MOTU MachFive 3

March 6, 2012

By Peter Kirn

WE’RE SPOILED BY THE CURRENT STATE OF SOFTWARE SAMPLERS.
As the virtual instrument known as the “sampler” has matured, there’s very little that each major package doesn’t do. What were once simply tools to map recorded sounds across a keyboard have evolved new capabilities, some of which stretch the limits of the entire category. MachFive 3 is a generational leap forward from previous releases, building on already-solid sampling and import abilities with a new user interface and vastly expanded sonic features. It’s almost unfair to call it a sampler in the narrow sense, as it’s really a hybrid of synthesizer and sampler. Coupled with scripting, interactive engines, signal processing, and effects, it’s a giant toolbox for sound design and instrument creation.

Improved Interface

MachFive 2 was already a powerful instrumental toolkit. But some of that power came at the cost of interface usability. The main screen required all but the youngest eyes to squint, and then led to a potentially confusing array of windows for switching between tasks.

All of that changes with MachFive 3, which rethinks the interface from scratch. The challenge in a sampler is providing extensive editing—for key zones, layers, parts, effects, multis, and so on—without getting the user lost. Not unlike Native Instruments Kontakt, MachFive 3 unifies those tasks in tabbed interfaces that let you focus on what you’re doing and get quick access to tools.

MOTU’s approach is replete with clean, slick layouts. The entire program functions easily in full-screen mode, taking advantage of your display real estate. MOTU also provides easier access to an existing feature of MachFive, letting you jump with one click into a full-screen window for editing envelopes.

There’s still some sense of option overload— massive menus of different filters, for instance. Think of a restaurant with a really long list of tasty courses—it’s a nice problem to have. But with features like “breadcrumbs” that show where you are in the hierarchy, as on the Mac Finder and Windows Explorer, you can easily retrace your steps. All in all, MOTU has done an uncommonly good job of making all this power navigable.

Getting deeper in, you’ll see why that overhaul was so vital. With features combining sampling, synthesis, mixing, effects, and event processing, you’ll want a good interface to bind everything together.

 
Combining everything from extensive sounds to processing tools worthy of a modular synth, MachFive 3 brings everything together in one integrated workflow.
Behind the scenes, MachFive 3 is fully 64- bit on Mac OS 10.6 and later, as well as on 64-bit editions of Windows 7 and Vista. That squeezes some extra ounces of power out of modern CPUs, and more critically, accesses greater amounts of memory. For creating big multis or playing complex instruments, it’s essential, though for most users, this feature will be invisible.

Synth Power

For years, we’ve thought of tools called “synthesizers” and “samplers” as separate. However, if you’re trying to design an instrument or a unique sound, that distinction is somewhat arbitrary. MachFive 3 seamlessly blends both approaches.

You can begin a sound from scratch using traditional synth building blocks, and all the bases are covered. You’ll find basic virtual analog oscillators and waveforms, also available in a “stack” with multiple oscillators, additive synthesis, a four-oscillator wavetable source with a big variety of bread-and-butter wave shapes, a drum oscillator (combining basic oscillator types and noise for drum synthesis), an organ model (employing basic additive synthesis, drawbar-style), and even FM and granular options. The FM synth combines multiple routing matrices for some deep possibilities. The granular oscillator works especially nicely: drag-and-drop a sample and you can produce experimental, ringing timbres, clouds of sound, or rich textures.

Filters, modulation, and envelopes complete the picture. There’s tremendous attention to detail, both sonically and in visual interface design. First off , you have an astounding selection of filter choices, including various special types such as one modeled on the classic Oberheim Xpander. Modulation is especially powerful, routable to a drawable modulation envelope, MIDI, macro knobs, other internal envelopes, or a lovely step sequencer module. Again, you can zoom in on any of those envelopes and edit it in a screen-filling display. Th ere’s visual feedback everywhere, including indicators on knobs and signal flows through envelopes (a feature I’ve seen in soft synths like Future Audio Workshop’s Circle, but not in a sampler before). Envelopes can be edited both via conventional faders and graphically.

