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Alchemy in the UK

Article from Micro Music, June/July 1989

Sample editing was never so simple thanks to this Mac package

The Alchemist was always searching for a way of turning base metals and materials into gold. Strange today to think that music should be the sought after golden treasure and that the base material should be software - in the form of the floppy disk!

I first came across Alchemy last year as a rather tasty little number running on the Apple Macintosh that not only behaved like a patch librarian, but also as a sample editor and waveform generator. In fact, so useful was this package that I finally relented and eventually ended up buying the software for myself!

Alchemy is the brainchild of the Blank brothers - namely Donny Blank and Dave Willenbrink - two extremely talented guys, and to hear them talk about their brainchild is to hear two dedicated programming musos talk about their ideas about what a piece of software should do and not what you should do in order to get a piece of software to work for you.

Anyway, about February last year, Alchemy (in its earliest form) hit the streets. This is back in the days when the Ensoniq Mirage was still making a name for itself and when the EMAX was still trying to be popular now and the 16 bit [12-bit] Akai S-900 was just out - usurping the reign that the Akai X-7000 and S-700 had on the 12 bit sampling field.

The problem was that all the different samplers had varying filter systems (of which the Akai samplers have probably the most underrated of the lot) and had different storage mediums. Akai introduced their crazy Quick Disks that measured 2.8 inches, and Mirage required specially formatted disks to be installed, and let's not forget the Emulator (and his big brother, the Emu II), utilising the totally uncool 5.25 inch disk formats that had a life span of about 28 days (at least the ones I used did)!

So with all these different formats, filters, editing operations and facilities, you would probably be amazed to know that the internal storage is more or less exactly the same as all the other samplers. Once a sample hits the RAM memory it becomes simple binary data, and that binary data can be manipulated to do all sorts of things that would normally take an evening's work hunched over the (invariably) tiny LCD display trying to get loop points exactly right or to perfect the age old party killer, the slapback echo effect in digital sample memory!

(I am now confident in saying that a slapback cannot be achieved without a piece of software such as this - if you can so it then tell me how, and on what sampler. It takes talent, patience and a great deal of paper getting the right algorithm to bounce a sample or the pointers back in real time effectively.)

Alchemy is the end of all that messing around with waveform tables and loop points. Quite simply, it lets you create, edit, store and distribute 16 bit (or less) samples in a central library and all of the samples can share the samples in your Mac drives.

The whole upshot of this is that Alchemy will let you play true stereo samples on monophonic samplers (the EPS, the EMAX and the S-700 for example), and Alchemy's digital resampling capabilities make it possible for you to adjust any waveform to any sample format without altering its pitch. So no "Munchkinization" when Kiri Te Kanawa hits the S-700 via DAN!

Setting up

This is a real pig to get going in the first place. The fact of the matter is that a DAN isn't a MIDI network. DANs are quite a bit different because you want to make sure that the sampler is on the outer node of a star network, or first in the line in a chain network. For each synth module to have to shove the signal through the MIDI THRU port saying "nome MIDI channel 7", (not mine) only to have some spurious bits lost on the way, because you were running MIDI THRU through a grotty implementation, is just the best way of making your samples sound like crisp packet variations. DAN takes precedence over MIDI when networking comes into play, so get some sort of MIDI patch bay if you have more than two MIDI THRU devices, okay?

Each sample is downloaded in a different way. Alchemy uses MIDI System exclusive protocols so that if you try downloading a S-900 sample to a S-700 or X-7000 (the keyboard version), then you will lose the ability to write to all banks above bank 4. In fact Alchemy is a little funny when it comes to downloading to the cheaper 12 bit brother of the S-900 as the System exclusive calls are different, so you have to set the machine on bulk MIDI download mode (not properly documented). If you want to edit S-700 samples, think again. I was able to use it on the DAN by ringing Akai's technical bods (first time I used my Akai active card too)!

Selecting a sample to download is easy: you go to the open button, you select the name of the sample you want to download, you press the Mac mouse button and pow! The sample goes flying from the Mac's hard disk over to the DAN via MIDI cables at MIDI speeds straight into the sampler. Press a key on the sampler it went to (or on the master keyboard) and you should hear your sample!

Alchemy lets you perform all of the necessary functions one would expect from the front of the sampler (plus some more if you are using a simple sampler or a sampler with awkward settings to use). If you do something you don't like all you have to do is select the UNDO option and the sample is literally back to the position it was in before the previous operation. So there are no more reasons to assiduously record each sample stage as you go along.

Fades and crossfades

This operation I have found only useful on samplers that have enough memory for the operation so the S-900 and the EMAX are ideal for this purpose. Most standard fades are possible from the palette with a single click of the mouse button and fade slopes can be set up as and when they become necessary. If you were using a sample synched to tape using something like SMPTE, you could actually fade to percentages that relate to percentage fades on the screen/SMPTE readout.

To link in two waveforms, you simply select the crossfade icon and one sample will be faded in as another fades out. The result is (at least on my rig) a smooth transition from one sound to another.

The fade slope used for crossfading is the same one you set using the fade options command on the preferences menu (when you start up the software). This can also be set by holding down the command key and clicking on the crossfade (or any fade) icon.

