Pro Tools 8 packs five new virtual instruments at no extra cost (six including Structure Free, which was available as of PT7.4). Here’s a an expanded version of the quickie overviews that appear on pages 54-55 of our November 2009 issue. Audio examples coming soon!
Click here for our main review of Pro Tools 8.
Digidesign’s Advanced Instrument Research (AIR) division is what German soft synth developer Wizoo turned into when Digi acquired them back in 2005. We think it’s been the best money Digi ever spent, and they continue to serve up proof of that with such instruments as the virtual drummer Strike and Velvet, which just might be editor Stephen Fortner's favorite electric piano plug-in. While neither of these are included with Pro Tools 8, the following five are, and overall, they're far more than "afterthought" free virtual instruments. In fact, they're enough to get you producing great music right out of the box.
Bringing back analog and early sampling drum machines, Boom’s kits, each of which do ten sounds, have sonic cred for any crowd, from candy kids to homeboys. While the retro vibe is the hook, the ease of making beats is the reel. A 16 x 10 matrix of red “LEDs” makes it bonehead-obvious that to add sound Y at step X of your 16-step pattern, you just click on the appropriate dot. Click again, and the dot dims to reflect a reduced accent volume; you get three levels and a Dynamics knob to adjust the loud/soft difference between them. In Boom’s mixer, you can mix kit pieces relative to each other, pan and tune each piece, and swap in single pieces from different kits.
Among our favorite things about Boom are the following: Although there's a setting for the overall kit, you can also mix and match pieces from different kits within a pattern--just use the drop-down button above the name of each instrument part in the mixer. Kit pieces are individually tunable, and where slight adjustments can help fit a piece to the musical key of your tune or the overall vibe you're going for, extreme tunings will turn Boom's sounds into entirely new, but always usable, creative building blocks.
The old-school step-sequencer approach fosters a lot of creativity as well. Within five minutes of launching Boom, I was madly cooking up funky patterns. There's the ability to chain-play patters, that is, to arrange them so that a new pattern begins as soon as the old one ends, and it works so straightforwardly that you could conceivably work out an entire song’s rhythm track without touching PT’s Arrange window, and lots of great factory patterns are organized by tempo.
The dynamics knob is another plus. At one end, there's almost no difference between the three "fixed" levels (corresponding to dim, medium, amd bright red dots in the LED matrix); at the other, the difference in volume between these is extreme.
What's not so cool? On my wish list are drag-and-drop of patterns to MIDI tracks, and handling of odd pattern lengths and non-4/4 time signatures in your PT session — a button deals with 3/4 or 6/8 by making Boom 12-step (no meetings required), but that’s it for now. Create a Pro Tools session in, say, 5/4 time, and Boom will remind you of the first and only time your cover band let a drunken audience member sit in on drums. I'd also like to see the ability to load in your own samples, one reason being that the suggestively-named "Eight-O" kit doesn't have any piece resembling the signature analog cowbell sound from the Roland TR-808.
Still, all these gripes and wishes are minor, because Boom is so addictive that I now reach for it as my primary rhythmic idea pad when working in Pro Tools, even for tracks that aren’t urban or dance-oriented.
Digi’s new clonewheel organ plug-in isn’t just good for a first attempt — it’s excellent, period. All the throaty, chewy tonal goodness is there in spades. Drawbars sound right on their own and blend together authentically when combined, with no harmonic beating, unwanted chorusing, or other telltales of less-than-diligent digital work. I’d like to hear more beef in the bottom octave from the first three drawbars, but only a bit. The scanner vibrato/chorus is dead-on, especially the C3 position. Harmonic percussion is done correctly (aside from not silencing the 1' drawbar when engaged), and has the organic “tapping a green glass Coke bottle with a spoon” sound of the real thing. Selectable tonewheel conditions include new, used, dirty, and two synth sets good for approximating Vox and Farfisa sounds. Key click is adjustable from nothing to a crispy spit.
