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

3/16/99
Vision DSP in Review

Where You Been, Bro?

A very good friend of mine (who writes Assembly) once told me that he believes that when it comes to humanity, the hardware is very very good, but there are real problems with the OS. Not that the hardware couldn't use some improvement (I could use a more reliable set of knees and a better neck), but the real problems with people seem to be predominantly software. Some would argue that the kernel actually isn't at fault, it's stuff that gets installed later (greed, bigotry, drug abuse, xenophobia, etc.) that causes the GPFs, but I don't know. I am living evidence that both multi-tasking and mult-threading can be woefully implemented, and that's really a kernel issue. I am incapable of getting anything done in a sane and rational order, and any little thing can easily grab the CPU for days at a time, even before another, perhaps more important, process has completed. Numerous hardware upgrades (most successfully a Palm Pilot) have had only minimal effect, and software patches have been even less successful. So, dear readers, Audio Columnist .99b3 has done the following. By working simultaneously on many different things, the app has produced three completed columns this week while producing no column at all last week. Somebody ought to lose their job over this. What to do, now that I have two reviews, and the longest audio column since the 12th century schoolman Charles the Loud produced his legendary treatise arguing that although a pair of drum overheads and a room mic were three distinct sound sources, they nonetheless were from a single sound, and thus a unity.

The two reviews are of Vision DSP and Xx, and the column is about the Musik Messe, and why I bought an Ensoniq Paris Concept F/X instead of a DSP Factory. I have decided to put the Vision review up, because it's such a fantastic app, and I get tons of questions about which sequencers are "the best." Vision DSP has a real right to claim that for some people, so it's up first.

In case you were wondering, Audio Columnist .99 also often appears incapable of storing even 8 bits of data in RAM reliably. It's really a mess . . .

Vision DSP Review

A few months back, I wrote Opcode asking if I they would be interested in having their new line of cross-platform VST plug-ins reviewed on this site. The responded by asking me if I would like to review Vision DSP as well. I wrote them a long email stating that I have been a Cubase user for some time and that I really didn't think that they would want somebody like me reviewing their software, even though it sounded interesting. They wrote back and said that they aren't afraid of a fair assessment of their software from anyone, and that they believed that they had a lot to offer the Cubase did not, and was I really interested? So here it is, at long last.

I found nearly everything they claimed to be true. The short review is as follows; It's great. It's flexible and customizable. It's very easy to learn considering the power under the hood. It has fantastic MIDI editing, particularly with controllers. It's audio system includes great plug-in implementation, very useful EQ, and a much needed phase reverse switch. The documentation is very very good and comes via dead trees. It's also a true bargain, includes an excellent software and demo bundle, and is the cheapest way to record 24 bits if your hardware supports it. A true winner, folks.

-What it is and what it does-

Opcode has been selling Mac MIDI hardware and software nearly as long as such a thing has existed. Their MIDI and sync boxes have an excellent rep and are used by many folks who could use anything they damn well wanted to use. Their flagship sequencer was, and remains, Studio Vision Pro (or SVP for short). SVP has been known as a powerful MIDI app that included Pro Tools and TDM support fairly early on in the game, and like Opcode hardware, shows up in many pro rigs and studios that I can't even afford to visit. Their second tier app was plain old Vision, which always seemed to me a strange little app. In my limited pre Vision DSP experience with Opcode sequencers, Vision seemed more of a brain damaged sibling to SVP than an app with a reason to live on its own. Vision DSP (henceforth V-DSP) replaces Vision and provides that reason to live--native processing.

The biggest failing of SVP and V-DSP was no support for native real time effects and plug-ins. If you had a very expensive Pro Tools system, TDM took care of this, but for those of working on Dodge Dart budgets, the Premiere format plug-ins that Vision supported seemed rather bland. They didn't do real time processing, and there just weren't that many of them. Opcode got wise to this and did the smart thing--they licensed somebody else's technology. The biggest difference between Vision and Vision DSP is support for VST plug-ins and ASIO savvy hardware. With that small change, suddenly Vision was playing on a much more level field.