In addition to all the usual scaling and and drawing modes (by amplitude), you can choose to do a Fairlight and draw a waveform from scratch - an incredibly tedious task that is in my opinion counterproductive because it normally takes a hundred times longer to create a sample from the mouse than it does by taking an existing sample and re-editing it as (and where) necessary!

Neat eh?

Alchemy's functions are centered around a visual editing system that allows multiple waveform editing of either mono or stereo waveforms, which means that you can also have windows supporting your S-900 and, say, your Emulator open at the same time, with realtime editing. What's more important you can perform real time sample editing at a lower resolution (with the Mac's internal speaker) which saves a lot of time doing bulk MIDI-uploads and downloads.

You can loop any waveform you like simply by selecting a close-up and/or selecting a splice point, and then another splice point. You can even zoom up to the point at which you need to edit at a resolution of 100ths of a second.

Neat eh??

Even neater is a really efficient time domain edit option that lets you jump straight into frequency editing in one step (just a mouse click). Once a harmonic spectrum window is opened, the frequencies of the analysed waveform can be adjusted and the waveform can then be resynthesised to enhance the new spectral content (perhaps the sax sample isn't "breathy" enough).

Neat eh???

And possibly the most orgasmic of neat ideas that the package has for me is the way the DAN is set up. DAN stands for Distributed Audio Network and Alchemy can control every little item that happens to be on it. If you have a few sampling devices, you could retrieve a five minute Dyaxis file sample at 44.1 KHz, cut it up, and then send it to the capable samplers in your network. Direct to disk! (of a sort, but it works).

Neater still

Now, porting from one machine to another is even easier. You go to the Network menu on the screen, select send sound and the sample will fly either from the hard disk or from another sampler into the other sampler of your choice. This can also go (via RS232 conversion boxes) to a data capture disk (from Roland) for storage in a Roland readable format. If you have the MIDI bulk upload option set then the Roland sampler should read this as well!

You can set split points (or key off points) for the sampler by selecting from the network menu (it looks like a keyboard) and "pressing" one of the menu's keys! This sets the high point and can easily be reset if the sampler hangs up (as mine did on a couple of occasions).

Editing a sample

Editing sounds is so simple you need only know how to use a mouse! You can choose a series of tools that run along the left hand side of the screen that contain different cutting tools, a magnifying glass, an insertion point tool, a harmonic display tool, a loop range tool that works in hundredth's of a second so really accurate sample loop points can be set up (normally much more accurately than from the control panel of your sampler).

There is a harmonic display option so that you can generate a spectrum-harmonic display.

There is a great sound navigation system enabling the user to adjust the current waveform view to many resolutions with fewer steps. These tools are generally divided into three sections: overview display, the locator icons and the zoom functions (also known as magnifying glasses).

The overview display gives you a complete display of the complete sample (stretched across the screen as wide as the Apple Mac screen will go), as well as the currently edited portion of the sample.

The locator icons are quick ways of getting to a sample section, whereas the zoom function is a quick and dirty way of getting to the sample area of your choice.

The undo button

Have you ever made an addition to a sample and discovered that the sound has been totally screwed up?

I have. In fact if you do someting as simple as reverse a sample and then reverse the result again, the original will always sound awful, all clicks and pops. The sample in question has had its start and end points rounded up or down to the nearest fraction of a second, which can be a big problem when editing a sound as hours of hard work can be botched by a simple crunch operation.


I really liked this software. It was easy to use, it suited the Mac, it was easy to get onto the hard disk (it was protected using the key disk system) and it worked happily on my Mac Plus and a Mac IIx with large screen monitor which happened to drop out of a floating UFO marked EMAP spares and DTP division.

I was very pleased to note that the software used the large screen as well as it did the small screen. My only gripe is that the loading screen is clearly set up for a 19 inch monitor as all I got of the voluptuous lady was a chest! Okay, as far as bits of human bodies go, the chest ain't bad, but what about two chests? - joined on to the same person that is!

I only read the manual after using the software for a while out of polite recognition to the guys that created it. If you know squat all about sampling then this is a good place to start as it has just about everything you want to know about the software and the techniques involved. It even improved my sampling from CD techniques.

I cannot think of a patch librarian that will do a better job but where this package really flies is with the DAN. If you are using more than one sampler at the same time then this is certainly the right package as it not only resamples and digitally corrects any noises and features that crop up when porting a sample from machine to machine, but it also enables you to resynthesise a sample once it has been converted to make the most of the sample you have chosen.

Nice one lads.

Product: Alchemy
Format: Apple Macintosh Plus, IIex
Supplier: MCMXCIX
Address: (Contact Details)
Telephone numbers: (Contact Details)
Price: £565

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Previous Article in this issue

A Hell of AMAS

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Give it some Stick

Publisher: Micro Music - Argus Specialist Publications

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Micro Music - Jun/Jul 1989

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Gear in this article:

Software: Sample Editor > Blank Software > Alchemy

Gear Tags:

Mac Platform


Previous article in this issue:

> A Hell of AMAS

Next article in this issue:

> Give it some Stick

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