When the original Gigasampler was first released, its low-latency streaming of audio samples direct from your hard drive was revolutionary. For the first time musicians could play back really long sounds (up to a theoretical 18GB) without having to loop them, and a new breed of sample library developers soon sprang up to take advantage of these features.
I reviewed Gigasampler 1.5 way back in the December 1998 issue of SOS, the more sophisticated Gigastudio 2.0 in November 2000, and finally the latest and greatest Gigastudio 3 in the January 2005 edition. Even Mac users have been known to buy a PC simply to run Gigastudio, while many TV and film composers have racks of PCs, each dedicated to running an instance of Gigastudio and a different section of their sampled orchestra.
However, not everyone wants to devote a PC to running Gigastudio. There are many musicians who want to run it alongside their favourite sequencer on the same PC, but this approach has always been more problematic, since both applications can end up fighting for the same system resources.
One way round this with GS3 is to use a sequencer such as Cubase that supports Rewire capability, so you can pipe GS sounds directly into the sequencer, but this can still be problematic, with a frustrating lack of routing options (in the case of Cubase, you get one stereo link plus a host of mono ones), plus occasional timing problems. To many observers, the answer for those with more modest GS requirements was for Tascam to create a VST Instrument version of their streaming sampler, and that's exactly what we're reviewing here: the Giga Virtual Instrument (GVI).
In essence, GVI contains the core features of GS3 but in an easy-to-use VSTi and RTAS plug-in format (although a stand-alone version is also included). It's the only plug-in sampler that uses the Giga sampling engine, and it supports up to 16 multitimbral parts with unlimited polyphony, although you can launch as many instances of it as required for larger arrangements. The £250 price tag also includes a 7GB sample library containing instruments from Best Service, Bigga, Composers Choice, Jim Corrigan, Larry Seyer, Sampletekk, Sonivox, and Westgate Studios (its contents can be studied in full at www.tascamgiga.com/gvi/soundset.html).
Since GVI is designed to run within a sequencer host application, the combined requirements depend significantly on how many of everything you want to run. Tascam recommend a Pentium 4 2.8GHz or AMD XP 3200+ processor and 2GB of system RAM, which sounds like a good ballpark figure to me, although a more modern dual-core processor will ensure you can run lots more plug-ins and soft synths.
GVI on the PC requires Windows XP with Service Pack 2, but isn't yet compatible with Windows XP Professional x64, and while a Mac version is apparently in development, no release date has yet been announced. My PC installation experience was the smoothest from Tascam to date, and I was pleased with the option to install the 7GB of GVI Factory Sounds to any chosen location.
However, GVI defaults to installing itself in its own Tascam folder, which complicates matters. Most VST host applications will then need informing of its presence manually, by adding a new VST plug-ins folder path, while others such as Ableton Live will require you to drag Tascam's GVI.DLL file into their normal VST plug-ins folder, since they can only specify a single one. For some strange reason a vast 41MB manual in RTF format is also installed on your hard drive, when there's a 3MB PDF on the DVD with identical content. I suggest you copy this across by hand, as it loads and runs far more quickly.
In the stand-alone version you can launch a configuration dialogue where you select your MIDI input and audio output, plus sample rate and bit depth. This dialogue also provides a general page with settings that apply to any GVI plug-in instance you launch. These settings include maximum polyphony and the numbers of recently used instruments and folders that should appear.
The GVI MIDI mixer page is almost identical to that of Gigastudio, with 16 horizontal channels containing solo/mute, Gigapulse and edit buttons, volume, tune, and pan controls with MIDI controller assignments, and output routing, along with a fixed virtual keyboard window beneath for auditioning and displaying key-switching options.
GVI retains GS3's ability to stack multiple instruments in each channel for more complex sounds, and you can load and save both GIG (single instrument) and GSI (Giga Stacked Instrument) files, or drag and drop them directly into GVI from Windows Explorer or the desktop. GVI also features its own presets, containing a set of instruments and all associated settings and tweaks (similar to GS3 Performances), which you can save and load as well as organise into banks with import and export options for future recall as templates.
