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M-Audio Key Rig/Drum & Bass Rig

Drum & Bass Rig.Drum & Bass Rig.

Midiman/M-Audio have come a long way since their days as a MIDI interface company. Now they sell everything from mics to laptop bags — and Key Rig and Drum & Bass Rig are their first foray into software instruments...

While M-Audio is an established name in the world of MIDI and audio hardware, more recent times have seen the company developing a growing presence in music software. Up to now, though, this has been through marketing and distributing other companies' products, such as Ableton's Live.

However, at NAMM earlier this year, M-Audio announced their first 'own label' packages, Key Rig and Drum & Bass Rig — two collections of cross-platform virtual instruments that can be used either as stand-alone programs or as plug-ins under the main sequencers. As the name might suggest, Key Rig is primarily intended for computer-based keyboard players, and offers a sampled piano module, a polyphonic, analogue-style synth, a virtual Hammond organ and a General MIDI module. The musical theme of Drum & Bass Rig is not to be confused with drum & bass, the frenetic breakbeat-driven musical style — we're talking real drum kits and bass instruments here! This plug-in is more eclectic in its purpose, being aimed at any computer musician in search of a rhythm section. This program consists of a preset rhythm loop 'creator', a TB303-style acid bass machine module, a sampled drum-playback unit and a virtual electric/acoustic bass player that can also do some bass synth sounds on the side as well. While each module can be played and edited independently — and all of them also have at least one programmable effects unit of their own — each Rig also offers a master effects section, plus programmable split, layer and mix settings so that you can create mega Performance patches using the sounds of the entire Rig as a single entity.M-Audio Key Rig/Drum & Bass Rig

Opening either product box, you'll find a lot of air, a four-page Quick Start guide which, along with perfunctory installation instructions, bears the all-important registration serial number, plus a single, dual-platform CD-ROM. In fact, whichever of the two you buy, you'll discover it's the same CD containing the full set of data for both programs — the idea being that you get the chance to try the companion product as a 30-day demo.

The required operating system for both programs is Windows XP or Mac OS 10.3 or higher. As I've mentioned, both Rigs can be run in stand-alone mode or used as plug-ins with any sequencer that supports VST or RTAS (Mac and PC) or Audio Units (Mac-only) formats, which covers all the usual suspects. The installation procedure for Mac varies slightly according which flavour or flavours you intend to use, but basically it's a question of installing the program on your main applications drive, and copying the factory presets and sound data (in excess of 250MB in either case) to any available hard drive on your system. You then run a routine which tells the main program where all its source data is to be found. Installing under Windows XP is a similar process.

With software piracy on the increase, we're seeing manufacturers introducing increasingly complex registration routines. M-Audio have adopted a two-stage approach: you first type in the serial number you get with the product, then connect to the M-Audio web site which, in return for your personal info, generates a 'product certificate' containing a further authorisation code to fully unlock the program. If the computer you're using for music isn't connected to the Internet, you will need to follow an 'off-line' procedure via another Internet-enabled machine. Basically, without this second code, the programs will only run in demo mode for a limited period, so you simply can't get away with not registering.

Turning The Key

First on the test bench was Key Rig, which I ran on a G5 iMac, both in stand-alone mode and then as an RTAS plug-in in Pro Tools LE (v6.9) with everything running under OS 10.3.7. All the functionality is exactly the same for Windows users, the only difference being that their version has some extra controls to configure the plug-ins to work with the particular soundcard they have installed on their PC.

As you can see from the screenshots accompanying this article, both plug-ins takes the form of a stack of four virtual rackmounted modules, in this case the SP1 Stage Piano, the MS2 Polyphonic Synthesizer, the MB3 'Electromagnetic Organ' and the GM4 General MIDI Module. All have nicely styled graphical interfaces with a logical control layout, so it's easy to jump in and start playing around. I'd still recommend a read through the business-like electronic documentation, a PDF manual which gives you the lowdown on the function of each knob and slider.

