Sound Designer Software
The Emulator II finds a new friend in the Apple Macintosh, courtesy of a little American ingenuity. Together, the two make sweet sound-editing music, as Paul Wiffen reports.
From California comes a sound-editing package for the Emulator II and Apple Macintosh that gives on-screen access to samples and their composition. It works a treat, and there's plenty more innovation to come.
For some years now, we've all been hearing about the wonderful advantages of working with computer music systems. Superstar producers (need we name names?) use them to pull apart musical performances, fine-tune every sonic element, and then stick the spruced-up version back together again. Superstar performers use them to write, arrange and perform their music, sometimes to the exclusion of all other musical instruments. And Superstar programmers are in more demand than either of them, as it becomes their job to transform mediocre performers and producers into great ones. In fact, there's now only one thing preventing you and I from jumping on the gravy train: lack of Superstar money.
But now, from the people who brought you kick-in-the-teeth drum sounds at man-in-the-street prices, comes a computer music system that costs considerably less than a country house, instead of considerably more. Sound Designer is a software package for the Apple Macintosh that works in conjunction with that deservedly popular sampling machine, the Emulator II. In California, where all three are produced, you can assemble the system for around $11,000. Unfortunately, high distributor prices will probably make this something like £13,000 in the UK. Expensive, but still a bargain when you consider the astronomical sums you'd have to pay for such features on established systems like the Fairlight and Synclavier.
But whereas the big systems have sequencing software and a whole host of other goodies either built into them as standard or offered as optional extras, Sound Designer sticks to the editing, manipulation, and creation of sampled and synthesised sounds. It's an editing package first and foremost, though future updates and innovations on Digidesign's part (see later) will take it into further-flung territories. (The company is also planning a comprehensive EII-based MIDI sequencing package - see Newsdesk for details.)
To use Sound Designer, you need a recent-model Emulator II with RS422 port fitted (earlier ones had an RS232, but can be upgraded). Then, apart from an Apple Mac, Digidesign supply you with all you need to get the system up and running, for a British RRP of £895. This gives you the small amount of hardware you need, a cable to connect your EII with your Mac, and disks containing both operating software and examples of its use.
You also receive some exemplary documentation of the user guide variety, but thanks to the splendid icon/mouse system which the Mac uses, this is for the most part hardly necessary.
The mouse system allows you to whizz around the screen much faster than even the most experienced cursor operator, which makes the system much easier to jump about in, and therefore much more flexible. And most of the time, you don't need to consult the manual or remember masses of commands, as all your options are represented pictorially on-screen.
But a speedy method of operation would make not one jot of difference if every time you made a choice, the system had to go away and think about it for five minutes. Fortunately, this is not a problem with Sound Designer. Rarely do you see the little watch icon (which denotes 'Please Wait' in the Mac's language) when you're moving around in the various areas of the software. The only appreciable interval you have to wait comes when you're sending files (sounds) backwards and forwards between Mac and EII. In other words, when you actually want to hear something you've created — which you can still do only from the Emulator — you have to wait a little while for the sound to be transferred across. Fortunately, the data transfer rate is 500,000 bits per second, which is almost 17 times faster than MIDI, and keeps delays to a minimum.
More importantly, Digidesign's software writers have avoided the pitfall which the programmers behind Yamaha's QX1 operating system obviously fell straight into. Experience with any music system soon tells you that only a small percentage of what you create is actually worth keeping. Yet the QX1 dutifully saves everything you do, no matter how dreadful it is, which you then have to listen back to before you can clear the memory and try again.
On the other hand, the Sound Designer software incorporates a Preview feature, which allows you to audibly 'vet' any changes made before you go through the tedious process of saving to disk. So you can spot any blunders or inappropriate edits before permanent copies are made.
The Preview transfer takes place in as good as real time: a 1.5-second sample takes 1.5 seconds to be transferred. When you're satisfied that the changes you've made are for the best, you can call up a second transfer mode which automatically saves the new sound to disk on the Mac.
Saving library sounds on the Macintosh (instead of EII library disks) turns out to be a good move, as the delightful Mac filing system makes it much easier to find sounds and group them together in the combinations you need when building up sequences (locating all the sounds you need across 30 EII library disks can be a real pain).
As soon as a sound has made the initial journey from EII (where all sampling still takes place) to Mac, you can see what it looks like using a sound file window. If you need the zero energy line (x-axis for all you Cartesians out there), then moving the arrow to the O-line box sets the centre line to On. The vertical cursor (or y-axis) can be 'dragged' back and forth, or you can scroll (very smoothly) ihrough the waveform. Scaling can be altered (and is shown side and bottom) so that both time and amplitude can be expanded or contracted to give the most informative picture.
What all this adds up to is the most flexible editing display format I've ever seen. Instead af having to choose the display that's nearest, kou can tailor the display to fit the length and amplitude of the sound you're working with, ar any part of that sound.
And if you want to examine a small portion af the waveform more closely, you can avail yourself of a zoom box. All you do is use the mouse to enclose the section that's of interest, and release the button to 'blow up' chat area until it fills the screen - extremely useful for fine-tailoring samples.
The position of the cursor on-screen is translated into an accurate time reading (to 1/100 of a millisecond) along with the percentage amplitude at that point; and this data is given in the control column on the left af the screen.
