Spectrasonics' new software instruments are based around a vast library of sampled material, but also contain enough processing options to make them more like virtual synths. We check out the rhythm-oriented Stylus...
Earlier this year, US-based sound library and sample CD-ROM manufacturer Spectrasonics announced a range of three sample-based virtual instrument plug-ins (VST Mac/PC, MAS, RTAS), each designed around a modified version of the third-party UVI audio engine. This engine offers controls customised for each of the three plug-ins, so that they behave more like virtual synths than sample-playback devices. At the heart of each instrument lies a large core sample library newly developed by Spectrasonics — and while a typical hardware synth might be shipped with 16 or 32MB of sample ROM, these instruments come with around three Gigabytes of sounds!
Because of the size of the supplied sample library, you need to have plenty of spare hard drive space as well as enough RAM to load the samples. Mac users need to be running OS 9.04 or above and have 3.1GB of free drive space. Upwards of 512MB of RAM is recommended, and a Mac G3 is a practical minimum, with a G4 obviously being better. Windows users have the same RAM and hard drive space requirements, and though no minimum processor spec is quoted, I wouldn't suggest running Stylus on anything less than a PIII or equivalent.
The program comes spread over five CD-ROMs which the installer combines into one huge data file, resident in the main Stylus plug-in folder (although the data file can also reside on an auxiliary drive). After installation, a challenge and response system is used to provide the unlock code — the program only runs for a couple of days prior to authorisation, but the response code can be issued via the Spectrasonics web site. Note that the conditions for using Stylus are broadly similar to those of other Spectrasonics sample libraries, so you can't share Stylus with other musicians or sell it on. However, Spectrasonics are apparently reasonably accommodating if you want to use Stylus on both a desktop machine and a laptop, and will issue the relevant authorisation codes once you register.
If you think of Stylus as a virtual beatbox on steroids, you won't go far wrong. It is clearly designed for hip-hop/breakbeat-style music composition, but the range of editing and control means you can remould the loops into just about any style you like. The rhythmic grooves are all available in both standard and Spectrasonics' Groove Control format with a matching MIDI file to give you Groove Control facilities for each loop. One drag-and-drop operation puts this in your sequencer track; the main advantage is that rhythm loops can then be changed in tempo quite radically with no loss in audio quality (for more on Groove Control, see the recent feature on the subject in SOS July 2002). It would be more convenient if the host sequencer could automatically load the necessary MIDI file whenever a new rhythm loop was suggested, but apparently the architecture of the major sequencers makes this difficult to achieve at present.
Selecting sounds is very simple with both conventional and Groove Control versions of each rhythm available from categorised pull-down menus. Tempo information is provided for all the non-Groove Control grooves, and there are around 3000 patches in all, based upon 38,000 individual samples. The patches are broken down into the following types:
- LOOP PATCHES
These each contain just one audio loop mapped across the keyboard, where middle C is the original tempo. You can use these as they come, but they also provide a quick way of auditioning patches, as they're faster to load than their Groove Control equivalents. When you've chosen one, you can then load the Groove Control version for more tempo flexibility. The Loop Patches are also good for real-time layering, as you have instant access to several different loop elements at the same time. By contrast, Groove Control lets you access just one rhythm loop per part.
- GROOVE MENU ITEMS
These items have 61 different tempo-matched loops (supplied from 50 to 180bpm), each assigned to their own keyboard note. This provides a fast way to assemble layered rhythm parts, but as these do not use Groove Control, any change of tempo involves a corresponding change of pitch. Likewise, if you try to use Zone edit (of which more in a moment) to change pitch, the tempo will also change. Swing Menus follow the same concept as the Groove Menu section, but have a stronger swing feel.
- GROOVE CONTROL PATCHES
These comprise loops that have been sliced in such a way that by triggering the slices from the matched MIDI file, you can can recreate the original loop over a wide tempo range. The Groove Control patches use an identical directory structure to the loop patches and are identified by the patch name. The manual points out that while Groove Control patches are designed to be driven from their MIDI file, they can also be played manually, as the slices are triggered by a ramp of chromatic MIDI notes starting at C1, so each note plays one slice (usually a single beat).
