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Accelerate Your Mac!
Bring in the Noise
Mac Audio Column
by Thad Brown

3/8/2000

Stella9000 Review

What it is and what it does

I was one of the people who caught on to koblo early in the game. My review of the Vibra9000 [way back in Issue 11, see archive links below] was an early one for me and an early one for koblo. I liked a good bit about it, the sound quality was fantastic, the interface was great, and it was fun and inviting to use. It scored high on the Bring in the Noise meter and became something I use quite a bit. Since then, koblo has developed a solid reputation as a maker of great sounding soft synths, and they have expanded their tools to include a purple drum machine (the Gamma9000) and the fetchingly blue Stella9000 sampler. All of these tools are now at version 2.5, and can be picked up together as a bundle in the Studio9000. The boys and girls of koblo has also been recognized as significant players in the software biz, getting prominent ink in the current Digidesign literature for their support of DirectConnect, the new synth to TDM pipeline in Pro Tools. Finally, at NAMM, they had without a doubt the coolest furniture of ANY booth at the show. There was no competition, they had cool bubbly blue and silver couches, and a great glass table.

The Stella9000 is similar in some ways much like the Vibra and quite dissimilar in others. It follows the koblo look and feel very closely, and it has the same set of filters, modulators, LFOs, and envelopes as the Vibra of the same version. It also has the same arpreggiator. The biggest difference, obviously, is that it's a sampler, not a synth. But it's not a sampler in the way that the Unity DS-1 or Gigasampler is a sampler. Those tools are generally used to mimic actual instruments, and try hard to get maximum polyphony. Stella is in fact a sampler, but it's purpose is to take those samples and twist and turn and filter and arpeggiate them into very different sounds. It's also only 8 voice polyphonic, more than enough for a huge pad, but not enough for a piano solo. Once these sounds are all finished, the Stella9000 supports VST 2.0, which means that MIDI data can be sent to it easily within a VST 2.0 savvy host app, and then played back with sample accuracy, or bounced down offline into audio files. 'Round here at Bring in the Noise, we LOOOOVE VST 2.0, we love it a lot. We love it like a date with Salma Hayak. We wish it (VST 2.0, not Salma) was in hardware, we wish it was in our sandwiches. We almost won't work with stuff that doesn't do VST 2.0.

More info is available at (surprise) the koblo website.

Test system and ratings scale

I STILL use the UMAX, damnit. It still runs at 325 Mhz, and I still only paid $1300 for it over 18 months ago. Despite its recent debut on the low end Mac web page, it's not that far behind what you buy in a new G3 these days. I rather dramatically ended the short and touching lives of my Tannoys (word to the public, don't forget to turn off the power amp when repatching cables to try to find a ground loop), and was forced to upgrade to a set of NHT A-10s. I'm still learning the A-10s, but people tell me I'm doing better work since I got them. My main sequencer is Cubase, my mixer is a Mackie that is about to follow the Tannoys and meet its maker, and no, my CD still isn't finished.

All audio tools go through the same brutal ratings system here at xlr8yourmac.com. It is as follows

1. Installation and configuration. 10 points

2. Audio features and quality. What can it do and does it sound good while doing it. 30 points.

3. GUI. I sometimes spend hours in a row for days in a row working with the same app. Will the interace be frustrating, tiring, or unintuitve after all those hours? 20 points.

4. Compatibility. Will the app integrate with other appplications and support files from other apps and platforms. 10 points.

5. Documentation. 10 points

6. Overall value. I have no choice but to spend my audio dollars carefully, is this app worth it? 20 points.

INSTALLATION AND CONFIGURATION

Koblo sent me a copy of Studio9000, so the install procedure will be based on that, though I assume the Stella install would be similar. As with previous koblo products, the synths themselves are more like documents that applications. The "app" that runs under all of the koblo synths is Tokyo, their object oriented development environment. Starting any one of the synths starts up the Tokyo engine, and running more than one does not mean running more than one copy of Tokyo. The new installer organizes all of the apps and samples and libraries into a new and more understandable group of folders in the Tokyo folder. In other words, the data and samples for the synths now reside in global folder instead of individual folders. So, if you want a sample for you Stella, you don't need to paw around looking for it in the /Tokyo/Stella Data/samples folder, it's right at /Tokyo/samples which makes a bigger difference than you might think when navigating about. The web site talks about "500 MB of samples", though there certainly weren't that many on my CD. There were a bunch of samples, and many of them were quite fine, but nowhere near 500MB..

