Synth manufacturers are finally beginning to get it! Many users have never been interested in incredibly expensive stand-alone workstation/sequencers that, too often, trade sound quality and expandability for bloated feature sets and endless banks of presets. Many of us have dreamed of a time when focused, purpose-built products that do one thing really, really well would become the rule rather than the exception. And in this spirit, the past five years have yielded more must-have products than I care to count.
Two particularly cool trends in synth/sampler designs have clearly emerged. On one side of the spectrum, you have products from Nord, Virus and others that deliver to the Brian Enos of the world what they've always wanted — fat analog sounds and more knobs per-square-inch than you can shake a stick at. On the other side, you have the NemeSys GigaStudio/GigaSampler family of host-based PC sampler/workstations, a line of products that really were not even possible a few years ago.
Surprisingly, there a great many people, especially Mac purists (and, yes, my own hand would have been raised a year ago), who don't fully understand what GigaStudio does. Basically, GigaStudio is one of the first fully emancipated sampler/workstations. When I say emancipated, I mean that GigaStudio samples don't reside in traditional RAM- or ROM-based storage/playback media. The samples, instead, are stored on and streamed from the host computer's hard drive, leaving the computer's RAM largely untouched and available for processing duties; the sky is the limit.
GigaStudio delivers a set of huge, intricately sampled and nearly perfect-sounding acoustic instrument libraries with all the import, export and keymapping options afforded by traditional hardware samplers. And with PC processor speeds quickly heading toward the 2GHz mark and hard drive prices heading toward the basement, the time has come for products like GigaStudio.
A QUICK OVERVIEW
The system supports up to 64 MIDI channels and 32 discrete audio channels, depending, of course, on the available hardware, and has the ability to stream a staggering 160 individual voices. GigaStudio also offers full support for GSIF-compatible, 24/96 hardware. All internal processing is 32-bit, and the system includes a healthy helping of proprietary 32-bit, zero-latency NFX effects. The effects can be used as inserts or sends and can be easily auditioned from within the DSP screen. GigaStudio 160 ships with NFX reverb, multi-effects, chorus/flanger and tap delay, and these effects are available separately for owners of GigaStudio 96. Playing to the 32-bit internal processing, there is also a feature called “Capture-to-Wave” that does just that. An entire multitimbral performance, including effects and other controllers, can be condensed to a single .WAV file without the material ever leaving the 32-bit environment. The system also includes high- and lowpass filters, band-reject and bandpass filters, and three pairs of envelope filters and LFOs, which are assignable to pitch, amplitude and filter cut-off.
A new feature that was included with the original 2.0 release and is greatly improved in the new version is the QuickSound database system. QuickSound allows users to do keyword searches to locate specific files on their local hard drives and then quickly audition them. (The Hollywood Edge recently announced new versions of Premiere Edition III, Premier Edition IV and The Edge Edition, all engineered to work specifically with QuickSound.) Both simple and complex nested searches produce instantaneous results from hundreds of Gigabytes or even Terabytes of files. The results can then be selected by group and dragged into the Distributed Wave window, where they are automatically keymapped for interactive auditioning against the scene. Selections can then be saved as either a distributed wave collection or as a .Gig sampler file.
The system also supports a fairly wide variety of file formats including Akai S1000/3000, SoundFont and, of course, .WAV. A dedicated CD audio “ripper” is also included to save you a step when “borrowing” sounds. And a number of inexpensive third-party programs are available at NemeSys' Website, such as Translator, which provides E-mu, Roland, SoundFont, Ensoniq, .AIFF, Kurzweil and SampleCell compatibility.
