Software instruments are flexible, upgradeable, and frequently offer better user interfaces, while hardware offers better tactile feedback and is easier to use live. But what if you could combine the plus points of both? Enter the Noah...
One of the oldest criticisms levelled at computer-based music systems concerns their use in live situations, where stability and reliability are of paramount importance — factors that some people have problems associating with computers. This is becoming less of an issue with modern, stable operating systems such as Windows XP and Mac OS X, as evidenced by the number of musicians now taking to the stage with laptops. However, there are still some things you just can't do with a laptop — the most obvious being that you can't use PCI cards. This means that if you want to use a DSP card in a live setup, such as Universal Audio's UAD1, TC's original Powercore or Creamware's SCOPE (not forgetting Digidesign's TDM-based Pro Tools systems) you really have to use a desktop computer, or attempt to tame an expansion chassis.
TC have now come up with a solution for this situation in the form of a Firewire-based Powercore system, which goes some way towards solving the problem of using computer-based DSP systems without having to bring your desktop computer along for the ride. However, you do still need a computer to drive the Firewire Powercore, of course, which doesn't do much for those people who'd rather not use a computer in the first place. And it's not just in live situations where computers have traditionally not been welcome — some people simply don't want to use a computer in the studio, or they don't want the computer to be at the centre of everything, running instruments, effects, mixers, and the program to generate the week's lottery numbers.
This situation leads to an interesting paradox: musicians want to be able to use the instruments and effects available for computer-based systems, with or without additional DSP power, but not every musician wants to use a computer in every situation. Two companies have announced products to cater for this need: Manifold Labs, whose Plugzilla is a stand-alone rack unit capable of running a selection of VST plug-in instruments and effects, and Creamware, whose new Noah is the focus of this review.
Creamware's SCOPE Fusion Platform (SFP) was reviewed in last month's issue of SOS; and as regular readers will be aware, it's a platform that utilises SHARC DSP chips to run an environment supporting a range of virtual devices, including mixers, instruments and effects. Until now, the SFP has run on Creamware's family of PCI cards, using a host computer to provide a user interface. However, since the code for the SFP devices is written specifically for SHARC DSP chips, rather than for the host's Motorola or Intel processor, it would, in theory, be possible to build a stand-alone platform to host the SFP, doing away with the need for a computer — and this is exactly what Creamware have done to create Noah.
It's worth pointing out that although the Noah is an open platform, in that it can run different devices, conceptually it's not that different to any other DSP-based synth currently available, such as the Access Virus, Clavia Nord Lead, and so on. The big difference is that where these instruments are designed for a single purpose, Noah's open design gives it the potential to be any instrument Creamware can dream up, whether that's today or a year from now.
Noah's chameleon-like nature creates something of marketing problem for Creamware: how do you sell an instrument that has the potential to be any instrument? The answer lies in the first instruments Creamware have chosen to ship with the Noah — since the company has a great deal of experience in modelling classic synths, the Noah concept is based around the idea of providing an ark for all your favourite synths. Ark, Noah; get it? Well, it's worth remembering that Germans are as noted for their sense of humour as we English are for our extravagant national cuisine. Although, perhaps not by coincidence, we were experiencing torrential rain when the Noah arrived at the SOS office...
Noah is available in two versions: Noah and Noah EX. Both are 2U rack units — the original plans for a keyboard version seem to have been put on hold at present. Indeed, the only difference between the two current models, as we'll investigate later, is that Noah has six DSP chips (the same as Creamware's Pulsar II card), while Noah EX has 10. We were sent a Noah EX for review, although I'll refer to both models generically when I talk about 'Noah' in this review, unless otherwise stated.
The front panel has a fairly distinctive appearance with a metallic silver finish screen-printed in navy blue, and rounded off with a 2 x 40 LCD display, a Compact Flash card slot, some buttons, and a set of rotary controllers, which are coloured, rather tastefully, in black, white, and, er, yellow. To be fair, Noah is quite pleasant to look at, although some of the controls — the four yellow rotary controllers in particular — aren't stepped and do feel a little bit fragile given its overall cost, which raised a few eyebrows amongst colleagues in the SOS office. However, I didn't have an issue with these controllers when I was using Noah — it was the headphone control that had my eyebrows adopting a more Vulcan-like shape.
On the front panel is a quarter-inch headphone jack with an associated volume control that doubles as a button for triggering previews of the currently selected instrument and preset. I never knew it was possible to be intimidated by a headphone volume control before using the Noah, but for some reason Creamware have opted to use the same type of endless rotary controller they do for Noah's other front-panel knobs, providing no obvious indication of how loud the headphone output is going to be. The plus side is that the headphone level will always be the same as you left it when you last switched off Noah, regardless of whether you've accidentally touched the headphone control in the interim — the down side is that you won't actually know whether this level will be set to silence or ear-shredding before it's too late.
Turning our attention to the back panel, we find Noah's fairly comprehensive selection of inputs and outputs. For audio, there's two pairs of left and right mono quarter-inch jacks for analogue I/O, with a gain switch to change the sensitivity of the analogue inputs between -10dB and -24dB. When it comes to digital audio connections, there's a dual-purpose S/PDIF-ADAT output, but no 'conventional' digital input at all (there's a computer-based workaround, though, as I'll explain in a moment). This is mostly excusable, since Noah is primarily designed for playing synths, but as it can also act as an effects unit, it seems a shame that the only way you can get audio into Noah without a computer is via an analogue input.
Noah has a built-in power supply with a fan, although it's pretty quiet — you'd notice the fan if you were in a room with just Noah, but it's not at all distracting in the studio. Rounding off the rollercoaster ride that is the back-panel connections are a BNC word-clock input, a footswitch jack, MIDI In, Out, and Thru connections, and a USB port.
While the introduction to this review described the Noah as an instrument that doesn't require a computer, which is true, it's still possible to connect Noah to a Windows-based computer, enabling you to edit and prepare patches using the same attractive on-screen interface designs as if you were running a PCI-based SCOPE system (see the Remote Control box for more information).
But the USB connection does more than just facilitate editing by remote-control — Noah can also act as a MIDI and audio interface for your PC, potentially eliminating the need for an additional computer interface. Although Noah is designed to help musicians do away with a computer in some situations, ironically, it also has great promise for being the centrepiece of a computer-based production system — a Noah with a laptop would be a great portable system for SFP instruments, for example.
At this point, I just want to mention that despite Creamware's advertising for Noah, where the unit is pictured with a sexy Apple G4 Powerbook, I didn't leave anything out in the last paragraph where I mentioned connecting Noah to a Windows-based computer. Unfortunately, Mac support isn't here yet, so Mac users really will have to use Noah as a stand-alone device, although support is planned in the not-too-distant future.
As mentioned just now, Noah can also be used as the world's most expensive MIDI interface, although the serial MIDI (five-pin) ports on the unit and the MIDI I/O via the USB connection are treated as two separate devices. This allows for a degree of flexibility in that you can trigger different parts of Noah from different MIDI interfaces, but, by default, your computer won't receive MIDI input from a keyboard attached to Noah until you route that input to USB.
When it comes to using Noah as an audio interface, the USB interface provides two inputs (as a stereo pair) from the computer to the Noah, and six outputs (as three stereo pairs) from the Noah to the computer. While the Noah doesn't have any digital inputs, as discussed earlier, it's possible to get around this by using your USB connection. However, Noah's aspiration to be at the centre of your computer-based setup is currently hampered by the lack of ASIO drivers — only ordinary Windows audio drivers are provided at the moment. ASIO drivers 'are planned for a later release', according to the manual, but I was a little disappointed by this, as it does limit Noah's current usefulness as an audio interface.
While some could argue that a device in Noah's price range should really use Firewire, or at least USB 2, instead of USB 1.1, it's worth remembering that there are still some platform issues with the choice of interface at this time. Only the most recent Windows-based computers have USB 2 or Firewire connections, and while all Macs have Firewire ports these days, there aren't many Macs with USB 2 connections, so USB 1.1 is actually the most logical choice for a cross-platform device. Those who require eight outputs from the Noah could always get a cheap ADAT soundcard and use Noah's ADAT out port, for example.
One of the design points of the Noah that surprised me was the fact that every function and parameter is accessible from the front-panel controls. Before actually using Noah, I had previously thought of it in a similar way to an instrument like Clavia's Nord Modular, for example, where a computer was required for full editing, and the unit itself would be more of a 'playback' device when used in stand-alone mode. But every function and parameter is indeed accessible from the front-panel controls, which presents both advantages and also a couple of disadvantages.
On the plus side, when you aren't using Noah with the computer-based remote-control software, you can make any adjustment you like to the instrument without having to get annoyed that you don't have your laptop alongside. The disadvantages are that getting to every parameter through the menu system requires a little practice, and what you can do with the Noah is limited to whatever's possible from the front panel, unlike the Nord Modular, for example, where the computer unlocks the instrument's full potential. However, this isn't meant as a criticism to Noah's designers, since I was surprised to find that the interface was reasonably easy to use once I got my head around the way the menus were laid out. One of the things I discovered during this process was that in addition to being able to play an instrument's preset from an attached MIDI keyboard or, when Noah is hooked up to your computer, from a PC-based sequencer, you can also select from two other sound trigger sources: an arpeggiator and a step sequencer.
The challenge Creamware faced with Noah was how to take the open-ended DSP architecture seen in the SFP and adapt it for use in the Noah's more rigid architecture, which is suitable for a stand-alone instrument. One of the great advantages of the SFP is that very few limitations are placed on what the user can achieve: any number of objects can be created and routed to (and through) any other object, until you run out of DSP power. However, such flexibility would be unsuitable for a stand-alone instrument, where the user requires a certain degree of predictability — if you're playing the Noah with a certain amount of polyphony, you don't want this to change if you add an effect, for example. And similarly, you wouldn't want an error reporting that all your DSP resources were used when trying to add an effect.
So to make Noah predictable to the user, Creamware have indeed designed a more rigid architecture. This means that Noah has less flexibility than a computer-based SCOPE system, but also that Noah is far easier to use and understand, which may endear it to some musicians who previously found the SFP too complicated.
Noah's DSP resources are divided into a series of so-called 'slots', and each slot can either be used independently, supporting one instrument with up to two insert effects, or linked to another slot to give more resources to a single instrument. And since Creamware's instruments get through more DSP power than Nanette Newman does dirty dishes, the number of slots is quite small: Noah has two slots and Noah EX offers four slots, which makes these devices two- and four-part multitimbral respectively.
When Noah uses each available slot to run a different instrument, this mode of operation is known as Multi Mode. However, as I've already mentioned, slots can be linked together to give more DSP resources to a single instrument, giving you more polyphony for that instrument, and when all of Noah's slots are linked to run just one instrument, this is known as Single Mode. The difference between Multi and Single mode is easily understood on the two-slot Noah, since you either have two slots running two instruments (Multi Mode), or two slots running one instrument (Single Mode). But with the four-slot Noah EX, these modes become a little more interesting.
Single Mode on Noah EX is exactly the same as Single Mode on Noah, in that all slots are used to run a single instrument — the only difference is that whereas Single Mode gives you double the DSP power on Noah, it gives you quadruple the DSP power on Noah EX. However, in addition to being able to run four independent instruments in Multi Mode with a Noah EX, you can also link the available slots in any configuration required. For example, you could link the first two slots and run one instrument with double the DSP resources, while still using two additional instruments independently in slots three and four. You could group slots one and two, and slots three and four, which would effectively give you the equivalent of two standard Noahs in Single Mode; and, finally, you could group slots one to three together, running one instrument with triple the normal DSP resources, and leave slot four to handle a second instrument with the usual single slot of DSP power.
While Noah's slot-based architecture is obviously important, the most crucial factor overall is whether the devices included to run within these slots are actually any good, and the short answer is: they are. The slightly longer answer is that Noah currently includes eight devices, consisting of six instruments and two advanced effects.
The instruments, as mentioned earlier, are mostly recreations of classic synths, including Minimax (the Minimoog emulation to die for, as reviewed in last month's SOS) Lightwave (a wavetable synth based on the Prophet VS), Vectron Player (a vector synthesis instrument), B2003 (a Hammond B3 model), Pro One (a recreation of the classic Sequential Circuits synth, which is an optional instrument shipping free with Noah until the end of June) and Six String (a physically modelled guitar synth). Although Noah includes a healthy dedicated effects section (which runs in addition to the slot system, and of which more in a moment), two of the effects, Vocodiser and Interpole, are rather more hungry and are required to run within a slot.
Lightwave uses two wavetable oscillators that model the waveshaping technology used in the Prophet VS. The oscillators are mixed together before being passed through two flexible 12dB-per-octave filters, used either in series or parallel. However, it's in the modulation department that Lightwave really shines at creating interesting sounds. Here you can use a variety of sources for modulation, including two LFOs, a multi-stage envelope generator, and most MIDI controllers.
Vectron Player is an instrument that uses vector synthesis, where you can mix the output of four oscillators with a joystick-like control in a way that's conceptually similar to a surround panner. The joystick is implemented across two of Noah's yellow front-panel knobs, or as an on-screen vector control in Noah's remote-control software. As the name suggests, Vectron Player can only play back existing presets, but even though you can't create your own, this instrument still provides a great deal of interesting sonic possibilities.
B2003 is a useful Hammond B3 emulation that models 92 tonewheels, key-click, percussion, overdrive and the famous Leslie rotary speaker, and although it sounds good, Native Instruments have already set the standard by which others are judged with their popular B4 virtual instrument. I have to confess that I'm a not a huge Hammond aficionado — while I love that sound, the only organs I've ever played properly (in the musical sense, so no sniggering at the back) are the kind with 32-foot pipes rather than spinning speakers. However, as many other Noah users have noted, B2003 doesn't seem to have as lively a sound as B4, and although B2003 is a faithful model of a real B3, most people seem to prefer the slightly brighter sound of B4. For this reason, Creamware will shortly be updating B2003 to compensate for this, offering the original B2003 model in addition to a slightly brighter version.
Pro One is a model of Sequential Circuits' classic synth, and is based on Creamware's so-called Circuit Modelling technology, using two oscillators capable of producing different waveforms simultaneously, which are mixed with optional white noise through a 24dB-per-octave low-pass filter. You can also modulate the filter and amplifier via two ADSR envelopes. And, last but not least, Six String uses physical modelling to recreate the sound of a guitar, with two models provided for creating electric and acoustic guitar patches. While Six String isn't bad in terms of realism, a good sample is going to sound far more realistic. However, Six String shouldn't be considered the poor relation in the collection of instruments because it's capable of creating some unique sounds based on the models that were designed for more traditional guitar sounds. The included presets show off these capabilities admirably with all manner of ethnic-instrument, drone and other curious sounds.
Turning to the slot-based effects, Vocodiser is a vocoder which takes full advantage of the audio-input capabilities of Noah, enabling you to use a signal from the analogue or USB audio input as the carrier signal, and while it sounds like an organisation devoted to combating international crime, Interpole is actually a rather cool filter that also utilises Creamware's Circuit Modelling process to model the design of an analogue 24dB-per-octave low-pass cascading filter. Interpole is especially versatile, and it's great for adding an analogue character to incoming signals and making sounds more interesting with its modulation abilities.
Although the bundled devices are generally excellent, there's unfortunately no way to run any of Creamware's other synths on Noah at the moment, since a little bit of tweaking is required to make an existing SFP device Noah-compatible. As a result, the only Noah-compatible devices currently available are those supplied with the unit itself. One Creamware instrument I would love to see running on Noah is Modular 3, although I imagine that this would also be the most complex instrument to port. However, to get around the issue of every parameter being accessible from the front panel, which would surely be impossible with Modular 3, it would be great if you could build your Modular patches on the computer and have only the 'playback' controls available on Noah, as on Clavia's Nord Modular.
Noah's Mixer is pretty flexible, supporting from three to six channels (depending on whether you're in Single or Multi Mode), which are routed to a stereo Master/Mix channel: one to four channels for the slots, a channel for the stereo analogue input, and a channel for the stereo USB input from the host computer. Each of these channels, including the Master/Mix channel, can be routed to any of the available ADAT, USB or analogue outputs, giving you eight stereo output pairs in total.
When it comes to effects, Noah's send effects are hard-wired as reverb, chorus and delay; and although there's only one choice of reverb (based on Creamware's Masterverb SFP plug-in), the chorus can be switched to a flanger if required, and there are five types of delay to choose from, taken from Creamware's extensive collection of SFP effects. These effects are very usable and add an extra dimension to the otherwise dry synth sounds — the delay effects are particularly useful since, as with the normal SFP versions, you can set the delay times in terms of millisecond or note values, with the tempo based on the Noah's internal setting or an incoming MIDI Clock signal.
Each channel on the Mixer has three auxiliary send controls, and there are three master send controls on the Mix channel to control the overall amount of signal being sent to the effects, rather than sending a portion of the Mix channel to the effect, along with three return controls to set the level coming back from the effect, and buttons for disabling the effects altogether. Since each channel on the Mixer can be routed to a different output, it seems a shame that the output of the auxiliary effects can only be routed to the Mix channel, and the obvious workaround — routing a channel to a different output from the Mix channel so you're only left with the effects on the Mix output — doesn't actually work.
Noah also allows for the use of two insert effects from a choice of 35 (see the Effects Rack box for more information), and although there is a selection of chorus and flanger effects here, you can't use a reverb or delay as an insert effect. Although each channel, including the Mix channel, can accommodate two insert effects, only two insert effects can be used on the Noah Mixer simultaneously. This means if a channel is using the first insert effect, no other channel can use the first insert effect space without it being reassigned from the other channel, although there's no problem in using the first insert effect space for an effect on one channel and the second insert effect space for another channel.
While the way in which effects are allocated in Noah sounds potentially limiting at first, it didn't appear to be when actually using the unit. While Creamware could arguably have allowed the user to run more effects when only a single slot is in use, for example, this would have complicated the use of the instrument, making the experience less predictable, as discussed earlier. As it stands, you know you're always guaranteed five effects, no matter what you do with Noah.
A further nice touch with the mixer and effects is the ability for them to be automated via MIDI Controllers, as described in the Technical Reference Manual. The functions of the instruments, arpeggiator and step sequencer can also be similarly automated. In the case of the mixer and auxiliary effects, these generate outgoing and respond to incoming MIDI data, which can be configured in the MIDI Manager, part of the computer-based Noah remote-control software described in the Remote Control box.
There isn't anything I really don't like about Noah, and there are many, many things I do like. Nevertheless, there are a handful of issues that have stuck in my mind, preventing me from writing the unabashed praise I'd be tempted to write by just listening to the sounds coming from the unit. On the one hand, Noah is a great concept done well: the remote-control software adds a great degree of flexibility, the built-in audio and MIDI USB interface is a nice touch, and the instruments sound great, which is surely the most important point.
On the other hand, there are some niggles with the first versions of the operating system. Creamware claim to have fixed these in the v1.3 firmware upgrade, but there wasn't time to test this during the review period (see the 'Stop Press' box above). I also heard from other users who've had their Noahs already that there have been some clocking oddities and incompatibilities with the remote-control software itself — but it's important to point out that I didn't experience any of this with the Noah unit SOS was sent. The current lack of Mac support is a shame, since so many musicians use Apple-based laptops, and the USB audio interface aspirations hadn't fully materialised at the time of this review, with the ASIO drivers just approaching the beta stage. However, I think I'd probably overlook these more minor points if the unit wasn't as expensive, or perhaps if Creamware had ported more instrument devices to Noah (which they say they plan to do at a later date when it has become more established).
Considering the price issue in more detail, with a UK retail price of £1599 for its basic version, Noah is an expensive product; and it's actually at one of those awkward prices where it's not over-priced, but neither is it the bargain of the century. For £1599, you could now buy a Clavia Nord Lead or an Access Virus, for example, or a new Nord Modular G2 with a fair bit of change for the bus ride home — and while I've made several comparisons to the Nord Modular in this review, I do think that if Creamware got Modular 3 running on Noah, it would be the potential killer application. This would allow musicians to compare Noah with the Nord Modular and say 'Hey, look how much more Noah does for only a little more money,' easing the way Noah's price tag is viewed.
The real problem with the issue of cost, in my opinion, is caused by Noah EX, because I think most people who are looking to buy a Noah will opt for the more expensive version. The reason is simple: while Noah EX costs £400 more than Noah, Noah EX effectively gives you a second Noah for that £400 (with the exception of effects); and if you were going to spend £1600 on Noah, I think you'd be mad not to buy a Noah EX instead. The point here is that the difference in price between Noah and Noah EX needs to be greater; I think lowering Noah to around £1300-£1400 would tempt more musicians to purchase the cheaper model.
However, these points aside, I don't want to end on a negative view of Noah because I really, really like it. As should have been more than apparent from the SFP review in last month's SOS, I'm a great fan of Creamware's synths, and there are many other useful practical aspects to the Noah as well. It's great being able to have such quick access to Minimax and other instruments when you just want to come up with some ideas, and you could use Noah alongside your SCOPE card for those times when you want to add a few more instruments. There's also the portability factor for live performance, which is previously unheard of in a Creamware system. I have to admit that I'm a confirmed advocate of software-based systems, and I wouldn't normally be seen dead with a 2U hardware rack unit or effects unit in my studio. However, I'd make an exception for Noah — it's a highly desirable instrument.