Storm, the French software studio from virtual-instrument creators Arturia, keeps on improving. We check out version 3.
Accurate software representations of classic analogue synths have been getting French company Arturia a lot of attention recently, courtesy of their Moog Modular V, Minimoog V and CS80V. But let's not forget where we first heard their name: in connection with Storm, the all-in-one software electronic studio.
Storm had potential from day one, but aspects of the package could leave the user a little frustrated. Since SOS's last review, of v1.5 in October 2001, the software has taken a number of significant steps forward. A range of enhancements begun with v2 have continued with the new v3, resulting in a viable alternative to something like Propellerhead's Reason. The changes, and the handful of features currently lacking in Reason, haven't added to the UK price tag, either.
The description of the software studio is now almost a cliché: a virtual environment consisting of a studio rack in which the user assembles an array of software drum machines and analogue synths, devices for handling samples, and sequencing tools that are usually loop- and pattern-based. It could also be said that some packages have a weighting towards instant gratification, by including ready-made patterns and trendy sample loop libraries.
During its first two revisions, Storm 's rack was limited, accommodating a maximum of four sound sources and three effects modules. This limit was partly dealt with in v2.0, following the introduction of Rewire capabilities; this allowed you to run multiple Storm s. Version 3.0 is altogether more elegant. Rewire remains standard issue, making Storm an excellent host for other compatible applications, but now the rack is unlimited; you can build your virtual studio as large as your computer's CPU and RAM will let you.
Studio creation in earlier versions required exiting the main program, but this is no longer the case. The newly designed all-in-one window has space for instrument and effects selector panels, allowing modules to be dragged to the rack (samples can be dragged into the program in the same way). That new window also features a proper mixer panel, an improved sequencer strip, and a handy navigator that makes moving around larger racks an easier task.
These new elements — and the new improved MIDI sequencer — can also be detached and positioned around the main screen, and most on-screen elements can be hidden or made visible at the click of a mouse. One element that's not immediately visible is the Kepler chord-change sequencing module — originally, Kepler was permanently wired to all Storm modules.
So what can you put in Storm 's rack? There are 14 soundmakers and 10 effects, with only one newbie (the 220-patch GMSynth) since v2. Some graphical changes for the better have been made here and there, and the set remains comprehensively featured.
Storm's MIDI horizons are now quite broad. Its sequencer has developed some serious extra features, including a comprehensive piano-roll editor. The editor stretches quite well to cut-and-paste editing, manually drawing and erasing notes, and handling controller information alongside notes and velocity. Standard MIDI operations such as quantisation are a little unsophisticated at the moment, but that should improve. I also expect the MIDI sequencer to develop in future. Being able to work easily in time signatures other than 4/4 would be a good development.
As with earlier versions of Storm, pattern-chaining and recording parameter movements is made easy. Standard MIDI Files can now be loaded (doing so creates as many GMSynths as needed by the file), and pattern tracks can be converted to MIDI data — both useful options.
The wider world of MIDI is accessible via Rewire. Drag a Rewire device into your Storm rack, and it opens immediately, and is sync'ed to Storm. Storm can also be a Rewire slave, and functions as a VST instrument.
Pattern-based sequencing is built into every synth, arranged as four banks of eight patterns; pattern creation takes place in a little piano roll in the middle of the module. All except two provide an optional velocity editor; the two monophonic devices allow slides to be written into patterns. In version 3.0, there's the new option of bringing up a full MIDI event editor which makes the composition process much more friendly in most circumstances. Entering blobs on the modules' piano rolls, especially with the polyphonic modules, can be a little taxing at times, due to the lack of space provided. Also common to each module, on the right, is a little three-way effects-send matrix; this can be disabled, and lets you assign which three of the available effects can be accessed by the module, with level control and choice of pre-/post-fader operation.
Let's begin at the bass end with Arsenic, a monophonic bass machine modelled loosely on the classic Roland TB303 Bassline. Its oscillator produces a continuously variable square or sawtooth wave, with pulse width for both waves. A basic attack/decay amplitude envelope is joined by a resonant filter. Cutoff and Resonance controls, plus another simple two-stage envelope and a Mod control, allow you to generate sounds reminiscent of a TB, along with timbres that are more typical of Storm itself. This is no slavish copy, but a device designed in the spirit of the original.
If you'd like something a bit more like a real bass, try loading up the monophonic Bass 52. The model at this module's heart is a fretted bass. Only three controls are available, yet a wide range of picked, slapped and dubby bass sounds can be easily extracted from this module. Its pattern sequencer has an additional 'track' for write-in vibrato triggers.