At the top of both Rigs are the master controls. Master Volume and Fine-tune are self explanatory. Tempo is used to set the speed of any tempo-dependent parameters — such as delays or the LFO on the MS2 synth. However, if the Rigs detect an incoming MIDI Clock signal from a host sequencer or an external MIDI instrument, then they will automatically sync to this instead.

The global effects section offers no less than 49 preset algorithms, covering the usual suspects like reverbs, delays, chorus, tremolo, flanging, EQ and compression, plus distortion (including amp simulations and bit-crushing), phasers, wah-wahs and pitch-shift. Each effect offers you programmability of its two most important parameters (for example, for reverbs it's reverb time and damping) plus an overall wet/dry mix control. Finally, we have Load and Save buttons for dealing with global Rig patches. These would include the information such as MIDI channel and MIDI continuous-controller assignments, volumes, panning, key range, transpose, master effects sends, on/off status and so on, plus specific settings for each of the separate instruments in the Key Rig, as well as the global effects settings. What's missing, though, is any ability to play any of Key Rig's modules from within the program itself.

Let's start by tickling the ivories of the SP1 Stage Piano module. This offers 11 different piano sound presets: specifically, seven sampled acoustic pianos (five flavours of grand, an upright and one called 'Honky Tonk'), two Rhodes-style electric pianos, an FM piano and a Wurlitzer. What strikes you immediately is the high quality of the sounds. Individually the acoustic piano sounds are really very classy; the 'Upright' and 'Honky Tonk' presets are particularly impressive in terms of exhibiting 'real-life' piano characteristics right through the keyboard range with appropriately plinky notes at the top end and deep, sustaining bass at the bottom. M-Audio don't provide much detail on how the sounds have been created, but the fact that the SP1 sound presets add up to about 110MB points to fairly extensive multisampling.

Key Rig.Key Rig.

Two preset selector wheels enable you to dial up two sounds simultaneously. The second wheel offers three extra synth-string pads if you fancy a soupy lounge sound. The two sounds can be layered (with a Mix control determining their relative volumes) or split, although the split point is limited to a choice of seven predetermined positions: C2, F#2, C3, F#3, C4, F#4, and C5. Both preset selectors have a simple Tone control to change the brilliance of the sound. In the case of the first preset, this is accompanied by a Velocity control, which adjusts the amount of dynamic range between hard and soft notes. The second preset features an Octave control enabling you to transpose the assigned sound by one or two octaves. Finally, a detune function enables you to adjust the relative tuning of the two presets.

These controls in themselves enable you to create a huge range of hybrid piano tones. But for good measure the SP1 is also equipped with a twin effects section. This can be routed either in series or parallel and each effect draws on the same 49 algorithms and offers the same programmability as the master effects section I've already mentioned.

Unfortunately, once you get into creating more complex layered patches using twin-barrelled presets and effects, it soon becomes apparent just how hungry the SP1 is for CPU power. In stand-alone mode, I found that I couldn't really afford to have any other programs running on my G5 iMac, and even then it didn't take too much in the way of polyphonic keyboard work before sounds started to glitch or drop out. The issue becomes more serious when using Key Rig as a plug-in, because the host sequencer needs its own share of the CPU, regardless of whether you have any other plug-ins running.

It's an issue which I will return to later. In the meantime, we'll progress to the MS2. This is a natty polyphonic virtual synthesizer capable of producing a wide range of timbres and synthy textures — lush pads, pokey leads, tight basses and (my particular favourites) some excellent ethereal bell-type sounds and spooky tuned percussion pads. It's difficult to describe, but the MS2 presets seem to have the ingredients of all the great synths you ever knew and loved, without appearing to directly mimic or model any of them. Looking more closely at the specs reveals how the MS2 manages to be such a chameleon. Although the synthesis involved is rather loosely described as 'generally analogue', the MS2 also throws in FM synthesis and wavetables. Down in the synth boiler room, you'll find 85 'oscillator presets' each of which can include any combination of up to three analogue oscillators plus two wavetables, a sub-oscillator (a square wave) and white noise. This gives you pretty complex source material, which is then further shaped through a conventional filter, amp and modulation setup, plus an effects section.

