Soundworks S900 Visual Editor
Software for the Atari ST
After his recent jaunt on BBC TV's 'Micro Live' show, Atari ST owner Tony Hastings tries out Steinberg Research's new editing software for the Akai S900 sampler.
Akai's S900 is one of those new breed of instruments - a sampler for all seasons. It's almost cheap enough to be thought of as affordable (apart from the fact that it goes up in price every time you open a magazine). It has all the requisite specifications, ie. more than 500K of memory, assignable separate outputs, 12 bits (surely they need more bits than that to put it all together?) etc, etc. But, like the Prophet 2000/2, Emulator/Emax, Korg DSS1 and all, it lacks the ability to give you a visual reference for 'seeing' what a sample sounds like.
The vogue for harnessing the humble but omnipresent home micro and pressing it into service as a pseudo Fairlight display, for everything from a Casio CZ101 to an EmulatorII, seems to be growing daily. No sooner had I put down my word processor after reviewing Steinberg's visual editor for the Mirage and Commodore 64 [SOS December 86], than I was whisked off in a fast helicopter to a secret testing site to witness the new visual editor from Steinberg for the S900 and an Atari 520/1040.
I'm not going to describe how the S900 works here, that was covered in our July 86 issue. So, if some of the terminology confuses you, check out the earlier review to see what I'm talking about.
Before I begin in earnest, I must say that the software I saw was an almost complete version 1.0. That means 99 percent of it was working, but the finished product you can now buy in the shops may differ very slightly in some areas. As a consequence, you should maybe think of this as a preview rather than a review. It also means that there are undoubtedly some very tasty updates to follow quickly on the heels of the initial release that I can't comment on personally. However, it looks as if the software is going to be energetically supported and expanded, so don't be surprised to see Soundworks packages available for the Prophet and Emax pretty soon.
For those not in the know about computers and, in particular, the Atari/Apple Mac style of computers, I should mention that most of the Soundworks program is designed to make full use of the Atari mouse. The 'mouse' is a small device that controls the cursor - a bit like a joystick, except that you move the mouse around the desk top to move the cursor on screen. On top it has a button which can be used to change the function of the cursor. Clicking the button once or twice will activate the section of the program described by whatever the cursor is pointing to - a symbol (or 'icon'), a word, a number or letter, etc. Holding the mouse button down whilst moving the cursor left or right is also another way of performing an action on the screen, and is called 'dragging'. So, now you know the Atari basics, down to business...
Let's have a quick look at the features Soundworks has to offer. First off, it can store three samples at a time in the Atari computer. Each sample has it's own operating area, or 'window', and each window can be edited and fiddled with separately from the others. The Atari is a wonderful machine for this sort of operation, allowing you to change the size of the windows quickly and move them around the screen. This means that you can 'blow up' each sample waveform and view it over the whole screen or have it small enough to compare relative sections with other sample windows.
Samples loaded into the computer are automatically saved to the Atari's built-in 3.5 inch disk drive at the same time. This makes editing easier and quicker and keeps a copy of the sample on disk for future editing or for loading into other (yet to be announced) Soundworks packages. Yes, Steinberg have informed me that samples will be cross-compatible with all other Soundworks editing kits (and possibly even those of other manufacturers). Good news.
Other features include waveform drawing, program parameter setting, and an automatic loop crossfader to produce 'the perfect loop'. There is, in fact, a lot more to the S900 package than all this, but without listing everything (and life's too short for that) let's get down to the two most important things. How easy is it to use and how useful is it?
To initiate the system, you must load the Soundworks program disk into your Atari and then insert a blank disk ready to transfer samples. Next, you boot up your Akai S900 sampler, load in some samples and then you are just about ready to start.
The main screen display has the usual Atari Menu bar running along the top and a selection of icons (pictorial representations) down the side which look remarkably like Apple Mac icons. The main body of the screen contains the three sample windows, one large across the top and two smaller ones side by side. Clicking the cursor on the first icon (shaped like a filing cabinet) presents a directory of what samples and what programs there currently are in your S900. From here you can choose to edit samples or programs. I opted to view the programs, so using the mouse I moved the cursor to the name of a program and clicked the button.
Up came the next display which gave me the option of listing all the program key groups or editing the one key group program I had selected. Being the inquisitive type I chose to list them all and see what was what.
