Snapshot Product Reviews

Mar 1, 2004 12:00 PM

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IK MULTIMEDIA T-RACKS

Mastering Plug-In

IK Multimedia now has a plug-in version of its stand-alone T-RackS mastering software. HTDM, RTAS, VST, DX, AU and MAS plug-in formats are supported across Mac OS 9, OS X and Windows 95/98/ME/NT/XP platforms. T-RackS is actually a bundle of four individual mastering tools and the whole “rack” of all four in a mastering suite. The four processors are a 6-band parametric equalizer, a “tube-based” modeled stereo compressor, 3-band stereo limiter and my favorite — an adjustable soft-clipping output stage.

Those familiar with the original stand-alone T-RackS will recognize some significant improvements in the plug-in version. The equalizer now offers full 20-20k Hz range with a sweepable midrange; there is now a sidechain highpass filter in the compressor module; individual limiter band controls and adjustable crossover points for more precise multiband limiting; and a calibrated limiter and clipper output guarantees that your mix will never go over -0.05 dBfs.

I installed T-RackS VST version on a PC (XP) running Steinberg's WaveLab 4.0 and the HTDM/RTAS version on a Mac running Pro Tools|HD (OS 9.2.2). I also installed the plugs on another XP PC running both Cubase SX and Nuendo 2.0.1. IK Multimedia allows you three additional authorizations on different machines from joining its online users group.

All versions of the modules and suite plug-ins work well, although running all four in the suite uses a good amount of CPU resources in VST. I found the compressors very warm and smooth for mixes and individual tracks. However, on separate tracks, I'd have to crank them a lot to get any action. The soft-clipping stage is my pick for getting a saturated sound on mixes or separate instrument tracks. I also liked the Chaining feature, where you can easily “re-order” the chain of three of the four processors.

The multiband limiter is for stressing certain frequencies over others or reducing frequency peaks of individual instrument tracks — it works as advertised. The “tube” compressor module is probably best suited to vocals and drums, and the enhanced parametric is great for any vocal, track or mix. The sidechain filter is great for mixes where heavy kick drum and bass can cause excessive pumping. You can use more compression with the filter set to around 150 Hz and have less of these artifacts.

I found that the VST plug-ins do not report their latency to the host's plug-in delay compensator. Latency compensation is an inherent feature (over Pro Tools) when mixing inside of Nuendo or Cubase SX. This flaw would preclude me from using these plug-ins on phase-dependent tracks, like drum kits or any other multimiked acoustic instruments. I also found instantiating the mono versions of T-RackS crashed these programs, although in Pro Tools, this didn't happen. Tech support assures me that they are aware of these bugs and are working on them, with a fix due out by the time you read this.

Apart from these quirks, the plug-ins sound great and make a worthwhile addition to any multitrack DAW. T-RackS plug-ins sell for $399 MSRP.

IK Multimedia, 954/749-3016, www.ikmultimedia.com.
Barry Rudolph

DAVE SMITH INSTRUMENTS EVOLVER SYNTHESIZER

Dave Smith's name ought to be a household word. Here's a guy who's made a huge impact on our lives — his many innovations include designing the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, laying the foundation for MIDI and developing Seer Systems' Reality, the first successful virtual synth. With chops like that, he could have gone on to bigger things, but instead he went smaller. Housed in a compact, 6×11-inch desktop chassis, his latest creation is Evolver, a monophonic synth that blends FM synthesis with four oscillators: two analog and two digital. So for a paltry $499 retail, you get an analog/digital synth, 16×4 sequencer and full stereo audio processing.

Under the small hood, Evolver is a powerhouse. Digital oscillators emulate the dense wavetables of Sequential's Prophet VS. Each channel has a VCA and a resonant analog lowpass filter (2/4-pole switchable). There are four LFOs, three ADSR envelope generators and an analog-style step sequencer that synchs to MIDI clock. Sounds can be triggered via the internal sequencer from an external sound source (mono or stereo), using the ¼-inch line inputs/outputs or from a MIDI keyboard, using Evolver as a MIDI sound module.

Despite the Spartan top panel, Evolver's eight-knob interface gives the control of a massive analog synth without the size (or cost) of 100-plus pots. This approach uses a Shift button and eight row select buttons to give quick access to any parameter. It takes a few minutes to get used to it, but once you're there, it's fast and intuitive. The company also offers a $49 Evolver Editor for PC users; a Mac version is coming. This lets users see all parameters at a glance, as well as other goodies such as random program generation.

Evolver is powerful and deep. You can dive right in and start creating amazing sounds simply by stepping through its 512 (four banks of 128) programs. But the fun really accelerates if you have some knowledge of synth basics (ADSR, filters, oscillators, etc.). I routed a thin, wimpy Farfisa organ to the audio inputs, and within a minute, I had a phat monster bass! Acoustic drums can be transformed into huge, thick techno rhythms. Electric guitar can go directions you'd never imagined, and vocals — well, you'll just have to try it to believe it. The onboard sequencer can build everything from complex compositions to simple loops.