The new and improved Application Formerly Known As Vision is now a full featured app with a large and more focused target audience--project studio recordists, electronica freaks, and all those not playing with Pro Tools systems that cost as much as a very nice car. It's got MIDI, Audio, editing, some score layout, sync options, VST plugs, and pretty much everything else. They also cooked up an advertising plan with big bubbly letters and regular mention of "groove" and "planet." No better contrast can be made between SVP and V-DSP than that Clint Black is in SVP adds, and the V-DSP adds contain mostly those bubbly letters.

Lot's 'o information about V-DSP and SVP is available at Opcode's website.

-The Test System And Ratings Scale-

The audio box in my little room of sonic anarchy is a recently purchased UMAX S900 with a Powerlogix 220/110 card accelerated to 325/130. I use the stock IBM SCSI drive as a boot/app disk, and record audio onto a pair of IBM UDMA drives hanging off of a ProMAX PCI IDE card. My primary sequencing/recording environment was Cubase VST/24, working with a minimal MIDI setup of a Kawai K5000 and an Alesis Nanosynth, along with any software synth I can get my hands on. During the course of this review, I switched from a Korg 1212 card to a PARIS system from Ensoniq. I tested with both sets of ASIO drivers. Routing and monitoring are via the ubiquitous Mackie, with a Yamaha power amp and Tannoy PBM 6.5II monitors. I have officially given up on even pretending to use the built in audio on my Mac. First, it's broken, and second, I spend all this money on better gear, I'm not going to quit using it.

I decided to use a weighted ratings system with six categories, where the total points possible are an easy to value 100. They are:

  1. Installation and Configuration: 10 points
  2. 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 interface be frustrating, tiring, or unintuitive after all those hours? 20 points.
  4. Compatibility: Will the app integrate with other applications 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

V-DSP ships with a lot of stuff, and it takes some time to get it all installed and running. It won't run without OMS, so that's part of the procedure. They bundle Peak SE and Galaxy for waveform editing and patch librarian duties. If you are familiar with the basics of audio software, there's not too much to figure out here. No virtual memory allowed, put your ASIO drivers in the folder named, to the confusion of drummers worldwide, "ASIO Drivers." OMS setup is no easier or more difficult that usual. Opcode actually has a very very good tutorial on the CD-ROM on what OMS is and what it does, in fact it's so good, I think it should be on their web site. I have previously used OMS only to get Cubase and the Vibra on speaking (and grooving) terms, so it did take me a while to get the patch names going correctly, and the OMS setup did take a while. It's worth it, though, when changes show up everywhere and everybody knows what all the patches are called. I still don't understand why the IAC driver isn't installed, or why the installer doesn't say, "Hey, you want the IAC or not?"

As an aside, I really really wish that the editor librarian world would get together and agree on a few naming conventions and other standards. I use mostly soft synths, so you would think it wouldn't be a big deal, but thanks to all the companies striking special deals to bundle software with hardware, I have a special version of Unisyn (Mark of the Unicorn) that will talk only to my Nano, a special version of SoundDiver (Emagic) that will work beautifully with my K5000, and Galaxy which is happiest to integrate with Vision. They are all perfectly nice programs, but they work maddeningly different at just the wrong time, and nobody supports any of the hardware that the other guys support. It's such a drag that I'm tempted to buy an SW1000XG or some other synth that is fully supported by Galaxy just to avoid the hassle. Yuck.

V-DSP ships with a boatload of other stuff. Software demos for Bitheadz, VST demos from Orbit, shareware like SoundAPP and MacThugha, MIDI files, templates, and even a tutorial from the techno freaks in the Protolab. The Protolab files are a must do, by the way, they show all kinds of interesting things you can do with the app, and these kinds of tutorials are almost necessary with software this complex. Protolab (check out their web site, they are a serious batch of 170 BPM drum'n'bass boys) brings up another interesting thing about Opcode, there are a lot of musicians there. My contact at Opcode for this review is a Protolaber himself, and on the newsgroups and mailing lists, nearly everybody from Opcode is actively involved in some real world musical project or another. That's reassuring to me, because they presumably use this stuff themselves, and that means something. The extra stuff is all top of the line and mostly quite useful.

