In case you hadn't noticed, there's a lot of competition out there in the mid-level software recording market, and it must be a thankless task for the smaller companies to avoid being overshadowed by the Big Names. French company Intuitive Works claim to have made ease of use the basis of their first product, the descriptively named Intuitive MX, but haven't forgotten to include a fresh touch with an interesting alternative mixer design, inspired, it seems, by the simple 3dmiX application bundled with the BeOS operating system. As a bit of a BeOS enthusiast, I was interested to see how this idea would work in a more fully featured recording environment (albeit a Windows-based one), and whether it would have more than novelty value.
Installation is a doddle, and including the demo song takes up about 40MB all told. Entering the serial number is all that's required by way of copy protection, though registration is necessary to download updates, and I duly found the newest version 1.2.5 on IW's web site. Perhaps to emphasise IMX's ease of use, the brief manual is a veritable masterpiece of bad translation, and dangerously contagious in its illiteracy. I decided to lay it to one side after the inspired syntax-mangling began to infect this review. On the other hand, being concise and to-the-point, it can usually be deciphered without too much confusion, providing you bear in mind that the 'erase' tool is referred to as 'gum', and the 'glue' tool as 'stick'. It'll almost be a shame if they rewrite it, thus depriving us of classics like: "Suppression [...] You can also select a zone with gum (if you click in the vacuum) and thus erase of a blow all the objects of the zone."
Starting up Intuitive MX presents you with a list of recently used projects and an open file dialogue. There's also a useful Wizard for creating new projects, which prompts you to select a project folder, followed by options such as the sample rate, bit depth, tempo and the number of tracks you'd like to start off with. (See the Audio Errata box for details of IMX's hardware setup options, but suffice to say that I found the default settings worked best with my Echo card.)
Intuitive Works have eschewed the regular Windows look in favour of their own, and whilst I usually find custom interface widgets to be slower and less intelligible than standard ones, I'll admit they've done a pretty good job in this respect. Although the menu bar at the top takes up a little too much screen space, the scroll bars are responsive and navigation feels quite snappy, even on a PC near to the minimum specs. IMX is split into three distinct workspaces, selected by the big 'switch' on the menu bar. Down each side of the main window are a selection of tabs, which open out into separate palettes when clicked, and the transport bar is immovably docked to the bottom of the screen. One thing I wasn't keen on was the program's insistence on covering the Windows Taskbar, perhaps to encourage a more immersive user experience. This is just plain annoying if you want to, say, keep an eye on the time, and if I wanted the taskbar hidden I'd enable 'auto-hide'.
The first workspace contains the Montage, which, as you'll see from the accompanying screen shots, sticks to the standard template as a canvas for arranging Sounds. The expandable tabs — or 'drawers', as the manual terms them in a rare instance of apt translation — are divided between those concerned with general project management on the left, and something more akin to the Cubase Inspector on the right. These contain virtually all the program's functionality, as the menus are empty of all but the most basic commands and the Preferences, which you only need change infrequently.
The Explorer drawer allows you to browse your computer for audio files, preview them if necessary, and drag-and-drop them into the Montage. The Soundbank contains all the references to audio files used in the current project, including those deleted from the arrangement. A nice touch is the colouring distinction between imported files and those recorded in IMX and subsequently deleted, which makes it easier to avoid cluttering up your hard drive with myriad useless WAV files. History is self-explanatory, providing an Undo record that can be skipped back and forth by clicking the last good operation, with a theoretically unlimited number of steps. This is a very welcome feature, and although the History is cleared when you close a project, it's preserved after each 'save' operation.
The Snapshot drawer has something of a dual purpose, in that it can record both display and mixer configurations. Display snapshots can preserve the position of the windows, locators, zoom level, and timeline settings to cut down on tedious manual zooming and navigation, whereas mixer snapshots store either the whole mix or parameters relating only to individual tracks. Again, these are handy features that make life easier, and seem to suggest a thoughtful approach to usability on Intuitive Works' behalf.
The drawers on the other side of the 'Recording studio' reveal a fader and effects bypass buttons for the master output and the currently selected track — a nice touch is the text box for comments — as well as parameters for selected Sounds in the Montage, such as duration and looping. There are also controls for time-stretching and pitch-shift, which I'll cover in more detail later in this review. Only the folder for storing newly recorded files can be set from the Project drawer.
The Mixing Tools and Effects workspaces have a curtailed complement of drawers, though both have a Display tab for hiding or showing individual channels. Intuitive Works' bespoke graphical interface did cause me some initial confusion in the Effects workspace, because you cannot close a VST plug-in's window without removing it from the signal path. Selecting an individual channel makes visible all the plug-in windows currently used in that track. This is a very simple concept, but it demonstrates how IW have rethought some of the orthodox methods, and in practice it proved an efficient way of navigating the mix, perhaps helping to impede the onset of RSI in my double-clicking index finger.
