The latest incarnation of Tascam's Gigastudio introduces support for 64-bit operating systems and the ability to address up to 128GB of RAM. Are there any catches? Let's find out...
NOTE: after going to press with this August edition review at the end of June, we learned that TEAC/Tascam have ceased development of their Gigastudio sample software platform from July 21st. Please see SOS News story for more info.
Gigasampler was quite revolutionary when first released, being the very first sample player to stream samples in real time directly from a hard drive. This removed the requirement for lots of RAM in order to load in samples in their entirety, as well as the need to loop the sustained portion of notes to make them seem longer, and for the very first time you could play back samples with durations of minutes instead of seconds.
My first encounter with the Giga range was in 1998, when I reviewed Gigasampler 1.5 — and I was most impressed with its ability to stream up to a massive 4.3GB of sample data direct from a hard drive. Two years later I was reviewing Gigastudio 160, with its awesome 160-note maximum polyphony, its own range of built-in basic EQ and plug-in effects, and wider audio interface support.
However, it was another four years before the release of Gigastudio 3, with support for 24-bit/96kHz samples, VST plug-ins, a far more sophisticated user interface including the 'DSP Station' mixing console, and the excellent Gigapulse convolution reverb with its surround positioning features. Unfortunately, by this time some power users were bemoaning Gigastudio's lack of support for 64-bit processors, dual processors and hyperthreading.
Fast forward three and a half years to 2008, and the long-awaited Gigastudio 4 is finally here. Surprisingly, it has just two new major features, plus various smaller additions and improvements. First off, it can now act as a host application for other VST Instruments, but for many users the most important change is that Gigastudio now supports 64-bit operating systems.
The biggest frustration for GS3 power users, such as film composers, was running out of RAM (Tascam recommended installing a maximum of 2GB), which still surprises those new to the application — after all, isn't the whole point that sample data is streamed directly from your hard drive?
Unfortunately, this is one of the few down sides of using realistic libraries with huge numbers of velocity and articulation layers — each and every sample required by loaded instruments must have its initial portion permanently buffered in system RAM, to ensure that when you want to play any layer of any note it can start streaming this initial portion almost immediately, while the remainder starts to stream in from your hard drive. When you're running orchestral simulations, in particular, you may find all your system RAM tied up before you play a single note, especially now that larger 24-bit/96kHz audio files are supported.
Gigastudio 4 doesn't allow you to use significantly more system RAM if you're running 32-bit Windows XP Home/Professional or Windows Vista 32-bit. However, this time round you also have the option of installing and running Gigastudio on a 64-bit operating system. Unusually, both Windows XP Pro x64 and Vista 64 are supported (most other developers have quietly dropped Pro x64 to concentrate on the Vista platform), with the huge carrot of being able to use up to 128GB of physical memory (subject to individual operating system and motherboard restrictions).
While the thought of being able to take advantage of much greater amounts of system RAM will be extremely enticing to many, there are some practical things to consider before taking the 64-bit plunge. Firstly (and some musicians will find this very limiting), the 64-bit GS4 doesn't currently support 32-bit VST plug-ins or Instruments, so unless your favourites are available in 64-bit versions, it won't be able to host them (Tascam have announced their intention to add support for 32-bit plug-ins and instruments in 64-bit Gigastudio version 4.10, although no likely release date has yet been announced.)
Secondly, as I write this there is no 64-bit Rewire component available from developers Propellerhead, so those who normally connect Gigastudio to a sequencer application like Cubase or Nuendo via Rewire will also have to stick with the 32-bit version.
Finally, without this Rewire option you'll require a 64-bit GSIF version 2.1 driver for your audio interface, and these are in extremely short supply (although most audio interfaces now have 64-bit ASIO drivers, very few yet offer 64-bit GSIF support, the most notable being RME and Tascam themselves).
In other words, while some 64-bit system users are excitedly reporting being able to use around 6GB of system RAM out of a total of 8GB for loading samples with GS4, or 12GB from a total of 16GB, their pool of available third party plug-ins and instruments is probably quite tiny at present, and most also seem to be running RME HDSP interfaces.
GS4 includes a 16GB collection of sampled instruments, including contributions from such names as Art Vista, Best Service, Digital Soundworks, Jim Corrigan, Larry Seyer Digital, Notre Dame de Budapest, Project SAM, SampleDaddy, Sampletekk, Sonivox Tascam, Wavelore, and Westgate Studios (you can download a detailed list at www.tascamgiga.com/i-3620-232-128-0-1CF2F9E1.pdf).
