Doctoring the mouse
Sample groove editor for Mac
Steinberg's Recycle! is a truly innovative sample editing program - anyone who's heard it in action will testify to its creative power. Ian Masterson sits still long enough to give some of his loops the Recycle! treatment...
Got a Macintosh? Got a sampler? Then get Recycling! It's hard to see how you've any other choice. Have I gone mad? Probably. But not without due cause. You see, the reason for my insane rage and frantic gibbering is a simple one. In fact, it can be stated in two otherwise innocent words: 'drum' and 'loops'.
Before my editor gets on the blower to have me committed once and for all (Don't give me ideas... - Ed), I had better offer some explanation. If you're an enthusiastic sampler-owner like me, and your musical bent happens to lean towards pop or dance music production, then you've probably had extensive experience of drum loops by now. You know the score: a groove is up and happening nicely around the 125BPM mark, the bassline is thundering, and your sampled analogue riffs are bouncing around like the ghost of The Human League. All it needs is a percussion section to fill it out a bit more. Or perhaps a nifty garage arrangement shuffling in the background. So you get out your sample CDs or 12" vinyl and locate the perfect loop at 119BPM. Nothing else will do. But, no matter how you sample, trim or stretch it, will it fit the track at 123BPM? No way. It'll run at 123.85BPM, but by then your analogue riffs are wildly out of sync. Angry? Lunatic, more like.
Or perhaps, just as you're coming up to a crucial part of your track, you decide that a quick percussion break is in order. But just how the hell do you isolate the bass and snare from that full ragga loop you sampled? It's either all or nothing, the whole way through. Nuff said.
This kind of looping compromise is set to become a thing of the past, thanks to Steinberg's ReCycle! Here's a program that looks inside your sampler, grabs the loop in question, slices it up into little bits of sound that approximate to the individual drum hits, and then sends all the little bits back to your sampler again as individual samples. After that, it creates a dedicated MIDI file of note information to play all the slices in sequence. Since all the drum hits are now 'isolated' instead of being part of one unmanageable wodge of sound, you can load the MIDI file into your sequencer and speed the loop up or down by simply changing the tempo. Nothing gets stretched or distorted; the faster (or slower) the sequencer plays the MIDI data, the faster (or slower) the individual slices sound. It's almost as if you had programmed the loop up yourself from single drum hits.
But there's more. Since each drum hit is now an individual sample, you can proceed to completely alter the nature of the loop. For example, you could go into the Grid Edit page of your sequencer and copy and paste sections of notes. One useful application of this is when you have a one bar loop that incorporates a fill at the end; by carefully cutting and pasting the notes preceding the fill, you could lengthen the pattern to two, four or eight bars before the fill comes in. Or you can requantize the notes to shuffle or straighten the groove of the pattern. Or drop out whole sounds. Or repeat sounds... get the picture?
And then, since your sampler is now treating the loop as a series of component samples, you can play around with them in there too - sending them to separate outputs to readjust the levels, adding filtering or effects, or normalising the gain of each sound. What you can do with any normal, one-shot sound, you can now do with the sounds that make up your whole loop.
But enough of these fantastic features. What of the software itself? Well, to start with there are, as ever, a few qualifications to be made. Firstly, you need an Apple Mac with a 68020 processor or better, 4Mb RAM, System 7 or higher, and a hard disk. Of course, 99.9% of Mac owners in the music world will probably have a system well in excess of this, but these are the minimum requirements. In practice, I found my 8Mb RAM to be a little tight when running ReCycle! alongside Cubase, since the amount of available memory dictates the length of sample you can load into the software. I was planning to upgrade to 16Mb anyway, and using ReCycle! only hastened that step. Sound Manager 3.0 or later is also recommended, since it greatly enhances the playback quality of the loop(s) you're working on. ReCycle! plays back audio either through the internal speaker of the Mac, or via a Digidesign Audiomedia II or ProTools card, should you have one installed.
"Nothing gets stretched or distorted; the faster the sequencer plays the MIDI data, the faster the individual slices sound..."
Of course, you'll also need a sampler, and here things are slightly trickier. At the time of writing, ReCycle! will only support Digidesign SampleCell running on the Apple Mac (saving slices in SoundDesigner I or II format), and the Akai S1000/S3000 family of hardware samplers, which you must connect to your Mac over SCSI.
In fact, the version of ReCycle! under review had significant problems handling S1000 translation - although it works perfectly with the S3000 range - but this has apparently been fixed properly in the impending upgrade. Owners of other hardware samplers, such as the Roland or Ensoniq models, will thus be bitterly disappointed that ReCycle! won't support their units. However, I understand that this too is being worked on, so there may be light at the end of the tunnel yet...
My own programming system, which I used to audition ReCycle!, is based around an Akai S3000 with 10Mb of RAM and SCSI interface, and an Apple Macintosh Quadra 650 with Audio Media II card; but the process of operating ReCycle! with SampleCell is virtually identical to that using an external Akai machine.
Once the software is installed (it uses disk-based copy protection, so no irritating dongles hang off the side of your Macintosh), you can run through the supplied tutorial to get to grips with your new looping miracle-worker. The first step is to import a sampled loop into the program; during this process ReCycle! digitally analyses and edits the loop into component slices of sound. It's rather like an automated version of a harddisk editor such as ProTools. Actually selecting a loop to be imported is virtually the same as opening a standard Mac file; you hit the 'Receive' function, scroll through the samples listed there, and choose the one you want. When this is complete, the main - and in fact only - window in the program pops up on screen, showing a graphical representation of the audio waveform that makes up your loop.
