Version 2 of Studio One offers unprecedented levels of integration with third-party software — or, in other words, built-in Melodyne!
Historically, two countries have done more than most to forward the development of audio software. The USA has given us Pro Tools, Sonar and the much-missed Studio Vision, while Logic, Cubase/Nuendo, Ableton Live, Samplitude and Melodyne all originate from Germany. Studio One draws on both traditions: it started life in Hamburg, in the hands of a company founded by former Steinberg employees Wulfgang Kundrus and Matthias Juwan. However, the potential of the application was quickly spotted by US hardware giants Presonus, who bought up KristalLabs and, early in 2010, brought Studio One to market as a commercial product. Version one was reviewed in SOS April 2010, in a review you can read online at /sos/apr10/articles/studioone.htm.
Perhaps Wulfgang Kundrus' most notable achievement at Steinberg was to develop the original version of Nuendo, at first running on a Silicon Graphics workstation and later on Windows and Mac OS. At its launch, Nuendo was a beautifully streamlined application with a relatively limited feature set. Over the years, Steinberg have bolted on tons of extra functionality, but in doing so, they have arguably compromised the elegance and simplicity that were the hallmarks of Nuendo 1.0. That, at least, seems to be Kundrus' opinion, since Studio One emerged as a beautifully streamlined application with a relatively limited feature set.
Eighteen months on, version two of Studio One is here, and Presonus have not been shy in their claims for it. The headline feature is a new plug-in standard called Audio Random Access (ARA) which, it's claimed, allows add-on software from third parties to integrate at a far deeper level than is possible with any of the established protocols. It's only supported by one add-on at the moment, but it's a big name: Studio One is currently the only application that integrates Celemony's Melodyne directly into its arrange page, so you can use Melodyne as if it were a part of the host application. The flagship Professional version of Studio One includes a licence for Melodyne Essential, making its already keen pricing look excellent value.
Other new features include a comprehensive implementation of transient detection, editing and groove quantising, allowing you to tighten up multitrack drum recordings or conform other material to a freely played part. There is dedicated functionality for comping an edited performance together from multiple takes, across multiple tracks if need be. Folder tracks and browser enhancements are new, as are convolution reverb and guitar-amp simulator plug-ins, while the built-in mastering editor — already one of Studio One's strong suits — now features DDP export and PQ editing. But has all this extra power compromised its elegance and simplicity?
I hadn't used Studio One prior to this review, and thus hadn't appreciated quite how similar it is to Cubase and Nuendo. Some parts of the program are actually identical from the user's point of view, as are a number of the default keyboard shortcuts. In other areas, Cubase users may well find long-standing frustrations swept away on trying Studio One. The mixer, for example, can be docked or floated, and when floated, it's freely resizeable (hooray!). Mixer channels can be dragged and dropped to new positions, there's no upper limit on the number of inserts or sends each channel can accommodate, and the mixer displays both at the same time (more cheers). Plug-ins can be inserted both on mixer channels and directly onto audio events, as in Samplitude, although they always work in real time; they can be rendered, but there's no true off-line effect architecture. Basic audio and MIDI editing work in much the same way as in Cubase, and although there are certainly differences, I doubt that someone coming from a Steinberg background would even need to consult the manual in order to get started with Studio One. It's rather more different from, say, Pro Tools, but even so, I don't think it will feel at all intimidating to the newcomer.
One area where Studio One draws instead on the paradigm established by Ableton Live is in the extensive use of drag and drop. Although you can, for example, add effects to channels by choosing from a pop-up menu, the easiest way is to use the comprehensive browser at the right-hand side of the main window. Here, you can choose a plug-in or chain of effects, and drag it onto an existing track, or into empty space to create a new one. Likewise, audio files and samples can be auditioned, located and catalogued in the browser, and when you drag them into the Arrange page, Studio One will create the appropriate tracks. The snappiness with which this happens, even when dragging a large multitrack session, is in stark contrast with most DAWs! As was highlighted in our review of version 1, the built-in mastering is also a great feature. Oh, and did I mention that not only does it run without any form of hardware copy-protection, but that you are allowed to install it on up to five machines?
Although there's plenty that's new in v2, there's not much doubt as to which feature tops the bill. Select an audio event and hit Ctrl+M, and it opens up for editing the lower half of the Arrange page — in Melodyne! It really is as simple as that: whatever version of Melodyne you have suddenly behaves as if it were one of Studio One's own editing windows, and can be docked, resized and floated just like the mixer or the conventional audio editor.
