Digital Performer may be Mac-only, but MOTU's software sampler seeks to be accessible to everyone, irrespective of preferred platform, sequencer or sample format. Can Mach Five really be all things to all people?
The market may not be crowded, but there's a surprising amount of choice if you're looking for a high-quality sample-playback platform, for PC or Mac (both Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X). And that choice has recently grown by one. Mark of the Unicorn have presented the world with Mach Five, a cross-platform plug-in package that aims to be compatible with as many plug-in standards, and load as many sample formats, as possible.
And quite apart from offering a smooth sample-manipulation and patch-creation environment of its own, along with a massive high-quality sound library, it succeeds. If you have a MAS, VST, Audio Units, HTDM, RTAS or DXi plug-in compatible host — and that pretty much covers the bases as far as modern MIDI + Audio sequencers are concerned — you can handle Mach Five. Likewise, if you have libraries of samples or sample CDs in almost any current and many older formats, you'll be able to convert their programs and load them into Mach Five. UVI Xtract, an application supplied with the software, makes this job as easy as it gets (see the box at the end of this article for more on this separate conversion program).
Aiming for universality is a good move on MOTU's part: releasing a plug-in that was only compatible with Digital Performer, their Mac-only audio sequencer, wouldn't have made sense. They've achieved this, and also saved themselves a lot of development time and effort, by borrowing external technology. The core engine, architecture, preset sound bank and built-in effects are the work of French company Universal Sound Bank (USB). Their UVI (Universal Virtual Instrument) technology has been licensed to a number of other software products, and forms the heart of USB's own plug-in range.
Here, UVI forms the backbone of a MOTU product which will load practically any sample format, from hardware or software, and play it back via a comprehensive synthesis and sound treatment interface. Mach Five is 16-part multitimbral right out of the box, and offers as comprehensive a sampler feature set as you'll find anywhere, with key and velocity splits, looping and so on. If your audio system includes high-definition hardware, then Mach Five can support it, up to 24-bit, 192kHz. Likewise, surround compatibility up to 5.1 is included as standard, if your software/hardware combination is set up for that format. Recent updates have added hard-disk streaming technology, allowing more and longer samples to be easily accommodated.
Installation of Mach Five was a bit of an issue for me. I don't know if I'm in any way atypical, but I run both a PC and a Mac for music and audio — a decision to get a laptop for music moved me in the direction of a high-spec, robust PC that cost a fraction of the equivalent Powerbook. Thus the recent trend for such software to allow two authorisations, applicable cross-platform, has been very useful to me! Dongle-protected software is slightly less convenient, since the dongle has to be moved from one computer to another, and so said software can't be used simultaneously on two computers. But at least most software provides installers for both platforms on one set of disks in one package. Not Mach Five; if you want both Windows and Mac versions, you'll have to pay for them. There's no intrinsic reason for this to be the case: Mach Five 's UVI engine is also used by its developer Ultimate Sound Bank for their Ultra Focus synth anthology, and that comes in a single cross-platform installer package with two authorisations available to users.
The icing on the cake is that Mach Five comes with a Pace iLok USB security key. Not only does this require you to have a free USB connection in your system, but this particular key's bizarre shape makes it tricky to accommodate. Steinberg's USB dongle for Cubase SX is a slim little module that fits easily into one of the USB ports on my Apple G4's keyboard; doing the same thing with the iLok skews my keyboard and puts strain on the dongle. And of course, you have the irritation of installing yet another bit of driver software on your computer.
Enough of the minor carping — let's move on. First things first — although this is called a sampler, it does everything with samples apart from create them — as with the majority of such products, you create or source your raw samples from outside the plug-in. Load or import samples into the software, though, and you're provided with a fine collection of editing and housekeeping tools.
At the top in the middle of Mach Five 's plug-in window is the main display, with the sample-keygroup display immediately underneath. For the majority of the time you're working with Mach Five, this display will function as your waveform editor, keygroup mapper, keygroup list editor and sample information panel. Optionally, this display can also function as spectrum analyser or tuner (the latter is shown in the screengrab on the next page).
To the left of the waveform and keygroup displays (both of which can be expanded to fill the entire top middle of the display, if desired) is the file browser; you can search for samples here, as well as sound banks and Presets (as complete multisampled patches are known). Samples can also be dragged from some host applications.
Samples can be in any format, from mono to stereo to 5.1 surround, and once they're loaded, you can get editing. You can crop and loop samples, discarding unwanted data and applying crossfade looping where desired. Variant loops, based on different loop points, can also be defined. There's a healthy range of DSP options, too, including normalise, gain change, fade in/out, and reverse — all with Undo.