There's no way to import existing Gigastudio GSP (Performance) files, since all their DSP Station mixing and effect parameters would have to be discarded en route. However, since GSI stacked files can not only contain multiple instruments stacked on a single MIDI channel, but also multiple instruments loaded on separate MIDI channels, existing GS3 users can quickly recreate an existing Gigastudio 3 performance minus its DSP Station parameters inside GVI by loading it into GS3, saving it as a GSI file, and then loading this directly into GVI.
Since GVI is launched from within any VST-compatible host application, it has one distinct advantage over its Gigastudio stablemates: it no longer relies on code running in low-level Windows Kernel Mode. Although this code provides excellent low-latency performance with the associated GSIF drivers, it can make GS very finicky about the hardware it runs on. Over the years there have been plenty of crashes and loading errors reported, while occasionally GS3 won't run at all on a particular PC, and may even object to a specific model of hard drive! Because GVI runs in the more normal User Mode like other VST Instruments, it's unlikely to suffer from hardware-related problems.
Another new departure for Tascam on GVI is the adoption of a Synchrosoft dongle in place of the previous challenge/response protection, and together with the lack of kernel code this means that existing users of GS3 can install GVI alongside with no conflicts (see 'Summing Up' for reasons why this might prove attractive). However, Steinberg customers who groan at the prospect of finding yet another spare USB port will be pleased to hear that you can transfer the Tascam GVI licence from the supplied dongle to the one you already use for Cubase, Nuendo or Wavelab, and this is what I did.
Unfortunately GVI doesn't include GS3's comprehensive Instrument Loader pane, with its Quicksound search and audition options. These are replaced by a traditional Windows browser dialogue, enhanced with an 'instruments to load' section where you can either accept the 'all instruments in gig file' default, or select a particular one. GVI does also provide a 'currently loaded instruments' window where you can drag and drop different instruments inside a loaded GIG file into your GVI channels, as well as unload unwanted ones from system memory. This works well, although I discovered on version 3.52 that its 'unload unused' option doesn't work, although it does work if you use the dedicated Toolbar Unload function.
Musicians who have a limited sample collection that's well organised in folders labelled by their developer will be perfectly happy to use the traditional Windows browser. On the other hand, previous users of GS3 who already have vast sample libraries and have previously relied on the Quicksound search to type in 'guitar', 'bass', 'violin', and so on to narrow down and view all related instruments, including those in sub-folders, may feel totally lost.
For tweaking sounds, GVI offers a very similar Quickedit option to that of GS3, accessed via the GVI 'edit' button for the currently selected instrument — the main difference is that the various options (General, Amplitude/Pitch, Filter, and Loop) are spread across four tabbed pages rather than being presented in one comprehensive display.
While GVI users don't get the full-scale GS3 Giga Editor that lets you create your own Giga instruments from scratch, in my experience only a minority of GS users tend to use this, and I suspect most potential GVI owners will be more than happy with Quickedit. This is a comprehensive synth engine, and there's an huge amount you can do with it. The parameters give you access to velocity response and envelope settings, various resonant filter types, separate LFOs for pitch, filter and amplitude, plus sample start and loop position adjustments.
GVI also supports the Gigapulse convolution effects embedded in various commercial Giga-format sample libraries. These add features such as pedal up/down and instrument body cavity resonances, and by clicking on the instrument's 'GP' button you can edit them in detail with the majority of parameters found in GS3. There are also hints that GVI may support more general-purpose effects like reverbs in a future update, and even now any embedded reverb effects stacked with library sounds are left intact for use with other sounds if you detach the associated instrument.
