Steinberg Avalon 2.0
Sample Editing Software For The ST
Martin Russ edits, analyses, time corrects and synthesizes as he explores the features of the Steinberg's Avalon software.
The distinction between the computer and the hi-tech musical instrument is becoming ever finer. Although the underlying technology has been similar for some time, the widespread use of sampling means that dedicated synthesis chips have been replaced by chips taken directly from computer, chips designed for the manipulation and storage of large amounts of data.
Avalon is described as 'sound processing software'. This should be interpreted in the widest possible sense — you can edit samples, of course, but you can also analyse their frequency content, and by changing this information it is possible to edit and subsequently to 'resynthesize' the samples. Avalon also provides extensive synthesis capability, covering a wide range of techniques like Fourier, Fractal, Karplus-Strong, Additive and Subtractive synthesis.
Although Avalon will work with unexpanded STs (1 Meg of RAM) you really need more memory to make the most of its capabilities, especially in the synthesis area — the more memory the better. As usual with ST programs requiring high resolution display facilities, Avalon only runs in black and white, and is compatible with large screen displays. Steinberg recommend a 60 to 100 Megabyte hard disk, or a removable disk system for larger amounts of storage. Avalon is copy-protected with a small key which must be placed in the ST's cartridge port — hardware protection like this makes hard disk installation easy, and facilitates making regular backups of hard disks.
When you launch Avalon, the initial screen shows a logo page which turns into an animated display once the program has loaded. A single mouse click then takes you to the Mapping page, which is the equivalent of the ST's own Desktop. Icons are used to represent all the processing 'modules' (Time Domain Editor, Time Correction, Frequency Domain Editor/Analyser, Synthesis Page), samplers and samples, as well as the storage devices (disks etc), and there's even a Trash Can. These icons allow you to transfer samples by simply dragging from one icon to another, whilst you activate sample editing or another of the processing modules by double-clicking on an icon. You load the processing modules only when they are needed, making the most of the available memory — you can release RAM memory for samples in the editor by not loading the synthesis module, and so on. The re-use of the familiar GEM Desktop means that moving samples around is quick and easy — and hard to get wrong since you can only delete a sample by dragging it to the Trash Can.
You return to the mapping page whenever you quit from a module, but the module stays active unless you remove it from the ST's memory by dragging it to the Trash Can. Because the module keeps its data in the ST's RAM you can temporarily close it down to move a sample on the mapping page, and then re-open the module and carry on where you left off. Avalon thus provides a complete environment for sound processing; even so, it is probably a good idea to save your work every so often, because even Steinberg can't do anything about a power cut (though for serious professional use they might recommend an uninterruptible power supply!).
There are two main modes of sample editing in Avalon. The initial mode is Time Domain, and this provides the usual time versus level plot which can be manipulated in various ways, including a Time Correction feature, which allows you to change the length of a sample without altering the pitch. From the Time Domain Editor, you can process the sample further in the Frequency Domain Editor/Analyser, where the display is based on pitch, rather than time.
The Time Domain Editor has up to eight windows available for display at any one time, although most editing will probably take place in one or two windows at once. You can link two samples as the left and right halves of a stereo pair, and their subsequent editing can be linked if necessary. You can zoom in to either the time axis or the amplitude (volume or level) axis to see the fine structure of the sample, and even edit individual samples at the 1:1 level (although in practice, the effort of drawing samples at this level of zoom is so time-consuming and difficult that its use is restricted to tidying up short sections and erasing clicks). An overview mode allows you to split the screen with a full sample in the upper part, and an expanded portion in the lower part.
The Split Loop mode shows the sample on either side of a loop point, as well as an overview of the whole sample so you can see the loop points in context. From this mode, Avalon's loop finding function can place the loop points at as near a 'perfect' loop point as it can find, or you can apply crossfades to smooth the loop transition. Steinberg's 16-bit D/A convertor board (see box) comes into its own when you are loop editing, since it allows you to instantly hear exactly how good the looping is. You can also manually place the eight pairs of loop points, and use eight markers to keep track of alternative possible loop points or even just important parts of the sample.
Samples can be truncated, to remove unwanted signals before or after the important stuff, optimised to fully utilise the available amplitude range, faded in or out, and reversed. Various filtering functions can be applied to the signal — Low-Pass, Band-Pass, Notch, High-Pass — and the sample can be re-enveloped by drawing a new envelope with the mouse. For finer control, regions of the sample ('blocks') can be selected and then processed in various ways: copy, paste, insert or overwrite via the clipboard memory; fade in or out, reverse or erase; invert the phase; add or subtract the clipboard from a block, replicate; remove DC bias; delay and filter.
Time Correction allows the length of a sample or a block to be changed without altering the pitch, whilst Resampling changes the number of samples used to represent a sample, thus reducing the size and effective sample rate. A Pitch Detection function shows an estimate of the pitch of the sample or block, together with an estimate of the quality of the pitch estimation.
The Frequency Domain Editor also provides analysis of the block, which can reveal information which the time representation does not show well — especially the harmonic content of the sample (the spectrum). The basic 2-D display looks like a spectrum analyser, with a display of either frequency against time (a spectrum), or the envelope of a specific frequency against time. For quick modifications to the frequency content, you can edit a sample with 'rubber bands', defining regions of the frequency spectrum to be boosted or attenuated, and by how much their levels should be changed. At the simplest level, you can draw a horizontal line which will scale all frequencies identically, whilst more complex rubber band shapes enable detailed editing of specific frequency components — in effect, you have a super parametric equaliser. You can edit individual 'pixels' within a spectrum slice, whilst at the highest level several Macros are provided for special effects like frequency specific echoes or dynamic range modification, de-noising, peak limiting, and spectrum averaging. When you have decided on the changes to the spectrum, you 'Resynthesize' the sample, which takes about a minute for each second of sample.
