Category Archives: REVIEWS

Camel Audio Camel Crusher

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test system: MacPro W3520 (12GB RAM) | OSX 10.6.8 and 10.8.5 | Cubase 6 and 6.5 (64-bit)

I appreciate you reading my review, but since this is a free plugin, you’d better download it and get busy with it!

Most developers have some kind of free product, and while some are genuinely good and/or useful, a lot of it is just a waste of disk space.

The Camel Crusher is among the best that I know of. If this was $99 it would be good value. For free? Bloody amazing!

It sounds really, really good. I am not a fan of distortion and didn’t think I’d have use for this, but it turns out this little gem is supremely versatile and it goes from subtle but audible coloration to beyond 11 and breaking your speakers.

I find that I can use this plugin on just about anything and it will do something good to it, but it excels at breathing new life and energy into dull or bland sounding tracks.

It is a distortion/saturator/compressor/filter, and it does all of that really well.

Controls are limited but that is actually a good thing. You don’t waste 30 minutes fiddling with knobs only to find out it’s not gonna work.

I’m gonna say it again, this thing sounds GREAT. It’s free. It is better than many plugins I paid good money for. It has a definite “analog” vibe to it.

What are you waiting for? Go get it!

http://www.camelaudio.com/camelcrusher.php

February 17, 2015:

Since Apple bought Camel Audio last year, this plugin is unfortunately no longer available. However, Camel Audio’s flagship product, Alchemy, reappeared bundled with Apple’s Logic Pro X and Mainstage 3, so perhaps this plugin will be included at some point as well. I sure hope so.

 

 

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Softube Mix Bundle

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test system: MacPro W3520 (12GB RAM) | OSX 10.6.8 and 10.8.5 | Cubase 6 and 6.5 (64-bit)

A few years back, this bundle got a lot of hype on the net, and when it was on sale (I think it was around $180) I decided to buy into it.
The bundle comprises:
– FET Compressor
– Active EQ
– Passive EQ
– Focusing EQ
– TSAR-1R Reverb
While it is not bad at all, and reasonable value at the price I paid for it, I have once again learned that you get what you pay for. The great-sounding stuff costs way more. That is not to say that this bundle does not sound good, with a bit of care you can get decent results, but it is not the “just turn a knob and go wow” experience.

The best thing about the EQ’s is that the top-end is pretty smooth. You can add quite a bit of gain without it sounding harsh. Still, while you can shape tones nicely with these EQ’s, it all remains pretty bland. There is not a lot of character or excitement.

I keep trying to use the FET compressor, but I rarely get what I’m looking for. It does NOT sound like an 1176 to me, although my experience with the real thing is admittedly limited. Again, not to say it’s bad, just that it fails to blow me away. I have managed to get satisfying results on electric bass guitar with the plug-in, but not much else.

I use the reverb more. Mostly because it is easy to use and you get predictable results. Not a whole lot of flavor, but it sounds nice enough and does what it is supposed to do.

All in all, I don’t feel shortchanged as I got a good deal on it. But for the current retail price of $299 I find it a little underwhelming. I would not say it is bad value, everything works and if you happen to need a compressor/EQ/reverb bundle for that price it remains a sensible purchase. I just never fell in love with it.

Clavia Nord Piano 88

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I don’t know how we happen to be in July already, and I have yet to write my first blog of 2013! But I am happy that my first post of the year is about the Nord Piano. I have primarily reviewed software over the last two years or so, and the NordPiano is the first keyboard I have bought since my FantomX purchase back in 2005.

I have already written about the NP88 here and I can only say that my initial impressions have pretty much stood the test of time. It sounds remarkably consistent on a variety of different speakers and amps, sounds good in mono (except for one occasion where an intricate mono-cum-headphone-out-summed-to-other-mono introduced a nasty phasiness that made the piano sound, well, nasty) and best of all: it makes me want to play.

This review could end right here, because that last quality is one that renders all others irrelevant. Sure, I could blab on about the sound quality, which is good but not outstanding, the action, which is probably the most criticized aspect of this keyboard, and for a reason.