The sound library contains both Breakbeats and Percussion Loops, available in both standard and Groove Control formats. Breakbeats are traditionally 'lifted' from records, but to avoid copyright problems, Spectrasonics have created their own from scratch (no pun intended!), and then pressed them onto vinyl before resampling themin a bid to capture the authentic sound.
- PERCUSSION LOOPS
The Percussion Loops section features specific percussion instruments, such as bongos, shakers, djembes, hi-hats, ride cymbals and so on, that can be layered with any of the other Groove Control Percussion loops or Groove Control Breakbeats loops at any tempo. Organisation is by percussion instrument type and there are some very useable cymbal loops in this section, as well as the more obvious congas and bongos.
- TURNTABLE FX
These patches comprise in excess of 1000 theme-based DJ effects samples where each patch comprises up to 61 samples mapped right across the keyboard Here you'll find short snatches of sound, scratches, noises and effects. If you're into vinyl sounds, you need look no further.
- ADD-ONS & UTILITIES
This section provides more one-shot samples and includes cymbals, handclaps, fingersnaps and a vast array of drum samples — there are 1000 kick drums, 1000 snares and 500 hi-hat samples! These may be used to program your own drum parts in the usual way, or may be layered with the loops. Meanwhile, Utilities contains click/metronome sounds, test tones, noise bursts and so on.
For any developer to go to the trouble of actually pressing their breakbeat loops onto vinyl before sampling them, as Eric Persing did here, shows a remarkable attention to detail, but in this case it has paid off. The essence of vinyl has been captured very nicely without excessive surface noise (except where that is appropriate!). The rhythms themselves also manage to be original without straying too far from what is acceptable in the genre, though of course, you can twist the supplied ones out of all recognition if you like. Furthermore, if you use the menus to create layered loops, it's extremely easy to create a full rhythm arrangement with appropriately changing dynamics simply by combining the rhythm elements in different permutations.
Moving outside the main Breakbeat loops, the percussion loops are again designed to be musically useful rather than being an excuse for the producers to show off their polyrhythmic skills, and they layer well with the main rhythms. I particularly liked the harmonic cymbal loops and djembe rhythms, but you also get plenty of congas, bongos, hi-hats and the other staples of rhythm construction. These are all sampled cleanly with only a little ambience, giving them a very natural sound, so there's plenty of scope to treat them, either with effects or with the built-in filters and ADSR.
Finally, the Extras are a mammoth resource on their own. There really are 1000 different kick sounds, in the main electronically generated, and these include some powerful alternatives to the usual TR909 'thwubs', as well as all the old staples. The same is true of the snares and the other sections, but where it really does get overwhelming is in the record scratch department. Every vinyl effect you can think of is included, with dozens of variations of each. With this section, you'll never need to abuse another gramophone record again! And of course you get some nice vinyl crackle to add to your own recordings. In short, the core sound library inside Stylus is exceptionally well produced, and well-targeted stylistically.
When Groove Control patches are being used, each Groove Control slice is assigned to its own sample 'Zone'. When the front-panel Zone Edit button is off, the edit controls apply to the whole loop, but when active, each zone (slice) is editable separately. Slices can be selected by playing the corresponding individual keyboard notes, and any settings applied to that Zone will be remembered. Simply making changes to the tuning of different notes can completely change the feel of a loop, but when you start to work on the filter settings and the envelopes as well, even the most ordinary drum part can end up sounding quite surreal. Control changes can be recorded either while the sequence is playing or while it is stopped.
All of the front-panel controls, other than the Master controls, apply either to the whole loop or individual slices or a loop, depending on whether Zone Edit is selected or not, and of course you need to be using a Groove Control loop for slices to be applicable. Level, Pan and Velocity are pretty self-explanatory, as are Pitch coarse-and fine-tuning. However, the pitch may also be controlled via a dedicated envelope shaper that has just a variable release time for those electronic drum sounds of yesteryear (or Eastenders!). Both positive and negative envelope shifts can be applied to pitch.
- 07: Level.
- 10: Pan.
- 11: Expression (assignable).
- 71: Master Filter Resonance.
- 72: Release.
- 73: Attack.