Extensive keygrouping is available, both horizontally across the keyboard (for pitch) and vertically (for samples taken at different velocities or loudness). If you want one sample per key and one sample per velocity increment, you'll be able to manage it here. At the keygroup level, it's possible to start adding effects via four insert effect points, though only one can be assigned per keygroup. 'Hi-hat'-type pairs of groups can also be created, so that one sample mutes when a related sample plays (as would be the case with open and closed hi-hats).
The keygroup display keeps track of what could be a complicated process very well, even when working with a lot of individual samples: the graphics are informative and never ambiguous. Although some of the text, knobs and buttons might seem a little small, their purpose is always clear. You can enable the built-in Help system if you need more clarification: click the '?' next to the MOTU logo and a little bit of descriptive text pops up whenever you place the mouse over a control. You're always kept informed of various sample properties — sample rate, size, loop points, key ranges and so on.
For instant gratification, dive into Mach Five's factory sound selection. At well over 4GB, this is huge, and is supplied on a DVD so that you can get it into your computer. You'll forgive me if I don't go into the details of such a vast collection (although do check out the Bösendorfer piano, a collection 475MB in size), but I can confirm that plenty of bread-and-butter sounds are provided, with loads of loops, synths, and a General MIDI bank, plus a few bits and pieces from Ultimate Sound Bank. The factory set is characterised by lively sounds, excellent looping and the clever user of effects.
If nothing else, the supplied library gives you something to aspire to: you really hear the quality and fidelity of the UVI engine hidden behind Mach Five 's front panel.
Below the sample-manipulation windows, you'll find the mega synth parameter collection, which takes up the rest of the middle of the display. These parameters will apply to the currently selected keygroup or keygroups, or all of the keygroups in a Preset if none are selected. The synth parameters are largely based on those found in subtractive analogue synthesis — so there are filters, envelopes and LFOs. The filter is a high point of any UVI-based software. Here, there are a choice of three low-pass, high-pass, notch, band-pass and comb types, accessed via the huge Cutoff knob and smaller Resonance and Drive controls. The latter adds analogue-style distortion, pre- or post-filter. The filter is excellent, very precise or warm where required, but I did notice stepping when making rapid changes in cutoff frequency. It wasn't a huge problem for me, nor distracting on all samples, but I didn't expect it.
A separate filter-modulation section lets you route a variety of modulation sources — such as the LFOs, or the five-stage (Attack, Hold, Sustain, Decay, Release) filter envelope — to frequency, resonance and drive. This section also provides fine control over filter velocity response, and key follow.
The amplitude and pan section has controls for overall level and pan, and four tiny effects-send sliders, in addition to further modulation options. There's a dedicated five-stage amp envelope, plus more controls for routing velocity to other parameters.
There are no fewer than four LFOs on board, sync'able to MIDI clock or free running, with or without retriggering. Two LFOs are applied at Preset level — to the whole patch, in other words — and two are available at keygroup level. There are differences in how the LFOs behave depending on whether they're assigned to Preset or keygroup: they function fully polyphonically in the second instance.
Effects are also part of the synth arsenal, and although there appear to be just four, there are actually more. The four effects are duplicated at four levels: insert, preset, aux and master. Be aware that the more effects you enable at the different levels, the more CPU overhead will be used. If your computer can handle it, this is a pretty comprehensive system. Note that Master effects are global for the overall multitimbral setup (which is called a Performance here).
However you choose to access them, whether as an insert or send effect from whichever level of the architecture, the built-in selection of effects is nothing if not comprehensive. A range of types is provided, each sub-divided into presets. You can't save your own presets as such, but edits are saved as part of Mach Five presets themselves. Some of the delays on offer are fairly self-explanatory, with names like Simple Delay and Stereo Delay, but there are also the less immediately obvious (Fat Delay and FX Delay, anyone?). FX Delay is actually a creative, distorted delay that has some surround-specific options.
Similarly, there's a range of reverbs including gated and reverse types — and they're rather good, considering they're built into the program. Modulation effects include phasers, flanger, auto-pan, and a couple of rotary speakers. EQ (two- and three-band) is joined by an auto-wah and a range of filter, overdrive and compressor processors. One effect — UVI FIlter — combines bit reduction, sample-rate reduction, analogue overdrive, and a UVI filter in series. It is seriously aggressive! There's even a ring modulator. MIDI sync options are available for tempo-specific rhythmic effects such as the delays, flangers and so on — so the standard sound-design tricks you might be used to in other environments will also be successful in Mach Five.
