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28 August 2005

MX4 2.0 review — Computer Music

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The MX4 2.0 soft synth by MOTU gets a top review in the August issue of Computer Music magazine. They give it special awards for Performance and for Innovation, and the review starts as it continues: “Quite simply, this is one of the most powerful synths we’ve ever used — in every single respect.”

They like the crystal-clear organisation of this synth. The main screen contains all the controls for the various oscillators, filters, LFOs and other components. They note how easy it is to quickly tweak the settings with the straightforward GUI. They contrast its simple interface with the likes of Reason: “unlike some analogue-emulating GUIs that have virtual patch cables strewn all over, to find out which modulators are acting on a parameter you simply run the cursor over it. This causes all the modulators that are affecting that parameter to light up.” I have previously mentioned how daunting I find the Reason interface — maybe it’s because I haven’t had years of experience with old-skool hardware studios. In contrast, they say, “MX4 makes programming, or even just tweaking the factory presets, incredibly easy.”

They are also impressed with MX4’s effects: “We normally avoid onboard effects, but these are superb.” You can even use them by running external audio through MX4, or use it as a modulator. There’s also a feature called Random.. This resets parameters to random settings, creating entirely new patches. If you have a setting you like, but it isn’t quite right, you can keep the parameters you like and use Random on the other settings until you get the sound you want. It’s a simple concept, but apparently extremely powerful and useful — the review calls it “absolutely staggering”.

These reviewers really are knocked off their feet by MX4; they conclude by saying that MX4 offers “a staggering amount of power in the most awesome interface we’ve yet seen on a synth. … it sounds incredible.” They give it ten out of ten and some very simple advice: “you should buy MX4.”

27 August 2005

Ta Horng iSmart folding keyboard review — Sound on Sound

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Sound on Sound reviews the Ta Horng iSmart roll-up keyboard. Essentially, they say it works about as well as you would expect — what you see is what you get. “As a MIDI data-entry device, the iSmart works fine, triggering notes reliably when the keyboard is on a hard surface.” However, of course the keys offer no feedback, and it’s hard to play accurately when all keys — including the black keys — are on the same level.

Overall, they think this is “an odd product”. I tend to agree. “Some consider a rubber keyboard about as useful as a rubber violin, no matter how portable. Others think the iSmart could be useful for data entry where budget and space restrictions are at their tightest. Hopefully you should know which camp you belong to by now, and will use your wallet accordingly!”

I could see the iSmart being useful for travelling — you could have your laptop and iSmart in your laptop bag, and make music wherever you go without having to use a fiddly mouse to enter notes, or carry a bulky MIDI keyboard.

Gemini iKey audio-to-USB converter

Filed under: Hardware at 12:33 pm Comments Off on Gemini iKey audio-to-USB converter

The iKey is a press releease from Gemini with “artist’s impressions” of a new device and some excited hyperbole about what the device can do. Despite their liberal use of words like “revolutionary”, “incredible”, and “take the DJ industry by storm”, the iKey seems to be nothing more than a box that converts analog audio input (via stereo RCA jacks) to digital output (via a USB port). Useful? Perhaps. Incredible? No. And more importantly, it doesn’t seem to exist yet — information from the press releease is on various websites (such as Remix magazine) but not on Gemini’s own website.

They say that the iKey converts input to either WAV or MP3 and sends it to the USB output, which has to have a USB memory key (sold separately) plugged in to save the audio file: “To use the iKEY, simply connect a cable from your headphone jack or any other output source to the RCA inputs, connect to a USB flash drive or mass storage device, select the desired digital audio format, and hit record – it’s that simple! The iKEY lets you choose whether the audio will be converted into MP3 format (with a choice of a 128, 160 and 256kbps bit rate) or the lossless WAV format. Never before has a portable device allowed you to do this without extra hardware and software.” Well, if a USB flash drive isn’t extra hardware then I don’t know what is.

You can see how this device could be useful, but it’s hard to get too excited when we can’t even see a proper photo of it yet.

26 August 2005

PhatSpace Bundle review — Computer Music

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PhatSpace Bundle. What a fantastic name for a music software package. What a fantastic name for anything. Computer Music magazine has reviewed this latest package from Camel Audio, which contains two plug-ins: the inscrutable CamelSpace, and the disturbingly-named CamelPhat 3. CamelPhat is meant simply to “phatten” your sound: “it gives you four different ways of adding grit, and because you can wind in all of them at once, the range of tones you can create is extensive. Of course, it’s always possible to push things way too far — something we frequently take great joy in doing.” That’s the spirit!

Camel Audio also offer a free version of CamelPhat called CamelPhatFree. It’s vastly simpler than CamelPhat, with just two controls: “Distortion” and “Compression”. Still, if you like what it does then CamelPhat will do it too only much more so. And it’s a bargain at twice the price.

CamelSpace seems difficult to describe: it “can take any sound and turn it into an array of dynamically evolving gated rhythmic textures” and “there are plenty more features to add depth and sparkle.” The main effect is a so-called “trance gate” that is controlled with a sophisticated built-in sequencer; there’s also a filter, panner, flanger, and much more.