Config of the Stella9000 was quite simple, and nearly fail safe in performance. For use with non VST 2 apps, the OMS IAC driver can still be used, there are also FreeMIDI and DirectConnect drivers, though I don't have the ability to test them. For VST 2 apps, the Tokyo plug-in goes in the VST plug-ins folder, a shared library (not an extension) goes in the extensions folder, and that's about it. I only had an occasional problem with the VST 2 audio out not showing up on the channel strip (solved each time by restarting the app, or changing the ASIO driver to AppleDAV and back to whatever card I was using).

Finally, installing the update to version 2.5 was also uneventful. Actually, there was one event, the installer needs to be on the drive you are updating, it can't be in your audio drive. Koblo could have improved that process only by having the installer be smart enough to recognize where the previous install had its presets. As it is, the user needs to manually move presets to another location and then manually move them back. An annoyance at most.

One point off for the presets, 9 out of 10.

AUDIO FEATURES AND QUALITY

Anyone who has used any koblo product will immediately see the features in the Stella9000. As they say on their web site, they persue sound quality and ease of use as their primary software goals. The Stella 9000 is much like the Vibra9000 in features. There is the same extensive modulation section, three envelopes, three LFOs, great sounding filters, and an arpegiator. We'll talk about most of this later, but let's start with the sample section.

The good news is that you can load keymaps, and the bad news is you can only load Samplecell keymaps, and the worse news is that if you don't have any Samplecell instruments laying around, there is no way to make one with Stella. For those of you in the remedial sampling course, a keymap is a description that tells a sampler which one of multiple samples to use in a certain key range, to minimize the necessity of transposition in the sampler. Depending on the instrument, memory, the sampler, and the willingness of the programmer to go through torture, a keymap can contain anywhere form a handful to well over one hundred samples, with different samples being played according to both what key is struck and how hard it is struck. Samplecell keymaps are made for (no peeking at your notes), Digidesign Samplecell cards. The great thing about Samplecell CDs is that they are HFS CD-ROMs, so you can store them easily on your local drive, and they are Sound Designer II files, so you can import loops and samples into your sequencer if you like. That's probably why koblo chose to support them. The bad thing is that the only way I know to make a Samplecell keymap is with the software Digi includes with Samplecell cards, and they aren't giving it away. So, save up for some CDs or load only one sample at a time. I happen to have a few orchestral Samplecell CD-ROMs, and the import usually works fine and sounds great when it's done, but I think it's a pretty serious omission not to have a mechanism SOMEWHERE to roll your own keymap.

Once the sample or samples are loaded, there is a good bit of control from within Stella. There are setting to control transposition from the incoming MIDI note, the amount that the pitch bend wheel can bend the pitch from the note played, the extent to which the velocity of a note will control any of four parameters, where in the sample to begin playback, and whether or not loop points in the sample should be used or igonred. It's a lot of control, I promise. For example, lets say you load a sample of a string ensemble. You can play the sample an octave and a third away from the note you play, allow the pitch bend wheel to only bend the pitch two semitones at maximum (giving you lots of fine control over pitch changes), turn off the loop points in the sample so the sample plays "straight through" and have how hard you strike the key control the pan of the output. Or you can do something totally different. It's a lot of control, and it's presented in a way that makes a good bit of sense once you get the hang of it.

