SOFTWARE SYNTH/SAMPLE PLAYER/DRUM MACHINE BUNDLENative software synthesizers were at one time dismissed for pro use due to their latency and poor sound quality. They were considered okay for occasional sound design but were shunned as real-time performance and composition tools. However, super computers - such as the Mac G4 and Pentium III class - have helped rewrite the reputation of software synths. Virtual instruments, as they are also called, now sport incredible synthesis engines and latency that is practically nonexistent with the right setup. Studio9000, Koblo's software synthesizer bundle, is an excellent example of the state of virtual instruments.
The Mac-based Studio9000 bundle has three modules - the Vibra9000 monophonic synth, the Stella9000 sample playback instrument and the Gamma9000 drum machine. Two scaled-down versions of the Vibra9000 are also included: the Vibra6000 and the Vibra1000. (The latter is also available as a free download at www.koblo.com.) All the modules share "Tokyo," a real-time engine that's put on your computer during the software install. An instrument's audio output can be routed to your digital audio sequencer's audio mixer via Steinberg VST2 or ReWire, MOTU MAS, or Digi's DirectConnect. To route the audio separate from your digital audio sequencer's audio mixer, Sound Manager and Direct I/O drivers are available. MIDI is handled via OMS or FreeMIDI.
MAKING CONNECTIONSInstalling Studio9000 can be routine or complex, depending on your needs. Using the program as a stand-alone application is as simple as installing the program, booting up the Tokyo engine, opening an instrument, and assigning your audio outputs and MIDI inputs. Routing the instruments through your digital audio sequencer's audio mixer requires assigning Tokyo an interapplication communication bus (IAC). The manual clearly explains setting up an IAC bus for OMS - which I used - but doesn't mention doing this with FreeMIDI. Third-party audio drivers aren't automatically installed, but they are available on Studio9000's CD-ROM.
Koblo suggests a minimum system requirement of a Power Mac 604e, 120 MHz or better with 40 MB of available RAM, and OS 8 or higher. I'd suggest a lot more horsepower. I used a 400MHz G4 with 256 MB of RAM and OS 9.0.4. This setup was fine working with Tokyo by itself, but once I started routing Tokyo's audio through my digital audio sequencer and inserting effects plug-ins, memory and CPU power were tight. As with most virtual instrument applications, the more powerful your computer, the better the performance. I auditioned Studio9000 using Digide-sign's Pro Tools Mix card with an 888|24 I/O converter.
Authorizing Studio9000 is accomplished via a key disk or by challenge/response codes. Kudos to Koblo for including a key disk for folks that have floppy drives; it's nice to avoid the challenge/response routine if possible. Unfortunately, because the G4 and "blue-and-white" G3 Macs don't have floppy drives, the key disk isn't much good. Key disks don't often work with third-party USB floppy drives; consequently, most users will do the challenge/response anyway, registering a version and challenge code on Koblo's Web site. A response code is e-mailed back to you (mine came within 24 hours).
GLOBAL PATTERNSThe Studio9000 instruments aren't fashioned to look like any particular type of real-world synth. Instead, they have their own look that is decidedly electronica - cool in my book! Though all the instruments have similar front panel layouts and identical graphical control elements, each module has its own color scheme, which makes it possible for the user to distinguish between the instruments at a glance. Stella is blue, Gamma is purple and Vibra is green.
Each instrument has a global parameter section with common controls, including master tune, pan and volume knobs; discrete mute and solo switches; a dedicated key for recording performances direct to hard disk; a MIDI panic button for clearing stuck notes; a Trigger for playing instrument sounds via a mouse click; and a Hold button that sustains the last note triggered. Because drum sounds are mostly transients, Gamma lacks the Hold button but has a global bend parameter. The Vibra1000 is the only instrument without the record-to-disk feature. (Remember, it's the freebie.)
Monitoring includes stereo master LED meters with peak hold and a MIDI activity light. Selecting any knob and a dedicated window displays that knob's function and Control Change number. (Every knob has a CC number for comprehensive automation.) The associated parameter value is shown as a large, red, alphanumeric LED. The current patch name has its own dedicated window, and the user's sound card's selected outputs are displayed there.