“With so many parameters to tweak, it’s almost impossible to sum up how the PhatSpace Bundle ‘sounds’. … A simple drum loop becomes a booming, fat, pumping monster or a gated, dubbed-out, glitch-style chaotic rhythmic event.” Anything that can turn a drum loop into an “event” has got to be worth investigating. “Vocals become nasty, raw and twisted… or light and airy”.

The final verdict is excellent. They give the PhatSpace Bundle special awards for Performance and Value for Money, and an overall rating of 9 out of 10. In a nutshell: “Great sound; easy to use; cheap cheap cheap!”

25 August 2005

Grooves magazine

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Grooves magazine is a small but excellent magazine for those interested in listening to or making electronic music. For the laptop studio enthusiast, there are reviews of music software and hardware, from the well-known (e.g. Ableton Live) to the more obscure. The reviews are slanted toward the production of electronic music of various forms, so the emphasis is on computer-based music rather than recording “real” instruments. But because of this focus, the reviews make good, in-depth reading.

There are also features about the electronic music scene in various parts of the world, and interviews with producers and artists. This kind of article is great for getting a feel for the huge electronic music community out there.

Grooves also features many pages of music reviews. I’ve picked up quite a few pointers on new music from this magazine — again, there are some famous names but most of the CDs discussed are new to me. It’s a great way to discover new sounds.

I was amazed to discover a copy of Grooves in a magazine shop in a bland suburban shopping mall in Sydney. Their website doesn’t list any Australian distributors, so I have no idea how it found its way to generic Australian suburbia. But I’m glad it did.

Sony Acid Pro 5 review — PC Plus

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PC Plus reviews Sony Acid Pro 5 and write: “This new version aims to keep the upgrade momentum going. But if that’s the theory, the reality doesn’t quite match it.” VST and ReWire support are welcome but overdue, they say, and they are disappointed with the new Groove Mapping feature: “In practice, this is something of a toy feature that has its uses – some of the funk grooves sound excellent on funk-style loops, but doesn’t live up to its full potential.”

The new timestretching and beat mapping tools are “worth playing with” — “Acid remains a fantastic demo and song sketching tool, and it’s exceptionally good at both,” but the sound quality is “a notch or two down from what would be needed to put together an entire song if you were trying to work at a high professional level.”

Overall, they think the upgrade is “something of a missed opportunity. Ableton-style live arranging, playback and a general spruce up in the sonic department would have been very welcome, but unfortunately the changes on offer here are rather less adventurous.” It’s true that the startling advances made by previous Acid upgrades are missing in Acid Pro 5. They conclude their rather lukewarm review by saying the upgrade is not really worth it, but Acid Pro 5 is still a good program for beginners: “if VST compatibility doesn’t matter to you, there’s no hugely compelling reason to trade up from version 4. … But for beginners who want the sheer joy of putting together something that sounds almost as good as a radio hit, and for anyone else who enjoys dabbling with music making, Acid will provide months of entertainment.”

Lexicon Omega Studio review — Mix

Filed under: Hardware at 12:35 pm (2 comments)

Mix reviews the Omega Studio Recording System from Lexicon. The Omega actually came out last year, but the Mix review only appeared recently. Besides, I like this product because it looks like R2-D2. Actually, the R2-D2-alike box is just part of the system. The Omega studio recording system consists of three pieces: the Omega USB audio interface, Steinberg’s Cubase LE DAW software, and Lexicon’s Pantheon VST reverb plugin.

A brief description paraphrased from the review: The Omega — an 8-input, 4-bus, 2-output USB I/O mixer — represents the core of the system. A closer look at the uncluttered front panel reveals a surprising amount of features and functionality. Flip the Omega around and cute turns to brute: The rear panel is a no-nonsense array of connectivity. “As a frequent headphone mixer, I immediately heard a major improvement over my soundcard in Omega’s headphone amp, which sports a very open sound and plenty of power. Subsequently, the unit shined in a variety of recording and mixing applications.”

Cubase LE is a decent, if stripped-down, version of Steinberg’s music production system. There are limits on the number of tracks, plugins, etc. that you can use, but the interface is still the same as the high-end versions. As for the reverb plugin, “While the choicest algorithms remain reserved for the company’s higher-end systems, there’s still no question that Pantheon is a killer reverb with the creamy goodness for which Lexicon is famous.”

Overall, they rate this system very highly as a cost-effective way to get sound into your computer. “For overall ease of use, Omega and its mixer-based architecture (as opposed to a patchbay structure) is an absolute pleasure. Between its assignable buses and well-thought-out interface, it just goes where you point it for highly intuitive portable or desktop recording/mixing. … When you take into account the fact that VST reverb plug-ins of Pantheon’s quality can easily sell for $200 or more, the addition of the extremely flexible and handy I/O box — not to mention Cubase LE — makes the Lexicon Omega an outstanding value.”

24 August 2005

Cakewalk Project5 Version 2 review — Computer Music

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Computer Music reviews Cakewalk Project5 Version 2 in their May issue (old, but good). They gave it a very good review, rating it nine out of ten. They’re impressed by the many changes in this new version, and they think all of the changes have improved an already useful program. Actually, the only change they didn’t like about version 2 is that the box it comes in doesn’t look as nice!