 
An encyclopedic set of effects is right inside, with loads of modulation and routing options.
All these sorts of tools are available elsewhere, of course, but there are advantages to using them inside the MachFive sampler. First, seeing these tools reduced to their essential elements is refreshing; you cover the vast majority of what you need without some of the complexity and individual quirks of dedicated synths. Secondly, you can still apply all of the synthesis power in the context of MachFive’s instrument design tools. Multis and layers and keyboard zones still use the editing of MachFive-as-sampler, and the workflow is stunningly quick. For instance, set up your multi, pick a key zone, grab a waveform from, say, the classic Casio CZ, apply an Oberheim Xpander filter, add some modulation, drop in a new arpeggiator, and you have instant, playable inspiration for a new track. Multiple noise types and a nice-sounding Drive let you add some dirt.

MachFive isn’t without competition. Kontakt recently added a similarly generous filter bank, although the Oberheim options in MachFive are especially tasty. Steinberg HALion adds a similar multi-oscillator tool and filters, though it lacks the vast array of synthesis options in MachFive. It’s tough to beat MachFive’s newfound breadth.

Sounds and Scripting

If you do want to get working quickly with readyto- use sounds, a stack of DVD-ROMs awaits. You get 45GB of sounds and loops, including dedicated grand piano and electric piano, loads of drums, and all the acoustic, “ethnic,” percussion, and synth categories you’d expect. True to the new synthesis abilities of MachFive 3, a great number of these are in an expansive collection called Biosphere, which is full of inspiration for electronic music. There are also two DVDs of sound effects licensed from Ultimate Soundbank. Some might prefer more instruments to sound effects, but recall that with the granular features of MachFive 3, you could create some unique sound designs with this set. You’ll also find lots of loops, which couple nicely with the slicing features for still more inspiration.

The most unique of these employ new scripting features in MachFive 3. There’s a greatsounding 7.5GB Rhodes Mark II Suitcase, plus a Fazioli grand, plus an upright bass and acoustic drum kit, each with selectable mic placements. But the stars are the “Telematic” guitar and “J Bass.” Using extensive scripting and thousands of samples, these sound and play eerily realistically. The Telematic uses elaborate conditional scripts to play chords as if you’re actually strumming, sliding, and moving your hands over the guitar. The results are accurate enough that you’ll actually have to practice—as keyboardists, it’s easy for us to play chords and licks that wouldn’t work on a guitar, and the Telematic will adjust accordingly to force more idiomatic playing. Play realistic licks, and the results sound mind-blowing. You can’t edit the scripts on these factory sounds, but you can use the same scripting engine to make your own intelligent instruments.

 
Powered by MachFive’s new scripting engine, Telematic is a stunningly realistic guitar.
Many instruments also include helpful macro knobs for sweeping multiple parameters at once, which can keep a lot of the underlying complexity out of your way, especially with multis. You can also assign your own macros to make your custom-built instruments more playable.

Time Stretching and Granular Synthesis

MachFive 3 is a sound design tool as much as it’s a sampler in the conventional sense. It already led other soft samplers with onboard sound slicing; this greatly streamlines the workflow of dividing a sound into chunks by transient, then mapping those chunks to the keyboard. Other tools have since followed suit, but MachFive 3 makes it easier to use. Dubbed LoopLab, you work either with existing, presliced samples (Apple Loops, Propellerhead REX, UFS, and Sony Acid), or bring in your own. Because you can drag-and-drop everything, it’s a cinch to work with your existing host.

Where MachFive 3 greatly expands is in its new time stretching and granular tools. New algorithms licensed from Paris’ IRCAM research center sound better and expand the range of timbral experimentation. They’re more CPU-intensive, but I had no problem with lower polyphony counts on a mid-range, dual-core MacBook Pro. (There are different quality settings to help economize, too.) IRCAM “Stretch” does what the name implies: It’s a straightforward but high-quality pitchindependent stretch feature.

“Granular,” while less useful for creating realistic acoustic sampled instruments, is a great deal more fun for creative sound design. Based on IRCAM’s solid granular algorithm, you can slice up any sound into tiny “grains,” a technique first proposed by composer Iannis Xenakis and since a mainstay of digital sound manipulation. With larger grains, the results can be a mix of layered sounds; with smaller grains, you can push the timbral extremes for gorgeous ringing tones or aggressive, glitchy metallic textures. There are more advanced granular synths out there, but combining the grains with the extensive samplerstyle sound mappings, envelopes, modulation, and effects add further reason to call MachFive 3 a desert island instrument, one you could easily make your only sound source.