But at the end of the day, the NP88 just feels right to me, and isn’t that the most important thing? I even record with it at home, as the finger-to-sound connection of the board makes me play better than I do with the multi-GB piano sample libraries now hibernating on my hard drive. I don’t worry about the realism of the recorded sound. It sounds way better than any real piano on 1970’s recordings, so it is a total non-issue for me.

My only concerns are a lack of proper pianissimo samples, a minijack input that -inexplicably!- can only be routed to the headphone out and not the line outs, and the absence of layer/split functionality.

The minijack issue is a great example of a missed opportunity, as many solo pianists with restaurant gigs would have welcomed the ability to play along to backing tracks on their iPod/iPhones without the need for an external mixer.

The layer functionality has been added in the NordPiano2, as well as the ability to load up sounds from the Nord sample library, so it is conceivable that I may trade up to that at some point in the future.

But for now, I don’t even look at other digital pianos anymore. The NP88 is not the perfect DP by a long shot, but I am perfectly satisfied with it.

Galaxy Vintage D

Galaxy Vintage D

test system: MacPro W3520-12GB RAM-Cubase 5.5.3 (32bit) and 6.5.2 (64bit)-NI Kontakt 5-Avid Mbox3Pro

I guess this review would have been different had I not purchased a NordPiano just a few weeks after I bought this. Ouch.

Ever since I went virtual I have been looking for that perfect piano sound in a VI, and just not finding it. I started with the now-discontinued Garritan Steinway Basic, was disappointed by Goliath’s pianos, found something I liked better in HalionSonic’s Natural Grand, bought into the pre-release hype of Cinesamples’ Piano In Blue, and finally I got Galaxy’s Vintage D.

Some might say I should have just forked out the big bucks for either Synthogy’s Ivory II, EWQL’s Pianos or VSL Imperial but I promised myself I would not spend that kind of dough on a software piano unless I could take it to the stage.

So the Vintage D, then. Nice, I guess, but I have only used it a few times. Like I said, I bought the NordPiano shortly afterwards, and haven’t bothered with any of the virtual pianos since. But I can say this, in the few weeks before the NordPiano, I found out I still like HalionSonic’s Natural Grand better than all the other software pianos.

Again, the Vintage D is not bad, and for $135 it is reasonably competitive, so if you are looking for a software piano in that price bracket, check it out.

As for me, I’ve gone hardware. And I’ll tell you all about that soon.

Update (May 5, 2014):

I’ve tried it some more and I have discovered that I can’t get the velocity response right. Like the PiB, it is either too sensitive or not sensitive enough.

On a different note, you have a bunch of parameters that all change something, but none of them make anything dramatically different, let alone better.

I tried playing a part first on the NordPiano and have the MIDI recording trigger the Vintage D. That doesn’t quite work either.

Hate to say it again, but I suppose it is another case of YouGetWhatYouPayFor. I hope Ivory and/or TrueKeys will work better.

Native Instruments Komplete 8

NI Komplete 8

test system: MacPro W3520, 12GB RAM, OSX 10.6.8, Cubase 5.5.3 (32bit) and 6.5.2 (64-bit), Avid MBox3Pro

I’m not gonna pretend to do a comprehensive review of all that Komplete 8 offers, there is a lot of stuff and I have barely scratched the surface of stuff like Absynth, Massive and Reaktor. I don’t use those all that much, so this review focuses mainly on Kontakt 5, Battery 3, FM8 and Guitar Rig.

I bought Komplete 8 mainly for Kontakt, which costs $379 alone, so it seemed like a good deal to get all the other stuff for just $120 more. And you get a LOT of stuff. Really, really a lot; more than 80GB on my HDD, which is odd as NI’s website claims 110GB, but whatever.

Anyway, the installation did not take as long as I feared so a good four hours later I was in business. Like I said, there is a LOT of stuff to wade through, and even now I haven’t heard and tried all of it. But while you get a lot of stuff, a lot of it is bloat, in my opinion. I bet much of this is to ensure backward-compatibility for longtime users, and they will undoubtedly be happy with that, but as a result a very sizable chunk of the bundle sounds dated and dusty. Again, there’s plenty of good stuff and you need not feel shortchanged because you do get value for money. But I could easily do without nearly half of it and never know the difference.

