix with a new skin; it’s an all-new plugin (JUCE-based, of course) written for TSC by Christian Siedschlag (founder of DDMF). And, unlike Final Mix, Master Mix is available in a 64-bit version.
Marketplace is a recent addition. At the time of this writing, it feels a little like a beta work-in-progress. However, the folks at TSC are obviously intent on beefing up the feature. When I started writing this article, there was only one product available through Marketplace. Since then, they’ve added DDMF, Acon Digital and TekIt products to their online offerings, plus a couple of synthesizers. I’m sure more will have been added by the time you’re reading this.
Marketplace shows up as a separate tab in Tracktion, but it’s disabled by default. You’ll find a button in the lower-left of the Projects tab for enabling it.
Tracktion is cheap, simple and easy to use, but it ain’t no kiddie toy. It’s a real DAW for grown-ups. Sure, it’s still got some catching up to do, but Tracktion’s architect Jules is going full-tilt to close the gap with the big guys.
Being a one-man development team in a company of five people has its advantages. There are no market research committees to deliberate for weeks on what features to implement. Things can move very quickly. Version 6 might add a few new features or it could be a radical departure, we don’t know and Jules isn’t saying. But it’s a safe bet it’ll be another substantial step forward.
OK, so bottom line, no B.S. – who needs Tracktion, really?
If you’ve been using Pro Tools, Logic, SONAR or Cubase for 10+ years, then frankly it might not be for you. If you routinely swap project files with any of those platforms, it’s not for you, at least as your primary DAW. I can’t see large numbers of people switching from those full-featured mega-DAWs to Tracktion. At least, not yet. Down the road, who knows? I would have said the same thing about Reaper five years ago.
But I would definitely recommend checking out this product as a first stop for those who have not yet dipped their toes into the DAW world, or have a little experience but haven’t yet picked a favorite package to go with. For new users, Tracktion offers a gentle path to ease into the game.
Similarly, it will appeal to anybody who just thinks DAWs are too complicated and wish they weren’t constantly getting in the way of making music. If you spend an inordinate amount of time in online forums trying to figure out how to work your DAW, maybe you just need a more straightforward DAW. Songwriters who just want to quickly mock up song ideas without being distracted by technical minutia will appreciate how well Tracktion stays out of the way of the creative process.
I would also recommend Tracktion as a second DAW, perhaps for a mobile rig for remote recording. Its small footprint, efficient operation and single-screen UI make it ideal for laptops. You can even run Tracktion off a thumb drive and easily move an entire project from laptop to desktop.
If you’re running on an underpowered computer that’s prone to dropouts and requires frequent freezing, then Tracktion is far cheaper than buying a new computer. Its freeze, automatic rendering and CPU management features will help you get more mileage out of the hardware you’ve got.
Schools would do well to adopt Tracktion, whether for kids, teens or adults. Educational discounts are available. Teachers will appreciate how quick Tracktion is to set up and subsequently reset for the next class.
Price and Availability
Tracktion will continue to be bundled with certain Mackie products, as well as with Behringer interfaces and digital mixers, or you can buy it directly from Tracktion.com for 60 bucks. If you already have an older version of Tracktion, you can upgrade to version 5 for $39.
Tracktion main page: www.tracktion.com
Download the demo: www.tracktion.com/downloads
Groove3 Tracktion videos (for purchase): http://www.groove3.com/str/Tracktion-Software/
Tracktion forum on KVR: http://www.kvraudio.com/forum/viewforum.php?f=22
The holidays are behind us and you’ve probably upgraded your studio with some great tools during the discount craze, but the freeware Santa never sleeps! We bring you five new freebies to boost your productivity in 2015.
by Tomislav Zlatic, Jan. 2015
With the holidays just behind us, we believe that you’ve upgraded your studio with some fine new software tools which will help you make some great music in 2015. But the freeware Santa never sleeps, so we’ve picked another batch of freebies to make the start of the new year even more pleasurable for you, dear readers!
Ask any good mixing engineer about which items they’d take to a desert island and most of them would probably ramble about bringing women, packs of beer, a good Swiss Army knife, or perhaps some food, but in reality all of them would go for a nice compressor and their favorite equalizer. What they’d do with these tools while being stuck on a desert island is beyond most people, but that’s probably the reason why not everyone can become a good mixing engineer in the first place.
Anyways, since we know how important these two types of tools are to mixing engineers, we simply had to include them in our first freebie round-up of 2015, along with an interesting freeware synthesizer, a simple saturation effect and a useful sample based percussive instrument.
EQ1A by Mellowmuse
As we’ve already mentioned, a good equalizer is every mixing engineer’s must-have utility. And if for some reason you still haven’t found your equalizer of choice (perhaps working on a tight budget has prevented you from doing so), we might just have the perfect candidate for you.
EQ1A was originally released as a commercial plugin priced at $49 three years ago. In late December 2014 however, Mellowmuse has announced that the plugin is being re-released as a freeware tool and that they will release even more freebies in 2015. This was a very pleasant surprise, since Mellowmuse products are generally regarded as quality mixing tools offered at a fair price.
Although EQ1A is not the most versatile equalizer out there, it is definitely a handy tool for performing most common mixing tasks such as track cleanup or slight coloration of the processed audio signal. Featuring two parametric bands, two shelving bands and a high pass filter, all of which are packed in a CPU efficient package, EQ1A could easily become your track equalizer of choice.
The only significant drawback of the plugin is the fact that the GUI is optimized for smaller screen resolutions, so it’s sometimes a bit hard to select the proper knob in the high pass filter section. Other than that, the plugin performs flawlessly and it was completely stable during our tests.
EQ1A is available as a 32-bit and 64-bit VST, AU, RTAS and AAX plugin for Windows and Mac OS X based DAW applications.
TDR Kotelnikov by Tokyo Dawn Labs
The second plugin on our freebie list in this issue is a mastering compressor which was developed by Tokyo Dawn Labs, the same developer who created the amazing TDR Feedback Compressor.
Their latest plugin is called TDR Kotelnikov and it was designed to use all of the advantages of digital signal processing in order to provide highly transparent dynamic range reduction, free of audible compression artifacts. The plugin doesn’t copy any hardware compressor design and doesn’t try to provide any analog style mojo. Instead of that, TDR Kotelnikov is optimized for being as stealthy as possible, even at high compression rates.
Before using the plugin, it is highly recommended to read the user manual provided in PDF format and also watch the feature overview video which is available on YouTube. Although TDR Kotelnikov is not complicated to use, you will definitely get better results with it if you understand its building blocks and the way in which the different components interact with each other.
TDR Kotelnikov is released in 32-bit and 64-bit VST, AU and AAX plugin formats for Windows and Mac OS X based host applications.
Eclipsis by VST Zone
In a world crowded with virtual analogue synthesizers, less common types of virtual instruments are regarded a welcome breeze of fresh air. The brand new Eclipsis by VST Zone is exactly that, offering an interesting pallet of sounds to sound designers who are working on a budget.
Eclipsis is a wavetable synthesizer with 118 built-in waveforms and advanced modulation features which make it one of the most versatile instruments on the freeware market. The minimalistic GUI is optimized for ensuring a fast workflow and the excellent implementation of parameter randomization can often be used as a great source of inspiration while working on new patches.
The instrument would be even better if it was possible to load external wave shapes in WAV format and if it was possible to scan through a waveform in the same way that we’re used to seeing in modern wavetable synthesizers. But even in its current state, Eclipsis is a great addition to any sound designer’s virtual instrument arsenal.
