Combining multitimbral sample playback, loop tempo matching, synthesis, multi-effects and an 8GB sound library, is Plug Sound Pro the only software sound source you need alongside your DAW?
For those just beginning to make their way in the wonderful world of computer-based recording, a single 'one-stop-shop' product that combines sample playback, synthesis, loop manipulation tools and audio effects has a number of obvious advantages. Ultimate Sound Bank's Plug Sound Pro does all this and is supplied with an 8GB sample library. Available for both Mac and PC, PSP runs in stand-alone mode or as a plug-in (RTAS, VST, AU and MAS for Mac OS X and RTAS, VST and DXi for PC under Windows XP). The sound library includes sampled instruments, loops and 'one-shot' phrases that cover most musical bases and can also be expanded via USB's UVI Soundcards (see the 'Extra, Extra' box for details). So is PSP a good 'does it all' solution to sit beside your DAW at the heart of your computer-based studio?
PSP is supplied with a software installation CD-ROM and a DVD-ROM containing the sample library. The latter uses a proprietary file format (which USB call a 'soundbank') and the single 8GB file is simply copied to a suitable hard drive location of your choice, prior to installing the software. All the documentation is provided in a PDF format on the installation CD. Installation itself proved straightforward and PSP uses an iLok Smart Key for authorisation. I've no great preference for a software-based challenge/response over a dongle-based approach to copy protection, but you will need to purchase a Pace iLok dongle (about £30) if you do not own one.
I did the majority of my detailed testing within Cubase 4 using the VST version of PSP. Initially, I experienced the occasional problem with PSP hanging but USB's technical support supplied me with a beta release of PSP v. 1.03. This solved my problems and it has subsequently become an official release.
At first sight, the PSP user-interface appears quite busy but it is divided into a number of discrete sections and quickly becomes familiar. The middle-left of the display is dominated by the Part list. In stand-alone mode, MAS and RTAS modes, PSP is 64-part multitimbral, with four banks (A-D) of 16 Parts. However, in the other plug-in modes, only 16 MIDI channels are supported in each instance of the plug-in. Clicking on a Part selects it for editing, and double-clicking opens the Preset Browser for selecting sounds or loops from within the soundbank. Positioned at the top left is the Preset Info display, indicating the RAM usage for the current part and the total RAM used. This display includes the Load/Save buttons for a Preset Multi: saving a Multi creates a snapshot of all the current PSP settings.
The Part and Pitch controls (centre-top) provide settings for the currently selected Part, and these are mostly self explanatory. The two Aux sliders set send levels to the two global effects plug-ins (more on which below) while the Polyphony setting has an influence upon the CPU usage of PSP, so it is worth adjusting if you find your system under stress. Aside from the obvious master Volume and Tune controls, the Global section also features a pretty (although not very detailed) frequency analyser display that can be toggled off.
The UVI Master section dominates the centre of the display. I'm not entirely sure what the purpose of the large circular graphic is (although it is very attractive), but the section provides a three-band compressor, a simulated tube-style harmonics generator and a limiter. The control set is not as sophisticated as those found on a dedicated mastering processor plug-in but, as demonstrated by a number of the well-chosen presets (for example, 'rock master', 'punchy mix' or 'grunge tube'), it is capable of beefing up PSP 's output in both subtle and distinctly non-subtle ways.
The Sound Design section provides a combination of synth-like controls and more standard audio processing with which individual Parts can be further manipulated. The controls are tabbed into three sections: Basic, Advanced and FX. The Basic controls provide standard ADSR envelopes with velocity sensitivity for amplitude and filter, while a selection of five different filter types is available and the Drive control can add distortion to the filter output. The Advanced controls provide four LFOs, and these can be used to modulate pitch, filter, amplitude and pan, or (amongst other things) can be controlled via the pitch or modulation wheels of your master keyboard.
Each part can have up to four insert effects allocated to it, and a further two global send/return effects can be specified. The insert effects themselves cover all the usual suspects. For whichever effect is currently selected, a series of controls is displayed in the far right of the Sound Design window. The send/return effects are split into four groups: delay, reverb, IR Verb and modulation. Perhaps the real surprise here is the IR Verb, a convolution-based reverb with presets based around a good selection of different room types, from small and intimate to concert halls. This reverb is a bit CPU hungry but, given who PSP might most obviously be marketed at (there are some further thoughts on that below), the inclusion of a convolution reverb is a nice plus point. Overall, while there's perhaps not the detailed control you might expect from dedicated plug-ins, the effects section is easy to use.
The bottom-right corner of the main window contains settings for handling loops. Much of these affect how loops tempo-sync to the host DAW and whether they latch to the project playback when triggered, on the next beat, or on the next bar. Rhythmic loops can also be beat sliced, and slices then triggered via MIDI. The Drag & Drop button allows either tempo-matched audio loops or MIDI data relating to beat-sliced loops to be dragged and dropped into the host sequencer.
Under the hood, PSP also features a well-specified MIDI Learn facility and, via the Expert Mode button, settings that can configure key-switching, govern how larger samples stream from hard disk and give access to up to 17 stereo output pairs. The key-switching provides a very simple way to switch sounds during a performance (for example, to swap between a sustained and a pizzicato string sound), but it is also possible to switch groups of sounds on and off via the same key-switch, so that sounds can be stacked. Keyboard splits can also be created. All this adds further flexibility which would be particularly useful if you wanted to use PSP in a live context.
