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.
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
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.
|Combining everything from extensive sounds to processing tools worthy of a modular synth, MachFive 3 brings everything together in one integrated workflow.|
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.
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.
|An encyclopedic set of effects is right inside, with loads of modulation and routing options.|
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
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.
|Powered by MachFive’s new scripting engine, Telematic is a stunningly realistic guitar.|
Time Stretching and
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
“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.
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.
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.
|Advanced and flexible loop slicing is built right in.|
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.
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!
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.
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
SYNTHESIS TYPES Sample playback
with slice, stretch, and scripting;
virtual analog; FM; granular; drum;
wavetable; additive organ.
FACTORY CONTENT 45GB on
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