All that makes for a very rich basic fuel mixture, but M-Audio have taken the complexity out of trying to drive the MS2 by providing presets for all main programming sections. So along with the oscillator presets there are 47 filter, 27 amp and 28 modulation presets, all of which are called up from drop-down menus associated with each section. So programming is simply a matter of mixing and matching different preset types. And as they are given real-world names, it's pretty easy to pick the right kind of combinations to get the kind of sound you want.

For those who want to get into more detailed tonal shapery, there's a fair degree of control via the on-screen knobs, although M-Audio have generally kept it simple and accessible. For example, the filter and amp envelopes are easily manipulated just by pulling the 'handles' on the graphic curves. And for the oscillator presets you are just given a single 'Wave' control which is mapped to the element of the preset that is likely to have the most effect on changing the sound. Basically it's a question of using your ears and seeing what the knob does, although to make things more interesting, the wave parameter can also be modulated through the modulation presets.

Overall, it's a neatly designed and very approachable piece of virtual kit. For those who just want to get on and play, the 99 patch presets offer a very wide range of instantly useable and often quite inspiring synth sounds, while the modular preset-based approach makes it very easy to program.

Next up is the MB3 'Electromagnetic Organ', and as you might suspect from the on-screen wood-effect finish and chunky virtual rocker switches, this attempts an emulation of the classic Hammond sound. Indeed, all the authentic bells and whistles — or should that be clicks and tones? — are present. There are virtual drawbars, three chorus/vibrato effects and a rotary speaker emulation offering adjustable speed and 'tube' overdrive. Fifty presets provide a journey through the use of the organ down the ages of popular (and not-so-popular) music. Gospel, soul, blues, jazz, reggae, prog rock, experimental incisions with kitchen utensils and... er, the 'Bagpipe Solo' patch — it's all there for the taking. In short, MB3 is great fun and like the piano and synth modules, the fundamental quality of the sound is first rate. Even the rotary speaker, a piece of hardware which is notoriously difficult to emulate, is pretty convincing, especially as its speed can be controlled by the pitch wheel.

The drawbars, which follow the layout of a classic tonewheel organ, can be altered in real-time via MIDI continuous controllers and in factory-fresh mode, the MB3 is already pre-mapped to the controllers on M-Audio USB MIDI hardware, although this can be easily changed to work with gear from other manufacturers (more on this in the box over the page).

Last in the list we have a General MIDI module — a 16-channel, multitimbral module with 128 GM patches and a GM standard drum and percussion kit at that. After the other three, the GM4 probably doesn't sound like it's going to be the most fun kid on the block, but of course if you work with standard MIDI files or need to generate a backing over which to play the other modules, then it's pretty damn useful. On this score, its first three channels are, by default, muted to free the channel for the first three Key Rig instruments.

The patches are arranged in the usual GM categories, with selections via a drop-down list. The number and type of programmable controls follows the GM spec, and each channel has Volume, Pan, Tone, Chorus, Mute and Solo buttons, plus a send to the global effect. Again, the sounds themselves are good and do justice to any decently programmed Standard MIDI file.

One area I haven't yet mentioned is the Instrument Control section on the right-hand side of each module. From here you load and save a module's individual presets, control volume, pan and send level to the master effects section, and set the MIDI receive channel. There's also a Transpose control (±24 semitones), a master On/Off switch, and, via the Hi and Lo parameters, the ability to set a key range for each module with programmable highest and lowest notes. This means you can create complex multi-patches (what in hardware synth terms would probably be called 'Performances') by stacking and/or splitting the sounds from all four modules across a keyboard in a wide variety of combinations. To show off what can be achieved, there are a number of factory global patches that are very impressive indeed.

