Sonic Core SCOPE Xite-1

March 6, 2012
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Six-String, Modular III, and Minimax are three of the included instruments. The Live Bar up top is a control center where, among other things, you set up system I/O.
By Craig Anderton

TRAVEL BACK IN TIME TO 1998. STEINBERG’S VIRTUAL STUDIO TECHNOLOGY was a few years old. The Mac was still running OS8, and PCs were running Windows 98. And I was invited to see a preview of Creamware’s SCOPE system, based around a massive PCI card with its own software mixer, virtual instruments, effects, and 15 powerful DSP chips dedicated to running them. What made SCOPE unique was, well, its scope. It didn’t merely virtualize instruments and signal processors, or just combine an audio interface with some plug-ins, although that was part of the picture. As the first serious attempt to virtualize the entire studio and put it “inside the box,” it was as if someone inventoried all my outboard gear (including synths), put their processing muscle on a PCI card, then wrapped a software interface around them.

DAWs became just another component in SCOPE whose ins and outs appeared on the patch bay, with SCOPE serving more like a sort of metahost— although of course, the DAWs could still host their own plug-ins and soft synths. SCOPE’s instruments and processors weren’t plug-ins as we normally think of them, but were like traditional outboard gear whose outputs plugged into SCOPE’s virtual mixer, then fed your DAW. SCOPE got some traction, but the expense—and frankly, being ahead of its time—worked against it, and eventually Creamware dissolved. So why the history lesson? First, SCOPE remained the centerpiece of my studio until I went 64-bit a few years ago—not just because of its capabilities, but also because of its sound quality. Second, the system still virtualizes an entire studio, but now that it’s back, it benefits from the technological advances of the past 14 years.

Overview

The package contents are minimal: Xite-1 single rack space audio interface, PCIe interface card, HDMI-type cable to connect the two, 12V “line lump” external power supply with line cord, two CD-ROMs, and installation instructions. System requirements are basically what you need to wake up Windows—1.2GHz processor and 2GB of RAM—as the card’s DSP does the heavy lifting.

The new system is far more compact and ergonomic than previous incarnations. The tiny PCIe card exists only to shuttle traffic between the interface and your computer, which bypasses operating system layers and beats USB or FireWire for speed. Gone is the huge DSP card; 18 Analog Devices SHARC chips—12 for the heavy number crunching plus six for routing and mixing—reside in the Xite-1 rack. Have a PC laptop? If it has an ExpressCard slot, you can hook up Xite-1 via an optional ExpressCard that lists for $149.

Installation

The PCIe card doesn’t need drivers; Windows recognizes it automatically. However, the Xite-1 DSP requires drivers and of course, the SCOPE soft ware. Installing these is straightforward for anyone who has installed hardware on Windows systems—a good thing, because the installation guide is cryptic (for example, all the screen shots are in German, and the FAQs on the site on registration are in German as well). I think the assumption is that if you can afford the system, you’ve probably been around the block a few times with audio PCs.

The system didn’t crash during my testing, which speaks well of the engineering but also underscores that the SCOPE system doesn’t interact much with your computer (other than the VSTIM option described later)—often it’s interaction between programs that causes problems. Incidentally, if you have an old Creamware PCI board, Sonic Core offers a version of SCOPE soft ware that can bring it back to life in your 32-bit or 64-bit Vista or Windows 7 system. It works like a champ, although finding computers with standard PCI slots is becoming increasingly difficult.

The Studio’s Heart

The hardware lets SCOPE talk to the rest of the world. But in SCOPE’s own virtualized studio world, you start with the routing window—a cross between a schematic diagram of your studio and a patch bay.

A typical setup starts with one (or several) of the nine included mixers, from a simple micro-mixer to a 48-channel model with six aux sends, four inserts per channel, and surround (up to 8.1). All mixer parameters, like seemingly everything else in SCOPE, can be MIDI-controlled with a painless learn mode (noteworthy when introduced; commonplace now). Other modules represent soft ware and hardware I/O that you connect with virtual patch cords, and everything can be saved as a setup. So, you could create a setup for tracking in Cubase, another for mixing in Sonar, another for live synth performance, and so on. There’s a total of 64 virtual channels within SCOPE.