At this point in time, the slices of sound ReCycle! has made are invisible on the screen. By raising the Sensitivity fader on the right of the window, dotted vertical lines will appear across the waveform, indicating where ReCycle! thinks the best slices can be made - in other words, at the start of each drum hit. A high sensitivity level (it ranges from 0 - 99) will naturally produce more slices; the trick is to set one slice at the start of each drum hit.
"What you can do with any normal, one-shot sound, you can now do with the sounds that make up your whole loop."
In order to help you do this, the mouse pointer changes into a little 'audition tool' as it moves over the waveform. By pressing the mouse button, you can hear the contents of the slice directly under the pointer. If a particular slice seems to have two drum hits in it - for example, a snare hit followed by a closed hi-hat you can raise the sensitivity fader to introduce a further slice between them. Slices can also be drawn in manually using a 'pencil' tool, if you feel your ears are a better judge of the correct area to be sliced; but I warn you - ReCycle! knows what it is doing. If a slice isn't inserted automatically, there probably shouldn't be one there at all.
It's also worth pointing out that the program can only work in a linear fashion, editing consecutive, rather than layered sounds. There is simply no way a hi-hat tick and a bass drum can be separated if they occur on precisely the same beat; so while ReCycle! can, and does, work virtual miracles with loops, it can't do the impossible.
The entire loop can be heard at any time by simply hitting the spacebar (or onscreen icon) to start and stop playback. Playback will loop between the Left and Right locators, situated at the base of the waveform. These locators can be dragged and snapped onto the first and last slices of the loop; in other words, if your loop is actually three bars long, and you only want two bars to work with, then snap the locators to the slices at the start of bar one, and the end of bar two. You'll be able to hear when these are set right just by listening to the loop as it plays back.
Once the locators are set, ReCycle! can compute the exact tempo of the loop if you enter the number of bars and beats being played, and the time signature (4/4, 3/4, 6/8, etc.). Setting the tempo in this way is essential to ReCycle!'s working methods; if your original loop is playing at 100BPM, but you wish to incorporate it into a song playing at 120BPM, then the program needs this information in order to compute the length of each slice. If your original loop needs to be slowed down, then ReCycle! 'stretches' the slices involved slightly to fit the new tempo. The percentage amount of stretch is chosen by the user from a pop up menu; however, this is not the same thing as timestretching, since the overall character of the loop is not altered, just the individual slices.
If you find the program has been a bit over-zealous in its slicing, and has in fact cut some individual sounds up too much, then you can also 'hide' unwanted slices using a dedicated tool, preventing them from being transmitted back to the sampler. Alternatively, if you suspect a particular slice will vanish when you pull the Sensitivity fader down slightly, you can opt to 'lock' it in place, preserving that vital split point.
Once the slicing has been tailored to suit your requirements, it's time to send the sample information back into your sampler. At this stage, you can do several things. If you simply want the loop to be 'timestretched' by the program, and not cut into component samples, then select 'Transmit as One Sample' from the appropriate menu. If this is chosen, ReCycle! returns the loop as a whole item to your sampler, and creates a MIDI file consisting of one note to trigger it.
"Recycle! does everything I've ever wanted to do with a loop, basically."
Be aware, though, that the timestretching process here is quite crude, and was never intended to be ReCycle's forte anyway. ReCycle! is not a substitute or replacement for Steinberg's dedicated timestretching program, TimeBandit. Should you desire to normalize the loop's level to ensure maximum gain, then this can also be done during transmission.
However, for my money, the really clever part of ReCycle! is the way in which it transmits the individual slices as component samples - and then creates an overall Program (known as an 'Instrument' when using SampleCell) in your Akai to house them.
The slices/samples are mapped out consecutively into independent keygroups in one program, so that the MIDI file which ReCycle! creates can play them instantly from your sequencer, to recreate the whole loop. Until you actually see this being done, you probably won't believe or appreciate it; but once you have, you'll never be able to live without it. There are other little tricks and devices onboard ReCycle!, which the excellent manual helpfully guides you through, but the basic process of splitting up a loop in this way is the most brilliant bit of the whole thing.
And so we return to the opening of this article. I'm no longer driven mad by the tempi of errant drum loops; I simply ReCycle! them. I can set individual levels, edit each component sound, add effects... everything I've ever wanted to do with a loop, basically. And not just drum loops either - synth samples, looped effects and strange percussion patterns can all be doctored to suit a track.
Of course, there are limitations, because no piece of software is ever completely infallible. To start with, ReCycle!'s slicing method means that your sampler can become clogged with ten, fifteen, or even twenty individual samples to comprise a single loop, where one existed before.
This can cause polyphony problems, and occasionally my Akai started to groan under the strain of multiple ReCycled loops, slowing things up somewhat. But it never once crashed or seized up - and I've been using the program for four months now, in every track I've worked on.
To put it bluntly, I just couldn't imagine a studio session without ReCycle! now. It's completely revamped my working methods and the way I approach sample programming - and it will do the same for you. This is the most impressive, innovative and exciting piece of software this reviewer has seen in a very long time. Go out and buy it now.
Price inc VAT: £199
More from: Harman Audio, (Contact Details)
Review by Ian Masterson
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