The instrument palette of PSP can be expanded considerably via a new collection of sample libraries from USB. While each of these comes with its own playback front-end, the sample content can also be accessed via PSP. At the time of writing, five titles are already available: Retro Organs, Retro Keyboards, Xtreme FX, Mayhem Of Loops and Synths Anthology, each priced at £99 (bar Mayhem Of Loops, at £66). Further titles are in development.
Of course, PSP is not all about the front end: it is also supplied with an 8GB sample library. In terms of the multi-sampled instruments, this is a diverse collection. The instruments are grouped into Keyboard, Fretted, Drums/Percussion, Synths, General MIDI and Orchestral categories. While the selection is perhaps not as comprehensive as something like the 32GB EWQL Colossus (reviewed in the July 2005 issue of SOS), it is clearly intended to provide the same sort of bread-and-butter sample collection.
It is impossible to cover all the instrument groups in detail in a review of this length. However, a lot of very good, and very useable, sampled instruments are provided. These include a perfectly respectable set of pianos (acoustic and electric varieties) and some nice organs (for example, the 'Tutti Grand Orgue'). Turning to the fretted instruments, there is the usual collection of acoustic and electric guitars, and I particularly liked the nylon-strung guitars when used for picked or melody parts. The bass guitars are solid, and the Fretted category also includes ethnic instruments such as banjo, mandolin and sitar.
The Drums and Percussion category covers both acoustic and electronic drum sounds and includes a number of full GM compatible kits. Again, a good range of musical styles is catered for, whether you want a basic rock kit or something for a gritty urban beat. My only minor criticism here is that on some of the preset kits the kick drum seemed a little quiet compared to the rest of the kit. On the plus side, there's a comprehensive set of individual drum samples, both with and without velocity switching. These can be loaded into individual Parts, making it easy to build your own kits and balance the volume of the individual drums to taste.
As with the other sound categories, the Synths cover a wide range of styles. These include, pads, textures, bass, brass, leads, and all sorts of filter-sweep sounds. There's not a huge choice in any one category but, given the sound-design tools built into PSP, there's plenty of scope for further tweaking once you have found a suitable starting point. The Orchestral sounds are also somewhat limited in breadth, but what is here is perfectly useable and would form a good starting point for someone without a basic orchestral palette. There are some nice-sounding strings and brass, both ensemble and solo, but the obvious limitation is the restricted number of performance articulations provided, although sustained, staccato and, for the strings, pizzicato are included. A few 'ohh' and 'ahh' choir samples are also provided although, rather oddly, there is no dedicated orchestral percussion. The General MIDI category is a useful addition and, like the equivalent category in Colossus, the quality of the sounds would certainly make playback of GM files a much more pleasant sonic experience than your average soundcard's GM set.
The PSP library also includes a healthy collection of loops, which are split into Drums, Electric Bass, Guitar, Hip Hop/R&B, Percussion and Vocals categories. These are a bit of a mixed bag, not because of the quality (which is good), but because of the musical coverage. For example, the Drums category, while containing some excellent acoustic drum loops suitable for generic pop, rock and funk styles, doesn't really stray into other genres. The same comment could be made about the Electric Bass loops; what is supplied is good and serves to demonstrate how well PSP can manipulate loops, but it would have been nice to have more of it. Perhaps the best of the loops are in the Hip Hop/R&B category. This section is organised almost as a series of themed construction kits with plenty of loops within each kit. Loops from other libraries can be used with PSP, but they do need to be copied into a specific directory before they will appear under the User Loops section of the Preset Browser. This is a bit of a shame, and it would be nice if USB could perhaps allow users to specify other folders where their loops are housed, for PSP to locate them.
Once I'd obtained the v.1.03 upgrade, PSP performed pretty much flawlessly inside Cubase 4. I experienced the (very) occasional glitch during sample playback, when the host system was stretched by a busy arrangement or some of the bigger sampled instruments, but things could generally be smoothed out by tweaking the Streaming settings.
While playback of loops loaded into PSP could be easily triggered in sync with the Cubase project via MIDI, I did find myself using the Drag & Drop function quite a bit. This does make it very easy to organise loops within a project, although it also, of course, means that PSP 's processing options cannot then be used with the loop.
The other feature that is worth commending is the MIDI Learn function for automation of PSP 's controls. This is very Reason-like and so simple to use, but it does make you wonder when Steinberg might get around to implementing something similar for the various plug-ins included with Cubase. Other than these comments, there is little more to say about PSP in operation — on my test system at least, it functioned exactly as advertised.
PSP is an intriguing piece of software — part sample-playback engine, part loop manipulation tool, part sound processor and part sample library — it turns its hand to almost all the key software functions you might want alongside your sequencer for music creation. However, this does beg the question as to who PSP is marketed towards. As a one-stop-shop for all the above functions, it clearly offers a neat solution, but for users happy to get these same functions using multiple tools, PSP faces plenty of very well-established competition.
Experienced computer-studio owners will probably already have both a sampler and loop manipulation tool within their software arsenal and, good though PSP is, I can't see it really attracting existing users away from the likes of Gigastudio, Kontakt, EXS24, Halion, Live or Acid Pro. However, where it might have more appeal is for those new to the world of computer music creation. The all-in-one format ought to appeal and, as a sample library, PSP would represent a considerable sonic step up from the vast majority of GM-based soundcards, for those that could not stretch to the price of something like Colossus. PSP might also appeal to those looking for a simple sound-source solution for use with a laptop in a live context. Given what PSP offers and the respectable instrument collection it includes, I think it represents decent value for money. What I'm less sure about is whether it will be accessible at this price point to the majority of the users to whom it would most obviously appeal.