The mixer can blend the synths and samplers, add processors, then patch the outs back into your DAW’s input. This works just like plugging an outboard synth into a mixer—and because all this is in hardware external to the computer, when playing “live” there’s no discernible latency unless of course you’re using this with a DAW and monitoring through it. You can trigger the SCOPE synths and samplers from your DAW’s internal MIDI sequencer (via the multiple soft MIDI ports) or an external controller plugged into the Xite-1’s MIDI in.

 
Like the synths and effects it hosts, SCOPE’s
mixer is totally DSP-powered and doesn’t hit your
computer’s CPU. You can freely patch between it
and your DAW, and even patch in outboard hardware
with no latency.
The bottom line for all this—and it’s an important one—is that you can load up a greatsounding SCOPE synth that eats processing power, set it for mondo voices, feed it through the system’s lush-sounding reverb and perhaps some other effects, layer it with more synths, play the whole thing with less latency than many (if not most) hardware synths, then record it as a track in your DAW—all without stressing your computer’s CPU. The only exception involves the samplers, which use the computer’s CPU to avoid loading the DSP excessively when you want lots of voices. Non-SCOPE instruments can insert as plug-ins within your DAW, but note that as SCOPE takes a significant load off the CPU, you’ll even be able to run these with lower latency than usual. When mixing in the SCOPE environment, you can also patch in hardware effects, compressors, and so on, with no latency.

Instruments and Effects

About 60 effects ship with Xite-1, however many of these are broken out individually, not counted as a single effect (e.g., instead of a “dynamics” effect with compressor, expander, and gate, these are considered three separate effects). The roster includes eight dynamics processors, seven EQs, four reverbs, 15 modulation effects like phaser, flanger, etc., five distortions, seven delays, and miscellaneous effects like ring modulator and tremolo. There are also four mastering-specific effects (dither, stereo widener, meter bridge, and soft clipping module) although effects like the multiband dynamic, Vinco (“vintage compressor”) and EQ are well suited for mastering. The SL9000 channel strip is particularly useful, and trumps some of the older plug-ins regarding sound quality; an effects chain module is also available that holds up to six effects.

 
You get XLR jacks for balanced analog and AES/EBU digital audio. The optical ports handle 16 channels of lightpipe I/O or optical S/PDIF. The FireWire lookalike jacks use Sonic Core’s Z-Link protocol for their A16 interfaces, each of which can add 16 channels at up to 96kHz. The XTDM connector (no relation to Pro Tools TDM) is planned to let you cascade multiple Xite-1 units together.
There are plenty of virtual instruments—23 total (although two of these include version 5 updates of older ones, which are also included)— with two modular synth systems, Poison FM synthesizer, three Minimoog emulations, Prodyssey (ARP Odyssey) emulation, Juno-106 emulation, “Profit-5” virtual analog synth, Vectron wavetable synth with Prophet-VS-like vector abilities, the B-2003 clonewheel organ, two drum machines, a couple of cool arpeggiators, and more. The SB404 is your basic step sequenced acid bass, and two simple synths—EZ Synth and Inferno—recall Steinberg’s ancient Neon synths for being simple, yet with cutting sounds that work well for the dance floor. Optional-at-extra cost instruments, like the Modular IV (successor to the Modular II and III) and instruments from third parties, are also available.

You’d think that by today’s standards the instruments might sound dated, but the engineers got them right the first time. (Industry trivia: Some of the designers of their best synths ended up at Native Instruments when Creamware went out of business.) The Minimax remains a blockbuster Minimoog emulation with a big, warm “bite” that can be more aggressive than some other virtual Minimoogs I’ve heard; the Modulars are a synth hacker’s dream come true—no soldering required!— and Six-String is a gem. It does beautiful physical modeling of guitar timbres, from distorted leads to acoustics, but can also create abstract, synth-like tones. It’s both traditional and original. The Wavetable-based LightWave has a thin sound by itself—but remember, you can stack multiple instances to beef if up.

On the minus side, the STS samplers are indeed dated—you’ll never mistake them for Kontakt or MachFive. Then again, you’ll have a nice home for those Akai S1000 and S3000 libraries, which along with SoundFonts are the only sampler formats STS recognizes. It’s too bad other formats aren’t supported, as the STS samplers are reasonably powerful (not unlike the original Emulator X) and can actually sample.