I found the Montage very pleasant to use, not least because it sticks to some well-known operating conventions. Each track is individually resizable, and has the usual complement of Mute, Solo, and Record Arm buttons, as well as a row of three smaller ones pertaining to effects and automation settings. When zoomed to a medium size you can also adjust each track's volume and pan without opening the mixer. The 'magnet' settings allow you to choose between various snap references (song position, locators, events, grid) and the size of the grid used. Magnetic behaviour for Sounds in the Montage is active at all time unless the Shift modifier is held down, and this worked fine for me. In addition to the usual scissors, glue, and eraser tools, there's a mute tool and a range selector, which is handy if you want to copy or delete sections that don't correspond to individual Sounds. Looping is set with left and right locators on the timeline, upon which nameable markers can also be dropped.
It's difficult to see how recording could be made much easier in Intuitive MX. Simply select the desired input from the Tracks drawer, toggle mono or stereo operation, arm the track and press Record. A metronome can be engaged if you wish, and there is an adjustable pre-roll set by default to one bar. Multiple takes can be recorded in loop mode, and compared by selecting the desired 'catch' from the right-click context menu. It's all very straight-forward and worked perfectly whether recording from single or multiple inputs, and I enjoyed this no-nonsense approach. One mainstay of the multitracker that is missing in action is a punch-in/out facility, which is a shame considering how nicely the program covers the other bases. One could well argue, however, that punching in and out is far less important on a piece of software with a maximum of 128 stereo tracks than on a hardware machine with a much smaller number of mono channels, and I found it almost as easy to record corrections and alternate takes to a separate track and comp the results afterwards.
Something I initially found quite misleading was the visual similarity of the red box that distinguishes selected Sounds in the Montage to that in Cubase SX, replete with small 'grabbable' squares at the corners. Unlike in Cubase, the squares don't actually do anything, and sliding the edges doesn't trim a Sound — as seems to be common convention nowadays — but time-stretches it, regardless of the modifier key used. On reflection I think this does make some sense, as IMX simplifies the concept of the Arrange page by making no explicit distinction between files on your hard disk and abstract 'events' composed of sections of a file. This isn't to say that editing in the Montage is destructive — it isn't — but that you can only trim a Sound as you would trim file in a wave editor: by deleting a section. This takes a bit of getting used to at first if you're used to the Cubase/Logic/Sonar manner of editing, but it's arguably a more simple approach and perhaps more intuitive to newcomers.
But I digress. If you're accustomed to the wonders modern loop-based products can perform, you probably won't think the time- and pitch-manipulation features sound particularly good, unless you're into going all jungle with the drums. I was, however, struck by how easy it is to drag loops into the Montage and get them all lined up at the same tempo — particularly considering that loop composition is not the program's raison d'être — and if IW could add greater sophistication to the process it would really enhance IMX's appeal. For the time being, time-stretching and pitch-shift are merely useful tools to have there in the Sounds drawer, and I did find they came in handy on occasion.
One feature of the Montage that rather impressed me was the crossfade dialogue (see screen shots, left). If you place one sound on top of another, a small 'x' appears in the overlap. When clicked, this opens the crossfade box, zooms the region, sets it to loop, and solos the relevant track. You can then select from a number of preset fade curves or drag nodes to form your own, and the waveform updates as you do so. It's very slick, and made more so by the fact you can fine-tune crossfades on the fly without so much as hitting Stop.
- Althon/Duron or Pentium II 300MHz.
- 64MB RAM (128 recommended).
- Windows 98/ME/2000/XP.
- 16-bit soundcard.
- Monitor with 1024x768 resolution.
- Microsoft Direct X 8 or higher.
Intuitive MX doesn't currently have the ability to zoom right down to sample level like some of the more recent high-end sequencers, possibly so as to not compromise the responsiveness of scrolling and zooming. This does mean that for some operations you need to call up an external wave editor, and at the time of writing this facility was still at the alpha stage (meaning incompletely implemented, buggy, and 'use at you own risk'). A warning reminds you of this and some of the present limitations when you double-click a Sound in the Montage, but I'm inclined to be thankful that this functionality was included nonetheless. The first point to bear in mind is that the editor program will not be able to open the file if there are any spaces in its file and folder name. The second is that IMX is not aware of changes made to a file by external editors, which means it's important not to mess with the duration of an audio file — say, by cropping it — because it'll probably replay incorrectly in the Montage. On the other hand, using an external editor works fine if you just want to fix a glitch, denoise something, or apply an effect destructively, and unlike in some programs, you don't have to save the file under a different name and re-import it.
