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I’ve taken some time over the last few days to explore the new FXpansion bundle of soft synths DCAM Synth Squad. The bundle comprises three synths—Strobe, Cypher and Amber—and a multitimbral layering and control plug-in called Fusor that holds up to three synths in any combination and adds effects processing, keyboard management, step and control sequencing and global modulation routing. All devices come in Mac/Win standalone and plug-in (AU, VST and RTAS) formats.
DCAM stands for Discrete Component Analogue Modelling, and FXpansion has modeled each of its synths’ modules at the circuit-and-components level. Their goal is to have the synths respond the way hardware devices would to normal as well as abusive parameter settings.
The simplest of the synth trio, Strobe, is a one-oscillator synth, but that one oscillator features waveform mixing and octave dividers, and you can stack up to five detuned copies of the oscillator. Its versatile filter has 22 modes and overdrive. For modulation you get two ADSR envelope generators and a waveform-mixing LFO. At the other end of the complexity spectrum, Cypher features three oscillators with audio-rate cross modulation, dual multimode filters with flexible routing and an extra LFO and envelope generator. Both synths have a basic arpeggiator and neither has any effects (that’s left to Fusor).
The third synth, Amber, is a string-machine emulation using divide-down-oscillator architecture. It has no arpeggiator (you can arpeggiate it in Fusor) but adds chorus (a must for a string machine) and a formant filter. The three synths come as both virtual-instrument and effects plug-ins. The effects versions replace the noise generator with audio input, which makes for some unusual, MIDI-controlled synth and effects combinations.
Each of the synths features a powerful modulation scheme called TransMod for which I’ve posted a short screencast. Fusor offers a similar scheme, called FuseMod, that provides cross-modulation between synths, as well as from Fusor’s LFOs, envelope followers and sequencer.
All these synths sound great, and to my ear, the analog inspiration comes through. None of them are especially light on your CPU, however, and when you stack them up in Fusor you’ll probably find yourself doing some track freezing. No demo versions of the synths are availble, but you’ll find both audio and video demos on the FXpansion Website, fxpansion.com.
If you’ve been waiting for an OS X Leopard compatible version of U&I Software’s Metasynth, you’re patience has just been rewarded. Metasynth 5 sports a bunch of new features along with streamlined operation and better file handling. You can download a PDF detailing the new features here and a demo (160MB) here.
My friend, pianist and EM contributor Marshall Otwell, recently reminded me of June’s EM Pro/File of New York bassist and electronic musician Lisle Ellis. That prompted me to grab his latest CD Sucker Punch Requiem, and it’s a great listen—clearly jazz but with lots of electronic treats.
If you’ve had your eye on Submersible Music’s DrumCore but haven’t been quite ready to take the plunge, here’s a chance to get a free version of DrumCore 3 with enough content (1GB vs. 16GB for the full version) to make it a useful addition to your drum arsenal.
DrumCore Free includes the AU, VST and RTAS plug-in versions of DrumCorer 3 but not the standalone DrumCore Toolkit for importing your own loop libraries and drum kits. It does include the infamous Gabrielizer and LiveDrummer features along with audio drum loops, drum kits and MIDI drum loops to play the kits. Here’s a case when you get a good bit more than you pay for.
Native Instruments just announced a substantial discount on their Komplete 5 bundle of virtual instruments and effects. During the month of July you can buy it direct or from NI dealers for $399 [MSRP]. The bundle includes Absynth 4, Akoustik Piano, B4 II, Elektrik Piano, FM8, Guitar Rig 3, Kontakt 3, Massive, Pro-53 and Reaktor 5. You’ll find online reviews for many of them at emusician.com.
Startley Technologies has just released QuicKeys 4 for Mac OS X ($59.95, $29.95 upgrade) and emusicians will find a couple of pleasant surprises.
My favorite new feature is MIDI triggers: you can set up any MIDI control change, program change or note message to trigger any QuicKeys shortcut, and you can even specify a value range, device and MIDI channel. After upgrading, it took only a few seconds to set up my MIDI sustain pedal to advance step entry in Ableton Live 8. Conveniently, the MIDI message is also passed through so the sustain pedal continues to work normally.
Instant Shortcuts is another of my favorites. Recording instant shortcuts works just like normal shortcut recording, but when you finish recording you don’t have to bother with any setup dialog. You can trigger the instant shortcut (there is only one at a time) from the QuicKeys menu-bar menu or using a normal shortcut. For example, you could configure a MIDI CC to trigger the current instant shortcut.
I saw the writing on the wall when my trusty Power Mac G5 began sounding like a Cuisinart. After lengthy discussions with friends inside and outside of Apple, I decided that my next machine would be the new-generation 2.66GHz Quad-Core Mac Pro. I ordered mine preconfigured with the maximum 8GB of RAM, two 1TB hard drives, a 24-inch Apple LED Cinema Display and AppleCare, which covers the Mac Pro and Cinema Display if you purchase them at the same time. The units arrived in a few days, and the fun began.
