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Alchemy

Stereo Sample Editor for the Macintosh

Sampling keyboards have come a long way in the last three years, and as a result, the visual editing software available has rather fallen behind the specifications and features of current machines. Until now that is, with the advent of Alchemy from Blank Software, boasting a whole bunch of features new to computer-based sample editors. Paul Wiffen investigates.


Sampling keyboards have come a long way in the last three years, and as a result, the visual editing software available has rather fallen behind the specifications and features of current machines. Until now that is, with the advent of Alchemy from Blank Software, boasting a whole bunch of features new to computer-based sample editors. Paul Wiffen investigates.

Figure 1.


The next generation of samplers is already with us and in the coming months the number of machines available with stereo sampling, 16-bit quality and megawords of sample memory will increase alarmingly.

Already the Emulator III, Prophet 3000, and Ensoniq EPS show how far those manufacturers have come since their last generation of samplers, and Akai and Dynacord will soon be joining the exalted ranks with their state-of-the-art machines. The last year has also seen the arrival of 16-bit stereo sampling on computers, with Dyaxis on the Mac and ADAP and Lynex on the Atari ST.

Until recently, however, things had been a bit static in the field of computer-based visual editing of samples. Digidesign, who were the first into the field, have faithfully adapted their Sound Designer package (originally created for the Emulator II) to work with the numerous 12-bit machines which have appeared in the last couple of years, while Steinberg have made a similar range of software available for the ST in the form of their Soundworks editors. But none of them can handle a true 16-bit sample (because none of the compatible samplers can) and none of them are designed to deal with stereo signals.

Enter Alchemy, a 16-bit stereo sample editor from Blank Software of San Francisco. The program runs on the Apple Macintosh family of computers and there is one universal version for all the supported samplers. Of course, this is not a completely novel concept; the most recent version of Digidesign's Universal Sound Designer can communicate with many different samplers (although not those for which there exists a specific version, unfortunately). What is unique about Alchemy is that all the samplers it supports can be kept connected to the Mac all the time via their various interfaces and then switched between in software. Blank call this the Distributed Audio Network or 'DAN' for short.

Once you have connected a sampler to the Mac via MIDI, RS422 or SCSI (depending on which communication method the sampler in question uses), then you can add each sampler by name to the pull-down menu called 'Network' and simply select it for sample transmission. In case you use several MIDI samplers, Alchemy can also control a MIDI patch bay automatically for you, so that even MIDI switching is taken care of when you select a sampler on the Network menu.

Whilst this facility is great for people like me who have access to several different samplers, it may seem a bit gratuitous if your budget stops at one sampler. But hold on - remember when your friend bought that Emax instead of the S900 you have and you were disappointed that you couldn't swap samples? Well now you can trade samples without any compatibility problems!

Now seems as good a time as any to go through the samplers which are supported by Alchemy. Blank Software began life with visual editing packages for the Mirage and SP12 drum machine, so it is no great surprise to find Ensoniq and Emu products taking the majority placing in the supported products list. Both the Mirage and the brand new EPS are catered for, along with the Emax, SP1200 drum machine, and the recently added Emulator III. Seeing as Akai's S900 has probably now become the most popular studio sampler. Blank have wisely included it in their fold. And, as Alchemy runs on the Macintosh, it makes sense to include the IMS Dyaxis - a stereo sampling recorder which uses a Mac as the control interface and stores the sounds in Mac format on hard disk. This is currently the only way of getting 16-bit stereo samples (which make Alchemy the highest spec editing software) into the network, although the EIII will shortly expand this. Talking to Donny Blank, they fully intend adding the Akai S1000 and other 16-bit stereo samplers, as and when they are released.

Of course, each of these machines has a different bit resolution, different sample rates etc, so not only will Alchemy have to undertake any necessary data format conversions but the final sound quality and usability with the Mac depends heavily on the features of your sampler. With this in mind, let's now look at the features and restrictions involved in using each of the supported samplers.

