Steinberg/Propellerhead Rebirth RB338 v2

Techno Microcomposer Software

Published in SOS November 1998
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Unlike the vintage equipment it emulates, Rebirth is getting more sophisticated all the time. Derek Johnson & Debbie Poyser catch up with the latest version.

Modern music software, by and large, is fantastic. It lets musicians create sequences of staggering complexity at the drop of a hat, work simultaneously and easily with both MIDI and digital data, and instantly subject audio to the kind of torturous manipulation that would have taken hours, or even days, with a razorblade and tape.

Excellent virtual TR909.
Rewire integrates Rebirth very well with VST.
Useful extra enhancements.
Still looks fabulous.
Still sounds great.
Not all effects available to all Sections at once.
Rewire and OMS can't be used simultaneously on a Mac.
Drum machines still mono.
Patterns stuck with 16th-note resolution.
Rebirth v2.0 is an unmissable upgrade that makes an already remarkable program even more desirable.

But do you ever really covet software in the same way that you covet hardware? Do you regard your music program with the same affection as your Moog Rogue or Fender Strat? Can something which exists only in a computer's virtual environment inspire the same pride of ownership as, say, that small silver box called a TB303 Bassline? If it's called Rebirth, maybe it can...

For the uninitiated, Rebirth RB338 has been called "the ultimate techno software package" and was a considerable software success story of 1997. It could hardly fail, given that it was an accurate 16-bit, 44.1kHz emulation of the sounds and many of the facilities of two vintage Roland TB303 bass sequencers and the classic Roland TR808 drum machine, with a beautiful, colourful graphic interface, all for a quid under £150. MIDI, naturally, came as standard (unlike the originals), sync with any OMS-compatible sequencer was assured, sequences were immediately savable to hard drive, and built-in Delay and Distortion effects were a nice bonus.

With all this fabulousness on offer, you'd think it would be churlish to complain that the super-hip TR808 simulation was not an even hipper TR909 simulation -- but some did. So a group of enterprising hackers set about figuring out how Rebirth was put together, discovered how to replace its source 808 samples with 909 samples, and even tinkered with the graphics. Instead of getting their knickers in a twist, Propellerhead took a friendly interest in the proceedings, even posting customised Rebirths on their web site, and providing DIY instructions! Indeed, v2.0 comes with the necessary bits for customising Rebirth. It's like putting shiny manufacturers' stickers on a flightcase (somebody we once knew dismembered Roland stickers to produce the unforgettable 'Ronald Poland'), or spray-painting your keyboard day-glo orange: modify it, and it becomes yours.

Propellerhead haven't stopped there: Rebirth v2.0 for the Mac (see 'Rebirth & the PC' box for PC situation) features that 909 as standard, a compressor, and Rewire, a link between Rebirth and Steinberg's Cubase VST MIDI + Audio sequencer, which allows VST to control or be controlled from Rebirth, as well as routing Rebirth audio through VST mixer channels. It's now also possible to tweak on-screen knobs in real time in Song mode (whereas before you could only tweak them in Pattern mode, unless you were prepared to commit yourself and record the tweaks into a Song). There's a new Shuffle facility, to add a 'triplet' feel, slight refinements to a couple of editing functions, a new Shape parameter for the Distortion effect, and extra 'patterns' for the Pattern Controlled Filter (more later). Finally, sounds from the onscreen 808 can now be selected by clicking on the abbreviation above the step buttons, rather than by turning the instrument select knob with the mouse.

In The Picture

Anyone unfamilar with the workings of the original Rebirth should refer back to SOS's August 1997 review, but for now, before discussing v2.0 enhancements, here's a brief overview of the program.

"Cosmetically, the most obvious change in v2.0 is the appearance of another dinky graphic drum machine: the virtual 909."
Each of the graphic representations of 303s, 808 and (now) 909 has its own 'Section' for sequencing purposes; you could think of each Section as a sequencer track with a sound source physically attached to it. Though the 303 synth Sections are monophonic (like their hardware namesake), the 808 and 909 are fully polyphonic. The sequencer is Pattern-based, with up to 16 steps per Pattern (though Patterns of differing lengths can run together) and each Section can draw from its own set of 32 Patterns, which are chained into a Song (with a maximum of 999 Pattern steps, or bars). All the Sections are controlled by a single transport bar.