The first time you open an event in Melodyne, you'll probably have to wait a while for it to be analysed. Like many of Studio One's editing tools, it always seems to analyse the entire file even if you've trimmed it into smaller events in the arrange page. Especially if it's a song-length recording of a polyphonic source and you have the full Melodyne Editor installed, the analysis process can take a while, but eventually you'll see the familiar array of red and yellow blobs. All the usual Melodyne editing tools are available for you to pull things into (or out of) shape, and when you've finished, you can render the results to a new file to claw back the CPU cycles that Melodyne absorbs. Open the Inspector panel for the event in question, and Melodyne shows up as an event-based effect that can be switched off, or removed altogether, if you wish.
Perhaps the highlight of how Melodyne is integrated is the incredible ease with which you can convert audio to MIDI. Once your event has been analysed, you simply create an Instrument track and drag the event onto it. As if by magic — and it does seem pretty magical — you'll have a MIDI version of that part!
I don't think I'm being particularly controversial in saying that previous attempts to integrate Melodyne into conventional DAWs, using real-time plug-in formats, have been unhappy compromises. This, by contrast, is outstanding, allowing you to concentrate purely on the musical aspects of what you're doing without having to worry about flying things in and losing sync. I did experience one crash, which seemed to be the result of Studio One trying to auto-save my project at a point that wasn't convenient for Melodyne, but in every other respect this revolutionised the experience of using Melodyne in a real-world context. There's no doubt in my mind that the Melodyne integration alone is easily worth the upgrade price from v1, and I can well imagine it tempting hordes of users away from other DAW platforms.
Studio One v2 also introduces tools for correcting the timing of rhythmic audio. According to the manual, audio quantising should be as simple as selecting an audio Event and hitting 'Q', but on paper, at least, it also has the tools to deal with audio recordings that require slightly more massaging. It can analyse and correct multiple tracks simultaneously, while preserving phase coherence between them — a feature that's essential for quantising multitrack drums.
The first stage is to detect transients, whereupon Studio One will place Bend Markers at every point it deems rhythmically significant. I found the transient detection very reliable indeed — much better than in Cubase, for example — but if it does make mistakes, you can adjust its sensitivity or edit the Bend Markers manually. If you're working with a multitrack recording, the Guides drop-down menu allows you to de-list tracks from the transient detection process, so you can force Studio One to find transients only on the kick and snare close mics, for example.
Once the Bend Markers are in place, you can quantise your audio. The default mode uses time-stretching to compress or expand the regions between Bend Markers as appropriate. Alternatively, you can choose to do it in the old-fashioned way pioneered by tools such as ReCycle or Beat Detective, and have your audio sliced up at the Bend Markers, with the quantising applying to the boundaries of the resulting audio events instead. The problem with this latter approach is that Studio One lacks any counterpart to the 'Fill Gaps and Crossfade' option in Beat Detective, so your quantised audio is likely to end up full of holes. Fortunately, the quality of the time-stretching is excellent, so I rarely felt the need to use the slice-and-dice approach; and in any case, Presonus told me that they are planning to add a gap-filling option in a v2.1 update.
I did, however, run into problems when trying to conform a full song's worth of drumming to a strict tempo. It's usually unrealistic to expect any audio quantising tool to correct an entire performance in one go, and when working with Beat Detective and similar tools, I would expect to have to chop the recording into smaller sections in order to optimise the various parameters appropriately. Unfortunately, Studio One's audio quantising often doesn't seem to take any notice of edits you make in the Arrange page, and quantises the entire file regardless! It's also all too easy for the tracks that have been de-listed in Guides to become audibly out of sync with those that are being used as sources of Bend Markers, even though their waveforms appear lined up. Between them, these issues currently compromise the usefulness of the feature quite a lot, but if they can be fixed, it will be a slick and powerful implementation.
The groove quantising, meanwhile, is simple and effective. You simply hit the Q symbol on the toolbar to display the quantise parameters, click your chosen event and drag it onto the toolbar; and lo, a groove map is created to which other material can be quantised. This time, thankfully, Studio One does respect event boundaries rather than always using the whole file! What is missing, as far as I can see, is any way to have tempo information extracted from an audio or MIDI file applied to Studio One's Tempo Track.