No audio software installation would be complete on the Mac without a floppy authorization, in this case for two apps, Peak SE and V-DSP. Both ship with only one floppy with all the installs, instead of spreading them across two. If they are on two floppies (the way Steinberg ships Recycle for instance), at least you have a fighting chance of working after somebody moves the box next to your bass cab and magnetizes everything. Copy protection in general is questionable to me, it makes life more difficult for those who pay, and doesn't seem to deter those who pirate, but if a company is going to do it, they should do it in the least onerous way possible. Splitting the installs over multiple floppies is close to necessary in my opinion. At least then you can put them in different places. During the time I was writing this review, Opcode posted an update for BW G3 and iMac users, which uses the new challenge/response authorization. Don't know how it works, but nobody has been complaining that I have seen.

V-DSP worked just fine with the ASIO drivers for my Korg and my PARIS interface, and also with Sound Manager.

One point deducted for the IAC thing, two for only giving me one floppy. 7 Points.

Features and Audio Quality

Vision DSP, like most of the current professional sequencers, is an astonishingly full featured application. All of the big five are now mature, advanced applications that have been finely tuned by years of competition with each other. There are few better arguments in the world for unfettered and unmonitored capitalism than what has happened in the world of audio software over the last few years.

For MIDI, V-DSP will do basically anything you can dream up. You can have as many MIDI tracks as your serial ports can handle, these tracks can be controlled by elegantly editable controller data, and routed anywhere OMS will let you. Faders and consoles in V-DSP can send and receive MIDI, and this can act as a "controller patch bay" if you wish. Sequences can be embedded into other sequences very easily, allowing intuitive "modular" song construction out of pieces that can be created on their own. It's a great looping and live composition tool. The Pulse edit window, for putting together drum grooves, is absolutely the best of its kind anywhere. Groove templates can be used to apply the feel of one track to another and they actually work. All of this is pretty standard in sequencers these days, so much of what makes Vision DSP special is in the way these features are implemented. One final MIDI feature of note is that once the OMS name manager is functioning properly, it's refreshing to select patches for the synths by name and not number. What you do in Galaxy folds beautifully into what you do in Vision. I should mention that Pulse window again. It's perhaps the best I have used, it's very intuitive and lots of regularly used functions (like velocity settings) are accessible immediately. It's also real easy to set up, and with the right sounds it can be a techno dweeb computer machine or a reasonably convincing country rock drummer. Very easy to work with, but not stupidified by being easy.

As good as the MIDI is, audio is the real news in Vision. By supporting ASIO and VST, V-DSP becomes instantly as audio savvy as anyone out there. V-DSP supports as many "audio instruments" or what we might call voices, as your hardware will support. The bussing and routing are impressive, and the f/x implementation is top notch, more on that later. A few things really make V-DSP audio special, though. First, they included a phase reverse switch on every channel, something I really miss in Cubase. Sure, one can always phase invert a file after duplicating it, but it's a lot easier just to punch a button and find out that yes, in fact, I shouldn't have put those mics that close together. After the phase reverse switch, Opcode also built a very very nice EQ section into V-DSP. You get four bands that can be high or low shelving or parametric, and a very useful graphic curve of you EQ settings. I'm an EQ freak, I use it on everything, in fact, I use EQ to "place" instruments a lot, perhaps because I can't afford good reverbs. Instead of using different ambiences to give an instrument a place in a mix, I tend to EQ it a little realm of its own. The V-DSP EQ is very solid, and easy to use, I still don't know what the hell Cubase EQs are doing half of the time, and in Cubase you can't choose different types of EQ, one of the reasons that I think EQ plug-ins are so popular with Cubase users. You can quite nicely EQ an entire project with just the built in V-DSP EQ, though of course high end EQ plug-ins don't suck.