You need Kontakt as it is the de facto industry standard for third-party libraries, and it is easy to see why. It is tremendously flexible and very reliable. but man I hate the GUI. It is firmly stuck in 1990’s and in desparate need of an overhaul. While it’s a good thing that just about every parameter imaginable can be controlled and adjusted, something as simple as adding multiple outputs becomes a counter-intuitive and convoluted process.

But the new stuff is good. I LOVE the Scarbee Rhodes and Wurlitzer, easily the best of their kind. The acoustic pianos, on the other hand, are mediocre, although the New York Grand is much better than I remember it to be.

There are a few new kits with Battery 3, but -like Kontakt 5- its user interface is an exercise in frustration for new users. In fact, I remember Battery 1 to be a lot more user-friendly than the current version. I’m still trying to figure out how to change a sound’s default playback from one-shot to as-played. Probably a RTFM thing, but for me it’s easier to just open an instance of Steinberg’s simple but excellent GrooveAgentOne and do it there.

One thing I really looked forward to was the FM8, as I have always like the classic Yamaha DX7, but I find myself not using it much. And that goes even more so for the heavier synth stuff, like Absynth, Massive and Reaktor.

I’m sure that Komplete 8 is a synth programmer’s dream, but I’m a preset tweaker who needs quick results before I’m out of the zone, and as such the Komplete 8 bundle doesn’t deliver like I thought it would. There is a plenty of good stuff in there, but not more so than the much cheaper and more contemporary sounding HalionSonic.

That is not to say that Native Instruments dropped the ball here, au contraire, it’s just that Steinberg’s sound has gotten that good. However, NI’s considerable VI experience really shows in terms of efficiency, stability and reliability. Kontakt 5 easily trumps Halionsonic, Spectrasonics’ STEAM and EastWest’s PLAYv3 in this regard.

As for Guitar Rig, it’s got a gazillion good-sounding effects and I would really love to use them more, but the fact that you have to open an instance of guitar rig to get to them is somewhat of a deterrent to me. As a guy who started out on old-skool hardware, it simply does not make sense to me to open a guitar signal chain to compress a snare drum. And again, as good as GR is, it’s not distinctively better than Cubase’s own amp sim.

But with all that said, if you are serious about computer music, you can’t really afford to be without Kontakt 5, and for just $120 more, Komplete 8 is a no-brainer.

Avid MBox 3 Pro

I have had the MBox3Pro for a year now, long enough to share a few of my observations.

First of all, it is very heavy for its size. I kind of like that as it gives the unit a nice, solid feel, but it is something to consider if you plan to move it around on a regular basis. It is portable, but you’re going to feel that weight in your backpack.

Let me relay the negatives first: at first I had trouble with the headphone outs. Half the time they wouldn’t work on startup, requiring a reboot (or two), to activate them. A few times they would produce a loud hissing noise, requiring another restart. Very annoying, although powering off and on again (once or multiple times) would always fix the problem.

This is a known issue, and Avid has been working on a fix.

What’s more, I only got the included direct-monitoring reverb to work once, it has been MIA since. That is actually a good thing because the one time it DID work it sounded awful (and mono).

The good news is that a driver update seems to have fixed the headphone issues, I haven’t had any problems with them since, so fingers crossed. I am a bit mystified as to how this problem was solved, because even after the driver update I continued to experience these problems for a while. These days, however, everything is great. Maybe I’ll get the reverb to work properly (and in stereo) with a future update, too.

On to the positives: it sounds good (disclaimer: I do not have a $10,000 signal chain to validate this statement) and once in operation it just gets out of your way and on with the job. I really like the GUI of the mixer and it is flexible enough for my modest needs at home. You can get separate cue and headphone mixes on all outputs, or use them in parallel.

It is also noticeably more efficient than my Saffire LE. I’m primarily a Cubase/Nuendo user, and on my old iMac I would regularly have to freeze VI’s to keep the system running. With the MB3P the same projects could run without freeze. I have since moved on to a quadcore MacPro and I hardly ever run out of room with the buffer set to 128 samples.

The mic pres do the job well enough, although you’ll never mistake them for Neves. The softlimit function is handy, but it seriously chokes the sound when pushed, so you’d be advised to adjust your gains carefully. There is plenty of gain, btw, for both my mic and keyboards.