There's plenty of useful content here, sufficient to compose complete songs, and, for me, the most useful proved to be the Sonivox collection. However, I do think it's a bit cheeky that some of this bundled content (the Art Vista Malmsjo GVI piano and SampleDaddy's Tokyo Seoul GVIs) comprises time-limited demos of full products.
The other major addition to GS4 is VSTi support, so you can use it as a host for other virtual instruments, even including sample-playing competitors such as NI's Kontakt or Tascam's own GVI (Giga Virtual Instrument). Like standard Giga instruments, VST Instruments can also be easily stacked on a single MIDI channel to create more complex sounds.
As mentioned above, the 64-bit GS4 will only currently load 64-bit VST Instruments, which are in extremely short supply. You will, however, be able to load GVI (Giga Virtual Instrument) libraries, since these are treated as sample content rather than instruments.
The main improvement over running the same VST Instruments inside a sequencer is said to be lower latency, due to the kernel-level code that Gigastudio has featured from the start (and which has also made it rather particular about compatibility with some PC components). Another benefit of hosting VST Instruments in GS4 is being able to sprinkle on some of the excellent Gigapulse convolution reverb.
This new hosting feature should appeal to musicians who use Gigastudio for live performance, because they can now play all their sample libraries and and virtual instruments from a single application. For those who rely on hardware sequencers for rock-solid timing, this also means being able to dispense with other software hosts/sequencers just to run non-Giga virtual instruments. Do bear in mind for live use, though, that while most sequencers can implement automatic plug-in delay compensation by starting playback of tracks using them slightly earlier, GS4 will be a 'live' playback engine, so you'll probably want to avoid plug-ins with noticeable latency, such as (for instance) look-ahead limiters and phase-linear EQs.
Supported 32-bit operating systems for GigaStudio 4 are Windows XP Home/Professional running Service Pack 2, and Vista 32-bit. Unless you're using Rewire to connect the GS4 audio outputs to another application such as Cubase or Nuendo, you'll also need an audio interface with any version of GSIF drivers. There is still no version of the software for Mac users, although the forthcoming Giga Virtual Instrument 4 will provide support for Mac OS X.
Those interested in the greater system RAM support of 64-bit operating systems will need to be running Windows XP Professional x64 or Vista 64-bit. Since Rewire isn't yet available in a 64-bit version, they will need an audio interface with the extremely rare 64-bit GSIF drivers.
Tascam also recommend an Intel Core Duo 1.86GHz to 2.66GHz or an AMD Athlon 64 X2 dual-core 5800+ processors, plus 2GB of RAM and a dedicated 7200rpm hard drive for sample storage. Most musicians are now taking advantage of multi-core PCs to provide them with vastly increased processing power, with many running quad-core setups, and power users running octo-core machines featuring two quad-core CPUs. I was therefore disappointed to note that although GS4 will run on more powerful systems containing four or more cores, it will only be able to take advantage of two cores.
This is what Tascam have to say on the subject: "Gigastudio 4 supports multi-core processors, but because of the kernel-level engine the main part of the app runs on one core. Gigapulse, hosted VST plug-ins, etc, would run on other cores. So if you were choosing between a super-fast dual-core and a less speedy quad-core, the dual-core would probably get better performance."
Despite the fact that you don't get to read the Installation instructions in the PDF manuals until after you've installed the application (doh!), installation of GS4 was nevertheless a breeze for me, and if you already have GS3 installed you can leave it in place and it will co-exist peacefully on the same computer with GS4.
One welcome change with GS4 is the removal of the system-specific challenge and response protection used in previous versions, in favour of a Syncrosoft dongle (most popularly used by Cubase, and first used by Tascam on their GVI 3.5), and as the supplied dongle was pre-authorised, my installation was completed within a couple of minutes without my even having to go on-line. However, I did go on-line once I had GS4 up and running, and successfully transferred its Syncrosoft license to the dongle that I already use for Cubase, Wavelab, Groove Agent and Tascam's GVI 3, to avoid occupying yet another USB port.
Personally I much prefer dongles to system-specific challenge and response protection, especially because you don't have to persuade the developer to provide you with a new response after a computer upgrade. This is particularly relevant with GS4, as I expect many users will initially install the 32-bit version and then switch to 64-bit Windows and more RAM later on. If you do this, your licensed dongle will simply carry on working on your new system.