However, you don't get the full Gigapulse Pro insert effects and library offered by GS3 for more general-purpose reverb treatment. Existing GS3 users who want to recreate the ability to place all their sounds into different positions (left to right and forward to back) on the same soundstage, as you can using multiple instances of Gigapulse Pro, will have to buy Tascam's Gigapulse VST effect plug-in and comprehensive reverb library separately for £199. There are also quite a few competing convolution reverb plug-ins on offer with similar features.
iMIDI (Intelligent MIDI) rules are also supported in GVI, so you can benefit from those sample libraries that use them to define alternate samples on each keypress for more realistic drum rolls and violin bowing (for instance). There is however no iMIDI Rules Manager to let you add these features to your own creations.
Tascam bundle their range of four NFX effects (EQ, Delay, Chorus, and Reverb) with GVI, and despite being slightly cut down compared with the Gigastudio versions they still sound good while using little CPU. Up to 16 chains of between one and four insert effects can be created in each GVI instance, and you can then re-route the instrument channel to one of these insert FX chains, and then the FX output in turn, to your choice of GVI output to hear the instrument with its effects.
The NFX plug-ins are certainly handy for the stand-alone version of GVI — I suspect this combination would work well for live performances using a laptop for instance — and the effects are also useful with the plug-in version to supplement those of your host sequencer, although it's a shame they can't save or reload presets.
Overall, I think Tascam have made mostly sensible choices in the editing department, although I suspect that user pressure may result in an enhanced browser at some time in the future, and that some potential purchasers will be put off by the omission of the full Gigapulse Pro reverb library.
Despite its excellent feature set there are a significant minority of Gigastudio 3 users with stability problems (sometimes GS3 only seems to runs smoothly when the wind's in the right direction, and it can be particularly sniffy about third-party plug-ins), so I'm happy to report that GVI didn't crash on me once during the review period. This stability in itself may encourage plenty of upgrade purchases.
The initial release GVI version 3.5 worked fine on my PC (and launched in just six seconds, compared with the 30 seconds it took to launch GS3), while the subsequent 3.51 and 3.52 updates followed within a few weeks, adding support for multiple instances on dual-core computers, a handy per-instance memory meter so you can see how much system RAM is still left for loading yet more samples and the aforementioned NFX effects. They solved a small flurry of initial bugs.
As a long-term Gigastudio user it didn't take me long to adjust to GVI, and as far as I could tell, Giga instruments sound identical in GS3 and GVI, which is after all vital for anyone contemplating the switch. GVI also ran well for me inside Cubase SX3, Cubase 4 and Sonar 6.
On the down side I did occasionally suffer from the odd missed note, found searching for instruments rather tedious without Quicksound, even on my well-organised hard drive, and I frequently longed for a way to define the number of GVI outputs. Each and every instance of GVI you launch defaults to 16-part multitimbrality, so 16 stereo channels instantly appear in your sequencer mixing console. I'd much prefer to have a user-definable number of outputs that you can increase on demand, as found on many other VST Instruments, to save the rigmarole of manually hiding all the unused channels one by one.
Most users would obviously prefer a new VSTi to work perfectly across the large range of host applications out there from day one, but with complex programs like GVI life's rarely like that. That said, the Tascam developers do seem to be working extremely hard to resolve these small issues, as well as adding new features as they go.
If you're already a Gigastudio owner or are convinced that 'going Giga' is the way forward, deciding between GS3 and GVI is actually a lot more complex that at first appears. With a maximum polyphony of 96 voices and 32 instruments, GS3 Solo now looks rather limited, but is quite good value at its new price of just £44, and with 160 voices, 64 instruments and an 11GB library, GS3 Ensemble at £72 may still appeal to quite a few musicians.
At the other end of the scale, the flagship Gigastudio 3 Orchestra at £329 is still a far more ambitious product that will appeal to those who are prepared to dedicate an entire PC to soft sampling (or even a bank of them for full-on orchestral work), who want to apply the bundled Gigapulse Pro reverb effects to place them all in a unified soundscape, and who want to create their own Giga instruments from scratch.
