It might be a free plug‑in, but the Xpand! sample player bundled with Pro Tools has some serious potential.
As part of the Pro Tools 8 upgrade, Digidesign introduced the AIR plug‑ins that we explored in the March and April 2010 issues of Sound On Sound. At the same time, they also quietly upgraded the excellent Xpand! sample‑playback instrument plug‑in to version 2, adding new features and extra sounds.
Like the original, each instance of Xpand! 2 still has four parts, but the guys at the AIR group have taken the four pages of the original Xpand! interface and combined them into one. All the controls now fit on a single window, including the effects, arpeggiators and modulation. The effects section has also been improved, and there are some new effects, too: take a moment to look at the Chaos Delay and Cloud Delay effects.
Digidesign have also made Xpand! 2 multitimbral, although they haven't added extra outputs, so all the parts still have to go through the one stereo output. Xpand! 2 includes all of the original Xpand! content, and doubles it by adding 1GB of new sounds. All new patches have a little plus symbol in front of them, while the original patches are labelled just as they were in Xpand!, ensuring maximum compatibility with older sessions.
If you just want Xpand! 2 to work like Xpand! did, simply dropping it onto an instrument track will work fine, but if you want to access its multitimbral features, a single instrument track won't do. What you need to do is add four more tracks to control each individual Xpand! multitimbral part. Create four MIDI tracks, one for each part of Xpand! 2, from the usual New Track menu, alongside the usual stereo instrument track, and drop an instance of Xpand! 2 into an insert slot on the instrument track. Then, to start with, try loading one of the multitimbral presets from the plug‑in's preset menu. Notice how each part has been allocated to its own MIDI channel. Now you need to route the outputs of the four MIDI tracks to the MIDI inputs of the Xpand! 2 plug‑in. You can do this by selecting each output in turn and setting them one by one to Xpand! 2 MIDI inputs 1 to 4; alternatively, if you hold down Alt‑Command (Mac) while setting the first MIDI track to channel 1, the other three tracks will be automatically set to channels 2, 3 and 4 all in one go. Then you can put each of the MIDI tracks into record and build up your track using the one instance of Xpand! 2 on the stereo instrument track. Obviously, if you need more than four sounds, add another stereo instrument track and four more MIDI tracks and off you go.
I am finding that more and more musicians prefer a 'natural' click sound, such as a kick drum, to play along to. A natural sound seems to be easier to play to and less regimented, and musicians find they can be a little freer with their playing, while still having the reassurance of the solid drum click to keep them on track. A sound such as a kick drum also seems to cause fewer problems with click spill from headphones.
I don't think I'm the first person to comment on the quality of the built‑in sounds that Digidesign have in their Click plug‑in, but the great thing is that you don't need to use the Click plug‑in to create a click track. Here I'm going to show you how to use Xpand! 2 to create click-track sounds, but you could use any MIDI device to do this.
Create an instrument track and make Xpand! 2 one of the inserts. This will bring up the Xpand! 2 plug‑in window with its default setting. Click on the little arrow in the top right‑hand corner of the section 'A' Part screen, and a pop‑up menu will appear. Go down to '24 Drums', and select 'Kick Menu X2+'. This will bring up a range of kick-drum sounds across your MIDI keyboard. Have a play with the different kick sounds until you find one you think will work, and make a note of what MIDI note you need to play it.
Now, go into the Setup menu and select Click/Countoff. From the Click/Countoff Options window you can set the MIDI notes and velocities that will produce the new click sound, and the MIDI device that should play back this sound. Enter the MIDI note of the kick drum you liked, and use the Output drop‑down menu to route it to the Xpand! 2 plug‑in. A neat time‑saving trick is that you can actually audition the click sounds from the Click/Countoff Options window: if you highlight the note in this window and play notes from your keyboard, Pro Tools will automatically change the note to the last one you played. I chose C#1 for the accented sound and C1 for the unaccented clicks.
Here's another neat Xpand! trick, this time for adding interest to long, sustained pad voices. Open up a lane of automation under the instrument track and select Add/Remove Controllers from the Controllers submenu. Now the Automated MIDI Controllers window will open. Move the appropriate controller — in this case, Controller 18 — over to the right‑hand column by selecting it in the left column and clicking the Add button in the middle. Once you have the controllers you want to automate in the right‑hand column, click the OK button to dismiss this window. (To find out what controller number to choose, right‑click on the control in the plug‑in window and a little menu will pop up; the second item will be 'Forget MIDI CC xx', where 'xx' will be a number.)
Now the automation lane under the instrument track controls the parameter you want to change. I have chosen to automate the filter cutoff control. You can create controller data in whatever fashion suits, including drawing freehand, but the Pencil tool has a number of other options, which are well worth experimenting with. In this case, I'm going to start off with the Square tool. Click and drag across the track and you will see an outline of a square wave forming. Experiment with where you start and finish to get different heights and positions of the square wave. The frequency of the square wave is set by the grid value, so if the grid is set to eighth notes, the square wave will go up and down every eighth note. Alternatively, you could select the Line tool from the Pencil tool options and draw a series of lines.
You can apply this technique to any control in any virtual instrument by right‑clicking on the control, making a note of what controller has been assigned to that function and then creating an automation lane for that controller. Remember also that all the Pro Tools Creative Collection plug‑ins have pre‑defined control assignments for Digidesign and supported third‑party hardware control surfaces. For example, by selecting the appropriate plug‑in slot on my Command 8, I have 22 pages of control settings, so I can access any of Xpand! 2's controls and turn real knobs, which of course can be automated in the normal way.
There are a couple of potential problems with Xpand! 2 that many users seem to encounter, so I'll run through the solutions in case any SOS readers are in this position.
First, in versions of Pro Tools prior to 8.0.3, when you created a multitimbral instance of Xpand! 2 you would find that CC data such as modulation and pitch‑bend was affecting every part in the patch, irrespective of which channel the part was on. This was an acknowledged bug and has apparently been fixed in v8.0.3, which now makes Xpand! a truly usable multitimbral device. (I cannot confirm this personally as I am still on v8.0.1, since v8.0.3 has a number of issues that affect folk working in post‑production, including me.)
Second, some users have reported that on opening Xpand! 2, they are presented with a greyed‑out plug‑in window and the message 'The factory content was not found, please locate the content file 'Xpand2.big''. If this happens to you, you need to navigate to the appropriate folder and select the 'Xpand2.big' file. Once you have done this, a new preference file will be written in your library.
The location of the 'Xpand2.big' file is:
Note that the same solution applies if Mini Grand or Boom reports the same problem. All '.big' files are located in the Pro Tools Creative Collection folder in the relevant sub‑folders.