DB-33’s rotary effect shines, and you can also use it as an effect on Pro Tools audio tracks. Its sound quality is on par with industry-leading plug-ins — Native Instruments B4-II and Apple EVB3 — and I even liked it better than my old Nord Electro 2. If any roto-sim begins to sound artificial, it does so on high drawbars at fast speed. Here, DB-33 performed admirably, maintaining a sense of circular motion as opposed to collapsing into “back-and-forth” tremolo. The Drive knob in the preamp section sounds tube-like up to about 12 o’clock, but a bit kazoo-y after that. The Character knob adjusts the overall frequency curve, approximating the response characteristics of Leslie 147 and 122 tone cabinets at either extreme. Slow and fast speeds are each adjustable, but not differently for each virtual rotor. However, Digidesign got it right that since the bass rotor has more mass, it always takes longer to speed up or slow down than the treble rotor.
Unlike some clonewheel plug-ins, DB-33 doesn’t have three polytimbral parts (to correspond to the upper, lower, and pedal manuals on a real B-3). That’s not a huge deal in software-land, because if you want another organ part, you just create another instrument track with another DB-33 on it. The one sonic consequence of this will matter only to organists who kick bass pedals: You’ll need to use the “regular” 16’ and 8’ drawbars and maybe downshift your controller an octave, but doing this doesn’t yield exactly the same beefy bass as dedicated pedal drawbars do, as the two pedal drawbars on a real B-3 (and on better hardware clonewheels) had different tonal characteristics than the 16' and 8' drawbars for the keyboard manuals.
Bottom line: Logic is no longer the only DAW to make a great-sounding organ plug-in standard equipment. If you really care about your B-3 sound, but a wee Pro Tools LE or M-Powered rig is all you can afford right now, you’re not missing out. To step up significantly, you’d need a top hardware clonewheel, and DB-33 is good enough that if more gear money comes your way, you should spend it on, say, really nice studio monitors first.
If a DAW has acoustic pianos, they’re usually presets for an included soft sampler, e.g., the serviceable Steinway in Logic’s EXS24 plug-in. Mini Grand raises the bar with a simple piano interface, great-sounding reverb, and an on/off stretch tuning option. Sound-wise, there’s s lot of meat on these bones, though the overall timbre skews towards bright. Of the seven tonal variants, even “Soft” was brighter than what I’d use to play, say, Debussy — for this, I actually preferred the “Natural Grand” preset in Xpand 2. “Real” sounded like a rock-worn, close-miked Yamaha C7, “Bright” evoked Tom Cruise dancing around in his socks (in Risky Business, not on Oprah's couch), and “Hard” was almost a tack piano--think "Feel the Vibrations" by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.
The "Atmo" preset is actually the softest and mellowest of all of them, and puts just enough ectoplasmic pad behind the piano that if you're going for anything in the Coldplay vein, you'll sound godlike.
A Dynamic Response knob adjusts the difference between loud and soft in relationship to your playing velocity, and using a semi-weighted M-Audio Axiom Pro MIDI controller keyboard, I found that a position of about two o'clock gave me the feel I was looking for.
Bottom line: Mini Grand is better than anything bundled with any DAW, and sits superbly in rock, pop, hip-hop, R&B, or electronic mixes. For jazz or classical piano that’s solo or at the front of the mix, you’ll still aspire to something at the Synthogy Ivory level.
It’s a pity we don’t have room to describe all the great sounds in this update to Xpand, Digi’s “soft ROMpler” for lack of a better name. For example, synths, from basses to leads to pads to comps to strings to brass, cover any rock, pop, or film score base you might need an electronic sound for, and while Xpand 2 is sample-based, the synth samples and filters are good enough that you could easily mistake them for modeled (or real) analog — especially in a mix. Clavs are funked-out and soulful; electric pianos are authentic and not digital sounding, though they don’t quite get all the nasty bark you can get from Digi’s optional (and stellar) EP plug-in, Velvet. Basses and guitars, though not as numerous as what’s in my Yamaha Motif ES, approach it in terms of realism, which is to say they’re excellent. Many include fret noise that’s adjustable both for volume and how often it occurs. Orchestral strings, while not approaching what you'd get in a dedicated sample library, are perfect for pop, rock, and urban music--legato is on hand for ballads or Barry White covers, and plenty of string patches with crisper attack capture the vibe made famous by Tchaikovsky's Russian Dance, "Family Affair" by Mary J. Blige, and "Never Tear Us Apart" by INXS.