The 3-D display gives the choice of a 'mountains' type display or a 'voice-print' spectrogram. Both displays give a coarse overview of the sample, but most importantly, show the changes in the spectrum with time which can be difficult to appreciate with the 2-D display. It is easy to move between the 2-D and 3-D modes, so you can use the 3-D to home in on an area of interest, and then edit it in 2-D mode.
The ability to work on a sample in the frequency domain makes it possible to do a wide range of processing from subtle enhancement of a particular characteristic, to gross alteration with little remaining of the original sample (reversing the spectrum is quite good at this!).
The Synthesis Page has a working area on the right and a Toolbox on the left. You drag sound synthesis 'modules' from the Toolbox onto the working page, and then connect them up with the mouse and a 'wire' tool. The wired up modules behave like a modular synthesizer, with the control flow moving down the page — so sound sources are at the top of the page, and results are at the bottom. You can 'listen in' to what is happening at each stage, although the processing required means that the ST needs some time to number crunch, so the response is not immediate. Alternatively, you can transfer the output at any point to the Time Domain Editor, or to the mapping page as a sample.
The synthesis modules cover many of the current synthesis methods that you will find in current (and past) dedicated instruments. You can choose from the following Sound Sources: Sample (any on the mapping page); Waveshapes (Sine, Rectangular, Triangle etc.); Fourier Synthesizer (additive sine waves with up to seven harmonics); Karplus-Strong Synthesis (twangy sounds); Fractal Synthesis (structured noise in various forms). Two controllers are then available for modulation: Envelope Generators (with lots and lots of stages), and Envelope Followers (which simply turn volume into a controller). The really fun synthesis modules come under the Modifiers heading: Amplitude Modulation (sine wave); Frequency Modulation (sine wave); Ring Modulator (sum and difference of input frequencies); Phase Distortion (sine wave, like FM above); Digitally Controlled Filter (VCF-like); Parametric Equaliser (similar to the filter in the Time Domain Editor); Delay (Echoes, ADT, Slapback etc); Time Variant Waveshaping (Korg 01/W-like — non-linear transform); Pitch Shifter; Digitally Controlled Amplifier; Mixer.
A final extra module allows you to put a page-worth of the above modules into a 'Macro' and then use that on another page. This allows the creation of very complex synthesis setups which are still understandable and viewable on one overview page. Unlike most synthesizers, you can save the output of the synthesis page as a sample, and then run it through the processing again and again, which could be called Recursive synthesis.
Using the synthesis page requires patience, plenty of RAM, and a familiarity with the principles of analogue synthesis (although playing with the examples on disk and simply exploring should provide a good substitute for the latter). As with any sample based system, you need to bear in mind that the sounds you create in the synthesis page are at one pitch only, so you need to create several versions to suit different playback pitches — just as you would do for a 'real' sample.
Avalon is a complex and sophisticated product, incorporating several different modules. It is thus not surprising to find that the user interface shows some signs of having being programmed by several people. This manifests itself in minor differences in the way that you interact with the program, and increases the learning time. For example, when you click on the Overview icon, the current window splits into two parts: a complete view of the sample above a zoomed-in view of part of it. To exit from Overview mode, you click again on the icon and the window returns to the original single view. Conversely, when you are in Split Loop mode, where the window is again split into an upper overview with a view of the loop join, you exit by clicking and holding the mouse button on the Split Loop Icon, and then select the Exit option in the popup menu which appears.
However, once you have become familiar with the program, these slight inconsistencies in 'what happens when' tend to become so ingrained that you don't notice them. Instead, the more you use the program, the more you discover how most features are nicely thought out. For example, setting loop points uses the left button to click at the start point, and the right button to click at the end — there is no ambiguity about which point you want to set. The same sense of mouse buttons extends to other functions: when you select a block the left button is dragged to define the block, and the right button deselects the block; when you zoom into part of a sample by dragging with the left button over the area you want to expand, you can restore the original 'zoomed out' view by pressing the right button. The right hand button often undoes!
Finally, in a piece of ST software, it seems strange to have to say that the sample editor windows in Avalon are very Mac-like. But they are!
Steinberg have always been ring-binder enthusiasts, and Avalon's 280 page manual is A5 in size with a sleeve box to protect it, all in professional IBM (or is it Atari ST) grey. The manual is well written and well documented — the contents and the index run to nine pages each. The first 50 pages form an introduction to the whole topic of computer-based sound editing, so that you can place Avalon in context. The main bulk of the manual is the 188 page reference section, where each of the functions and commands is described in detail, usually with an accompanying screen-shot. The appendix covers specific details of the supported samplers.
Avalon is a powerful tool. The sample editing has the cut/paste type block operations, filtering, loop adjustment, enveloping features and speed that you need to convert raw digital recordings into useful musical samples quickly and efficiently. The analysis section allows more sophisticated processing in the frequency domain, allowing all sorts of transformations that are impossible in the time domain. If you have the time (and the memory in your ST) then you could replace almost any synthesizer with Avalon plus a sampler by exploiting the synthesis section's wide range of synthesis techniques.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Avalon is the way that all these separate parts work together — you can use edited samples as source waveforms for the synthesis section, and resynthesize parts of that sound using then analysis section. Rather more than just a universal sample editor, Avalon's processing depth appealed to the power user in me. If you are a serious sample user, then Avalon is the power tool that you need for musical sample DIY.
Avalon 2.0 £325 inc VAT.
16-bit D/A £325 inc VAT.
Avalon 2.0 + 16-bit D/A £540 inc VAT.
Evenlode Soundworks, (Contact Details).
Review by Martin Russ
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