  Remake, Remodel  

Steinberg/Propellerhead describe modifying Rebirth as "not for the faint-hearted". Still, they supply a folder of 'Standard Components', the graphics and audio files that constitute the look and sound of the program, on the CD-ROM. Changing the look of Rebirth involves generating JPEG image files of exactly the right size to replace the source image files -- retaining, however, Rebirth's file naming. Changing the whole thing requires 50+ image files. Substituting Rebirth sounds is a little easier, in that new sound files (AIFF format) don't have to be the same size as the original, but be aware that for sounds with more than one component (nine samples for the 808 snare, for example, which are cross-faded as the on-screen knobs are tweaked), all replacement components must be the same length.

If you produce a mod that Propellerhead like, they'll post it on their web site, but if all this seems too much like hard work you can take advantage of one of the four superb new versions on the CD-ROM.

Programming of Patterns is done in a similar manner to the hardware originals, in that the user specifies which note will play on each step of a Pattern, either while a Pattern is playing back, or without playback. Notes are chosen using the mouse (from the 303 mini-keyboard or the 808/909 step buttons), the computer's keyboard, or a MIDI keyboard. One feature of the real 303/808/909 that's missing from Rebirth is the option to record Patterns with different note resolutions: while non-4/4 time signatures can be managed, by changing the Pattern length, you're always working with straight 16th notes (it's possible to enter triplet Patterns on a real-world 303, with the 808 and 909 also offering 32nd-note options).

Rebirth only has one screen, so although Patterns are editable, you don't really see what's going on. However, it's possible to Cut, Copy and Paste data, Shift Patterns or drum parts left or right by one step at a time, Transpose, and Randomise (an entire Pattern, just pitch, everything that's not pitch, or individual drum parts). The Alter function, rather than generating something entirely new, like Randomise, takes notes already entered and jumbles them to create new Patterns.

Each Section has its own Mixer controls: level fader, mute switch, pan pot, Delay send knob, and three switches for the other effects, plus a level meter. Each effect also has a control panel, and there's a Master level fader. While not all the physical controls of the original 303, 808 and 909 are recreated on screen, the most important ones are, and their movements can be recorded into a finished Song. Rebirth Songs or sections of Songs can be saved and exported as AIFF or WAV files, which is significant for PC users also running an audio sequencer but with only one audio card: exporting a

"Rebirth is one of the few software programs that really feels like an instrument."
Rebirth Song as audio into a sequencer means that these people can still get the Rebirth sound into their work. The same would go for those using under-powered computers which won't run Rebirth and an audio sequencer together satisfactorily. Of course, the export options also mean that Rebirth loops can be beamed into a sampler.

Get On Up... Like A Drum Machine...

Cosmetically, the most obvious change in v2.0 is the appearance of another dinky graphic drum machine: the virtual 909. Comparing the front panel of a real 909 with the Rebirth version reveals that the only controls left off the Rebirth 909 are those related to sequencing, but some have been modified in appearance and slightly in operation -- for example, accent. On Rebirth's 909 this is available via two different methods: clicking once or twice on one of the 909's 16 step buttons applies one of two levels of accent, which will affect just the selected sound and step, while clicking the AC (Accent) selector activates accent mode, whereupon you can enter an accent on any step of a Pattern, which will apply to all voices sounding on that step. The graphic LED on each Rebirth 909 step button glows dimly for the lower accent level and brightly for the higher -- just like the original. Flams can be placed on a per-step, per-sound basis, using the Flam selector. A resolution knob varies flam length, and flammed steps glow green rather than red. Other virtual 909 controls are as follows:

Bass Drum: Tune, Level, Attack, Decay.

Snare Drum: Tune, Level, Tone, Snap.

Low, Mid & Hi Tom: each has Tune, Level and Decay knobs.

Rimshot and Clap: each has a Level knob.

Open & Closed Hi-hat: these share a Level knob but have separate Decay knobs.