Tweakable parameters vary according to the type of preset you choose, and appear in the main green-on-black "screen" at top left. If you have patches loaded into more than one slot (i.e. if you effectively have a multi going), clicking on the A, B, C, and D buttons in this area will bring up the settings for the respective slot; the "Easy" button gives you overall quick-edit settings that most dramatically affect your patch.
Xpand 1 let you split and layer up to four sounds by setting key ranges, but everything listened to the same MIDI channel. Now, each part can respond to a different channel, making the plug-in truly multitimbral. Also, controls that used to be on sub-pages (modulation, effects, and the four tempo-synced, multi-pattern arpeggiators) are now elegantly integrated on the main screen, making Xpand 2 more intuitive. That two send-based effects are included before you even have to open up another plug-in is also a bonus.
We could go on describing patches for days, but the real question about any "virtual sound module" soft synth is: how good is it compared to others, or to my favorite rack module? Here, the conclusion is the same as for the DB-33 organ: If you have Pro Tools 8, you now have very good workhorsey, general-purpose sounds on tap. While Xpand 2 might not make you disown your Motif or XV-5080 or Triton rack units if you already have them, it's good enough that you needn't to worry if you don't. Again, as your upgrade budget trickles in, Xpand 2 means you can worry about other things first, such as better mics and speakers, before spending on another hardware or software synth module.
What if an early-’80s monophonic synth (think Sequential Circuits Pro-One or Octave-Plateau Cat) had vacuum tube oscillators as well as tube preamps at key drive stages? Vacuum answers this question with virtual tubes that dirty up the sound in interesting and nonlinear ways, all the while avoiding cliché levels unless you crank everything way up. For example, the Saturation knobs in the high- and lowpass filters (you get both) really do sound like tube saturation, not like you merely ran the synth through a fuzzbox. You can also get clean, creamy, leads and rubbery, squirty basses, or mimic the pitch drift of analog oscillators — a "Dust" knob even mimics the crackles and other sonic results of built-up dust in your key contacts and knob mechanisms. On the only real vacuum tube hardware synth I've spent much time with, the Metasonix Wretch Machine, I found it significantly more challenging to get "pretty," clean sounds you might actually use in a band or pop context. Vacuum, on the other hand, can certainly put out the sonic equivalent of body piercings in umentionable places, but can also blow-dry its hair and don an Izod shirt with an upturned collar if that's what the music calls for.
The architecture is deceptively simple: You get two oscillators with continuously-variable waveforms, separate high- and lowpass filters, two envelopes which route by default to the volume and lowpass filter cutoff, and a couple of modulation paths with selectable sources and destinations. Behind this seemingly standard setup lurks some features that are especially cool for an “included-with-the-DAW” synth. Audio-rate FM of oscillator 2 by oscillator 1 is possible. Envelope 1 can directly change the waveform of either oscillator, without taking up a path in the Mod section. Also in each envelope generator, you get a Velocity knob which basically adjusts the degree to which envelope amount (whatever that envelope is affecting) depends on how hard you play.
A basic arpeggiator has up, down, up-and-down, and random modes. Its rate syncs to your Pro Tools session tempo, and for rhythmic interest, the rate knob divides it by note values--though dotted and triplet values aren't "printed" on the panel, they are in there, as watching the pop-up tip when you move the knob will reveal.
What doesn't Vacuum do? Most obviously, it's monophonic--that's right, you can't play chords on it, though if you wanted to sequence polyphonic parts that all took advantage of Vacuum's fat sound, you could certainly do so by using multiple instances on multiple instrument tracks. Somewhat surprisingly, there's no hard oscillator sync (that's how you get that quacky, squawky sound made famous by the Cars and the big synth break on Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House." Also, the LFOs don't sync to session tempo like the arpeggiator does. That said, Vacuum gets my vote for the most fun, attitude-oozing soft synth ever to be included with a DAW.