Another facility absent from IMX at this time is a snap-to-zero-crossings feature, and I did miss this when editing material with the scissors and glue. It's rather too easy to end up with clicks at split points, particularly with bass instruments, and without using an external editor you can't zoom in close enough to reliably correct those erroneous non-zeroed start and end points.
The Mixing Tools workspace is split between a conventional horizontal virtual desk, and the 3D 'Real Controller'. Sadly, this doesn't involve green and red glasses, but rather a visual representation of the sound stage, with each track as a separate coloured oblong, complete with virtual monitor speakers to give a better indication of orientation. The Real Controller allows you to control volume and pan with the mouse simultaneously, by moving an object around the 3D field. Volume operates in the 'Z' plane, with the quiet tracks furthest from the listener, and you can twirl the whole virtual mix around in three dimensions by clicking and dragging in an empty space.
You may very well be thinking that this kind of resource-hogging gimmick is exactly what you don't need in an audio application, where precious CPU would be better spent on more plug-in effects and glitch-free performance. There is certainly a gimmick factor — indeed, the 3D mix idea was originally intended partly to serve as an audio-visual demonstration of the efficiency of the BeOS system. Although the graphics are quite simple, a number of options are available in the preferences to optimise the Real Controller for slow machines, such as turning off the integral VU meters and adjusting the frame rate, and PCs will with 3D graphics acceleration should achieve better performance.
Although it won't be to everyone's taste, though, I definitely think it's worth giving the Intuitive MX Real Controller a try before dismissing it out of hand. Even after the novelty had worn off, I found that it added tangible benefits in terms of gauging, at a glance, the status of individual components in a large mix, and if necessary visual congestion can be avoided by hiding tracks you don't need to mess with. It's a shame you cannot save snapshots of visible track combinations, which seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity. Hands-on use confirms that achieving smooth performance with fairly decent hardware is important, as low frame rates make it very easy to overshoot the mark when trying to make fine adjustments in level or pan. Jerkiness also markedly reduces the fun of seeing an automated mix played out on the 3D stage, and a part of me that likes those smiley flowers that dance to your music will forever think this is just plain cool. Oh, and did I mention automation?...
Because the Real Controller can be used to adjust both volume and pan with one movement, I'm inclined to think its merits are best realised in conjunction with Intuitive MX's automation capabilities. In keeping with the rest of the program, it's not as laden with automation features as the likes of Cubase SX and Logic 5, but provides just about everything you need to simply and easily automate volume, pan, and VST2 effect parameters with a minimum of fuss. If, for example, you want to fade a sound in and out whilst simultaneously sweeping it across the stereo field, all you have to do is engage the Write button on the transport bar and drag the track about in the Real Controller. Likewise, automating effects is a simple case of moving the appointed knob or slider with Write mode enabled.
So far so simple, but automation can also be edited as vectors in the Montage. Engaging the small 'A' button beneath the track name reveals volume and pan lanes superimposed over the waveform display, whilst the '+' sign opens a list of all automatable plug-in parameters, which if selected are shown in sub-lanes beneath the parent track, somewhat reminiscent of the method employed in Cubase SX or Nuendo. This is another well-implemented area of the program, and editing nodes isn't so fiddly as to become a chore.
Things that can't be automated include mutes and solos (which I find easier to do in the arrangement anyway), master volume changes, and bypassing effects. The latter is more of a drawback since it's not possible to reclaim CPU from intermittently used plug-ins. I also have some reservations regarding the way IMX reduces the amount of data generated by manual parameter movements, and things such as resonant filter sweeps did sound markedly less smooth in playback than when recorded. These are minor gripes, however, and I'll happily give IW full marks for the system as it works extremely well and is brilliantly easy to use.
The bad news on the effects front is that IMX currently has no facility for send effects or groups whatsoever. This is a considerable drawback, as using a separate reverb or delay plug-in as an insert on every track that requires it is a real waste of CPU even on fast computers, and the addition of some kind of send architecture would be the feature I'd lobby for loudest. For the time being, a maximum of four insert effects can be used per track, in addition to the four-band parametric EQ permanently attached to each channel. Not including the EQ and a high- or low-pass filter, IMX comes with 11 built-in effects encompassing the usual modulation offerings, delay, reverb, pitch-shifting, and a dynamic trio of limiter, expander and compression. Whilst nothing to write home about, some of these are quite usable, though I wasn't at all keen on was the 'house look' of the bundled effects, seemingly inspired by Steinberg's original design in Cubase VST, back from around the time Bucks Fizz won Eurovision. Repeat after me. Software is not hardware. Software is not hardware...