HARDWARE: WHAT YOU ACTUALLY NEED
If you're a bedroom hobbyist with only one PC to handle everything from Cakewalk to Waveburner, then the number of GigaStudio voices that you're going to be able to use will be limited. In fact, the system defaults to a maximum polyphony of 96 when it senses a sequencer installed on the same rig. NemeSys recommends a Pentium III or Athlon processor running at 800 MHz or better with 128 MB of RAM. If you're intending to run GigaStudio with a separate sequencer on the same machine (which works quite well and is something that the program was specifically engineered to do), then I'd recommend at least 256 MB of RAM. Pro users should just cough up the cash for a dedicated machine. Including the PC, the hard drives and an appropriate interface, an almost limitless sampler can be purchased for just under $2,000. Many studios will already have a number of the hardware elements already on-hand, possibly wasting space in closets.
One point that should be stressed to both the hobbyist and the pro user is the importance of hard drive speed. With most host-based DAWs, you can cheat a little in this respect and opt for a run-of-the-mill IDE or ATA drive and really never look back. But because the hard drive is effectively acting as RAM and streaming huge samples within acceptable amounts of latency, NemeSys' recommendation of an Ultra DMA or Ultra2/Ultra Wide SCSI shouldn't be taken lightly; seek times that are 9 ms or better with a disk cache of 512k or larger are essential to proper operation.
GigaStudio runs on Windows '95, '98 and Me with XP support expected in the near future. A GSIF soundcard is also a necessity, and there are literally dozens available now, including Soundscape Mixtreme, Echo Layla/Gina/Darla, EgoSys Waveterminal, M-Audio Delta 1010/66/44, and a host of others with multichannel, 24-bit support. The system will run at less than optimal capacity with a generic PC soundcard, supporting two channels of 16-bit audio. A multiport MIDI interface (at least a 4×4) is also something users might want to consider purchasing if they intend to really push the system to its theoretical limits. The test unit I used was a SoundChaser PC DAW with an 850MHz Athlon processor, 256 MB of RAM and a secondary internal 30-Gig Ultra2 SCSI drive for audio.
SOME COOL REFINEMENTS
Version 2.2 offers a number of fixes and extra/improved features. For example, the QuickSound database now boasts improved seek time, file/directory filters for creating databases and improved progress meters. Instrument-wise, patch numbers are now preserved with the associated performances, and all mapped instruments can be unloaded. Gig files can now be constructed from a collection of pre-edited .WAV files without having to first use the instrument editor, and the synthesizer engine now allows for far more flexibility with regard to external controllers and a variety of Envelope/Velocity/Aftertouch functions. GigaEditor includes more comprehensive import/export functionality, allowing, for instance, an entire file folder to be exported with a single click, as opposed to moving individual files. A number of bugs that led to crashes with Cakewalk and Logic Audio have also been cleared up.
GETTING UNDER THE HOOD
The first screen that boots up in GigaStudio is the main instrument/mixer screen that corresponds to the first of four MIDI ports. A set of MIDI port icons to the left of the mixer allow the user to quickly toggle between ports, and additional icons correspond to the DSP screen, system performance screen and the Help function. Along the bottom of the screen is the QuickSound file locator with the keyword search box and displays showing available drives, folders and files.
Loading instruments/files isn't too tricky. You can either use the keyword Search function (which I started using almost exclusively) or browse through one of the pre-installed files and click away. The file loads into the first available instrument bank (in this case, instrument 1 on MIDI port 1) and, assuming your audio hardware is correctly set up, it's ready to be auditioned. Below the mixer but above the QuickSound portion of the screen is a piano-key display; the keys that have sounds mapped to them will be illuminated, and those that don't remain shaded. This isn't terribly necessary when dealing with chromatic instruments like pianos, but it's awfully helpful when auditioning percussion or sound FX files.
From here, tweaking possibilities abound. The next important screen is the DSP mixer that allows access to the NFX Series effects. Each instrument comes up as a separate stereo pair and corresponds to the same position assignments as the main mixer. For each instrument, there are four available inserts and eight aux sends per MIDI port. Every fader, pan, aux send, aux return and NFX control can be automated via right mouse button access to a menu of port, channel and MIDI controller choices. The effects interfaces are another demonstration in simplicity. Each include a generous complement of presets and a logical layout of different parameters on easy-to-use faders; the low/mid/high contour control is particularly slick. To get really tweaky, you have to move onto the instrument editor, which launches as if it were a separate application; however, everything works together seamlessly. You can either dig into any of the preformatted sound libraries and adjust filter cut-offs, LFOs, etc., or begin building your own instrument files from any collection of edited .WAV files. Dragging and dropping files into place is a snap, and from there it's a few simple clicks to get things properly panned and normalized.