Eclipsis is offered as a freeware 32-bit VST plugin for Windows based digital audio workstations and other host applications.
Saturation Knob by Softube
Sometimes the simplest tool is also the best tool and if you’re looking for a non-complicated way to add some saturation to your tracks, Softube has you covered. Their Saturation Knob effect has recently been released as a freeware tool for all major plugin platforms, after several years of being a Pro Tools and Cakewalk Sonar excusive.
With just two different parameters available on the GUI, you can hardly make a mistake while tweaking Saturation Knob to fit your project perfectly. The plugin sounds great at mild saturation settings, but you can also use it to create audible distortion and to slightly compress the dynamic range of the processed audio signal.
The only flaw of the plugin lies in the fact that the installer is over 400 MB in size, which is a big issue for potential users with slower connection speeds. The installer package contains all currently available Softube products and you have to remove the ones which you don’t want to use during the installation process.
Saturation Knob is available as a 32-bit and 64-bit VST, AU, RTAS and AAX plugin for Windows and Mac OS X based digital audio workstations.
Clap Machine by 99Sounds
Clap Machine is the first free VST plugin created by 99Sounds. It is a sample based virtual instrument designed for creating natural sounding hand claps.
Of course, recording a clapping performance live with your microphone would be the most professional approach for adding hand claps to your track, but not everyone has access to a good sounding microphone and a nice recording space. Clap Machine is the next best thing, offering an easy way to create natural clap performances and group claps which can be layered on top of other percussive elements in your project.
Clap Machine is available as a freeware 32-bit and 64-bit VST/AU plugin for Windows and Mac OS X based host applications.
Tomislav Zlatic: http://bedroomproducersblog.com/
Many of us use highly capable DAW software, so why would we need another, different audio editor program? Find out why here.
by David Baer, Jan. 2015
In this review, we’re going to look at two impressive audio editing programs from Steinberg: WaveLab 8.5 and its “lite” version, WaveLab Elements 8. For clarity in what follows, “WaveLab” will refer to the full-featured version, “Elements” the “lite” version, and “the WaveLabs” will mean either or both. But let me make something clear from the start, Elements may offer only a subset of WaveLab’s capabilities, but it’s far from deserving of a “lite” designation. Elements is very impressive and capable in its own right.
Most of our readers probably own one or more full-featured DAW programs: Cubase, Logic, SONAR, etc. These have abundant capabilities for editing audio. So why would a DAW owner want to even think about parting with funds to buy a different program that can also do audio editing? One justification would efficient workflow. Kitchen blenders and food processors have some overlap, but either can do things the other cannot, or can at least do certain things much more effectively. The same is true of DAWs and audio editing software.
But it doesn’t stop there. The WaveLabs can do a few things you either could not do in your DAW without much difficulty, or could not do period. Most significantly, the Montage capability can be employed for easy CD track layout, track “leveling” and CD organization. On another front, anyone doing sound capture for the creation of sample sets will also be far better off when advanced looping capabilities are at hand. We’ll be looking at both of these capabilities and much more.
But let’s start by establishing who would be better suited for which version. At $500 USD, WaveLab is not a purchase to be lightly undertaken. Elements, at one fifth of that price, is something most home producers and serious hobbyists would find a lot more palatable. The good news is that Elements has plenty to offer the home producer, and in fact, it’s so rich in functionality that there’s little in WaveLab that would be sorely missed for application at that level.
On the other hand, WaveLab is there for commercial sound studios, mastering shops, and the like. If you used audio editing software, say, six or more hours a week, then some of the heavy-lifting capabilities of WaveLab (compared to Elements) could be readily cost justified. Likewise, features not likely to be required by the home producer, such as surround DVD-Audio production will require the big guns. We’ll spend some time later in comparing the feature sets.
Audio Editing – the Basics
If you have a DAW but also have an audio editor program, then you probably don’t need to be convinced that it’s mighty handy to have that audio editor at your disposal. There are just certain things you need to do from time to time for which you instinctively reach for the audio editor in preference to a DAW, even when the DAW could accomplish the same thing. These can include simple, routine or trivial things like cleaning up a favorite CD so that the applause doesn’t disrupt your listening experience. With a DAW, that task might take half an hour or more. With a good audio editor, it’s just minutes.
I wanted to make that point, because when I list the various editing capabilities of the WaveLabs, a response of “yeah, but I can already do that in my DAW” will often be accurate. But, again, having the right tool for the job can make your life a lot easier.
The wave editor, seen in the image immediately above, should offer little mystery. We can select portions of an audio file and do things to it. Those things can be level adjustments, like fade-in/out, normalization, etc., as can be seen in the Process menu list to the right. We can remove sections, mute sections, reorganize sections, and on and on. We can cut, copy and paste within a wave file or across different files. In other words, we can … you know … edit!
The wave window has two sections: the upper can be used as a master view of the file while the bottom will be where the editing actually takes place. Alternately, you can display audio spectrum or loudness information in either the upper or lower view.
The WaveLabs come with a collection of VST effects that can be used as inserts to process the audio. To the owner of a higher-end DAW, there’s little that will impress. You may well already have a collection of preferred VSTs and won’t care a whit about the WaveLabs’ VSTs. But it you don’t, there’s enough there to accomplish mastering and other audio pursuits. Just as long as your VSTs match the 32/64-bitness of the editor, you’re in business (and the WaveLabs are available in both 32 and 64 bit versions).
Editing is non-destructive; the original file is unchanged until you save back to it. But that’s only one option. You can render an edited file in a variety of formats and resolutions. In fact, conversion between various formats is a particular strength of this software.
If loop construction for creating sample sets is your thing, then the editor becomes indispensable. It’s easy enough to match zero crossings in entry level audio editing software, but creating convincing loops takes a lot more than just making sure there are no clicks at the loop boundaries. Here, we have some special processing that can work wonders on even difficult raw sample data. In fact, the manual has a section entitled “About Looping Seemingly Unloopable Audio” that shows just how this can be accomplished. In playing with these capabilities, I quickly became a believer. It’s still challenging, but the impossible is no longer so.
Analysis, Repair and More
WaveLab comes with audio restoration capabilities in the form of the Sonnox De-Clicker, De-Noiser and De-Buzzer tools. Not something you probably need very often, but indispensable if you do need such a capability. What surprised me was that the Sonnox tools are even present in Elements in the first place. Very nice of you, Steinberg!
Both WaveLabs have plenty of metering and analysis capability: loudness, peaks, pitch and more. WaveLab naturally has deeper capabilities in this area, but Elements doesn’t sell you short. Does Elements deliver more than your DAW? Probably. OK, maybe we don’t really need to look at 3D spectrum analysis all the often – but it’s there and it’s cool, so why not enjoy the possibilities?
The Mighty Montage
Now, let’s move on to a primary feature that is something your DAW will not be providing. The Montage is a multi-track, non-destructive editing environment that is particularly well suited to CD creation (but certainly will have other applications). With the montage view, we can arrange multiple audio files and work on them as a whole. By that I mean that we can further edit such things as relative volume between clips and supply fade-ins/outs so that the composite makes sense as a whole.
With multiple tracks at our disposal, we can also use the montage to do limited mixing. For example, if you were mixing narration and music, this could easily be accomplished in the montage view. Does this then take place of your DAW for mixing purposes? No way. We certainly don’t have the flexibility of multiple buses with sends, groups, et.al. But for simple final assembly, it will do just fine.