Effects

MachFive 3 has loads of them, enough that you may not ever need to go outside the program. Following new additions in this version, the range now runs from chorus and flanger to tape delay, various reverbs, EQ, visual spectrum analysis, beat repeat, compressor, expander, limiter, and distortion. Especially tantalizing to synth builders, many of these are analog-style building blocks, like modeled analog delays, the aforementioned filter collection, ring mod, and analog variations on the other effects. Since effects can be assigned to modular routings via key group, you can combine this processing toolbox with the flexibility of the sampler’s part structure.

 
Advanced and flexible loop slicing is built right in.
One new highlight in this version is the IR (impulse response) Reverb. Aside from the expected collection of impulses from acoustic environments and spaces, you also get loads of models of analog gear, from plates to Lexicon’s PCM, making this convolution reverb many virtual devices combined into one.

Event Processors and Scripts

What makes an instrument realistic or dynamic lies largely in the ways in which it responds to input. MachFive’s new Event Processors and scripting engine give you extensive ways to modify this behavior. If you’re a newcomer, you can use these as-is, but if you’re more ambitious, you can go under the hood and modify existing scripts or create your own.

Click on “Event” when editing a patch, and just as you can edit parts and add effects, you can add custom event behaviors to any instrument design. The Event Processing modules are graphical and friendly. There’s an Arpeggiator that’s really part step sequencer: In addition to lots of note-order options and a chord mode, you can set up pattern velocity by step. For alternate tunings, you’ll find a Micro Tuner module. It looks like a spreadsheet, mapping incoming MIDI notes to other tunings. Various common tunings are included, and you can also import mappings in Scala format.

The Script Processor is the truly open-ended tool. To get you started, MOTU has included a variety of handy scripts, with options like Invert Pitch, Chord Recognition, Tremolo, and Legato. Most of these, though, can then be edited, so you can see how basic examples work. You can also create your own. MOTU has chosen a really ideal scripting language, Lua. It’s simple, readable, elegant, and commonly used in game design. If you can do some musical arithmetic, you can build your own instruments.

Conclusions

MachFive has some serious competition, and many third-party sound libraries focus on rival sampling engines from NI and Steinberg. But MachFive 3 could be the first release to really give those a run for their money. If all you want is a sampler to import libraries and provide killer ready-to-use sounds, MachFive 3 won’t disappoint. But if you’re tempted to dive further into uncharted waters of sound design, it’s unparalleled. You get an integrated workflow that packs synthesis and sampling seamlessly into one box, plus an array of fantastic filters, modulation options, and analog- and digital-style effects. For sonic adventurers, having event processing and scripting, plus richly capable granular and stretching tools, can help you make instruments that sound like nothing else. All of this comes in a redesigned interface that’s attractive, manageable, and takes full advantage of a big screen. For synth lovers, no other sampler better integrates synthesizer functions, which is why we’re awarding MachFive 3 a Key Buy. There’s really only one problem: You may be spending some long evenings in your studio hiding from friends and family!

Snap Judgment

PROS Seamlessly blends synthesis and sampling. Revamped interface is clean and elegant. Full-screen editing. Unbeatable sound manipulation. Extensive effects and custom, scriptable event processing. Dynamic, realistic factory instruments.

CONS Sheer number of choices is sometimes overwhelming. More online help would be useful. Some users may prefer more included orchestral factory content to loops and sound effects.

Bottom Line

Merging samples, synthesis, effects, mixing, and scripting in one harmonious interface, MachFive 3 has what it takes to give the usual soft sampler suspects a run for their money.

$495 list | $459 street | $179 upgrade from previous version | $295 competitive upgrade

motu.com

Key Info

SYNTHESIS TYPES Sample playback with slice, stretch, and scripting; virtual analog; FM; granular; drum; wavetable; additive organ.

FACTORY CONTENT 45GB on 7 DVD-ROMs.

COMPATIBLE AUDIO FILES AIFF, Acid, Apple Loops, REX, SD-II, WAV.

COMPATIBLE LIBRARIES Akai MPC and S-series, Emulator III/ IV, Ensoniq ASR, EXS24 (Logic), GarageBand, GigaStudio, Kontakt, Kurzweil K series, MOTU, Roland S700, SampleCell, SoundFonts, UVI.

PLUG-IN FORMATS AU (Mac only), RTAS, VST, and standalone.

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS Mac: OS 10.5.8 or later. PC: Windows 7 or Vista SP2 or later. Both: Intel Core Duo 1.83GHz or more recent processor, 2GB RAM (4GB recommended), optical drive for installation, separate fast hard drive or SSD for samples recommended.

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