Monthly Archives: November 2016

Review – Analog Lab 2 from Arturia

 

Sixteen quality instruments (synths, pianos and organs) with a massive library of factory presets for well under a hundred bucks?  Not impossible, not with Analog Lab 2!

 

by David Baer, Nov. 2016

 

Analog Lab 2 houses the engines of Arturia’s entire current collection of software instruments, sixteen in all to be exact.  It is available as an individual purchase for $89 USD and also comes with the Collection V bundle (list price $499 USD).  It is available in all mainstream formats in both 32 and 64 bit and can be run as a standalone or in a DAW host.

Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately.  This thing offers every single preset of every instrument in the Collection V lineup.  That’s over 5300 presets.  Even at full list price (and Arturia sales have been known to happen), this is a steal.

So what’s the downside?  Why buy the full collection when Analog Lab 2 has all the sounds?  It should not be a surprise that the instrument presets cannot be changed using Analog Lab.  But as you’ll see, there is great latitude to tweak the sounds using front-panel macro controls.  However, you, the user, do not get to choose what the macros are – more on this later.

Analog Lab 2 is a second version of an earlier incarnation (but hereafter we’ll drop the “2” for brevity when naming this current version).  It was introduced in a recent major wave of enhancements to Arturia’s software instruments that included numerous improvements to that long-lived line, most notably for some users is the ability to resize the UIs.  Arturia used to offer a smaller bundle of synth instruments called Collection Classics V, but that bundle seems to have been quietly withdrawn from the catalog with little fanfare since it’s no longer in evidence on the Arturia Products web page.  So, now we just have the full collection bundle (but also, all the single instruments are available for individual purchase).

My fellow writer Rob Mitchell has been reviewing a number of the Arturia software synths in recent issues of SoundBytes.  You can read about  SEM V, Jup-8 V, Solina V, Synclavier V and Matrix-12 V by clicking on the respective links.  We will be providing more coverage of more of these instruments in future (I plan to do a review on the marvelous Arturia Prophet V in our Jan. issue).

 

The Players

Let’s start by introducing the lineup of instruments on offer in Analog Lab.  All sixteen of the instruments produce sound via computational means – no sampling is involved.  To begin with, we have three pianos: an acoustic piano and two electric pianos.  Next we have three classic electronic organs: the B3, the Vox Continental and the Farfisa.  The other ten instruments are all synths of historic significance.

Let’s start with the synths in detail.  I will list the number of Analog Lab presets offered for each as we go through the list that follows.

Two Moog instruments are on offer, one of them being the instrument that arguably started it all, the Modular V (499 presets), which is based on the imposing tower of electronics made famous in 1968 by (then) Walter Carlos with the blockbuster album Switched On Bach.  The initial version of the Arturia Modular instrument was reportedly created with the participation of Bob Moog himself.  This software incarnation recreates the original monster in a form that must be considerably easier to program, transport and maintain than the original.  Like many of the other instruments in the collection, enhancements have been added where it made sense, most importantly perhaps is that limited polyphony (the Moog Modular was a monosynth) is no longer a restriction.  An Analog Lab preset must have been programmed with multiple voices if you are to take advantage of that.  If it was not, the Analog Lab user has to accept what is in the preset.  But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves – we will return to these issues later.

 

 

The other Moog is the Mini V  (469 presets), which is of course based on the famous Moog instrument of that name.  Given its size and price, sales of the imposing Moog Modular was a challenge.  The response by Moog was the Mini, which became a legend in its own right.  Again, the monophonic limitation of the original is lifted in the software version.

 

 

Although Moog was the most recognized name in synths in the seventies, the ARP company (ARP being the initials of the company’s founder) actually was the bestselling line in the 1970s, commanding a 40% market share.  The ARP2600 V (535 presets) is based on an instrument of the same name, although there were actually several different versions manufactured.  The ARP2600 was a semi-modular device that became a runaway bestseller (relative to the size of the synth market at the time, of course).

 

 

 

 

 

The Solina V (147 presets) is based on an instrument developed by a Dutch company, Eminent, that was known for its electronic organs.  The Solina was able to produce orchestral-string-like (but clearly synthetic) sounds that obviated the need for expensive, unreliable and difficult to transport Mellotron and Chamberlin keyboards.  It was actually marketed under two labels, Eminent and ARP, separate companies who forged an unusual alliance that produced a decent return for both.

Oberheim synths appeared on the scene in the mid-1970s and are represented by two entries in Analog Lab.  The first is the SEM (496 presets), based on a synth expansion module (thus the name) that had no keyboard.  In practice, it was combined with Moog and other keyboards, not just Oberheim instruments.  Again, a monosynth by itself, Oberheim combined multiple modules to produce two, four and eight-voice instruments – powerful at the time, but a pain to program since each module had to be individually configured.  The SEM V software eliminates this difficulty, naturally.

The Oberheim Matrix-12 was based on the same voice architecture of the SEM, but it was vastly more user-friendly when it came to sound programming (411 presets).  Those with a good knowledge of synth history would probably designate the Matrix-12 as the crowning achievement of the Oberheim synth line.

 

 

 

The Prophet was another product of the 1970s.  The Prophet 5, manufactured by Sequential Circuits (later, just Sequential) was the first viable polyphonic (five-voice – thus the number in the name) to be commercially available at a not-overly-exorbitant price.   Sequential would for a time be the largest manufacturer of synths in the US.  Another Prophet model, the VS, came on the scene a bit later in the mid-1980s.  Arturia’s recreation of the Prophet merges both the Prophet 5 and Prophet VS into a single instrument (553 presets) for double your pleasure.

 

The Roland Jupiter 8 is clearly one of the most revered synths of all time (494 presets).  Appearing in the early 1980’s, this took the world by storm due to new types of synth sounds it could produce using a relatively easy and attractive top panel layout.  It sported a cassette interface that made it easy to save and load patches, something that made it most attractive in performance situations.

 

The CS80 is the one Yamaha creation in the Analog Lab lineup (520 presets).  It first appeared in 1976.  Its price put it out of reach of most musicians and it was unwieldy to transport as well.  Only 3000 were manufactured.  But it had a lush, luxuriant sound that made it famous.  The iconic strains of Vangelis’s Blade Runner score were created using this instrument – anyone familiar with that music will immediately understand why this is one of the most desirable synths of all time.

 

 

The Synclavier from New England Digital Corp. is the only digital synth in the collection (470 presets).  It was absolutely the top-end of the top-end during its time, that being largely the decade starting around 1985.  Even the more modestly configured machines had a price in the if-you-have-to-ask-you-cannot-afford-it strata.  But the elite musicians of that era, spanning rock, jazz and soundtrack genres, loved it.  It offered FM, additive and sample playback (unsurprisingly quite primitive by today’s standards).  The Arturia recreation avoids the sample-based features, but fully delivers on the other digital abilities of the original.

The final six instruments are all pianos and organs.  As might be expected, the number of presets for them is much more modest than those available with the synths.

The Hammond B3 is the ubiquitous tone-wheel organ that has been around for about 80 years.  The Arturia B3 V incarnation (86 presets) is a two-manual instrument and some of the presets recognize input from two different MIDI channels – needed in order to differentiate between the upper and lower keyboards.  A great rotary speaker simulation and some optional stomp effects complete the picture.

 

 

 

The Vox Continental (191 presets) was a mod instrument if ever there was one, sporting a slim, vibrantly- colored body and a keyboard with black naturals and white sharps.  One models had just one keyboard, but there was also a two-manual with optional pedalboard model.   Available starting in the early 1960s, it caught on fast with the “British Invasion” bands of that era and their US counterparts.  It was the Vox Continental that can be heard in the immediately-recognizable intro to Light My Fire by the Doors and also was the foundation for The Animals House of the Rising Sun.  With its bright timbre, it could hold its own in electric-guitar-heavy mixes.  The Arturia version is the multi-manual model and presets may respond to multiple MIDI channels.

The main competitor to the Vox Continental was the Compact Farfisa Deluxe organ (147 presets), made by an Italian electronics manufacturer, which appeared in 1964.  Like the Vox Continental, it was far more portable than the bulky Hammond B3.  Furthermore, the Farfisa had a number of electronic stops (sounds) like Flute, Trumpet and Strings that made it a less-expensive alternative to the polysynths of the time, so it was more than just an organ.  As such, it was a very popular choice of bands for the next three decades.

There were two kinds of electric pianos: those that used vibrating reeds to create the sound and those that used rods, the sound of both being captured by pickups and amplified.  The Wurli V (193 presets) is of the first type.  Reeds can be thought of as having a brighter but hollower tone than rods and of being a little more capable of cutting through a mix as a result.  This instrument has appeared on an uncountable number of rock, pop, jazz and other types of recordings.

The Stage-73 V (77 presets) is a recreation of the famous Fender electric piano, or actually two of them: the Suitcase model and the Stage-73 (there being 73 notes on the keyboard); Stage-73 V can switch between the two models.  Like the Wurli, this instrument was used in more places than can be counted.  Slightly mellower in tone than the Wurli, it sometimes had a different purpose, being suitable for rhythm-guitar type applications and in more ballad-like contexts.

Finally, we have the only acoustic instrument in Collection V, a piano.  More precisely, Piano V (38 presets) offers three upright piano models and seven grands, modelled on everything between traditional construction and the fanciful (glass body, for example).  Things like hammer hardness and hammer position are all adjustable giving a fairly wide range of sonic possibilities and extensive flexibility.

 

 

 

The Packaging

For all the sophistication of the on-board sound possibilities, the operation of Analog Lab is quite straightforward.  There are several key parts to the UI of Analog Lab.  Let’s begin with the browser.  When you’ve got well in excess of 5000 sounds, there better be a pretty good way of locating the ones of interest.  To that end, there’s a reasonably decent filtered search capability.  One can search based on sound type (bass, brass, bells, etc.), characteristics (quiet, short, simple, etc.) and instrument.   Multiple filter selections can be made that can produce a reasonably well-targeted list of sounds from which to pick. 

There is also a means to mark a sound as a favorite.  Although there is no ability to filter on favorites, you can instead sort the list of selected sounds so that presets marked as favorites appear at the top.  But there is also a playlist capability, which is one easy way to organize your favorites for easy retrieval.

Speaking of the manual, it’s quite adequate.  However, you may benefit from downloading the individual manuals of all the included instruments to better understand their function.  This will help in using the macro controls, to be described next.

 

 

 

 

 

The browser normally makes up the majority of the UI .  A panel of macro controls (knobs and sliders) can optionally be displayed, as can an on-screen keyboard.  MIDI learn of all the macro-controls is fully supported.

Once a sound is selected, the main action will be with the macro controls.  For the most part, these will remain dedicated to a single invariant purpose for a given instrument.  For example, the sliders will always correspond to organ drawbars for the B-3 V organ.  Whether altering them will have an effect will depend entirely upon whether or not they are assigned in the underlying preset.  In many cases, they will have no effect, and there is no visual clue as to what the situation is.  In other cases, the audibility of an effect may depend on another factor.  An LFO speed macro may seem to have no effect, but add a bit of mod-wheel which brings up, say, vibrato and you may hear it.

I hesitate to make a big deal of this given how very much you actually get for your purchase dollar, but it can make life a little difficult.  If the macros do what you want, you are in great shape.  If they do not, you have no control over things and in many cases no understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes.

Owners of any of the full implementations of the individual instruments do have the ability to bring up the full instrument in a mode where programming can be done and results saved.  The screen shot below shows the Prophet instrument brought up within Analog Lab.

 

Another great feature is the Multi capability, which can be used to incorporate two primary sounds as either layered or keyboard split.  There is a simple mixer (including panning) and sends to two FX buses.  One effect from a nice list of typical synth effects can be placed on each bus, so if the primary sound needs additional FX, this is how it’s done.  One may have a multi with only one primary sound loaded.

The last thing I want to mention is the Template category for synths.  A lot of the synth presets are … shall we say … rather colorful and complex.  If you’re looking for more conventional synth sounds, try using something off the Template list (filter for Template in the browser).  Many of these have a good starting point and sufficient macro controls for the most-frequently-tweaked parameters that you may quickly find satisfaction.

 

Is Analog Lab for You?

At $89 USD, Analog Lab provides a huge return on investment – there are over 5300 sounds which works out to be a little over one and one-half cents per sound.  Now, of course, there are going to be a huge number of sounds you will flat out dislike.  So what’s new?  That’s always true of factory preset collections.  But with that huge number of sounds, you are almost assured of ending up with a few hundred go-to presets you absolutely love.  Of course, plan to spend more than a couple of hours to find those as you attempt to audition the entirety of the content.  I will not pretend I’ve listened to them all in preparing this review.

For anyone just getting started performing with computer-based instruments, Analog Lab would be a great place to begin.  You have immediate access to several classic organs (good for rock, jazz, gospel, you name it) and two electric and one acoustic piano (ditto on multiple genre applicability).  Then you have massive collection of synth sounds.  This is all for less than a hundred dollars.  Yes, there are better acoustic pianos and a case can be made that some of the included instruments have better alternatives.  For example, it would not be difficult to find someone who would passionately assert that Diva is superior to Jup-8 V for analog realism (as much as a Diva fan that I am, I happen to think Jup-8 V sounds pretty spectacular itself).  But there’s simply no way anyone would assemble a collection of such alternatives at anywhere the low cost of Analog Lab.  It’s hard to conceive of a better way to get started than with Analog Lab.

For those more invested in computer-instrument performance and who elect to purchase the whole Collection V bundle will also have good reason to appreciate Analog Lab, especially where live performance is involved.  Use the individual instruments on your own time to refine and tweak the sounds, and then use Analog Lab play-list-based performance in public – you have the best of both worlds at your disposal.

For more information and to purchase, go here:

https://www.arturia.com/store/analog-classics

Arturia products are also sold by a number of other music retailers. 

Arturia products do go on sale, sometimes for quite attractive discounts, so patience may be rewarded, especially if you are going to go full in and acquire the bundle of the entire collection of software instruments (and Black Friday is only days away from the publication date of this review).  Even at list price, the bundle comes out to be about $31 per instrument, all of which are quality creations.  For anyone desiring the bundle, one strategy would be to purchase and register only Analog Lab.  No guarantees, but I’d be surprised if an attractive offer to upgrade didn’t show up in your email in-box within a few months.  This has been Arturia’s MO in the past.