Arsenic 's synth engine is recycled in Equinoxe, a three-voice 'chord synthesizer'. The synthesis controls are identical to those on Arsenic, but the sequence-editing window is much simpler. It's 16 steps long, just like Arsenic and Bass 52, but chords are defined in terms of eight vertical steps equivalent to the white notes ('C' to 'C') on a piano keyboard, although chords can be transposed over eight octaves. This occurs because the actual notes played by the chord (making it major or minor) are defined by the Kepler module. Thus, to get the most out of Equinoxe 's pattern sequencer, you'll have to use Kepler at the same time.
When played and sequenced over MIDI, though, Equinoxe is fully chromatic, though still only three-note polyphonic. One feature is missing: each voice in earlier versions could play a different waveform.
Just as there are two monophonic bass-focussed synths, so there are two chord synths. The second is Shadow, with eight-note polyphony and a fully modelled analogue subtractive synthesis engine. This is an instrument with factory presets and room for your own edits — 64 of each — plus an intriguing approach to editing. Synth voices are manipulated with a nifty X/Y control grid and a pair of sliders, with only filter cutoff and resonance available on their own dedicated knobs. This may not look like much, but a quick prod with the mouse reveals that an inoffensive little button at the lower-right corner of the grid (or a right mouse-click) provides access to six different 'pages'. Once you've made your choice, you can either tweak the sliders or manipulate the ball in the middle of the grid to alter the desired parameters.
The six pages allow you to mix the two oscillators and a white-noise source, offset Oscillator 2's tuning, work with a basic attack/release amplitude envelope, apply an LFO to filter cutoff or pitch, and vary the waveforms generated by the oscillators, namely square or sawtooth waves. These are fully variable between the standard waveforms, and offer pulse-width modulation.
Sequencing here is similar to that of Equinoxe, in that chords are made from eight vertical steps, with the actual harmony determined by Kepler (again, it is freely playable over MIDI). This time, though, the pattern can be one, two, four or eight bars long, and up to five notes can make up a chord (though three is the default). Chords can be built via a menu system as well as by dragging with the mouse. You can thus create major or minor seventh chords quite easily, play with inversions, and add bass notes one or two octaves below the main chord.
Shadow was new for v2, and GMSynth is new for v3. As you might expect, this module offers sample-based patches (220 in all) providing all the basics required by General MIDI. It also gives Storm users a 'bread-and-butter' collection of real-world sounds to add to their synthesized sequences. On screen, you're provided with a patch selector, pitch-bend and mod wheels, plus Filter Cutoff and Resonance controls.
Sequencing is done on a piano-roll grid — we're back to chromatic note entry here, over an eight-octave range, with patterns of one, two, four or eight bars in length. You're free to write whatever music you like in the piano roll, though here you'll find the pop-up event editor to be of particular value!
Sonically, this is not the most sophisticated GM sound module around, but it does its job well enough, and raw samples are nicely sampled and looped. Obviously, a single GMSynth is not multitimbral; you simply load as many examples as a given song needs. It does appear to place another burden on your computer, though: it's loading a sample set for each instance. I experienced an occasional audio burp even on my modern PC.
As good as Storm's other synth modules are, I've definitely saved the best till last. The double-height, eight-voice polyphonic, wavetable-based Orpheus is the module I might buy Storm for even if I didn't like the other devices. The wavetable set may be unexpandable, but you wouldn't know it from the creative synthesis potential it offers.
First of all, you have to raise an animated frosted door to get at the synth parameters — a nice, if not strictly necessary design touch. Once inside, you've a choice of 32 wavetables, including one 'empty' table that I presume is used when you'd like to program a one-oscillator patch. Each table contains four waveshapes, and movement in the sound is created by manipulating the table via the two-dimensional controller window — that's the black space with the green cursor on it. Arturia don't go into detail about how the tables are read out or what actually goes on while you manipulate a wavetable, but horizontal movements affect Oscillator 1's table, and vertical moves affect Oscillator 2. Note that Oscillator 1 can be sync'ed to or frequency-modulated by Oscillator 1, and Oscillator 2 can have its pitch offset with coarse and fine tuning controls. In short, you can really mangle the provided raw material — and that's before I mention the filter!
The 12dB-per-octave resonant filter has a choice of low-pass, band-pass, high-pass and notch (band-reject) characteristics, as well as Cutoff and Resonance controls, plus a four-stage (ADSR) envelope generator. Keyboard tracking can also be switched in an out of circuit. This is by far the most sophisticated filter in the Storm rack, though it has a similar character to the others. In addition, there's a four-stage amplitude envelope and two low-frequency oscillators, with Rate and Amount controls. Sine, square, sample & hold, sawtooth, and inverted sawtooth waveforms can be chosen for either LFO. Each LFO has its own set of destinations, so LFO1 can modulate filter cutoff, volume, Oscillator 1 frequency or Oscillator 1 frequency modulation, and LFO2 can be routed to oscillator balance, Oscillator 2 frequency or waveform, LFO1 speed or the frequency of Oscillators 1 or 2. Sadly, there's no MIDI sync.
Metallic, delicate, mysterious, menacing, but most of all moving... that's an abbreviated list of adjectives that fit Orpheus. You can create your own sounds and save them in the 64 slots assigned to the purpose; they'll sit alongside the 64 factory presets. The sequencing side of Orpheus is pretty much the same as elsewhere in Storm; like GMSynth, Orpheus offers a chromatic piano roll, an eight-octave range and the option of working with patterns up to eight bars long.
- Windows 9x/2000/XP running on a 500MHz Pentium III with 128MB of RAM.
- Mac OS X v10.1 running on a 500MHz G3, with 128MB of RAM.
The virtual studio simply has to have a sample-based element, and Storm has no less than three. One point in common is that audio can be freely dragged from any sample-based module to another. And of course you can create your own loops by exporting Storm mixes or individual module patterns to disk, and then re-importing them via the sample modules.
First up is EZTrack, the module that Reason users wish they had in their virtual rack! It simply allows you to record audio into Storm alongside the rest of whatever music you're creating. Storm will cooperate with most audio standards in Mac OS X and Windows, including DirectX, ASIO and Core Audio. Operation is simple, and there's no real limit on the length of audio you can record. I'd advise keeping it short, though, for the sake of tidiness. You can make use of a couple of modules to record your audio in segments and then compile the result into one EZTrack if you wish, or maybe an H3OPlus, of which more shortly.
Recording is easy once you've ploughed through the rather unsatisfactory manual and on-line help file — and come to terms with the really tiny buttons Arturia use! Select a source, press record and start playback. It's simple enough to cut and paste bits of audio, there's a punch-in/out option, and bits of audio can even be dragged to other sample devices. Sadly, it's not possible to record mono tracks: plug a bass into the left input of your audio interface, say, and it records to one side of the stereo track in EZTrack, with no way to pan it to centre. It was nice to see the option to edit volume and pan via a pop-up piano roll, but this doesn't solve the mono recording issue. The Pan control should really be labelled Balance; setting it to centre merely lowers the volume of the mono instrument you've been forced to record to one side of the stereo mix.
Though your own samples can be imported into EZTrack for instant cut-and-paste song creation, H3OPlus is the dedicated sample loop player. It's a four-track affair, with each 'track' playing a stereo sample for up to four bars. There's no way to do much to the samples, but one feature is particularly nice: it's possible to arrange time-stretching and pitch-shifting within the Sample Properties menu, so that loops will respond to tempo changes and chord changes within Kepler. The results are a bit crunchy on anything more than simple loops like drum loops and highly rhythmic basslines, but it's a feature worth having, and allows tracks to be slowed down or sped up a bit without unwanted artefacts.
Loops can be easily copied and transposed. Stretching them makes them play to fill whatever space they're dragged into, so a four-bar loop can be compressed to one bar, and vice versa. Loops can also be dragged up and down, which changes their volume.
And so to Scratch, the turntable emulator. As on H3OPlus, samples can be automatically matched to tempo, which solves one immediate problem faced by real turntablists. But tempo changes result in pitch changes, just like the real thing. All the effects are here, including crossfades, slow-downs, brakes and so on. For me, though, mouse control is not ideal: I'd rather get a small MIDI hardware box and assign the moves to a few knobs.
The new mixer expands as modules are added to the rack — you scroll to access unseen channels. Initially, it seems that there's not much that's new, apart from its size — the old mixer was just a few faders and level meters. But now, there are pan pots, solo and mute buttons, and the option to display effects sends (which duplicate the controls that can appear in the rack) and a three-band EQ, with swept mid band. All controls can be automated, and grabbed by external MIDI controllers, bringing the mixing side of Storm right up to date.
There are no new additions amongst the drum machines, but the collection remains rhythmically and sonically worthwhile. You still can't import your own samples, but the built-in sound sets are good. These modules offer only 16-step, pattern-based sequencing, although each is equipped with 64 patterns, and all can be played and sequenced over MIDI.
The note input grid has a curious approach to velocity input — each step has four levels that are cycled through with each mouse click. On some kits, the two lower velocity levels trigger one sound and the two higher another. If you click too fast, a right mouse-click takes you back one velocity step; right-clicking from the start inputs the highest velocity level. If you find this frustrating, then you'll definitely appreciate the option to create drum patterns in the new expanded piano-roll event editor. In addition, this editor makes it really easy to edit the individual drum sound parameters, which can change dynamically throughout a pattern.
All of the drum machines use samples except for Tsunami, which feels like a little eight-voice synth. Four of its voices are based on a noise generator, with Level, Pan, Attack, Decay, Filter Frequency and Filter Resonance controls. You can sound like Kraftwerk with these voices — I did! The remaining four voices are based on an oscillator, and besides level and pan, you can control attack duration, decay duration, frequency modulation amplitude, and decay. It's great for creating '70s-style syndrum noises, if that's your thing.
Psion and Meteor are Arturia's take on classic electronic beatboxes: Psion aims for TR808 territory and Meteor for the TR909. All the basic sounds are here, and in both cases, the user has plenty of control over pitch and decay for each sound, making the experience a bit more personal. Both machines are satisfying in their own way, with a lot of bass energy where you need it, in the kicks.
The penultimate module in this section, Puma, heads out into world beat territory, offering a collection of congas, derbukas, cabasa, shaker, timbale and temple block. The dynamic parameter changes possible within Storm drum machines are really welcome here. The last kit is also based on samples, this time from an acoustic kit. This is the least satisfying kit sonically, although its rough edges (and variable parameters) help keep it in your rack. It also has the worst name in Storm: Hork.
Storm v2's collection of effects is unaltered in v3, bar one or two design tweaks. All bases are covered, from the self-explanatory Dual Delay, Reverb, Chorus, Flanger and Compressor through to the fader-controlled Sequenced Filter, Ring Mod, LP Filter and Distortion. There's even Vocoder, and with a little internal patching, this can process live audio from outside the computer (you need to route an EZTrack output to the vocoder and sing or play into that via your audio hardware).
The quality is overall really good, and though Reverb isn't quite in the same league as dedicated CPU-hungry stand-alone plug-ins, it has a pleasant character of its own. It, and the other effects, also share Arturia's interesting approach to editing, with lots of virtual screens and X/Y control which makes effects editing quite an intuitive process. Compressor, Chorus and Vocoder come with a handful of presets each to provide basic treatments, though there's no option to save your own settings.
The modules access Storm's built-in effects via a send system. Every module, including the effects themselves, has three sends, which are either visible in the rack, or show up as part of the mixer. You choose a destination for each send via a pop-up menu, and can tweak the level with a knob. There is no real differentiation between send and insert effects, so if you want an insert treatment, you simply assign one module's send to one effect. There are no balance controls on the effects modules, so you have to play with the pre send control and adjust the sending device's level.
It's also possible to create quite complex chains simply by using effect module sends to other effects. It can get a little complicated, since each effect also turns up on its own mixer channel, but keep your wits about you with regard to levels and you should be able to create a wide range of effects. Use of chaining can help overcome the fact that each module only has three sends; this is left over from earlier versions, when only three effects could be placed in the rack.
Kepler, though it seems reminiscent of auto-accompaniment and instant music, is a nicely thought-out module. It's been much easier to be generous to it since Arturia gave you the option of disengaging it from all modules. It's an essential module if you'd like to stretch the pattern-sequencing capabilities of the chord synth modules, but it was a pain to have to then compose with every other synth in the same way. But if you'd like to keep your harmony flexible, and make it easy to transpose your work, then you might find the Kepler approach valid.
Like Storm's synths and drum machines, Kepler is pattern-based, with 64 available in total. Each pattern is constructed of eight two-beat steps (four bars in all), and each step can be assigned a major or minor chord with an octave-offset switch. Once you've set up the patterns, you automate pattern changes in the sequencer — simple. The design is nice, and it works well, although I'd like to have seen a smaller step resolution, more chord types and more patterns within the device, since only one can reside in a session.
For me, the high points here are Storm's sound and feel, its different approach to composition and sound design (though it can be a bit fiddly to operate with a mouse), and its good value for money. What might let it down is the power demands it places on your computer: it feels a lot hungrier than Reason, for example. It runs fine on my new PC laptop, but struggles hard on the 450MHz G4, whereas Reason is happy on both. Mac users may also be disappointed that Storm is now for Mac OS X only. Other niggles are largely minor in the context of the price and goals of the software.
The bottom line is that Storm keeps getting better. Perhaps this upgrade hasn't introduced as many new modules as some users would like, but the freeing of previous rack limits, the beefing up of the MIDI sequencing and control side of things, the enhancement of the mixer and various other on-screen improvements make the new version worthwhile overall. The Rewire implementation is also great: hosting Reason alongside Storm, if your computer can handle it, results in quite an interesting sonic experience (VST plug-in operation is possible, but Rewire is preferable if you have the option). And at a shade under £130, this remains a viable, good-value all-in-one studio. At this price point, it'll attract many users who'll appreciate the tons of preset patterns and ready-to-go samples that are included with the package — but I predict that the software will grow with them as they outgrow the presets.