So how does the thing sound? I'm as skeptical as the next guy, and I wasn't immediately sold on GigaStudio when I began to audition some sounds. You've heard one grand piano patch, you've heard them all, right? But in the name of science, I went through the sounds on the pro-level workstation synth that I've been using for some time now and tried my best to match the sounds stored there against the files on GigaStudio. It was here that I noticed that the program really began to perform. The realistic nature of the sounds that the program reproduces is downright scary. I was especially impressed with the stringed instruments, like the new Scarbee Fingered Bass selections. There are, of course, intrinsic limitations to reproducing stringed instruments like bass, guitar and violin though a keyboard interface.
Anyone who has ever picked up a guitar knows, for instance, that the A you play on your low E string has a totally different quality and resonance than the A you play on the D string. Normally, to save space in RAM-based workstation/samples, you have a couple (at best) of key samples per instrument that are pitched up and down across the keyboard to fill out the usable octaves. Not so with GigaStudio: Here you get a sample for every single note, and it makes a real difference in the sound quality. Beyond that, all of the subtle qualities are present — hammer on/off, slides, mutes and aftertouch can be applied as one would with any standard controllers via a sustain pedal or mod/pitch wheel. This forces you into a slightly different mindset when playing, but taking the time to learn the ins and outs of each Giga instrument will yield far superior results to what most of us have grown used to hearing from keyboard instruments.
All of the sounds I auditioned impressed me, especially when I matched them against what I once considered acceptable. On one particular project I was working on, an EP for one of the bands I play in, we were unable to secure a room to track live drums. To the collective horror of my bandmates, I suggested tracking the drums through a set of Roland E-Drums and using the drum files off GigaStudio. To impress this group of indie purists bred on Elvis Costello and the Velvet Underground was no small feat. But the program did the trick — the crash and ride cymbals actually sound like cymbals and not that little fart sound that most drum machines make. The toms were not only correctly panned but had real depth and resonance. With the proper amount of reverb, a little kiss of chorus and a little bit of overall compression in Cubase, the project sounds like the stripped-down, “classic” rock record that was intended — despite that fact that it never saw life outside of a hard drive!
The effects package is also top-notch. In fact, as an avid VST user, the latency, control and overall sound of the NFX Series of effects made me downright jealous. The reverbs are some of the best I've ever heard and certainly the cleanest I've heard from a host-based system.
It's my job to find something to criticize, and a few things caught my attention. While the “Capture-to-Wave” function is a great idea, I'd like to see it expanded to include a scalable number of sub-group mixdown tracks. I think this will help out everyone working in film scores and post who now have to live with the additional production tasks of multichannel formats — cues don't come out of just two speakers anymore. With multiple mixdown tracks, scores could be broken into obvious pieces, and sound editors could make appropriate tweaks to individual sub groups, as opposed to recutting an entire performance. [Editor: Just as we went to press, NemeSys reported that this feature is slated for Version 3.0.]
I found that after several hours of use with fairly large performances, some of the effects wouldn't “let go” when they were supposed to; a quick save and restart always cleared it up, though. And it may have been an issue with the Delta 1010 interface I was using, but when I first booted up GigaStudio, the output levels were way, way too hot; this was another quick fix in the Delta control panel, but it's something that potential users should be aware of.
Otherwise, this is a classic in the making. The sound, the flexibility and the ease of use are absolutely top-shelf. I've been an ardent Mac user for years, and I'm certainly not jumping platforms, but the people at NemeSys will actually have to come to my home and take my review unit away with their bare hands. I'm not letting it go, because it sounds that good.
Robert Hanson is a musician/producer living in San Francisco; his parents think he is too skinny and pale.