 

Review – Keyscape Keyboard Sample-based Virtual Instrument from Spectrasonics

 

OK, you know it’s probably going to be good, it’s from Spectrasonics! But you’ve already got gigabytes of piano libraries on your disk so do you really need another one?  Find out here.

 

by Dave Townsend, Nov. 2016

 

The teaser came in late August and caught most of us by surprise:

This was the initial Facebook clue that tipped us off that something was coming.

Although an over-used and rarely-effective advertising ruse, this particular non-announcement still made me sit up and take notice. Why? Because it came from Spectrasonics. A company that at the time only had three products on offer, all of them highly-regarded top-tier virtual instruments. A company that introduces a new instrument on average only once every four years. So despite the cheesy teaser, genuine buzz did indeed follow.

Online music software forums lit up with speculation as to what the new instrument might be. Fans of Stylus RMX hoped it was Stylus 2. Others imagined orchestral, vocal or percussion instruments. What nobody saw coming was a collection of keyboard instruments.

And frankly, once the new product was revealed, there was a lot of disappointment expressed on the forums. Pianos? We don’t need no stinking pianos, they said. We’ve already got terabytes of Kontakt-based pianos! We’ve got Ivory, long considered the last word in sampled acoustic grand pianos. We’ve got modeled pianos from Pianoteq. Cheap high-quality pianos from the likes of Sampletekk. Bundled pianos in Sampletank and in the Kontakt factory content. It seems as though every piano ever made has already been sampled. The virtual instrument world was and is awash with pianos.

I have to admit, I was skeptical too. Then the videos started popping up and we got to hear Keyscape for the first time. We learned that the library had been ten years in the making. We also got to see the list of instruments included in this bundle.

And what an eclectic list it is, made up of vintage classics, modern classics, rarities, and everyday workhorse keyboards. More than just pianos. Afraid that it might be too eclectic for my tastes, I wanted to make sure it included some bread ‘n butter instruments along with the more exotic offerings.

 

Acoustic Pianos

I was somewhat reassured to find that the featured instrument is a not-so-exotic Yamaha C7, second only to the Steinway D as the world’s most-sampled acoustic piano. But to be fair, this particular C7 has been highly customized  by its owner, a master piano technician. And there are so many variations on the C7 theme in Keyscape that you’d hardly know they were all based on the same instrument. Soft, hard, dry, airy, compressed, lo-fi, and spacey treatments that turn one instrument into 21 – not counting stacked variants such as the C7 layered with an electric harpsichord, upright piano or electronic pianos.

Keyscape seems to have something for every piano application. Some are saying Spectrasonics has done for keyboards what Trilian did for basses – an all-in-one solution. In truth, the breadth of instruments does not equal Trilian’s, but it’s not an entirely unfounded comparison. Like Trilian, Keyscape offers a surprisingly broad array of instruments. One could argue (as Spectrasonics vigorously does) that Keyscape shouldn’t even be called a “piano library”, because only three of its many instruments are actually acoustic pianos. In fact, the only commonality among them is that they all have keys.

 

First Listen

Whenever I try out a new piano library (sorry, Spectrasonics), I first listen to the lowest and highest octaves, as it’s in those extremes where many sampled pianos’ weaknesses are exposed. Some sound fine in the middle but lack complexity in the low notes or have high notes that turn into dull “plinks”.

The first thing that impressed me about Keyscape’s C7 was how mellifluous the highest octaves are. It’ll make you glad you opted for a full 88-key controller. In fact, the tone is uniformly rich all across the entire 88-note range, although I initially felt the low end could be a little brighter at higher velocities. But when I pulled up the “Rock” variant, the bottom end that had been somewhat muted in the “Grand” and “Cinematic” models popped out. Then I turned the “Color” knob clockwise, and out popped a brash, in-yer-face rock ‘n roll monster. Oh yes, that “Rock” C7 is going to be a favorite, I thought.

Have a listen to just four of the 28 C7 variants: “Grand Piano”, “Cinematic” and “Rock” and “Rich Ballad”:

   C7 Variants

Note that these aren’t just EQ tricks to make the same instrument sound softer or brighter. Although they are the same sample sets, each instrument has its own velocity mapping to give each one a distinctive dynamic personality.

Tip: Many of Keyscape’s instruments offer a “Color Shift” knob, which may appear under the heading of “Timbre” or “Character”. Try this variable first when tweaking a patch that is maybe a little too mellow (or too bright) for your application.

 

Color Shift performs a cool trick that until now has been relatively difficult for users to implement: pitch-shift samples up or down and then move them back into their original pitches via transposition. This can profoundly change the character of the instrument by altering its harmonic structure. More often than not, turning it clockwise adds something interesting to the upper harmonics.

 

Of course, when evaluating a keyboard library there is no substitute for just sitting down and playing the thing. Does the velocity response feel natural? Do you get tonal subtleties when you play it dynamically? Does it feel real? I am primarily a piano player. I have a baby grand in my living room and have paid my dues playing piano bars and weddings, on everything from abused uprights to concert grands that cost more than my first house. I’m definitely no piano snob, but I’ve played enough of them to know how a good one responds to the touch.

I am pleased to report that these are some of the most dynamically-responsive sampled instruments I’ve ever played. Of course, it’ll depend a lot on your keyboard controller, and not all non-piano instruments in Keyscape are dynamic by nature. The Electric Harpsichord, for example, pretty much sails along at one volume, as expected. But the famously dynamic C7 responds appropriately whether played lightly or demonically. That’s 32 velocity layers at work.

Most of Keyscape’s instruments have a velocity-sensitivity adjustment. The acoustic pianos have a customizable velocity curve (per-instrument or global) that allows you to adapt to your MIDI controller’s characteristics and your own playing style. As a somewhat heavy-handed player, I appreciate the ability to play with abandon and not worry that the dynamics will be overly-skewed toward the upper range, especially on a non-weighted controller. The custom velocity curves serve me nicely in that regard.

There are 53 velocity curve presets included for many popular keyboard controllers, to make playing Keyscape feel even more natural. I was delighted to find ones there for both my Korg Kronos workstation and my unweighted Axiom 49 controller.

 

Uprights

Being more of a rock ‘n roll guy than a classical guy, I often turn to upright pianos for a rawer, folksy sound. Think Lady Madonna, Layla or Bohemian Rhapsody. I knew I’d only become a fan of the bundle if there were some useful uprights in there, too.

And oh, there are! 23 varieties, in fact. Vintage, modern, dark, bright, honky-tonk and tack variants. I got so lost in the “Wing Tack Piano – Slow Tremolo” patch that I frittered away two hours jamming, temporarily forgetting my mission to preview all the patches.

There are also “DUO” patches that stack acoustic pianos with electric and electronic pianos, as well as with some of the more unconventional instruments. “Upright Innocence”, “Tiny Saloon” and “Yuletide”, for example, each stack an acoustic upright with a toy piano. Lovely.

All the pianos let you adjust (or suppress entirely) release and pedal noises as a compromise between clean and realistic. Click the “T” button to increase the transition time between sustain and release phases, which makes the hammers sound looser, like well-broken-in piano action. It’s a subtle effect unless the release noise is turned up, in which case it sounds like a distinct echo.

The one thing missing is microphone placement options. None of the acoustic pianos offer a choice, or a blend, of far and close microphones. However, this is largely compensated for in two ways. First, different pianos sound as though they were miked at different distances (e.g. “Classical” sounds further away than “Rock”). Spectrasonics tells me that’s actually an illusion that they credit the STEAM engine for. Second, there is a fine reverb effect included that is particularly well-suited to keyboards, meaning there is no metallic ringing, even on the brightest attack-heavy instruments and extreme settings. There is also compression and tape emulation to further affect tone and ambiance.


Electric Pianos

There are four crucial things that make up a piano player’s essential toolkit: an acoustic grand, an upright, a Rhodes and a Wurlitzer. Everything else is frosting on the cake.

Keyscape includes a rare and never-before-sampled custom Rhodes. It’s the so-called “E” type, so-nick-named for famed Rhodes-hacker Eddy Reynolds, whose modified versions have long been high-demand rentals in LA-area studios. There are in fact sixteen variations of that Rhodes here, plus 40 more “classic” Rhodes tones, both direct and amped. There are even stacked patches with Rhodes + acoustic upright or other instruments. I can’t imagine you’d need any other source for your Rhodes needs.

The Fender Rhodes is a classic, and versatile. But personally, I’ve always been drawn more to Wurlitzers. While the Rhodes’ mellow bell-like tones are wonderful for ballads and funk and jazz, the Wurly is its less-refined, raunchy rock ‘n roll cousin. If you like your Wurlys to have some bite and dirt, Keyscape’s collection of 21 Wurlitzer model 140B and 200A variants won’t disappoint. Like the Rhodes, the Wurlys come in both direct and amped variations. Crunchy!

One instrument I didn’t expect to find in there happens to be one of my all-time favorites, the legendary Hohner Pianet. If you can’t place this one in the pantheon of classic rock keyboards, think of the intro to Louie Louie by the Kingsmen. Or the Beatles’ I am the Walrus, or Rod Argent’s piano solo in She’s Not There by the Zombies. It’s the piano John Paul Jones played on Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Keyscape is Pianet heaven, with no less than 36 variations (the “N” is my favorite), including some amped through a circuit-modeled AC-30. Lovely dirt!

In addition to the electromechanical EPs, there are also some electronic pianos, most notably the Roland MKS-20. This one’s not exactly a rarity, as it’s been sampled and emulated many times. (A bit of trivia: Spectrasonics founder Eric Persing worked on the development of the MKS-20 when he was working at Roland in the 80’s as principle sound designer.) This sample-based instrument was ground-breaking back in 1986, as one of the first all-electronic piano substitutes good enough to actually be used onstage in lieu of a real piano. It was most-famously adopted by Elton John for his live shows.

Another echo from Eric’s past is the Roland JD-800, an all-digital wavetable synthesizer from the early 90s whose waveforms and factory presets were created by Mr. Persing. This was a general-purpose synth with a wide range of sounds, so only a handful are represented in Keyscape. They’re all creamy, ambient Rhodes-like patches. Very, very nice. There’s even a duo patch layering the JD-800 with the MKS-20 that I especially like.

 

Slightly off the Beaten Path

I’d initially been afraid that Keyscape would turn out to be an esoteric collection of exotic instruments that would wow classical snobs and collectors, but actually have few practical applications. Boy, was I wrong about that.

The acoustic and electric pianos prove that this is a workhorse, bread ‘n butter tool, useful in a wide array of musical styles. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some out-of-the-mainstream offerings as well.

This category includes instruments that, while perhaps familiar, just aren’t as widely heard as, say, acoustic pianos or a Rhodes. Although perhaps not part of the essential toolkit, these should definitely not to be overlooked.

There’s the Yamaha CP-70, a “portable” piano with real strings that weighed 400 pounds (RE: The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star), and the unmistakable Hohner Clavinet (most famously used by Stevie Wonder on Superstition).

Also falling under this category would be the rarely-sampled Rhodes Piano Bass, first introduced in 1962 and made famous by The Doors’ Ray Manzarek (think the hypnotic bass line in “Light My Fire”). It’s basically the bottom 2 ½ octaves of a Fender Rhodes with softer hammer tips, in a compact package meant to let the keyboard player do double duty as a bass player. Of course, it doesn’t sound like a bass, but it has its own unique sound that also layers surprisingly well with conventional bass libraries. Try it on a drop-D or drop-C tuned song; although the original was only 2 ½ octaves starting on E, in Keyscape it’s been stretched across the entire keyboard and it goes LOW.

Toy pianos are another group of instruments that have limited applications but can be quite useful for colorful accents and other-worldly special effects. Keyscape’s got a bunch of them, and they’re worth exploring even if you only end up using them occasionally.

One of the more interesting items in the “Toy” category is a very rare predecessor to the Fender Rhodes identified in the Keyscape menu as a “Rhodes 1946 pre-Piano”. It was hand-built by Harold Rhodes in 1942, partly out of scavenged parts from a B-17 bomber. Interesting history aside, it has a cute toy-piano plink in the upper octave and a tone reminiscent of a tubular bell in the low octave. A surprising variety of tones can be had by using the pickup/mic mix, color shift, reverb and transient controls. Try the Retrospace variant with the color shift turned up and transients turned down – sounds like a carillon.

Here’s a tiny example of some of the variations possible within the “toy piano” group, demonstrating the same short MIDI sequence played by just four of the 54 (!) patches in this category. These aren’t really toys at all.

   Toys

 

Further Off the Beaten Path

You just know the company that once set fire to a piano in order to sample its strings popping wouldn’t stop at garden-variety keyboards. Keyscape’s got a Dolceola!

What’s a Dolceola, you ask? Don’t feel bad; I didn’t know what the heck it was, either. I looked it up on Wikipedia. It’s a zither with a keyboard, from the early 20th century. It sounds like a cross between a mandolin and a lute. Stick one of these into your next project and nobody will be able to figure out what it is. Except other Keyscape users, anyway.

   Dolceola

Here’s another one you didn’t know you were missing: a Harmochord. It’s an electrified harmonium (reed organ) from the 60’s, a cousin of the accordion. Cue the accordion jokes. But no, seriously, it sounds pretty cool. Reminds me of the accordion in Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble”. Here’s a taste, dry versus wet…

   Harmochord

Not all of the oddballs are antiques. There’s also an electric harpsichord made by Baldwin in the 60’s. Although a rarity, you’ve heard it before: George Martin played one on the Beatles’ song Because off the Abbey Road album.

Scrolling through the EPs, I ran across one so rare that I’d never heard of it before: the Weltmeister Claviset. It was made by a harmonica/accordion manufacturer in East Germany in the early 60s, and almost unknown in the West prior to reunification. Nowadays you’ll have to visit a museum to actually see one. Sound-wise it’s reminiscent of the Hohner Pianet, although its mechanism is quite different.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of Keyscape’s instruments, just a few that I found particularly useful and/or interesting. Truth is, there isn’t a single patch in there that I couldn’t find a use for in a recording project or on stage. You’ll want to explore them all!