The only problem is that the more you have going on, the more powerful your computer needs to be to handle it. Particularly when you are running the piano module, you find that polyphony very quickly becomes limited, even in stand-alone mode. And when running Key Rig as a plug-in within Pro Tools LE with no other effects running, the CPU meter was regularly running hot, leading to dropped notes and glitching. In fact, the experience left my iMac gasping for air — its internal heat-management controls decided that, as the CPU was consistently running at above 75-percent capacity, it was time to declare a Code Red emergency and set the internal cooling fans to Warp Factor 9! To free up CPU power, you may find yourself having to turn off effects within the program, deactivating modules that you are not using at that time, or looking at ways to bounce down or 'freeze' Key Rig 's audio output, depending on what your sequencer offers. It's a shame really, because when you've got all guns blazing, Key Rig sounds great.

Drum & Bass Rig

I'm glad to report straight away that the same CPU issues are not present with Drum & Bass Rig. As you can see from the screenshot on the previous page, it follows the same layout as its sister program, the four modules in this case being the LC5 Loop Creator, the BL6 Bassline, the RD7 Real Drums module and and EB8 Electric Bass. As with Key Rig, there's a master section, this time augmented by a 'Swing control', specifically to give the playback of the LC5 and BL6 a jazzier, dotted-note feel. Also as with Key Rig, all modules have an instrument control section on the right-hand side, with preset Save/Load menus and controls for Volume, Pan, Hi and Lo notes for setting up the operational range, a Transpose control, MIDI channel assign and an On/Off switch.

Selecting Effects in Drum & Bass Rig.Selecting Effects in Drum & Bass Rig.

As a keen drummer, I admit that I started off by skipping LC5 and BC6 and heading straight for the RD7 Real Drum module. This is a drum-orientated sample-playback device and editor which offers 28 different preset kits. Between them, they use over 100 individual drum and percussion samples (you can't load your own, sadly). Each drum kit consists of a collection of 26 sounds and these are permanently mapped to the standard GM drum assignments; in other words, you can only assign bass drums to C1, snares to D1, toms to F1 through to D2 and so on. Drums can be triggered by clicking on the pad-like circles of the stylised keyboard arrangement within the plug-in itself, or via MIDI.

The emphasis here is very much on 'natural-sounding' acoustic drums. On this score, the samples themselves prove to be quality products, particularly the range of snares, which accounts for nearly half the samples on offer. Tone, Decay, Pan and Level controls allow you to individually tweak each sound within a kit. The RD7 also has a Master section which allows you to alter the setup of your virtual drum room, with knobs to control the Overhead Mics, the Room Mics and the size of the room. This works really well, and proved excellent at helping to sit the drums in a mix, particularly if you are trying to achieve an overall live feel to your track. In addition, each drum kit preset also has an associated non-editable effect — for most kits, this is some type of reverb, but a few have been roughed up with distortion. As with all the modules, the entire kit can also be run through the master effect if you want further processing.

Virtual reality is also the name of the game with the EB8 Electric Bass player, which offers acoustic and electric bass presets and a degree of tweakability to make them your own. There are 55 presets in all, grouped around samples of fingered, picked, fretless and slapped electric bass guitars as well as acoustic bass, and each set is presented in self-explanatory flavours such as DI, Amp, Dirty, Chorus, Punch and so on. They sound great, particularly the amped-up models, which really cut through a mix. There are also some stonking synth and sub-bass sounds, which are definitely worth shaking a guitar pick at.

System Requirements


  • 500MHz Pentium III or AMD7 (Pentium 4/Athlon 1GHz or faster recommended).
  • 256MB of RAM.
  • 600MB of free hard disk space.
  • Windows XP.
  • VST 2.0-compatible host software.
  • MIDI interface.
  • CD-ROM drive for installation.
  • Internet connection (on any computer) for software authentication.