But the BIGGEST audio feature in V-DSP is that in the window used to set up record tracks, there is a little pop up menu where you can choose to record 16 or 24 bits. That's right folks, for the price of everybody else's bargain sequencer, you can record with every last bit of quality that your converters and card will pass. This is not in any way insignificant. In my opinion, the jury is still very much out on the necessity of 88.1 and 96k sample rates, but anybody who doesn't communicate primarily with ASL can tell the difference between good 24 bit and good 16 bit audio. And perhaps as importantly, decent 24 bit converters sound as good as really really good 16 bit converters, so those extra 8 bits really make a difference to your checking account as well. Don't get me wrong, all converters are not created equal, but 24 bits makes a real difference, and the prices are getting better an better every day. This is a huge, huge feature for V-DSP, and it alone should convince some of you to buy it over everything else.

So, we have world class MIDI, excellent EQ and plug-in implementation, 24 bit audio for the price of 16. Anything else? Actually, yes. They ship a nice batch of plug-ins along with the package, and there is very good built in file based DSP. Some of the plug-ins are in the "you get what you pay for" category, but many are very very useful. The opALIGN is a perfectly functional channel delay that lets you delay a channel in increments of 256 samples, opREZN8 is just what you would think--a cool resonant filter, there's also a ring modulator, a multi-tap delay, opBOXDLY which looks to be leaning to an echoplex kind of sound (there's a high frequency roll off control), and a pair of compressors and a reverb. None of these suck, and a few are quite cool, the multi-tap is nice, the resonant filter can do some damn hip little things, and the delays can all be set by beats per minute and time signature and instead of milliseconds. Don't know about you, but it's sure easier for me to set a delay for 92.5 BPM and 4/4 than figure out how many ms a quarter note is in that time. The only one that could qualify as a clunker is the reverb, which is a plate that sounds REALLY metallic, but I managed to get it to work as a decent special effect (read really strange) sound for a whole drum loop that I routed to a bus. The straight loop was pretty dry and up front, and I soloed it here and there an punched in the super metallic reverb with a pretty high modulation frequency and it made the whole drum track sorta go BOOOOIIIINNNNGGG! Don't slip this one on anybody's vocal track you want to work with again, but even it isn't awful.

The file based DSP is pretty much the standard stuff, save the time stretch/pitch shift stuff. You can normalize, EQ, do fades, and so on, but the audio to tempo and pitch shifting are truly world class. Right up there with dedicated apps doing just that. I remember reading an interview with the Dust Brothers where they claimed that they don't use samplers much anymore for pitch f/x because the algorithms in Studio Vision are so good. They must have brought that same quality to the younger brother. Excellent stuff.

The only thing it doesn't have is sampler support, TDM support, and the audio to MIDI function that's in SVP. Nobody with TDM systems is ever going to buy this anyway, and only Performer supports direct sampler transfer, and the feature set is really extraordinary. Everything that comes with Peak SE and Galaxy should also be considered as "features" as well. I would give it a thirty, but I'll knock off a point for the sampler thing. 29 out of thirty.

The Interface

The word here is clean. Audio and MIDI is really a fascinating playground for ergonomics. It's not any easier to represent sound on a two dimensional monitor than it would be to represent a painting with music. Every software company works with these problem differently, and Opcode opts for a very clean and configurable interface.