 

Some Very Minor Complaints

There is no provision for typing in values. Want to add exactly 1 dB to the master volume? It’s trial-and-error, and you’ll likely settle for 1.1 dB even if you’re OCD about such things like I am.

Holding the Shift key down while turning a knob does not seem to yield the fine adjustment it’s supposed to. Spectrasonics assures me that it really does do something, but if it does it’s much too subtle. This, coupled with the inability to manually enter values, makes it very difficult to set any parameter precisely.

There is no context-sensitive help. Yes, I know, it’s the first option you turn off on a new instrument, but it would be nice if, when you hovered over the initially-mysterious “T” button, the program would give a hint as to what it does without having to look it up.

I’d also like to see an A/B function. As it is, if I want to compare my alterations to the original I have to save the modified version and jump between them via the browser. There is a capable undo feature, but it’s a one-at-a-time stack pop. If you made ten changes, it’ll take ten CTL-Zs plus ten clicks to undo them all. There is, however, a convenient “Revert to Saved Patch” option under the Utility menu that will quickly get you back to where you started.

In terms of instrument selection, the only glaring omission is a harpsichord. Yes, there is an electric harpsichord and that’s way cooler, but it’s also a very different instrument. I wouldn’t be surprised if further expansions for Keyscape aren’t already in the works, because that’s just how Spectrasonics does things (remember Omnisphere 1.5?). Heck, they’ve already added two new instruments in the very first dot-rev update! I have a feeling that even after ten years they may not be finished with Keyscape yet. (Might I suggest the RMI electra-piano as a future addition?)

These are nit-picky complaints, I know. Hardly showstoppers. Overall, the UI is well thought out and most features are discoverable without reading the documentation (but read it anyway; Spectrasonics’ documentation is among the best in the business).


Keyscape in Omnisphere 2

One thing Keyscape doesn’t have are routable general-purpose effects. What effects it does have (EQ, compression, reverb, and instrument-specific effects such as phaser and chorus where applicable) are superb. But there is no provision, for example, to add an amp sim or chorus to an acoustic piano. So what do you do if you want to explore more exotic territory? You load up Keyscape into Omnisphere!

Because Omnisphere 2 and Keyscape use the same engine, you can load Keyscape instruments into Omnisphere 2. Sorry, this doesn’t work with Omnisphere 1. But in Omnisphere 2, Keyscape instruments (including your own custom variants) show up in the list and may be used like any other sound source in the Omnisphere library.

 

Upon loading a Keyscape instrument, its native UI and all of its controls will be present, just as if you’d loaded it in Keyscape. You don’t lose any functionality at all by running inside Omnisphere, you just gain new capabilities.

 

Once you start thinking about Keyscape instruments as Omnisphere sources, all kinds of possibilities open up. You can stack acoustic pianos with dreamy pads or strings for some über-rich combinations. If your computer can handle it, you can stack up to 8 Keyscape and Omnisphere instruments. You can modify Keyscape instruments’ envelopes, apply filters, and delay sample playback. Best of all, you’ll have Omnisphere’s amazing effects rack – compressors, limiters, reverbs, modulators, distortion – to play with. All 58 of them. Not to mention its versatile arpeggiator.

And don’t forget Omnisphere’s often-overlooked Live Mode. This is a special way of stacking up to 8 patches so that you can quickly switch between them in a live performance situation. It’s like running multiple instruments into a mixer and using its Solo buttons to select one or more instruments.

Here we see a Keyscape instrument alongside seven Omnisphere patches. As shown in the context menu, you can then assign each patch to a specific MIDI patch change message, note or CC#. Or just click on the desired patch(es).

 

Be aware that all instruments will be loaded into memory simultaneously, thus enabling them to be quickly switched in and out without load delays. Consequently, you’ll probably want a DAW with at least 16 GB of RAM in order to fully exploit Live Mode. That said, I have used as many as four instruments on an 8 GB machine with no problems. How many you can get away with will depend on the specific patches and their memory requirements. Using Keyscape’s thinned versions will greatly increase the number of patches you can comfortably load (see Sample Thinning below).

One last benefit to hosting Keyscape within Omnisphere: it’ll let you run the 64-bit-only Keyscape in a 32-bit DAW, by way of the 32-bit version of Omnisphere. Yes, ProTools 10 users can join in on the fun, too. This magic is made possible via RAM-efficient streaming, which allows even very large libraries such as the C7 to have a small-enough memory footprint to be handled by a 32-bit system.

 

Optimizing Keyscape

You’ve probably heard that Keyscape is a resource muncher, but I am pleased to report that it’s not nearly as demanding as I’d feared it would be. Spectrasonics states that 8 GB is the minimum RAM requirement, and strongly suggests using an SSD. However, I am running it from a conventional 7200 RPM hard drive and load times are no worse than a comparably-sized Kontakt library. Keyscape is actually pretty CPU-friendly, too. In addition to my DAW, I am also running it on a mid-spec laptop for live use (more on that later) and it works fine.

But should you need to optimize performance, Spectrasonics offers a few features and suggestions. First among those is sample-thinning.

 

Sample Thinning

Instrument RAM requirements vary quite a bit in Keyscape.  For example, the MKS-20 requires only one gigabyte, while the C7 needs three times that. That’s partly why Keyscape is 64-bit only, and why 8 GB is the minimum memory prerequisite: the C7 would simply not be fully-loadable onto a 32-bit machine. Note that we’re talking about RAM requirements, not disk space; the C7 instrument is actually quite enormous, occupying 44 GB on disk.

Every patch has an alternate sample set containing fewer samples. They’ve done a good job with this feature, because 99% of the time you won’t even notice that the reduced-samples version is any different. They use about one-third the memory, load faster and are easier on the CPU, which is great for live performance or large projects. For example, the thinned version of the MKS-20 is only 320 KB, and even the monster C7 grand is reduced to 1 gigabyte.

Go to the Settings tab of any instrument and click on the THINNING button, which will load the thinned version of that patch.

Click the little lock icon next to the THINNING button if you want every patch to load its thinned version by default. This is recommended for live use, or when you’re working up ideas and rough mixes. In a recording project, you can always un-thin before rendering.

 

When I tested this, I found that the observed load time reduction depends greatly on the instrument. For some, it was negligible. But the largest instruments load about 75% faster. That’s a pretty good improvement, considering that there is no obvious reduction in audio quality between full and thinned versions. My guess is that thinning reduces the number of velocity layers and/or round-robins, neither of which is likely to significantly impact playability in a live setting.  In fact, fewer velocity layers is a good thing in a loud rock ‘n roll band.

You’ll also notice that Keyscape employs a clever progressive-loading method that allows you to preview a patch before all the samples have been loaded. The progress bar will turn from red to yellow when there are enough samples loaded to start hitting keys, then turns green when loading is complete. This is handy when you’re initially cycling through patches to familiarize yourself with the instrument.

 

Voice Throttling: Limiting Polyphony

Voice throttling means limiting the number of simultaneous voices. By default most Keyscape instruments are set to limit the number of voices to 32 (it varies by patch), but that number can be raised to a maximum of 64. Reducing the maximum number of notes may reduce CPU usage. You set this number (per patch) in the Voices parameter on the SETTINGS tab.

Just how much voice reduction you can get away with depends on the instrument and the song. If your song calls for long sustained arpeggios, then you could conceivably need all 64 notes. But if you’re playing a simple part, you may only need a few notes sounding at one time.

It’s been my experience (from watching the polyphony indicator in Kontakt) that you usually need to set polyphony significantly higher than you think you’ll need. So even if you’re only playing three-note chords, you may still need to set the maximum polyphony to 20 or so. As with thinning, you can always use a conservative setting while tracking or mixing, and increase it before rendering.

 

Voice Stealing

So what happens when you try to play more notes than the polyphony setting? Voice- or note-stealing is the technique used by synths and samplers for deciding which notes to kill when maximum polyphony has been reached.

If you’re an old hand at samplers, you might notice that Keyscape does not offer any voice-stealing options (e.g. “lowest note”, “last note”, “oldest note”) like Kontakt does. However, this is not a problem, as Keyscape employs a complex proprietary algorithm for note-stealing that takes into account the longest-held note, pitch relationships, and dynamics.

I experimented with this by playing sustained arpeggios on the C7 while gradually turning polyphony down until I started to detect dropped notes. At the default of 32 voices, it was impossible for me to manually play anything that resulted in noticeable dropped notes. At 16 voices, I could hear some notes dropping, but the effect was so subtle that I had to really listen closely to detect them. The C7 piano was still usable with only 8 notes’ polyphony!

 

Sample Rate

Spectrasonics recommends 44.1 KHz or 48 KHz as your DAW’s project sample rate. There’s nothing magic about these numbers; they’re just acknowledging that Keyscape (or any other sampled instrument) won’t sound any better at higher sample rates, so why waste the CPU cycles?

 

Streaming (Or Not)

By default, samples are streamed just like they are in Omnisphere or Kontakt. The way this works is when you load an instrument, only the start of each sample is actually loaded into memory, with the rest of the sample brought in from disk as needed. This minimizes memory usage and load times. Click on the SYSTEM button to see the streaming options.

The main adjustment is the pre-load memory size parameter. This tells Keyscape how much RAM to pre-allocate for samples. By default, it’s set to 60 KB, a conservative value that works for most systems. However, if you have plenty of memory (16+ GB), you can increase the pre-load buffer size to its maximum value of 100 KB. Conversely, if your memory is only 8 GB and you’re playing the larger libraries (e.g. the acoustic pianos), then you may want to go lower, between 30 and 40 KB. Note that if you change this setting you will have to re-load the current instrument before it will take effect.

Be warned that increasing the pre-load buffer will slow load times, but reduce disk overhead during playback. It’s a reasonable tradeoff in a recording situation, especially if you have to stream samples from the same physical disk that you’re recording audio to, as might be the case on a laptop. Also be warned that this is a global value that applies to all instruments and patches, so when experimenting with it you’ll want to test using the most demanding of them, the C7 piano.

If you have a LOT of memory, you can turn streaming off altogether. When streaming is disabled, the entire instrument’s sample set is loaded into RAM. Naturally, this hugely increases load times. When I tested this with the C7, the load time increased so much that I got bored timing it, but it felt like well over two minutes.

Why would you subject yourself to such long load times? You’d do it when you want to reduce disk activity to zero while playing. I can think of a few scenarios:

– You’re using a single patch on a laptop in live performance. Disks can then be allowed to spin down if you’re running on battery.

– You’re recording audio to the same physical disk that Keyscape’s samples reside on, and your disk drive isn’t fast enough to keep up.

– You’re rendering a project with a large number of streamed virtual instruments, which might exhaust your sample drive’s bandwidth.

 

Stream Brake

There is one last, mysterious-sounding parameter on the SYSTEM page labeled “Stream Brake”. Be careful with this one. It’s not something you’ll likely ever alter from the default value, and it’ll be a last resort if you ever do, after all the tweaks mentioned above have failed to eliminate glitching.

For the curious, it’s a load balancing feature that sets the relative priority of the streaming thread to other threads within the instrument. Lowering the number raises the streaming thread’s priority. Lower it to zero and the stream thread will gobble up as much CPU time as it can. Raising it gives more CPU cycles to other threads. Spectrasonics recommends not raising it above 0.3 seconds.

In any case, thinning should always be the first thing you try for optimizing resource usage, before any other tweaks.


My Experience with Keyscape in a Live Rig

I’ve been playing keyboards in bands for literally half a century. Lugging around organs, electric pianos and synthesizers was just the unavoidable sorry lot of a keyboard player’s life. So when computers became an option for live performance a decade or so ago, I should have embraced them, but I didn’t. I just couldn’t bring myself to trust a laptop as a musical instrument. Plus anything that needed a mouse to operate was not stage-friendly.

But the more I played with Keyscape, the sadder I got that those great sounds were going to be locked up in the studio, unavailable to me at gigs. So I overcame my reluctance and decided to finally give it a go. Here’s my experience.

Note: Spectrasonics licenses products to you, not to your computer. That means it’s perfectly OK with them if you want to install Keyscape on a laptop in addition to your primary DAW. You’ll just have to authorize it again for the laptop.

 

Spectrasonics will soon be announcing a standalone executable for just this scenario. It may have been already announced by the time this article is published, but at the time of this writing it was not yet available, so I used an old standby, SAVIHost, to make Keyscape standalone on my laptop.

After some experimentation, I switched to VSTHost, SAVIHost’s more sophisticated sibling. Because VSTHost can load more than one plugin, I was able to add an EQ after Keyscape, so I could EQ-match Keyscape to my primary synthesizer and keyboard amplifiers.

SAVIHost and VSTHost are free downloads, available at http://www.hermannseib.com/english/savihost.htm . They will host almost any VST2 or VST3 plugin, and come in 32- and 64-bit flavors. Sorry, Mac users, they’re Windows-only. However, you can host the AU version of Keyscape in Apple’s own AU Lab. A big thanks to SAVIHost’s author, Hermann Seib, for creating these and for generously gifting them to the world.

 

One thing I didn’t want to do was carry around an external audio interface, so that meant I’d have to rely on the laptop’s USB ports for MIDI input, its headphone jack for audio output (my laptop doesn’t have a line out) and a five-dollar built-in RealTek audio interface. I wasn’t sure if a) I’d get latency low enough, or b) audio levels would be hot and/or clean enough. But fortunately, latency was not an issue and the audio levels were fine, with no discernable distortion.

Then an online acquaintance reminded me that my primary hardware synthesizer (Korg Kronos 2) can serve as an audio interface, which means it can accept audio over USB. That allowed me to eliminate the audio cable altogether, route the laptop’s audio through the synthesizer and control it from the synth’s front panel. Not all synths have this capability (Roland MOXF8 and Yamaha Montage are two others that I’m aware of), but if yours does accept audio input over USB then that’s the way to go.

I initially elected to install the “Lite” version of Keyscape on the laptop, because it takes less than half the disk space (30 GB vs. 80 GB) by eliminating the more esoteric instruments.  However, I later changed my mind because, even though the “Lite” version includes many of the most-useful stage instruments, it lacked the one I wanted most: the Hohner Pianet. Fortunately, it was a painless switch to the full install, requiring only to re-run the installer. (Suggestion for Spectrasonics: instead of hard-coding the “Lite” instrument list into the installer, place the list into an editable file to allow for customization.)