  • 500MHz Power Macintosh G3 (G4 or faster recommended).
  • 256MB of RAM.
  • 600MB of free hard disk space.
  • OS X Version 10.3 or higher.
  • VST 2.0-, AU- or RTAS-compatible host software.
  • MIDI interface.
  • CD-ROM drive for installation.
  • Internet connection (on any computer) for software authentication.

Basic sound modifiers include Bass, Treble, Decay and Tone controls and if you want to crank it up a little, you've got a virtual tube amp to overdrive, and a very in-your-face bass-specific compression algorithm to apply. To allow you to inject more realism into the playing, there are also independently switchable Vibrato and Harmonics controls, both driven by the mod wheel. Very cool!

If you prefer your bass player to take the form of a virtual machine, rather than a virtual human, then you can step out with the BL6 Bassline, a superb software rendition of a classic squelchy analogue monosynth complete with a programmable 16-step sequencer. With four waveforms — Sawtooth, Square, Triangle and Unison Saw — plus a feisty filter and a wicked overdrive, the BL6 is able to belt out a wide range of floor-shaking tones, a fact which is amply demonstrated by the 52 preset patches. While the module can be played simply as a monophonic synth, the step sequencer/arpeggiator is really where the fun is at. Each preset offers 12 patterns which can be assigned to a note on a keyboard or triggered via the mouse from the module's own virtual keys. A Scale control forces the pattern, if necessary, to conform to specific musical scales. Modifying these patterns is very simple, thanks to an interface reminiscent of Glaresoft's iDrum whereby values for Note, Accent, Glide (portamento), Depth, Cutoff, and Resonance are programmed via bar-graph meters in the step windows. The number of steps can be set anywhere between 1 and 16, while a Grid control toggles the playback rate between eighth notes, 16th notes or triplets.

Overall, this is a great little unit — possibly the highlight of both of the Rigs. it also works brilliantly when teamed up with the LC5 Loop Creator, which is actually something of a misnomer in that you don't actually 'create' loops in the sense of loading and manipulating your own samples. In fact, this application has really been designed for people who find this kind of thing bewildering, difficult, tedious or all six. What the LC5 offers is a library of pre-sliced loops that can be played back at any tempo without affecting their tuning (although you can also manipulate the tuning of the individual slices as well). Various other controls allow you to swap slices around or to play slices only on selected beats — for example, just the ones on the eighth or quarter notes. The general idea is that while M-Audio have taken the hard work out of creating the loops in the first place, the program offers enough editability for you to customise them for your own purposes if you want to.

There are 23 patches in all, each of which contains 12 loops. In terms of styles, we have rock, hip-hop, R&B, techno and house, but there are a few welcome oddities in there too, such as 'Arabic', jazz and a couple of Latin presets. Typically each set of loops within a preset would give you several drum and percussion loops, a bassline or two, a melodic rhythm instrument and some kind of top line. When you have them all going at once, you've got a pretty full-on sound!

The 12 loops from within each preset can be individually assigned to any key within a three-octave range (C2-B4). This can be done from within the application itself, via a stylised representation of a keyboard (this time in a kind of graphical sawtooth/shark's fin arrangement). You trigger loops (either for one-shot or latched playback) by clicking on the 'fins' and these are also the means by which you select a key to change and/or edit the assigned pattern. Initially, the 12 loops are assigned chromatically up the keyboard with the first octave (C2-B2) generally having the standard version of each loop and the other two octaves offering variations created via the various editing functions.

There are many ways of manipulating each loop. Low, Mid and High 'kill switches' allow you to mute slices belonging to the corresponding frequency range. Each loop has associated Level, Pan, Pitch (plus or minus one octave), Decay and Filter controls, and the loop's speed can also be doubled or halved. Globally, you have a Punch compression algorithm similar to the one on the electric bass module, while Loose/Tight changes the microtiming to give more 'groove' to the loop.