Crash & Ride Cymbal: each have Level and Tune knobs.

Soundwise, the virtual 909 is as good as you'd expect from the company whose 808 emulation was described as "convincing and successful" and whose 303 sound was acclaimed as "almost identical" and "very impressive indeed". And this was in side-by-side tests with the originals, conducted by long-term 808 and 303 owner Chris Carter. Sadly, we no longer have a 909, but comparing the Rebirth one with a set of good 909 samples revealed a striking similarity (as it should, since the Rebirth 909 is based on samples). Naturally, the range of tonal control and tweakability is similar to that of a hardware 909.

  Mac System Requirements  
  Rebirth requires at least a 66MHz Power Mac, with System 7.5.3 or higher and 16Mb of RAM. The more RAM and speed the better, though, especially if you're running VST on the same computer. Apple Sound Manager is also needed; if you're running an older system that lacks Sound Manager, it's included on the Rebirth CD-ROM, but note that it's been fully integrated into recent systems. If you're using System 8.1, bear in mind that Apple have reduced the size of their sound buffers, which means that latency has been cut in half. Check Rebirth's manual for details on taking advantage of this.  

Wire Drill

If the virtual 909 is graphically the most significant addition to Rebirth, arguably the most significant functional addition is Rewire. This pretty much allows Rebirth to become part of Cubase VST (v4 or later on the Mac), and is fantastically useful to VST owners. The two programs will now synchronise without OMS, and up to 18 Rebirth audio channels can be routed through VST's mixer -- with access to VST's EQ and plug-ins. Rebirth channels can even be converted to audio tracks, giving scope for stacking multiple Rebirth Patterns.

Rebirth and VST can work together in a number of ways: you could patch the stereo output of Rebirth to two VST mixer channels, the 303, 808 and 909 sections to their own channels, or any or all of the drum sounds to their own channels. As a Section is patched to a channel it's removed from the stereo mix, until all that remain are the Rebirth effect and processor 'returns', and drum sounds are removed from the drum machine mixes as they're patched individually. There is one

"Rewire pretty much allows Rebirth to become part of Cubase VST and is fantastically useful to VST owners."
slight anomaly: if drum sounds are routed separately to VST, their audio is not treated by Rebirth's processors. But the advantages of Rewire far outweigh this, since apart from Rebirthaudio being treatable by everything VST has to offer, one of Rebirth's few real problems can now be overcome: the audio mix of the 808 and 909 Sections is resolutely mono, and passing separate drum sounds through VST's mixer allows the creation of a stereo image of Rebirth percussion. People who have multi-channel audio cards running with VST will also now be able to route Rebirth sounds to the outside world via that. In addition, starting a VST sequence now starts Rebirth, and vice versa.

  Second Opinion  

Although I've been a long-time user of the original Roland TB303 and TR808, I found the transfer to Rebirth painless and trouble-free, and for the past year I've used it on pretty much every project I've worked on -- so you could say I'm a fan. In Rebirth v2.0, the overall sound of the 808 is pretty much the same as in v1: very good, but with subtle differences in tuning and brightness. The emulated 909 also sounds great, and although I don't have a genuine TR909 I have dozens of 909 samples. The Rebirth 909 compares very well to most of these, but if you don't think the internal drum samples are up to scratch you can import your own 808 or 909 samples using the supplied Mod Packer utility, which is exactly what I did. Although the instructions for performing this are a mite vague, once I had sussed it out it took me about half an hour to make up a new file containing my own 808 and 909 samples. Replacing the internal samples is a lot easier than with version 1.5, and this facility alone increases the usefulness of the program immensely. In effect you have a sample playback unit on your desktop.