The mono button is a real selling point, but I find myself not using it as much as I thought I would, and when I do I find the increase in loudness irritating. This is obviously not a design flaw, but it would be nice to be able to attenuate the summed mono signal to levels more proportionate to its stereo counterpart.

All in all I like the Mbox3Pro, but you’d better make sure it fits your needs. Compared to similarly priced units from the competition, it has limited connectivity and zero expandability. I also dislike the combi breakout cable for SPDIF/wordclockIO/MIDI and the external PSU. Not something to complain about at this pricepoint ($629 +tax, in my case), though.

One last gripe, Avid support requires a support ticket, and one is issued when you register your product online. When I wanted to contact them about the headphone problems I found out my ticket had expired (I think it is like 60 or 90 days after registration) and I should purchase a new one for $40.

Of course, I didn’t. Paying $40 to get someone on the phone because your product has a design flaw? I don’t think so. So even if I’m generally happy and satisfied with my Mbox3Pro, I shan’t be buying from Avid again anytime soon.

Straight Ahead! Jazz Drums

Straight Ahead! Jazz Drums

test system: 2009 Apple MacPro 2.66GHz quad, 12GB RAM, Cubase 6.5.1, Kontakt 5.0.2

This product was given to me by the developer for review.

Jazz drums have always been somewhat slept on in the VI realm. While there are plenty of excellent rock/pop drum libraries to choose from, I am not aware of any dedicated jazz drum libraries, and other than the obligatory “brushes kit” the major VI developers seem to have little interest in this field.

Understandably so, as jazz is a much smaller market to begin with, and the improvisational and interactive nature of the style does not encourage use of preprogrammed drums. Indeed, while I think SAJD is a great library for those who need it, I can’t really think of a scenario that requires it. That said, if you DO need a believable-sounding jazz kit and authentic loops, this is the one to get!

For me, the best thing about SAJD are the loops. I hardly ever use loops as I’m more a play-and-program-it-yourself kind of guy, but these are in a different league. The ride cymbal patterns are better than anything you can play/program on a keyboard, and since there are four different tempo regions to choose from they aren’t time-stretched beyond credibility.

While the idiosyncratic keymapping of individual hits and velocity-switching of loops require some getting used to, it did not take me very long to produce convincing drumtracks, even if the instruction manual was rather uninformative. Straight Ahead says they have updated the manual since, by the way, but I haven’t looked at it.

On to the heart of the matter, playing along with these loops is just plain fun! It’s like playing with a great drummer, and for me it is certainly preferable over the tired Aebershold stuff. Load up the appropiate tempo range, trigger the loops, add some Trillian upright bass and pretty soon I’m jamming.

On the flip side, while I do understand the design choices they had to make, I do not care for the non-standard keymapping. I like to play much of the fills and accents myself, but that is kind of hard because the individual hits are so spread out. Playing a snare/tom/cymbal fill requires you to stretch your fingers over two octaves, and that can be awkward with more complicated stuff.

I’m not exactly a fan of GeneralMIDI, but having at least one GM-compatible kit would greatly simplify adding SAJD to existing projects. Here’s hoping that will be included in a future update.

Another gripe is the differences in volume between some of the invidual hits and loops, which occasionally makes self-played fills disproportionally loud compared to the ride cymbal loops. Carefully adjusting velocities helps somewhat, but reduce them too much and you trigger a different sound. Not saying this can’t be fixed in the mix, but I’d rather be able to sort that out in MIDI. And oh, this may be a matter of taste, but I would have preferred a slightly heavier bassdrum, as it currently sounds much like a floortom.

My last complaint is the lack of brushes. StraightAheadSamples explains that the importance of brushes in jazz requires a dedicated library (one they are working on right now) but their absence in SAJD does limit its usefulness as an all-purpose jazz drums solution.

The sound quality is good, although I initially felt it was too dry. But as it is, the dry sound lends itself extremely well for processing, with a little bit of compression (2 or 3dB) greatly increasing presence and brightness, and your choice of reverb will blend seamlessly with the original sound.

The aforementioned complaints notwithstanding, SAJD is a great little library, and I definitely recommend it. It is a lot of fun to jam with, it inspires and with a bit of programming you can get results nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. It is a solid first product from StraightAhead, and I am looking forward to see what they will do with the brushes.

For more info: http://straightaheadsamples.com/