As to the formerly problematic XTC mode, which was supposed to allow the SCOPE processors and synths to run as standard VST and VSTi plug-ins, that’s no longer an issue as there’s no separate XTC mode. Instead, the plug-ins simply show up in VST hosts (as long as the Xite hardware is present) using what SonicCore calls VSTIM (VST Integration Mode). XTC is still available for older Creamware boards with the newer soft ware, but using these plug-ins increases latency, and getting everything to work correctly can result in some head-scratching moments.

Conclusions

The Xite-1 looks like an audio interface, but calling it an “audio interface” is sort of like calling the Taj Mahal a “house”—technically correct, but conceptually wrong. There’s no equivalent product that offers such a wide range of soft ware to “accessorize” a virtualized hardware studio and interface, yet also doesn’t force you to use a particular DAW—SCOPE plays nice with others, as long as you’re on Windows.

There’s no printed manual, but electronic documentation (mostly unmodified from the original Creamware version) is available from within the program. However, there’s a considerable learning curve, and the documentation’s lack of organization works against it. There are also helpful online communities, where you’ll find tidbits such as needing to open the soft ware in Admin mode with Windows 7 to use the samplers, as they’re old enough that they write some code to sections of the system that Windows now normally blocks for safety reasons.

We’ve discussed how the DSP lightens the computer’s load, but remember that hardware DSP power is nonetheless finite, and it’s possible to run up against Xite-1’s limits. A little care in how you use it (don’t allocate more voices than you need, don’t have active inputs with nothing feeding them) helps maximize resources. The main difference compared to running native is that native processing power is a moving target that depends on what other processes are running. With DSP, if you can load it, you can run it.

If you’re familiar with Universal Audio’s UAD-2 system, you already know how DSP can add aft erburners to your computer. Where SCOPE differs is in its ambition—whereas the UAD-2 provides plug-ins for a DAW that’s part of your studio, SCOPE wants to be your studio. Not dealing with synth latency is a huge attraction, the sound quality is warm and musical (as was the original, so they haven’t lost the recipe), the soft ware is visually striking and remains as relevant as when it was part of the original SCOPE, and the whole concept is both original and utilitarian. Although it’s not too terribly hard to figure out, it’s deep enough to keep the surprises coming.

Granted, the Sonic Core system is expensive— whether it’s worth it to you or not depends greatly on whether you need the extra power, flexibility, and low latency it brings to the table. However, when you start assigning value to the bundled plugins, and the convenience factor of minimal latency and a happier computer, the scales start tipping more to the value side. One thing’s for sure: Once you experience what SCOPE can do, it’s a whole other take on how to use a computer for making and recording music. I’m glad it’s back.

Snap Judgment

PROS Virtualizes an entire studio, not just particular effects or instruments. Plentiful collection of processors and virtual instruments. Awesome sound quality. Zero latency live when using SCOPE’s DSP instruments; low latency with DAWs.

CONS Loud pop on startup. No Mac version. Expensive. Doesn’t do 88.2kHz. Learning curve.

Bottom Line

When it was introduced, the SCOPE system was ahead of its time. With this incarnation, its time has come—for those who can afford it.

€3,890 | approx. $5,200 sonic-core.net

Key Info

AUDIO RESOLUTION 24 bits at 44.1, 48, or 96kHz.

SYNTHESIS TYPES Virtual analog, FM, wavetable, vector synthesis, sampling.

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS Intel or AMD processor 1.2GHz or faster, 2GB RAM, Windows XP or 7 32- or 64-bit. Free PCIe slot (desktop/tower) or ExpressCard slot (laptop).

Meet the Modulars

One of the coolest SCOPE features from day one has been the Modular Synth. As it progressed from version II to III (both are included with Xite-1), the number of modules kept growing. Modular III has about 200 modules; compared to Modular II, the main differences are more effects, LFOs, and modifiers. The optional Modular IV (shown) adds another 97 modules. It includes Casio CZ-type oscillators, pitch trackers, more effects, new gates, random LFOs, and more—view a complete list at sonic-core.net.

 

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