Version 3 of Gigastudio has taken a long time to arrive, and plenty of other software samplers have come along during the wait. Does it still have what it takes to see off the competition?
Nemesys's Gigastudio, and its forebear Gigasampler revolutionised the sampling world, offering hitherto unheard-of voice counts using samples streamed directly from a hard drive in real time, rather than requiring them to be pre-loaded into RAM. Since this allowed users to capture sounds from acoustic instruments in their entirety without having to loop them, a new level of realism was attained. Many new world-class libraries appeared, and film composers around the world started to take the PC far more seriously as a professional music platform.
Gigastudio 3 (now sold by Tascam worldwide since they bought out Nemesys in 2001) is the latest and greatest version in the series, but it's been a long haul before its final release. It was already in development in mid-2002, and rumours abounded about its possible new features, but Tascam sensibly refused to release details of what was going to be a major upgrade until it was close to completion. Then at the US NAMM show in January 2004, it was trumpeted as the 'long-awaited' new version, along with full details of its '24-bit playback, real-time convolution processing, Rewire support, VST plug-ins, and much more'.
This was followed by a deathly silence, and we've had to wait a further eight months before its eventual release. However, it's finally here, and has so many new features to discuss that I'll have to restrict myself to these — anyone wanting a more general overview should refer to my review of Gigastudio 160 back in SOS November 2000.
Gigastudio 3 is available in three versions — Solo, Ensemble, and Orchestra — with varying polyphony, MIDI I/O, and bundled libraries (see the box opposite for full details). However, it can only really be run with one operating system — Windows XP with Service Pack 1. Tascam say that Windows 2000 may work, but they won't support it (although plenty of musicians seem to have got it working OK), Windows XP Media Center Edition hasn't been tested at all, while Windows 3.1, 95, 98, ME, NT, and Server 2000 are definitely not recommended.
Since I built my latest Pentium 4 2.8GHz PC with Hyperthreading a year ago I've had to leave its Hyperthreading benefits permanently disabled because Gigastudio 2.5 was the only one of my applications that wouldn't run with it enabled. Imagine then my disappointment when I saw it stated in the two sides of A4 paper detailing ' Gigastudio 3 Known Issues' that Hyperthreading is not supported at this time and should be disabled in the BIOS. Even worse for all those power-hungry musicians with dual Xeon or Opteron machines, Gigastudio 3 doesn't support dual-processor machines either, nor 64-bit processors. Even users of TC's Powercore are denied the chance to run its plug-ins within Gigastudio 3 because of incompatibilities, while Steinberg's Clean v5 cannot even be installed on the same PC.
These issues will certainly reduce the number of potential users, but there's yet another hidden hurdle to overcome — Gigastudio 3 installation requires a DVD-ROM drive. While many musicians already have these, nowhere in the packaging or documentation is this requirement stated, and even the User's Manual constantly refers to the 'Gigastudio 3 CD'. In its favour, the installation DVD does include new Gigapiano II instruments, although I can still see some Gigastudio 2.5 users without DVD drives being caught out when upgrading.
Anyone upgrading from Gigastudio 2.5 will also need to uninstall this before installing Gigastudio 3, as the two cannot co-exist on the same PC. You get the option to install library content with the application or later on, but I suggest you do it all at the same time — each time I subsequently clicked on the 'Install Content' option, an error message popped up insisting that Gigastudio 3 had to be uninstalled before it would continue, and I had to start all over again.
The first time you run Gigastudio 3 the so-called License Authoriser pops up with a system-specific challenge, and Tascam provide 10 days' 'grace' before you need to obtain the corresponding key string and enter it. You can do this on-line automatically, or save your registration details as an HTML or text file and transfer them to another PC with Internet access to send the information to Tascam — I copied the HTML file across to my laptop and received my key 10 minutes later. One feature worthy of praise is that once you've registered, you can back up your licence to a safe place, and restore it from here if you run into future system problems.