No single feature is more prone to voodoo explanations and audio centric heavy breathing than filters. Getting an analog synth guy talking about filters is like getting a guitar player talking about Tubescreamers and black face Fender Deluxes. Actually, Tubescreamers and Deluxes do a little bit of filtering themselves, so maybe some of the fundamental concepts of one could be useful to learn for the other? Heavens, what heresy we spin here at Bring in the Noise. But back to filters. The Stella includes no less than eight basic filter types. Old school 2 and 4 pole filters (12 and 24 dB per octave) an 8 pole filter, two kinds of parallel filters, a notch filter, and two flavors of comb filters. They all sound killer, and when the nature of the filter allows it, can be used in high pass, low pass, and band pass modes, or in some combination of the three. Koblo filters rule. Dan Phillips at Korg once pointed out that on of the best tests of a digital filter is how it sounds when the resonant frequency is very very high. For reasons that are above my head, the math gets a lot tougher up there. Koblo filters sound great even at very high resonances, so they even meet the Dan Phillips test. Do I make it clear that the filters are cool?

The filter and the sampler section are the two that generate the sound, but on their own, that's not terribly exciting. The envelope, modulation, and LFO sections are where the sounds are shaped and controlled. The Stella9000 has three envelopes with standard attack, decay, sustain, and release controls. They also have a button to reverse the envelope, which doesn just what it sounds like doing. Not terribly useful for conrolling the amplitude of the sample, but quite useful for use as a modulation source. The envelopes trigger very fast, and "feel" quite good. The three Low Frequency Oscillators can be used as modulation sources for pretty much everything in Stella. In addition to having a group of standard shapes, there is also a control for how sharp the corners of the waveform are. So, if you have a saw wave set as your LFO shape, you can have the peaks of the saw wave be a bit softer. The LFOs also have a simple attack and decay envelope so if you want to have the LFO only work for a certain amount of time and then fade out until a note is retriggered, it's easy to set up. Finally, the LFOs can sync to incoming MIDI beat clock. All you have to do is click on a virtual LED, and select the multiple of the tempo you want to use, and off it goes. This is one of my favorite things about the whole synth. One of the things I like to do with my music is combine the sounds of organic players with synth sounds. If I take the time to enter all of the tempo changes in a piece played natrually in "free time" by a real drummer, I can use my sequencer to send beat information to koblo and have all of the LFOs playing perfectly in sync with my live drummer. It's a truly amazing thing, and a killer sound in my opinion. Finally, there is a modulation matrix in the right corner of the Stella, so pretty much any source can be used to control pretty much any destination. "Internal" sources like the LFOs can control things, "external" things like the mod wheel on your synth can control things, and "in between" sources like the envelopes can control stuff. You can also do fun stuff like have the speed of one LFO controlled by another LFO, so the oscillator changes in real time. If all this is just not enough control for you, any knob on Stella can be conrolled by controller messages. When a knob is clicked, its cc number is shown in the main window. All you have to do is go back to your sequencer and have at it.

The last piece of puzzle is the arpeggiator section. I still haven't figured out what all the knobs do, but you have control over how far of a range the arp covers, the pattern it uses, and the amount that two note slide between each other. It, too, can sync to incoming beat clock from you sequencer. As I said, I never had much luck predicting what it would do, but I also never had any problem getting it to do stuff htat I liked.

The sound of the Stella9000 is totally world class. Like the Virba, it's one of the software tools that make computer music fun for me. I think I said in the last review that you'll think someone snuck in your studio over night and soldered a bunch of caps and resistors into your Mac, and I basically stick by that. It has the vibe and sound of a rich old synth, but can also sound much more modern. Did I mention I like the filters? The depth of the mod matrix leaves lots of room for creativity and sound shaping. Stella doesn't have the same level of features as something like Reaktor, but I've never found it restricting. Sure it doesn't do FM synthesis, but is it fair to knock the sound quality of a small Gretsch jazz kit because it can't sound like a Fibes kit, or to knock a great sounding swamp ash Telecaster because it won't sound like a strat? In my first review, I gave the Vibra 27 out of thirty points, and asked for more filter types. Well, they put 'em in there, so I can't complain now can I? Two points off for the keymap thing. I think for what it does, the Stella is the king of the software hill, so make me a keymap editor and for 2.6 and you get the first perfect score in this category. 28.

