Monthly Archives: March 2017
Just plug your acoustic or nylon guitar and start recording, no matter if you’re at home or on the road. It’s small, simple to use and sounds great – that’s the IK iRig Acoustic Stage.
by Alex Arsov, Mar. 2017
This is a portable digital microphone system for acoustic guitar. An ideal solution for gigs or for recording your acoustic guitar in a home studio or in any other location. The truth should be told – I perform live just a few times a year, so let’s concentrate for a moment more on the studio recording aspect. The main question is: does it sound like acoustic guitar recorded in a bathroom with two quality condenser microphones? Maybe not, but surprisingly it comes very close, good enough for any pro or semi-pro recording. With a touch of reverb and a bit of equalizer even quite an average old nylon guitar could sounds just perfect. I’m impressed with the fact that no matter how many different acoustic and nylon guitars I’ve tried with IK iRig Acoustic Stage, I’ve never had any issue with lowest string booming or overwhelming other frequencies and ruining the whole recording just because you didn’t set the microphones up correctly. It is something that can’t be corrected just with an equalizer.
Let me emphisize how easy is to set up the whole system to prepare for recording. Everything can be done in less than a minute. I presume big studios will not use this for recording big names from the music industry, but it seems like an ideal solution for any home studio owner and, of course, for stage performance purposes. It is an ideal solution for any modern day troubadours that perform regularly in clubs or other small venues. iRig Acoustic Stage allows you to move freely on a stage providing full and rich natural sound of your guitar without any additional equipment. All you need is your guitar, iRig Acoustic Stage and one guitar cable for connecting the iRig interface to the main amplifier. There is also a belt clip included for attaching the iRig Acoustic Stage DSP interface directly to your belt. All in all a simple, small and portable solution that allows you to concentrate on your music without loosing your time and nerves setting everything to sound as it should.
The pickup is a small microphone in a triangle shape (looking like a plectrum) with a tiny cable for connecting it to the main iRig Acoustic Stage DSP interface. The main interface is powered by two AA batteries (included in the package). There’s a belt clip and a nice carry box too. For connecting it to the PC, you will need an extra USB to Mini USB cable. I tried with my mobile cable (the one that most new mobile phones use for charging) and it fits perfectly. So, problem solved.
The interface device is a box with a digital preamp. IK Multimedia is a well-known developer of various software amp simulations. If you are familiar with Amplitube 4 then you know that they already experimented with acoustic emulations that can convert an electric guitar into an acoustic one. I presume that making an acoustic guitar sound like an electric one is much less complicated than making electric sound like acoustic. There is a preamp provided with integrated software, capitalizing on all the knowledge of software emulations that IKM has amassed over the years. But enough about the internals – let’s concentrate on the nice looking externals. The first thing you notice will be two big round buttons. The red “Cancel Feedback” button does exactly what its name suggests. I tried this one on my son’s guitar amp (since I’m totally on software, only here and there using my POD, it is almost impossible to get feedback). My conclusions: if you are not standing inside the speaker, this button will definitely do the job correctly. Next is a big “Tone” button. Here we can select one of the six different preamp settings. Three for acoustic guitar with still strings and another three for nylon guitar, choosing between Natural,Warm, or Bright settings. Somehow I always end with the Warm option, no matter which guitar I use, but I presume this is just a matter of personal taste. There is also an option, which is nicely described in the manual, allowing us to calibrate the preamp by analyzing of your guitar and finding the best solution for it. The whole process takes less than two minutes, plus an additional few seconds the interface needs to calculate the results. I have tried this function with my ancient nylon guitar and the calibration went nicely, making some discrete improvements to the “natural dullness” that’s a trademark for that particular museum piece of gear.
At the top of the interface we find two mono jacks. One is labeled AUX for inserting a guitar cable for combining the sound from Piezo pickups with the sound from the MEMS microphone that comes with iRig Acoustic Stage. At the bottom is a Mix knob for setting the level of the Piezo signal in correlation to the MEMS microphone.
The other Out jack is aimed at connecting a DSP interface with external amplifier through the guitar cable. Between those two jacks is an input for MEMS microphone along with a mini USB connector for connecting the interface with your PC, Mac, Android or iPad, iPod. There is also a Volume knob for setting the level of the input signal. On the side is an On-Off switch and a phase inverting switch. That is all, everything else is an inside job, magically provided by the IK Multimedia programmers. The whole box is quite solidly built, so I presume it can easily survive numerous gigs.
MEMS microphone is simple to use. All you need to do is to stick it on a guitar sound hole, without any further modifications needed on the instrument itself. The only thing that bothers me is the tiny cable that rubs against the sound hole edge. and I really hope that it doesn’t get broken too soon if I stick and remove it many times.
iRig Acoustic Stage can be used with Mac and PC (through the ASIO4ALL driver). It also works with almost all iPod and iPad models, even with some Android ones, at least those that support Samsung Professional Audio Technology, or with any other Android 5 device that uses the USB OTG connector.
For €122 EUR we get an ideal home studio solution for recording acoustic and nylon guitars. It is hard to find a studio or even home without an acoustic guitar, so maybe it’s time to start using it. For that money there is absolutely no better solution for the task, so I’m totally grateful to IK Multimedia for making such an easy-to-use tool that sounds at least as good as, if not better than, most other not-so-easy-to-use solutions considering that miking acoustic guitar with two microphones is not an easy task for a beginner. To do this right you need to know how to set everything up to avoid phase issues and find the sweet spot in your bathroom. Yes, there is no better place for recording acoustic guitars than in a bathroom. And let’s not forget avoiding the aforementioned issues with the lower strings. If you are a home studio owner or acoustic performer then this is just the perfect tool for covering all acoustic, nylon guitar needs. As I’m getting older, I’m becoming a big fan of simplicity. The iRig Acoustic Stage is as simple as simple can be and yet sounds surprisingly good.
For more information, check out the IK Multimedia iRig Acoustic Stage page here:
Two realistically-sampled cellos with many articulations and implemented controllers. All you need is to ask yourself is if you are in a Romantic or Modern mood for recording.
by Alex Arsov, Mar. 2017
During the last year we covered a few great cello libraries. This one is also great, but is’ also a bit different. If you are familiar with any of the Chris Hein instruments, then you already know that his instruments come with a large number of articulations that allow you to recreate almost every possible line that live player can play on that particular instrument. So, nothing new regarding Chris Hein standards, but there is also one more thing that also stands out from all other cello libraries that are currently available on the market: the consistency of played sound.
Let me explain. Most other cello libraries bring sound quality that is up to date with current high standards, offering sound that is almost impossible to distinguish from the real instrument. Some of them also contain a great number of different articulations and various controllers, but the main problem with most of them is that it is not easy to place them easily inside a crowded arrangement. Compressor here, equalizer there, but it always happens that some notes are lost in arrangement, as sometimes not all articulations are on the same level. Also, as the cello is a very dynamic instrument, it depends on how velocity response is programmed. There are a million ways how the transition between quiet and loud notes could be programmed, preparing the library to have the best response in all possible situations.
One way or another, with most other cello libraries I’ve spent quite a nice amount of time trying to make them audible in a mix and have consistent level during the whole phrase. The field where Chris Hein Solo Cello shines is in the fact that it sounds beautiful and very realistic when you play it solo, covering the whole dynamic spectrum, from sounding very gentle and emotional to aggressive, sharp and loud. In that way it is almost like some other, better libraries, with maybe one exception: Chris Hein Solo Cello has a slightly better programmed attack, so it is a bit easier to play gentle notes without spending additional time bouncing notes a few milliseconds before and after the line to get the perfect timing in legato mode.
The main difference, at least in my personal experience, comes when you put CH Solo Cello in a crowded arrangement. All notes in all articulations sounds quite a bit more consistent. More or less, they are all there, maybe you will need to set a velocity here and there, as with default settings it is quite easy to overdo dynamic, especially if you use any of those light mini keyboards. Of course this could be fixed inside the Solo Cello edit menu where you can apply different velocity curves, but when inspiration strikes, this is the last thing I want to do, so to be honest, it is more on me than on Chris regarding this one. Otherwise, everything else is just perfect, all I need is to play the line, change a few articulations through key-switches in the lower part of the keyboard, add a few additional effects to taste (light compressor for taming the peaks and equalizer, standard duo for every crowded, loud arrangement, and as a final touch a common reverb to put the whole arrangement into the same space).
The library offers two different cellos, the first one is Modern Cello with a clearer tone and higher dynamic range, containing all articulations needed to cover the wide range of musical styles and playing techniques. With this one, more or less, the sky is the limit. Second one is a Romantic Cello with warmer, more emotional tone, with greater vibrato and all in all a calmer character. Both libraries offer the same number of articulations, 38 each. You can find some incredible performances recreated with Solo Cello on Chris Hein’s page, showing what can be done with all those articulations. From drumming on a cello body to the various string hammering and all other playing techniques known to man (and Chris). Off course, the deeper you go, the more time you spend programming your lines. Most common articulations, like Legato, Pizzicato or Marcatto can be easily programmed on a fly, by playing keyboard with your right hand and changing articulations with your left, but for some cello concertos you could spend more than few days programming it. Actually, this is good news as there is no other library that offers anything similar – such an impressive number of articulations and controllers. 10,000 samples for every cello offering up to eight layers per articulation, four dynamic modes.