Unfortunately I still had a final hurdle to overcome — every time I tried to launch Gigastudio 3, it crashed with an impenetrable error message. By now the average user would be fuming, but after a short break a possible cause occurred to me — Gigastudio 3 now supports VST plug-ins, and these are all scanned and initialised in turn before finally launching the application. On the list of known issues Tascam had already posted some plug-ins that were known to be incompatible, so I began to wonder if one or more of mine were giving it trouble. Rogue plug-ins can cause problems with any VST-compatible host application, and although my collection was working quite happily with other applications including Cubase SX3 and Wavelab v5, I decided to double-check their Gigastudio 3 compatibility.
The easiest way to do this is to temporarily rename your existing 'vstplug-ins' folder (mine became 'vstplug-ins old') and create a fresh 'vstplug-ins' folder with nothing in it. Sure enough Gigastudio 3 finally appeared for the first time, and I could then go through the painstaking process of moving my plug-in files one at a time into the new 'vstplug-ins' folder and relaunching Gigastudio, until it crashed again on launch and I realised I had found the incompatible plug-in.
I subsequently discovered that Gigastudio 3 has a comprehensive page in its System Settings for plug-ins, including a separate Configure plug-ins window with blocking options for troublesome ones, but I still came across some anomalies, such as the mono and stereo versions of the PSP84 plug-in appearing with identical names in Gigastudio 3 's list, and the same fate befell the seven plug-ins comprising TC Works' Native Bundle. During the course of this review, I installed the latest version 3.02 patch for Gigastudio — two minor updates have already been released that cure a variety of problems.
All three versions of Gigastudio 3 (Solo, Ensemble, and Orchestra) support VST plug-ins, Rewire, GSIF1 and 2 audio interfaces, and include the Gigapulse SP convolution reverb player for libraries with embedded Gigapulse impulses, which requires an SSE-compatible processor. The minimum PC requirement is a Pentium III 1GHz or AMD 1500 XP processor running Windows Service Pack 1 with 512MB of RAM, although the Orchestra version sensibly specifies a minimum P4 1.7GHz or AMD 2100 XP processor.
However, as you might expect, recommended configurations are somewhat more ambitious, the Solo processor jumping to a P4 1.7GHz (or an AMD 2100 XP) and the other two to a P4 2.8GHz (or AMD 3200 XP), with 1GB of RAM throughout. If you want to run your MIDI + Audio sequencer on the same PC and not compromise either of them, go for the fastest machine you can afford.
The main Gigastudio 3 version differences are in polyphony, MIDI I/O, and bundled extras. Gigastudio 3 Solo supports up to 96 voices, two MIDI ports for up to 32 channels, and is bundled with a 'lite' version of the Gigapiano II. Gigastudio 3 Ensemble ups the maximum polyphony to 160 voices, just like Gigastudio 2.5, supports four MIDI ports for up to 64 channels, includes the full version of Gigapiano II, plus the full Giga Editor for creating your own instruments. Finally, Gigastudio 3 Orchestra has unlimited polyphony, supports up to eight MIDI ports for 128 channels, and is the only package to also include the Gigapulse Pro encoding processor and Sample Translator.
As for bundled sounds, all three versions include a 3GB core library of pianos, organs, guitars, brass, drums, and percussion, while the Ensemble version has a 10GB three-DVD set with additional content from Sonic Implants, Jim Corrigan, and the Vienna Symphonic Library. Gigastudio 3 Orchestra adds a further 6GB of orchestral instruments from the Vienna Symphonic Library for a total of over 16GB of content, and is packaged in the fetching wooden case shown at the head of this review. I was impressed with the Gigastudio 3 Orchestra library, but since sounds are such a personal choice, I suggest you visit www.tascamgiga.com/libraries.php and study the library version differences in detail before making your final choice.
After this disappointing series of known issues and incompatibilities I was finally into Gigastudio v3.02 to experience all the improvements. The most obvious is that the previous Navigation Bar down the left-hand side of the main display has disappeared in favour of a much handier set of icons on the Toolbar, while the pages of the MIDI mixer (one for each supported port) have a completely new look.
In my opinion it's a huge improvement, replacing the confusing MIDI ports channel window with its four rows of four instrument slots. The former separate 16 vertical strips of the MIDI Mixer have also been replaced with a new MIDI Mixer laid out in 16 horizontal rows, each with an instrument slot on the left. Various MIDI controls including mute, solo, volume, tune, pan, and routing are spread from left to right across the display. Not only does this neatly gather the MIDI controls for each channel together, but the new layout also makes it far more obvious whether you're currently working on the page for the MIDI Mixer (with its horizontal strips) or the audio DSP Station (which has vertical strips).
The main display window is also more versatile than before. You can stick with the either/or choice of MIDI Mixer or DSP Station windows, or you can instead switch the DSP Station to a separate pane and have them both visible at the same time. The MIDI Mixer always remains a full-width display, but the DSP Station, the optional Quick Sound Loader Pane (for choosing Instruments and Samples) and the Virtual Keyboard (for auditioning them without a MIDI keyboard or sequencer connected) can be repositioned and resized at will, placed side by side, while the Loader and Keyboard can even be floated and placed anywhere on the screen in separate windows. This last option will be particularly useful to those running multiple monitor screens.
Gigastudio 's Settings and System Settings windows for audio interface, MIDI, polyphony, and other settings are basically as before, but with many more options, and with additional comprehensive new pages for Rewire/plug-ins and convolution processing (more on these later). In the Hardware page there's also a new section for Input Channels, courtesy of the new GSIF2 kernel-level audio engine, so you can record or process incoming audio in real time — GSIF2 also supports kernel-level MIDI processing for lower latency and jitter.
However, to take advantage of either of these new features you'll need a GSIF2 driver for your interface. What's more, GSIF2 MIDI only works with a combined audio and MIDI interface — if, like most serious users, you have one or more multi-port MIDI interfaces running alongside a separate audio interface, you sadly lose this timing advantage.
Many manufacturers, including Echo, Lynx, RME, and Tascam, have already released GSIF2 drivers, and I was able to download and install a Beta version for both my Echo Mia and Indigo so that Gigastudio 3 's audio input options were no longer greyed out. However, don't worry if your interface doesn't yet have GSIF2 drivers written for it — thankfully, GSIF1 drivers still work perfectly with every other new Gigastudio 3 feature.
Up to 512GB of system RAM is now supported, and sample developers will also be pleased that they can finally release Gigastudio 3 libraries in up to 24-bit/96kHz format — 24-bit support is long overdue, and brings Gigastudio into line with most other software samplers. Film composers will no doubt jump at the chance for even higher audio quality, and exposed solo and small ensemble instrument libraries will certainly benefit from 24-bit compatibility. However, I suspect many users will hear little improvement with orchestral and rock mixes over 16-bit libraries, and of course they will increase your disk streaming overheads by 50 percent, so bear this in mind.
Other MIDI-based improvements include intelligent processing for such options as Alternation mode (when string sounds benefit from the use of different up/down bowing samples for added realism, for example), Legato mode (for triggering samples with different attacks depending on your playing style), and Random mode (where slightly different samples are used for repeated notes). All of these options can be set up via the new iMIDI Rules Manager, along with various other handy features including transpose and MIDI filtering.
Another immediately useful addition is the Quick Edit window, which adds a synth-like front end where you can tweak various instrument parameters without having to launch the fully fledged Instrument editor (which isn't available in the Solo version anyway). It has four collapsable sections controlling Articulation (for envelopes, filtering, and LFOs), Dimensions (for velocity and key-splits), Wave (showing the currently selected sample), and Keyboard (displaying assigned instrument and keyswitch keys). You can save your tweaks with the song or as a custom performance.
The new Gigastudio 3 DSP Station is an altogether smarter offering than before, featuring a 'brushed-aluminium' panel, and offering up to 128 Input channels, 32 Group faders and eight Aux returns. Each channel strip in the DSP Station has Narrow or Wide views, and the Input and Group channel controls are identical except that Inputs can either be routed to hardware outputs or Group inputs, while Groups are always sent to hardware outputs.
In Narrow view, each channel displays Inserts, Dynamics on/off, EQ on/off, Mute, and Solo buttons at the top. For stereo signals there are then rotary Position (pan) and Width controls (the latter offering settings ranging from stereo at 100 percent to reversed stereo at -100 percent, passing through mono at 0 percent on the way) with a ganged fader beneath. If you click on the Unlink button near the bottom of the strip, you can switch to dual-mono mode with Left and Right pan rotaries and twin faders, and both fader options have twin peak-reading meters alongside. The stereo options are far easier to use than before, particularly since the 'illuminated rim' of the rotary controls shows the amount of stereo spread.
However, the fun starts when you click on the top of the channel strip to switch to Wide view and all the more interesting controls appear. The Dynamics section provides Threshold, Attack, Release, Ratio, and Gain sliders with parameter readouts beneath, an I/O transfer curve display, and Auto make-up button. In use, the dynamics section proved very effective — Gigastudio has been crying out for channel-based compression since it was first launched. The equaliser provides up to four bands at ±15dB from 16Hz to 21kHz with parametric, notch, low-pass, high-pass, low-shelf, or high-shelf responses, and gain, frequency, and Q sliders, and has a graphical display showing frequency response. While I found the old NFX4 EQ useful, this one is far more versatile and easy to read, although it is worth pointing out that neither dynamics or EQ will be available if your processor doesn't support the SSE instruction set.
For most users, the most exciting change is support for VST plug-ins as Inserts. After years of having to rely on the four NFX bundled offerings or patching in external hardware effects, it's great to finally be able to process Gigastudio-based sounds through your favourite software effects.
Each of the four channel Insert slots has Bypass and Edit buttons, while clicking in the slot itself reveals a drop-down list of available plug-ins. The four Native NFX effects (Reverb, Chorus, Delay, and EQ) are still all available for compatibility with old songs, along with the new Gigapulse Pro for Gigastudio 3 Orchestra users and Gigapulse SP for the others, along with the VST plug-ins you've configured to appear within Gigastudio 3.
As before, there are also eight Aux sends for each Input and Group channel with Pre/Post switching, Left, Right, or Linked operation, while the Aux Returns page is essentially the same as in version 2.5, albeit with smarter graphics and again with both NFX and VST plug-in support, so you can set up send/return effects for use on multiple channels. The Output Masters page is again identical barring an extra Record Arm button for the new audio Capture to Wave function.
Overall, routing is far more flexible than before with the Group options, and I had no problems setting up and using Rewire with Cubase SX3 either. Once you've chosen the number of Rewire channels you want inside Gigastudio 3 (up to 64) and closed it down, you just launch your MIDI + Audio sequencer application and enable the Rewire channels within it so that they appear in its mixer, and then re-launch Gigastudio 3. The chosen number of audio channels is then re-routed directly into your sequencer for further treatment using VST and DX plug-ins without using GSIF drivers at all, and this approach also enables the use of any audio interface with Gigastudio 3.
I didn't experience any further problems with my plug-in collection, but some users have reported problems with plug-ins for Universal Audio's UAD1 DSP card, and as mentioned earlier, Tascam have already acknowledged that TC Powercore plug-ins can't currently be used, which will be disappointing to owners of that system. Version 3.0 of Gigastudio didn't support generic VST plug-ins with no front panels of their own, either, but this was added in version 3.01. One quick tip — just like Cubase, Gigastudio 3 recognises plug-in folders, so if, like me, you've got a lot of plug-ins and want to avoid a long scrolling list in Gigastudio 3, you can organise them into folders by type or manufacturer from the Windows Explorer — it's so much quicker to find what you're looking for.
Gigapulse is the 'convolution player' included in all three versions of Gigastudio 3 that can not only be used for reverb, but also for adding instrument features such as guitar and violin body or piano soundboard resonances for greater realism. Many of the new Gigastudio 3 libraries already include embedded Impulse recordings of such features, and multiple impulses may sometimes be cascaded for added realism (for instance, the new Gigapiano II provides separate Pedal Up and Pedal Down resonance impulses, or a violin might offer body resonance plus a room acoustic).
However, once in the DSP Station, you can also use Gigapulse as a more general-purpose insert effect to add your choice of impulse treatments including mic and body modelling, ambience, and reverb, using essentially the same Gigapulse editing window — the Pro version is provided with Gigastudio 3 Orchestra, and the more limited SP version is available for users of Solo and Ensemble.
Some of the 30 or so bundled impulse sets provide simple stereo in/out capability (although often with eight or more sound variations), while others are recorded using up to seven mics (left and right, centre, left and right wide, and left and right surround), each recording the individual impulse responses generated at up to 18 locations (nine in a close semicircle, and a further nine in a distant semicircle).
These locations and mics are displayed as coloured blobs in the Placement Selection (see the screen shot above), and you can place mono instruments anywhere in this virtual environment by clicking on one of the locations, while with stereo recordings you use Multi-Placement mode to link each of the mics you want to use with a certain location.
Both individual and overall mic controls are available to further adjust their relative Levels, Perspective (tighter/closer, or looser/further away, using impulse-response enveloping techniques), Wet/Dry mix (normally left at 100 percent), and Pre-Delay for mic phase alignment and special effects. If you wish, you can even remove the character of the original mics used, and replace them with one of a host of others, or add the responses of various valve-based enhancers and mono-to-stereo effects.
Gigapulse always uses convolution for the first three seconds of playback, but to run longer impulses without ramping up CPU overhead, it continues the decay beyond this point using its 'Tail Model' traditional reverb algorithm (although you can revert to full-length True mode if you wish). The mic outputs can be routed to up to seven mixer output channels for surround work, or mixed down to two channels in either True (two-mic) or Simulated Stereo (one-mic) modes.
I suspect many users will be initially overwhelmed by the complexity of Gigapulse Pro, but after spending a few hours with it you begin to appreciate just how incredibly versatile it is, as well as how good it sounds. Tascam provide a good selection of rooms and halls, a guitar reverb, plus a couple of dozen mic models, while sample-library manufacturer Larry Seyer adds various ambiences, plates, and acoustics tailored for specific applications.
The various bundled library instruments offer additional impulse sets that you can load in as a GIG file stacked on the same MIDI channel as the instrument (using the new Stack Mode tool on the Loader Pane). You can then access them like the piano resonances. Gigapulse Pro also offers an Impulse Set Creator to turn WAV files into your own Gigastudio 3 Impulse Sets, although this isn't a trivial exercise! Sadly, Gigastudio Solo and Ensemble users have no way to add further impulses without buying them ready-made.
So is Gigastudio 3 worth the two-year wait? Well, for existing users of Gigastudio 160 it's no contest — the list of new features is impressive, and upgrading to Gigastudio 3 Ensemble only costs £119, while moving up to the Orchestra version is excellent value at just £199 and includes a 16GB sample library. Many software sampler users who gave up waiting for Gigastudio 3 and bought other products like EXS24, HALion, Kontakt, or Mach Five may be tempted back by the attractive trade-up offers currently available, and those who crave higher polyphony will also be swayed by reports of some users with RAID setups managing over 700 voices!
However, some potential users will be put off by the current hardware restrictions (no dual or 64-bit processors, and problems using the VST plug-ins of DSP effects cards). Furthermore, while I've always found that Gigastudio provides me with more polyphony than any other software sampler I've used, v3 is not without its problems. Apart from the various install issues that I experienced, Gigastudio 3 crashed on several occasions during the review period requiring a complete reboot — one of the perils of kernel-level code, I suspect — while I also discovered various missing help files and other small anomalies along the way, as have other users.
Apart from these niggles, Gigastudio 3 still has a unique and powerful set of features, and as further world-class libraries appear which take advantage of the program's intelligent MIDI and Impulse enhancements, has the potential to offer a lot more.