The best thing about Evolver is that it offers so much for so little. It does have a few drawbacks: a wall wart power supply, no single output volume knob and no headphone out, (although the output could drive phones if you had a dual ¼-inch-to-TRS jack adapter). Besides its awesome musical synthesis and compositional capabilities, game developers and sound designers are gonna love this one. If you want more, Dave Smith Instruments just debuted the Poly Evolver, which is the $1,395 rackmount polyphonic version, slated for delivery next month.

Dave Smith Instruments, 707/963-7006, www.davesmithinstruments.com.
George Petersen

SIBELIUS 3.0 NOTATION SOFTWARE

With all of the complex music-making capabilities available from software, it's easy to forget another basic reason why computers entered the mainstream in the first place: to make life easier. Sibelius, founded in 1993 by twin brothers/composers/programmers Ben and Jonathan Finn, has never lost sight of that objective. And its composing software, Sibelius 3.0, takes a traditionally time-consuming process and makes it much faster, more efficient and more creative.

Priced at $599, or $199 for an upgrade, Sibelius 3 is a deceptively simple yet deep program offering a complete toolkit for composers, songwriters, arrangers, teachers and students. Designed to streamline the task of writing, playing, printing and publishing music, Sibelius uses a flexible, intuitive user interface that's meant to take the pain out of creating charts, whether they're for solo piano or a full orchestra.

Sibelius' designers have paid careful attention to customer needs, adding features that will be welcomed by advanced and beginning users. Most notable is the addition of Native Instruments' Kontakt Player Silver, providing a range of high-quality instrument samples, including brass, woodwind, strings, percussion, voices and a Bösendorfer piano. An upgrade to Kontakt Player Gold is also available. Sibelius 3.0 also sports an improved look and feel via its freshened interface, which has a new Smoothness setting that enhances display clarity, and offers zooming and navigation. Additions include a Focus on Staves feature to help navigate/edit specific score sections when writing for large ensembles and Shadow Notes, which displays where a note will appear before it's input.

Installation and setup of the Mac/Win-compatible Sibelius disc was routine on my machine, which runs Windows XP on a 2.26GHz Pentium using 1 GB of RAM. Once installed, I ran the helpful Quick Tour, which appears at the front of the well-written manual. While the Sibelius interface is extremely intuitive and its basic functions can be quickly mastered, some more complex commands and procedures — such as creating an entire orchestral arrangement from a single instrument — need to be learned step-by-step before they can be pulled off correctly.

The program makes it easy to establish an onscreen template for creating a score, which it delivers with uncomplicated dialogs and a host of options for appealing looks. When inputting a score, Sibelius offers a flexible approach that lets users enter notes via mouse, QWERTY keyboard or MIDI keyboard. This last method of real-time input uses what Sibelius calls Flexi-time: Play the notes — and voila! — they show up on the staff. Not only is it highly accurate, but the program is also intelligent enough to track your tempo as you speed up or slow down against the click and then reflect it on playback.

Thanks to Sibelius' easy-to-navigate user interface, designers were able to pack it with a tremendous amount of functionality, as evidenced by the whopping 589-page manual. This makes for a sizable list of shortcuts and commands that must be mastered to make the fullest use of the program. But as composers of all skill levels will find, such depth means that the only true limit of Sibelius 3.0 is your own knowledge of music theory. Whether you're just keeping track of your own ideas for reference, charting for a jazz band or scoring for a symphony, Sibelius makes short work of a hard task.

Sibelius, 925/280-0600, www.sibelius.com.
David Weiss

STABILANT 22 CONTACT ENHANCER

Years ago, I tried Tweek, a conductivity enhancer for the consumer audio market. It was effective, but was sold in tiny bottles — enough to treat a home hi-fi system — making it pricey for the pro user who deals with hundreds (or thousands) of plugs, jacks, connectors and switches. However, the same formula — but in a concentrated industrial form — is available as Stabilant 22. When used in thin films between contacts, this nonconductive, amorphous-semiconductive polyoxyethylene-polyoxypropyline block polymer acts under the influence of the electrical field and switches to a conductive state.

Among other sizes, Stabilant 22 is available in $28.95 5ml and ($56.75) 10ml concentrate kits. Each is mixed 4:1 with 99% isopropanol or pure ethanol that you supply to fill a larger container (included with the kits) to the right dilution. The alcohol is not an active ingredient but evaporates, spreading the active ingredients evenly over the contact surface.

A small amount does the trick: One tiny bottle can treat hundreds of connections. Stabilant 22 is not a cleaner or lubricant (although it does do a bit of each), but does an exceptional job at improving conductivity. On various surfaces — ranging from internal Molex connectors in my MCI JH-110 2-track, to a noisy guitar pickup switch on XLR cables linking outboard preamps to my Pro Tools rig, the difference was audible and noticeable. The most dramatic improvement was on phono cartridge connections and interchangeable mic capsule interconnects, two areas of superlow voltage exchange. In both cases, the result was almost like a veil being lifted from the listening chain, with lower distortion and improved signal to noise. I'm hooked!

Stabilant 22, dist. by Posthorn Recordings, 212/242-3737, www.posthorn.com.
George Petersen






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