THE GUI

Koblo puts ease of use as one of their primary goals, and this shows in the Stella9000 just as it did in the Vibra. Every control and function is in a single window, and they are all organized very well in their own parts of the window. It's never a problem predicting where a control well be, the resonance would never be anywhere near the modualtion section. Stella is also blue, which I prefer to the Vibra green. The knobs and buttons all act just like they did before, and they have included key commands for coarse or fine changes in settings. I'm particularly pleased that the way to force fine changes is holding down the Shift key, which matches what some of my other apps do, so it's very intuitive. Another nice touch is the addition of pulsating "virtual LEDs" on the LFOs. It's a great way to visually check the speed of the LFOs and see if they are syncing properly. There is a trigger button to send a note to the sampler without using a keyboard (great for testing sounds) and the computer keybaord will play pitches. A nice touch is the "readout" window. It has a nice big red virtual LED that shows values when you change a parameter, and a totally cool scrolling text window that changes according to the preset you are using. I know it's silly, but I really like that. The Stella says all sorts of crazy things when you are using it. The initial work koblo did on the Vibra pays of with the new product, if you know one, you're pretty close to knowing the other.

I'm trying to think of downsides. Well, the VST 2.0 implementation is one thing I know some people will complain about. The VST 2.0 plug in does NOT run withing your host app. You run Tokyo as a distinct app, and the Stella works as a plug-in. This is in contrast to the way that some people have implemented VST instruments, like Native Instruments. Reaktor 2.3 has the VST plug-in running in a plug-in window that can be edited like an audio DSP plug-in. Still, there is a reason to actually prefer the current version. VST 2.0, according to what I am told, only allows for a single window, so loading samples or keymaps would have to happen outside of the app anyway. In Reaktor, that's what you have to do, load samples running Reaktor "standalone" and then open the results in the VST 2.0 instrument. Thus, koblo could be faulted for doing this with Vibra, since all of its parameters could be edited in one window, but in the case of Stella, it's a sensible choice, at least until this windowing issue is resolved. I do have one final complaint, it's easy to get LOTS of presets built up in Vibra. They can be managed by moving them about in the finder into different folders, but I wouldn't mind a presets window that could be active in front of the synth. I know it goes against the very smart "one window" approach to all koblo products, but when I'm trying to find a preset four or five layers deep in a drop down menu, I think it's a good idea. These are small quibbles, though. I think koblo does a masterful job of mixing a logical layout, intuitive controls, and genuinely enjoyable eye candy. Standards setting, in my opinion. 19 out of 20.

COMPATIBILTY

Not bad, not great. As far as driver standards, there's not much to argue. The Stella supports VST 2.0, MAS, and DirectConnect. On the MIDI side, OMS and FreeMIDI are included. Can't get much better than that. With audio and sample formats, however, this is not the case. As I said, the only keymap format supported is Samplecell, leaving users of very popular formats like Akai and Emu out of luck. .wav files would also be nice. Also, I don't think any software sampler, particularly a somewhat techno-centric one, should come without support for SoundFonts. Love 'em or hate 'em, they are the emerging (or actually pretty much emerged) standard for downloading from the web, and will only become more popular as time goes on. Once Creative Labs is behind something, woe unto he who bucks that trend.

The Stella9000 folds into pretty much any software setup quite easily. If you switch sequencers down the road, you're covered, and if you go to Pro Tools, they have koblo on their lit these days. One point off for for only one sample format, one for no .wav file import. 8 out of 10.