The structure and content of both cellos is quite similar to those that we described in our Chris Hein Solo Violin review, so I’m not sure if we need to go into every detail. Two reverbs, one for body and one Room reverb with plenty of convolution room spaces and body variants. I mumbled about velocity at the beginning, but the truth is that I don’t know any other instrument on the market that allows so many variants and options regarding velocity curve. If any of those X-Fade / Keyboard options still don’t work for you then you can simply draw your own velocity curve with all the tiny details, even allowing you to combine velocity with the Expression C11 controller, as C11 can overtake the velocity as soon as the C11 value exceeds the main velocity that is set for that particular note. It sounds complicated, but when you get to grips with any of the Chris Hein instruments it is not so hard to control it.
Years ago, when I got one of his instruments for the first time I thought: Ouch, I will never learn all those functions. But later when I started using more and more of his instruments, it’s proved that all those functions really help if it happens that you are stuck with some notes that you are not quite satisfied with. More or less, all his instruments are very playable and don’t require any additional programming. All those additional functions are for some specific occasions when you try to recreate some playing technique, which is usually a “no go” for a virtual instrument. One such addition that most of his new instruments have is a Note Head function. All stringed instruments from Chris Hein already come with a nice number of different staccato and spiccato articulations, but as you know, when a violin or cello player starts playing fast staccato runs or phrases the length of notes are changed from note to note. A real player can go from staccato directly to spiccato and back to staccato in one small fast run. It is quite a common habit of string players to play shorter and shorter notes towards the middle part of the phrase, increasing in length from note to note toward the last part of a phrase. Recreating this only by switching between different articulations will not do the job. That’s the reason Chris added this “Note Head” function, where we can change attack and release of every note in a phrase on the fly with a single controller, going through different short notes recorded in twelve different note lengths with eight dynamic layers. The Note Head function is connected to the CC2 controller, so setting a fader for this one is just a few clicks job (all controllers can be set to any other value, so CC2 is just the default setting). With a single move of the fader you can recreate a live player performance by slightly increasing or decreasing the length and attack of every note. Quite simple and effective. OK, we will not mention that all details of every head can be fine tuned and adapted to your specific needs in additional to the “Note Head” editor, as this is a classical “everything can be controlled to the last detail” Chris Hein approach, but let’s leave those additional functions for the young nerds (I hate to repeat myself, but have to say again that all his libraries are so well-preprogrammed that in most cases there is no need to change any parameter to get realistic live performance – but it doesn’t hurt if we have all those options for the worst case scenarios and all other special wishes).
Another interesting addition is an option to switch between polyphonic and legato playing modes with the sustain pedal. Actually, there are countless different details that can make all playing techniques very realistic and alive. I recommend you to go through the manuals to learn more about all those tiny details, such as how to change basic note vibrato in many different ways, drawing different vibrato curves – but I should mention again that it sounds just perfect as it is. If someone asked me what the biggest change in sample technology was in the last few years, I would probably answer: a realistic vibrato. A few years ago it was really hard to find a library containing a realistic vibrato while in the last year or two, it is almost impossible to find an instrument with unrealistic vibrato. One way or another, it is nice to have all these additional options.
I played some simple lines with no additional programming and sent them to my friend, a cello player, and he was very pleased with results. Solo Cello is as real as a real instrument can be. It isn’t cheap, but I can’t remember any other instrument where you can get so much for the asking price. It brings a top-quality instrument (actually two different instruments where each has its own character), an impressive number of articulations and even more impressive tools to liven up all those articulations. The endless number of controllers are ranked in quite a logical order. All in all, I was impressed with the first Chris Hein instrument that I got years ago and have to admit that his instruments have become better and better. Watch the video clips on the Best Service site carefully and try to find any moment in this complex performance that sounds fake. Maybe I’m not the most astute listener, but I couldn’t find any – way beyond impressive!
I know that it would be nice to find at least one weak spot, to make this review a bit more credible, but I’m a big fan of the cello and this library is a dream come true for me. It is so playable and sounds so good, that even if I could find any weak spot it would probably be totally irrelevant. At some moments Emotional Cello from Best Service might sound a bit more emotional, but this one can recreate everything that a real cello can, no matter how complex and dynamic performance it is. Even more important, at least for me, it sounds consistent and well-defined even in a crowded mix, and on the other hand, it is impossible to recognize it as a virtual instrument even when it plays solo. With a little skill and experience you can get very impressive results with minimum effort.
More info at: https://www.bestservice.de/en/chris_hein_solo_cello.html
AAX native, AU, Mac, NKS support, RTAS, Standalone, VST, Win ca. 6.86 GB
A traditionally big package of ethnic musical sounds becomes even bigger: 80 new instruments and voices from all over the world to enhance your clean digital EDM creations.
by Alex Arsov, Mar. 2017
I can’t remember if I started with Ethno World 3 or 4, upgrading to every new version whenever it appeared. From version to version I had grumbled about the same thing, that there was no additional information about the key used in specific phrases and loops, but at the same time, no matter how much I had complained regarding this issue, the Ethno World library remained as one of the most used libraries in my sound arsenal. Yes, I’m also doing some world music production, but I never use this library for that purpose. Actually, no matter that there is no key information for all those loops and phrases, it is a fact that almost all major DAWs have some sort of pitch recognition and correction plug in that allows you to adapt the melody to your needs. Most of the phrases are monophonic anyway, so all you needed to do was to find one that fit your song, maybe correcting a note or two, and that was it. The new reincarnation of this library brings a new “Info box”. Truth be told, most of the vocal phrases had, and still have, key info for loop groups. In the new version I found that even some instruments have key information – not all of them, but still, it’s a good start. I hope Marcel will find time to put that information also on some of the older content that is included with this new version.
The other thing that I miss is basic scale information for every specific instrument. There is range info, but nothing about which traditional scale is used inside the loops and phrases. It would be nice to get at least numerical info ( I, II minIII etc… ) allowing us to recreate similar melodies with “key” versions of instruments that come as separate presets along with most of the loops and phrases (a normal, playable version of an instrument). We are all masters in minor, major, and the various variations between the two, but I’m aware that some more exotic nations use some scales that are not the same as our standard western scales. OK, end of complaining. Except for that small issue I’m big fan of this library. It is a life-saver for all sorts of Pop, Electro, EDM, Rock, or any similar sort of production. In short, EW6 fits everywhere. Adding an ethno voice phrase or some exotic instrument to any of the named productions automatically adds some unique touch to that track, making it a bit special. EW6 is a great collection of exotic real instruments and voices. Some time ago I did a production for a TV station, spending some quality time building the whole song, adding just one vocal phrase as a fill at the last moment, just to glue two different parts, and the lady in charge of that production told me that she really liked the song, especially the vocal part. Every such live instrumental or vocal phrase or loop can be a great hook for your arrangement. In any ethno world track those sorts of sounds could sound like just another overlay, but in any other musical genres EW6 can hit like a brick, adding an unexpected and fresh aspect to your production.
Brick In Details
Ethno World 6 Complete contains both the packs that used to be sold separately – Instruments and Voices – providing 80 new instruments or voices to this united package along with some new menus and controllers. Instruments are divided into a few big groups. There’s Bowed instruments, then Construction sets, which combines melodic instrument loops with some appropriate rhythmical loops that fit well together. Next is a Gamelan Orchestra directory, then a group called Gongs, Bells and Metals. The last five groups are Key instruments, Stringed instruments, Woodwind and Brass, World Drums and World percussion. Some of those groups contain a huge number of subdirectories containing loops and key instruments. This is definitely not one of those libraries with limited content. Even in the previous versions I was never able to go through all the instruments, and it becomes a bit more impossible in this one. You simply need to start with an approximate idea of which sort of instrument could fit your production, trying various exotic names inside this group. In the Vocal part you can find voices ranked into the next big groups: North America, South America, Europe, Africa, West Asia and East Asia. Each of those contain subdirectories with some particular countries or nationalities. All instruments come in looped versions where loops are synced with the host tempo, then loops with the original tempo and “key”, sampled instruments that allow us to play our own melodies with the instrument. A lot of these instruments come with some additional articulations, like pizzicato or staccato, triggered through different key-switches.
At first I thought those 80 instruments were the only novelty, but I noticed the graphical interface has been renewed, adding a few nice new details, quite a welcome refreshment. I already mentioned the Info tab where we can find basic range information for that instrument along with some additional info about the instrument itself or voice origin with some other interesting facts. There is also additional information about different content inside some specific keyboard range, as some tempo-synced phrases can contain different groups of sounds with different characteristics, be that a drone loop alongside solo licks, or rhythmical phrases versus chords phrases and similar combinations.