- 74: Master Filter Cutoff.
- 75: Decay.
- 76: Sustain.
- 77: Filter Cutoff.
- 78: Filter Resonance.
- 79: Filter Envelope Amount.
- 80: Filter Envelope Time.
- 81: Filter Modulation depth.
- 82: Pitch Coarse.
- 83: Pitch Fine.
- 84: Pitch Envelope Amount.
- 85: Pitch Envelope Time.
- 86: Pan Modulation.
- 87: LFO1 rate.
- 88: LFO2 rate.
- 89: Velocity Slider.
All the controls may also be automated using external MIDI controllers. The manual tells Logic v5 users that they must set Logic to respond to 'any MIDI controller' in the Song Settings Preferences window for each song where this feature is to be used. A full list of the Stylus parameters that respond to MIDI Control Change messages can be found in the box above.
The filter section is quite simple and again offers control over only decay time and modulation amount, but the filter itself can be selected from any one of four types (three low-pass or one high-pass) and has variable cutoff frequency and resonance. Disengaging the filter frees up some CPU power. An additional master filter provides manually adjustable frequency and resonance (this is not part of the Zone system) and there's also a level envelope shaper with full ADSR control. Filter and Pan may be modulated from a number of sources: key position, aftertouch, the expression controller (continuous controller #11), mod wheel and internal LFOs 1 and 2. It's also possible to alternate values for each trigger, or to select new random values for each trigger.
Playback mode may be switched to 32-bit, which is slightly smoother for cymbal sounds and other critical percussion. Interestingly, this setting purports to save a little on CPU usage but it doubles the amount of RAM needed for sample storage. Polyphony is also variable, but in the context of Groove Control drum loops, three or four voices is generally all that's needed. Pitch-bend range is variable in semitone steps up to one octave.
Installing and authorising Stylus was very straightforward on my G4 Mac. As the manual suggests, picking the non-Groove Control versions of the loops for auditioning makes finding a suitable loop easy, after which the Groove Control version can be called up and the tempo changed accordingly (the controlling MIDI file then follows the tempo of your song). Most sequencers support drag and drop for adding MIDI files to an arrangement, so pulling in the MIDI file corresponding to the Groove Control loop you've selected is very quick and easy.
Even if you just use Stylus as a sample-loop player, it's quite cost-effective when you consider how many sampled loops you get for your money, and the overall quality is excellent, on a par with Spectrasonics' previous releases. Because the front-panel controls can be used to change the sounds in much the same way as you might with an analogue synth, and because these can be set differently for each slice of a Groove Control loop by switching on Zone Edit, you can get some outrageous results very easily. For example, there's a cymbal loop that sounds very weird when different beats are pitch-changed and given a slow attack level envelope. You can also tune the resonant filter to make each beat ring on a different note, and if you have the patience, you can even program melodies! In this respect, perhaps future versions of Stylus might benefit from allowing filter frequency control by note as well as frequency.
A review doesn't provide nearly enough space to do justice to the versatility of a product like this one, or to cover all the novel ways in which it can be used. It costs no more than an ordinary sample CD-ROM library, but it comes with its own player, plus its own creative control system. In addition to the loops, you get a vast number of hits and extras, and because Groove Control is used as the basis for these loops, it's possible to make changes to the level and timing of individual notes — something you can't easily do when dealing with conventional loops. Furthermore, because drum loops require low polyphony, Stylus isn't too greedy on CPU power, even when using a lot of automation. Although you can't load new samples into Stylus, updates are planned, although Spectrasonics were remaining tight-lipped about what these might contain at the time of going to press.
If you're into breakbeat rhythms and have a VST host application, Stylus is a must, but even if you don't do hip-hop or breakbeat-based music, you shouldn't dismiss Stylus, as its rhythms can be bent and twisted to fit almost any genre.
- Easy to install and use.
- Adjustable tempo.
- Zone edit makes it easy to create radical new sounds.
- Comes with a vast library of loops, hits and special effects.
- You can't load new samples into Stylus.
Stylus is hugely enjoyable to use, is easy to operate, and is flexible enough to ensure that your loops can sound different to the ones everyone else is using!
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