The new screen gave me the first ten key groups listed along with their various settings - like transposition, whether crossfade was on, what the top and bottom keys were, which samples they were playing, etc. I could then move to any of these values and change it by holding down the mouse button and dragging left or right to increase or decrease its setting. In fact, (as the manual says) nearly all functions are edited in this same manner.
A neat feature is the ability to print out all your key groups and their parameters. With the Akai S900 able to have so many different settings and so many samples, it is easy to forget everything as soon as you have loaded the next sound disk. A hard copy serves as a practical reminder.
From here I went on to the 'Edit Program' page and had a look at what was on show. This is a very detailed page allowing you to access and edit all of the parameters for one key group. This covers the two samples, the envelope generator for the amplitude, all the crossfade and velocity settings, pitch transposition, and a whole host of little odds and ends. In fact, the S900 is so involved that you quickly start to see how important these 'at a glance' displays are.
Every setting change you perform on this and on the 'List' page are automatically sent to the S900 when you 'OK' them. A nice touch is the diagramatic keyboard that runs along the screen bottom. Not only does it show you visually where the key group is located, but clicking with the cursor on the keyboard will actually play the selected note on the S900. This feature is essential because the S900 is a keyboardless expander and both MIDI ports are used up in connecting the Atari computer directly to the S900, so it removes some MIDI cable-changing hassles.
Having clicked, dragged and pointed the mouse at just about everything in sight, I thought it was high time to get a sample 'up and running'. So back to the directory display and this time I selected a voice sample. This opened another window showing all the sample data, such as how long it is, what sample rate was used, where the loop is positioned etc. A box marked 'Get In' looked inviting so I clicked on it and things started to whirr!
A message told me that the sample was being loaded and it counted off the 'packets' of sample information as they arrived. Only 25 to go and I could hear my disk drive whizzing and popping as it made a copy of the sample at the same time.
When loaded, the first sample window bursts into life with a dramatic picture of the sample. Down the left hand column is the amplitude scale and along the bottom is the sample marker scale to show just how large the sample is. Moving the cursor to any point on the waveform will give a readout of the exact sample it is pointing at and its relative amplitude.
The second of my two most important things speech was "how useful is it?". That is easy to quantify. Does it make a sample sound better and can you get bloody good loops without tearing your hair out? That is the test of a good visual editor. So let's see how Soundworks stood up to it...
Once a loop is set, two dotted vertical lines show the start and the end points. But this is a large sample and the resolution isn't that fine at this magnification setting. What I need is to be able to see the samples in more detail. So I clicked on the mouse button and dragged the 'zoom' icon over to the loop end. A box followed the cursor and when it had completely enclosed the loop sample area that I wanted to enlarge, I let go. Instantly, the screen was redrawn with the new 'magnified view'. The result was good, but not close enough. So I dragged the cursor again to zoom in even closer. "This is getting more like it," I thought.
After a quick read through the manual, I found another way to zoom by pressing the 'Shift' key down and dragging the horizontal slider bar at the bottom of the window. This is the sort of superfast zoom, and pretty quickly I was down to an accuracy of two or three waveform cycles on the screen. There it was... the loop marker and the very sample that was causing my 'glitchy' loop. Moving the cursor to the sample and reading off the amplitude scale, I saw that the amplitude at the sample start point I had chosen was, in fact, more than 0dB and therefore not a true zero-crossing point - hence the resulting glitch.
Time for some remedial action I thought, so after clicking on the 'draw' icon, the cursor turned into a pencil and I was back on the screen ready to 'redraw' the sample start point so that it would actually go down to 0dB. I lined up the cursor with the start of the sample and then 'dragged' the cursor/pencil. I could see the new line I was drawing on screen as I bravely attempted to reduce the amplitude to nothing.
Rather than send the sample back to the S900 to be played, which is long-winded, there is a speaker play function which lets you hear the sample through the Atari's monitor speaker. Admittedly, the quality of sound isn't staggering, but it is a fast way to check edits and loops. Talking of which, my loop still sounded a bit noisy...
There is an intriguing section of the Soundworks manual that talks about computer-designed 'crossfade loops', which basically means that the computer looks at your loop, and the samples either side of it, and recalculates the samples so that the loop points are glitch-free.