Although the Ensoniq EPS uses the slowest interface to Alchemy, MIDI, it is nonetheless the fastest sampler to use. This is due mainly to two specific features. Firstly, the EPS can accept just the sections of a waveform which have been altered in Alchemy. This means that if you only made small alterations to a sound, you can hear these very quickly because only the altered data needs to be sent instead of the entire sample. This avoids perhaps the biggest problem with most sample editors. Secondly, many of Alchemy's functions are duplicated on the EPS (crossfades, scaling, reversing, etc) so instead of changing the data in the Mac, Alchemy remotely controls the same operation within the EPS using MIDI System Exclusives, thereby completely removing the need for data communication before an altered sound can be heard on the EPS sampler. Stereo samples which cannot be made on the EPS can, however, be played back when transferred from Alchemy, and the assignment of left and right signals to different layers and the appropriate panning is taken care of automatically by Alchemy.

Emu Systems' Emax is another excellent sampler for communicating with Alchemy because it can use the RS422 interface which runs 17 times faster than MIDI. You do have the extra expense of purchasing an RS422 connecting cable (which will set you back about £25) but believe me, it is well worth the outlay as it not only increases the speed but also the reliability of the data transfer. Alchemy automatically sets up the necessary assignment and panning when a sample is sent from another source.

Although the Akai S900 can only communicate at the slowest rate due to using MIDI for complete sample transfer each time, it is well worth waiting for the result. Automatic assignment and panning of stereo sounds is again featured.

Neither the SP1200 nor the Mirage can handle stereo sounds, but you shouldn't let this put you off. The sound quality obtained by sending samples from other sources into these devices is far superior to their own sampling capabilities, and in the case of the Mirage this difference is so great it is probably worth the cost of the system on its own. Add to this the extensive editing capabilities of Alchemy and you'll find your Mirage moving up a league in sound quality and flexibility. The SP1200 also benefits from the availability of facilities normally found only on a keyboard sampler.

Although these are the only 'supported' samplers in the current Alchemy version (more will be added as they become available), there is apparently a limited form of communication available with other samplers via the MIDI Sample Dump Standard. This means that it should be possible to send and receive samples from the Prophet 2000, Oberheim DPX1, Dynacord ADD-One, Yamaha TX16W and Akai MPC60 at this level (which does support loops as well as sample data). Unfortunately, I didn't have a MIDI Sample Dump compatible machine available during the review period, so I was unable to test this. In fact, nowhere in the otherwise extremely comprehensive manual does it mention MIDI Sample Dump, and I couldn't find any options or parameters in the software which featured it, so we will just have to take this feature on trust. However, I would like to see the MIDI Dump Standard available on Alchemy's 'Network' menu as a selectable option (together with a transmission channel number, which some samplers - the Akai MPC60 and the Lynex for example - are now implementing, even though I believe it is not actually allowed for in the MIDI spec). This would make for a really powerful network, with 95% of samplers being covered either through specifically written systems (those already 'supported' plus those that are added in future updates) or through the general MIDI standard. It would certainly increase the number of potential sources for sounds.

Apart from this mysteriously 'hidden' MIDI Sample Dump facility (which only needs bringing into the open), I can find very little fault with Alchemy at all as a communications interface between samplers. Its flexibility stems from the facility to convert the existing sampling rate of a sample to any other rate. As you probably know, every sampler employs a different set of sample rates (33kHz, 44.1 KHz etc), so to keep the original pitch the same when moving from sampler to sampler you need to be able to convert the sample rate. Alchemy does this brilliantly, increasing sound quality when a higher rate is chosen, yet retaining the fidelity to a surprising level when the rate is lowered (certainly much better than making a sample at the same lower rate). This means you can exchange sounds between samplers without running into tuning offset problems (which used to dog me in the past when transferring Sound Designer files between different samplers!).

As a network controller, then, Alchemy is superb. But how does it fair as a sample editor?

