What do you add to the DAW that has everything? In the case of Samplitude 10, a complex new mastering compressor and some excellent automation features are among the highlights.
At the end of my review of the previous incarnation of Samplitude (version 9, SOS Janary 2007: www.soundonsound.com/sos/jan07/articles/samplitude9.htm) I said: "I'm not really sure how you can go wrong with this new edition of Samplitude. As it is, in the box, and as it says on the box, it will enable you to record, edit and mix your music to a professional level." So how much more could be made possible in the newest version? What could be done to tempt new customers to Samplitude 10, and to persuade existing users to cough up £201 for the upgrade?
The answer seems to be to offer a number of enhancements to existing capabilities, including MIDI/VST(i) features, routing, hardware control and better 'smart' dithering options, plus a number of new functions in the 'useful but minor' category, and on top of that, two humdinger new elements: Samplitude 10 features excellent automation functions which make creative and professional results much easier to achieve, and benefits from one superb new mastering plug-in.
The philosophy behind these last two major additions would seem obviously to be to make Samplitude 10 as self-contained as possible, encompassing all processes from initial recording or programming to final mastering. Although plug-in automation has been available for quite a while in Samplitude, it only applied to third-party plug-ins. In this new version, automation capability has been added to Samplitude's own suite of high-quality processors, pretty much making the use of any but the very best offerings from other manufacturers quite unnecessary. The other addition, the forbiddingly complex Am-munition dynamics plug-in, has clearly been designed as a programme compressor/limiter, not fundamentally a track-level processor.
However, a couple of considerations made me pause to wonder what the Magix party line really is. Another notable offering among the new releases, placed second in the roll-call in the Samplitude manual, is a new Cleaning & Restoration Suite, which includes a De-clicker/De-crackler, a De-clipper, a De-noiser with Noise Print Wizard, and a Brilliance Enhancer to help "compensate for losses incurred during MP3 coding", all available as real-time effects. This is a desirable set of tools for work encountered by many mastering engineers, so you'd assume it would be included in the top-of-the-range Samplitude Pro. But it isn't — versions of the De-clipper and De-noiser are, but only off-line, and without the Wizard.
Although the new tools are available as standard in the £2000 Sequoia and in the £200 Samplitude Master, they are not available in the Pro version of Samplitude itself, except as an add-on for 99 Euros, and only direct from Magix. So what is Samplitude Master? It's a two-track version of Samplitude, cut to the bone, apparently to deal with finished mixes, and so doing without any MIDI tweaks, audio quantisation, optimised workflows and other such functions. At roughly a third of the price of the Pro version, and yet including the Cleaning & Restoration Suite, Samplitude Master would seem to be the way to go for mastering specialists who don't need MIDI or mixing capability — hence the name, or so you'd think. Except that one of the important deletions from Samplitude Master is the set of Magix plug-ins — including the brand-new, mastering-inclined Am-munition.
Maybe I'm being a bit dim here, but this arrangement seems to be the worst of both worlds. For mastering purposes only, there are certainly ways in which the Samplitude Pro feature set could be drastically pruned to cut costs, but the Magix plug-ins are so useful and of such a high quality you'd really want to keep those on board. Yet if you spring the extra £400 for the Pro version, to get them, you'll find the Cleaning & Restoration Suite missing. Here's my advice to Magix: don't mix us all up. If the Cleaning Suite is 'Pro' quality, include it in Samplitude Pro as standard.
As well as the automation, Am-munition and a new 'Universal HQ' resampling time–stretching/pitch-shifting algorithm (see box below), other notable improvements include new range-handling capabilities, side-chain routing for all VST and Magix plug-ins with more than two inputs, the Independence LE sample workstation (with a 4GB sound library), better mapping for hardware controllers, and a complete, successful makeover of the control-bar skins and general appearance.
Another new, and potentially extremely useful, addition is the 'Overview mode', which adds a representation of the entire project in a separate window below the main VIP window. Non-linear navigation through the VIP by lassoing sections of the overview or clicking in it is now very quick and easy, and can be much more speedy and accurate than (linear) scrolling. Samplitude's particular way of implementing the overview function is very similar, for example, to the 'navigation pane' of SADiE, and does not offer visual cues to tell you exactly where you are, but hovering the mouse cursor over a section of the overview will bring up the object (clip) name and start time as a further aid to accurate navigation. The only slight grumble I have is the time it takes for Samplitude to actually display the location information: I only want my cursor to have to hover for a moment, not be kept in a holding pattern for whole seconds. I'm sure this is easily fixed: it's not as if that action is competing with any other and needs any real computational decisions.