Rather than spend any more time using the 'draw' function which, although very useful, does take a bit of dabbling to perfect, I decided to crossfade my loop. There are certain rules that must be followed here, such as having half the total amount of loop samples either side of the loop (with at least 10,000 samples in a loop as your starting point). Having satisfied those criteria, I set the crossfade in motion.
It took the Atari a little while to complete the crossfade because of the mathematics involved, but when it was finished I tried the result. "Surprisingly good," I thought. A bit like being asked to try your best friend's homemade celery and hazlenut wine, only to find it tastes every bit as good as a Chablis or Chateau Mouton Rothschild!
The crossfade had actually changed the texture of the sound a little because of the new waves that were drawn by the computer, but the loop was certainly good and the sound was only slightly 'different' from the original, though quite acceptable. This auto-crossfade function is a great feature of the Soundworks program and obviously a good selling point, because it's something that cannot be achieved on the S900 without the software. The result will vary a lot depending on the type of sound that formed the original sample, and also how long the loop is.
I decided next to load another sample into window number two. So I clicked inside the second window to activate it, then called up the directory. From here I chose a bass drum sound and 21 'packets' later, the sample had been transferred from the S900 into the Atari's memory.
Time for some editing. So, after choosing the 'edit select' icon, I dragged the cursor across the displayed sample waveform, starting at the beginning and stopping halfway through. Releasing the mouse button immediately reversed the selected area of the wave (turned it black). From here the display gave me a number of choices including Invert, Maximise, Delete and Cut. 'Maximise' is an interesting option that allows you to boost the volume of a sample that may have been recorded too quietly and to assign it maximum amplitude. The bass drum sample was loud enough for me as it was, so I decided to 'cut' the wave. Like in word processing, the cut sample was copied to a clipboard (both in the Atari's memory and on the disk drive).
From the Menu bar list I chose the 'Clipboard' option to see what could be done with this half a sixpence... sorry, half a bassdrum.
The options seemed endless: Add+ , Add-, Copy, Release, Mix, and much more. In a fit of madness I thought I'd Add this half a bass drum to the beginning of the vocal sample.
Checking back to the manual, I found that dragging the 'graphic cursor' onto the vocal sample and leaving it there would indicate where the Add sample (bassdrum) would be sent. I left the cursor right at the beginning of sample one, then went back to the clipboard menu and selected 'Add+'. (The'+' shows that if two samples are added together and their combined total volume is more than the maximum allowed, then the sound will be 'clipped' like on a limiter.
The '-' on the end of a command means that two 'Added' samples will have their amplitudes divided by two after addition, so no clipping will occur.) After a few seconds, the sample waveform was automatically redrawn and I could then play it. 'Bass drum-vocals'... most bizarre.
Well, I could go on for ages about all the little bits and pieces that Soundworks is capable of, but that would wear my fingers out and if you aren't interested by now then you probably won't have read this far anyway!
To recap, the program has two main areas. First, it gives you almost all the parameters of the S900 on the screen in a clear and attractive layout that makes setting up key group programs and editing wavesamples interesting, untaxing and highly informative. Secondly, it provides you with a number of features that don't exist on a naked Akai S900, like maximising the volume of a sample, drawing a sample, seeing a sample and, most excitingly, crossfade looping a sample.
On top of that, Steinberg tell me that the updates due to arrive soon after the first program is released will give you Fast Fourier Analysis and Synthesis (as on the Fairlight/Synclavier), FM Synthesis, envelope control of the S900 filter, fading in and fading out of a sample, digital equalisation, and lots more.
Is it easy to operate? All I can say to that is: "Is the Pope Polish?" Because of the Atari's marvellous graphics environment and mouse, everything on the Soundworks visual editor is rodent-orientated and thus easy to get at and use. A click here, a drag there, and without any real computing knowledge you can quickly get to grips with any S900 sample you care to name.
Steinberg Research software has graced these pages on a number of occasions and we have always been impressed with their professional yet cost-conscious music programs. This one is no exception. It is simple to use yet powerful and effective, but if that were all I would say that it could hardly be classed as an essential purchase. However, the extra features that it provides for the S900 user, along with the sort of updates that we know are on their way, gives the Soundworks S900 Visual Editor a 'Highly Recommended' stamp of approval from this reviewer.
MRP £285 inc VAT.
Available from Steinberg dealers nationwide or from Steinberg Research, (Contact Details)