The first thing you need to do is call up the sound samples you want to edit. That's right; with Alchemy you can edit several sounds at once on-screen, either in the conventional 'layered windows' manner that all Mac users will know, or much more usefully with a 'tiled' layout that divides the available screen space amongst the number of files you have opened (see Figure 1) - with up to six samples visible simultaneously. I found this much better to work with than the standard layered windows approach as you can see all the sounds at the same time, ideal for cutting and pasting. Of course, if you need to see one sound in great detail you can quickly zoom in and expand the display to fill the whole screen, popping it back into its allocated tile when you have finished your detailed work.

Figure 2.


The major advantage Alchemy has over previous sample editors is its ability to deal with stereo sound files, and there is a special display for this (Figure 2). Note also the overview section (available in both mono and stereo) so that no matter how finely you zoom in on the waveform, you still know where you are within the sample. An icon allows you to open and close this overview.

Icons also control many of the editing functions. All the fade and crossfade functions are similarly accessed, which saves all that tedious pulling down of menus. Cut-and-paste editing is more flexible than most, with Insert and Extract commands in addition to the usual edit commands. 'Extract' allows you to pull a section out of a sample and discard the data in front and behind (like truncating start and end points in one fell swoop). 'Insert' allows you to slip in extra data without overwriting anything already in the target sample.

If you don't have a stereo sampler, the Alchemy manual guides you through the process of sampling first the left and then the right channel, transferring them both into the Macintosh, creating a stereo file from the two mono sides and ensuring they are 'in-sync' (a real pain if you don't use Alchemy), then downloading them into your sampler with stereo automatically assigned. This is just one of the many such talk-throughs which are dealt with in the manual under 'Guided Tours' or 'Applications'. In fact, this is one of the best features of the excellent manual, which doesn't just give you a rundown of the facilities available but takes you through standard and advanced applications, helping you extract the maximum benefit from your investment...

'Loop Window' is by no means a novel feature these days - but that doesn't mean you can live without it. Blank Software's previous program, Sound Lab, was the first I saw that let you move the front and back of a loop independently, so naturally they have included this facility in Alchemy. When standard looping fails you, there's always crossfade looping to help out with smoothing away glitches.

Figure 3.


My favourite Alchemy feature is the Harmonic Spectrum analysis. This allows you to run an FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) on up to 16K of sample data, giving you a chart of all the frequencies present in that section (see Figure 3). Now in itself an FFT is not that stunning. Most visual editing software, from the Fairlight to the Lynex, will give you an FFT (it's those pretty 'mountain graph' pictures Nick Rhodes shows on his Fairlight monitor during keyboard sections to distract you from his bad miming!). What is unique about the way Alchemy does it is that you can actually change the levels of these harmonics and then resynthesize the sound with this changed harmonic content. You can also cut and paste whole groups of harmonics, which makes for pretty radical effects, or you can mix them.

Figure 4.


Obviously, first attempts with this facility can generate fairly uncontrollable results; but the more you work with it, the more you learn and understand about the way sound is made up (and how many software packages or synths can you say that of?) and the more in control of the result you become. You can make small EQ-type changes or really strange and wonderful transformations which truly merit the name 'alchemy' (medieval alchemists, remember, were always trying to transmute elements - usually lead into gold!).

Standard features like waveform drawing (good for getting rid of glitches if nothing else) are also included. But for me, the two main features of networking and analysis/resynthesis coupled with the stereo capability make Alchemy the definitive sample editing software. As soon it expands to encompass more stereo samplers (once the manufacturers get around to releasing them), then all other software sample editing packages will be at a serious disadvantage.

Price £349 inc VAT.

Contact MCMXCIX, (Contact Details).


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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Aug 1988

Gear in this article:

Software: Sample Editor > Blank Software > Alchemy


Gear Tags:

Mac Platform

Review by Paul Wiffen

Previous article in this issue:

> Life In The Fast Lane

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> The User Interface


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