Also new in Studio One v2 is a dedicated means of comping together an edited take from the best bits of multiple performances. In order for this to work, the performances have to be recorded to Layers — separate lanes on each track akin to Playlists in Pro Tools or lanes in Cubase. And in order for this to happen, you need to record those performances in Loop Record mode, with the Record Takes to Layers option selected. This frustrated me, as personally I rarely use loop recording, and outside Loop mode there appears to be no simple way of telling Studio One to treat stacked recordings as multiple Takes of the same performance, to be assigned to Layers (there are ways, but they're very far from simple).
Assuming you do remember to record your takes in Loop Record mode, however, the comping itself is impressively slick. You don't even need to select a different editing tool: the default pointer changes to a range selector when you move it over a take on a Layer. You then simply highlight your chosen section and double-click it to elevate it to the main track as part of the comp. When you're working with multiple tracks that are grouped, Studio One will apply the same edits across each, and it's also possible to slide the edited sections left or right on the comp track without any of the mess that that causes in Cubase!
On the subject of audio editing, I have to say that for me, it's not Studio One's strongest area. For one thing, the grouping options are a bit primitive: you can select multiple tracks and group them, but it's not possible to have tracks belonging to several different groups, or to group only some parameters, as with Pro Tools' Edit and Mix groups, or to group events independently of the tracks they're sitting on. Crossfading is a particular bugbear. You can easily adjust the length of fades by dragging their boundaries, and events on any other tracks in a group will follow suit. However, all fades in Studio One default to a linear (equal gain) shape, and although there's a handle you can drag to change the shape, events on grouped tracks don't follow suit. The upshot is that if you're making an edit across multiple tracks and you want to use an equal power or other non-linear crossfade — as I would usually do — you have no choice but to adjust the shape of each fade individually across every track.
I was hoping that the new folder tracks might offer additional editing possibilities, but it turns out that their role is purely organisational. In this capacity, at least, they're well thought-out and useful. You can either create them from scratch, or right-click on any selected tracks in the mixer or arrange page to have them automatically placed in a folder. Tracks within folders can be grouped or bussed at the click of a mouse, and tracks of any type (including other folder tracks) can be dragged in or out of folders. Although events on closed folder tracks are graphically represented in the arrange page, they can't be selected or edited except by expanding the folder to reveal the tracks it contains. Even Ctrl+A doesn't select tracks or material in closed folders, which seems odd.
Version 2 sees two major improvements to the Studio One plug-in arsenal: the Open AIR convolution reverb (see 'Convolution & Impulse Capture' box) and the expanded Ampire XT amp simulator. This follows well-established conventions, allowing you to choose from a number of amplifier, cabinet and stomp-box emulations. Strangely, the last appear in a fixed order, yet most have a pre/post switch allowing you to place them either prior to the amplifier, or between the amp and speaker — probably not something you'd want to attempt with a real chorus pedal. Most of the usual suspects are here, with the obvious exception of a compressor pedal and any sort of high-gain fuzzbox or distortion. The amp models all feature two switchable channels, and there's the usual array of miking options for the virtual cabs. The cabinet emulation is convolution-based, and Presonus have taken the interesting step of allowing users to bring in their own speaker impulses; I created one of the most evil guitar sounds I've ever heard by rendering a single hit from an under-snare mic and bringing that in. Bass players are catered for with a couple of amp and cabinet models of their own.
I do have one or two niggles with Ampire XT — the reverb isn't great, the high-gain sounds are a bit edgy and shrill, one or two of the stomp boxes cause a noticeable drop in level when activated, and the presets all clip nastily unless you turn the output gain down — but mostly, it is a genuinely useful tool that sounds good and is versatile and easy to use. As amp simulators bundled with DAWs go, it's not as good as Samplitude's Vandal, but is way better than anything that comes with Cubase.
In fact, the overall standard of the bundled plug-ins in Studio One is very high. This is particularly true of the compressor and EQ, which are easily the equal of many third-party effects, both in sound quality and flexibility, and of the utilities such as the Phase Meter. A really nice touch is that the inbuilt plug-ins can display miniature interfaces within the mixer, so you can edit their most important parameters, or keep a watchful eye on phase or spectral balance, without having to open a separate plug-in window. There's no dedicated de-esser plug-in, but there is a fairly well-specified multi-band dynamics processor that can be put to use on sibilant vocals if required. And, curiously, although Studio One is well furnished with tape-style delays, beat-sync'ed echoes and so on, there doesn't seem to be a simple delay for utility purposes, so if you want to adjust the timing of your room mics (or whatever) you have to do it by applying a timing offset in the channel inspector.
The built-in mastering editor was already one of Studio One's highlights, and has been enhanced further in version two by the addition of PQ coding and the ability to save DDP images, though it can't import the latter (which might have been a useful feature for checking output from a mastering house). I tried exporting a DDP image of a simple project and opening it in Sonoris' DDP Player, and all worked as it should.
Version two of Studio One is, as I hope this review makes clear, a massive update. It's still a streamlined application, in the sense that it doesn't try to cater for everyone: there's no surround support, for example, and it doesn't try to match high-end applications in areas like automation and crossfade editing. But its current feature set is, on paper at least, more than adequate for the vast majority of music production tasks. So the question 'Should you switch to Studio One?' really boils down to how these features are implemented.
Of the new features, the Melodyne integration is a big win for Presonus. It achieves what Steinberg attempted with VariAudio, and does it extremely well. Buy Studio One, and you have the world's best pitch and time correction built in. Considering that it's already substantially cheaper than most of the competition, that's a huge incentive. Likewise, we shouldn't forget that DDP export, for example, is usually the province of expensive specialist mastering tools, so its inclusion here is definitely a bonus. Other additions, such as the improved amp modeller, video track and convolution reverb, fall more into the 'catching up' category, but are welcome nonetheless.
As I explored the other new features, though, I sometimes found myself thinking 'This will be great, when X is sorted out.' The problems I've mentioned with the audio quantise and comping, for instance, seem on the one hand relatively minor; but for me, and the way I'm accustomed to working, they actually meant I couldn't use those otherwise excellent tools in their current form. And while I'm being negative, I would point out that just like Cubase, Studio One has its share of trivial but annoying inconsistencies. For example, you can drag an insert from one mixer channel to another to copy it to that channel, and this will happen regardless of where you drop it on the channel; but if instead you drag and drop a send, it will only 'take' if the destination channel's sends pane is expanded and you drop it there. Likewise, in an application that makes such a big deal of its drag-and-drop support, it seems odd that dragging two parallel mono events onto a stereo track doesn't even give you the option of having them treated as left and right halves of a stereo file. Finally, I might also add that I personally don't subscribe to the view that the ability to do everything by drag and drop represents the ultimate goal of software interface design, and would rather engage using the keyboard where possible, both for the sake of speed and of my carpal tunnels.
For many, though, I think Studio One's unique advantages will easily outweigh its frustrations. Its ability to work smoothly with multiple projects open simultaneously, for instance, is a great help, and the built-in mastering toolkit is superb. Presonus have achieved an enormous amount in developing this new version, and it's now a very serious competitor to the likes of Cubase, Logic, Sonar, Pro Tools and Reaper. Its pricing is extremely competitive, and rapid future development seems guaranteed, given the pedigree of the developers and Presonus' financial muscle. You wouldn't expect an update on this scale to be entirely without teething troubles, and I'm sure these will be ironed out very soon. When they are, I'll be seriously considering a switch to Studio One, and if you try it, there's a good chance you will too.
As most DAWs now do, Studio One comes bundled with a convolution reverb plug-in, Open Air. As well as loading an impulse response — and the included library covers all the major bases you'd need when mixing — you are able to adjust a number of parameters, such as pre-delay, impulse length, wet/dry blend and fades. There's also a six-band graphic EQ.
What sets Studio One apart from much of the competition is that there's also an impulse capture utility, called IR Maker. The idea, which is a welcome one, is that you can capture an impulse from any outboard reverbs or mic-in-room. In practice, though, it felt a little convoluted (see what I did there?). You have to insert IR Maker on a spare channel, route that channel's I/O to the gear you're 'sampling' and put the channel in monitor mode before you can capture an impulse. It would have made far more sense from a user point of view to simply have a 'capture impulse' button on the Pipeline external gear plug-in. After all, you've already punched all that information in.
Unfortunately, while the impulse responses of my Yamaha Rev 7 outboard reverb that I captured using IR Maker loaded without problem in a third party convolution reverb plug-in (SIR2), I was unable to get them all to load in Studio One's Open Air plug-in. Quite why, I don't know — it is only a WAV file after all — but I was met with digital noise and freezing. Matt Houghton
The Melodyne and Native Instruments plug-ins aren't the only pleasant bonus content in Studio One v2. Presonus have made available a vast loop library, combing their own offerings with some excellent third-party bundles. Their own loop library covers all the usual bases, with a range of drum and instrument loops. The quality is generally pretty good, although some hits and loops, particularly in the FX category, appear to be very loud — so much so, in fact, that I had to turn them down to prevent clipping on the master bus with faders set at unity.
More interesting are the third-party libraries, where they've included content from the likes of Ueberschall and Nine Volt Audio. I was particularly surprised to see how much content was included from the latter: there's a large and very useful electric guitar and bass library. Nine Volt Audio are, in my opinion, one of the best sample-library developers around at the moment, and even as a guitarist, it was easy for me to see how useful this content could be. The loops are in a REX-style format, and you're able to audition the whole loop or individual slices, and to drag either onto your arrangement. There's plenty here, from simple clean and distorted eighth-note chords through to some wonderfully textured delay, chorus and tremolo-laden chord sequences, and whether you're looking to augment a mix or are searching for a riff to inspire a new composition ,you should find something useful here.
Unlike some massive download-only installers I've used over the past year or two, you get the option here of downloading the libraries you want and leaving those you don't, which is a nice touch. Matt Houghton
Video support in Studio One v2 is nice to see. When you drag and drop a video clip into the arrange page, a video window appears, with its own transport buttons. Video playback can be offset to allow for any sync issues, while the window can be resized for your convenience. The video clip has its own playback position for preview but will, sensibly enough, follow the main transport once you begin playback of the track. You can choose to play the video muted or with any embedded audio, or you can use a button to dump the embedded audio to a separate track in your composition.
Playback of complex video codecs such as H264 in a Quicktime MOV container file was smooth on a high-powered computer. I did notice that if I chose to make the embedded audio audible, there were some odd pitch changes just after playback began, as the audio sync caught up. This issue seemed to become less of a problem when using less complex, I-frame codecs, although, of course, such files tend to be much larger. The system didn't seem to want to accept FLV files that I tried, but in practice H264 support is good enough, since a freeware tool such as MPEG Streamclip from Squared5 (www.squared5.com) will let you transcode your clips ready for Studio One. J G Harding
Compared with Cubase, Pro Tools, Logic and others, Presonus' approach to incorporating outboard effects and processors into your setup is very elegant. The Pipeline plug-in that is used to integrate such outboard gear is not new in v2, but it's far more flexible than most other systems I've used. You define the input(s) and output(s) and the send and return levels, specify or 'ping' the latency (see later) and then save the settings as a plug-in preset. Unlike in some competitors, different plug-in presets can use the same physical interface channels (useful if working via a patchbay, for example) as each other, or as any of the main input or output channels in the mixer.
For the most part, I found that Pipeline worked fine. 'Pinging' a signal through the bypassed effects processor to ascertain the round-trip latency worked flawlessly. It even successfully calculated a negative latency when working through my RME Fireface interface (it's a long story and it may seem counter-intuitive, but yes, it is possible for a DAW to see a negative latency due to an interface's drivers!), and automatically compensated for it.
Pipeline is not without problems, though. In particular, I found that it was possible to crash Studio One by loading two instances of Pipeline with the same physical I/O configuration. I'd loaded one instance to use an outboard compressor on the master bus, before bypassing it and loading another instance to try the same hardware on the drum bus. When I then inadvertently switched the original back on on the master bus, I was greeted with a 'Studio One Has Stopped Working' message, and Studio One freezing up, to the theme of full-scale digital noise. Stupid as my own error was, I would expect any DAW to prevent me making such mistakes — or at least to make a backup of the project and handle the error without requiring me to close the project and restart. Here's hoping they sort that bug out soon, as in all other respects this makes running a hybrid setup a breeze. Matt Houghton
There are three versions of Studio One v2: the full Professional version reviewed here, plus Producer and Artist. Compared with Professional, Producer lacks the bundled Melodyne Essential licence, the integrated mastering, SoundCloud publishing support, video support and five of the built-in plug-ins. Artist is more self-contained, lacking support for Rewire and VST/AU plug-ins, as well as some of the third-party content.