The Master section, not surprisingly, offers control over the whole program, including all Presets in the current Performance. So, you have control over tuning, bend range, portamento and polyphony. A so-called 'Expert' mode can be enabled here, which adds a range of more performance-oriented functions — think of multi-patch performances or combinations of hardware workstation synths and samplers. The 16 parts that would usually make up a multitimbral setup can be easily layered, crossfaded according to defineable note ranges, and faded in or out in response to incoming MIDI controllers. It's an extra level of control over how you play the presets that makes Mach Five more of an instrument than just a sample playing plug-in.
Another switch enables 32-bit mode for sample loading. This has no effect on sound, for better or worse, but uses 32 bits to represent samples rather than 16 or 24. It saves CPU overhead, but requires a lot more RAM — so it's just the thing if you have an older computer that's stuffed to the gills with memory.
The only display section I haven't touched upon is the Parts section, where the 16-part multitimbrality of Mach Five is accessed. Eight parts are shown at a time, but the two banks can be toggled easily. Each little display lets you access a soundbank on your computer and choose a patch from within it; volume and pan controls are provided, along with a Mute button.
Central to Mach Five 's ethos is its ability to load as many sample formats as possible. It's helped in this by UVI Xtract, a dedicated application that's supplied with the main program.
The software takes the form of an easy-to-comprehend window, with a browser and sample preview function. You can choose which kind of sample or Program to display, and focus on a particular drive. The goal is to produce something that Mach Five can load, so once you've found a Program you want to use, in any of the supported formats, a click of a button converts it into a Mach Five soundbank. This sounds simple — and it is — but the process can take a little time, depending on the Program. All parameters — loops, tuning, and even envelopes, filter and LFO settings — are converted into something recognisable in Mach Five. After conversion, a report is generated which lists where all the extracted files originate.
Nearly all sample formats currently in use can be accessed: Roland S7x-series, Akai S1000/3000/5000/6000, Creamware Pulsar, Native Instruments Reaktor, Emagic EXS24, Propellerhead REX2, Digidesign Samplecell, Soundfont, Emu II/4, Kurzweil and more. Not bad for a freebie!
Although Mach Five doesn't work as a stand-alone package, it integrates so nicely into your host software — most of this review was done using Pro Tools LE — that it feels like host and plug-in are one, and the sound-design potential becomes part of your standard workflow. MOTU are looking to the future, too; disk streaming, a desirable feature, was added with the v1.2 update. The software updates from the MOTU web site can be really big, but fortunately, you're able to download just the bits you need. If all you use is the VST plug-in version of Mach Five, you don't need to download the full 70MB updater!
I really appreciated Mach Five 's multitimbral capabilities. It might appear to add to the CPU hogging, but it's not as much as when you use multiple instances of an equivalent plug-in in a multi-part composition.
Just being able to assign a MIDI track to one of 16 parts in one instance of Mach Five was quite refreshing, and a lot less trouble than managing many copies of the same plug-in — despite the huge size of the plug-in window on screen. On this note, Mach Five physically dominates both my Mac's standard 15-inch and my PC laptop's 17-inch widescreen monitors, and playing with screen resolution doesn't help, since a lot of in-display elements border on small and the colour scheme is a little lacking in contrast. I wonder if there's any way MOTU could offer a minimal window option — say to access just the multitimbral part window — in a future update? That would do the trick until I can accommodate two monitors in my workstation...
Latency will always be an issue with software instruments. In general, my G4 running Mac OS X v10.3.5 does really well: instruments loaded into Cubase SX and Pro Tools LE can be played in real time with almost no lags. The 'feel' changes from plug-in to plug-in, and though delays become noticeable with big software such as Mach Five, the combination is still playable. The situation is slightly better on my PC laptop, depending on host software and audio hardware.
I always liked the approach to multisample creation taken by Unity Session, from the late, lamented Bitheadz. Mach Five, though, has none of Unity Session 's occasional instability, it's rather more powerful in synthesis terms, and the sample management and file system is instantly comprehensible. I didn't realise until near the end of this review that although I was creating complex multisamples, and trying them out to audition my work, this was all happening from the same window. The sheer ease of using Mach Five is further aided by a pretty good user guide. It's compact and well-laid out, nicely cross-referenced and makes all the key operational points in a clear, concise manner.
In short, Mach Five covers all the bases, and could be the only sample player you ever need. Have a listen, but be prepared to want to buy it!
- Windows 2000 or XP running on an 800MHz Pentium III with 256MB of RAM.
- Mac OS 9 or 10.2 running on a 500MHz G3, with 256MB of RAM.
These are absolute minimum requirements. Both platforms also need 20GB of free hard-disk space and suitable host audio software.