Where GVI comes into its own is for musicians who want to run both sampler and sequencer on a single PC, and who rarely create their own sampled instruments. Here it makes a lot more sense than any of the GS3 range — its CPU overhead will no longer be fighting with that of your sequencer, and you won't need separate ASIO and GSIF audio interface outputs for sequencer and soft sampler, or the jumping-through-hoops of the Rewire approach. You also get to load in your entire song as a single sequencer project file, rather than having to maintain separate Giga performance files alongside.
Best of all, you can treat individual Giga instruments with your complete range of sequencer plug-in effects, complete with any tempo-sync options and automatic latency compensation provided by your sequencer, and view the entire mix from the comfort of your sequencer's mixing console, rather than switching between sequencer and Gigastudio and maintaining two sets of effects, reverbs, and so on.
Moreover, with a fast PC, GVI can potentially achieve a higher polyphony and instrument count than even GS3 Orchestra, since it's only subject to the RAM limitations of the host application. The 32-bit Cubase, for instance, will already run on Windows XP Pro x64 with up to 4GB RAM instead of the more normal 2GB, but GS3 can't access more than 2GB (at least until a 64-bit compatible version is released).
Ironically, all these plus points for GVI are inherent to any plug-in soft sampler, yet it's an indication of the frustration shared by many long-term GS owners that I view them so positively. I've been waiting patiently for GVI to be released since it was first announced in early 2006, and once I'd converted existing Cubase/Gigastudio songs to run with Cubase and GVI, my CPU overhead dropped significantly, and I was finally able to use my existing Giga instrument library with more creative plug-in freedom and greater stability than ever before.
Overall, I suspect many existing GS3 owners with Giga-format libraries will buy a copy of GVI, even if they carry on using GS3 for larger projects or instrument creation, especially given the very reasonable pricing structure. New users will be harder to persuade, since GVI faces strong competition (see the 'Alternatives' box), but even at the full retail price of £250 there's plenty on offer, plus the huge number of tempting Giga-format libraries out there. I also hope that Tascam will eventually consider a GVI/Gigapulse VST bundle. Currently this combination costs £450, which is significantly more than buying GS3 Orchestra with all its extra surround and instrument creation features, but at a reduced price I'm sure it would sell extremely well. What about it, Tascam?
If you're in the market for a plug-in soft sampler in VSTi format, the obvious competitors for Tascam's GVI are Steinberg's Halion, NI's Kontakt and Emu's Emulator X. Of all the contenders, the £300 Kontakt 2 provides the most comprehensive selection of audio-sculpting tools for creating more radical sounds, with such exotica as vowel filters, a large range of effects including convolution reverbs, support for surround, and a semi-modular architecture for maximum versatility, and will appeal particularly to those who want to create their own sounds.
Halion 3 is also £300, and to my eyes sports a similar array of features to GVI, but if you only intend to play back existing sample libraries the Halion Player version is an absolute bargain at only £70! The Emulator X2 with XMidi 2X2 dongle/interface is slightly cheaper than GVI at £220, and offers 50 Z-Plane filters and an extremely comprehensive synth-engine, plus beat-chopping and convolution features, and has its own small but high-quality collection of sample libraries.
Compared with these well-established plug-in soft samplers, some people may consider GVI to be 'too little, too late'. It costs £250, yet it's primarily just a sample player, albeit one with a huge existing range of highly realistic acoustic sounds, featuring embedded convolution of real-world body resonance effects, and with the advanced performance features of iMIDI.
However, Tascam retain one significant advantage. Gigasampler and Gigastudio almost single-handedly created the market for superb-quality multi-gigabyte streaming sample libraries. While there are now quite a few libraries of similar quality for the newer soft samplers, libraries in Giga format still arguably offer the widest range of sounds, and although rival soft samplers may offer Giga import options, no Giga-format library will sound exactly the same after conversion, so you will probably have quite a bit of tweaking to do afterwards. Ultimately you'll have to do a little homework, and make your final decision based on library availability as well as soft sampler features.