DOCUMENTATION

Unfortunately, things get pretty ugly here. I lauded the Vibra doco in my first review, it was to the point and full of information, even for a synth novice. They did a great job of explaining what a filter is, how an envelope works and so on. Most of that information is now in the "Sound Essentials" section of the manual. It's still very useful. But a synth is not a sampler, all that information made working with the Vibra easy to understand. The Stella9000 manual lacks a great deal. There is no discussion of what root pitch a sample is assumed to have when imported (seems to be middle C, which makes sense). Little explanation of how keymaps are used and where files need to be stored (the samples can't ben in the same folder as the keymap when loading, they need to be in the "Samples" folder in the "Tokyo" folder), and the fact that aliasing is not supported--everything needs to be in the Tokyo folder. There are work arounds to all of this, for instance, if you are running out of space, you can copy the Tokyo data folder to another drive and fire off the synths from there and your presets and projects will show up correctly, but I spent all kinds of time trying to figure this stuff out. The koblo forums helped out, and the koblo presence there is helpful, but I shouldn't need to go to the web to find out where keymaps store their samples. There is no discussion of memory management (does the VST 2.0 plug-in get its memory from the host app or from Tokyo?), no suggestions or explanations for managing presets. Finally, the 2.0 manuals came on the CD, but the 2.5 manuals are ONLY available on line and are password protected. I can tolerate .pdf manuals, though I prefer recylced paper, but I think it's not acceptable to expect users to go to the web to get manuals that aren't even downloadable or formatted for a printer. I intentionally keep modems and internet connections off of my music computers, so I had my laptop in the kitchen and I was running back and forth trying to figure stuff out.

Koblo needs to spend some serious effort on getting the manuals together, and they need to get them into the hands of customers more easily. I know it's not a particularly enjoyable part of the process, but good documentation is necessary for good software. 3 points off for quality, 3 for lack of access. I know that's rough, but doco is crucial. 4 out of 10.

OVERALL VALUE

[revised 3/10/200 with final pricing]
I just got an update on the pricing of the Stella9000. It is now only available as part of the Studio9000 package, which is available stateside from Digidesign for about $600. Frankly, I'm disappointed in this, and it makes it more difficult to evaluate the worth of the package. The Studio9000 includes Stella, Vibra (9000 and 6000), and Gamma (drum machine) synths in a bundle. Breaking the price out into component parts yields about the same price as I said proviously, $170. It's not cheap, but it's also not expensive.

It's not a general purpose, full-featured polyphonic multitimbral sampler. However, I recommend it hearily to anyone looking for incredible sounds and great useability. I really really like the thing, and I use it in my music all the time. Like the Vibra, it has that indescribeable characteristic of mojo. Mojo is hard to define and hard to come by, but it's worth a hell of a lot in my opinion. Muddy Waters had mojo, Hendrix had so much mojo nobody could understand what he was doing, Bob Moog has mojo, as did the Prophet 5. Grooverider has mojo, Paul Westerberg has mojo, I'm nearly certain Brittney Spears has no mojo though she might get some as she gets older. And I am absolutely certain that the Backstreet Boys not only lack even a shred mojo, but are part of an international anti-mojo conspiracy that really needs to be stopped. Then again, they have a lot of money, which can be used to purchase various things to make them forget their mojo destroying activities. As I'm sure you know, though, money can't buy mojo, thank heavens. Money can buy the Stella, though, and that's pretty close. You will have to be nearly as mojo deprived as a Backstreet Boy to make the Stella sound bad, and if you have a few Samplecell CDs, I can almost assure you of hours and hours of mojo filled tweaking with the Stella9000. I leave it up to you to decide how "valueable" mojo is. I think it's worth plenty.

Finally, taking the whole package together (maybe I'll do another review of the whole thing) it's also a real bargain. In fact, these three tools plug Cubase or Logic or Performer are everything a dance music person would need. Adding Unity DS-1 would make a rather amazingly powerful native studio. Despite my misgivings about the new price scheme, I'll stick with my original score of 18 out of 20.

CONCLUSION

There you have it folks, another Bring in the Noise review. It's another great sounding, enjoyable software app for you Mac. It's easily good enough that you will find sounds with it that will become centerpiece sounds for your music. I don't know if I can give a higher compliment. The 86 points out of a hundred is a good score from me, but it could have been much higher. Stella has a lot going for it, great sound, killer filters, modulation possibilities that make all kinds of fun sonic tricks possible, and fast, tight envelopes. You can't go wrong if you need some exciting new sounds. It just needs a decent manual.

See you next week . . .


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