STELLAR VIBRATIONSThe filter, ADSR, LFO and modulation sections are similar on both the Stella and the Vibra9000. Each has eight multistate filters, three ADSR envelopes, three LFOs, arpeggiators and eight modulation sources/destinations.
The filters sound great and include the following types: 2/4/8-pole, Double and Quad (12 dB/octave multiple parallel), Notch (24 dB with split highpass and lowpass), and Saw and Square Comb with multiple resonant peaks. A filter output stage includes cutoff, resonance lowpass, highpass, bandpass, distortion and stereo spread parameters. Keyboard tracking and a Separation control can vary resonance and cutoff frequencies, depending on the filter type.
Each of the three ADSR envelopes can be inverted and is velocity sensitive. The waveforms for the LFOs are Ramp Up and Down, Triangle, Square, Sine and Random. Simple Attack/Decay envelopes are provided for each LFO. A parameter called Sharp applies a lowpass filter to the LFO's shape in order to smooth the waveform's edges. The LFOs can be synchronized to incoming MIDI Clock - a wonderfully useful effect. The eight modulation sources include all three envelopes and LFOs, velocity, aftertouch and the Mod Wheel, to name a few. Modulation destinations vary from Pan and Separation, to envelope times and even the LFOs themselves.
The arpeggiator is flexible and great fun to play with. Typical controls, such as tempo, octave range and sequence, (up, down, and up/down) are offered. In addition, there are several advanced parameters allowing sequences to be played back in a variety of ways. For example, rhythmic accents can be altered by changing note velocities, the sequence length can be set from one to 16 steps, portamento between notes is fully adjustable, and there are several settings that determine how octaves are played in an arpeggiated chord. The arpeggiator recognizes MIDI Clock for perfect synchronization with your digital audio sequencer.
The sound source for the Vibra9000 consists of two oscillators with five waveforms each: Saw, Square, Triangle, Sine and Noise. There is no oscillator sync feature, but amplitude and frequency modulation can be achieved by using Oscillator 1 to modulate Oscillator 2 - a nice effect. Oscillator tuning spans an ample 15-octave range. Other parameters affecting the oscillators include portamento, detune, mix, bend and stereo doubling. A keyboard tracking control is available for Oscillator 2's frequency only.
Stella supports up to 32-bit, 44.1kHz samples in .AIFF and SDII formats and is 8-voice polyphonic (16 voices would have been nicer). It is a sample playback instrument only and does not record. However, I didn't find this to be a big problem, because there are plenty of sample sources on third-party CD-ROM, and, if you own a digital audio sequencer, you probably use that to record with anyway. A sample can be tuned to a 15-octave range and by semitones and cents. The pitch bend parameter goes from zero to 60, and a sample's start point can be adjusted. Reverse and loop are available, as well as a basic Attack/Decay envelope for the sample itself. Velocity can be set to modulate the sample's start point, pitch, volume and panning.
Samples are easily assigned for playback if the user clicks in Stella's sample window, where the name of the sample is displayed. This opens a typical Browser window where samples can be located. Unfortunately, there's no way to audition samples from this window, which is a bit inconvenient. Another inconvenience is that Stella only reads SampleCell keymaps. There is no way to map your own samples from within the instrument. This is a major drawback. If you don't have SampleCell to create keymaps, you're stuck working with just one sample when creating your own patches.
GAMMA GLOBULINThe Gamma9000 sports seven sample slots (Koblo calls them tracks). The first six slots hold one sample each, and the seventh slot is for multisample keymaps. The samples in slots 1 to 6 are mapped from C0 to B0 (this is fixed), and C1 and above are reserved for the keymaps. Like Stella, Gamma can read SampleCell keymaps. But unlike Stella, if you don't have SampleCell to concoct keymaps, Gamma will automatically map a group of samples for you. All of the samples must reside in the same folder and be either .AIFF or SDII format (.WAV would be nice, too). Open the folder from within Gamma, and the samples are mapped alphabetically.
Each sample slot has several associated sound-shaping controls. These controls affect the samples in slots 1 to 6 discretely, but the keymapped samples in slot 7 are affected globally. Samples can be reversed, looped and have their start point offset. Modulation sources include a simple lowpass filter (called Tone), velocity and the instrument's master filter section. The modulation destinations are volume, pan, pitch, sample start offset and tone. There is a simple Attack/Release envelope, and each slot has its own volume, pan and pitch controls.
Less comprehensive than Stella and Vibra's filters, Gamma's master filter section still sounds cool and sports all the essential elements. There are three filter types - highpass, lowpass and bandpass - and dials to adjust cutoff, resonance and distortion. This filter affects all the samples routed to the instrument's master output. With a sound card with multiple outs, it's possible to bypass the filter by sending specific sample slots to different outputs.
A step sequencer for creating drum patterns is onboard. It has 16-step-entry keys and tape-style transport controls. Up to eight patterns can be created, looped and assembled into songs; you get four banks for saving your songs. If you're familiar with the old Roland drum machines, circa TR-808, you should feel right at home with this sequencer. Clicking on a beat's LED lets you edit the sample on that beat. For example, you can change a sample's velocity, duration and pitch independent of the sample slot parameters. Controls for tempo, shuffle and accent are provided. And the sequencer can sync to incoming MIDI Clock for locking patterns and songs to your main digital audio sequencer.
VIRTUAL HOT SEATI worked with Studio9000 mostly on Pro Tools 5.0.1 with DirectConnect. However, I also tried it in Steinberg's Cubase VST 24 4.1r2 using VST2. It worked well in both cases, and I encountered no major problems. I liked the convenience of having all of Koblo's virtual instrument power right in Pro Tools. Studio9000 can save its instruments as a preset bank, which is associated with your Pro Tools session and is opened automatically when the session is booted - very cool. Being able to call up the Studio9000 modules as VST instruments in Cubase VST is also useful.
Be forewarned that using Studio9000 with a digital audio sequencer requires a lot of system memory. For example, if you load large samples to Gamma and Stella, you will need to increase Tokyo's memory beyond the minimum 40 MB. Say you want to use a lot of effects plug-ins and other virtual instruments in your digital audio sequencer, this also requires additional memory. I've gotten used to needing massive amounts of memory to run native instruments and effects, but to some this may come as a shock; expect to spend some extra cash on additional RAM.
Apparently, I've been spoiled using the new multitimbral instruments manufactured by Koblo's competition. I found myself wishing the Studio9000 instruments responded to more than one MIDI channel at a time. (Each instrument can receive different MIDI channels, so Tokyo as a whole is multitimbral.) However, because the individual modules aren't multitimbral, you can hear only one instance of each instrument at once. To hear more than one instance of a module simultaneously, you'll have to submix your virtual tracks down to your hard drive, which is a bit of a pain. On the flip side, though the Vibra instruments aren't multitimbral or polyphonic, there are three of them for layering.
A virtual instrument's sound quality depends on your sound card, and through Digidesign's 24-bit outputs the Studio9000 instruments sounded exceptional. And there are loads of cool presets. I particularly enjoyed Vibra's quirky arpeggiated presets and phat bass sounds. Stella's presets aren't earth-shattering, but some of the pads are definitely useful. However, the vintage drum machine samples in Gamma are some of the best I've ever heard. These patches include old standards like Roland's TR-909 and E-mu's Drumulator, specialty sets such as the Linn9000 and Alesis HR-16, and esoteric machines including the Casio PT-87 and Roland CR-8000.
KOBLO CABANAStudio9000 is a deep software bundle, and a single review can't truly do it justice. I've done my best to cover the bases, but certainly there are details I've missed. Though Studio9000 does has a few drawbacks - Vibra is monophonic, Stella is missing keymap and sample audition features, Tokyo is a memory hog, and none of the instruments are multitimbral - these are relatively minor gripes considering the overall package. For $595 retail, Studio9000 is a great deal. If you bought all the Studio9000 instruments as hardware, you could easily spend four times as much money. For under $600, you get three analog-style synthesizers, a sample playback unit, a drum machine with great emulation sounds, compatibility with a variety of digital audio sequencers, lots of cool-sounding filters and tons of parameters that synchronize to MIDI Clock (arpeggiators, LFOs and even a step sequencer). It's hard to top that deal.
Koblo Studio9000 is distributed by Digidesign, 3401-A Hillview Avenue, Palo Alto, CA 94304; 650/842-7900; fax 650/842-7999; www.koblo.com.