Controllers and Menus
A great aspect of this library is that it also provides a large number of controllers for every instrument or voice, not just a licks, keys and info combination. The first sub-window inside the graphical interface is reserved for Quick Edit. Here we can tune, speed up or slow down the loop, setting the start range with a slider connected to a sample preview. I would like to see an option to click inside the sample preview window to set sample start directly, and not just doing that with the slider. This section is not the same for key instrument patches sharing a similar sample window and tune function where there is an option to switch on or off legato mode or add a glide function to legato notes through the sustain pedal. There is also one small window showing the currently chosen articulation. On the right inside the same window are additional options common to all loops and keys. A slider for pan, another one for applying a pitch change in semitones, then sliders for setting the velocity response, the same for overall volume of the preset, attack and release sliders and finally two sliders for high and low pass filters.
Next, the Effects window brings six standard effects with some additional controllers. Those effects are: Compressor, Saturator, Equalizer, Delay Chorus and Phaser. I never use these as I prefer to use the effects I have inside my DAW, knowing exactly what I will get as a result, but nevertheless, it is nice to have them anyway.
The Group edit window contains some common controllers like for Velocity and Volume, along with the whole ADSR section and LFO section containing Frequency and intensity knobs. I’m not sure why I should need this LFO feature for sampled live instruments, but I presume Marcus, the man behind Ethno World 6, knows why. The last one in this window, improved from previous versions, is Reverb. We have a slider for setting the amount of reverb along with separate drop down menu for applying one of the included convolution reverb spaces, choosing between various Halls, Spaces, Ambiance, Chambers, Rooms or Plate presets. With these new convolution reverb spaces all instruments sound very natural, being positioned nicely in real space.
A Micro tuning window brings a drop down menu containing some of the exotic scales used in this library, and it allows you to make and save your own.
The last window is a Performance window where we can set some additional settings for legato mode like X-fade and Glide time with start offset. There are also Humanize and Harmonize options. At least for me, the only interesting part of these two is an option to add EQ amount, setting the small color changes from tone to tone. Not that I needed this one, but it’s a cool option.
I spent some quality time writing about controllers, but the main thing about this library is its extensive number of instruments – 320, to be precise, which come with 800 patches. While in some early versions certain “key” instruments were not so playable, now most of those issues are sorted and it is a real joy to use any sampled “key” instrument or loop inside this library. In some future update I would like to see an option to directly drag loops and phrases into a DAW, as in most cases I render chosen loops, changing pitch of some notes directly, using the audio editor inside my DAW rather than wasting my time playing with various MIDI notes to combine some loops or parts.
All in all there is 33.4 GB containing almost 30,000 samples. With a new reverb everything sounds as it should and all you need is a decent amount of time to glance through the endless number of instruments, voices, loops and phrases. They are exotic, inspirational and very useful. Ethno World library has been my secret weapon for many years. Endless number of wind and string instruments along with all the others can keep you happy for a long time. Not that you will use it constantly, but Ethno World 6 is like one of those mystical life-saver cures that come in small bottles (OK, this one is far from being small). A drop here and a drop there and your life (songs) will become better. Ethno World 6 sounds exotic, and yes, this is a fact – it really is exotic. In the best possible way.
ESSENTIAL for: A soup without salt is just water, and a song without small addition of Ethno World 6 element is just a song. Having just a song is definitely not enough for success.
UVI delivers another classic analog instrument, in this case by sampling a rare early prototype polyphonic keyboard from Moog that was lovingly reconstructed for this purpose.
by David Baer, Mar. 2017
About a year ago, UVI introduced the first instrument in the PX Prototype Series whose goal was, in UVI’s words, exploring the oft veiled world of unique, fringe and unreleased electronic and acoustic instruments. The instrument was the PX Apollo, which is what we are going to look at in this article. Additional instruments in the PX series have yet to materialize, but, as you’ll see, the PX Apollo is an excellent start.
First let’s get a few important essentials out of the way. PX Apollo runs in the free UVI Workstation but can also run in UVI’s Falcon hybrid synth. In the latter case, the wealth of programming possibilities of Falcon can be brought into play that profoundly increase the value of this instrument (my own testing was exclusively using Falcon). PC and Mac are both supported as is both 32-bit and 64-bit operation (64-bit only when using Falcon). It works with all major DAWs and has a standalone option as well. Authorization is via iLok account (software or dongle, your call). List price (and note: sales are not uncommon) is $79 USD.
The background on this instrument is a bit confusing. It comes from the time period of the roughly 1972 through 1978. There were several tries at the Moog company in nailing down just what the instrument was intended to be. Some name changes along the way compound the confusion. However, for those sufficiently curious, an informative video from the Bob Moog Foundation Archives details that history:
Here are the basics. There was a great desire in the early 70s for polyphony in synths, but this was a challenge due to the expense and complexity of the circuitry involved. There was a technique, however, that had been around several decades. It was involved having twelve high-register oscillators, one for each note of the Western musical scale, and some very clever electronic circuitry that halved the frequency. So, one top-octave bank of oscillators could feed the remainder of the lower notes on the keyboard. Lower the frequency of an oscillator output by a factor of two and we get the pitch of one octave down. Do that again and we get the octave below that … and so on. The advantage was full keyboard polyphony.
But there were also disadvantages, especially when compared to the range and flexibility of sound production offered by a full-blown synth. For example, while oscillators could produce waveforms that could be used to create all pitches over multiple octaves, per-note filters of the kind for which Moog synths were famous were not part of that solution. A special chip was developed (at considerable expense over a three year period) called the Polycom which provided a simple per-key VCA and VCF articulation. However, only a single filter was on board the instrument, so playing/holding a chord and then playing individual notes retriggered the filter envelope even for the held notes, at least for those presets that used the filter. This “feature” has not been retained in UVI’s recreation. On the plus side, the Polycom chip offered the means to implement per-note velocity sensitivity, a rare feature in keyboards of that era.
In any case, the original Apollo (versions of which were also known as the Polymoog Keyboard) offered a fixed number of largely non-programmable sounds with various timbres, which we’ve been calling presets. The presets were largely “hard-wired” and each had a single characteristic sound. One could season these sounds with a bit of pitch modulation and could slow the amp envelope attack, but not a whole lot more.
One other feature was on board: a bass oscillator with filter. One could switch to a mode where the lower notes of the keyboard would produce bass tones (probably monophonic operation for the bass – not sure on that point).
An earlier version of the Apollo prototype line offered ten presets of which one could be selected via a bank of ten buttons. This was later expanded to fourteen presets and it was from this version of the instrument that the UVI PX Apollo was sampled. The Moog Foundation video referenced above states that there are only two known Apollo keyboards left in existence. UVI states that they rebuilt their instrument from the ground up. Did they discover a third unit and rebuild that? That’s not made clear. But one thing is evident: UVI engineers did a masterful and loving job in this rebuild. The sound is mostly fabulous – clean, clear and yet full of vintage character.
Above is a screen shot of the main PX Apollo panel. In the center is the bank of preset switches. What these are is not specified in the documentation, but the original names of the sounds are as follows:
- Vox Humana
- String 1
- String 2
- Electric Piano
- Honky Tonky
- Chorus Brass
- Pipe Organ
- Rock Organ
These names are adequately descriptive of what sounds to expect … and those sounds are absolutely wonderful. To my ears, only Vox Humana sounds a tad grungy and perhaps overly “antique”, but maybe that’s exactly what some users will want. On the whole, just the unadorned preset sounds alone are marvelously musical and the PX Apollo is suitable for a wide range of applications, even if limited to only those preset sounds.
But those preset sounds are not all. To the right of the preset buttons we see an array of twelve waveforms, one of which is selected via mouse click. This is used in a second polyphonic oscillator to augment the sampled waveforms. This second oscillator was certainly something not found in the original. The two-oscillator capability vastly expands the capabilities of the instrument. There are limited (but entirely adequate for most situations) independent amp envelope and filtering for both A and B oscillators. Anyone with a modest knowledge of synth programming will know how to use this panel without needing to read the documentation. That documentation is pretty light, by the way, but given the simplicity of this instrument (the mostly-intuitive user interface, that is), the manual is largely unneeded.
To the left of the presets is a bass source which, although perhaps not technically a sub-oscillator, can be thought of as one.
The next panel (shown above) is the edit page. Here again, many of the controls need no explanation. The Depth and Time controls in the Pitch subpanel govern portamento behavior. In the Stereo subpanel, the Alt Mode setting pans oscillators A and B apart. Color is an innovative offering that uses adjacent samples, properly pitch corrected, to impart differences in left and right channels for a naturally wider sound. Within Modwheel, we have vibrato and tremolo dedicated LFOs, the strength of which can be governed in real time via the mod wheel.
Next we look at the Mod tab. The top half offers a step sequencer which can control volume, filter cutoff independently for oscillators A and B, and can control pulse width of waveforms in oscillator B. The bottom half is the LFO, of which there’s only one (but we’re already covered for vibrato and tremolo, so this isn’t that as much a limitation as might be thought). Once again, the controls are straightforward here and most users will not need a trip to the documentation to know how to use them.
Next is the FX panel. Do you really need any explanations here? I didn’t think so. However, do know that the marvelous FX capabilities of UVI Engine/Falcon are what are behind these, so it should be no surprise that they sound great.
Lastly for tabs there’s the Arp page. There’s an independent arpeggiator for each oscillator. A quick audition of presets in the arpeggio preset category will show you immediately what can be done with these. I’m not normally a big fan of using arpeggiators, but, oh my, what joy the arpeggiator presets in PX Apollo bring! These were brilliantly programmed by some inspired sound designers, so special kudos to UVI for this particular surprise.
Speaking of presets, take a look at the preset menu to the right. There are over 150 presets in the factory content that aptly show the range of just what PX Apollo can do. Fourteen of these are just the original preset sounds. The rest use oscillator B and/or the bass oscillator for a sound not possible on the original instrument. There is some seriously good content here. I cannot imagine any keyboard player who did not find several dozen of these presets that will impart much inspiration. In looking at the credits, you’ll see that some familiar independent sound designers like Nori Ubukata, Xenos Soundworks and Simon Stockhausen contributed.
So, is PX Apollo for you? It is affordably priced, has great sounds and much, much range of musical possibility. There’s really nothing I dislike and nothing major seems lacking. Of course, if there were omissions, those using Falcon to host the instrument could custom program solutions using all the possibilities Falcon brings to the table. But even those using UVI Engine to host PX Apollo have plenty of sound manipulation possibilities right in the native user interface.
I must say at some point here that I did experience two occasions in which sound playback became erratic for a brief period. I was exclusively running in standalone mode, so this was not a DAW issue. However, the problem periods were brief and not repeatable. It would appear that UVI has a little work to do (there have been no updates since the initial release), but there’s nothing I found to be a showstopper.
PX Apollo can be purchased directly from the UVI web site using the link below. It is also available from any number of independent retailers, so you might save a little money by checking around for the best price.
UVI has a good selection of demo audio tracks that can be heard to determine if PX Apollo is right for you. Find them here:
The PX Prototype series is off to a splendid start. I, for one, am eagerly looking forward to more offerings in this lineup. Keep ‘em coming, UVI!
In this month’s Home Studio Practitioner we take a look at a few things one should consider when choosing the right audio interface for one’s needs.
by Luka Sraka, March 2017
We are living in the most incredible time for making music. Equipment for audio recording couldn’t be more affordable than it is these days and there are a myriad of ways to learn the craft of making music available for free through the power of internet. An audio interface, next to a computer and a pair of headphones or speakers is an essential part of computer based music production.
Audio interfaces vary in type of connection to the computer, in number of channels of analogue-to-digital and digital-to-analogue converters, the number of mic preamps, and the number of outs.
There are a lot of different audio interfaces available on the market and choosing the right interface for you can be challenging. Let us look at a few key things that will make your choice a bit easier.
The first thing to consider is the connection between the audio interface and the computer. Audio interface come in different shapes and sizes, but they are most commonly categorised by the type of connection. There are a few different types of connections that are featured in audio interfaces, they all do basically the same thing but vary in performance.
Soundcards with FireWire connection were more popular a few years ago than they are today. A lot of computers had FireWire connectors as a standard, but it seems USB connections have displaced the FireWire connections. FireWire connection is known for speed and reliability the only real drawback of FireWire connection is that it doesn’t allow the power to be transferred from the computer to the audio interface. FireWire audio interfaces hence need an external power supply to work. The other drawback is that FireWire connections are not as common on computers as they used to be, but if your computer has one, you should put FireWire audio interfaces under your consideration.
USB audio interfaces are probably the most common ones on the market. When talking about USB audio interfaces, I have in mind the audio interfaces that have a USB-A type connection at the computer end. The great thing about USB is that it is one of the most commonly available connection type on computers. Most USB audio interfaces are bus powered meaning they do not need an external power supply to power them, which makes them perfect for mobile applications. If you are planning to do mobile work or perhaps planning to work on different computers, an USB audio interface might be a right choice.
A few years ago, Apple Mac computers introduced a new standard known as Thunderbolt. Nowadays Thunderbolt is becoming more and more popular due to its speed on PC computers too. Thunderbolt interfaces are popular especially because of the high data transfer rate, but Thunderbolt is still not a widely used connection type. The other thing to consider is the price. FireWire and USB audio interfaces are usually more affordable than Thunderbolt interfaces.
Ins and Outs
The second thing to consider when buying a new audio interface are the number of input and output channels provided, or in other words, the number of connections an external sound card can handle. Before buying an audio interface you have to consider your needs. How many channels of audio or instruments do you want to record at once, how many microphone preamps you need and so on.
If you are an electronic music producer or a singer-songwriter chances are that you won’t need more than a two channel audio interface. If on the other hand you want to record drums or a whole band at once, you will be needing an interface with considerably more channels. Keep in mind that if product specification says there are, for example, eight channel audio interface it doesn’t mean there are eight microphone preamps.
The key is to plan ahead. When buying an interface, you have to look ahead. Maybe you only need a two-channel, two mic pre sound card now, but in the near future, you will need more. It is worth spending a little more money now than regretting it later.
The number of outputs is important too. Every audio interface will come with a pair of stereo audio outputs: one for connecting your speakers and the other for your headphones. The number of DAC channels (digital-to-analogue converters) is a thing to consider too. If the main outputs and headphone output share the same DAC, this means that you won’t be able to make a separate mix for your headphones but that it will be shared with the main output. You might also consider an interface with more than one headphone output if you plan to record someone else in the same room as you are.
Some of audio interfaces available have the option of expanding the number of audio inputs via a digital connection such as an ADAT or S/PDIF port. Also, if you don’t need an interface with multiple microphone preamps at the moment, but want to be prepared, you should consider an audio interface that has digital inputs. When the time for multi-channel recording comes, all you need is a mic preamp with digital outputs and you are ready.
There are a lot of choices when it comes to audio interfaces. When choosing an interface that suits your immediate requirements, be careful to plan ahead and look at your future needs as well. I did not get overly technical in this article because there is no need for it. Most of the interfaces on the market are adequate for good music production, and you don’t need to spend a fortune on an interface to get good results. Creativity is the key!
Precisionsound’s Angleic Vocal Pads 5 is a library of vocal silkiness in the Enya/10cc tradition. If you’re looking for “that sound”, maybe you’re just found it.
by David Keenum, Mar. 2017
The Enya Sound
I still remember hearing Enya for the first time. The vocal sound was fascinating, and it still holds a fascination these many years later. Most of us recording at the time wanted to know how we could get “that sound.” “That sound” had depth and width, and an airy quality. It could hang in the background as a layer or move to the front of the sound field and say, “Hello! I’m here!” It was obviously Enya’s voice… wasn’t it? Had to be. But how did she do it? What studio magic was she using? Was it the Aphex Aural Exciter? The AAE was all the rage during that time. Well, whatever it was, there had to be a secret.
Come to find out, it had a lot to do with the singer, Enya. You may have heard of her family’s band, Clannad. Yeah, family genes may play a part in that sound. In 1988 you had to have a talented, trained singer to layer a track as many as 30 times (some reports had the track layering as high as 80 or 100 tracks). There were other methods used as well. I’ve heard they used different microphones, and recorded the layered vocals at different distances from the mic. It was all genius and even if it was overused in the end, it still made its mark in recorded music.
And, of course, when you discuss layered vocals, there has to be a nod to 10cc’s 1975 hit, I’m Not in Love. Rather than take another “rabbit trail”, let me reference Sound on Sound’s Classic Track article on the making of I’m Not in Love: http://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/classic-tracks-10cc-not-love. The short version is that they used 48 vocals for every note of a one octave chromatic scale. They then “played” the mixing desk as an instrument, bringing in whatever notes were needed for the chords. Again, a genius moment in music recording.
But how does that help us making music now. Do you know a singer that good? That patient? With the right vocal sound? And how about you? Even with our modern-day endless tracks, do we have the time or patience to record one line thirty times? Enter Precisionsound and their Angelic Vocal Pads series. There are currently six volumes in the series with a seventh on the way. And their philosophy is similar to the two examples mentioned above: one or two singers layered many times. Today we’ll take a quick look at Angelic Vocal Pads 5 and investigate how well they did it.
Precisionsound’s Angelic Vocal Pads 5 features the voice of Swedish folk/pop singer Malin Hansson Dahl. The natural range of the singer is F2 – G4 but the voices are stretched from C2 – C5. The vowels A, E, I, O, U, and the sound M are recorded. There are 324 24bit stereo wave files. All of this comes as:
- 18 programs for Steinberg HALion
- 18 programs for Logic EXS24
- 18 programs for NI Kontakt v.1 and 2
- 3 programs for NI Kontakt v.3, 4 and 5 (enhanced with KSP scripts, FX and GUI – read below…)
- 12 programs for SoundFont (16bit)
I used Kontakt 5 in an iMac for my review, which means everything is included in the three presets. Precisionsound made the decision to give you the ability to change vowel sounds with key switches. So you have three programs: Mode I, Mode II, and Mode I & II. Modes I and II each contain a layer of stereo samples. The preset, Mode I & II, contains both layers. What is the difference between their two individual layers? I don’t know; they’re just different. Look at it this way – they were recorded by the same lady singing the same vowel. So they are similar … but they are different, too. My impression is that Mode II is a little thicker than Mode I and has a little more high end. But I’m not willing to fight over that opinion. For me, Mode I & II is a good starting point. If the sound is too dense, you can always change to Mode I or II.
The GUI is rather plain, but I’m not particularly inspired by a GUI. I do want it to be functionally easy, and this GUI is functional. In addition to the Perform tab, there are tabs for Tone, FX, and Credits. All the tabs are easy to edit. For example, Reverb is off, but you can easily turn it on, select a reverb from the supplied IRs, and edit its level. The Delay is just as easy to edit.
The Perform tab is where you choose your vowel (you can also use key switching for that). There is also a setting for a “Destination” vowel so you can crossfade (morf) between two vowels. And you can decide what will cause the notes to morf: the modulation wheel on your controller, MIDI velocity, or the controller knob.
The Tone tab is as simple and intuitive as the FX tab. You get a Hi, Lo, and Mid-sweep EQ, Detune, and Stereo Width.
Let me add, the PDF manual is short and easy to read. And it is important if you are using Kontakt 3, 4, or 5. The key switching was not obvious to me from looking at the GUI. I downloaded the PDF manual from the product page.
I found Angelic Vocal Pads 5 to sound full, animated, and useable. The O vowel sounds would be especially useful under a string pad. Both the E and I vowels sound “Enya-like.” The M vowel is very subdued and somewhat mysterious. The A vowel sounds somewhat synthetic to me. Not bad, but a little less real to my ears. The O vowel sounds like it came straight from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack – full of exotic mystery. There is a lot of variety in these vowel sounds, and the GUI gives you the ability to quickly shorten the Attack and/or Release to use the vocals as staccato notes.
The sound is individual… as opposed to generic. You can still hear Malin Hansson Dahl’s voice, and it is consistent and pleasant. The recording and programming is smooth and professional. I did not hear any obvious loop points; and when you play individual notes up and down the scale, I didn’t hear anomalies. It sounded natural. This is a specialized library and is priced that way: one good singer, multi-tracked, singing six sounds.
The product page contains some helpful audio demos that show AVP 5’s usefulness, but please listen to the demo titled “AVP5 vowels A E I U O M”. I think you will be pleased. This demo gives you examples of the vowels and M sound in a raw state.
So will this give you the ability to create your own Enya hit? I doubt it. But it does give you the ability to incorporate that sound for $50. Listen to the demos and decide for yourself.
324 24-bit stereo WAV files
3 programs for Kontakt 3+ with scripted interface
18 programs for Kontakt 1+
18 programs for EXS24
18 programs for HALion
12 programs in SoundFont format
This library does not work with the free Kontakt Player.
Price: $49.00 USD (but you can purchase in your country’s currency)
This library is an amazing set of extremely high-quality orchestral samples that also reveals the biases of its makers.
by Warren Burt, Mar. 2017
When I first started thinking about composing, I would sometimes sit at the piano, or accordion, and just sustain sounds, or repeat chords that I loved. Over and over. Bathing in those luscious sounds. I’m not alone in this, apparently – I’ve asked several other composer friends, and they report the same. While playing with the new Spitfire Symphony Orchestra sample set, I have to report that the same thing happened to me. With these luscious timbres, I became a teenager again, and just played and played some favorite chords for hours. Mostly Schoenbergian, or Stravinskian, with occasional nods to Bill Evans. And when I got done with the chords, single line melodies, resembling the modern music by Carl Ruggles, Edgard Varese and Bela Bartok that had filled my teenage listening emerged. What I was doing, I realized, was reproducing the sounds of recorded modern orchestra music that had thrilled my teenage ears. Probably recorded by the London Philharmonic or the BBC Symphony Orchestra. And that’s exactly what this amazing sample set was intended for – to recreate the sound of an establishment British orchestra being recorded in a very fine recording hall. As such, it not only does this brilliantly, it does it better than I’ve ever heard before.
This is a very hefty set of samples. The total size, after installation, comes to about 255GB. And you need about 512GB during installation. The download size is an eye-watering 389GB. This set is clearly aimed at the professional market, and I guess Spitfire think that one of the marks of a professional is that they can afford an internet service provider and a separate computer to devote to the several days that this download would require. Fortunately, as shown, they also offer a bespoke hard drive service at a fairly reasonable price. This is the route that I took with this software, and I can report that the installation with the hard drive was almost completely painless. I discovered that there was one file missing on the hard drive, and I wrote to Spitfire, and within hours, (really, about 5 hours!), they had uploaded the replacement file for me to download. THAT’S service! All I had to do was buy another hard drive on which to back up the samples, copy the samples, install the Kontakt player, and away I went. After a brief time re-learning Kontakt (it had been about six years since I’d last used it), I began exploring the worlds of timbres that the set offered, and also discovering its limitations.
The complete set comes as four Kontakt libraries – winds, brass, strings and Masse, which is a set of useful orchestral doublings and full keyboard ensemble patches. All the sets were recorded in AIR Studios in London, so there is a common ambience to all the samples. All the samples are recorded from three different locations – close miked, from on top of a “Decca tree,” at a mid-distance; and from distant mics placed at the edges of the hall. You can adjust the balance of these three sample sets to create the kind of ambience you want for your instrument or instruments. Be aware though, that each mic position is a completely different sample set, so that with all three positions being mixed, one instrument can make quite a large dent in your RAM allocation. Additionally, there are a number of different articulations available for each instrument, from beautifully realized mono legato patches, through long tones to a variety of short articulations. Like the mic position sets, these can each be turned on or off if you don’t need them, economising on memory. Each instrument is sampled on a per-note basis, and each has at least two, sometimes more, round robins per note. The instruments are recorded in the highest quality practical, without compromise. That explains the size of the sample set. When working with this set, you’ll want to keep a RAM meter handy so that you can keep track of how much RAM you’ve got left. I didn’t, and quickly maxed out my RAM, which led to all sorts of malfunctions in my computer, which took a while to straighten out. (It should be mentioned that I’m using a computer with 4GB of RAM, which, while it was quite adequate when I bought the computer four years ago, is clearly underpowered now. My film-scoring colleagues here in Australia say they run computers with 32GB of RAM, in order to have all the samples they need available for a film-score mix (I guess that’s another definition of “professional” – you’re able to afford upgrades to equipment like this routinely). Fortunately. Spitfire is aware of this, and they have a number of patches that have just one articulation available, as well as “economic” versions of some patches, in addition to the turning off of resources in some of the “all purpose” patches described above.
The instruments on offer for the strings are ensemble violins, violas, celli and basses; for the winds, flutes (regular, alto and bass), double reeds (oboes, English horns, bassoon, contrabassoon), clarinets (soprano, bass, contra-bass), most in both solo and doubled versions; for the brass, horns, trumpet, trombones (tenor, bass, contrabass), tubas (regular and contrabass) and cimbasso, a bass trombone with a very wide range and a very “authoritative” sound. Again, the brass are available in solo, doubled, and sometimes a6 versions. You may notice the lack of saxophones, or brass-band type brass, or solo strings. This is a very basic symphonic orchestra set – with the orchestra being defined as if in a 1920s orchestration textbook. For the instruments you do get, however, the sound is never less than superb, and as “realistic” (and we’ll have a talk about that word in a moment) as you could possibly wish for.
There are three modes of interacting with each instrument. These are “Easy,” “Advanced,” and “Ostinatum,” a very versatile arpeggiator/pattern generator. Easy gives a minimum of controls necessary for a given instrument. Advanced, shown on the “d-Celli” instrument, with the green side panel in the above screenshot, gives more complete controls. Going from top-left in the grey control panel, these are Mic Mix, Options, Round Robins, and Controllers. Along the bottom of this panel are the Articulation selectors. Below the Articulation selectors are small buttons, which are used to unload or load the samples for that particular articulation out of or into RAM. These buttons also exist below the volume faders in the 3 sample sets on the Mic Mix, so if you’re not using, say, the Close mics, you don’t need to have those samples in RAM. All the Controllers and Articulations can be selected or controlled with external MIDI controllers, and the setup of those is very easy.
The Ostinatum is shown in the instrument below that, “f-Bass Trombone Solo,” with the red side panel. In this panel, starting at the upper left, there are Mode controls, then a Load/Save control for your patterns, then the Pattern Generator itself. In this Pattern Generator, you select the duration of the notes in the pattern, then decide which note of the held chord (on your MIDI controller) you want on each note, (and, as you see, you can also have silences), and you can optionally have a different velocity on each note. With this, you can get some very pleasing asymmetrical patterns. There is also a Chord Mode, which will play chords in the rhythm given. Generally, this sounds like the theme to every news broadcast program in the world. Where the Ostinatum really shines, in my opinion, is where you have several of them, in several different instruments, each with a different length, going at once. Then you begin to get very interesting rhythm combinations. And if you add (with your sequencer or algorithmic generator), changing MIDI chords on each channel your instruments are playing on, you begin to get into the realm of what we used to call “serious composition.” The Ostinatum only becomes active when some of the shorter Articulations for each instrument are selected. This makes sense, because its operation would conflict with the programming for the legato articulation, and with the long note articulations, you might quickly end up with massive overlapping chords which would overload your CPU quickly. I wonder if it would be possible to have some kind of ostinatum with longer pitches that used the same principle, but didn’t overload the machine. That’s a problem for another time, but it is worth thinking about. The Ostinatum is a very clever approach to the idea of an arpeggiator, and it’s very useful.
One thing the SSO instruments can’t do is pitch-bend. I was very curious about this (no pitch-bend means no Middle Eastern music, no Klezmer, and nothing remotely related to African-American musical models!), so I wrote to Spitfire about this, and they said that they felt that having pitch-bend implemented would harm the realism of the ambience the sounds were recorded in. I asked a colleague who regularly uses commercial film-scoring packages, and he said that a lot of film-scoring packages don’t have pitch-bend for that reason. I’m told that if you have the full version of Kontakt, you can set up pitch-bend on the Spitfire instruments, but as I don’t have the full Kontakt, I can’t report on how that would work or sound. This privileging of sonic ambience over musical stylistic possibilities strikes me as very strange, and leads me to want to examine what the film-industry erroneously, in my opinion, considers musical “realism.”
In my opinion, the Spitfire sounds are beautiful, and they sound like recordings of a fine orchestra in a great hall, but they are NOT “realist.” I consider this a bad use of a term by an industry (film) which ought to know better, since they are great contributors to the language we use, and how we use it. Besides, the last time “realism” was used in music was in the Soviet Union, where the doctrine of “socialist realism” was enforced on all the arts. And, as no less an authority than Dmitry Shostakovich pointed out, it was neither “socialist” nor “realist.” So from my perspective, the word “realism” leaves a bad taste in the mouth. If I’m going to play language-police for a moment, I might say that these instruments are an incredibly faithful emulation of the sound of a British orchestra in a fine recording studio, and that “sound” is associated in the minds of many, with high end film scores. So if you want that “sound,” then yes, this sound set is definitely for you. But don’t forget, that “sound” is going to be applied to a film, which is just about the most artificial, constructed artform you can get. And the so-called “realist” film score is contributing to that illusion. So it might be best to say that these sounds will fool almost anyone, and the illusion they create is pretty damn convincing. But that’s not the same sound as a live orchestra, no matter how skilfully constructed.
I had a similar experience in another medium many years ago. In the early 90s, I was working with high-end computer graphics. I was enjoying how I could create 3D models of imaginary shapes that would move in space and even collide and merge into each other very “unrealistically” but with a convincing measure of illusion. I showed a sculptor friend my work and said that I now felt like a sculptor, making and working with masses and volumes. He politely but firmly said that no, what I was doing was making a 2D image, even if with perspective, and that sculpture must necessarily involve working with physical objects in real space. Convinced, I agreed with him. Similarly, with these samples, no matter how convincing the illusion, they are not “realist” – they do not deal with the reality of 100 sound sources spread across a large space. They deal with sound coming out of boxes in a studio or theatrical space. And remember, film-music by definition is designed to come out of boxes, even if there are 5 or 7 of them. For most people, that might be enough to be “realist.” But not for this little black duck. Like the French philosophers said in the 70s, these days the simulacrum has largely replaced the “real-thing” in the minds of most people, and we in the music industry are as guilty in promulgating that philosophical lie as any other branch of the contemporary media.
There is another view here, of course. That’s the one that electronics makes it possible to make things which are better than the old non-electronic reality. Techno-utopianists used to describe a future in which any extension of any musical sound was possible. And of course, there is the matter of expense. $1700 may be a lot of money, but it’s not even as expensive as a good student trombone. At the same time, there are those (as described by Marshall McLuhan) that want to use the new technology to emulate the possibilities of the old. Philosophically, I guess, that’s where this sample set fits. And the amount of work they’ve done to emulate that old reality is awe-inspiring. That the film-music world they are emulating doesn’t acknowledge the usefulness of Middle Eastern, African-American, or Jewish modes of ornamentation is unfortunate. One is left asking why the film-music world decided, in its market-driven wisdom, to eliminate those possibilities from what they did sonically.
But this sound – a British orchestra in a fine recording studio, is apparently a “sound” that is valued in the film-music world. An Australian film-composer friend tells me that this sound set is especially valued in Hollywood because that “sound” is very different from the sound of either sampled or live Hollywood orchestras, and that many of his LA film-composer friends use this set for that exact reason. He also points out that in LA, the sample set is usually used either for temp tracks or doubled with live instruments, but in Australia, where budgets for having live musicians doing film soundtracks have largely disappeared, we’re left with just using the sampled sounds. I imagine this is the case in a number of smaller film-making scenes around the world.
So, if you’re involved in the film-music world, and you can accept the idea that samples beautifully emulating the sound of a recording of a live orchestra is a good thing (or is required by your boss), then you’ll definitely want to own this set. If you’re not part of that world, but want some incredibly gorgeous sounding samples, with lots of intriguing possibilities (the long fluttertongue French horn samples, so incredibly tasty, for example), then you should seriously consider this set, despite its stylistic limitations. I’ve been enjoying the set so much while testing it. Like I said, it made me a kid again, and that’s a pretty hard thing to do.
There is so much else to discuss about this sound set. Like how one can implement microtonality with it (something the good folks at Spitfire also don’t recommend, because, again, it would harm the “realism” of their samples). And a number of techniques for doubling instruments, as well as the quality of the many ensemble patches in Masse (great, by the way). And their absolutely clear and superior tutorial videos. But those things will have to wait for Part 2, in the next issue of Soundbytes. Stay tuned.
Windows/Mac – Requires Kontakt5 (either Player or Full) 255GB hard drive space required. 8GB RAM recommended. Prices: Complete set $1699 USD; Individual components: Spitfire Symphonic Woodwinds $579; Spitfire Symphonic Strings $789; Spitfire Symphonic Brass $689; Masse $349 (although it’s only available as part of the complete SSO package). Bespoke hard drive service: UK £49 GBP; Europe, £59 GBP; rest of the world £69 GBP.
A software incarnation of a well-known piece of hardware that provides plenty of options for adding an analog spice to separate instruments, the whole mix, or a mastered final.
by Alex Arsov, Mar. 2017
This is a plug-in recreation of a well-known piece of hardware from Black Box Analog Design, and it shares the same name as its hardware counterpart: HG-2. The hardware version is a stereo unit used by many professionals all over the globe, its main purpose to add saturation, harmonics and natural compression. An ideal tool for mixing and mastering. The hardware box contains two different 12AX7 tubes providing high voltage 6U8A Pentode and Triode tube stages with all the additional controllers that will allow you to fine tune the end results. Plugin Alliance joined forces with Black Box, recruiting Brainworx to help them make a plug-in version emulating the sound, behavior and functions of the hardware unit.
I don’t own the hardware form of the Black Box Analog Design HG-2, so I can’t compare them, but after spending some time with HG-2, I’m more than pleased with the achieved results. When using some subtle settings I found that it can add some spirit at the mastering stage by pulling most of the instruments together, gluing the mix and making it harmonically more consistent. Because I added just a subtle a bit of everything, the end result was also subtle, hardly noticeable, but you can still hear the difference when switching it off, hearing how some instruments just fall down and get lost in the mix. Of course, using it on masters is only one of the possible scenarios. It also adds a bit of character and definition using it on all buses and it also solves some problems on separate instruments, making them sit better in the mix. HG-2 can go from subtle harmonics up to strong saturation. Of course, adding too much saturation on anything can do more harm than good. So, subtle is the name of the game.
HG-2 comes with a nice number of presets. These were made by Eric Racy, co-owner of Black Box Analog Design, and Trevor Case, who is a well-known producer. All presets prove to be a great starting point, covering a big range of mix, master and separate instrument solutions. I decreased saturation and air on most of them, along with adapting the volume level on most of them to find a spot where HG-2 doesn’t add any additional loudness to signal, giving you the impression that everything is better just because it’s louder. I understand that those settings on all the presets should be a bit higher, to show what this tool can do, so I took few minutes adapting them to my needs.
I fell in love with this one, discovering that even with subtle settings it adds a nice definition to any instrument, but for better results it is absolutely recommended to set all parameters on every instrument in the context of the whole mix. I tried it on everything and it proves to be just the right solution for adding some sub harmonies to the kick or bass guitar to make them deeper and fatter. Also a nice solution for the drum bus as a whole, making drums more prominent. And also great for adding definition and sharpness to the guitar and vocals. HG-2 is like salt, adding taste, but it is very easy to ruin everything by adding it too much. So, when you’ll download the fourteen-day fully functional demo, spend some time trying various presets. My only advice is, don’t go totally bonkers with all the knobs and buttons.
On the left is a Pentode section with a big Pentode knob for adding a more pleasant sort of distortion similar to those in a tube-based guitar amp. Next is a parallel saturation switch along with appropriate knob for applying the amount of that parallel compression. There is also a Low, Flat and High switch where we can define which frequency should be saturated. Low settings can add body and warmth, while high can add presence to the top end. At the bottom is an additional “Alt tube” switch for selecting the order between two tubes where the “Alt” option brings a bit more of an aggressive sounding character to the affected sound.
In the Triode section is a big Triode knob for adding harmonics that are similar to the ones we get from analog tapes. There is also an Air switch along with Air level knob for applying the amount of high frequency saturation. The last two are the output knob, for adjusting the output level, and bypass switch.
More or less, that is all. Not a huge number of options, but quite enough to get highly varied results. You can start by combining the ratio between Pentode and Triode level knobs, applying different levels to each. And this is only the beginning. Playing with all the different settings will give you quite versatile results that can be applied to different mix elements without giving you the impression that all colorations come from the same source. I like HG-2 mainly because it doesn’t change the character of the original sound in any unwanted or overly prominent way. HG-2 adds depth and character to the signal without bringing everything too much to the front, making the end result aggressive and lacking in dynamics (as could easily happen with many tube simulators that I’ve tried in the past).
This tool may worth every cent that you’ll spend on it, but I have to admit that I would rather see it be a bit lower-priced. $249 USD could be a bit overpriced for a virtual effect. I’m not talking about quality, but more about the price in general. I know that mastering tools don’t come cheap in any case. I’m also not so keen on seeing Plugin Alliance allow us to have only two activations – though to be fair it can be deactivated on one computer and activated on another. Also I presume if you give some reasonable explanation as to why you need another activation, it may not be such a big problem to get it – at least this is true with most other developers, but I don’t have any experience with Plugin Alliance. There is also an option to set up registration on USB, but it doesn’t work with e-Licenser or iLok. Somehow I’m not so keen to carry a million dongles around with me. (I subsequently learned that each full license comes with 3 machine activations at a time and that additional machine authorizations can be purchased at very deep discounts.)
No matter all that though, it is a fact that Brainworx nailed all those discrete sprinkles that we call Analog, adding that “something” without crossing the line by changing the main character of the effected sound. HG-2 sounds great and it can definitely add life to your mixes or even separate tracks. After all, this is what counts – to have a tool that does its job. And this one does.
AIR Music Technology claims that Transfuser 2 can allow you to reinvent music, jumpstart creativity and compose intelligently. Our reviewer doesn’t dispute these bold claims.
by Suleiman Ali, Mar. 2017
At its core, Transfuser 2 is a loop manipulation tool. But it provides a deep and many-faceted environment for the producer, arranger, composer and/or performer that can be used in the studio as well as in live situations.
This is one I have been interested in for a while. At this stage, the question for me was “does it stand up to the competition in 2017?” given the wealth of slicers, glitchers, drums machines and step sequencers floating around these days. The answer is this review, but a short answer would be resounding “Yes!”.
The AIR Music Technology webpage is here:
The price for Transfuser 2, which includes 4.5 GB of content (percussive and melodic loops as well as single shots and synth presets), is USD $150.
The download and installation was straight forward. Authorization requires iLok/PACE but a hardware dongle is optional (your mileage may vary with PACE). I was testing on an i5 HP laptop, 8 GB RAM, Reaper 64 Bit on Windows 10, which seemed to be more than sufficient for even the heavier, more-involved work on this amazing software. Yes, I said it right at the beginning: “Amazing Software.”
The architecture/signal-flow is shown at the top of the instrument.
It says: Track à Sequencer à Synth à FX à Mix, and yes, essentially that’s all there is to it (OK, not really, since there are way too many options to cover in one review). There is general feel of some of the older Arturia all-in-one units along with splashes of Geist and Fruity Loops.
To put it succinctly, this software lets you slice and dice loops and program basslines, drums, synthesizers (on-board synths and samplers) while creating complete songs around randomizable patterns. Then it lets you pass individual tracks or everything through four possible FX units out of a selection of ten, not the least of which is a fully equipped automatic step-based glitcher (which alone is full-featured enough to be worth the price of admission).
The tracks view shows all of these in order and you can fill the “rack” up with modules of this nature to build up your song. Each of these tracks can be routed to a different MIDI Channel. Similarly, all of the outputs can be routed their own independent stereo output. Do you see where I’m going with this?
- Browser Pane – lets you access Factory / User Tracks, as well as Factory / User audio. The Browser pane allows you to find the Transfuser Tracks or audio files (your own included) you want, preview them, and drag them into the Tracks pane.
- Info Pane – provides context-sensitive help for the different sections and controls in Transfuser. It also provides information on audio files selected in the browser, such as bit depth, number of channels, sample rate, duration, and BPM (if available).
- Tracks Pane – is where the tracks are created, edited, managed, and mixed. Tracks consist of modules that let you automate, sequence, play back, process, and mix imported audio and audio input signals. When you first open Transfuser, the Transfuser Tracks pane is empty (“Drag Track or Audio Files Here” is displayed in the area). Transfuser track files or audio files can be dragged from the Transfuser browser or from your computer’s desktop, Explorer (Windows) to add or create Transfuser tracks. In fact, this is exactly how I started my own adventure.
- Editor Pane – provides access to all of the controls for the selected module or effect, and also the Transfuser Preferences. For example, if a Drum Sequencer module is selected, its sequencer pattern editor and controls are displayed in the Editor pane. If a Phrase Synth module is selected, its waveform display and controls are displayed in the Editor pane.
- Controller Section – the Controller section provides performance controls for Transfuser. You can easily map any MIDI controller to any number of Transfuser controls. The Controller section provides six host-automatable knobs, eight trigger pads, a four-octave keyboard for selecting patterns, triggering and transposing sounds, and a fader for crossfading between Transfuser Output Buses 1 and 2. The Controller section also displays the MIDI Input channel for any selected Transfuser track.
- Master Section – The Master section provides access to the Master Groove, Effects Sends 1 and 2, Main Effects Inserts, and Recorder (which records the output, so yes it can sample itself, just like Geist 2). It also provides controls for the Master Transport and Click, as well as Pitch and Volume of the main output.
To be honest, I was up and running in no time at all, what with the detailed through well written PDF manual and some videos floating around. The thing is, once you get the basic feel of it, you can end up playing for hours, especially given the great included loop content.
As for what kind of modules are included in the “Sequencer à Synth à FX” section of the chain , its better if I run through them one by one , given the plethora of options on offer here :
Types of Sequencer Modules
Transfuser 2 provides the following six kinds of sequencer modules, each suited to one of the synthesizer modules listed in the next section.
- Chord Sequencer: Provides a polyphonic sequencer that intelligently creates polyphonic “chordal” accompaniment that gets played by a polyphonic Transfuser Synthesizer.
- Drum Sequencer: Provides a 12-note step sequencer for playing the Drums Synth module.
- Phrase Sequencer: Provides a monophonic MIDI sequencer for playing the Phrase Synth module.
- Poly Sequencer: Provides a polyphonic sequencer that can be programmed to send MIDI data to a Transfuser Synthesizer module.
- Slice Sequencer: Provides a slice sequencer for playing the Slicer Synth module.
- Thru Module: Provides no sequencing controls whatsoever and any MIDI input plays the Track Synth module directly.
The three kinds of sequencers for audio content in Transfuser 2 are the Drum Sequencer, Phrase Sequencer and Slice Sequencer. While all three perform the same basic function of essentially triggering the subsequent synth/sampler modules, they behave quite differently with respect to their three “Note Range” options (trigger, transport or play).
In the above screenshot for the Drum Sequencer module you can see the patterns stored in octave’s worth of notes (total of twelve patterns) per track. These are essential to organic live manipulation. Also, all sequencers have most MIDI-style editing functionality, including multi tools, cut and paste, etc. built in. My one complaint for this was the screen size, as it does get a bit fiddly when each step of the sequencer is a couple of millimeters in size!
Types of Synth Modules
Transfuser provides seven different types of Synth modules (each corresponding to a particular kind of sequencer module from above):
- Analog: a polyphonic analog modelling-based synthesizer.
- Bass: Provides a monophonic bass-line synthesizer.
- Drums: Provides a sophisticated 12-pad drum sampler.
- Electric: Provides the sound of electric pianos to Transfuser.
- Phrase: Converts imported audio to beat-matched, time-compressed/expanded audio. Using the Phrase Sequencer or MIDI input, you can play back the Phrase Synth module at different transpositions, times, and durations.
- Slicer: Converts imported audio into individual “slices” based on a sophisticated, automatic transient-detection algorithm. That is to say, it automatically chops up your audio into individual events that can be played back at any tempo, in any order, and with all kinds of processing, by the Slice Sequencer module or MIDI input.
- Audio Input: Passes audio from disk or the audio input of the track on which Transfuser is inserted. This lets you directly process your music software’s audio tracks in Transfuser without having to import it.
Each of these has their detailed interface and parameters, often including LFO’s and randomization options.
Every time you import an audio file or audio region (REX, ACID, AIFF, or WAV), an “Import As” dialog asks to select the type of Track you want. There are three basic types of audio tracks in Transfuser:
- Sliced Audio and Slice Sequence – Converts the dropped audio to a slice sequencer that plays back the sliced audio (and does a good job of it too).
- Time-stretched Audio and Trigger Sequence – Converts the dropped audio to triggered (by mapped MIDI notes), beat-matched audio.
- Drum Kit and Drum Sequence – Converts the dropped audio to a drum pattern (sequence) and plays back a sampled drum kit. Transfuser extracts the drum samples from the dropped audio (and it is quite accurate too).
There is one more for non-audio/synth/bass tracks which is the “Bass Synth and Phrase Sequencer”. Each one of these will automatically place a corresponding matched sequencer and synthesizer pair for that track.
Each of these tracks can be run through of a chain of up to four simultaneous effects (in series or in parallel). These include conventional effects as well as some pretty special transformations as well. There are FX modules for chorus, filter, delay, reverb, compressor, limiter, flanger, gater, EQ, tape drive, phaser, pumper and more. Each has a substantial number of controls to sculpt the sound the way you want.
The one that took the cake for me was BeatCutter, which is worth the price of purchase by itself, and it takes this from a loop-manipulation behemoth into territory ruled by trendsetters such as Glitch 2, Effectrix, Turnado, Replicant and Sequent (leaving others like Break Tweaker in the dust). I must also make mention of the filter, which provides some wonderfully fat and resonating tones with ease.
All parameters may be modulated and may be controlled by external MIDI. So you have a complete performance with on-board sequencers, synthesizers, loops as well as external mic or audio signals (“Thru Module” + “Audio Input” track), all of which you can control by your MIDI sequencer.
M.A.R.I.O. (Musical Advanced Random Intelligent Operations) is comprised of musical randomization algorithms (one for each module) that let you create variations of your sequencer patterns simply by clicking a single button. You can select the depth of randomization with a control knob. Some of the possible targets can be (depending on the sequencer module in question): rhythm, level, timing, pitch, filter, decay and pan. Pressing the apply button transforms the present pattern to reflect these changes. Each press of the “Apply” button applies a new variation of the same theme. These can be browsed through with the forward or backward scroll arrows (the history is saved).
And if that was not enough, a number of the synthesizer modules carry their own nifty little randomization parameters. Again, you can select the multiple targets (specific to that synthesiser module) for your randomization, and browse through previous ones.
Assigning your own MIDI Controller to Transfuser 2 can be done with a few clicks. Some MIDI assignments are set up as default so we are good to go from the beginning. A little fiddling will have your trigger pads, smart control knobs (all six of them) and controller ready to go.
What’s It Good for Then?
In case you were still left wondering what all of this means, here is an example scenario:
- You get a nice funky drum groove going. Make variations and also add some M.A.R.I.O. magic.
- You add a funky baseline and a couple of variations. Again, M.A.R.I.O. magic for the win.
- You add some slice loops for additional percussive oomph .
- Then add a live guitar track with effects chained up like filter, delay and BeatCutter for super manipulation.
- Program an ethereal synth sound that you can play from your MIDI Controller.
- Now you can perform a song using your guitar and a simple MIDI controller/pedal.
And the best bit is that it all happens this is in one place, Transfuser 2. But remember, this is from the perspective of sound generation and composition. The mixing would still need a DAW, unless you are satisfied with using a limited toolset and living with other restraints in terms of mixing in Transfuser 2.
One thing that bugged me a little was the sheer size of the GUI, especially the size of the sequencers. In a live context, this is too tiny and leaves too much room for inaccuracy to be comfortable. A resizable interface next time please!
The only other complaint is the necessity of the PACE software (thankfully no dongle though), which I do use for this product and others, but am no big fan of this form of software authorization.
As I said initially, my main purpose was to see if Transfuser 2 is still in the running as a relevant and modern slicing instrument. I can definitely vouch for this being the case, and in some cases (ease of use being one) it is ahead of most of the competition.
At this point, I would be hard pressed to name anything else as comparison/competition other than Geist 2, Maschine or Fruity Loops. Which of these would you prefer for your workflow? I am equally happy with Geist2 and Transfuser 2, but for specific situations demanding fast results I have been going with Transfuser 2 increasingly often.
Syntorial, the superb computer-based synth sound creation teaching course just got even better. We return for another look at the new features.
by David Baer, Mar. 2017
Syntorial is the inspired creation of Joe Hanley, the CEO of and creative force behind Audible Genius. We reviewed Syntorial in our July 2016 issue. That review may be found here:
We are back for another look, because since that time Joe Hanley has added some valuable new features that make what was already a great product even more attractive. This will be a somewhat short review, but don’t infer from the brevity that the new features are of limited value. The new features simply don’t take very long to explain.
Before we dive in, though, here’s a brief recap of what Syntorial was at the time of the earlier review and why the earlier version excelled at what it set out to do. Syntorial is a computer-based teaching course in how to do sound-design/programming with a basic subtractive synth. It is available on PC, Mac and iPad.
Syntorial includes an integrated full-function, albeit basic, subtractive software synth. Using a carefully planned exposition, Joe Hanley takes the student through all the key stages of synth sound design using a combination of audio lectures and challenges. The challenges include “pop quizzes” in which the student answers multiple choice questions, sometimes based on a sound being played.
But the real learning experience is driven by challenges in which the student must match an unknown preset with one the student programs. These challenges can be quite … well, challenging. Using the embedded software synth, they involve switching between a preset, the programming of which cannot be seen, and a blank canvas preset upon which the student must select parameters to match the challenge preset.
More and more of the Syntorial synth is exposed as the course progresses. Initially we see only very basic synth modules like a pair of oscillators with only four waveforms (saw and pulse of three different widths) and a basic low-pass filter. As the course progresses, we get more and more functionality in play: modulation sources, effects, audio-rate modulation options like FM, etc.
Like many things, subtractive synth sound creation can be learned through self-teaching (as opposed to a formal classroom experience), but like most such experiences, one must apply the knowledge for it to be retained. Doing nothing but reading a text tutorial or watching a video tutorial will not result in long-term retention of the subject matter.
Syntorial has two key things going for it. First of all, the teaching mechanism using an embedded synth with formal programming challenges is highly effective. The other is that Joe Hanley is a natural when it comes to teaching. The lessons are exceedingly well planned and Professor Hanley is a gifted lecturer. These two qualities are carried over in the new Syntorial features we’ll discuss below.
What’s new (currently) is the inclusion of one real-life hardware synth and three software synths as extensions to the course. These extras are called Lesson Packs, and they are included in the basic price of the product – they do not need to be purchased separately.
The hardware synth is a Minimoog Voyager. The software synths currently include Z3ta+ 2, Sylenth1 and Massive. At least one more lesson pack (Serum) is in the production stage.
The Lesson packs consist mainly of a series of video tutorials, the total lengths of which vary from just under three hours to nearly five hours in the case of the Massive Lesson Pack. At the time I’m writing this, I have just completed the full Massive lesson pack and will describe how the lesson packs work based on my experience with that one (but I have every intention of going through the full Z3ta+ 2 Lesson Pack when time permits).
Note: the core Syntorial lectures are videos with which interactive exercises are seamlessly integrated. For the lesson packs, integrated interactive exercises are not an option, so full video presentation is used instead, an example screenshot of which can be seen above.
A lesson pack can be used “inline” as part of the initial Syntorial learning process, or the student may take the basic Syntorial instruction and return later for training devoted exclusively to the synth featured in the lesson pack. This merits further explanation.
Anyone familiar with Massive will be aware that, while it can create the basic repertoire of subtractive synth sounds using fundamental waveforms like saw, square, etc., it can do much, much more. When including a lesson pack, at the end of each section of the Syntorial training program is an added entry. This will launch the video dealing with the subject of the current course section. All the extra bells and whistles of the lesson pack subject synth are ignored for the most part.
At the end of the course, there is much left to be discussed about the lesson pack subject synth. So, a number of additional videos are offered in which the rest of the synth’s features are explained. These videos can become quite involved and tend to be quite a bit longer than the ones intermingled in the course.
Let me just say in no uncertain terms, the quality of the “extras” videos easily rivals that of the best synth videos you might have previously seen. Joe Hanley is a superb teacher and has a deep understanding of synth sound production. I found, at least with the case of the Massive videos, he did a better job of explaining this synth than was done is several other Massive tutorials I’ve seen elsewhere from outfits like Groove 3 (of which I am rather a fan, so don’t take this a slight to Groove 3).
With the Sylenth1 and Massive lesson packs, challenges are also included in the form of Syntorial synth presets that must be duplicated in the lesson-pack synth. While not trivial, these exercises are considerably easier than those in the basic Syntorial training since we get to fully see the Syntorial preset that we are challenged to duplicate. An accompanying set of presets has suggested challenge solutions.
One bit of advice in use of the lesson packs. Be sure and download the optional standalone (VST 2) version of the Syntorial synth. It’s called Primer and is easily located on the Syntorial web site (URL below). Although the Syntorial synth has a virtual keyboard, the lesson pack synth may not (Massive for example). So, when you want to rapidly switch between listening to a challenge preset and the one you are working on, having both synths in a DAW host will facilitate doing this without the annoying requirement of constantly turning the volume on one up and turning the other down while programming your solution to a challenge.
So, there you have it. Syntorial is a great way to learn subtractive synthesis sound design. If you happen to own Z3ta+2, Sylenth1, Massive or a Moog Voyager, your return on investment in a Syntorial purchase goes way up. Shortly Serum will be added to that list. Most highly recommended.
A generous number of sample lessons of the basic Syntorial training can be downloaded to help your evaluation process. Sample videos from the lesson packs are also available for your perusal. For more information and to purchase, go here: