With software samplers playing such a crucial role in many modern styles of music production, competition amongst the major players is hotter than ever. Does MOTU's redesigned MachFive 2 have what it takes?
MOTU's first soft sampler, MachFive, was released in 2004 as the 'Universal Sampler'. It was developed in conjunction with the French company Ultimate Sound Bank and used their 32-bit UVI audio engine. As a virtual instrument that could run on Mac or PC, it was available in all the major plug-in formats, and could load samples and patches in almost any current or legacy format. It also supported multi-channel surround as well as conventional mono and stereo audio, which was an impressive feature at the time. In short, there was a lot to like about MachFive, and it quite rightly attracted a lot of good reviews (not least from Sound On Sound) and loyal followers.
Four years is a long time in the world of music technology, though. It's still a useful tool, but the original MachFive looks less impressive now, compared with rivals like NI's Kontakt. MachFive 2, then, was eagerly awaited prior to its launch at the end of last year. As you'd expect, it works on Power PC Macs and Intel Macs, as well as Windows PCs, and offers a lot of new features, as well as an extensive sound library. Aside from broad GUI similarities between MachFive and MachFive 2, nearly everything is different or improved, so v2 can be pretty much regarded as a brand-new product.
To run MachFive 2 you need a Mac (Intel or Power PC, G4 1GHz or better if the latter) running OS 10.3.9 or later, or a PC (Pentium 4 1GHz or faster, or AMD equivalent) running Windows XP or 32- or 64-bit Vista. MachFive 2 will run as a plug-in inside any host application that supports MAS, AU, VST, RTAS or DXi formats, but it'll also run as a stand-alone application — a useful consideration for live use, amongst other things. A MachFive 2 Performance or Preset (of which more later) is cross-platform too, so Mac users can share sounds with their PC-based collaborators (and vice versa).
Copy protection relies on a Pace USB iLok dongle. When you buy MachFive 2 from new a pre-authorised iLok is included in the box, whereas upgrade copies get a little snap-off chip that is used to transfer a licence to your existing iLok. It seems people either love or loathe iLoks, so I won't waste time recording my personal feelings about them. However, it would be remiss of me not to report that the experience of using the MachFive's iLok for this review was 100 percent trouble free, and not having to jump through any internet authorisation or activation hoops was a refreshing treat. As they say, one man's treasure...
For many users, the main purpose of a software sampler will be the playback of sounds from commercial sample libraries. Not surprisingly, MOTU have realised that too, and this is reflected in a range of features in MachFive 2.
Perhaps most important of these is the software's ability to work with a broad range of proprietary formats. These include its software-based rivals (EXS24, Gigasampler/Gigastudio and Kontakt) alongside widespread 'legacy' disc-based formats (Akai S1000/3000, Emu EIII/EIV and the Kurzweil K2 series). For the full list, see the 'File Formats' box. Impressive stuff for sure, but there are one or two notable absences, including Steinberg's Halion and Reason's NNXT. The lack of compatibility with NNXT is a great shame, I think, as there's a lot of good, wide-ranging material in this format, and much of it is often very affordable. NNXT's architecture isn't that complicated either, so I hold out hope that support might be added somewhere along the line. It'll also be interesting to see if and when MOTU add support for more recent versions, like Kontakt 3.
Actually browsing and loading sounds is achieved in quite an ingenious way. After you double-click either the Preset pop-up menu at top left, or one of the slots in the Parts section below, the entire MachFive 2 window is overlaid with a just-translucent file browser. The left-hand column lists Volumes available to browse (for example, the hard disks in your system, or a legacy optical sample disc you've inserted) along with user-configurable Favourites (for frequently accessed files and folders) and disk images. When you click on one of these, the contents are revealed in the browser columns on the right, and by clicking further you can dig down into the hierarchy, with options to Auto Play any loops and to filter file types as you go. You can also right-click on items in the browser and apply certain 'file operations' (such as Delete, Add to Favourites and so on) via a contextual menu. After finding what you want to load, double-clicking it (or, alternatively, clicking the OK button) causes the file browser overlay to disappear, and your sound to be loaded.
On the whole, I found the new browser a great feature. It's quick and intuitive, gives easy access to samples stored in multiple locations, and can be personalised to match your individual needs. It could still be improved, though — a Back (and Forward) button would be great for those times you accidentally clicked out of a deep folder structure you were exploring, and a Search feature would be the icing on the cake. And I do have a gripe, about the way MachFive loads encapsulated formats like Giga presets and Soundfonts.
Let's say that you've downloaded a clutch of Soundfont presets (as I did) from the Internet. You see them in MachFive's browser as individual .SF2 files, but instead of just being able to directly load the single preset they contain, you have to double-click first to mount them in the Images list, and then select the preset from there. Not only does this seem like four mouse clicks too many, but you keep getting sucked out of the folder structure you were in so that you could explore the Soundfonts in the first place. What's more, the Images list soon becomes cluttered with all the presets you've auditioned, and extra effort is required at some point to eject these unwanted images. Please, MOTU, if an .SF2 or .GIG file contains just one or a very few presets, can't we load it directly, as with other formats?
The Part List makes it easy to construct big multitimbral setups, and as there's no limit to how many Parts can be assigned to any individual MIDI channel, huge sound stacks can be created too. MachFive 2 can have an unlimited number of Parts driven by up to 48 MIDI channels (four banks of 16) in the stand-alone version and up to 256 (depending on the host software) in the plug-in. Expert Mode, accessed with a button above the Part list, allows you to set up key ranges and velocity switches for separate parts, allowing multiple parts and presets to be combined into splits and layers. Parts can be added or deleted using dedicated buttons, and although only eight are shown at a time, a scroll bar gives swift access to all that you're using. You also get to transpose and fine-tune Parts, set bend range and choose velocity-response curves and maximum polyphony. All this proves very intuitive and easy to use.
With so many Parts available to use in a single instance, MachFive has an improved mixing and routing scheme. In the Part List there are little volume and pan knobs for quick changes, but to access greater control and an overview of MachFive's internal mix there's a dedicated Mixer view, accessed by a button at the top of the window. This then gives a very familiar overview, complete with level meters and Mute and Solo facilities, and you can still browse and load sounds within this view as well. If I missed anything in this mixing environment, it was a way of grouping faders so that, for example, you could adjust the volume of an entire string section by moving only a violin Part's fader. But then this could also be achieved another way, by running MachFive as a plug-in and assigning all the string parts to an alternative audio output, which in turn fed a single channel in your DAW. MachFive is pretty flexible in this respect — the stand-alone version can drive up to 17 stereo hardware outputs, while Parts in the plug-in can be assigned to multiple hardware outputs or internal buses, depending on what your DAW allows.
The Mixer also hints at the extent of MachFive's effects architecture, and in fact there are five locations where up to four effects can be instantiated: Insert effects can be applied to a Part or even individual keygroups, Preset effects are saved and loaded along with .M5P presets, Part effects belong to individual Part slots, Aux effects can be shared amongst all MachFive Parts, and Master effects act on the main outputs (in both plug-in and stand-alone versions). Phew! All this adds up to a lot of flexibility, but are the effects themselves any good?
I counted 46 different effects types, spanning pretty much every kind of treatment. You call them up using pop-up menus or another translucent browser overlay, which is very easy, but the selection scheme doesn't allow you to just choose the effect and then start dialling in your settings — you have to select a preset to get the ball rolling. That can feel a bit weird at first, as can working in the effect section and only seeing a row of generic knobs controlling effect parameters. But once you know how, these parameters and additional graphical feedback can be brought up on the central display area, where you also get to click around on an X-Y touchpad-like affair with some effects, but also get cheesy backdrops of guitar pedals and rack gear. It's pretty non-standard stuff, but I quickly got to like it. The effects themselves are surprisingly good, and include decent convolution and computational reverb, a useful range of guitar-oriented fuzz, distortion, amp and cabinet modelling, and effective single and multi-band dynamics processors. As with other aspects of MachFive, there's more breadth and depth than initially meets the eye. As a convenience feature, too, multiple effects chains can be stored as a Multi FX preset, and some are provided ready made.
MachFive 2 claims compatibility with a wide range of sample, loop and third-party patch formats:
- Audio files: AIFF, WAV, SD2, SND (all up to 192kHz, 24-bit).
- Loops: Acid, Apple Loops, REX 1, REX 2.
- Third-party presets: Akai MPC, Akai S5000/6000, EXS24 (including Garageband instruments), Gigasampler/Gigastudio 1/2/3, Kontakt 1/2, Samplecell, Soundfont, UVI soundbanks (.DAT and .UFS), VSampler 2.
- 'Legacy' discs: Akai S1000/3000, Emu EIII/EIV, Ensoniq ASR, Kurzweil K2 series, Roland S7 series.
- Other MOTU sound libraries: Symphonic Instrument, Ethno.
These can all be accessed directly, with no pre-conversion stage necessary, and consequently MachFive v1's ugly UVI Xtract application is a thing of the past. On the whole, my success rate at importing third-party sounds was good, and almost every straightforward EXS24, Giga and Kontakt 2 sound I could get my hands on worked great. Little problems can (and did) occur, though, ranging from a few spurious release triggers (which were easily tidied up and re-saved) to more unpredictable results when third-party presets relied extensively on a specific proprietary feature (like Kontakt's scripting) or the synth architecture. I also had a few difficulties with Akai and Emu CD-ROM imports, especially when programs used layered keygroups. MachFive would occasionally place keygroups wrongly, not layering them at all, with many having incorrect root keys, incorrect tuning, or glitchy loops. On the other hand, the majority of sounds imported perfectly.
As MOTU themselves point out, sample importing is a less than exact science, and MachFive 2 fares about as well as its competitors with it. You'll get excellent results alongside a few disasters, and your best chance for success is with fairly straighforward presets from modern sample libraries. For the very best reliability, stick to the bundled library, MOTU's other sample instruments (like Ethno), Universal Sound Bank's UVI soundcards, or other collections natively formatted for MachFive.
As well as conventional sample replay, MachFive 2 also sports new Loop Lab facilities. The idea here is that instead of loading a preset into a part, you load (or drag and drop) a loop or phrase in a compatible audio format (AIFF, WAV, SD2, REX, RX2, Apple Loops, ACID or UFS loops) and this is then played in response to a MIDI trigger, or even automatically in sync with your sequence. Also, you can work on a loop in Loop Lab and then drag it back to your DAW's sequence editor — and in this case MachFive acts more like an audio editor than anything else. Loop Lab Parts don't have any key-mapping functions, but you get alternative facilities, and there's no limit on the number of 'normal' Parts and Loop Lab Parts in a single instance of MachFive.
With a Loop Lab Part selected, you get some dedicated controls in a little section on the right-hand side of MachFive's window, and you also see your audio's waveform in the central Loop Lab window. But to really get down to business you have to expand the window to access crucial additional parameters, and this step is not initially obvious. Once you're 'in', you quickly discover that there are three looping modes on offer: Sample, Stretch and Slice.
Slice mode is a lot like Recycle or Izotope's Phatmatik Pro — it looks for transients in audio (or reads them from an imported file type that already has them) and splits the audio into transient-defined slices. You can then trigger these via MIDI keys (Map mode), or drag them as audio slices or MIDI triggers into your DAW.
Stretch mode does away with any idea of slicing, but instead uses granular synthesis techniques to either change the pitch of the loop (or phrase) while maintaining tempo, or vice versa. I was half expecting to see Ableton Live-like Warp markers, to allow manipulation of the internal rhythmic structure, but Stretch mode doesn't go quite that far.
Finally, Sample mode offers a more traditional style of looping, where duration and pitch are linked. So here's where you can quickly get those grungy down-tempo beats going.
It took me a few minutes to really get my head around what Loop Lab could do, and the best way to interact with it, but once I had, I have to say I was hooked. Perhaps the most powerful features are those that are a little bit hidden. For example, Slice mode's Convert function allows a sliced loop to be dragged into a new Part, where its individual slices get mapped to chromatically arranged keygroups. That lets you really monkey around with it — transposing and applying the synth architecture to individual slices, looping within slices, and combining with other keygroup types. In all three modes, extensive editing and DSP operations on the loaded sample are available via right-clicking in the editor display. Exciting possibilities for sure, and delivered in a very streamlined way.
Compared to a dozen EXS24s, Gigastudio's multiple windows or Kontakt's busy interface, MachFive 2's single window can appear a haven of calm. But first impressions can be deceptive — the interface can, in fact, change in many ways. First of all there's the file/effects browser, Expert mode and automation/modulation overlays, which temporarily replace the main interface. Then there's the Mixer view, which changes everything except the File Manager at top left. The display area (normally showing keygroup mapping, Loop Lab and sample info) can be enlarged to four times its normal size, popped out into a separate window, or switched to display a spectral analyser, tuner or effects parameters. And last but not least, a pop-up multi-envelope editor can occupy a good part of the lower half of the window.
If your idea of sampling is less about playing back commercial libraries and more about making your own multi-samples and mangling audio from your DAW, MachFive's sample and synth architecture will be of interest.
As with 'traditional' samplers dating back a decade or more, MachFive uses a familiar organisational hierarchy. Individual samples are loaded into keygroups, which can be layered and/or limited to particular pitch and velocity ranges. Each keygroup gets its own synth engine (and keygroup FX) and a single setup of samples, keygroups and other settings can be saved and recalled as a Preset. Finally, multiple presets loaded into a number of Parts can be saved and recalled as a MachFive Performance.
Having used MachFive v1 extensively, I found sample management and keygroup editing vastly improved in v2. Individual tools are no longer used in the keygroup editor; instead everything is contextual and automatic, depending on where your mouse pointer is, and right-click contextual menus give more options. In fact, in this respect I have no hesitation in saying that MachFive is the easiest, quickest and most intuitive sampler I've ever worked with. Batch sample placement and editing is flexible and reliable, and loops are easy to create and manipulate.
Interestingly, as well as normal sample-based keygroups MachFive can also create two 'synth' keygroups, 'Raw Oscillators' and 'Organ Emulator', and all three types can be layered and combined at will. A Raw Oscillators keygroup offers up to eight oscillators, each with five different waveforms and other facilities (like PWM and tuning) typical of a synth's oscillator section. Meanwhile, the Organ Emulator is a drawbar-based model, with nine drawbars (individually pannable) and percussion. I found these additional keygroup types extremely useful, and they certainly extend what MachFive is capable of, essentially turning it into a capable synth.
The rest of the synth architecture is, as you'd expect, based around a subtractive model, and it's both powerful and flexible. There are two good-sounding filters offering 14 different filter modes, and their topology can be changed with respect to a Drive circuit and keygroup FX, in 24 possible variations. There are four global and four keygroup LFOs, with variable rise and delay times and multiple waveforms (syncable to host tempo). Any of the six envelope generators can be switched between an AHDSR shape and a multi-segment unlimited breakpoint design. You can also save and load envelope types.
MachFive 2 ships with a 32GB sound library on four DVDs. DVD 1 consists of a 'universal' soundset that shares a lot of content with Ultimate Sound Bank's Plug Sound Pro. DVD 2 offers various high-quality takes on a German grand piano, and DVD 3 has a series of 'Premium' instruments sampled in surround or at 96 and 192 kHz sample rates. Finally, DVD 4 is a specially licensed sub-set of the the Vienna Symphonic Library, with all orchestral instruments except for solo strings.
Whereas MachFive v1's library was patchy and ultimately disappointing, v2's is the business. DVDs 1 and 4 will probably get the most use, together fulfilling all normal requirements for a range of musical styles. There are really good pianos, basses, drum kits and loops, and they all sound great individually and in a mix.
On the face of it, modulation possibilities look to be fair, but perhaps not particularly impressive. For example, look in the Pitch section and there's a Pitch Mod knob with a pop-up menu giving access to a long list of modulation sources. It looks as if only one modulation source is selectable at any one time — until you click the little '+' button nearby... Then you discover that multiple modulators can work on this one parameter, and a modulation source can just as easily be an external MIDI controller as an internal LFO or envelope. Additionally, nearly all other knobs and sliders can be right-clicked to bring up their own modulation assignment windows — organ drawbars, FX parameter knobs, Aux Send levels, envelope Decay times, or almost anything else you can think of.
Far from being limited, MachFive's modulation and MIDI control possibilities are about as extensive as you could possibly imagine, even offering custom value mapping that allows all sorts of subtle and interesting effects like modifying pitch-bend and mod wheel response. The drawback, of course, is that many assignments are hidden most of the time, and that's where a modulation matrix display (as in MOTU's MX4 synth) wins over. But this is a scheme that makes some very nice things possible, especially in terms of programming expressive instruments that work with MIDI controllers, as well as providing MIDI-based automation with DAWs.
To get an idea of what sort of polyphony could be expected of MachFive, I ran a few tests on my dual 2GHz G5 and 2GHz Core Duo Macbook (both maxed out with RAM and running OS 10.5.1), using both the stand-alone application and the plug-in hosted in Digital Performer 5.13. In each case I used a 256-sample buffer size and created a DP project that gradually increased MachFive's polyphony by four notes at a time. MachFive had four 32-note polyphonic parts loaded with the 'Violin ens 14 (sustain)' preset from the bundled VSL library. Here's the polyphony (in stereo voices) I achieved before the audio started breaking up:
Streaming No streaming No streaming Filter LP1 enabled
Stand-alone, G5 40 48 32
Plug-in, G5 60 64 48
Plug-in, MacBook 108 120 88
It has to be said, these are not the most impressive figures — especially for the stand-alone application. Obviously the 100 or so voices possible on the MacBook allow pretty complex arrangements to be built up, but by the time you've got other MIDI and audio tracks running and a clutch of plug-ins instantiated, that figure would be lower. As a quick reality check I constructed a similar test running Reason 4 on the G5, again at a 256-sample buffer size, and loading a similar stereo violin sample into multiple NNXTs. The G5 easily achieved over 360 voices before audio broke down — over six times the polyphony of MachFive's best performance, and much more in line with previous Sound On Sound G5 benchmarks using EXS24 in Logic. I wasn't able to test MachFive running in either Windows XP or Vista, but I've no reason to suspect the situation there would be radically different.
Keygroup Layers and the rules for switching between them are amongst MachFive's most powerful and least intuitive features, and while they're entirely optional when programming your own sounds, they're essential in providing support for sample libraries that have multiple instrument styles or semi-automated or keyswitched articulations within one preset. The idea is that any one preset can have multiple keygroup layers, themselves containing actual layering or other normal arrangements of keygroups. To give a real world example, this can be used to offer multiple articulations (pizzicato, sustain, marcato and so forth) within one string preset, with some pre-defined MIDI keys used to seamlessly switch between the articulation layers. Other things are possible too — guitar strum samples that alternate up and down strum direction, solo violins that sound different depending on what musical interval was just played, and so on. I had a quick bash at setting up a simple alternating rule with some hi-hat samples and it was easy enough to figure out. Anything much more complex than this I'd prefer to leave to the sample design pros, thank you very much, but still, the features are there, should you need them for your own sounds.
I'll get straight to the point — I really enjoyed working with MachFive over the course of this review, and I'll gladly make it a part of my normal workflow from now on. Like all the best-designed software, it's easy to learn and immediately useful out of the box, but somehow keeps on delivering as you ask more of it.
Of course, there are some flaws, and right at the top of the list is processor efficiency, or lack of it. To work up a really complex arrangement, with filters and effects enabled, you'll need to have a good computer. MachFive is still useful on older machines, but you must have realistic expectations of what can be achieved. I'd also like to see a few more sample formats supported, the anomalies I experienced with a few legacy discs cleared up, and more native MachFive libraries being released commercially. But set against these drawbacks is the very fine sound quality of the UVI engine and the included library, and the sheer usability of MachFive in most other respects. MOTU have been careful to ensure that it's relevant to a wide range of users too, so whilst Loop Lab might never see the light of day in an orchestrator's studio, it could easily become a crucial feature to a writer or producer of pop or dance music.
MachFive 2 excels wherever good sound quality, broad compatibility and ease of use are high priorities, and the perception that it's less 'geeky' than NI's Kontakt is, I think, a valid one, although immense programming depth is there when you need it. It's a mature product that you can buy confident in the knowledge that — so long as your computer can cope — it'll help you get things done. And we can all use a few more of those.
- Broad compatibility with a range of plug-in and sample formats.
- Excellent sound quality, a fine bundled library and useful effects.
- The ease of use hides deep programmability.
- Poor processor efficiency and polyphony compared to rivals.
- Variable third-party sample import success rate.
MachFive 2 is a hugely capable virtual instrument that can turn its hand to almost any style of music production. If efficiency was better it might just be the perfect software sampler.
£299 including VAT.
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