If you need to do a bit more in-depth alteration of an audio clip, it’s a simple matter to bring it up in the audio editor view and have at it. Once you’re finished, the modified audio is magically back in the montage. I did have some issues when deleting segments – the montage clip remained at the original total length and I had to manually correct that in the montage. But then, there are so very many preference options, that there’s probably an easy way to make this get taken care of automatically.
What I think home producers will find most appealing is taking the assembled montage and creating a CD from it. Using a CD creation wizard, setting up the montage-to-CD mapping is effortless. Once that’s in place, it’s trivial to adjust the length of the gaps between tracks.
Workflow and the Power User
At first glance, the UI might seem forbidding and scarily complex. And it’s true – the WaveLabs are immensely deep and powerful programs. To fully master even Elements will require much experience. But the good news is that using the software for straightforward pursuits is highly intuitive. The mouse interaction with wave data will be so like what you’re accustomed to with your DAW, that you can be effectively using the software from day one. But you may not be using it as efficiently as you could.
That’s where all the configuration options come into play. The many, many buttons you see at the top, on the sides and on the bottom all do something useful, but everyone is going to have their own notion as to what constitutes “useful”. The WaveLabs offer rich customization options that allow one to put the buttons they need close to where they need them and get the rest out of the way.
There’s another aspect to workflow that’s applicable to WaveLab, but not Elements. With version 8.5, Steinberg added a powerful capability. Not only can WaveLab accomplish much in a batch mode, but watch folders can also be established to make such processing happen automatically. For example, you might need finished wave files to also have sibling mp3 files created. Easily done. A watch folder can be created to automatically invoke an mp3 copy operation. For the high-volume audio shop, this sort of thing could cost-justify the investment in WaveLab in no time at all.
I would like to also point out that Groove3 has a series of quite-good video tutorials that I can recommend. They cover WaveLab but not Elements, but because Elements is just WaveLab minus some steroids, viewing them would not be a waste of time for the Elements owner.
A detailed point-by-point feature comparison between WaveLab and Elements can be found here:
The allocation of features to Elements seems mostly quite reasonable. The only thing that strikes me as somewhat punitive is the limitation of Elements to a maximum of three open tracks, where it’s essentially limitless in WaveLab.
WaveLab gives you over twice as many VST effect plug-ins, but I cannot imagine that this would be of any consequence to the owner of a full-function DAW. You are already going to have the plug-ins on hand, so it’s a non-issue.
Likewise, WaveLab offers more effect insert slots, but is the DAW owner going to care? You’ll likely be going to your DAW for that sort of thing anyway. As to using the WaveLabs for mastering, then maybe it becomes more of an issue, but with four master section insert slots available, how much post-mix processing are you going to be doing? If you need more than four slots, maybe your mixes should be finished a little more completely. I’ll have one other observation about mastering in the next section.
To be honest, having taken a close look at both WaveLab and Elements, the comparison list looks like it was padded a bit to make the considerably higher cost of WaveLabs justified. That’s not to imply WaveLab is overpriced. Rather, I’m asserting that Elements has so very much functionality, it’s amazing to me that it’s sold at just one-fifth the price of WaveLab.
Is One of the WaveLabs for You?
WaveLab and Elements are available for PC and Mac. As stated earlier, they are available as either 32-bit or 64-bit software. By itself, there’s no particular reason why we need a 64-bit version of a program like this, but compatibility with our plug-ins is an important issue, so having these options really is of consequence.
I run two full-function DAWs: Cubase and SONAR. Between them, I’ve got immense capability for sound manipulation. But I would hate to be without a capable audio editor. For some time, I’ve used Sony’s SoundForge, which is certainly a respectable piece of software. But WaveLab has completely made me forget about SoundForge, and even Elements would have caused me to switch go-to audio editors. The WaveLabs are elegant, complete and appealing. Add to that the fact that SoundForge is 32-bit only and all my plug-ins are 64-bit, and it’s no contest.
I would like to share an observation relevant to anyone who runs IK Multimedia’s ARC software or the equivalent. Neither of the WaveLabs offers a good way to incorporate the ARC VST. You can do it inserting ARC as a plug-in (which of course it is), but it will be pre-metering, and it will use up an insert slot, of which there are only four in Elements. This may influence your choice of WaveLab vs. DAW for mastering. I run ARC myself, and while this is a minor disappointment, it’s not a showstopper by any means.
For $100, Elements is already in nearly no-brainer territory. But with patience, there are sales. It was recently offered for 30% off – an incredible value. If I’m not mistaken, Cubase owners had the opportunity to activate a trial copy that came with a previous Cubase release for $50 – now we really would be in no-brainer territory.
Of course, if you need heavy lifting done and run a lot of audio through your operation, WaveLab will be what you want to consider. The price may sting, but I cannot imagine anyone being less than happy once becoming an owner of this software.
WaveLab and Elements is readily available through innumerable outlets, including directly from Steinberg:
Could Boz Digital Labs Imperial Delay be the world’s greatest delay? Curious? Then read this review to find out.
by Dave Townsend, Jan. 2015
I have to thank Brandon Drury for making me look at this plugin. Brandon wrote a blog entry on his recordingreview.com site entitled “Greatest Delay Plugin Ever”, which made the case that Boz Miller’s new Imperial Delay plugin was in fact The World’s Greatest Delay. Ever.
Now, I was aware that Brandon is a pal of Boz’s and therefore could have been biased in his assessment. But I also know Brandon’s a straight-talking guy and only occasionally prone to unwarranted hyperbolic rants, so there was nothing to do but have a look for myself.
Is this truly the Greatest Delay Ever? The short answer, for the impatient reader: yah, maybe.
At least, it’s certainly in the running for the crown. It deserves consideration for membership in the high-end club that includes long-time standards such as Sound Toys’ Echo Boy and the mind-bogglingly sophisticated FabFilter Timeless2. But whichever full-featured delay you decide is the “greatest” will mostly come down to personal preferences, hence my weasel-word “maybe”.
However, I can say this much with confidence: if you don’t decide Imperial Delay is in fact the greatest ever delay plugin, it won’t be because of any lacking features. It’s definitely got the feature set that you’d expect from a candidate for the title of “Greatest Delay Plugin Ever”.
Every Delay Feature You’ve Ever Heard Of
Delays have evolved over the years, getting ever more sophisticated with each generation. Once upon a time, host tempo-synchronization was an exotic feature. Now it’s standard. Ditto for tape emulation and ping-pong effects. Nowadays, any top-tier delay is going to include such things, so let’s just say that Imperial Delay does all that too, and move on to the cool stuff.
There are a finite number of things you can design into a delay, most of which come down to how you process the feedback loop and how the delayed signal interacts with the dry signal. I’ve run down that list and Imperial Delay pretty much checks off every bullet point.
We love tape delays because they don’t just go echo…echo…echo, they actually make audio sound more interesting. That’s because small variations in tape speed cause corresponding fluctuations in pitch. When you then combine the dry signal with a slightly pitch-shifted version and randomize the shift, the result is a chorus effect akin to double-tracking.
Digital plugins that purport to emulate tape delays therefore have to simulate the mechanical and electronic flaws that made tape delays sound so good: inconsistent tape speed, loss of high frequencies and distortion. Imperial Delay does that stuff pretty well.