The original Rebirth 303 sounded very close to the real TB303, and I can't hear any major changes, although I could detect subtle differences when running both versions side by side. v2.0 sounds slightly brighter and tighter to my ears. The inclusion of a Shuffle feature for each 303 might surprise TB303 purists but I think it's a nice touch. I'm disappointed that the adjustable Pre-Scale and Auto Fill-In features of the TR808 still haven't been included, and although there are some improvements to the MIDI interfacing there's still no way to export (or import) MIDI files of bass and drum Patterns. The big plus for me, being a VST user, is the seamless way in which Rebirth interfaces with VST audio mixer channels, giving you the ability to route Rebirth bass and drum sounds for EQ and effects processing. I use VST with a Korg 1212 PCI card, and the ability to send Rebirth sounds through digital ADAT and S/PDIF channels is a revelation. Chris Carter

Version 2.0 is installed as two components: the application, and the Rebirth Engine, a shared library file used by both VST and Rebirth. The Rewire technology is currently exclusive to Steinberg/Propellerhead, but other developers could adopt it, integrating Rebirth with their sequencers. It might even be feasible for virtual synth developers to integrate with VST in the same way as Rebirth. Yet another bonus of Rewire is that using the two programs together uses less processor overhead than previously, though a pretty tasty computer is still required to run them both with a decent amount of plug-ins.

The downside to Rewire is that it and OMS can't work at the same time on one Mac, so you won't be able to use MIDI remote control (for Pattern selection or knob tweaks) while using Rewire, which is a shame. If you prefer to record tweaks into Rebirth using MIDI controllers, you'll have to do it independently of VST.

In Full Effect

New to v2.0 is a simple compressor with Ratio and Threshold controls, plus a level-reduction meter. This isn't a serious compressor, but more of a creative effect tool. It's available to only one Section at a time, although it can be assigned to the master output, becoming a stereo compressor for compressing a mix. Experimentation will probably yield good results, but we didn't find it terribly effective.

Also new is a Shape parameter for Rebirth's Distortion effect. Steinberg say this controls the "character" of the distortion, and at higher settings it certainly produces an even grungier sound. Additionally, Distortion is now available to all four Sections, rather than one at a time, as before.

"Rebirth RB338 has been
called 'the ultimate techno software package' and
was a considerable software success story of 1997."

The Pattern Controlled Filter, introduced in v1.5, has been enhanced with nine extra patterns. This filter is essentially a 12dB device, with low-pass and band-pass options, plus cutoff frequency, resonance, envelope amount and envelope decay parameters. There are 54 non-editable filter envelope patterns in total which between them allow the filter to superimpose pumping effects, slow sweeps, and subtle or extreme rhythmic phrasing. The manual provides a list of patterns, so it's possible to get a good idea visually of what each is capable of. Sadly, this effective device is only available for one Section at a time.

Rounding off Rebirth's processing facilities is the Delay effect, which is available to all four Sections at once and remains unchanged from that of v1.5.

  Rebirth & the PC  

At the time of this review, although Rebirth v2.0 is available for the PC, it does not feature the Rewire technology; this should be implemented in VST v3.6 and Rebirth v2.0.1, both of which are due imminently.

Windows users need an Intel Pentium-equipped PC, running at 90MHz minimum, with Windows 95/98 or NT, 16Mb RAM, and a 16-bit audio card. Obviously, if you want to run Rebirth alongside VST, more RAM and more speed is preferable.


Born Again

The v2.0 upgrade costs £39, while Rebirth's full price remains £149, as on its launch. While £39 might seem like quite a lot as a proportion of the retail, the upgrade is pretty much essential, especially to owners of this superb program who also run VST. The Rewire technology will give these people far more than £39's worth of added usability and convenience. And when have you ever seen a TR909 for £39? Of course, aside from these two biggies, the other enhancements are also most welcome. It might, perhaps, have seemed more equitable to charge, say, £20 for the upgrade and raise the price of new Rebirths to £170: this way, the developers would recoup their costs, but established users, who've supported the program since its launch, would share the extra cost burden with new users, who haven't. Other niggles are few, perhaps the biggest being that Rewire and OMS can't be used at the same time on a Mac, and that the two virtual drum machines are mono. However, these are relatively trivial points in light of the extra facilities, and they don't damage Rebirth's status as one of the few software programs that really feels like an instrument.

Now then, would go-faster stripes look good on our virtual 808...?

£149 including VAT.
Arbiter Music Technology
+44 (0)181 970 1909.
+44 (0)181 202 7076.

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