Category Archives: Software

Spectrasonics Trillian

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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 can keep this review pretty short; like its predecessor Trilogy, Trillian is THE definitive bass sample library. That said, there are certain synth bass tones in NI Massive that I prefer for some things, but as a one-stop-shop bass solution, Trillian is the business.

But as good as the synth bass sounds are, the library’s true strength is its excellent acoustic and electric basses. These are simply in a league of their own, nothing else comes close. Indeed, you’d have to have a pretty great bass-player and premium signal chain to approximate the sound quality on offer here.

Playability, too, is second to none. Most of the stuff feels lively and responsive, although I typically set a MIDI velocity limiter at value 125, to avoid trigger the slides etc. While it is cool and fun to play with, it can be distracting and somewhat restrictive in conjunction with the velocity response of my Roland Fantom X7.

Compared to Trilogy, the tweakability has been noticeably improved. Each sound has a few quick controls assigned to the most relevant parameters, but the old edit pages are still there. Multi-timbral operation is logical and intuitive, and many synth sounds really lend themselves well for exploration beyond the bass register. One of my personal faves is using the Chapman Stick as an electric guitar!

Drawbacks? Nothing much. The new acoustic and electric sounds are huge and can take up to twenty seconds to load (I run them off a dedicated 7200rpm HDD), and I often grab legacy Trilogy sounds because they load faster. Oh and you’ll need a lot of RAM for the new sounds, too.

Otherwise, I really can’t think of anything else, it is that good. Trillian is not cheap, but it sure is worth every penny.

Izotope Alloy 2

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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)

Looking at past reviews, I see that I am never enthusiastic about the “good deals” I got. The sweetness of the lower price is not yet forgotten, but I never feel that it was money well-spent.
As I keep saying, my impulse buys are rarely good ones, but Izotope’s Alloy2 is the shining exception. It was not on sale, but the regular price ($199) is extremely fair, considering all that you get.

Alloy 2 has 7 sections: an EQ, a transient shaper, an exciter, two compressors, a de-esser and a limiter. Each of these can be individually switched on and off. The transient shaper, exciter and compressors have multi-band functionality which greatly enhances their usefulness. But you can get the details from Izotope’s site or other reviews, so I’m gonna skip all that and get right down to business.

This thing sounds seriously good. It doesn’t do vintage or classic stuff, but it does digital, and it does digital right.

At the risk of offending legions of pro engineers, the presets in this thing are fantastic. They provide excellent “ballpark” sounds, which serve as great starting points for further tweaking. And not a lot of tweaking is needed, typically it is adjusting thresholds etc. and pretty soon you’re good.

I use it mostly for vocals and drum buss, and it is excellent on both. Most of the presets sound very current and up-to-date, many of them designed to give you that ‘boom, now it sounds like a record’ feeling. To really get it right, you’ll need to dive in there to finish it up to make it ‘sit’, but a lot of the hard work has been done for you and in my case, many of the presets are great time-savers.

For those who prefer to start with a clean sheet: all the different blocks give you an amazingly versatile and superb-sounding tool that allows to sculpt and mold the sound to your heart’s content.

It’s hard for me to think of true negatives; I think the exciter is probably less impressive in isolation. It distorts pretty quickly but at modest levels it doesn’t appear to do much. That said, whenever it is active in a preset it is easier to pick out what it does by switching it on and off, so perhaps it is simply my ineptitude.

Also, this is a modern plugin and you’re not gonna run 500 instances of this on your MacPro. It is not too heavy considering all it does, but it does take cycles, and when you have a lot of instances open, you will notice.

In conclusion, Alloy 2 sounds great, has excellent presets for those who don’t want to be bothered, offers deep control for those who need it, and generally delivers on all counts. I think it is well worth the $199.

 

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.

 

 

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.

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.

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/

Cinesamples Piano in Blue

test system: MacPro 2.66GHz (Nehalem), 12GB RAM, Avid Mbox3Pro, Cubase 5.5.3

The story is a captivating one: highly regarded sample-library makers Cinesamples got the opportunity to record a classic Steinway D, just hours before it was decommissioned. It was the piano used on Miles Davis’ classic “Kind of Blue” album and Glenn Gould’s “Goldberg Variations”, and Cinesamples managed to capture its sound and preserve it for posterity in the form of a Kontakt instrument.

I was just about to purchase Galaxy’s Vintage D, but when P.i.B. appeared on the radar I changed my mind last minute and got this instead. Cinesamples enjoys an enviable reputation as purveyors of high-quality sample libraries, so I had no doubt that this would be a fantastic instrument.

As it turns out, it is not. Rarely have my impulse buys turned out to be great investments, and this is no exception. But let’s start with the good stuff, because P.i.B. is not quite the trainwreck, either.

For starters, the sound is pretty good, if vintage vibe is your kind of thing. You can tell this is not a brand-new Japanese grand in an A-list concert hall, and that can be a good thing. PiB sounds intimate and smoky, and I can see how this would work great for film noir stuff.

There is three different mic positions: close, room and surround. Combining the first two options usually results in a rich and full sound. Adding the surround mics adds brightness, but not clarity. I find that all mic positions sound unimpressive in isolation, and some kind of blending is necessary.

I also like the GUI, it is well laid-out and easy to use; not always a given with Kontakt instruments. Changing velocity settings is straightforward and produces audibly different responses, and the included reverb is pretty good, too. However, I do wish devs would offer numerical value input in addition to virtual knob twisting.

Frankly, all the pieces for a great instrument are in place, which begs the question: where does it fall short?

To sum it up: playability. In all fairness, this is a highly subjective thing, and perhaps there are others who feel differently, but from what I have heard I am not alone with this assessment. For one, while the adjustable velocity response is great and effective, I have yet to find a setting that works for me. It is either not dynamic enough or way too much, with notes jumping out randomly.

Again, this may very well be a personal thing, but the inherent lag is not. Upon striking a key, there is a tiny hesitation that makes for a disconnected feel and playing experience. This not much of a problem at lower tempi or when you space out the notes, but for something a little more involved it just falls flat.

And although I mentioned that combining the close and room mics produces a rich and full sound, it also introduces a certain phasiness that I find unpleasant. The close mics in isolation sound bland, and the room mics in isolation reveal a room that really doesn’t sound all that great. You can disguise this with the included reverb, but I don’t really wanna go there.

Now, none of this stuff is beyond remedy. The instrument’s character is charmingly old-skool and it lends itself well for acoustic stuff (think double bass and brushes). If Cinesamples could tidy up the programming to address the lag and the velocity response I would like this a whole lot better. Here is hoping for a software update.

September 20, 2012 update:
v2 came out just last month and it would appear that they have addressed some of the concerns voiced in the review above. I updated yesterday and will report back soon.

Steinberg HalionSonic

Versions tested: 1.0.0 and 1.5.2
DAW: Cubase 5.5.1 and 5.5.3
computer: iMac 2.16 GHz Core2Duo, 3GB RAM
computer 2: MacPro 2.66 GHz Xeon W3520, 12GB RAM

When I first got this I thought it was a dud. But it’s not. It is actually really good. Okay, version 1.0.0 sucked, much too heavy on resources to be practical. But 1.2.x was better and 1.5.2 is just fine, if still somewhat heavier on the system than Kontakt 5 and even PLAY v3.

The list of stuff to like is long. First of all, thank you Steinberg/Yamaha for creating a VI that is not impossibly bloated; 12GB is still a very sizable amount of data, but compared to Goliath’s 40GB or Kontakt’s 50GB its footprint is positively dimunitive.

Another big “like” is the GUI. Anybody familiar with the basic layout of hardware workstation/samplers will have no problem getting used to HalionSonic. Every parameter I like to tweak is easy to find and adjust, and in spite of the multi-timbral layout it is possible to tailor the sound comprehensively before you even need to think about external processing.

The biggest “like”, however, are the sounds. Despite its relatively modest size, HalionSonic really takes the fight to Kontakt 5 and Goliath. Although they all have their strengths, I daresay that HalionSonic is the best all-rounder of the three, even though it is waaay cheaper than the other two!

For starters, it is the only one with decent acoustic piano sounds. No wait, they are more than just decent, they are really, really good! Unfortunately, the strong acoustic pianos are ultimately let down by unconvincing Rhodes sounds, which is weird as even Cubase’s stock EP’s work better for me. The other sounds all range from usable to surprisingly good, but the highlight (other than the acoustic pianos) for me has to be a wide range of fresh-sounding synth patches.

On the downside, while it is really nice of Steinberg to offer the 1.5 content update, it is unusable for me, as the installer will NOT let me install the content anywhere other than the “MacHD” system drive. I have all my sample libraries -including HalionSonic’s original content!- installed on a dedicated drive, but the 1.5 update installer inconveniently ignores this possibility. I upgraded to 1.5.2 and had to pass on the additional content, bummer. I really hope Steinberg is on the ball with this and that they will offer a fix soon. see update below

Finally, for the money it is simply a great deal. Considering that both Kontakt 5 and Goliath are significantly pricier (not to mention obese) I think Steinberg really has a very attractive proposition in HalionSonic. In fact, I like HS so much I am thinking of shelling out another $100 to upgrade to and see what Halion4 is all about. For those looking for a good all-round soundset, I can’t think of a better alternative.

update:
Piko (see comments) from Steinberg HQ sent me an email detailing how the content update CAN be installed on other hdd’s. It is actually very straightforward, and I am positively embarrassed that I did not figure that out myself. BUT: for Steinberg USA support to tell me that it is not possible is simply incompetent! Wake up, guys, learn your product.

GARRITAN STEINWAY BASIC

Versions tested: 1.04
DAW: Cubase 4.5.2 and 5.5.1 and 5.5.3
computer: iMac 2.16 GHz Core2Duo, 3GB RAM
computer 2: MacPro 2.66 GHz Xeon W3520, 12GB RAM

This was an impulse buy. Garritan had just put this up on their site for $99 as a download and it was instant gratification that made me do it. I love being able to purchase and download right away.

Everything was straightforward and painless, from the paypal transaction to the 3+ GB download, from installation to activation (which requires a virtual keycard, a very elegant approach to anti-piracy). The whole process took less than 30 minutes and I was ready to play.

As Garritan states explicitly on their site, this instrument needs a weighted keyboard. With a semi-weighted action there isn’t much there. With my dirt-cheap Yamaha KX-8 controller the piano came to life.

The basic sound is very good, nicely recorded samples, with a warm and velvety character. This is great as most other digital offerings (software and hardware) tend to lean towards the brighter side, something that works well for pop and rock but isn’t always desirable for acoustic-oriented stuff.

A disadvantage is that this instrument sounds gentle and civilized all the time, it refuses to bark and growl when you really hit it fortissimo. But it works well for intimate stuff.

The user adjustability is somewhat limited, there is quite a few parameters but I can’t say they do a lot for the basic sound. The EQ is not bad, but I never use it. I do have the reverb on most of the time, but I usually replace it later on. Then there is the resonance, maybe my ears aren’t great but I don’t really hear it doing much, unless at extreme settings and that isn’t always a good thing.

An important ommission is lack of MIDI channel select, no big deal in a DAW, but it limits standalone functionality for live use.

Nevertheless, at $99 it is grrrrreat value, but Garritan has since raised the price to $149. Still not unreasonable, but no longer an absolute bargain. At $99 it competes directly with Alicia’s Keys and I would recommend it. As it is, I still like and use it a lot, but I’m not sure I’d give in to instant gratification at $149.

update
All Garritan Steinway products have been discontinued. Current owners can download the latest (64-bit compatiable) ARIA player to ensure compatibility with the latest hosts. Sad to see it go. I had been waiting on an upgrade path to the Pro version since 2010, but it never happened.