Once again, I can't help making a comparison to the other main app I use for sequencing and recording, Cubase. Steinberg has worked very very hard on getting Cubase to the point where most of the common tasks can be accomplished in the main "tracks" window. Well, they invented it, so it makes sense they want to use it. Vision moves on a slightly different axis. Opcode isn't afraid of windows, there are lots of them, and they are all nicely put together. Cubase tries to put as many functions and as much information as possible on one window, and Vision uses multiple windows that are dedicated and customizable. This is perhaps most obvious in what Vision calls "consoles." When you open up a mixer in Cubase, one big bank of identical channels shows up, one fader per voice. Each channel has buttons for EQ, insert and send f/s and a pan slider. If you scroll way right, that's where your stereo buses live. It's a lot like an analog console, one strip per voice, and there are even little faux LEDs that light up when a button is pressed. Vision makes no attempt to emulate the look or feel of an analog console, other than a fader and some meters. In V-DSP, a console channel can control any voice or MIDI part, any bus, or a master output. It's up to you. So, for instance, let's say we're working on backing vocals, we've doubled them onto four tracks, on two stereo passes. We want to be able to control pan on each track, and send them to a stereo bus where we can slap some of that boingy reverb on them. In V-DSP, select the tracks in the main window, and use the nifty "build console from selected" command, or if you want every voice in your mix (a console strip can control MIDI data as wel), select "build console from all instruments in use." Add another channel for the bus, and there are five console channels ready to work. Nothing extraneous, no real estate wasted, no need to assign them to different channels to get them grouped in an easy to work with set. Now, we can assign them to the bus with the pop up menu on the bottom of each channel, and assign the bus to a hardware output or the master fader. Easy quick and, like I said, clean. If we like it an we'll need it later, give it a name (back vox) and it's a sub menu in the Consoles menu.

The same attitude is taken with the functions on the strip, and how they are navigated. The default channel strip has no EQs, sends, or f/x showing, though they are always available. You choose how many you want to display. After an EQ window is opened, it can be used for any channel you choose. So, if you are working on the EQ for the kick drum and want to see if you can clear a little sonic space by cutting something in the bass, instead of having to close the window, find the bass channel, and open up its EQ window. Just click on a pop up menu in the EQ editor, select the bass channel and there it is. Quick, efficient and, once again, clean.

One of the strongest interface features of V-DSP is the MIDI controller editing in the graphic and pulse windows. At the bottom each of these windows is a strip that can be shown or hidden as the user wishes, a simple pop up window selects what kind of MIDI data is displayed. A wonderfully intuitive set of tools can then be used to edit anything that you can dream up to do with MIDI. There are built in curves, a free form edit, it's very capable and really really fast to work with. The Pulse window has the same basic strip at the bottom of the window, and throws in the ability to edit velocity (certainly the most commonly edited parameter with drum tracks) right from the main window. I can say without a doubt that for editing MIDI data, V-DSP is the most powerful and logical tool I have ever used.

What's not so great about the V-DSP interface? Well, it ain't real pretty. The manual even recommends using 256 color mode, because the interface only uses that many colors. There's a lot of gray. The number of windows can make things confusing, though there are some nice shortcuts to bring another open window to the front. The record enable window, mysteriously, MUST be open to record any audio. Doesn't seem necessary to me. The audio editor is not too spectacular, in fact that's the biggest weakness in the whole app, in my opinion. It works, but it's not particularly fun or easy to use. These days when so much audio power is available in sequencers, it would be a good idea to beef up that interface with more tools. They do include Peak for waveform editing, but the built in stuff should act a little more like Peak. Like I said, it's functionally very good, but we're talking about interface now.

The GUI manages to be both very powerful and very intuitive. Best of class controller editing. If it supported more colors it would be cool, and the audio editing could use a working over (individually zoomable tracks, more detailed waveforms, etc.) but it does get the job done.

We'll take two points of for the slightly behind the times audio section, and two points for a general lack or eye candy. We'll put one point back for realizing that eye candy has its own problems, and the pulse window. 17 out of 20.

Compatibility

Totally insanely complete. For audio I/O you can use Sound Manager, DAE, or ASIO hardware. For audio DSP you can use VST plug-ins and Premiere if you really want, and if you want TDM you can upgrade later. OMS support is (obviously) as good as it gets. The usual file formats are there (AIFF, SD2) and nearly everything else can be imported via hooks into Quicktime. The Quicktime movie import is as easy can be, select Open from the File menu, navigate to QT movie, and V-DSP will import audio and MIDI data, and show the movie in Vision. You can set the movie size, sync preferences, and so on. Incidentally, if you want to have some real fun, go grab a few commercials or the Star Wars trailer off of the web, import it into V-DSP and try adding new music to it. Try the Hee Haw theme with the Star Wars trailer, maybe a motivational CD sound track to captured video of "When Animals Attack." Show tunes over political speeches, waltzes over Super Bowls, trust me, it's more fun than we should be allowed to have.

