With pattern-based sequencing, plenty of presets and a powerful analogue-style synth, Cakewalk's affordable soft studio package could be a valuable compositional tool.
It would be really easy to think of Kinetic, Cakewalk's new loop-based software studio, as a cut-down version of their established Project 5 (see SOS June 2003). True, it borrows a couple of features and has some effects processing in common, but in releasing the new sub-£100 product, Cakewalk are aiming for a different market.
Initially, the target would appear to be unschooled music enthusiasts who might get a kick out of mixing and matching the hundreds of MIDI and audio loops that are bundled with Kinetic. But Cakewalk are craftier than that. The software might be marketed as a fast and easy way for anyone to create electronic music on their PC — and Kinetic is PC-only — but its life doesn't end at recycling the (admittedly good) preset loops. Cakewalk's own marketing says "even if you have no musical background, it's a snap to get started making tracks", but if you want to go further, or if you don't want to use the factory material at all, Kinetic will still oblige.
Integration is the name of Kinetic 's game. Pattern-based sequencing, sound creation, effects processing, mixing and automation are all pretty much available on one level. There are also limits to what the software offers and to what it will do, but these limits, combined with the integration, result in a comfortable, easily comprehensible composition and sound-design environment. And that environment is expandable: Kinetic is compatible with most Direct X plug-in effects, and will function as a Rewire slave in a similarly equipped host application.
One of the limits of the software appears to be, initially, in the sound-generation department. There are two synths on board, plus the Groove Player Engine, which plays back WAV or Acid-format audio files (the latter capable of following tempo changes). One synth, PSyn, is a fine modelling analogue synth inherited from Project 5. Groovesynth is the other, amazingly providing the sampled sonic guts of a Roland Groovebox instrument — fruit, no doubt, of Roland's 'interest' in Cakewalk, and their development work together. Groovesynth, which appears to be roughly equivalent to an MC303, comes equipped with 400 patches (238 Groovebox MIDI loops are also on board), and is the source of Kinetic 's drum sounds. When a drum kit is selected, Groovesynth even changes colour!
Trying to tweeze apart Kinetic 's elements is an interesting process, and it's hard to know where to start. First of all, we have to adopt Cakewalk's nomenclature; like it or not, we're going to hear the word 'Groove' a lot. For Cakewalk, a Groove is what most of us call a pattern. A Kinetic Song is equipped with 64 Grooves, arranged in four banks of 16, selected by the Groove Picker matrix at the top left of the screen, right beside the Groove Mixer.
Patterns do have a place in Kinetic, but here they're the MIDI data or audio files played by one of the 16 Parts that make up a Groove. Thus, Kinetic can be seen as having a 16-channel mixer, a 16-track sequencer, and a 16-part sound generator, all fully integrated. Though, as I said, the software comes with a lot of ready-to-wear Patterns, it's easy enough to create your own, either in step or real time. As well as notes, automation and controller data can be recorded into Patterns. There is no effective limit to a Pattern's length, and Patterns of different lengths can be mixed within one Groove; shorter Patterns simply keep looping while the longer ones finish playing and loop themselves. Thus, even within a Groove, it would, for example, be possible to create a simple four-bar loop backing and record a long-form part over the top using a Pattern that's 32 bars long.
In order to create a finished track, Grooves are chained in the Song Arranger, which runs across the bottom of the main screen. This is a straightforward process, and it's possible to record and manipulate automation data over the top of the chain; notes, however, can't be overdubbed here.
Now let's start looking at Kinetic in detail. Though I'll be talking about individual bits of the program, it's worth always remembering that a Part — a single track, if you like — consists of a Groove Mixer channel, a sound source, effects, MIDI or audio data and automation. They cannot be separated.
Starting at the top, we have the Groove Mixer and Groove Picker. The latter is used to choose a Groove for playback, and also houses the Groove transport controls — there is a dedicated transport for the Song Arranger. Song tempo, swing level and Groove position (in beats) are also displayed here. There is no on-screen time signature parameter, but this can be changed (between 1/8 and 99/32!) under the Edit menu.
Clicking in a Groove Mixer channel selects one of 16 Parts for editing. What is visible in the large space in the middle of the display depends on which Part Editor button you've clicked in the side bar to the left of the main screen. The buttons are labelled:
- Choose Pattern & Patch: if you want to work with the dozens of preset MIDI and audio Patterns, go to this option. The middle screen is divided in two, and in the left half, you can work through a hierarchy of Patterns: select a type, followed by a style, followed by the Pattern itself. If you select an audio loop, the Groove Player Engine is loaded automatically. Choose a MIDI loop, though, and you'll have to go to the Patch Selector window to the right and choose an instrument, together with the Patch it'll play. Again, you navigate a three-tier list, starting with instrument type, musical style and then the Patch itself. At this level, there is no distinction between PSyn and Groovesynth: you simply choose the Patch you want based on the hierarchy's criteria.
In the upper right of both windows, there are tiny icons. In the Pattern selector, these allow you to open a new Pattern from anywhere on your hard drive (and it's with this icon that you load your own WAV files, confusingly), create a new Pattern, and save your own Patterns for use later. Likewise, the Patch selector allows you to save your own Patches.
- Edit Pattern: The middle screen now turns into a large Pattern editor, with 'Step' and 'Advanced' (real-time) options; Advanced presents the display in terms of bars and beats. Notes can be manually input or recorded via MIDI here, in either mode, and automation can also be drawn in. Volume, pan, mute, any MIDI controller and Kinetic instrument and effect parameters can be easily handled here, appearing as shaded columns behind the note grid. Painting notes and drawing automation, using dedicated tools, can be a little tricky to get used to, but a little display above the note or drum name column to the left of the grid flashes the current note name or controller value; strangely, it flashes note names even when you're inputting drum hits, when I'd rather expect to see drum names. Step resolution has its own control, and the display can be set to anything between a bar and a 128th note, with dotted and tripled options. The step size never changes in the display, though: you simply have to do a little more scrolling to access all the steps at the finer resolutions. In the Advanced Editor, this step duration control is joined by a snap resolution parameter; it can be disabled so that your performance is not pre-quantised as you record it. An abbreviated Pattern selector is also visible, should you wish to explore different presets.
If the currently selected part is an audio loop, then the Pattern Editor window displays that Part's audio file. There's not a lot you can do to the file itself, but mix and effect parameters can be automated here.
- Edit Patch: The central display becomes somewhat sparse. There's a compact Patch selector display, but the currently selected sound source appears as a little icon, with a handful of 'quick edit' knobs, in a strip across the middle of the display dubbed the Adaptive Controller Pane (ACP) by Cakewalk. According to the documentation, the quick edit knobs are user-definable — you should be able to assign your choice of PSyn or Groovesynth parameters to the knobs. In practice, this facility is missing from the version of Kinetic reviewed. The quick edit knobs can be easily assigned to external MIDI controllers, though. If the current Part is playing a sample, whether Acid format or ordinary WAV, then a Groove Player Panel appears, with no controls. Double-click on PSyn or Groovesynth, however, and a full front panel pops up in a floating window.
Kinetic 's integrated nature is further in evidence here: each Part is equipped with an effect and processing sub-window, called the Audio FX Bin. Simply select effects from the drop-down menu, and they're chained together; a new effect is alway placed in front of the currently selected effect. A little bit of window is given to four parameters for the currently selected effect, but if you double-click on the little box that represents an effect in the chain, an editing window pop-up appears. With the basic Kinetic effects, this may simply show the same four parameters in more accessible form, but some effects show in much more graphic detail. What you see depends on what you've got installed in your system, and which other Cakewalk products you own, since many Direct X plug-in effects will be compatible with Kinetic. In the case of the effect quick edit knobs, it is possible to assign any effect parameter to them, for quick customisation.
- Edit All: With this option, everything appears on screen, often in abbreviated form. But, surprisingly, the result is not crowded or unusable. The overview offered is valuable, and lets you quickly work with Patches and effects while recording or tweaking Patterns and so on.
The remainder of the window is given over to the Song Arranger. This is a strange, thin strip across the bottom of the display. It can't be stretched to make editing easier — as mentioned earlier, controller data and automation can be recorded here — but one soon gets used to the situation. The Song Arranger has its own set of tools, plus its own transport bar and location display (bars and beats). A loop can be set in the Song Arranger, either for creative purposes or to cycle a section while overdubbing mix data.
- Windows 2000 or XP.
- 800MHz or faster processor.
- 256MB RAM.
- 180MB free hard disk space.
- 16-bit colour monitor with 800 x 600 or better resolution.
- CD-ROM drive for installation.
- Windows-compatible soundcard and MIDI interface.
PSyn will be familiar to long-term SOS readers as a significant element from within Project 5. It's a four-voice analogue-style synth, capable of up to 64-voice polyphony. It's a highly programmable synth, and is almost as complex as the rest of Kinetic put together. Given Kinetic 's Rewire capabilities, one might almost be tempted to suggest that the £99 price tag is worth it for accessing PSyn — in fact 16 PSyn s at once — from whichever Rewire host you might be using!
PSyn is modular in the sense that different parts of the synth can be disabled if not required, and doing so saves on processor overhead. Let's start with the four oscillators. First of all, you have a choice of six waveshapes — sine, triangle, square, positive and negative sawtooth and noise — with width and phase controls. Comprehensive tuning controls are provided, along with depth controls for EG and LFO. The icing on the cake is that each of these oscillators is equipped with a sub-oscillator! Quite remarkably heavy and rich sounds can be created with just a single oscillator, and multiple-oscillator tricks such as sync, frequency modulation and ring modulation are also offered — at times, you'd hardly believe you were programming a subtractive synth emulation!
The synth also comes with a pair of filters, which can be used in serial or parallel; both offer cutoff and resonance controls, but the first is a 12dB/octave device, with high-pass, low-pass, band-reject and band-pass options, while the second is a 24dB/octave low-pass filter. No fewer than five six-stage envelope generators are on board, along with three comprehensive tempo-sync'able LFOs — the same waveform options as provided by the audio oscillators are available here, along with delay, phase, depth and other controls. Comprehensive modulation routing is available, along with a portamento control.
And to finish it off, PSyn can store eight banks of 128 presets, independently of Kinetic 's own Patch system. A Kinetic Patch, whether for PSyn or Groovesynth, consists of the synth, knob settings, plus effects complement. If there's one thing I could say against PSyn it's that Kinetic 's documentation seems a little light on background on the synth. A newcomer wanting to go deeper would be at a bit of a loss, though it has to be said that the 'blindly turning knobs' approach taught me a lot in my early hardware synth days!
I was confused, initially, about what effects were provided with Kinetic, since all the Direct X plug-ins I had in my system showed up as choices — which is good! But basically, the software largely duplicates the set provide with Project 5. The latter's Studioverb 2 is missing, replaced by a much simpler reverb, but the rest is the same. Thus, you find a tempo delay, mod filter, parametric EQ, high-frequency stimulator, compressor/gate, chorus/flanger, plus the nifty Spectra FX, which is missing from P5. The last is a great multi-effects processor with graphic X-Y controller. Quality is good, and editability is often more than what you'd expect. If you're a Sonar user, you may find you have more effects available.
There's a lot less to say about Groovesynth, as welcome as it is. It's largely preset in that from within the synth, the user can only call up one of the 400 patches. There are a range of parameter offset controls, though, so customisation is possible to a reasonable degree.
Filter cutoff frequency and resonance controls are there, along with three-stage envelope, vibrato (LFO), portamento and tuning knobs. Further sound modification is available through the application of 'Character' and three-band EQ.
That sums up standard voices. Drums are slightly different. Filter and EQ are provided, but only as global tweaks: making changes affects all sounds in a kit. It is possible to alter the level, pan position and coarse/fine tuning of individual voices within a kit, but I would have liked a little more.
Like PSyn, Groovesynth is somewhat underdocumented in Kinetic 's soft and hard manuals, but the up side is that both benefit from complete automation: simply pop a Pattern into record while the floating synth window is active, and any knob tweaks you make will be recorded into the Pattern. Easy.
There's nothing much to say about the Groove Player Engine, since it has no editable parameters. You can easily bring your own audio into the program, to be played by the GPE, but if you want new Acid-format material, you'll need Acid: Kinetic can't process the audio for you. The audio supplied consists solely of drum loops in many styles: it's a good variety, and should keep the casual user happy for quite some time. The supplied MIDI loops are largely drawn from Roland's Groovebox library, and are also very good. If you're not confident of your skills in, say, creating drum patterns, then having a library such as this to hand will both save the day and be quite instructional.
I started off with a bad feeling about Kinetic — the packaging and promotional material didn't work for me. But as soon as it was installed, I realised we had something that had more depth than the average loop tracker. The option to use it via a Rewire host opens up more options, and the fact that Direct X plug-ins are compatible means that effects will seldom be a sticking point; VST plug-ins can be used via an optional adaptor. You'd expect to be able to bounce a mix to disk, and you can, as a WAV file. MP3 export is available as an option. It's also possible to export individual Grooves, which is a great option for someone like me who quite enjoys messing with loops in a sound-design sort of way; I can always bounce something sonically interesting before I carry on tweaking.
The newcomer will find much to entertain them, and any budding DJ will find the preset material to work in a good range of contemporary styles. You will create instant, happening tracks, quickly. But I hope that such users are intrigued enough by the creation process to dig just a little deeper, as there is a very capable, and great-sounding, tool under the surface.