Here's a quick round-up of some of the new features in GS4:
- The keyboard now has a Master Tuning control on its right-hand side, with a plus or minus 50 cent range, so you can more easily add Giga instruments to existing projects recorded at non-concert pitch.
- The DSP Station can now be displayed in a separate pane on the same screen as the MIDI Mixer, which is very useful for those with larger screens and using fewer instruments, because you no longer have to keep switching between two displays.
- You can also display a single channel of the DSP Mixer to the right of the MIDI Mixer, whose contents reflect the currently selected MIDI channel. This provides a quick and handy way to tweak plug-in and channel settings without having to swap back and forth between the DSP and MIDI mixer pages.
- The Quicksound database function has been completely redesigned in GS4, and is now a stand-alone utility. You can use it to audition sounds with the selected Windows sound device, without needing a GSIF-equipped audio interface, and searches for specific sounds in your collection are a lot faster.
You can also theoretically use the database utility to convert legacy Instruments from previous GS releases to Version 4, but it has proved capable of corrupting files (as some early users found), so Tascam now warn against doing this. If you want to incorporate GS4 features into older Giga instruments, it's easier (and safer) to load them into GS4 and re-save them, creating a version 4 compatible file.
Gigastudio 3 added support for VST plug-ins, although I had quite a few problems with this feature, various plug-ins in my collection managing to crash the application despite working fine inside other VST host applications. The VSTi support featured in Gigastudio 4 initially caused me similar problems. It took me about an hour in total to get up and running, the stand-alone Giga Configuration Manager repeatedly scanning my plug-ins and instruments, crashing with some of them, but forgetting to block these offenders on the next attempt. On a few occasions dozens of devices were successfully scanned, only for one further down the line to crash the application and for it to forget where it was in the list.
When I finally emerged into GS4 it had blocked my entire collection of AAS instruments (Lounge Lizard 2, Lounge Lizard 3, String Studio, Tassman, Ultra Analog), a few plug-ins, and (bizarrely) Tascam's own GVI 3.5. Unfortunately, my VSTi problems didn't stop there, since attempting to load some of those that had survived the scan process either crashed Gigastudio 4 or produced a blue screen requiring a complete reboot. Problem instruments included NI's Kontakt 2 and Reaktor, plus Steinberg's Groove Agent 2 (but not version 3).
I realise that there are hundreds of VSTi's out there, but Kontakt is specifically mentioned in Tascam's publicity material, and Reaktor is a major application, so I was a little disappointed that they, like other instruments in my collection, had fallen at the first and second fences. I also foolishly installed the extra bundled content later on, and when I next attempted to launch GS4 it rescanned my entire system for plug-ins from scratch once more, repeating the previous crash sequence in its entirety. There has to be a better approach than this!
Fortunately, from then on I experienced no further operational issues, and GS4 remained stable and problem-free during the rest of the review period. GSIF latency was as low as ever on my PC, although I can't help thinking that, with so many already running their VST-compatible sequencers at latencies of 1.5ms or even lower, GS4 faces a tougher challenge than ever to win new users on this aspect of its performance.
Overall, using GigaStudio 4 on a 32-bit platform gave me a remarkable feeling of déjà vu — apart from the various cosmetic improvements (see the 'Smaller Changes' box above) it felt more like a minor update than a major version shift, largely because most of the heavy-duty changes are hidden in the 64-bit software engine. I even searched the PDF manual for the word 'new', to see if I'd missed any other changes.
I find GigaStudio 4 a difficult product to sum up, and it doesn't really have any direct competitors, since most other soft samplers are in VSTi format, like Tascam's own GVI. Existing GigasSudio users running 32-bit PCs face a tricky choice over whether to upgrade, as the only major new feature on offer to them beyond GS3 is VSTi hosting, and at the moment there are still quite a few VST Instruments that don't seem to be compatible. However, reports from users who previously had stability problems with GS3 also suggest that GS4 is far more stable, and this, along with the various other smaller improvements, will no doubt encourage many to go ahead.
GigaStudio 4 will be greeted with open arms by power users, who will partner it with a dedicated PC containing a fast dual-core processor, 8GB (or even 16GB) of RAM and loads of fast, capacious hard drives, running a Windows 64-bit operating system. Such powerful systems will suit film composers and live performers who need high-polyphony sample playback with low latency, and the lifting of previous RAM restrictions may make their working lives significantly simpler, by letting them run fewer PCs in the studio.