Here are the instruments included in the “Lite” version:

Hohner Clavinet C                            JD-800 Crystal Rhodes                    LA Custom C7

MK-80 Digital Rhodes                     MKS-20 Digital Piano                       Rhodes Classic Mk I

Rhodes LA Custom “E”                   Wurlitzer 140B

Note: Even though the “Lite” version is ultimately smaller, you’ll still need 77 GB free for the installation files if you’re installing from the download version. The data files can, however, be deleted after the installation is complete (assuming you have a backup!).

 

I would strongly suggest that you use thinned patches. Nobody will notice the difference, but load times will be substantially reduced. Click on the little lock icon next to the Thinning button to make sure every patch comes up thinned.

The real test was to take Keyscape out to a gig. I had only to find a barstool to place my laptop on, and I was in business (I’ve since obtained a sturdy folding laptop stand, much safer than a barstool).

The “E” Rhodes cut through my five-piece rock band brilliantly, and the Wing Tack piano lent authenticity to classic blues and boogie-woogie. But it was the nasty little Hohner Pianet that turned out to be my favorite weapon.

I did encounter some unexpected latency, which unfortunately began abruptly right in the middle of a solo and lasted for about 10 seconds. This is not a Keyscape problem, it’s a Windows problem – some kind of background housekeeping that I’ll have to track down. Other than that, Keyscape and my mid-spec (8 GB, i5) laptop performed flawlessly.

Be sure to disable disk spindown in your power settings, as well as the powering down of USB ports (via Device Manager in Windows).  Make sure your wireless network adapter is turned off. Basically, all the tips you’ve seen for optimizing for DAW use apply here, too.

This is going to work out great. I’ve already made Keyscape a permanent part of my stage rig.

 

Summary

I entered into my Keyscape adventure a skeptic and came away a fan. It has already become a go-to instrument for both recording and live performance.

Granted, at $399/ 349€ it’s not the cheapest piano library on the market. You probably have a bunch of pianos already and are wondering if you need to spend that kind of money on one more. To be honest, I can’t tell you if this is what you need.

But I can tell you this: no matter what’s in your collection now, I guarantee you don’t have anything quite like Keyscape.

First of all, it’s selling it short to even call it a “piano library”. Pianos are just part of the package, even if they are the strongest instruments in it. And even if you only care about the pianos, in terms of dynamic range and sampled detail, Keyscape’s pianos are on par with or better than any top-tier piano libraries out there – none of which include a Dolceola.

 

Requirements

Minimum hardware requirements aren’t bad. They pretty much reflect your typical contemporary midrange computer: 8 GB of RAM, a dual-core CPU and a 64-bit operating system (Mac users need OSX 10.9 Mavericks or higher).

Note that although Keyscape is 64-bit only, you can run it on a 32-bit system (e.g. ProTools 10) by hosting it within Omnisphere 2, which does have a 32-bit executable.

Spectrasonics recommends an SSD, and while there is no doubt that would speed things up immensely I am having no issues loading Keyscape from a conventional hard drive. The ideal system would have 16 GB of RAM or more, an i7-class CPU — and yes, an SSD.

I’ve talked to some people who went out and bought an SSD just for this. If you do that, and you own other Spectrasonics products, make sure the SSD is big enough for all of them, because all your Spectrasonics instruments have to reside in the same physical STEAM folder.

 

Where to Get Keyscape

Keyscape is available as a download (only direct from Spectrasonics ) or on two “credit card style” USB drives (from authorized dealers only, not direct from Spectrasonics). If you’re not in a huge rush to obtain Keyscape, or don’t have the bandwidth for a 77 GB download, I’d suggest going for the boxed version. The USB drives are convenient for installation, will save you having to make a backup, and retailers often offer a slightly lower price, typically twenty bucks below list.

Plugin formats are VST 2.4, AU and AAX.

 

Finally, I’d like to thank Rick Tucker and Paul J de Benedictis for their help in preparing this review.

Review – bx_rooMS by Brainworx

 

Brainworx has released its first reverb in a crowded playing field. We check it out to see how it holds up to the competition.

 

by Rob Mitchell, Nov. 2016

 

Brainworx is a music software company that has been around since 2006. Since then, they have created bx_console (a Neve console emulation), many high quality software EQs, amp simulators and effects, and other music-production utilities. Brainworx has just recently teamed up with Fiedler Audio ( http://fiedler-audio.com/ ) and has released a brand new product called bx-rooMS. This latest creation is a powerful algorithmic reverb with nearly 200 presets. I will go over the various features of the reverb in this review.

It is available in AAX Native, AU, VST2 and VST3 (32 and 64 bit). On the PC, you’ll need Windows 7 or a higher operating system. On the Mac, you’ll need OS X 10.8 or higher operating system. There is one installer for the Mac, and for the PC there are separate 32-bit and 64-bit versions to choose from. I used the 64-bit version for the installation on my computer. When you start the install, it gives you the choice of which version (AAX, VST2 or VST3) that you’d like to install.

You’ll need to set up a free account on the Plugin Alliance website. After you load bx-rooMS into your DAW, it must be activated before you can begin to actually use it. You just use the same email and password you used for the account that you setup on their website. This is an online activation, but they have a method for offline activation as well.

With that process out of the way, you’re free to check out all of its features. In the upper left is where you can load and save presets. There is a dropdown menu to select the presets by name, and you can skim through the presets one at a time using the left/right arrows. Around 30% of the presets are named in way that you can probably guess what they are, for example: “Ambience Large Bright”, but some of the others are more mysterious: “Craty”?  I think it would be better if it had a slightly improved browser with categories by type, and maybe a Favorites functionality, and then it would be much more organized. One handy feature is the A/B/C/D settings in the toolbar along the top. This gives you the ability to have different versions of a preset within each bank (named A-D), and they can be switched from one to the other automatically in your DAW. Multiple undo/redo is also included, and there are up to 32 steps of history for your settings.

Below the preset menus are the “Quick Select” buttons that let you set up your sound in no time at all. These are used for selecting the room types, which include Ambience, Room, Plate, Hall, and Church. To the right of those are the room size settings: Small, Medium, and Large. These give you great starting points to craft your own presets. In the “Output” section you can control the Dry/Wet mix level and Gain in/out levels. A useful feature is the “Fix Mix”, which freezes the mix level setting as you check out other presets.  A quick note: The mix level won’t change when switching between the Quick Select buttons, only when you switch between the presets. “Wet Solo” lets you listen to the wet/affected part of the signal by itself.  Besides checking the levels, the Input and Output meters also have controls to enable/disable the audio for reverb input (Input Bypass) and the wet signal (Output Bypass).

In the Reverb section are some of the main settings for the overall reverb sound. The sliders control the levels of Room Time, Size, and Shape.  The “Time” setting changes the amount of reflectivity that the walls of the room have. Lower values have a damping effect, while higher values allow reflections to more easily occur in the room. The “Size” setting does just what it says, and adjusts the room size. It works by changing the first reflection pattern so it can seem very small, huge, cavernous, or anywhere in-between. This one works along with the Time setting to get the results that you’re after. The “Shape” control is for changing the overall shape of the room, and it doesn’t affect the reflection setting of the Size control. To the right of these sliders are controls to adjust the damping. Also included are a high and low shelf with gain and frequency controls, and there are on/off buttons for each.

In the next section are the controls to adjust the Pre-Delay and the FX/Modulation settings. The Pre-Delay is a standard feature in nearly any reverb, but the “Source Distance” slider lets you move the source of the audio closer towards the middle of the room, or anywhere in-between. When you use this, you will probably want to adjust the Room Size control to get the exact sound that you need. The FX/Modulation controls include some interesting and useful features. The first one we’ll look at is “Directivity”, which lets you adjust the input of the left and/or right signal to the reverb’s two channels. I say two channels as bx_rooMS actually has two separate mono reverbs. This lets you add more ambience to part of the stereo field that may be lacking some reverb. The modulation controls adds what sounds like a sine wave LFO pitch modulation to the reverb. Its speed can be adjusted from 0.1 Hz to 10 Hz, and the “Amount” knob dials in how much of it affects the audio. The “Quantize” buttons can give your reverb tail a retro flavor, as they let you select bit depths of 8-bit and 12-bit, or you can choose from the more modern sounding 16-bit and 24-bit settings.

In the M/S (Mid/Side) section you’ll find various controls having to do with stereo width, in one form or another. The “Stereo Width” can be adjusted to go from a totally monophonic reverb on up to full stereo. If you turn it up past the 100% setting, you’ll get more of the side signal into the mix. “Pan Mid” adjusts the M (Mid) pan setting of the stereo panorama. The “Mono Maker” lets you trim down the stereo signal below a certain frequency.

The “Equalizer” section has low and high pass EQs which can be set to 6 dB or 12 dB settings, or they can just be disabled if they’re not needed. Each of these EQs also has a frequency control which ranges from 20 Hz to 30 kHz. Below those controls are the two sets of EQ controls for the M/S part of bx_rooMS. The mode setting lets you switch between equalizing Mid, Side, or Mid and Side, or it can just be disabled. To adjust the EQ itself you have Q, Frequency (20 Hz to 40 kHz), and Gain controls at your disposal. Last but not least is a button which enables or disables the process of the Mono Maker and EQ on the dry signal.

In conclusion, this reverb has an excellent sound to it. I have many reverbs, and the reverb’s tail on this is really one of the best I have heard. Besides my minor issue with the browser, I really can’t think of anything negative to say about this product. It is very easy to use, the GUI is just about perfect, and it has a sufficient controls to allow you to sculpt your sound the way you’d like. The CPU usage was low, and that is always a welcome feature. If you want to use it on multiple tracks, there is no issue here. Even though this is Brainworx’s first try at producing a reverb, they really knocked it out of the park.

bx_rooMS retails for $199 USD, but at the time of writing this review it was at an intro price of $99 USD on the Plugin Alliance website. I wanted to mention a great benefit that Plugin Alliance has: If you buy more than one of their eligible plugins, they will give you a discount depending on how many you order. Just to see what would happen, I put two licenses of bx-rooMS in the cart, and they gave it a 20% discount. The total for both was $158.40 USD. They also have a 14-day demo version which is fully functional.

You can read more about bx_rooMS and download the demo version from their website here:

https://www.plugin-alliance.com/en/products/bx_rooms.html

 

 

Essentials: iZotope Neutron

Essentials

 

Finally there’s a tool that allows you to be just a musician again. The usual mixing effects can work wonders – if you know how to use them. Neutron can do that for you if you don’t.

 

by Alex Arsov, Nov. 2016

 

iZotope Neutron is an advanced mixing tool that can analyze incoming audio signals and offer you a ready-made preset based on a specific characteristic of that track or even of the whole mix. A combination of five essential mixing effects that can build or ruin your mix, five effects that can define the whole mix and take years of experience to learn how to use properly.

 

And The Story Goes…

Someone asked through Facebook if working with iZotope Neutron is a bit like cheating. Cheating? Come on, maybe if you claim being a mixing guru and then go charging people for mixes done by Neutron. Even in this case this would be totally legal, as Neutron is just a tool, actually quite a fantastic tool. Let’s put stupid prejudices aside and try to see what iZotope Neutron is and what it can do for us and where its strongest point is.

If you are mixing engineer, then Neutron can come to you as a good starting point, second opinion or as a great assistant that can set everything that you would do anyway in less than ten seconds. But we are more interested in what it can do for the average working musician. Let’s start with my case. Not sure if I’m totally a typical one, but here are the facts: I’m quite a good musician (I hope that after seven albums and being featured on eight compilations I can say that without being too modest). These days, being a good musician is just a good start. You have to be everything: a producer, designer, mastering engineer and also a mixing engineer.

I’m a bit afraid that I’m not such a brilliant mixing engineer. I’ve spent years learning mixing. Actually I’ve spent much more time on developing my mixing skills than I’ve spent on actually making music. End result? Not bad, but still not there. As soon as I got Neutron I tried it on one of my last songs, one that I had given my best mixing shot. The sad truth about my years of mixing practice is that a few minutes later I got a better mix by just letting Neutron do the job. I switched off all equalizers and compressors from every track, leaving only reverbs, delays and other modulation effects as they were. All I did was set Neutron on those channels and started the “Track Assistant” function, letting Neutron analyze and suggest settings for me. Then I just set the volume levels for all channels, adding here and there a bit of a deeper low cut, checking overlay frequencies with Neutron’s “Masking” function, not on all channels, only on bass and kick tracks to check they don’t interfere in the low frequencies. More or less, that was all. If it ain’t broken, don’t try and fix it.

Why should I take literary iZotope’s suggestion to use Neutron just as a starting point, if it did the job in a less than ten seconds quite better then I could ever do? I never thought that something like Neutron will appear so soon and honestly, this is the best plug-in that I ever got. Instead of a few hours of standard mixing I spend less than half an hour on the mix with a “little” help from Neutron. If it’s a simple song, then even less than fifteen minutes.

 

In a Row

We already mentioned that Neutron is a host for five basic mixing effects: an equalizer, compressor, exciter, transient shaper and limiter. Those effects can be inserted in any combination and you can simply drag and drop them horizontally, changing their order.

The first one is a 12-band equalizer. This can serve as normal static bands or as a dynamic equalizer allowing you to compress just a desired frequency range. All bands can also be side-chained, compressing or expanding the side-chained source. Maybe not such an important detail, but it is still a very nice addition that we get also a piano roll overlay view among the others frequency views, showing you the exact note name for the chosen frequency.

Let’s go back to band and filter types. You can choose between three different filter types for Low and High shelf bands: Analog, Baxandal and Vintage. Low and High cut bands work at ranges from 6 to 48 dB slopes, plus a resonant filter shape for adding some weight to the low end or some air on high end. Every band can also be soloed, helping you to know what the hell you are doing at any moment – a blessing for such “skilled” engineers as me. To make a long story short, I have all sorts of high quality equalizers in my arsenal, but this one proves to be extra flexible, shoulder to shoulder with some of the best ones.