Impressively, the waveform display reflects the effect of your edits, with waveforms shrinking, growing and generally shuffling about according to what you do. To be honest, though, being able to see the slices and waveforms actually proves to be of limited value, because you can't audition each slice individually to see what the sound is. Similarly, it would help if the loops had proper names to help you remember what each one was ( 'Bassline' and 'Percussion', say, rather than 'Loop 1', 'Loop 2', and so on).

That said, in practice the Loop Creator works best as an interactive 'suck it and see' experience — basically, you press combinations of keys until you come up with something interesting! This approach works particularly when you layer it with the BL6 Bassline; together, the two modules are great for coming up with inspirational grooves and riffs.

MIDI Control

Assigning MIDI controller numbers in Drum & Bass Rig.Assigning MIDI controller numbers in Drum & Bass Rig.All the main parameters in all the instruments on either plug-in are pre-programmed with the MIDI CCs (continuous controllers) used by the current range of M-Audio keyboards, which obviously makes for a very 'plug and play' experience for those users. For owners of other equipment, it's possible to reprogram the settings simply by right-clicking (Windows) or Control-clicking (Mac) on any parameter. This opens a menu where you can select a new CC from a pop-up list. Usefully, this menu also offers a Learn function whereby you simply move the control on your hardware MIDI controller to assign it to the parameter automatically. Yet more usefully, there's also a 'Forget' control, which removes any such assignments.

What's missing, though, is any ability to call up presets via MIDI. Considering that Key Rig, in particular, is aimed at musicians who are likely to be using a controller keyboard with their computer hosting the sound source, this seems a curious omission.


And that really is the strength of both packages. They are not necessarily super-innovative, but they are fun to use, they sound great and also there's an immediacy about the way they work which means that, although they are based around a relatively small number of presets, it's very easy to bend the sounds to your own will without having to get involved in any deep programming.

The combination of modules in each Rig also makes them quite versatile and whatever type of music you make, they both would have something to offer. It's a pity, though, that M-Audio haven't adopted a slightly more open-ended approach to the overall design. If you bought both packages, it would be great if you could put together various modules in different Rigs for specific purposes. It would certainly make things more efficient in terms of managing the CPU load. As it stands, running the two packages simultaneously as plug-ins, especially if you're trying to produce some big stacked sounds within Key Rig, means you've really got to keep an eye on the CPU meter. This observation also applies if you want to run multiple instances of one package as a plug-in — which you would have to do if you wanted to assign different modules to different physical outputs from within your sequencer, as there are no individual outputs.

Balancing out all this 'grumpy old man' chuntering, we have the price. At £89 each (or 22-and-a-bit quid per module) both packages offer really good value for money, particularly as the individual sound quality of each module is so good — the SP1 piano and MS2 synth are particularly strong. Ultimately though, if you're using a computer towards the bottom end of the minimum spec, I would strongly recommend a trial run with the demo packages, not only to appreciate the quality of what's on offer, but also to double-check how your CPU copes.


  • Excellent value for money.
  • First-rate sounds in both packages.
  • Creative global and individual effects.
  • Key Rig is capable of some great layered sounds, and it's easy to get creative with the MS2 synth.
  • Drum & Bass Rig offers super-squelchy TB303-style bass lines, realistic acoustic drums, and a very tweakable virtual bass player.


  • Key Rig's CPU-hungriness ultimately compromises playability and usability.
  • No multiple outs within the Rigs themselves.
  • No ability to change patches via MIDI in either plug-in.
  • Electronic documentation could be more detailed.
  • You can't import your own loops into Drum & Bass Rig's loop player.


A good balance between the immediacy of presets and the potency of user programmability. Key Rig is really worth checking out, although Drum & Bass Rig is probably more of an acquired taste.


Key Rig, £89; Drum & Bass Rig, £89. Prices include VAT.

M-Audio +44 (0)1923 204010.