I unpacked and set up the display and computer, then crawled under the desk to hook them up. In addition to its Mini DisplayPort and USB leads, the 24-inch Cinema Display has a MagSafe lead to power a MacBook Pro. Not needing the MagSafe connection, I wrapped that lead around the others—a bad idea that my wife lumps in with things we forgot to tell our kids not to do.
I pressed the Mac Pro power button and after some whirring heard the word English coming from my dark new Cinema Display. I repeated this exercise several times before unplugging and reconnecting all leads and, unintentionally, letting the MagSafe lead come unwound. When I again powered up, the display sprang to life.
One of the first things I noticed was that, according to Activity Monitor, I had eight cores. A friend had suggested the shareware system-monitoring application iStat, so I gave that a try. It’s a great tool—for one thing, all the meters reside in the menu bar—but it still showed eight cores. Skeptical that I had just won the CPU lottery, I nosed around discussions.apple.com (an invaluable resource) and found that this is due to Hyper-threading, which treats each processor like two.
On the advice of a friend, I decided to use Apple’s Migration Assistant for only network and computer settings and to do everything else manually. That takes quite a bit longer—I’m still not finished transferring all applications—but because I was moving from a PPC to an Intel machine and also upgrading from Tiger to Leopard, it seemed like prudent advice.
So I started banging away on my new Bluetooth wireless keyboard typing in data and serial numbers. Every twenty minutes or so a semi-transparent image of the keyboard would appear on the screen displaying the words Connection Lost. I could re-establish the connection from the Bluetooth drop-down, but it was an annoying show-stopper.
I called AppleCare and was told to run Software Update to ensure my system was up to date. That I did and then went back to work until the connection was lost again. On my next call I was told to zap the PRAM: restart holding Option-Command-P-R and let the startup chime ring three or so times before letting go. That I did and then went back to work until the connection was lost again. On the third call I was told to reset the system by unplugging everything, including the power, waiting a few minutes and then reconnecting everything. That I did and then went back to work until the connection was lost again. On the fourth call, the AppleCare tech decided to take the issue upstairs, where he learned that this is a Leopard/Bluetooth problem that is awaiting a fix. My takeaway is that you can save yourself and the folks at AppleCare a lot of time by updating, zapping and resetting before your first call.
Next up was a test of two new Leopard features: Spaces and Time Machine. I had been warned that some applications don’t work well with Spaces, and as much as I liked the convenience, I finally gave up—primarily because Microsoft Word and Excel from Office: Mac 2008 were so unstable.
Time Machine is a great step forward in backup, and even though it doesn’t create a bootable backup drive, I wouldn’t be without it. I did find that backing up to an external FireWire drive frequently created problems with my FireWire audio interface. I’ve been told that playing around with daisy-chaining configurations (I used separate FireWire ports) can often solve the problem, but I decided to install a third internal drive devoted to Time Machine backups.
At that point, about a week into the transition, I thought things were going pretty smoothly. Then I started hearing strange noises coming from the Mac Pro, nothing like the G5 Cuisinart but unsettling and distracting. I lived with it for a day or so hoping it would go away, then ran a couple of searches on discussions.apple.com. I found several relevant posts, one suggesting that the problem could be a loose bolt holding a hard drive to its sled or holding a PCIe card in place. I yanked all the drives, and sure enough, one of the bolts had come loose.
So now, about a month later, the machine sits quietly under my desk, the display is bright, the wireless keyboard is on the shelf and I’m backed up at all times. That leaves a little time for writing and music, and oh yes, the track count is huge.
Synplant (Mac/Win, $89.95) from software developer Magnus Lindström of Sonic Charge takes an entirely different approach to synth programming. Under the hood Synplant is analog-modeled, but you interact with it by growing branches that evolve genetically from an initial patch (the seed). Mapping MIDI controllers to a few essential evolution parameters lets you control timbral variations in real time. For more details and audio examples visit the Sonic Charge Web site and check out the upcoming Download of the Month column in the June issue of EM.
If you’re fascinated by unusual music instruments be they electronic or acoustic, check out the first annual Guthman Musical Instrument Competition cosponsored by the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology and Harmonix, the developers of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Thirty entrants competed for $15,000 in prizes. Wired has posted audio and video clips of 25 of the instruments, and all deserve a look and listen.
My favorites are second-place winner GuitarBot (shown here) with its almost human sounding mechanical rendering, the untitled modular synth from Skot Wiedmann, and the Sudeko tutor cum music instrument Sorisu by Hye Ki Min.
Togeo Studios offers Ableton Live Packs, samples, loops, and presets for selected synths along with downloadable MP3 albums in a variety of styles at their sister site Togeo Music. The Live Packs are especially interesting and include atmospheres, percussion and instrument loops, and Live virtual-instrument presets.
All Togeo music production and audio resources are free, but donations are welcome to help defray server charges and fund future development. The site also boasts a user forum, a blog, and helpful links.
The Bus, EM's editorial blog, features posts from all the EM editors on topics related to gear, recording techniques and much more. It's also home to posts from a selected group of guest bloggers.