Some of the most praiseworthy aspects of IMX are the least tangible. I found it just 'felt' very pleasant to use, at least when not loaded down with plug-ins. Repositioning the cursor during playback provides an almost instantaneous response; moving a Sound during playback doesn't result in any discernible glitching or dropouts; fast-forwarding and reversing with the left and right arrow keys actually does a pretty good impression of audio scrubbing and responds snappily; and the program doesn't require any time to warm up if you hit Record during playback. These are commendable traits that go unlisted in the specs sheet but — in the opinion of this reviewer at least — contribute greatly towards an enjoyable and productive user experience.
On the other hand, there are a few ways in which IW could enhance IMX's usability, such as implementing more extensive use of key commands for things such as tool selection and — in particular — horizontal zoom. At a more general level, I believe providing some MIDI sync capabilities would extend IMX's appeal somewhat, and make it more viable as a replacement for hardware multitrackers and portable studios.
It's also fair to point out that I encountered a few bugs, although there was little in the way of random instability. For example, I found the program would hang if I attempted to bounce down a project with a record enabled track, and on one occasion I ended up with a corrupt project file after importing a 44.1kHz file into a 48kHz project. IMX is supposed to automatically resample imported audio if it doesn't conform, but in this instance seemed to reset the whole project to the lower sample rate, and I could find no way of getting it to revert to 48kHz.
Intuitive MX provides three ways to communicate with your audio hardware: Direct Sound, WDM and Wave, chosen from the Preferences dialogue. Direct Sound is the default, on the basis that it offers the best balance of performance and reliability. WDM is recommended for best performance if your hardware manufacturer has got around to writing WDM drivers yet, with the caveat that this less mature technology may be less stable. Wave is a fallback in the eventuality that neither of the others works, and carries with it the drawback of considerably higher latency. I used my Echo Layla24 in Direct Sound mode, because although WDM would work fine if I switched to it mid-session, the program would thereafter hang on start-up, necessitating a tiresome procedure resetting the Layla's drivers. The much cheaper Soundblaster Live! currently residing in my desktop PC presented no problems at all, and latency was perfectly acceptable for mixing. Since there's no VST Instrument support or facility to monitor inputs through plug-in effects, the absence of ASIO didn't really strike me as a problem. One thing to bear in mind, though, is that although IMX supports recording and playback of up to 32-bit, 96kHz audio, this does, of course, depend on the capabilities of your soundcard and its drivers, and some do not support the higher bit depths and sample rates in non-ASIO applications.
All told, Intuitive Works have succeeded in turning out a fine first product, and the assuredness with which it fulfils its principal brief has prompted a little more lamenting of absent features than I would normally indulge in for a program in this sub-£100 price bracket. IMX handles the basic recording and mixing duties very well, and I think the designers have done an excellent job providing a simple and, yes, intuitive interface. This is something you only really notice if it isn't there, and, as that cliche goes, I was able to concentrate on the music rather than tracking down functions in menus. I like it a lot, and the lack of window clutter is refreshing.
The most curious aspect of the program is certainly IW's utilisation of the 3D mixing idea. Although it's a little like working with the cityscape in Microsoft's Flight Sim 4.0 circa 1989, I do think the Real Controller has an appeal that outlasts pure novelty value. Anything that makes it possible to control more than one parameter simultaneously using the humble mouse is welcome in my opinion, though you will need a reasonably decent PC to make the most of it. The Real Controller is also the obvious distinction that sets IMX apart from the competition, and it'd be great if its functionality could somehow be expanded to encompass more mixing parameters.
IMX doesn't pretend to be a do-everything program: there's not a hint of MIDI to be found, and you really need an audio editor for precise trimming and fine-tuning of files, bearing in mind the caveats mentioned above. The thing that I feel most constrains its considerable potential is the lack of send effects in the mixer, and I hope Intuitive Works can address this omission in a future version. The bottom line, however, is that whilst there are some excellent products out there which boast more features for similar or less money (Fasoft's N-track Studio is one), Intuitive MX has one of the nicest, most elegantly streamlined interfaces I've lately had the pleasure of using. If that is important to you, I'd heartily recommend giving it a try.
- Well thought-out, easy to use interface.
- Excellent automation capabilities for VST plug-ins.
- 3D 'Real Controller' can be genuinely useful.
- Absence of snap-to-zero-crossings facility occasionally hampers editing in the Montage.
- Lack of send effect architecture requires inefficient allocation of plug-in effects.
- No punch-in/out facility.
Intuitive MX is a polished and very promising new application which fulfils its brief extremely well, particular with regard to ease of use. The Real Controller won't appeal to everybody, but adds a new dimension to mouse mixing and an individual spin that sets IMX apart from the crowd.