Next is a multiband Compressor that can actually also work as a single band compressor. It offers two basic modes: clean modern and vintage compression. You can choose between Peak RMS or transparent “True Envelope” detection. It also has auto gain to automatically compensate level differences caused by the compression. There is also an auto release option and, as with the equalizer, it offers an option for internal or external side-chaining for all three bands. You can also easily set Threshold, Gain, Attack, Release or Mix ratio for every band. The compressor also has a multi-band spectrum view, where you can see how much and which part of a signal is being reduced. I’ve never learned a lot about how to work with compressors in the past, but now I’ve learned to manage this “Track Assistant” button everything is working as it should.

The three-band Exciter comes with a nice XY pad window placed under every band, where you can combine four saturation types: Tube, Warm, Tape or Echo. You can choose just one or blend between all four.

The Multi-band Transient Shaper comes with three bands and three different contour shapes: sharp, medium and smooth, along with additional attack and sustain controllers. It can work wonders on your drums, guitars and vocals. I decided to play safe with this one and use it mostly when “Track Assistant” was added in a rack.

The last one is a Limiter with Transparency, Low latency and Hard limiter algorithms. Of course, for your safety there is also a true picking limiter option.

All effects are top sounding and give clear, transparent, nicely defined results.  In the Advanced version you also get also all those effects separately with a “Learn mode” where the program will suggest frequency spots that should be tweaked on the equalizer or at which frequency the bands should be split in case of other effects.

 

As a Whole

I didn’t have enough time to try all of the enormous number of presets that come with iZotope Neutron as I felt a bit too much in love with this “Track Assistant” function, but nevertheless, there are a wealth of different groups of presets ranked by instrument group names containing large number of various presets for acoustic, electric or any other group that belongs to that instrument. In a drum group we find many presets for kicks, percussion (in general or particular kit elements), snare, toms, and there is also a great variety of presets for string instruments and different moods inside the orchestral section. What is most impressive is every separate effect comes with a similar large number of presets. I glanced through all the directories of presets and didn’t find that any particularly group is missing (and I always find some).

Track Assistant recognized drums, percussive instruments, basses, guitars and vocals, while it adds all other instruments under the clean category. I presume they will add more categories in the future, but until then we can get along with some presets. I had some issues with some orchestral stuff but after changing some settings under Track Assistant, changing mode from “Broadband Clarity” to “Warm and Open” everything fell into place.

Masking

Another area where iZotope programming really shines is a “Masking” function that allow you to easily find frequencies that are critically overlapped inside the various instances of Neutron and even from single instances of a separated Neutron equalizer that is inserted on any other track. All you need to do is to press the Masking button and choose the second instance of the equalizer from a drop down menu where are all other equalizer instances are presented. At least for this function, it is helpful to go through the manual to learn how and where you should use it. It’s true what the iZotope experts say, that Masking, or frequency overlapping is not necessary a bad thing and unmasking should be performed only if you notice some level drops, moodiness or undefined parts and sometimes it is good to try with panning first before cutting some frequency out of a signal. There is also an inverse link function allowing you to link bands on different instances of equalizer making one band cut the same frequency where on another there is a boost.

Of course, iZotope provides some additional settings under Track Assistant mode allowing us to set Subtle, Medium or Aggressive mode to tell Neutron how it should process our signal. Additionally we can set another three different types of processing under every one of those three basic modes. Broadband clarity, Warm and Open or Upfront Midrange give different results depending on the chosen input signal and our personal wishes. I have realized that Warm and Open works well with some orchestral things, but on other hand you can also combine these three options between different instruments inside the arrangement as Neutron can’t tell the difference between a background and lead instrument.

 

Which Brings Us To….

I simply can’t tell you how priceless this plug-in is for me. It comes as a salvation, after all those years I’ve spent trying to learn something that I’m not good at, and I finally get a plug-in that allows me to concentrate on what I’m best at. I can finally enjoy making my music without being terrified how many additional hours I will spend mixing it. No, it is not a miracle tool, but trust me, it comes very, very close to this definition. A high cut here, a low pass there, a touch more compressor here and there and the end result is achieved. After all, this is not a toy aimed at mixing and mastering engineers, no matter how handy this tool could be for them, but it is a blessing for all musicians that want to finally achieve more professional sounding end results. Of course, it is just a tool, so there is still place for human mistakes, but if you have at least some basic knowledge of mixing then this could be a win-win combination. Izotope, you totally rock.

 

For Future Updates

Not that I complain much, but I have a few wishes. Or maybe let’s call them suggestions. Or let’s just say thoughts from a user’s point of view. I know, this is just version 1.00 and I’m aware how much effort, hours of planning, measuring and programming iZotope put into this plug-in, so I presume all the things I’m mentioning here will come in future updates. So, let’s start. Sometimes, quite rarely, Neutron does not correctly recognize some groups of instruments (basses that lack low end or orchestral percussion with low big hits). It would be nice to have an option for such cases, to tell Neutron which sort of input signal it could expect. Also, I hope to see some Orchestral options between basic recognized categories in some future update. There are plenty of Orchestral presets here, but by default, Track Assistant puts all orchestra instruments in the Clean, undefined category. Also having an advanced version, I’d be thankful if iZotope could add a Track Assistant option on separate plug-ins, not just in a main, multi version. The Learn function is nice and useful, but it would be a blessing to have an equalizer on every track that can suggest the best equalizing solution for that instrument. Same goes for other effects. Neutron is quite light on CPU considering the types and how many different effects are used simultaneously, but still, not so light that you can use it on every single track on anything but the fastest computer (like mine for example). Therefore, Track Assistant on separate effects could be a nice life-/CPU-saver. I also miss an option to copy settings from one instance to another. Not to mention that I simply could not understand why side-chaining works inside a single instance but not between more instances of Neutron, to side-chain two instances of Neutron directly resolving issues between bass and kick for example. At the moment, at least as far I know, it is possible only through external options. That’s all, no more “suggestions”. Time to enjoy this one-and-only, absolutely revolutionary plug-in.

More info at https://www.izotope.com/en/products/mix/neutron.html

The price for iZotope Neutron is $249USD and for iZotope Neutron Advanced $349 USD

ESSENTIAL for: It gives you an opportunity to become a musician again. Something that you dreamt about before you started your life as a musician, realizing later that you are doing almost everything but making music.

 

Review – Destructor by Blue Cat Audio


 

Blue Cat has a brand new plug in: a distortion and amp sim module that amply demonstrates Blue Cat’s typical flair for depth, elegance and flexibility in their software design.

 

by David Baer, Nov. 2016

 

We had promised to bring you part 3 of our review of Blue Cat’s Crafters Pack bundle in this issue of SoundBytes, but have decided to cover a brand new plug-in from Blue Cat instead.  The final Crafters Pack installment will appear in our next issue.

The new plug-in is Destructor, a distortion and amp sim module providing considerable control of many aspects of generating distortion.  The software is available in virtually all formats as is true with all Blue Cat offerings.  The list price is $99 USD.  An introductory discount of 20% will probably no longer be available by the time you read this, but occasional sales have been known to happen.

Although the amp sim aspect of this plug-in might lead non-guitarists to disregard it, I would suggest that any mixing engineer would find use for it, both on individual tracks (of all variety) and for master-bus applications.  It is capable of much more than just amp simulation and its range is everything from the gentlest, pleasing “warmification” to brutal audio annihilation.

 

Basics

There are several ways in which distortion can be introduced into audio.  The principal one is signal processing that will turn a pure sine wave into something other than a sine wave.  Obviously, such processing will also turn complex wave signals into something other than what they started as.  Signals can also be degraded with simulated sample bit reduction and sample rate reduction.  These techniques can be combined, of course.

The distortion module in Destructor is at the heart of the process, but there are other parts.  First we have a front end consisting of a gate followed by a compressor.  Next comes a pre-distortion equalizer module, followed by the distortion engine, and that followed by another equalizer module.  A final brick wall limiter completes the processing chain.

The Destructor gate and compressor do not have a switch to disable them, but setting the respective ratios to 1:1 accomplishes that.  Both EQs and the distortion module have enable buttons (although turning off the distortion module seems rather beside the point).  The gate and compressor are entirely serviceable modules that get the job done, but as they are quite conventional, we will spend no time discussing them here.

The EQs and distortion module have two modes of UI display, so-called “easy” mode and full-edit mode.  The UI image at the top of this article shows all three modules in easy mode.  A skinning capability can be used to apply different looks to the EQ and distortion mode, some examples of which appear below.  Personally I prefer the standard Blue Cat “look” but some may appreciate the visual references to real-life hardware.

 

Inner Workings

Let’s dive right in to the heart of things by analyzing the distortion module itself, and what a marvelous creation it is.  There are actually two edit screens, one with most of the adjustable controls and an advanced one to further specify dynamics and other parameters.  One of the things that makes Destructor so very impressive is that one can use an envelope follower to have the distortion respond in real time to the dynamics of the signal being followed.  So, we can tell Destructor to only apply distortion when things get loud or even only when things get soft.  We’ll look more closely at this in a moment. 

The advanced distortion edit panel is seen below.  The grid panel shows signal alteration.  The straight line from lower left to upper right represents no distortion.  The white curve is what the user (distortion preset designer) sets.  The green line is dynamic and shows the transformation actually being applied.  For reference, in the lower right are a blue sine wave and a depiction (pink line) of the alteration of that sine wave due to the current settings .

 

The shaper curve (essentially the green line) can be made symmetric or asymmetric.  It can be rectified (all input results in output in the upper half of the grid).  Smoothing, which reduces the harshness of the distortion, can be specified.  Bit depth reduction can be simulated as well as sample frequency reduction.  The Shape Mix control acts like a wet/dry level (but to the shaper curve only).

To the right we have more controls, including a Mix knob – not to be confused with Shape Mix.  The main Mix control is the overall mix of dry (undistorted) and distorted content.  The Gain knob to the right does just what you’d expect.  The Drive control at the top is effectively an input gain control.  Decimation can be used simulate reduction in sample rate, and corresponding aliasing can be specified.

The correspondence between the easy mode controls is straightforward: easy Drive to edit Drive, easy Mix to edit Mix, and easy Gain to edit Gain.  The final easy mode knob, Dynamics, takes us to the advanced edit panel (a “+” icon in basic edit mode switches the UI into advanced edit mode.

The main thing in this advanced area is the shape dynamics control on the left.  This is where Destructor truly shines in relation to most of the competition.  It is here we can tell Destructor when to apply distortion and when to back off.  An envelope follower can follow one of several signals: Destructor input, post-gate signal, post-compressor, post pre-EQ or external sidechain signal.  The envelope is similar to that in a compressor, having attack time and release time both adjustable.  Range controls the amount of dynamics applied to the curve.  The adjustable threshold and ceiling slider controls to the right tell the dynamics processor at what point to start adding distortion and at what point to max out.  If the ceiling is lower than the threshold, distortion increases as the signal gets quieter. 

But wait … there’s even more.  The two shape controls affect the shape of the follower curve.  Think of both the attack and release levels as straight lines from minimum to maximum (or vice versa for release).  A Shape setting of less than zero makes that level change happen more rapidly toward the end of the segment.  A positive value setting slows down the rate of change as the end of the segment approaches.  All this allows for much nuanced distortion design and can contribute to much expressivity in final tone. 

Continuing in the advanced edit area, we next have ability to dial in oversampling.  The first time I saw a distortion unit with oversampling, I had a fairly sarcastic reaction about thinking distortion needed to be avoided when introducing distortion.  But perhaps when going for only gentle warming the presence of this control has merit.

Lastly there is a phase control, which I found to be too subtle to make an audible difference, apart from when the phase knob was actually being adjusted.  Blue cat describes it thusly: This is a phase shifting filter that continuously shifts the phase, and the frequency you choose is the center frequency for the shift. So all frequencies are delayed with a different amount, resulting in very strange “wah-ish” effects around the center frequency when using large amounts.

You hopefully see just how deep Destructor is for application of distortion.  Next we look at the two EQ modules, which are identical.  That we have a pre- and post-distortion module means that distortion schemes can be designed that emphasize specific portions of the frequency spectrum.  If we wanted to limit distortion to mids and below, for example, we could just reduce the highs in the pre-EQ and restore them in the post-EQ.  the distortion would still be applied to the highs, but the amount of it could be considerably curtailed. 

 

Like the distortion module, the EQs are nicely conceived, but are considerably easier to explain.  We have low-cut and high-cut filter, a low-shelf and high-shelf filter, three peak filters with positive or negative gain and a comb filter.

The EQ easy mode UIs will have either four or five knobs, corresponding to advanced EQ controls as follows.  If the high-cut filter has a non-zero slope, then we get a tone knob that controls the cutoff frequency.  Otherwise there is no Tone knob shown.  The Bass and Treble easy controls govern the gain of the two shelf filters.  The Mid knob controls the gain of the middle peak filter (the one with the pink icon).  Finally, Gain does what you’d expect.  The corresponding control in edit mode is the blue slider on the right.

In addition to full presets for overall distortion designs, local presets for the distortion module and EQs can be saved.

 

Is Destructor for You?

The one thing I haven’t mentioned is the very generous number of factory presets.  Although Destructor might appear a bit intimidating, there are such a wide variety of well-organized presets that you will likely find something close to your needs.  A bit of modest tweaking can get you all the way to where you want to go, but in most cases there’s already a preset that will do that.

Speaking of appearing intimidating, I’m happy to report that the documentation is quite good.  There might be a few corners of this plug-in that you may find challenging to understand, but most of it is entirely intuitive, especially after a careful reading of the manual.

So, what’s missing?  I think I’d like to see a global wet/dry mix control more than anything else.  It would also be nice to disable the gate and compressor with a lock when auditioning presets.  These are pretty minor complaints, though, in relation to all that I like about this software.

A demo download is available for checking Destructor out.  It won’t allow preset saves and will interrupt the sound (some users would argue for too long a time).  But it’s easy to take Destructor for a test drive – something that may be an entirely rewarding investment of your time.

 

Review – North 7 Vintage Keys from Spitfire Audio

 

Spitfire Audio applies their sampling philosophy to four classic electro-mechanical instruments.