Where can I take off a point? For not supporting Free MIDI? I don't think so. If you don't own a MIDI interface, you might even be in more luck, OMS will auto detect multi-port interfaces from Opcode, so you can add an ASIO savvy audio card and an Opcode MIDI interface, and have a "vertically compatible" studio with minimum hassle in not time. 10 out of 10.

Documentation

Once again, nearly best of class. Vision DSP ships with three good sized manuals on deforesting paper, one for MIDI, one for audio, and one for Galaxy. They include an OMS guide, a quick start guide, and a handy sheet of keyboard shortcuts. The manuals are very well written, logically organized, and indexed to the gills. As good as the MIDI manual is, however, Opcode neglected to include a utility to keep people from leaving it in the seat pocket in front of them on an airplane while flying to Memphis to visit their girlfriend. Funny, they thought of nearly everything else. For those of you too stupid to check to see if you have collected all of your belongings whilst traveling, they also ship all the documentation on the CD-ROM in Acrobat format. Thank God.

Once again, I can't think of a reason to deduct anything. 10 of 10

Overall Value

Once again, there is little bad I can think to say. In order to do this review, I switched to using V-DSP for all of my sequencing and most of my audio work for over a month. I still did some work for paying customers in Cubase so I wouldn't look like a moron and scratch my head at critical times, but even then I switched over when I felt confident. I honestly don't know if I'll switch back, Vision is that good. The things that it doesn't have that other sequencers do (the IPS in Cubase, sampler drag and drop in Performer, etc) are highly specialized tools. If you need them, V-DSP may not be for you, but for the huge majority of users and uses, V-DSP is as good or better than the competitors, and excels in certain things like controller editing. The efficient interface also helps people with limited monitor real estate, and its QT integration makes it a no brainer for people looking to add sound to video.

In addition, I cannot stress enough how big a value it is to be able to record 24 bit, even if you currently only own 20 bit converters. If your ASIO driver can pass 20 bits, that's a lot more resolution than if you record the same driver into a 16 bit only app. With the cost of quality 24 bit conversion plummeting, this will be a massive advantage for V-DSP until everybody else tags along, and who knows when that will be. Vision DSP is really a competitor not to Cubase and Cakewalk and Logic Silver (which are priced in its range), but with 24 bit support, it competes with the much more expensive Cubase VST/24, Performer, and Logic Platinum (still the only Emagic offering to support 24 bits). Even competing with much more expensive apps, it holds its own very nicely.

Switching audio apps is not a particularly pleasant experience. If you are using something else, and are happy, I don't think I would tell you to change. However, if you are not satisfied with your current setup, Vision DSP offers a lot for your trouble. If you are starting out, or upgrading from shareware applications, I cannot recommend V-DSP highly enough. G3 + Vision DSP + ASIO card + Waves Native Power Pack II (for the EQ and Compressor modules) = wicked recording setup from scratch for under $2000. For that money, you also get Peak SE and Galaxy as well, each worth some money on their own. It is quite simply the best value in integrated sequencer/audio recorder applications available today.

How can I deduct a point for an app that competes very well with software costing nearly twice as much? 20 out of 20.

Conclusion

Even though this may be the longest audio review in the history of music, I still haven't scratched the surface describing what you get with V-DSP. The select and modify function is cool, the groove templates are cool, there's MIDI control of faders in the Consoles, the list goes on. Trust me, it's all here, and it all works. V-DSP scores 93 out of 100 points, and would have broken 95 (a first) if I weren't so harsh in section one. I'm not giving V-DSP "booty shakin good" status for the simple reason that sequencer/recorder apps aren't inspiring to me, they don't make me stop working and just grin. They are tools, and as a tool Vision DSP is and astonishing piece of work. You can't go wrong here.


Have an Audio question? Check the Audio FAQ first.

Send Thad Feedback or new links at: tcb@caliban.grendelnet.com


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