You can call up a picture of the entire sound file using an Overview window, and then, having moved the cursor to a new location, find the waveform at that location displayed as soon as you return to the main window. You can also place as many as 10 markers (again by 'dragging'), either to allow quick movement between various points in the sound, or to mark points of interest.
Far and away the most useful markers are the ones provided for looping. These too offer time and amplitude readouts, and also allow you to place loops sample by sample, and match amplitudes exactly for the smoothest possible loops known to man, undetectable because you can observe the pattern of samples so closely and take them into account. So, no more endless fiddling with unknown sample quantities trying to lose that unwanted hiccup, and no more trying to find that previous good loop after the Auto-loop feature lost it for you. Sound Designer loops are quick and (providing you match loop points properly) undetectable.
But this is just the beginning. You can in fact have up to three sound file windows on display at once, and splice between them to your heart's content. This is done using another of the Mac's splendid graphics features, Cut and Paste. With the help of a Waveform Clipboard Window (which holds a 'snipped-out' segment of a sample file), you can experiment with inserting segments of one sound into another, making digital splices, or even the compilation of entire 17-second sound collages. Great fun.
However, if the idea of splicing seems a little unsubtle to you (sudden changes jarring on the old ears and all that), then Sound Designer offers two more refined techniques through its Digital Mixer pages.
First, Mix allows any two waveforms to be combined in any proportion. This proportion is then computed, and the result scaled in the interests of avoiding clipping. You can also specify the phase relationship between the two samples, using an offset accurate to individual samples.
Simple mixing not up your street? Then go for the more complex Merge option, which allows you to crossfade between two different samples. This is done simply by placing markers at the points in each sample from which you want merging to begin. You then specify the speed with which one sound becomes the other, either as a number of samples or as a time.
This is where the real fun starts. Imagine tacking percussive attacks onto the front of string sounds, or sticking a bit of thunderclap in with a snare. Just a thought, you understand...
Future versions of Sound Designer will expand the digital mixer section to encompass digital equalisation, compression, and gain changing/normalising as well as other goodies yet to be finalised. Each update will cost a nominal charge of somewhere between $50 and $100, and it sounds to me like the upgrades will be well worth that outlay.
But still the list of facilities is not complete. For Sound Designer is the first piece of software since the Fairlight's which allows you to draw waveforms on-screen. The mouse is ideal for this function as it's more accurate than a light pen, and using it, you can either modify existing samples or completely redraw waveforms. This means you can actually create new sounds from scratch, though the process can get a bit long-winded.
Still, if it's completely new sounds you want, Sound Designer supplies you with a faster, more convenient method of obtaining them. The system employs a digital synthesis technique known as Karplus-Strong (after its inventors, a couple of boffins from Stanford). It's an algorithm that allows you to create plucked sounds very quickly - though for other things it's rather limited.
But back to current options. 'Fast Fourier Transform' is mathematicians' jargonese for the harmonic analysis of waveforms. And in the course of an EII/Digidesign Sound File, just such an analysis is made every 10 milliseconds. This is then displayed in a unique three-dimensional format, which shows the way harmonics levels vary during the course of a sound. This doesn't just give the prettiest landscape pictures since the Fairlight's Page D; However, raw synthesis is one area of Sound Designer where major expansion is on its way. Version 2.0 (due towards the end of the year) will contain not just an FM package, but also an interesting-sounding variant of it which the designers call waveshaping. Instead of pratting about with sine waves (which take an awful lot of mucking about with before they start to sound interesting), the system will enable you to use a sample as a carrier and perform FM on it with operators. It's actually more useful. You can spot unwanted overtones in a sound, or use it to locate suitable points for looping the sound. I can't wait.
In Version 2.0, this FFT surface will be editable, allowing any frequencies to be boosted or attenuated at will at any point in the sound. Just like a programmable real-time equaliser, only more versatile. This screen will also form the basis of a resynthesis program, allowing the recreation of the harmonic profiles in a sample. But resynthesis programs are only as useful as the result they give — so we can't judge this one till we hear it.
Still, the fact of the matter is that some of sampling's most persistent and damaging problems - speeding up and slowing down of envelopes, aliasing on lower notes, shifting of events in the sample, and so on - can only really be overcome by converting sampled data back into the more generally-applicable forms of envelopes and harmonic profiles.
Using a rather cute reduction of the Emulator's front panel, you can choose which module you want to activate. Each has its own screen, and all functions can be inspected, changed and re-stored. The most useful of these is the keyboard set-up screen, which shows where all the samples are located, as well as crossfades and velocity switches.
Thanks to Digidesign's ingenuity, EII owners are no longer restricted to sounds they can get a microphone in front of. Now they can start making their own sounds from scratch, too.
Whilst some of the system's most revolutionary features are still a little way off, there's no doubt that the Sound Designer software already vastly expands the programmability and flexibility of an instrument which has always sounded great, but has until now been hampered by the lack of on-screen programming.
But above and beyond everything else, it's the looping which justifies the outlay on this package all by itself. Being able to see the exact points at which a loop starts and finishes gives you unprecedented accuracy in looping the most awkward sounds - and if you do things properly, nobody will hear the join.
Actually, 'ingenious' is just one word you can justifiably apply to the way Sound Designer has been put together. 'Revolutionary' is another.
Price £895 including hardware, software, cable and manuals
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Review by Paul Wiffen
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