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Squash It! Atari Computing Online

Atari Notes By Derek Johnson
Published April 1999

You can see how attractive Squash It's graphic interface is from this Falcon hi‑res colour screenshot.You can see how attractive Squash It's graphic interface is from this Falcon hi‑res colour screenshot.

Less than £60 buys an Atari sample editor that's up there with new Mac and PC audio tools in terms of sound‑manipulation potential. Derek Johnson puts his samples through the Squash It! mangle.

The humble Atari is not the obvious choice when it comes to audio editing, especially in these days of ultra‑fast Macs and PCs. Yet the platform has always had its audio‑editing tools, from 8‑bit sampling cartridges with simple software and Microdeal's quite sophisticated Replay 16 package (reviewed SOS June 1993) at one end of the price scale, to Steinberg's Avalon and Digidesign's tentative foot in the water — yes, Sound Tools on a Mega ST was, for a few months anyway, more sophisticated than the Mac version — at the other. And that's without mentioning various worthy PD and shareware applications, and Falcon‑specific products that are still being developed and supported.

Even now, almost as late into the '90s as you can go, new software exploiting the ST as an audio tool continues to be released. Electronic Cow's eagerly awaited Squash It! is one such piece of software, and as you might expect from a company that's released a granular synth amongst a host of other intriguing MIDI and audio tools for our platform, Squash It! offers a little more than plain vanilla sample manipulation.

Though the software will run on any variety of ST, Falcon or clone (in colour, where available), it's happier on the more upmarket machines, and generally prefers optimised alternative operating systems and desktops. It also needs at least 2Mb of RAM to operate. Audio playback is available on all ST variants, even humble STFs and STFMs, though the sound is not exactly hi‑fi in these cases. This is the fault of the computer, and it's only through clever programming that the facility is available at all. Additionally, while the software will run from a floppy disk, Squash It! much prefers to live on a hard drive. One function that won't be available on floppy‑based systems is 'Undo', since the facility uses a temporary file on disk, and floppy users will be unlikely to have enough space for this. Note that Undo default status is off — you need to turn it on if want to use it.

Anyone For Squash?

Squash It! Atari Computing Online

First of all, it should be pointed out that Squash It! is a mono or stereo sample editor, not a sampler. This means you'll need some way of creating samples to load into Squash It!. I still have a Replay 16 cartridge, and the software is compatible with the AVR files produced by that system. Of course, other Electronic Cow products can be used to produce raw material. The software will also load AIFF and WAV files directly, so if you have a sampler or software on another computer that can output these formats, you'll be able to take advantage of Squash It's special brand of sound design. Various other formats can be loaded, including Sound Designer I/II, but you have to tell the software the raw sample's properties. MIDI Sample Dump Standard is supported, as is dumping to and from Akai S900/S950, so samples can be beamed (albeit slowly) from any sampler to the software, and from the software to any compatible device, including many sample‑RAM‑equipped synths. Samples can be saved in AVR, AIFF or WAV formats, or as 'raw' 16‑ or 8‑bit sample files.

Once you've loaded a sample into Squash It!, it appears in a zoomable waveform display. A row of icons across the top of the display allows you to access many functions without needing to go to the menu bar, and in addition nearly every function has a keyboard shortcut. An obvious one is 'P' for playback; I found this to be most useful, since, due to shortcomings of my aged STFM, playing with a mouse (by clicking the speaker icon above the waveform display) could often cause machine‑gun beeps.

And now to the tweaking and mangling tools offered by Squash It!. Most effects and processes are accessed via attractively designed little onscreen virtual rack units, though simple tricks such as reversing, cutting, copying and pasting audio happen automatically, without special windows. There's obviously no auditioning, so be prepared to play around with parameters to see what is possible. Be prepared to wait, as well, since some processes can be quite slow, especially longer samples on unenhanced older STs.

The first rack you may encounter is dubbed 'Overlay', and is a tool which makes it possible to mix audio in the clipboard with that in the main display. The mixing options are actually pretty varied: the two chunks of audio can be crossfaded, for pseudo‑morphing effects, ring or amplitude modulated, or treated to a fixed pseudo‑low‑pass filter (this last treatment can accentuate frequencies in an unpredictable fashion). The next rack is called 'Tile', and is used to repeat defined sections of a waveform up to 25 times, allowing for the creation of new, possibly complex, sounds from small bits of existing audio — tiled sections of sound can be overlapped (producing a smoother sound) and every other tile can be reversed.

Cool Tools

The Tools menu accesses a number of synth‑like rack units, though the sample playback frequency is also set here, and the list also includes normalise and 'volume tools':

  • LFO — Low Frequency Oscillator — adds vibrato or tremolo to a sample's pitch or amplitude. Square, sine and sawtooth waveforms are available, with speed, depth, attack and decay controls.
  • Envelope Shaper is offered instead of a fade tool. Use it to contour the volume of your sample. As well as rate controls for the A, D and R portions, which determine the length of each envelope stage, there are also level controls for each stage of the ADSR envelope.
  • Squash is one of many unique processes which are hard to explain; you simply have to hear it. The process involves time‑stretching (or squashing), and according to the manual "is designed for changing the temporal characteristics of a sample". You can choose to have pitch change during the stretching/squashing process, or remain the same. Artifacts are evident in extreme processing, but some very interesting results are possible.
  • Explode is a little easier to explain. The name is quite apt, as the process breaks up a sample into grains which are then reassembled. An irresistible parameter set include debris mass, explosion, turbulence and epicentre. This process does weird things to rhythmic loops (as does the previous effect).
  • Granularise is a more ordered version of Explode, allowing you to create a new sound from an existing sample by rearranging its 'grains' according to a user‑definable, pseudo‑random algorithm.
  • Ring, Phase and Squared modulation are three processes that modulate the sample with itself in various ways. The Ring and Squared modulators don't have rack units, though Ring can be customised using a variety of key combinations.
  • A Drum Split rack lets you divide a drum loop into individual hits, or any sample into equal sections, and provides a MIDI file that should play the hits/sections back. This is great, but requires a few goes to get it working properly.

Other facilities offered by the program include an array of filters (see 'Filter Tips' box on page 236) and effects, which have their own menu. Processes served under this heading include a compressor/gate (only one at a time can be used), digital delay (up to 650mS, with feedback), and ping‑pong delay (a stereo effect, which produces a stereo sample from a mono original). A harmoniser is also offered (+/‑1 octave, with a 'scale‑to‑fit‑original‑sample‑length' option). This process adds harmonised audio to the sample, or simply alters its pitch — the choice is yours. There's also a Rotary Speaker (another stereo effect), and various stereo manipulation tools including a nifty stereo crossfade tool.

Buy It!

As you can see, Squash It! provides as comprehensive a selection of audio manipulation and mangling tools as anyone could wish for. One strange omission is looping — it can't be done, and samples imported with loop points lose them in the program. But this is one small gripe amidst a nice, easy‑to‑use program — even the manual's all right! The software worked fine, if a little clunkily, on my STFM, so it should be great on anything a bit more souped‑up. If you're an Atari or Falcon user who works with audio, you should own this software! And if you're one of the many Mac and PC users who still have their old ST knocking about the studio, maybe Squash It! will persuade you to give the old computer desk space. It'll complement other editors/sampler nicely, provides some unique treatments, and costs less than 60 quid.

Filter Tips

Squash It's filters are provided with their own menu, and there's some good variety here. As in the rest of the program, the standard — comb filter and low/high‑pass filter — is joined by the odd. And by 'odd', I mean filters that go by the name of Erode, Smooth/Expand, Image and Logic. The Erode filter has another great collection of parameters — erosion, noise, crackle and low‑frequency hum — and distorts a sound in a particular way, as well as adding crackle (as in scratchy vinyl records) and hum. If you need your samples to sound as if they'd been lifted from a scratchy old record from a charity shop, and then played through a "dodgy preamp", this is the process for you! The Smooth/Expand combination offers a low‑pass filter effect which can be applied to user‑definable amplitude regions (Smooth) or boost the high‑frequency content of a sample (Expand).

The Image filter is actually designed for image processing — parameters include Rotation Axis, Mirror, Posterise, Smear, Mosaic and Blur — and can produce some interesting effects, roughly analogous to their jobs in the visual world, on audio files. Blur offers an LPF effect, while Mosaic and Posterise dig into the sample itself, producing the effect of losing bits or resolution. The manual notes that the Posterise parameter, with a low depth setting, can actually get rid of noise and small pops.

The Logic filter is another collection of useful tricks, including a De‑click process and a Flip option (which produces a phase‑reversed verion of the sample). Shuffle and Shift offer yet more ways to do strange things to your samples, by moving them up or down on the amplitude axis, or left and right in the time domain.

Show & Tell

The people behind Atari Computing are planning an Atari presence at the next Sharward Promotions' All Micro Show, on Sunday, April 18, at Stafford's Bingley Hall. There will be plenty of interest for Atari users including Atari Computing themselves, System Solutions, Titan Designs, 16/32, Electronic Cow, Abingdon Synthesis Projects, CyberSTrider and several user groups. Entry is £3 at the door, and an even more nominal £2 (plus SSAE) in advance.

Atari Computing Issue 12

It's a little later than expected, but issue 12 of Atari Computing has hit the streets — or at least the mailboxes of those on this subscription‑only mag's mailing list. It's a biggie, with a backlog of material swelling the page count to 64. A healthy percentage of that is actually music coverage, as well, with reviews of Softjee's Easy Beat virtual drum machine and Digital Home Studio for Falcons, the same company's sample‑clock converter and Anodyne Software's CD Writer, plus a feature on using Line Audio's Jam range of digial audio interfaces. There's also a review of Steinberg's Pro 24 III. No, you haven't just entered a time warp: this classic bit of pre‑Cubase sequencing software is available, in limited quantities, direct from Atari Computing, for just £10.99 as a readers' offer. Contact the mag for subscription details.