They say the most striking alteration is the total abolition of the SYN.OPS window., which was used to display the interface of the select instrument of effect. The entire window has been replaced with a “stylish” left-hand oriented “inspector”. This leaves the bottom half of the main screen free. “This is a major workflow alteration from version 1, and after just a few hours with the program, you begin to see the logic behind this change. Everything you need is now available from just the one screen.”

The new Groove Matrix feature has attracted a lot of comment. It’s a grid of cells into which you can drag and drop any pattern, sample or groove. You can then trigger them either by hitting the Groove header at the top of each column or by triggering via MIDI remote control. This is similar to Ableton Live’s Session View and they say its “a fantastic tool for live performance or fast, experimental on-the-fly song arrangement.”

The new instrument, the Dimension sampling synth, gets an ecstatic thumbs-up. They call it an “incredible addition to Cakewalk’s studio” and say, “The presets are excellent, and with its innovative synthesis options, Dimension brings a new twist to the soft-sampling scene. It’s so good that we almost gave it a review of its own.”

Overall, the reviewers note that the Project5 engine looks and feels much slicker, and uses much less CPU than previously. The audio engine is also much smoother. The whole thing is a huge improvement over version 1: “P5 2 raises the bar significantly in comparison to its predecessor, yet still has an incredibly low price tag.” Their final recommendation speaks for itself: “This is one hell of an update. Improved workflow, a glitch-free and ultimately more reliable audio engine, better instruments, stacks of new features … and a fresh new look make it an essential purchase for users of version 1.” And for people who weren’t happy with version 1: “It’s time to re-try the demo.”

TonePort USB audio interface

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Line 6 (“believe”) have launched the TonePort range of USB audio interfaces. Well, there are two — does that make a range? Anyway, The TonePort is an interface between your guitar, bass and microphone on one hand, and your computer on the other. The included software works with the hardware to emulate a half-dozen different mic preamps, more than 20 guitar and bass preamps and more than 20 guitar and bass effects. Great for those who can actually play real instruments instead of just program computers.

Full details are on the website. Here is the high-level blurb: TonePort is like a rack full of premium tube recording equipment, plus a perfectly engineered recording room for guitar and bass, thanks to our acclaimed guitar/bass direct tone with mic and cab modeling.

TonePort hardware features studio-grade microphone preamps that make getting a truly professional-grade vocal tone easy. The exclusive GearBox tone software gives you models of the most sought after preamps in the recording world. GearBox even lets you run a completely different signal path for your microphone input with models of vintage preamps, compressors, and reverbs while still giving you the ultimate direct recording sound for your guitar or bass. In minutes, you’ll be creating sounds that typically take an entire studio, an expert engineer, and a huge hourly rate to pull off!

The included GearBox software controls TonePort and gives you a premium tone front end for all your recordings. Includes meticulously crafted models of premium tube studio preamps, vintage guitar and bass rigs, and sought after, personality-rich effects. This is the tone that pros rely on and only Line 6 provides. Now it comes to your desktop with TonePort.

GearBox’s meticulously crafted recreations of a dream collection of 16 classic and modern guitar amplifiers, 5 must-have bass amp models, and 24 stompbox and studio effects capture the range of tone found on the best tracks ever recorded. You can mix and match PODXT-based amp and cab models based on Marshall, Fender, Mesa/Boogie, Vox, Roland, Soldano and more, with realistic looking controls that make any guitarist feel right at home

TonePort also comes with a “lite” edition of Ableton Live so you can start playing straight away.

Wave Editor

Filed under: Music software at 11:39 am Comments Off on Wave Editor

Wave Editor is a new audio editor for Mac OS X. It’s the second product from Audiofile Engineering, makers of the Sample Manager batch audio processor. The main special feature seems to be its handling of fades — they are non-destructive and can be applied as various bezier curves rather than simple linear or sine curves. You can try it out for yourself — their website offers a free 15-day trial version.

There’s more information on the website and in their press release. They say: Wave Editor is the essential audio editor for Mac OS X. Designed in Cocoa from the ground up, Wave Editor proudly takes advantage of CoreAudio, Quartz Extreme, and other core features within Mac OS X. Wave Editor takes over where Peak and Spark left off, incorporating the standard audio editing features you’re used to while bringing you up-to-date with the latest advances in interface design, speed and stability.

Wave Editor introduces the concept of “layered audio”. It allows audio professionals to layer audio of any rate, bit depth, and number of channels, add Audio Units and fades on top of each other, edit them, then flatten the resulting file, a process that takes much longer with legacy editors.

Wave Editor’s application of fades is new to audio editors: fades as “overlays” on top of the audio that can be adjusted in real-time before they are applied. And, for the first time in any audio editor, you can use quadratic or cubic bezier curves to shape the fades to obtain the smoothest natural effect.

Wave Editor also includes an advanced inspector, statistical analyzer, standard audio processing features, three advanced meters, full support for Audio Units, support for MP3 and AAC, and much more.