Tape speed variation, also known as “wow and flutter”, is simulated by modulating pitch in the feedback loop. Some delays let you tweak this behavior, but most rely on built-in algorithms that have been designed to mimic the variations in tape speed of classic tape machines. Imperial Delay gives you something a little extra: separate fully-adjustable pitch shift controls for left and right channels. More on that later.
Another aspect of tape is loss of high frequencies, which makes the delayed signal slightly muffled-sounding. A digital delay typically emulates this with a low-pass filter. FabFilter Timeless2 takes that to crazy extremes, with multiple filter types and the ability to modulate them several ways. Imperial Delay gives you just a simple “Color” control, which by default is just a standard low-pass filter. It would seem that Timeless wins this comparison. But wait – Imperial Delay has more than one non-obvious trick, as we’ll see.
As features are piled onto any plugin, especially one that aspires to be the “greatest”, the plugin naturally becomes more and more complicated to figure out and use. The real challenge for any software developer isn’t making complicated stuff work, it’s making it accessible. Boz approached this challenge by hiding many of the more advanced options until they’re needed.
Case in point is the aforementioned “Color” parameter. When you look at Imperial Delay all you see is the one knob. If you want to keep things simple, you can stop there. But click on the little button to the right of the knob and you’ll be rewarded with a new panel and additional controls.
What we have here are three refinements to the “Color” adjustment. The top one turns the feedback filter into a tilt filter. The two sliders below it set the cutoff frequencies for the low- and high-pass filters, respectively. Below that is a button to select color presets, or to save your own.
Note the same little detail buttons next to most of the other controls. Each of them opens a similar panel for each of their associated controls, revealing advanced adjustments that are otherwise hidden until you need them.
I’m not going to walk you through every control on this plugin, just the more curious ones. I’ll leave the rest of it for you to explore and discover. Just remember that when you look at this plugin and see only a handful of knobs, don’t assume that this is some dumbed-down version with limited functionality. Be sure to explore all the hidden goodies.
Smearing Can Be a Good Thing
One of the more mysterious knobs is labeled “Smear”, not a standard control we usually see on delay plugins. In this plugin, “smear” refers to a kind of granular reverb effect that’s created via filtered regeneration, which makes the chain of echoes less distinct and more distant-sounding. In other words, “smeared”.
Turn the Smear knob to the right to increase the relative level of smeared signal. It’s a nice effect on sounds that you want to push into the background, such as pads and ethereal background vocals. Not an effect for in-your-face rock vocals, but in moderation it is quite nice on a mellow lead vocal.
Open the detail panel and you’ll see more adjustments for the smear effect. The first knob sets the amount of regenerative feedback, which changes the intensity of the smearing effect. Turn it counter-clockwise to dampen the regeneration and shorten the reverb-like sound. Turn it clockwise to exaggerate the effect.
“Size” is similar to the density control on a reverb. Counter-clockwise for dense, short delays in the feedback loop; clockwise for longer, sparser delays.
There’s also a low-pass filter and presets.
This is one of the coolest features, and although not unique to Imperial Delay it is disappointingly rare on delay plugins in general. I think it should be a standard feature – it’s that useful.
The concept is simple: suppress the delay while the input is hot, in order to improve clarity by limiting how much the echoes step on and mask the dry signal. The implementation is also simple: it’s just a compressor that keys off the dry signal but compresses the delayed signal.
This is one control that you’ll probably want to bring up the detail panel for, because it’s very helpful to see the relationship between signal and threshold and the advanced panel provides convenient peak and compression meters for this.
Set the threshold too high and the ducking effect won’t be heard. Set it too low and the delay can disappear altogether. You want to set the threshold such that the compressor is activated at the beginning of a phrase but releases at some point later in the phrase.
Ducking is most useful on material with strong attack transients such as vocals, piano and sometimes guitar. You probably won’t want to use it with pads, strings and background vocals.
As I said, the ducking feature is not unique to this plugin. However, in my opinion nobody else has managed to make ducking as convenient and easy to dial in as Boz has in this plugin.
Every delay offers a feedback adjustment to set how much of the delayed signal is fed back into the input, thus controlling how many echoes you hear. It’s often the most critical adjustment because if the feedback level is too high the dry signal can be overwhelmed by the effect. Too little, and you get an unnatural-sounding slapback that may not be what you wanted. The trick – and it’s a bit of an art – is adjusting the feedback just right so that you get a nice thick effect without stepping all over the vocal or instrument.
Imperial Delay gives you a tool that I believe is new (at least, I’ve never seen this feature before) and unique: a two-stage feedback option. It lets you set up two feedback levels, one for louder input signals and another for quieter input levels.
Take a lead guitar track for example. You could set up a low feedback amount that’s applied when the guitarist initially plucks a note, but specify a much higher feedback amount that takes over as the note fades away. As soon as the next note is struck, the low-feedback setting kicks back in, preserving the clarity of each note’s onset. Sustained notes can therefore be absolutely drenched in delay without turning the melody into mush.
This feature, especially when used in conjunction with the ducker, will let you go nuts with long, lush delays that would otherwise be just too much. Fast licks come through clearly, but whenever the player lingers on a sustained note, the delay can stretch that note out for as long as you like. Try it on a sultry saxophone solo – yikes.
There’s an old trick for thickening up vocals that involves cloning a vocal track twice and then shifting the pitch of one clone a few cents down and the other clone a few cents up. There are plugins, such as SoundToys’ Little Pitchshifter, that perform just this trick. There is a classic hardware device called the Eventide H3000 that famously does it. Imperial Delay puts a new spin on this classic effect by placing it into the delay’s feedback loop and letting you adjust the amount from subtle to intense.
Two little knobs labeled “PITCH L” and “PITCH R” adjust the amount of pitch shift for left and right channels from 0 to 100 cents (one semitone). Click the top button to enable the feature. Click the lock button to link the two pitch knobs together (I wish there was a way to lock them in opposite rotation, though). There are no advanced adjustments, so no hidden panel is needed for this feature.
The pitch shift is applied to the feedback loop, not to the main dry signal. This means that the shift becomes more pronounced with each echo, so the more feedback, and the greater the effect. Consequently, I prefer to use short feedback values with pitch-shift because I’m usually after a subtle effect. But you may be after something more extreme or exotic, such as a complex evolving pad, in which case high feedback plus pitch shift might be just the ticket.
More than any other of Imperial Delay’s features, this is the one that most sets the plugin apart from the rest.
OK, that, and the smear feature. And the ducker, of course. And the two-stage feedback. Yes, definitely, those three features plus the pitch shift make this plugin special. Um, and the distortion’s pretty good, too. And I haven’t even told you about the Width knob. So definitely, it’s those six features that distinguish this delay from the pack. Maybe one or two others.
So is this really the World’s Greatest Delay? It doesn’t have FabFilter Timeless2’s extensive modulation capabilities, so at least for some applications such as generating rhythms, Imperial Delay might not hold the top spot. It also doesn’t allow you to define, treat and pan each echo independently like, say, Audio Damage’s Ricochet or eaReckon’s EARebound, so there may be better choices for certain creative and sound-design applications.
But for the other 99% of everyday mixing needs, I can’t imagine wanting more in a delay plugin than what Imperial Delay provides. I really think I’d be OK if this was my one and only delay. (But no, I’m not letting go of Timeless2 just yet.)
OK, so we’ve established that Imperial Delay is capable and cool. What about value?
Ah, you knew there had to be a catch, didn’t you? Imperial Delay goes for $299. Ouch. That makes it the most-expensive delay plugin on the market. (By comparison, FabFilter’s Timeless2 is $144 and Soundtoys’ EchoBoy is $179. In fact, I can’t name any other full-featured delay plugin priced over $200.)
In its defense, I can only offer that a) it’s really good, b) it could be the only delay you’ll need, and c) occasional sales are likely. I’d suggest demoing it to see for yourself if it’s the Greatest Delay Plugin Ever – for you.
Purchase Imperial Delay or get the demo here:
Cinesamples Tina Guo Acoustic Cello is in an incredibly easy to use solo cello library with phenomenal sound quality, vibrato and bow changes. Are there any reasons not to get it?
by Per Lichtman, Jan. 2015
If you’ve been reading my reviews for a while, you have probably noticed that I have a special passion for reviewing ensemble strings and solo strings and that I cover them more often than anything else. So when I say CineSamples Tina Guo Acoustic Cello Legato is a cello library unlike any other I’ve ever used, I’m not speaking lightly. Tina Guo Acoustic Cello Legato is a Kontakt 5 Player (version 5.3.1 or higher) library currently available from Cinesamples.com for $99 USD. It is positioned as part of Cinesamples strings range while the “full version” of Cinesamples Tina Guo library is positioned as part of the sound design range, costs $299 USD and contains a wider variety of content. When you purchase Tina Guo Acoustic Cello Legato, you currently get a voucher for $99 USD toward the purchase of the larger product should you choose to upgrade. Sessions for Tina Guo Acoustic Cello Legato were recorded more recently than the other content and with a different signal chain so I will save discussion of the larger product for another time.
What Makes This Cello Library Special?
Before I go any further, the biggest thing that makes this library special is Tina Guo herself. Cinesamples have captured surprisingly evocative single note performances by this world class artist, imbued with the natural variation in vibrato and human expression that I have frankly been unable to replicate with any other library in all my years of working with samples. On top of that, the legato interval sampling is so excellent that I frequently got positive comments on the bow changes from laymen without any experience playing or writing for strings. So the performances are the first huge part.
The second part is the sound quality. While the library lacks the flexibility of the miking I found in Cinesamples Cinesymphony products, it is nonetheless recorded in the same space (the MGM Scoring Stage at Sony Pictures Studios) and provides two mixes. The first thing I did was to disable all the FX (it sounds great without anything on it) and then I just picked the mix I liked best of the two. Honestly, I never found reason to switch back and forth so I think it’s purely a matter of personal preference. The library cannot be made to sound as dry a VSL Solo Strings I, let alone the Embertone products but it sounds great without anything on it. Let me re-emphasize that: this is a solo string library sounds great without any FX applied to it, and yet doesn’t have an overpowering hall sound.
The third thing is the learning curve and usability. You can be fully proficient with the library in less than an hour. I am serious – within the first hour of finishing installing the library, I was fully up to speed. I improvised five sketches for piano and cello in thirty minutes, including one that turned out to be a listener favorite and got tons of compliments. And how much time did I spend tweaking the performances? None. Not only that, but I only played the notes and used one CC to modify the level of the performance while I was playing. The legato transitions worked wonderfully and (other than disabling FX) I didn’t have to do any setup at all. I’ll come back to that point later, but suffice to say that I have never found a solo cello library that was quicker to learn, use or mix.
What Is the Library Best For?
Unlike some other libraries I have reviewed, Tina Guo Acoustic Cello Legato does not aim for maximum flexibility. There is a single patch, it is not close-miked in a dry space and the only key-switching is to turn the legato intervals on and off (allowing you to play multiple sustains at once, for instance). While the legato scripting can handle a decent range of performance, it is not designed for the especially quick playing. So what this library really excels at is slow to moderate performances so that the bow changes and vibrato get a chance to breathe and shine: if you play it in this range, it’s much more difficult to push the library to sound unnatural than many other products I have used. The library can work very well for a variety of material in this range, from passionate to pastoral, from expansive to intimate, and the warm sound worked well with a surprising variety of material, especially with a little EQ. I used the library for chamber pieces and for larger orchestral ones with equally good results and found it effective both on lead melodies and playing a supporting accompaniment.
What about the Competition?
Tina Guo Acoustic Cello Legato is far from the only solo library out there and it faces a lot of competition, even at its relatively low price point. Embertone’s Blakus Cello is only a little more and offers much great flexibility, not just in terms of the number of articulations and (due to the closer miking) how close you can get to the instrument, but also in terms of vibrato control. The solo cello in 8Dio’s Adagio line is less flexible than Blakus Cello but still offers more options than Tina Guo Acoustic Cello Legato. The solo cello in VSL Solo Strings I Full offers an even more comprehensive range of articulations than that, once again with great mixing flexibility. Many other libraries also offer solo cellos at aggressive price points: there’s covered Prague Solo Strings (though without interval legato samples or advanced scripting) and Kirk Hunter also offers multiple options, for starters. And there’s pocketBlakus, which still holds my recommendation as the best free solo cello library and is very easy to learn (though it too does not have interval legato samples). Some of these libraries also go further into the highest range of cello than Tina Guo Acoustic Cello Legato.
Tina Guo Acoustic Cello Legato does not attempt to compete with the versatility of those libraries in terms of either articulations or mixing options, let alone vibrato control. Instead it provides a much shorter learning curve with great instant gratification and in place of vibrato control, it provides really great vibrato by a world class performer that I simply don’t seem to be able to recreate in other libraries. It sounds great without FX, it sounds great without mixing, it sounds great without a ton of CC data (just one controller for level is enough) and it is very, very fast to work with.
If you’re looking for a solo cello library that is very easy to learn, with a warm sound that has got a bit of ambience without sounding “too” wet and with great vibrato performances. This is currently my clients’ favorite cello library that I have ever used. There aren’t additional articulations here (though the larger product may include some from a different product) and it’s not meant for especially fast playing or to give you non-vibrato performances or vibrato control. Frankly, it’s still a steal at the price because I have never used a sampled cello that made it this easy to make melodies sound this good. If sampled cello is important to your melody writing, I would seriously suggest looking at this library, even if you already have another sampled cello. It sounds unlike any other library I have ever used and it is very fun to work with.
Grosso is Sonokinetic’s follow-up to Minimal that lets composers perform a series of elaborately divided string, woodwind, brass, percussion and choir loops by playing triads on their keyboard.
by Per Lichtman, Jan. 2015
Last May I reviewed Sonokinetic Minimal, a departure from my usual reviewing emphasis in that it relied primarily that got my attention through the an unusual emphasis in the material performed (that being on minimalist style ostinati and the like), the strong vibe of its performance and the high recording quality and variety of material. Today I’m covering it’s spiritual successor, Grosso (available at Sonokinetic.net for approximately $354 USD for new users, though there’s an upgrade credit available to Minimal owners). In fact, when I originally signed on to review Grosso, I basically expected Minimal with a different set of sounds, but it turns out that my underestimation was “grosso”.
What Makes Grosso So Different from Minimal?
While Grosso and Minimal share a lot of things in common (large loop based orchestral libraries in the same space by the same developer, played by holding triads on the keyboard, etc.) there also many important distinctions. For instance, Minimal was recorded in 4/4 at 110 BPM, while Gross was recorded in 12/8 at 135 BPM (though setup to be compatible with both 4/4 and 12/8 sessions).
Grosso also adds a “transition builder” for the strings and winds, still performed by playing chords – though instead of being limited to major and minor triads like the other patches, it adds support for diminished, augmented and dominant 7ths. The transition builder creates a transition by playing and sustaining consecutive notes in different instruments as the chord sustains, in an order showcased by the diagram graphic that is used to pick the pattern. At its simplest, this means two consecutive notes with a player each but others use up two twelve players in more complex variations.
Where Minimal integrated the standard four orchestral sections into four squares in a single patch (strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion), adds a choir and sub-divides each of these five sections into two or three parts (each with its own set of phrases on offer, many of which have several further variations). Thus each section of the orchestra gets its own patch and for sub-division of that section, you can map four patterns to individual key-switches. Thus, you can switch between them at will.
Furthermore, some of the sections have swelled in size. The string and woodwind sections remain the same size but the brass section has expanded from eleven players to fifteen, while the percussion section (which now includes six taiko players) has surged up from five players to twelve and switched from a more melodic emphasis to un-pitched percussion. These are all joined by the aforementioned forty person choir.
The emphasis here is on big dramatic motifs designed for trailer work and similar cues, but there’s definitely still a very noticeable 20th century classical influence that I enjoyed. Neither Minimal nor Grosso sound like what many other developers market as a “big Hollywood sound” in their loop collections, except in so far as they use a large ensemble – and that’s an asset. As you layer the parts together, you can quickly and easily create a “battle at the base of Yggdrasil/fall of Valhalla” type of vibe by simply routing the same simple triadic chord progression to a number of a different sections, adding them one by one.
Some Things Stay the Same
In most other respects, the library remains very similar to Minimal, meaning that I like it for all the same reasons: the four mic positions, the great vibe, how quick it is to use, variety of content for the money, the ability to purchase a conductor score, an unusual GUI… the list goes on (and might be a good reason to take a good look at my earlier Sonokinetic Minimal review).
A Few Small Notes
When I first started using the library, I was using an earlier version of Kontakt 5. I ran into some unexpected crashes and e-mailed Sonokinetic. Their fix was to install Kontakt (or Kontakt Player) 5.4.2. To my surprise, that completely fixed all the problems, so I mention it in case any readers encounter the same thing.
Also, while I initially had some difficulty getting the most out of the choir section, I found two things helped a lot. 1) Make sure that you don’t have it too loud relative to the rest of the orchestra as the ear intuitively picks up something is off when 40 human voices come off as too much louder than a fifteen piece brass section 2) By layering different longer phrases into the three sections, you can create a sense of movement and make it more difficult for the ear to latch onto the repetitions and fatigue.
If you liked Minimal, then you owe it to yourself to check out Grosso’s evolution of the same concept into something bigger and more powerful. Even if you never tried Minimal, you should check out Grosso if you have any need for an unusually powerful orchestral loop product that emphasizes grand and majestic material at a brisk tempo while offering a variety of colors. The transition builder patch also adds something I hadn’t seen in an orchestral loop library before and is well worth a closer look in and of itself.
Spitfire Audio’s Hans Zimmer Percussion is a Kontakt Player cinematic percussion collection unlike any other, designed for the largest possible sound with uniquely comprehensive mixing options.
by Per Lichtman, Jan. 2015
Spitfire Audio has collaborated with Hans Zimmer to create the Hans Zimmer Percussion line, cinematic percussion libraries sampled using the same players and recording approach as Hans Zimmer’s scores and personal sample collections. The line is currently comprised of three volumes: HZ01 – London Ensembles (approx. $603 USD), HZ02 – Los Angeles (approx. $301 USD) and HZ03 – London Soloists (approx. $301 USD). Each of the three Kontakt Player libraries is available for download at SpitfireAudio.com. Note that the library runs on either the free Kontakt Player or full Kontakt, starting with version 4.2.4. This review was written using HZ01 version 1.2, HZ02 1.1 and HZ03 1.0 (all current at the time of publication).
Should I Check Out the Library?
Right out of the gate, the library has a lot going for it. First of all, Hans Zimmer is undisputedly one of the most well-known composers in Hollywood, both for his compositions and for his sound, with the huge percussion often being cited as a signature element. This library gets as close to his sound as you can get without hiring him. For HZ01 and HZ03, it’s the same players, the same instruments, the same hall (AIR Lyndhurst), recorded through the same equipment, with the same engineers handling recording, and the option to use mixes by the same mixing engineers – and to top it off, it marries well with the other Spitfire Audio libraries recorded at AIR Lyndhurst through the same gear. For HZ02, you get some of Hans Zimmer’s modular synth percussion to but the star is one of his favorite players (Jason Bonham) recording his drum kit in three different L.A. locations: the 20th Century Fox scoring stage, the Sony Scoring Stage (where Cinesamples libraries are recorded) and a location of Hans Zimmer’s own called “The Cathedral”.
Now, I’ll admit that I was skeptical about that approach since I’m such a fan of AIR Lyndhurst’s sound and how well it married HZ01 and HZ03 to the Spitfire BML range in particular. But boy did HZ02 prove me wrong for having doubted it. The kit sounds very different in each of the three locations (note that there’s a minority of extra hits for some of the locations), lending it surprising flexibility and The Cathedral has a massive sound, even without additional processing that makes it work well alongside HZ01 and HZ03 in a way that I simply had not expected at all.
All three volumes of the library sound fantastic. I cannot find anything negative to say about the sound. Basically, unless you want a drier sound, this library can dish out most of the huge sounds a composer could want.
How Does It Work?
In use, HZ01 and HZ03 function a bit differently compared to HZ02. With HZ01 and HZ03, the biggest sound comes out of the library when you use a lot of tracks: I have 33 in my template HZ01 and HZ03 combined template to get access to each instrument quickly, and I have several cues where they the majority are playing at once. There are some huge percussion instruments that can sound great on their own and this is a library that wants to give you that level of control as opposed to given you lots of pre-fabricated combos that layer even more instruments together for you – the All In One Patches allow you to switch between all the different instruments in the volume, one at a time, but do not map them all next to each other on the keyboard for concurrent performance. Conversely, HZ02 is rock drum kit in large locations (don’t go looking for a dry drum kit here) provided with many different mixing options, and a modular synth, so you’ll just need one or two tracks … or so I thought, until Spitfire Audio provided an update including three Bonus Instruments after I had started my review. The three bonus instruments are Bass Drum, Surdos and Toms.
The library is huge and covers some extended percussion that is difficult to find in other libraries but a large part of the libraries scope comes from the many, many different mix options available. Chances are you’ll know your way around all the instruments long before you know your way around all the mix options for each instrument.
The Instrument Patches
HZ01 uses several larger patches that let you switch between multiple related sounds using the GUI: All in One, Bucket Hits, Exotic Hits, Low Hits, Metal Hits, Taiko Hits and Timpani Hits. You’ll find all of these in the root of whatever mix or mic folder you’ve chosen (more on that in the next section), along with an Individual Patches folder that let you load each patch individually (instead of using a GUI to switch) if you prefer and an “Other Patches” folder where you will find the Punch COG patch versions (also found in other Spitfire Audio libraries) that allow you to modify specific round robin samples at your discretion or omit them from the round robin chain entirely.
HZ02’s star is a single Jason Bonham kit recorded in different locations, so most of the patches are dedicated to that. However, the Bonus Instruments section contains one patch each for Bass Drum, Surdos and Toms (each of which has Close, Tree, Outrigger, St and Sr mics). There’s also the Hans Zimmer modular synth percussion patch (single position, for obvious reasons) that is found in the Hans Zimmer folder.
HZ03 has the most straightforward patch organization: Buckets, Crusher Solo, Darbucket, Darbuka, Dohl, Paper Djun, Snare Solo, Surdo Solo and Tombek. These patches provide a more detailed, individual take on some of the instruments covered in an ensemble fashion in HZ01 (where they were often only available layered with others). This time around there are no sub-folders for individual patches (since the main patches are already individual patches) or for Punch COG versions. There also no stereo mix folders – that makes a certain level of sense since those purchasing HZ03 are most likely looking for more hands-on control anyway.
You can read up on the instruments offered more specifically at SpitfireAudio.com where the manuals for each volume are also hosted, but there are many instruments you may not realize you need until you play them, so don’t just stick to the names you know.
Most of the patches (exempting the timpani, rock kit and a few others) are played entirely using the white keys, and the starting note for the overwhelming majority is the same, making it relatively easy to sequence a part for one percussion instrument and then bring it over to another track. I found this very useful when writing layered parts and quickly organized my template so that the handful of instruments that did not use the same starting note were put elsewhere.
The Mics and Mixes
While Spitfire Audio has a list of additional mixes/mic options that will be available for free to existing users in the future, the HZ libraries are already industry leaders in these respects. I cannot emphasize enough just what a big deal the options are, both from a composer perspective and from my background as a mixing engineer.
Let’s look at HZ01 for starters. The library is divided into several folders: Additional Mics, Artist Elements, Stereo Mixes and Steve Lipson Mix. First of all, let me say that there is no “filler” – every single one of these folders contains extremely high quality audio material and the variety of colors available is unlike any other library I have ever worked with. I simply cannot give enough kudos here. I feel like I’m still discovering new sonic colors even after having used the library for a long time and taking the time to audition every one of them is something I doubt most users will even have time for. This is not a library I foresee people “outgrowing” from a mixing perspective anytime soon.
At the same time, the Steve Lipson Mix and Stereo Mixes folders provide instant gratification and a variety of colors. You get four different stereo mixes from four different people for each of the patches in the percussion ensemble, each of which will emphasize very different parts of the percussion section. There are mixes by Hans Zimmer, Alan Meyerson, Geoff Foster and Steve Lipsom and switching between them can totally change the feel of your composition. You can just pick one up and be ready to go at once without having to deal with mic balancing at all. Three of the mixes are included in the “Stereo Mixes” patch for each instrument, while Steve Lipsom’s is in a separate patch.
On the other hand, I took things a step further by routing a different stereo pair out of Kontakt for each stereo mix on every instrument, and then sent each of those outputs to a different aux in my DAW. Once I had that setup in my template, I could easily switch between the four different mixes for every instrument in my template at once by soloing one aux at a time. Honestly, I was blown away by the four different colors I could get without changing the MIDI data, switching patches or even dealing with individual mics at all. If you can’t find a great starting point in one of these four mixes I’m honestly not sure what you’re looking for. And yet there’s still heaps more detail available in Additional Mics and Artist Elements folders.
The Artist Elements folder is grouped into sub-folders by person: Alan Meryson, Geoff Foster, Hans Zimmer and JXL (Tom Holkenborg, also known as Junkie XL). The mics available vary depending on which person you choose. For Alan Meyerson and Hans Zimmer you get Close, Room and Surround. For Geoff Foster you get Close, Tree, Surround and Outrigger. For JXL you get JXL Close, JXL Room, JXL Full and JXL Air. By contrast, the Additional Mics folder uses one set of patches, all with the same mics: Bottle Mic, Mid Field, Gallery, Overheads, Pair and Piezo Tree. The user is completely spoilt for choice – there wasn’t a single time where I thought “man I wish I had X mic so I could do Y”. Once again, I simply cannot give enough kudos here.
For HZ03, there are no Stereo Mixes or Steve Lipsom Mixes. The Artist Elements include options from Alan Meyerson, Geoff Foster and Hans Zimmer and the mic options remain largely similar to HZ01 (save for the occasional small name differences like Tree vs Room for the same mic).
HZ02 is organized a bit differently. The Artist Elements folder still contains sub-folders for different people (Alan Meyerson, Geoff Foster and Hans Zimmer). The Hans Zimmer folder is actually just for the modular synth percussion patch. The Alan Meyerson and Geoff Foster folders contain three more sub-folders, one for each of the recording locations: Cathedral Drums, Fox Drums and Sony Drums.
The Kickstarter Kits in HZ02 caught me by surprise by emphasizing a different interface as opposed to different content. The interface has a taller aspect ratio than the other patches, with a drum kit graphic in the center that you can click on to select what you want to modify the mapping for. There are lots of tool tips, and most of the normal controls are found in the lower left hand corner. If you want to remap the drums (for instance, to use drum sequences you wrote for another plug-in) this could make it a lot easier. However, since the emphasis of my review was on the sound of the library, I spent less time here than with the other patches.
So Are There Any Downsides?
Before I got my current template configured, there were certainly times where I wished I could switch between different stereo mixes for the whole percussion section at once, though in retrospect I can see how difficult this might be to implement. I know that some users will be disappointed that they can’t just play a patch with a lot of different instruments mapped to different key ranges. I know there are also some that would prefer some pre-fabricated mega hits that layer a lot of sounds. To the last critique I would say that I’m optimistic that the choice to have users layer sounds as they see fit may reduce the glut of tracks using the exact same “mega hit” over and over, helping each user sound a bit more individual. And thanks to the fact that the main hit for most percussion instruments is mapped to the same key range, you can always stack a lot of patches if you want anyway.
More practically, I noticed on the taikos in particular that there were fewer different hits/playing styles than in some other libraries (the now defunct 9Volt Audio’s Taiko 2 sprang to mind). And the size of the library may put it out of the reach of users working on small hard drives. Some users may also be overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the library, since there are so very many possibilities. Honestly, to any such users I would simply suggest that you pick a single Stereo Mix because that makes it a lot easier and also that you take the time to learn one patch at a time. The only real criticism I have is that in some cases the documentation hasn’t kept up with the updates, which made it difficult to find any info on the Bonus Instruments in HZ02, for instance.
Frankly, I’m reaching here – the library really just excels at just about everything I can think of. I’m glad it’s here, use it all the time and wish it had come out years ago so I could have used it on my old cues!
What about the Competition?
There’s hasn’t exactly been a drought of percussion libraries, either cinematic or orchestral and certainly there are many options for either from EastWest, CineSamples and others that feature some of the instruments used in ensembles here. If a user just wanted taikos, for instance, I could think of several other libraries that offer them off the top of my head. But I have not seen any other library the offers the specific combination of percussion instruments employed here and each library is very strongly colored by the sound of its hall, something especially true of percussion instruments. Thus I find it very difficult to suggest any direct competitor to Hans Zimmer Percussion: if you like that particular sound, this is really the place to get it. However, for composers doing orchestral writing in a broader context, I strongly recommend pairing HZ with a broader, more traditional orchestral percussion library, such as Spitfire Audio’s own Percussion Redux, or EastWest’s Hollywood Orchestral Percussion.
If you are looking for the biggest cinematic percussion or just want a Hans Zimmer percussion sound, the Hans Zimmer Percussion line should be the very first stop on your journey. The recording quality, mic and mix options are insanely powerful, able to cater to both detail oriented users and those looking for instant gratification. I have simply never seen any other library go this far in terms of the mics and mixes – it has set the bar very high for all other libraries that follow. If you need a very dry, up-front percussion library, look elsewhere but for that massive sound it’s really the one to beat.
Is this the drum programming game changer that the developer claims it to be? Suleiman dives in to find out.
by Suleiman Ali, Jan. 2015
Artificially intelligent music software, as well as algorithmic composition code, has been around since the mid-nineties, with many experimental programs generating MIDI content using some set of rules, for example, fractal generation, probability or cellular automata. The theoretical roots of these ideas are at least half a century old.
Despite the considerable age of the ideas and the algorithms themselves, commercially available software that gave users control over such a generator in an intuitive manner did not appear in the market until the second half of the decade beginning in 2000. At this point, we are shifting our discussion to drums and leaving melodic AI-based composition for another time (which is itself a book and a half for another day).
The first major contestant in AI drum software (and a true ground breaker) was Rayzoon’s Jamstix. It is now at version 3.5 and is essentially a virtual drummer that can generate unique beats for your song’s requirement based on the virtual drummer model and genre/style that you selected. Further tweaking is possible for individual song parts and playing style.
The second major contestant (and another ground breaker) was Melda Production’s MDrummer. Rather than modeling individual drummers’ signature styles, it combined genre based behavior with intuitive rhythmic tweaking options to generate and modify your drum track. At version 5.03, MDrummer has come a long way since then.
Given the rather huge scope and depth of the software, I will be doing this review in 2 parts. Part 2 will appear in the March issue of SoundBytes Magazine.
I used an i5-based HP Laptop with 6 GB RAM running Windows 8 (64-bit) alongside a Roland Tri-Capture audio interface. The DAW was 64-bit Reaper version 4.73 and the plug-in itself was 64-bit.
The Good News
Let me get some of the major selling points of MDrummer out of the way. It includes almost all of Melda Productions amazing suite of effects built-in. These can be used on a per drum basis or as sends. If you have tested out or used any of Melda Production’s rich set of effects, you know you are in for a treat with easy GUI’s and powerful functionality at your beck and call for all of your drums.
The second crucial item, so often missing in the major drum software, is the ability to import your own multi-velocity samples. So, should the included (and quite comprehensive) 6 GB of content not be sufficient, you put all your existing WAV libraries to good use by utilizing MDrummer as a drum sampler.
The third crucial feature is the ability to use multi-out on all the individual drum tracks to your DAW as well as direct all the MIDI data directly to another drum software of your choice, with MIDI mapping tweaking that is intuitive and save-able as a template (these are called output MIDI filters).
The installer is available online, and a reasonable internet connection is required to download the 6 GB of included factory content. Once everything is downloaded, the installation worked seamlessly and without any hiccups (the installation is offline). You can direct the path of the 32-bit VSTi, 64-bit VSTi, the content as well as the standalone version. The best bit of news in this regard that there is no dongle or complicated activation procedure.
One of the criticisms of earlier versions of MDrummer was the lack of a written manual. In this regard, they have finally issued some documentation in PDF format, which is a very welcome addition for new users and get you up and running within half an hour.
Note: Just in case you want to verify the smooth running of the software in your setup of choice, it is highly recommended that you try the MDrummer Small free version before buying the full version. It includes the features of the full version in a demo mode too. This is something that more developers need to do. It is a good model, and had me buying the software shortly after trying the demo.
You can try it here:
Getting Up and Running
Once you start-up the program (in your DAW or as a standalone), you are greeted with a nice clear interface that has seven window tabs on the top of the GUI.
These tabs are:
This is the best place for a new user to test out some of the default sounds and rhythms at on offer. Select a drum kit by double clicking on one of the available ones in the left side of the GUI (organized into clearly labeled categories such as Dance, DnB, Hip Hop, Percussion, Pop, Studio, etc.). After loading the drum kit of your choice, double click on a rhythm type from the right hand side of the GUI (again sorted into categories like Dance. Hip Hop, Pop Rock, Metal, etc.). This loads up a full set of intro, verse and chorus beats, fills (short and long) as well as outros. Pressing play will get the groove going and you will instantly be able to hear the chosen drum kit playing the selected rhythm style. There are a lot of variations available that you can explore by pressing the corresponding play buttons as well as varying the level bar. This is also where you can randomly generate hybrid kits and play them in different styles/genres. But be warned: this is quite addictive !
On this tab you ca set up the volumes and pitches as well as the send effects for each individual drum piece (bass drum, snare, hi hat, cymbals, toms, etc.). It is a relatively straightforward interface that will be familiar to most users. If you are using a stereo out version of the MDrummer VSTi, then you can use this tab to essentially mix your drums right here.
Here we have a very useful part of the program, since the sheer number and quality of the effects make MDrummer worth the price of entry by themselves. Some of the paraphernalia here is going to make your DAW sweat to compete. If you are using the multi-out VSTi version of MDrummer (16 stereo channels), you can set up a chain of effects for each stereo channel. This is called an effect pipeline. Or you can define an effect like a Reverb and a Compressor on Send 1 and Send 2 busses respectively and control the amounts you send to these two busses from the mixer tab.
This is one of the two methods available to arrange your song. You can either trigger patterns by using MIDI notes (in which case this song arranger should be disabled) or you can arrange your entire song right here. You can have up to nine different rhythm types which can be sequenced into different parts such as intros, verses, choruses, breaks, long breaks and outros.
This is the tab for the sound tweakers. It allows you to completely manipulate every single sound and layer of your drum kit to your heart’s content. You could apply any of the aforementioned effects to each individual drum sound here (especially if you are not using a multi-out version and want to completely control the drums within MDrummer). You can also assign different sounds to different kit pieces, mixing and matching your own customized kits. These can all be saved in a user directory for immediate recall. The ADSR is completely editable with a clear interface. The best feature for me was the ability to import and use your own samples which can be velocity layered. I tried up to 64 layers and it worked fine. Furthermore, not only is such manual assignation of user samples easy, you can also import and analyze your multi-sample libraries using MDrummer which will then generate the necessary components/kits from it. Furthermore you can combine these with the included (and pretty deep) drum synths for some truly unique sounds. This is what music software should do in 2015 !
Here you can edit the currently active rhythms to your heart’s content as well as defining or setting some behavioral parameters that affect how MDrummer performs these rhythms. The rhythms that your are tweaking here come either from the factory content of genre-based loops that you selected or from your own seed rhythms (which brings us to the gold heart of MDrummer, the Rhythm Generator tab).
This is where you can describe the basic beat of your song, alongside the ride/cymbal/hat behavior and let MDrummer do its magic: generating many unique parts that all conform to the basic seed rhythm you defined. This tab essentially gets you from zero to done drum track in less time than any drum software in existence.
The last two tabs, Rhythm Editor and Rhythm Generator, have a simple and quite effective drum grid for programming/editing the beats. It notates the drum hits via diamonds and the individual probability and velocity (amongst other parameters) of each hit can be set by the user.
This was just an introduction to this quite amazing software, and in the next part we will go in detail about what MDrummer does and how it goes about it.
We’ll complete our survey of MDrummer in the next issue of SoundBytes Magazine. But if you can’t wait and want to find out more immediately, if not actually acquire this marvel, then go here: