Digidesign's latest virtual instrument is a multitimbral monster devoted to chewing up loops, beats and phrases and spitting them out as finished tracks.
I've been buying a lot of vintage drum machines lately for a project I'm starting in the New Year. Pride of place goes to my brand-old TR808. Sounds aside, what make it so good to use are the 16 little buttons that run along the bottom of the machine. Building up whole rhythms from scratch in that manner is brilliant fun; it makes you feel like you're actually making something of worth. It requires effort and thought and the reward is, in this case, banging slices of early '80s New York Electro soaked in sub–bass, which make my studio weep and my neighbours angry.
And it's the same boyish enthusiasm for simplicity, immediacy and excitement that draws me to the latest release from Digidesign's increasingly renowned Advanced Instrument Research division: Transfuser. It's an innovative plug–in rather akin to having lots of little virtual 808s in a box, except that it doesn't just do drums, but also whole musical phrases, beats, instrumental loops, vocals and pretty much anything else that you care to hoik out of the creative nerve centres of your brain and into its eager little beat–munging jaws.
Actually, the idea of Transfuser is probably closer to a virtual Akai MPC production workstation than anything else. You can sample into it, assign things to virtual pads, time–stretch, pitch–shift, filter, slice, mangle, vocode, layer and tempo–lock them, put together entire arrangements and then send the whole kit and caboodle through a set of extremely sexy effects, including a truly smile–inducing thing called Beatcutter, which I'll return to later.
Installation is a piece of cake, and speedy, as Transfuser's core library is just 2GB in size. That might sound stingy in today's world of 50GB multisampled Octiventral Heebyphone libraries, but when you consider that these are reasonably short loops and phrases that are designed to be cut about and put back together again in new and exciting ways, there is plenty, and I really mean plenty to get stuck into. Don't forget, too, that Transfuser's not a closed shop: you can pull your own library of loops and sounds into it, so the actual amount of audio at your disposal is infinite. It supports REX, Acid, WAV and AIFF files, and you can even drag audio directly from Pro Tools tracks or from the Region List of your Pro Tools Session into Transfuser. This is a great bit of integration that also helps make Digidesign's Structure software sampler such a pleasure to use. Authorisation is via iLok, and Transfuser will work with any up–to–date Pro Tools system on Mac or PC.
The view that greets you initially is one of emptiness and potential. To the left is the browser pane, where six tabs take you to all of the places where your libraries are hiding. Click 'factory' and a list of Transfuser's own folders full of audio in various categories will appear. These include urban drum loops, dance drum loops, breakbeats, percussion loops, bass lines, string loops, ethnic loops, synth pads, hits, vox, single–note sounds — pretty much everything you need in order to get going and start Transfusing.The samples preview at whatever tempo your master session is set to, so you can play things in on the fly to see how they'll sound without having to drag them into the sequencer window, which is very handy and shows thought on the part of the designers.
Going through the sounds, however, it's a bit of a mixed bag. The loops are very good, although I'm sure I heard one or two from those three garishly coloured Zero–G sample CDs full of loops and movie grabs that we all used to death back in the mid–'90s. Still, it's nice to see them again and meet their kids. The little cut–up bits from what sound like old bebop and big–band jazz records, amongst other things, are particularly good, very musical and highly inspirational. The vocal phrases all seem to be playing back either too fast or too slow when previewed, so you either get Benjy The Cheeky Mouse or Gort, The Antelope Of Doom, which makes it hard to hear them in context before importing.
The brass and strings contain very comprehensive sets of phrases, solo licks, 'baps' and 'pows', for want of a better description. Some of them seem obviously time–stretched or gritty, but this can make for an interesting effect, and of course it's unreasonable to expect a brass loop that may have been recorded at 140bpm work in a track at 80bpm, 11 semitones up, however good your time–stretcher is.
Once you've selected your victim from the list, you simply drag it to the tracks pane that occupies the rest of the upper half of the plug–in window, to be mangled to your own specification. As you drag the audio across you're given a choice as to what kind of track you want, and Transfuser creates a series of 'modules' that are used to control it. Sliced Audio chops your audio up into little chunks that you can re-order, pitch, reverse and tweak individually, Time–stretched Audio beat–matches a loop or phrase to the host tempo of your Session, and Drum Kit assigns the individual sounds within your loop to a set of 12 virtual pads, from which you can play your own rhythms, MPC–style. Cleverly, Transfuser will do this with audio loops as well as MIDI, making an educated guess as to what drums are what.
Beneath the tracks pane are the controller section and the master section. The former contains a little keyboard, six controller knobs that Digidesign call Smart Knobs, and eight virtual pads. The Smart Knobs can be assigned to control just about aything from anywhere within Transfuser, by learning Continuous Controller messages sent from your MIDI keyboard: right–click while hovering over the knob of choice, twiddle the desired button, knob or key on your controller, and the job's a good 'un. Digidesign, not surprisingly, recommend the M–Audio range of MIDI controllers for use with Transfuser; these do have a generous selection of buttons, pads, knobs and keys, so this is more than just a shameless plug. I don't have one, however, and my Roland Fantom G is in Devon getting a new paint job, so I used a Yamaha Motif XS. This did the job very well, although when I tried to assign the assignable buttons on the XS, they behaved in a latched manner rather than a momentary one, so a controller with drum pads or trigger pads would be more suitable for some of the features within Transfuser.
The 'note range keyboard' is a four–octave virtual keyboard that shows how the keys on your physical keyboard are assigned to Transfuser functions. The first octave triggers up to 12 different preset or user–defined sequencer patterns that control the audio in the tracks pane, enabling you to build up complex arrangements just by the order in which you press the keys. Best of all, you can export these sequences directly into Pro Tools MIDI and Instrument tracks just by picking them up and dropping them in the desired location.
Notes in the other octaves serve a variety of functions, depending on what sort of track and module they're in charge of at that particular time. These include triggering individual slices from drum loops and playing back phrase sequences in different keys. You can change the note range that a particular track uses, and assign tracks to different MIDI channels if you run out of keys.
Next to this are eight wee trigger pads, which can be used to trigger yet more groups of sequences, loops and notes, in any combination you care to assign. A neat touch is that Transfuser modules can be set up to output to either of two output buses, with a crossfader enabling you to mix between them. I think it's safe to say at this point that Digidesign are keen to ensure you don't run out of options when using this plug–in.
Finally, the master section is where it all starts and stops, literally. Each track has start, stop and latch buttons for running your loops independently, but the master section contains the mother of all start/stop buttons. Everything else takes its cue from here. There's also a global pitch control, as well as volume and a master groove quantise control, with the option to import groove templates direct from Pro Tools or design your own.
Below the master section and the note range keyboard controls is the editor pane, which shows an expanded view of whichever module is selected. These include excellent effects (see 'Transfuser Effects' box) and three different sequence editors. Drum tracks get a 16–step sequencer very much in the style of a classic Roland drumbox, while the phrase editor and the separate slice editor are very much like the standard MIDI editor you get in a MIDI track in Pro Tools, although you can control filter, pitch and pan, amongst other parameters, simultaneously. Common to all these editors is the ever–so–slightly butch–sounding MARIO, which stands for Musical Advanced Random Intelligent Operations (quite why companies have the need to create such preposterous acronyms is beyond me). MARIO is basically a musical randomiser that adds notes to your sequence according to how wild you let it be. To be honest, all MARIO did for me was bugger up my lovely tracks with a load of random rubbish, so he was quickly sent home to think about the error of his ways. If I want musical variation, I'll do it myself, thank you very much.
You can even re–record your arrangement back into Transfuser by clicking the Rec button on the master transport for infinite lossless re-recording and overdubbing. The resulting audio can then be dragged up into the track pane and treated like any other bit of audio ready for yet more bedraggling. The Beatles would have loved it.
To be honest, there's so much that Transfuser is capable of I'd have to take you all on holiday for a week and go through it with you to cover it all. I haven't even touched on the track automation, for example: suffice to say it's very deep and very capable. Even the manual advises you to get in there, muck about with it and revel in the happy accidents. Of which there are many to be had.
However, perhaps because of its depth, I did find Transfuser to be a little daunting to begin with. The layout is not as intuitive as it could be, and it doesn't present many clues to the uninitiated as to how it works. When I'm reviewing gear, I like to start off without a manual to see how far I get, then have a good read–through in case there are any special features that I've missed. With Transfuser I had my head in the PDF after about 10 minutes.
The GUI is pretty cramped, too, once you start getting a bit of track action going on. With the default window size, you start scrolling up and down in the tracks pane after inserting just two track modules; this is easily rectified by grabbing the bottom of the plug–in window and dragging it downwards, but a bug with the resize function left a ghost rectangle sitting across my Pro Tools Edit window a few times, which would not be moved no matter what I tried. Also, almost every time I did some resizing, the bottom of the plug–in lost its narrow white frame, thus disabling the drag function until I shut the plug–in window and re-opened it. To my ageing old eyes, the writing in places — especially the first small box to the left of each module — is pretty much unintelligible, but then I do have my monitor resolution set to 2560 x 1600, so I can have a big track count visible when I'm using Pro Tools.
Once you get going, however, there'll be no stopping you. Is there anything else like it? I guess you could think of it as a type of mini Propellerhead Reason, but Transfuser is much more 'groove'–based and less like a studio in a box. It's probably more like having a multitimbral, multi–module version of Spectrasonics' Stylus, but with a more comprehensive interface, editing features and effects. I use Stylus a lot even after all this time and it does feel somewhat similar in operation, but there's an argument forming in my head that could see Transfuser getting just as much action in my studio as Stylus does from now on. Considering how much I take Stylus for granted, that's praise indeed.
Interestingly, the Dictionary definition of 'transfuse' is to pour out of one vessel into another. If you take one vessel to be inspiration and the other to be cup full of fun and results, I'd say Transfuser was a most fitting name for this little monster.
Each track in Transfuser can have its own set of up to four simultaneous effects, either in series or in parallel. So if you've got a 12–track pattern running, each track can have its own dedicated set of effects running alongside. And the effects are good. Very, very good. It's not as if they're particularly ground–breaking, but there's something incredibly musical about them, for want of a better word. The phaser is lovely, as is the Kill EQ effect, which is basically the trick that DJs do where they kill all the bottom end of a track to create little 'drops' before a big chorus, and there's also the superb Lo–Fi, which is far better than the Lo–Fi plug–in included in Digidesign's D–Fi pack. You get anti–aliasing options, pre–filter, post–filter and clip settings as well as noise, an LFO and an envelope generator amongst other things. In short: it's super–chunky.
The best effect of all, though, is Beatcutter, which enables you to chop audio about in real time. It clocks to the master Session, and can freeze, 'scratch', re-order and gate your audio. The scratching uses a lot of pitch–shifting to simulate a record slowing down to a stop and then speeding back up again. It's brilliant fun and sounds great. Freezing grabs a tiny grain of the audio and repeats it in time with the tempo, giving you a series of buzzes and whirrs — which, again, is very engaging. Re-order grabs divisions of the loop and mixes them up so you get a random remix of your loop, which is very good with vocals, for example. Lastly, there's the gate function which turns your mix into a choppy wonder and is great for sustained pad sounds.
What's best of all is that you can select 'bypass' mode for the modules and just use Transfuser as a giant effects plug–in. I was running the Beatcutter effect across an ambient drone I had going against a breakbeat I'd programmed on Superior Drummer, all within Pro Tools. It was gobstoppingly good and I wasn't even really trying. The only down side I can see is that everybody will be doing it, so you'd better get in quick if you want to secure your place in pop history!