One feature that has slightly changed content but, happily, not its irrationality is the gloriously random (and slightly bonkers) index at the back of the manual. No mention will be found there of Am–munition dynamics processing, Cleaning & Restoration Suite (hint: look under 'New'), Resampling HQ algorithms, or other such useful items. Instead, under 'A' we find "Access to the Internet must be permitted"; under 'H', "How it works" ("it" turns out to be aux bussing); under 'I', "Information regarding Samplitude network installation". My favourites are under 'T', which covers both "The difference between loading and importing audio files" and "There is no permanent memory on the standard CodeMeter stick". There are also, incidentally, 14 individual entries for ROBOTA, all referring to the same four pages. But this isn't really a complaint; such quirkiness now feels like part of Samplitude's individual charm (like the ketchup bottle on the SADiE toolbar for 'write back to source file').
The most powerful new feature in Samplitude 10 is the advanced automation that is now available at track, object and master level. At track level — the most comprehensive of the options — you can automate the volume, the pan, aux sends, track EQ, and all of the parameters of the excellent suite of Magix plug-ins that have been provided as standard since Samplitude 9 (see Sam Inglis's review in SOS January 2007). Track volume and pan automation is pretty common in most digital audio workstations these days — how could we create a mix of even moderate complexity without it? — but the new availability of full and efficient automation for the normal channel-strip and other Magix plug-ins opens up a whole host of creative and corrective possibilities.
In the early days of multitrack recordings, mixes were generally fairly 'static': the main advantage of mixing was felt to reside simply in making post–recording balance choices possible, so once a mix was agreed it stayed pretty much the same throughout the song. But then more dynamic mixing techniques were developed and 'flying fader' automation was invented to ease the task, and eventually upped the creative ante — for those who could afford it. I have fond memories (well, memories) of working with non-automated mixing desks in situations where I had to write out and rehearse fader moves, with every member of the band being given responsibility for various mix parameters (though never the level fader of their own instrument!) for live dynamic mixdowns. Of course, with no automation, there was no recall either, so an error in any single pass required a completely new attempt. Within such constraints, the creative element of dynamic mixing was severely limited (although, of course, it didn't feel like it at the time): fading sources in or out, up or down, and rough manipulation of aux send levels was just about the best that could be hoped for. So when automation became more widely available, creative juices began to run more freely. This is the kind of place where art and technology sit so well together: when what is initially developed as an added convenience eventually becomes a creative tool in its own right.
The reason I'm labouring this point a little is because until you have tried working with this level of automation you may not know just how creatively interesting mixing can be. Of course, such a level has been available for a long while, for those with the budgets to cover it, and even in some lower-budget DAWs, but the particular combination of well thought–out automation and the high-quality plug-ins in Samplitude seems to me to provide a whole new level of creativity for the cash.
Here's a real-life example. I was mixing some songs for an all-acoustic folk band with twin lead vocals — male and female; there were no purist constraints on the mixing, so I was free to use standard techniques of EQ and compression. I was setting the mix parameters of the vocals, and I had automated the relative volumes so that when one of the voices was joined by the other, the first was dipped slightly, relative to its original level, to make 'room' for its companion. It all worked fine, and generally I would have been quite happy with the result. But then I started playing with the auto functions on track dynamics and track EQ, and found that really small adjustments to both during twin passages — basically increasing the role of the compressor and dipping clashing frequencies that created a mild harshness — not only gave me more easily mixable vocals, it created a more powerful effect.
Now, such a manoeuvre would actually have been possible in Samplitude 9: I could have created new objects at the crucial points, changed the object-level dynamic and EQ settings, and then crossfaded between them, with a mirror operation at the other end of those objects where the parameters were all returned to normal. But that's obviously fairly unwieldy and quite time-consuming, especially given that I'd have to experiment with the exact amount of change that had to be faded in and out, and with the fade parameters themselves. With the new automation in Samplitude 10, by contrast, it took less time to make these moves than it has for me to write this sentence. I simply set the automation recording mode to Touch, opened the plug-in dialogue for the Am-track compressor, pressed play, and made my mouse moves at the appropriate moments (in this case I experimented with lowering the threshold and/or increasing the ratio). Once that section was done, I changed the automation mode to Read and listened back to the result.
The absolute ease of this kind of operation leads fairly swiftly to other ideas about how to use this new power. What happens if we increase the chorus effect on one of the acoustic guitars just before the next verse? Do we create a more intimate effect if we momentarily dip the female vocals' aux send to the Variverb during her final solo passages? What whacko (but, of course, creatively entirely justified) results do we get if we sweep through a few parameters of Filtox during that violin solo? Naturally, we know that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but once you're past the showing-off-to-your-friends stage, this level of easily applied subtle enhancement becomes quite normal. As with volume automation, you will need it to be available, but after a while you no more feel a great desire to include such 'enhancements' all the time than you feel the need rapidly to ride the faders at inappropriate moments.
In addition to this creative use, automation opens up corrective and what we might call pre-emptive problem-solving possibilities as well. The following example comes from an interesting and unique session that arose at short notice — but with excellent timing — just as Samplitude 10 arrived for review.
The project was to record, edit, mix and master a complete three-song EP for the jazz singer Frances Shelley, using a small band of musicians who, through good fortune and coincidence, just happened to find themselves in the same part of the country for a single day. The venue for the recording was Butley Priory, in a small, stone-built main room which had a sort of circular domed ceiling, and the idea was to record as much live work as possible, with the backing musicians more or less improvising their accompaniment from some written-out skeletal structures of Frances's songs. This organic creation of the arrangements worked surprisingly well. The instrumentation was just Frances' vocals plus acoustic guitar, violin, cello and African percussion, which together created a quite lovely blend of melody, texture, and harmony — but it was also a combination that presented a real challenge to record and mix to professional levels. The main recording problem was obviously mic bleed from the percussion, especially the larger instruments, whose low tones sometimes filled the room. The players had to be close enough to one another to allow clear sight–lines for the non–verbal communication that improvisation demands, and the mics had to be close enough to keep the room reflections under control (that domed ceiling created some interesting reflection patterns), but then they also had to be far enough away to allow the capture of the natural acoustic timbres of each instrument. That's not a happy mix of requirements.
The recording ideal for natural instruments (in classical music, jazz, or any genre with audiophile ambitions) has always been to capture everything as truthfully as possible, using minimal miking and careful placement, and to keep post-production processing to a minimum. Well, that's the official hair-shirt version. But the reality quickly dawns that unless you have a superb recording acoustic to begin with, and are given adequate setup and experimentation time, all such recordings require some compromises. And the sad fact is that record-company politics and higher costs often mean that room quality and engineering time are the first things to be cut. So, in my humble opinion (speaking as a sometime specialist in small-scale classical recordings), the biggest boon in the past decade has been the development of professional tools that I can use after the recording to minimise the imperfections which I know those compromises have created.
If, as is all too common, we can use detailed editing successfully to create the illusion of perfect instrumental technique, I now see no reason not to factor in the use of perhaps fairly substantial post-recording processing to take the heat off the engineer faced with imperfect acoustics and/or lack of time. Of course, for most non-naturalistic recordings this has been a normal way of working for years, but the fact is that this way could only become possible for the naturalistic engineer once processing — specifically EQ, compressors and reverb — of quality sufficient to make it 'invisible' became available.
I mention this to introduce the fact that although it wasn't a matter of expense, I knew that the recording we wanted to make was going to create issues that would require post-recording correction, so I took a small gamble and set up for the recording with that specifically in mind. My recording decisions then responded not to the rough mix that I actually heard during the session, but to a 'virtual' mix that was being 'processed' in my imagination. Of course, this way of working can then be applied all the way down the line: if you know that you have sufficient quality tools at your disposal (and control over the decisions!) at the next stage, not only can you record with the mixing in mind, but you can mix with the mastering in mind. This isn't so much fixing in the mix as keeping a single creative line going through what were generally thought of before as three separate processes. So the subsequent challenge for Samplitude 10 was then whether or not it could actualise the virtual and bring off that processing at all, and if so, in a way that would allow the artificiality of it all to be concealed.
The most simple and straightforward example to illustrate the corrective features was that of the far-too-omnipresent low end of the percussion I've mentioned before. Not only was this in the room generally, but given the mic distance for the individual instruments (whose natural timbral characteristics ruled out close–miking) it was also in all the mics that were open. Often, when mixing such a project, the first thing to do would be to fade down those mics when they were not actually in operation, but here that was not an option, because the placement of the mics and the resulting mic bleed were the result of deliberate decisions taken to create a nice overall acoustic space. The percussionist controlled his dynamics to suit the sections of the music, playing with great subtlety during the vocal or solo instrumental passages, and really letting his sounds ring out in ensemble sections. The problem then was to allow the mix to reflect this, and the answer was obviously to automate the track EQ. There are other ways to achieve a similar result, but given the ease with which problematic frequencies, once identified, and well under the fundamental of all the other instruments except the cello, could be dialled in and out, and the ease of listening that easily automated features allow the mix engineer, this was clearly the technique of choice.
Magix describe Am-munition as "an extremely versatile, dynamic tool for editing [eh?] groups or signal sums, especially in the domain of mastering. It has separate units like compression, filtering, side-chain, limiter and clipping." These, they go on to say, allow for "effective enrichment of the programme material without causing bothersome artifacts, a high reachable volume, and 'analogue' behaviour with an individual sound signature." They then add, ominously, that "Due to these [separate units] and other details, Am-munition appears inconvenient and complex compared to other traditional dynamic tools." Oh yes.
Probably the best way to think about Am–munition is as a device that shares the dynamic manipulation load between compressors, limiters and soft-clipping devices. It can operate in either stereo or M/S mode and comprises two side–chainable opto–compressors, followed by a two-stage limiter, which is itself followed by a two-unit clipping stage, the first unit of which allows for two-way frequency-dependent clipping.
That didn't really help all that much, actually, did it?
The easiest way to think about Am–munition is as a compression/limiting device that doesn't actually need you to understand its innards in order to begin to use it effectively. Knowing more about its actual modes of operation will naturally lead to more efficient and effective use, but as whole articles could be written about how to use it (and will be: look out for a forthcoming SOS technique column on this processor), it seems to me that the best way to learn is to start with one of the 44 presets provided and tweak them to taste. The whole learning curve can actually start quite gently, due to the excellent metering provided. This tells you just how much compression you're adding, just how much limiting and even how much clip management is going on. There's also a hugely useful gain-adjustable bypass button, which enables you to match the level of the processed and unprocessed signal and so hear the effect of the manipulation without being misled by the apparent advantages of mere greater gain.
My own listening tests were entirely positive. Having worked my way diligently through the flow chart provided in the help file, I still began by simply running a variety of mixes through the device, choosing a Samplitude preset that had something like the right name, and then adjusting the main parameters to see what happened. Having worked out the general procedure, and the way compression 'slope' is nicely different in relative effect from 'ratio', I then began to thoroughly enjoy the experiments — even finishing a couple of projects along the way. In my humble opinion, there is nothing in all of explored space that can match the Pendulum OCL2 for transparent compression duties with acoustic material, but it seems to me that Am-munition benefits from one of the best opto-compressor emulations I have heard so far, especially at the gentle end of the settings, with the warmth and musicality for which this form of compression is renowned. I was less taken with the sounds of the plug-in pushing hard into the later stages of limiting and clipping, but the music I generally work with has little tolerance for clipping, no matter how well managed, and neither do I. Tastes, indeed perceptions, vary widely here, though, and if absolute level is sometimes (still?) at a premium, at least Am-munition enables you to choose and manage your sonic compromises.
What is beginning to push Samplitude ahead of the large, unruly pack of DAWs that now offer complete in-the-box solutions for recording, mixing and mastering engineers is the usable quality of what actually comes in their boxes. Magix's decision to automate their plug-ins, and then add the excellent Am–munition to their roster, makes a strong case for Samplitude being quite the best DAW of its class. My grump about the non–inclusion of the new Cleaning & Restoration Suite in Samplitude Pro is only because that one odd omission seems to break the promise of being able to buy a single software package that, in the right hands, can do everything required. In absolute terms, of course, the individual elements have competition from the very highest-quality stand-alone developments (both hardware and software), against which they do not compare, but even if you have the budget to employ those tools, I'd still suggest you buy Samplitude for the basics of capture and mix control and then move further with the extra money. For the rest of us, given that those basics now come in at such a high quality, we can buy Samplitude for nearly everything else as well and be amazed at the money we've saved..
I had great hopes for this new feature: most modern DAWs provide some variation on the basic theme, but my experiences with a lot of them have been that although many can do a good job, and some can do an excellent job, on single instrumental or vocal lines, none can really cope with complexities such as orchestral or classical choral work. Magix claim that their new software can cope: "The new Universal HQ algorithm offers very good quality with almost any audio material. Especially when it comes to complex audio recording like orchestral recordings, this algorithm delivers especially good results."
I don't beg entirely to differ, but I would have to qualify that a little. When pitch-shifting small amounts on orchestral recordings that had a back-up role in non-classical settings, the Universal HQ was certainly better than almost anything else I'd tried, but the results did not lead me to think I could transpose much on more exposed classical recordings. Time-stretching results were similar, which was sad, as I had a classical project underway that needed just this ability. I had recorded a long, highly repetitive choral work by Philip Glass, and when we came to the editing stage the musical director decided that, in the overall context of the piece, he had taken a central choir-only section a tad too slowly and it should ideally be five percent faster. We actually delayed completion of the post-production to allow for the delivery of Samplitude 10, so that I could try out the Universal HQ, but in the end, after much trial with smaller and smaller chunks of audio, the result was still not quite good enough. To put all of this in proper perspective, though, the process worked flawlessly and with excellent results on all non–classical tasks.