 

by David Keenum, Nov. 2016

 

Let me start out by saying that I am an Electric Piano and Clavinet fan.  I love them!  Well, I love their sound.  I don’t enjoy moving one.  I really don’t enjoy maintaining one.  And I don’t even enjoy playing one that much.  But their sound … bliss.  I still remember, as a kid, hearing the Wurlitzer piano play the intro to Three Dog Night’s Joy to the World or Mama Told Me (Not to Come).  Or the Rhodes on Stevie Wonder’s You Are the Sunshine of My Life.  Or Stevie’s Clavinet duo on Superstition.  And I can’t forget the Door’s Rhodes piano and piano bass on Riders on the Storm.  That’s why I said “Bliss.” 

For me, it’s the sound of Rock and Roll and Pop (apologies to the guitar players).  Iconic sounds.  Organic sounds.  A sound that fits with guitars, bass, and drums, but it still adds its distinctive, even complex flavor.   And that complex sound is probably why early sampling efforts failed to capture these instruments completely.  Thankfully, the technology has enabled us to have these sounds in an accurate form – and I’m loving it.  No adjustments.  No heavy lifting.  Just gorgeous sounds.

And that brings us to Spitfire Audio’s North 7 Vintage Keys.  Four classic instruments powered by their proprietary eDNA engine for Kontakt.

 

Overview

As I said, Spitfire has included four instruments in this collection:  A Clavinet, an Electric Bass Piano, an Electric Piano, and a Wurli (Wurlitzer Piano).  If you’re not sure what these instruments are, look them up.  I think you’ll find the experience entertaining.  Go ahead.  We’ll wait for you.

When you open Kontakt, you’ll see four basic presets: Clavinet, Electric Bass Piano, Electric Piano, and Wurli.  You’ll also see the folder of presets.  We’ll look at that in a minute, but first let’s take a look at the “basic” presets. 

Clavinet: This instrument was designed to be the keyboard replacement for the guitar.  It didn’t work out that way, but, instead, became a new sound for a wide variety of musical styles, from rock (Green Eyed Lady by Sugarloaf) to funk (Outta Space by Billy Preston). 

Electric Bass Piano – This instrument was most famously used by The Doors’ keyboardist, Ray Manzarek. The Doors usually overdubbed bass players on their studio recordings, but if you listen to the 1970 Absolutely Live, I think you’ll hear the Electric Bass Piano in all its glory.  It sounds remarkably like a fingered Electric Bass.

Electric Piano – The Electric Piano!  The Fender Rhodes or Rhodes was manufactured by several companies, and I believe it is currently being manufactured again.  My guess is that the instrument recorded here is an extremely well-maintained Mark 1 Rhodes.  The sound of this particular instrument reminds me a lot of The Doors Riders on the Storm.  This instrument seems to have more body and less tine sound than most sampled EPs, and I like it a lot!

Wurli:  Where the Rhodes EP got its sound by striking a metal bar, the Wurlitzer Piano struck a metal reed.  It is known for its biting mid-range.  One of the best examples of the Wurlie (or Wurley) was Ray Charles’ What’s I Say.

Each of these “basic” presets may start out plain, but it contains all the ingredients to create a wide variety of sounds.  Editing is easy, but you may need a little instruction and experimentation.  And all the editing is quickly accessible through the eDNA engine.  What, you may ask, is the eDNA engine?  Let’s take a look.

 

eDNA

 

This past May David Baer wrote an article about the eDNA release from Spitfire Audio.  This is where North 7 Vintage Keys derives its engine, and I think you’ll be pleased with the result.

http://soundbytesmag.net/points-kontakt-edna-spitfire-audio/

When you hear one of these classic electro-mechanical instruments played on a recording, you are hearing the instrument enhanced by amp and/or effects.  Here is where the eDNA comes into play, right in the GUI of the Kontakt preset.  You can add a bit of drive, or Tape Saturation, or EQ, or you can add Tremolo, Vibrato, a Flanger, or a Phaser.  In fact, with eDNA you can go a lot deeper than effects.  And that, my friends, is what the Preset Folders are all about!

 

Presets

There are 3 Folders: Pragmatic FX, Mega Morphology, and Bassology.  The Pragmatic FX folder mainly has “meat and potatoes” type presets arranged in the same order for each instrument.  If you’re looking for a place to start for an effected instrument, this is where you want to be.  And you can use the eDNA interface to dial in your sound the exact way you would like it.  The preset list covers a wide variety of needs, but I have to mention a little “jewel” I found: Clavinet – Leslie (MW).nki!  It had me playing for a while!

The Mega Morphology folder is where creativity (and eDNA) really shine.  Like the Pragmatic FX folder, each instrument is represented with the same presets, but these presets extend the boundaries of how you would expect these instruments to sound.  I immediately fell for Wurlie – Soft Glow.nki, but I’m having a hard time coming up with words to describe it.  Well, it was inspiring and beautiful, kind of like using a volume pedal on each note. 

The third folder is called Bassology, and it contains what you would imagine, bass presets, many of them “morphed.”  These range from “Ugly Growler.nki (aggressive) to the obviously Ray-Manzarek-sounding Manzaroid.nki.  From nasty to sweet.

 

Documentation

The webpage for North 7 Vintage Keys contains instructional videos that should get you up and going quickly.  I think you could figure most things without help, but the videos are interesting and informative.  In fact, you can (and probably should) look at them before you buy.

 

Conclusions

First of all, I can’t find fault with the instruments or the sampling.  Both are first rate.  Obviously, this project received a lot of care and detail, and the instruments sound great.  And as a lover of electro-mechanical sounds, I found every instrument in this collection a delight to play.  The pianos especially seem to come to life when you play them.  It’s like you are playing the real thing.

I have one warning.  If you play a stage keyboard, you may be used to “hyped” EP sounds.  These sounds are created to stand out on a stage and, frankly, while you’re playing them in the music store.  Don’t compare the North 7 Vintage Keys instruments to a Keyboard workstation.  These instruments are the real thing.  They sound like the real thing – no hype.  If you will just sit down and play them, they won’t disappoint.  And you don’t have to carry them!

Find out more, view the demo videos and/or purchase here:

http://www.spitfireaudio.com/shop/instruments/pianos-and-keys/north-7-vintage-keys/

 

Price: £199 GBP (approx. $249 USD)

Kontakt Player included.

 

 

 

Freebie of the Month – MUtility from Melda Production

 

Here’s another priceless plug-in gem from Melda Production that has innumerable practical uses – and we literally mean “priceless”.

 

by David Baer, Nov. 2016

 

MUtility is a Swiss Army knife of mixing utility functions.  It does a number of highly useful things and a number of things you’d only need in the most limited of circumstances.  But those things in the “highly useful” category are functions that you might use to advantage in virtually every mix.

The full UI is shown at the top of this article, but let’s take a closer look at the main action that happens on the left part of the window.  Bear in mind that all the sub-functions in the screenshot are enabled in order for them to be visible.  There’s no real-life situation for which that would need to happen.

 

Let’s just walk through the sub windows one by one to see what this plug-in can do, starting with the Basic controls.  Here we have Volume (self-explanatory) and Gain (also self-explanatory).  But, you say, don’t these overlap?  Yes, they do.  But Volume spans Silence to 0 dB.  Gain spans -24 to +24 dB.  Use which ever one is most pertinent but using both at the same time makes little sense. 

Panorama has its normal function.  But Panorama Law, Panorama Left and Panorama Right let you do something very useful and do it in a completely straightforward manner.  Say you have a piano in your mix in which the stereo spread of low to high notes is extreme.  You’d like to retain some stereo, but limit it to, say, just 25% of the soundstage width.  Easy: Panorama left positions the left channel and Right the right channel.  The Pan Law can be selected to taste, but leaving it at default will probably make you satisfied with the resulting balance.  It should probably be obvious that you would not mix the use of Panorama with the three controls just discussed.

Lastly we have some switches, most functions of which are self-evident.  The Invert controls flip the phase and Swap Left and Right, again, does just that.  The two Silence switches may have a use for someone somewhere, but I can’t think what that might be.

Next is the DC Blocker.  If your signal has an unwanted DC component (and when would you ever actually want a DC component?), this will remove it.

To the right we have Delay, the amount of which can be dialed in using either samples or milliseconds.  This can be useful if your track has a phase or timing problem in relation to other tracks.  But what if your stereo signal has a timing mismatch between right and left?  That can be handled as well, but we must take a detour to see how.  In the very upper right in the UI (to the right of the meters) is a button that defaults to L+R, meaning leave the stereo input as is for subsequent processing.

But there are other useful options, the full list of which can be seen to the right.  In particular, if we select either Left or Right, then that channel is subject to processing while the other is left untouched.  The Mid+Side option converts the input to M/S for processing within the plug-in (and the output automatically gets converted back).  Selecting Mid or Side is similar to Left or Right.  Only the selected part of the signal is subject to processing while the other part is left untouched.  The mode options are available in most of Melda’s plug-ins where the options might be used more frequently.  They are probably infrequently needed in MUtility.

But back to delay, if we need to offset one channel from the other in time, do that with a mode of Left or Right, causing delay to be applied only to the selected channel.

Next we have the RMS and Envelope functions.  Together they can transform the input signal into an envelope follower, possibly for use as the sidechain input of an effect on another track – probably not something you need too often.  Just as an aside: Utility is also a module inside of Melda’s uber-effect, MXXX.  Here this envelope follower capability truly comes into its own.

The next group of functions are Math and Expression and they are somewhat related.  They can transform the input, sample by sample, using mathematical manipulation.  These capabilities might be of interest to a mixing engineer with mad-scientist aspirations, but they will probably be of very limited value to the rest of us.

Finally, we have the Coder function.  When disabled, the output is just a stereo signal.  When enabled, the options can be seen to the right.  In that menu, “Mono” means “Mid” and “Stereo” means “Side” – I’m not sure why the alternate words were chosen because to me they muddy the waters.

In any event, Left+Right -> Mono+Stereo directs MUtility to convert the output to M/S (mid/side) mode.  Left+Right -> Mono directs MUtility to convert the output to M/S and then silence the S part of the signal.  In other words, take your stereo input and output the L and R averaged signals on both channels – or more simply stated, just remove all stereo.

The Coder conversions have two uses.  One is to actually convert signals for subsequent processing.  Say you have a compressor with independent channel settings but no M/S mode.  Put an instance of MUtility before the compressor using the Coder set to Left+Right -> Mono+Stereo and another after it using Mono+Stereo -> Left+Right.  Voila, you now have a compressor with M/S capabilities. 

The other use of the Coder function is to just temporarily audition something in another mode for evaluation purposes.  Don’t overlook the benefits of this latter use.

The Coder should not be mixed up with the Mode control mentioned earlier.  Mode and Coder operate independently.  Coder does its thing to the output signal at the very end of the processing chain.

To the right on the main UI is a metering section that will be familiar to users of other Melda plug-ins but will have self-evident meaning to those new to Melda.  Sometimes you might want metering inside a chain of plug-ins in your DAW.  MUtility can be used to advantage here, even if you’re not asking it to actually do any signal transformation.  But wait … there’s more.

The meter window can be directed to float independently, and as a floating window, it can be resized.  That’s not of much use when displaying the default bar meters, but there’s a second mode where the signal can be viewed with a time-based display as in the image below.

 

 

 

 

 

This is some pretty robust metering for a free plug-in, but it’s standard fare within Melda plug-ins and par for the course.

So, there you have it.  Pick up MUtility here:

https://www.meldaproduction.com/MFreeEffectsBundle

It’s my guess that the more you discover all the things MUtility can do, the more you’ll find yourself reaching for it in all kinds of situations.  There are other free plug-ins that duplicate some of the functions, but none of them (of which I am aware, at least) do it better or have more versatility.  Since you need to download the Melda universal installer to get it, there’s a number of other free treats you could grab and install at the same time.

The free bundle can be upgraded to the professional version.  The advantages of doing so are listed on the download page.  The cost of the upgrade is € 49 EUR, but it can be had for a considerable discount if you wait for a sale (one of which, Black Friday, should be on within a few days of the publication of this article).

 

 

Update on s(M)exoscope

 

In our July issue earlier this year, we looked at a brilliant freebie called s(M)exoscope that does a marvelous job of displaying audio waveforms (http://soundbytesmag.net/freebie-month-july-2016/ ).  We pointed out that unfortunately it was only available as 32-bit software.  Well, great news.  A 64-bit version has just come available. Details here:

 

http://rekkerd.org/smexoscope-free-oscilloscope-plugin-now-available-in-64-bit-for-windows-mac/

iRig Keys 37 by IK Multimedia

 

What can help you decide between the many different mini MIDI keyboards available? Maybe IK Multimedia has something for us, so let’s see what iRig Keys 37 can offer with its three octaves of little keys.

by Alex Arsov, Nov. 2016

 

There are a large number of mini keyboards on the market. Finding the right one is not an easy task. I tried a solid number of other portable keyboards before I obtained Keys 37. Some were even cheaper, offering quite a bit less, plenty of them were more expensive, and a few of those even offered some additional things that iRig Keys 37 doesn’t have. It’s actually all about the options and your personal preferences.

As I already had some portable mini keyboards before this one, I know exactly what I should look for, the first thing being: one octave more. The main problem with all those two-octave keyboards, whether mini or even those with normal sized keys, is that you can’t play much more than some basic chords/chord inversions or some short solo passages. iRig Keys 37 keyboard comes with a three-octave range of keys, so it is much easier to play wider chords, including some bass notes. Maybe still not enough to play doubled basses in octaves along with a chords, but nevertheless it is almost unbelievable how much extra playing freedom you get with this additional octave.

The second, even more important reason why I decided to obtain iRig Keys 37 is the key action. When I tried it for the first time I was surprised how responsive the keys were on this mini keyboard. We all know how lousy and unresponsive the keys can be on all those “under 250 bucks” MIDI controllers, especially on mini keyboards with smaller keys. Of course, iRig Keys 37 doesn’t offer anything near the full weighted keys experience, but still, they are a bit less lightweight than most other keys on controllers in that price range and I found the iRig Keys 37 to be very playable. It is surprising how many of those small or even normal sized keyboards have issues with release action, not allowing you to play some faster notes because keys don’t go fast enough back into their normal position after releasing the key. Thankfully, I didn’t experience that issue with this model.

The last thing that totally convinced me were the “old school” pitch and mod-wheel controllers that I miss on many other models. Roland has this funny mod-wheel that always jumps back into the zero position after releasing it, making it almost impossible to record volume curves with string arrangements, muting the strings after releasing the mod-wheel. Some mini keyboards offer knobs instead of wheels, but they aren’t quite as practical as those classical mod-wheels. So, old fashioned is the “new fashion” for me. Those are the three main reasons why I chose this model over a ton of other models, developers and sizes. Portable but still very playable. So, let’s go to the details to see what else we get with this package.

 

Hardware

Three octaves with one additional note (thanks for this additional high C note, it is very handy), velocity sensitive, fully Core MIDI and USB compliant. No plug and pray, just plug and play. Working with PC, Mac iOS devices and with an additional cable it should also work with Android above version 5-0.

On the back you will find one very nice addition – an input for Sustain or Expression pedal. Didn’t notice that one on many other mini keyboards. I presume that Octave up and Octave down buttons are quite standard these days, so nothing unusual having those two on the front panel. As soon as you apply any octave button, the red LED light will flash for that button. If you press the same button again, the light will flash twice, letting you know how many octaves you are beyond the default one. Pressing both octave buttons at once, will set the EDIT mode where you can chose between different touch velocity sensitivity curves or even send an “all notes off message”, set the MIDI transmit channel or send some specific Program Change number. Not that you will need all those, but at least heaving an ability to set different velocity sensitivity curves is always a nice option. There are three fixed velocity options along with the default one, namely light, normal and heavy velocity settings. There is also one “rookie” option in this edit mode, allowing you to transpose the whole keyboard in semitones. Ideal solution for all those keyboard players that prefer to play F# major scale in their favorite, “only white keys please” position. I’m not one of them, but nevertheless I’m almost sure that quite soon a day will come when I will also use this function. It’s quite tempting.

All those settings or any other changes can be saved with the set button that offers up to four different sets that can be saved and recalled. On the left is also a slightly larger Volume / Data knob that is pre-assigned to MIDI volume but is also programmable. At the right are also two additional program buttons that send “Program Change MIDI” messages. The only problem is that most current virtual instruments don’t support that function, actually not having this option implemented in their core. We already mentioned Pitch and Mod wheels that felt much more solid than on any other mini keyboard I’ve tried before. Actually the whole keyboard looks quite solidly made.

My only criticism goes to the USB cable, actually mini USB switch that goes into the keyboard. The problem is that it goes only half-way inside the keyboard connector, not allowing you to push the switch totally inside the connector, leaving everything a bit vulnerable. I’m still open to the idea that this could just be the case with my particular piece of hardware. I spoke to shop assistant in a local music store about this issue (they didn’t have any other iRig Keys in stock at that moment, so I couldn’t check if this is only the case with my piece of hardware) and he told me that those tiny USB connectors are the main problem of most MIDI keyboards, regardless of the model or manufacturer. Just a few keyboards come with a slightly bigger connector, not being so fragile, while all those small keyboards by default use a few different versions of those tiny connectors. I know something about this topic as I have my broken M-Audio Keystation MINI somewhere in my studio with a connector now disconnected from keyboard’s motherboard.

Software

Every mini keyboard comes with lots of software and as this is a keyboard from well-known software developer, so you can be sure that there will be more than enough sounds added along with the hardware.

The first thing is the special edition of Sample Tank SE, a well-known virtual sampler from IK Multimedia. The full version comes with 4,000 different instruments, while this special edition brings us 400 various instruments in 20 categories. All in all 6.5 GB of samples. There is also The Grid, an additional collection of sounds, midi patterns and production kits. If that’s not enough then you can pick up an additional five sound packs from the Electronika or Beats series. It brings a nice number of loops, sounds or even instruments in the case of Elektronika, and of course a nice number of MIDI loops. All sound packs cover various contemporary genres. I presume there will be no problem in starting to make some interesting music with all that sound. I didn’t go for this product because of the software, but I can’t complain. Quite a wide array of sounds.

 

Conclusions

I’m perfectly happy with my piece of hardware. If you are looking for a MIDI controller with additional drum pads then maybe you should look for another keyboard that has those drum pads, or you can even buy an iRig Keys – iRig Pad bundle for €244 EUR. My requirements were quite simple: portability with one additional octave along with a good old fashioned mod and pitch wheel. I spent plenty of my precious time using two-octave keyboards. So, thanks, but not anymore. Also, I spent some time finding a mini keyboard with a good action, because there is nothing worse in this world than banging keys that react like over-ripe fruit. The software comes just as an bonus.

I also obtained an additional cable for Android devices for an additional €4 EUR in my local store. My first attempt at getting it connected was not successful, probably should have ask my kids to set this up. Anyway, as soon as my kids will be in the mood to help I will try it with my Android phone and then I will be mobile on all mobile devices.

More info on http://www.ikmultimedia.com/products/irigkeys37/

iRig Keys 37 will cost you  € 97.59 EUR (vat included)

Review – Light and Sound Chamber Strings 1.6

 

A string library with great sound that is arguably the easiest chamber strings library to learn and quickest to use.  So if you’re looking for a chamber string library, read this.

 

by Per Lichtman, Nov. 2016

 

Light and Sound Chamber Strings 1.6 ($299 USD excl. VAT from LightAndSoundSamples.com) is multi-mic sample library for the full version of Kontakt 5.5.2 or later. With one multi-articulation patch per section, LSCS features six first violins, five second violins, three violas, two cellos and one bass (6,5,3,2,1), each recorded in position at Windmill Lane, Dublin by Debbie Smith with seven mic positions (Decca, Sides, Rears, XY, Close Ribbon, Bleeds, Close Leader). Each section has ten articulations available through an octave of keyswitching: interval legato sampling for two articulations, two types of sustains without legato, tremolo, bowed shorts, pizzicato, col legno and doubles. The first and second violins also feature an FX articulation key switch as well, and there’s a separate patch dedicated to generating room tone. It’s arguably the easiest chamber strings library to learn and quickest to use and has a great sound, so if you’re looking for a chamber string library, read on.

 

Legato, Dynamic Layers and Round-Robins and More

The “legato longs” and “legato dynamic longs” articulations both use interval legato sampling, rather than an emulated script by default, but the “true legato” feature can be turned on and off. Each articulation has between one and three dynamic layers, with most featuring the full three. A complete list of the dynamic layers per articulation can be found in the LSCS patch list at LightAndSoundSamples.com. The bowed shorts and pizzicato articulations have 5x round-robin while the col legno and doubles articulations have 3x round-robin.


Individual articulations can be purged by selecting the articulation name next to its keyswitch in the GUI and choosing “****” instead. Note that sometimes multiple longs articulations reference some of the same samples, so you may have to purge multiple articulations to free up memory.

 

Articulations

The primary interval legato articulation (“legato longs”) is easy to use in every section – organic, versatile, very robust and on some intervals sounds (to my ear) even superior to more well-established libraries. The two violin sections have clearly differentiated sounds and can be very lush, vibrant or energetic and are easily a highlight of the library, perfect for soaring melodic lines or quiet intimate moments. Out of all the sample libraries I’ve reviewed, these are some of the best interval legato violin patches I’ve tried. The loudest dynamic layers have an unrestrained quality across the board while the softest dynamic is smooth and tranquil.

The “legato dynamic longs” patch sounds great on sustains and is quite dramatic and musical but is less consistently implemented between sections (some sound/work better than others). In addition, because of the built-in dynamics has a longer learning curve to be used effectively in terms of timing the interval legato transitions so that they sound natural as opposed to sticking out. For those reasons, I found that I used the basic “dynamic longs” sustain more often than the “legato dynamic longs” one.

The “longs” and “dynamic longs” patches without interval legato both sound great and have musical attacks. As mentioned before, the “dynamic longs” patch without legato got a lot of use during my review.

The tremolo sounds suitably energetic and organic, but I’m usually at a loss to say too much about the articulation to differentiate one library from another (and I use it sparingly in my own work) so I’ll leave it at that.

For the first violins, the tremolo articulation is somewhat overshadowed more exotic FX patch. It is a multi-sampled looped tremolo crescendo/decrescendo that varies the bowing position into sul ponticello at times for a glassy timbre. It’s a very musical texture with a lot of air. The second violins, on the other hand, eschew both vibrato and tremolo for a haunting hollow texture, using an alternate bowing position (but not varying it over time). Honestly, I think Light and Sound is doing themselves a disservice by labeling these as generic “FX” patches when the alternate bowing positions (like sul ponticello) are often a selling point for more exotic libraries. Long story short, I was pleasantly surprised by the musical applications of the “FX” patches since I’d basically been expecting aleatoric clusters and the like.

The bowed shorts benefit greatly from a keyswitching improvement in version 1.6 (a free update for existing users) and have a sound of their own. The performances often have an immediate and energetic quality – you can really feel the players go for it on the louder dynamics, for instance. The shorts are on the “shorter” side and have a lot of pop, so think more in the realm of spiccato than marcato or tenuto. They are well suited to energetic rhythmic passages and less well suited as accents in more melodic passages (though the quieter dynamic layers are much better suited to melodic use than the loud ones). I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that bowed shorts in some other libraries (like VSL or Berlin Strings) tend to be more consistent. There’s the occasional bum note, and unlike the COG system in Spitfire Audio, there’s no easy way to skip the offending round-robin, meaning you end up having to trigger a different dynamic layer as a workaround. Still, this infrequent enough that I doubt it will be a deal breaker, but if you really need every note to be “perfect”, you’ll want to find your shorts elsewhere.

The pizzicato articulations are well-defined and are of the bread and butter variety (no Bartók/snap pizzicato). The louder dynamics are less aggressive here than in the shorts – they stay in a very controlled timbre throughout their range. Unlike the bowed shorts, these can work quite well as accents in softer or more melodic passages.

The col legno articulation is a great bonus. It’s great to see them provided for all five sections and they sound musical and effective. The performances, much like the pizzicato articulation, are on the less aggressive side when compared to the bowed shorts, but they still benefit greatly from the multiple dynamic layers and round robins.

On the more specialized end of things, you’ll find the doubles. The doubles are tempo synced to your host tempo, so the mileage you’ll get out of them depends somewhat on the tempo you used: the double hit is triggered on attack, not release, so there’s not much of a learning curve.


 

A Note on Keyswitching and Split

I’m not the biggest fan of the default keyswitch ranges, but handily they can be dragged up and down in range using the KS Offset slider. It’s a little fiddly to maneuver the switch, but you only have to do it once for each patch (then you can save it) and I appreciate being able to do the whole octave of switches at once. My personal preference is to map that keyswitches to start on the low C of an 88-octave keyboard (C0 in regards to the library’s documentation) for the violins through cellos. Then for the basses I transpose my input down an octave, so I move the keyswitches to start at C-1 (allowing me to play the same keys on my keyboard)

The split slider lets you set the crossover point into the louder dynamics, for both velocity and modwheel CC at the same time. This is a great bit of customization and makes it very easy to extend the range mapped to the quieter samples or to the louder ones.

 

Note Ranges

Many articulations feature relatively wide pitch ranges. Here are the ranges for each of the families for the articulations with the full range, where C3 is middle C.

  • First Violins: G2-C6
  • Second Violins: G2-C6
  • Violas: C2-C#5
  • Cellos: C1-F4
  • Bass: C0-F3

 

Note that there are range limitations at the top for some of the articulations. For the first violins, pizzicato, col legno and doubles end eleven semitones earlier. For the second violins, pizzicato, col legno, doubles, legato dynamic longs and dynamic longs all end eleven semitones earlier. For the violas, the pizzicatos end twelve semitones earlier, while the col legno and doubles stretch higher, ending just eight semitones earlier. For both the cellos and basses, the pizzicato and doubles end thirteen semitones earlier.

 

The Sound

LSCS honestly sound different from every other sample library I’ve reviewed. It has one of the driest sounds of any multi-mic string library I’ve ever tested, and yet it’s very organic sounding and not sterile. It found it easy to mix in a variety of genres, from orchestral classical or film score, to rock, EDM, pop or new age. I normally find myself using additional reverb but thanks to being recorded in situ with multiple mic positions I don’t usually have to pan or place the strings and the out of the box balance between the sections is very musical. The dynamic range is highly configurable using a “range” slider, not unlike the dynamics slider in the Orchestral Tools Berlin series (which is definitely a compliment).

Note that you’ll especially want to add reverb if you’re planning on using the shorts. Like so many drier libraries, short notes can sound a little abrupt without additional ambience. That said, I strongly recommend using all seven mic positions at all times, as it doesn’t take up that much RAM (2.09 to 2.5 GB of RAM per section with default settings vs circa 1GB with the default mics) and the shorts sound much more natural than with just the default mics on. The space may be on the drier side but the additional mics really contribute a lot in this library.

The legato longs are the star of the show, without question, and they sound really great. The violin FX articulations are really full of character and offer two highly distinct textures. The tremolo sounds solid as well – but I find it difficult to quantify tremolos. The short articulations range in quality from “good” to “great” depending on your intended application and specific note choice, but it’s great to see bowed shorts, pizzicato and col legno for all sections in a package at this price. It’s great to hear just how musical the pizzicato and col legno sound, in particular.

It’s easy to mix the microphone positions, as each has a volume fader, panning knob, identifying letter (which can be clicked to purge the articulation) and a button at the top to trigger and output drop down menu. Noticeably absent are mute and solo buttons, which would honestly bother me more if I didn’t find that I used all seven microphone positions the overwhelming majority of the time (something that is simply less practical when trying to use all the articulations in libraries with a wider set of articulations).

The room tone patch (a single playable key mapped to all individual microphones except “close”) lets you add some of the hiss and hum from the recording chain and space into the mix. It’s pretty subtle (even after adding 24 dB of gain it only peaked -37.5 to -35.6 dBFS) but it’s a nice bonus.

 

The Competition

While there are many solid string libraries, Light and Sound Chamber Strings offers something a bit unique. For starters, there’s the number of players recorded: 6,5,3,3,1. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only sample library with both first and second violin sections to use that size. Second, it is the only sample library I’m aware of that was recorded at Windmill Lane in Dublin. For these reasons, LSCS has a sound all of its own right off the bat, but let’s compare it to some other libraries with “half-size”, “chamber” or “divisi” string sizes to get a sense of how that plays out.

Spitfire Audio Chamber Strings (or Spitfire Audio Sable) uses 4,3,3,3,3  in situ and is recorded multi-mic position at AIR Lyndhurst, a much more reverberant hall, both of which give it a different balance and sound with the smaller violin sections and larger cello and bass sections. Despite the very noticeable differences in ensemble sizes (LSCS has a different number of players for every section while Spitfire Audio Chamber Strings uses the same section size for all sections except the first violin) and in the recording venue, this is probably the library will get the most comparison to LSCS. Having spent extensive time with both, I can say that they are both excellent libraries but very different in sound and application, something amplified by the difference in the performances. LSCS has a more vibrant, up-front sound that makes it especially well-suited for mixing in a variety of genres and would most often be used with additional reverb, while Spitfire Audio Chamber Strings is colored by the majestic sound of AIR Lyndhurst, making it easier to use without additional reverb and also has a darker sound. In other words, even if you already have Spitfire Audio Chamber Strings, LSCS can add a new sound to your palette and neither replaces the other. Spitfire Audio Chamber Strings has a larger range of articulations and requires loading multiple patches to access them all, while LSCS loads all ten or eleven articulations per section in a single patch, trading a shorter learning curve for a more limited set of articulations. The feature I most found myself missing from LSCS Spitfire Audio Chamber Strings was the dynamic range control – this meant I had to do CC tweaking whenever I wanted to double an LSCS part with SACS.

AudioBro LASS 2.5 is a single mic position library with various section sizes and first and second violin patches. You could create either 8,8,3,3,1 (for a more violin dominant sound) or 4,4,3,3,1 (for a smaller violin sound) but notice that either way you end up with an extra cello player and you can’t get the same ensemble size balances as LSCS. I haven’t had a chance to work hands-on with LASS 2.5 but as a mixing engineer I’ve mixed dry stems with it and LSCS offers a more pleasing sound in terms of the base recordings, a fact that’s only amplified when the multiple mic positions are taken into account. Based on the sound (rather than any hands-on experience with the library) I would definitely choose LSCS over LASS 2.5.

The 8Dio Adagio Strings collection offers flexibility terms of the players used, thanks to its three ensemble sizes (ensemble, divisi and solo) and is recorded with two mic positions (and a mix position as well) in a San Francisco church (with more reverberation in the far mics than LSCS), with each section placed in the center. It uses just one violin section, with your choice of 11 players in ensemble (nearly twice as many as Light and Sound Chamber Strings), 3 players in the divisi patch (half as many as LSCS) or a single player. In other words, we can’t really get the same ensemble size as either the first or second violin sections in LSCS and there’s only one violin section. On the other hand, we can get the same number of players for the violas (using the divisi patch), cellos (using the divisi patch) and bass (using the solo patch). So in the end, we end up with different section sizes, no extra second violin section, fewer mic positions, more reverberation and having to place each section in the hall. Once again, LSCS offers something different.

VSL Chamber Strings is a single mic position library, recorded at the VSL Silent Stage, centered rather than in-situ, with a single violin section. If you use that violin section twice, you end up 6,6,4,3,2. While we can get the same first violin size as LSCS, we end up re-using the first violins for the second violin sound (that’s one player large than the LSCS one), an extra viola player and an extra bass player (though if you have VSL Solo Strings, you can use the double bass to get a single player). Again, I haven’t spent time with VSL Chamber Strings (though I’ve used other VSL libraries extensively) so my perception of the differences this makes on the sound are based on working with dry stems. Still, it’s one of the closest libraries in terms of section size, even there are differences. Out of the libraries other than LSCS discussed here, this has the driest hall sound, making it one of the most flexible to mix, but since it’s a single mic position library not recorded in situ, LSCS still offers a more organic out-of-the-box sound and is easier to use without additional mixing work. If you need more articulations, go VSL, but otherwise I’d definitely take a look at LSCS first.

Strezov Sampling Cornucopia Strings 2 was recorded in situ and multi-mic position at at Sofia Hall with a close ensemble size to LSCS (6,5,4,3,2) but differs in several ways: the viola and basses both have an extra player, the library is not divided up by sections (there are legato patches for high and low strings, as well as “tutti” patches featuring every section except the basses and patches with the basses alone). In addition, Sofia Hall has a more reverberant sound than Windmill Lane. Other than fairly similar ensemble sizes, the two libraries couldn’t be much more different.

Orchestral Tools Berlin Strings is recorded in situ and multi-mic position at Teldex Hall (which is less reverberant than AIR Lyndhurst but still more reverberant than Windmill Lane) with 8,6,5,5,4, giving it a much bigger sound. It dwarfs LSCS in terms of the number of articulations (and has a longer learning curve as a result), but gives a similar dynamic range control slider. Berlin Strings doesn’t offer the intimacy of sound that the smaller ensemble size in LSCS provides, so LSCS is a good addition even if you already have Berlin Strings.

Similarly, the older Sonic Implants Symphonic String Collections (more recently providing the basis for Sonivox Orchestral Companion – Strings) was recorded in situ (though single mic position) at Sonic Temple Studio (which while intimate still sound more reverberant than Windmill Lane) but again use very similar section sizes to Berlin Strings (here 8,6,6,5,4). On top of that, it’s the only library listed here that doesn’t feature interval legato sampling.

 

Is It Right For You?

Light and Sound Chamber Strings is one of my favorite libraries to use. If you’ve got a full version of Kontakt 5.5.2 or later, it is one the first chamber string libraries you should look at From the easy organization, consistent keyswitch options, dynamic range control, short learning curve, great legato sampling and unique ensemble sizes and recording venue, it offers something different, making it a great addition to any other string libraries you might have, either for a more intimate ensemble or for doubling. For those looking to buy their first string library, it can make a great bread and butter library and has a short learning curve, too – just be ready to add some external reverb to the sound to blend it into your track. If you need a library with a reverberant sound, or you’re mainly looking for an extremely large range of articulations, look elsewhere. For everyone else, it’s a great value at the price, extremely expressive and well suited to the advanced composer and beginner alike.

Oldies but Goodies – Analog Signature Pack from Nomad Factory

 

Here are three lovely vintage-sounding devices that you should definitely check out – especially since you might already have them on your DAW machine and not even realize it.

 

by David Baer, Nov. 2016

 

In this installment of Oldies but Goodies we will look at three stunning pieces of mixing gear that have been around for quite a while.  A good number of you readers may already have these and not even realize it.  On two occasions, the Nomad Factory Integral Studio Pack has gone on sale for $99 USD.  To my mind, these were the deals of the decade, if not century.  I know from forum chatter that many astute buyers jumped on the deal. 

But with 54 (if I counted correctly) plug-ins in the bundle – yes, that’s less than two bucks apiece at the sale price – how many buyers have actually even tried them all?  I know I never got around to it.  It was only recently I discovered what a treasure the three plug-ins comprising the Analog Signature Pack actually were.  As I recall, long ago I tried one out, thought it sounded horrible and moved on.  Thanks to a couple of forum posts on the Cakewalk forum, I later was motivated to give them a second audition, this time with a little more care.  Long story short, I ended up being extremely happy I did.

The three units are a compressor, an EQ and a modest channel strip device containing both an EQ and a compressor.  Let me caution up front that these units are all easy to overdrive, much to the detriment of the sound.  But keep the gain staging in check and don’t overdo any internal drive and saturation settings and the results are vintage magic warmth and goodness.  I suspect that my early negative experience had to do with just those issues – overdriving and/or oversaturating that caused modest but unpleasant distortion.

Since these are EQs and compressors, I will not spend a great deal of time discussing their use.  I will assume the reader already has a basic understanding of EQ and compression.  I also will not keep repeating how pleasing their sound is.  But take any one of them, load one of the more modest presets, and you will know immediately if you agree with my assessment.  In my book, these are treasures and all three are now in my small collection of go-to plug-ins that I come back to again and again.

They all have splendid vintage-looking user interfaces as well, as you will see.  I know this means nothing to the consumer of one’s music, but it does make the mixing experience a bit more enjoyable, and … who knows … maybe make your efforts more inspired as a result.

 

The EQP-4 Equalizer


This EQ does not have a documented pedigree, but it does have a Pultec-like flavor, that being a low-frequency shelf filter stage that can simultaneously attenuate and boost.  The center frequency of the boost is a bit lower than the cut, so one can use this capability to increase the bass and simultaneously reduce the area of “boxiness”.  With the highly full-featured software EQs we have available, this may not be appreciated.  But back in the day of expensive hardware-only solutions, it was much valued.

The EQP-4 also does this trick on the high end, something the Pultec did not.  The figure to the right (click on it to see it larger) shows four curves: no gain, 12 dB attenuation, 12 dB boost, and simultaneous boost and attenuation of 12 dB all around.  Low/high cutoff values were 50 Hz and 10 KHz.

The shelf filters on the low and high ends can be replaced with peaking filters, but there is not Q (bandwidth) adjustment available in the low and high stages.

Independent of the low and high stages is a simple low-cut and high-cut filter with a choice of frequencies that can be seen on the interface panel.

The low-mid and high-mid stages are similar with slightly overlapping frequencies.  The frequency selector of the low-mid offers a series of fixed frequencies, 35 Hz through 500 Hz.  The X10 button multiplies those by 10, so we have a maximum of 5 KHz.  There is a readout for this, so you need not memorize the values of the fixed steps.  The high-mid frequency range is 200 Hz to 9.6 KHz.  Atten/boost offers a range of -18 thru +18 dB.  The bandwidth knob does what it says.  At the Broad setting, fully clockwise, the peak is very wide indeed.

All the filter stages have an in/out button.  There are stereo meters, switchable between input and output levels.  There is a switch for flipping the phase, and there is an output gain adjustment control.

And there you have it – a straightforward, lovely EQ that sounds as good as it is easy to use.

 

The LM-662 Compressor

 

This is the only unit in the Analog Signature Pack that has a named pedigree.  It is a recreation of the classic and revered Fairchild 670 limiting amplifier.  There are a good number of emulations of this device available from the likes of UAD, Waves and IK Multimedia, all of which look a good deal more like the original with respect to their user interfaces.  The light-colored panel of the LM-662 does not scream “Fairchild 670”.  But for the most part, the same controls and meters are there.

The input level control is obvious as to function.  Threshold is as well, except that it might be better labelled “Compression”.  As the knob is turned clockwise, the threshold actually decreases, which of course causes the amount of compression to rise.

Like the original, the attack and release values are specified by a single knob with discreet stops.  In the LM-662, however, we do have more options than the six settings on the original 670, as can be seen in the table (copied from the documentation) to the right.

There is a 12AX7 tube emulator/saturator that can be used to add additional warmth.  Be warned – a little can be very nice, but this can easily be overdone to the detriment of the sound.

The Gain Control knob has an obvious function.  Not so obvious is the control labelled D.C. Adjust.  According to the documentation: By turning the DC Adjust to the left, the LM-662 acts more like a ‘compressor’, by turning the DC Adjust to the right, the LM-662 acts more like a ‘limiter’.  Set by ear, or just find a preset close to what you’re looking for and use that preset’s setting.

 

The SC-226 Channel Strip

 

The SC-226 is a stereo channel plug-in with both an EQ and a compressor, neither of which duplicate the behavior or control interface of its Analog Signature Pack siblings.  A switch allows either an EQ-before-compressor or compressor-before-EQ configuration.  Both EQ and compressor offer a single set of controls for both stereo channels.

A simple on/off brick-wall limiter is on board, as is an input low-cut filter with a small fixed set of frequencies.  A tube saturation stage identical to that in the LM-662 is also provided.

The compressor is said to deliver the behavior of an optical compressor.  Compression is controlled with the Threshold and Compression knobs.  Threshold works just like it does in the LM-662, turning clockwise lowers the threshold, increasing the compression. 

Separate Attack and Release knobs have fixed-position settings, the values of which are shown in the table to the right (reprinted from the documentation).  There is no need to memorize the available values since they are displayed in the interface.

The EQ is a straightforward affair with four stages.  The bass and treble stages can be shelf or peak filters.  The low-mid and high-mid stages have a Q switch that offers either medium bandwidth or moderately narrow bandwidth.  All four stages have individual in/out switches.

The gain range of the bass is -24 to +24 dB.  The frequency range is thirteen values between 22 and 820 Hz.  Again, the selected value is displayed on the interface.  The treble stage has a gain of -20 dB to +20 dB.  The frequency range is thirteen values between 2 and 18 KHz.

The low-mid and high-mid both have gain ranges of -16 dB to +16 dB.  Both have a selector to choose one of thirteen frequencies: 200 Hz to 3 KHz for the low-mid and 1.2 to 6.8 KHz for the high-mid.

 

Is the Analog Signature Pack for You?

Should some nasty deity come along and command that I must relinquish all my vintage plug-ins but three, that would be painful, but there’s a fair chance that the three discussed here would all be on that final list of keepers.  I have quite honestly fallen in love with them.  Certainly, your reaction may not be the same, but I suggest that you’d not be wasting your time to at least just check them out.

If you were one of the astute buyers who picked up the Nomad Factory Integral Studio Pack bundle in one of the two sales-of-the-century, you can form your own opinion easily enough by auditioning the plug-ins you already own.  If you missed those sales, the news is not so good.  The Integral Studio Pack, which includes the Analog Signature Pack, is currently listed at $479 USD at Don’t Crack.  The Analog Signature Pack alone can be had for $119 USD (and the individual plug-ins for $99 USD each).  The Analog Signature Pack bundle price is not at all an exorbitant when you consider the value, but it is probably painful when contemplating a missed sale-of-the-century opportunity.

Will another sale-of-the century ever happen again for the Integral Studio Pack?  Who can say – but be sure and get on the Don’t Crack mailing list in case it does.  There are a number of gems in the Integral Studio Pack beyond the three plug-ins reviewed here.  And the Analog Signature Pack or the individual components might be subject to a limited-time, crazy-deep discount sale.  It has happened before with other Nomad Factory plug-ins and it could very well happen again.

Nomad Factory gear is available here:

http://store.dontcrack.com/index.php?manufacturers_id=39

 

 

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