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Bring in the Noise
Mac Audio Column
by Thad Brown
If You Like a Soft Synth, How About a Soft Sampler?
Software synths are sort of a pet interest of mine. It seems such an excellent idea, and so much what I like about computer audio. Put the whole damn thing inside the box, the synth, the sequencer, the recorder, the master, everything. Also soft synths provide drastically better interfaces than the tiny LCD screens on most hardware synths, and can store essentially an infinite number of presets. Some soft samplers have existed for some time, notably the very functional shareware Vsamp for the Mac, and a couple of tools on the Win side, the Reality soft synth includes a sampler, and the Gigasampler is a PC sampler that loads sample banks and even single samples off of disc on the fly, hence its name. In the world of samplers, 64MB is still a lot of memory, so a gigabyte sample is pretty heady stuff.
Into this field comes Bitheadz. They already have a big hit with the AS-1 super retro software synth, it can do a Juno like you wouldn't believe. Their DS-1 soft sampler is an impressive looking bit of code that does one big thing that no other soft sampler on the Mac has yet done-read standard format sample disks, including the two dominant formats, Samplecell II and Akai S1000. This means that if you have a few hundred (or thousand) dollars tied up in sample discs, you don't need to shell out a penny to get sounds, and best of all, you can leave a ton of samples on your drive and avoid the tedious task of loading and unloading bank after bank from floppies into the 16 or 32MB of memory in your sampler. It also provides an interesting second life to your LAST Power Mac. Take that old 8100 or Power Curve or steal your girlfriends unused 4400, load it up with RAM, put a $30 MIDI interface on it, get a monitor switch box or the spare 13" job in the closet, and for a few hundred bucks you have a huge sampler that might even run some synth stuff as well.
The only catch is that hardware sampler companies have not ignored the writing on the wall, and they have been bringing down the price of hardware samplers at a quite a clip. The above system with the MIDI interface and the RAM, along with the software, will bring you pretty close to the cost of an AKAI S2000, and I don't see much fun in hauling my Mac to a gig. Still, I bet this is the way we will all be sampling pretty soon, and the DS-1 looks like a fine way to get started.
More on Audio Interfaces
I still get unsolicited raves about the 2408 from Mark of the Unicorn. Nobody seems to have much to complain about with it. They even delivered it pretty close to on time. I also get asked regularly about the Layla from Event. If there is anyone out there using it, we would all like opinions or a short review of how it's going. The potential killer feature for the Layla is that it has balanced inputs, instead of the unbalanced RCAs on nearly everything else for similar amounts of money.
The Creamware Pulsar and Yamaha DSP Factory are both finally shipping. I hate to sound like a Visa commercial, but I just can't think of any other way to put it. Imagine that big voice over guy who does the Visa adds, talking over pictures of percolating reverbs and compressors, with virtual faders flying about and guitar players getting along with keyboard players and other unholiness. For the big punch line, the voice over guy says "So if you want the newest and best in audio DSP, the technology of tomorrow is here today; but don't forget to bring your Intel hardware, because the DSP Factory and Pulsar may blow your head off, but they won't go in your Macintosh." Both are now shipping, though, and I'm going to get a demo of the Pulsar next week at the local Sam Ash in New Haven.
Don't Try This at Home
Every major audio porn mag out there has had an article about home mastering in the past few months. Mastering is the last stage of music production where final sequencing, level, and EQ tweaks are made to try to turn a group of songs into a record. It's exacting and exhausting work, and very different now than it was when vinyl was the preferred media for storing music. If you read those articles, and look around the web, you will get everything from "I've got a plug-in that makes my mixes SO LOUD I can master right here. Screw Bob Ludwig." to "If you don't spend the money on one of the top mastering guys, you might as well just release your record on wax cylinders, or better yet, quit playing music altogether and get a real job." Mastering engineers wisely encourage everybody to believe that only they can hear well enough to really do this stuff right, and they have a point. Nothing can substitute for experience, skill, great monitoring systems, and the best equipment. That said, here is a story to consider.
A local New Haven band called the Jellyshirts made a beautiful, dynamic, varied record that they finished a few months ago. They spent two freakin' years on it, paying for it all themselves, traveling many hours to a recording studio where they like to work, and putting a lot of soul and sweat into getting it right. It's my favorite record to come out of New Haven since the Gravel Pit put out Crash Land. With this record finished, on a pair of DATs, they took it to a mastering engineer recommended by their recording engineer. They paid a large sum of money, and got a miserable sounding finished product. This isn't to knock the guy who did it, we all have bad days, and he certainly had the right tools and credentials. Nonetheless, the master sounded awful compared to the mixes, compressed beyond belief, with honking low mids in the vocals, terrible balance, and massive brick wall limiting to stop what clearly would have been thousands of overs. Everybody's nightmare of CD sound, one level fits all. Remember, these guys had spent two years and a ton of money to get this record done. They weren't at all happy with it, and they asked me to take a crack at a few of the tunes that sounded particularly horrible, so bad that they were considering not including them on the final release. I transferred the DATs digitally (thanks to my wonderful Korg 1212), and using my very modest tools did my best. I used VST plug-ins for compression and EQ, automated some corrective fades and EQ sweeps, and even added tiny amounts of reverb to a few tunes that sounded a little dry. Those songs were exported with the DSP out to 24 bit 44.1 files that I opened in SonicWORX where I did the fades and just a little more compression. Then they were dithered down to 16 bits, carefully sequenced and level checked, and burned.
The band chose every one of my masters. They made a few suggestions for a few songs, I worked on them a little, and all were happy. My masters were not quite as loud as the others, but nearly so, and mine sounded like they had much more dynamics and detail than the others. This doesn't mean that I can hear as well as the previously mentioned Mr. Ludwig (if you don't know who he is, go grab five CDs released in the last twenty years, odds are you can check if I spelled his name right more than once), or that everybody should start paying my huge sums of money to work on their records. I am lucky to have a good room for this kind of stuff, and my ears aren't bad. What it DOES mean is that if you are careful, take your time, and can trust the sound of your monitors and room, pro or better than pro work can be done at home, which is the whole point after all. It also means that you can pay a lot of money for a hack job. Caveat emptor.
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