Studio One's virtual instrument Presence XT comes with a huge array of sounds, and many ways to mangle them.
Presence XT is the workhorse virtual instrument that ships with Studio One. It’s a sample player that can handle complex multisampled instruments, and supports formats such as EXS, Giga, Kontakt 4 and SoundFonts. The majority of the library that comes with it tackles real‑world instruments such as orchestral, pianos, band instruments and so on. Throughout you’ll find high‑quality instruments, many with different articulations and multiple layers of velocity‑driven authenticity. But the front end also offers layers of synth‑like functionality to give you the opportunity to tweak, modulate and sculpt the sounds, and effects to give you polish or playfulness.
In this month’s workshop we’ll dig into this fabulous source of sounds and ensure we’re using it to its fullest potential. I should note that in a workshop on General MIDI from a couple of months ago I accused Presence XT of not having any drum kits... Turns out that it does, but they are hidden away under ‘Artist Sounds’ in the preset list and should indeed appear when loading a MIDI file. Sorry for any confusion.
The first section to look at is the mysterious central display. Some Presence instruments seem to fill that box with controls and cute icons, while others don’t have any interest in it at all. It’s like an elephant in the room: you can quite happily ignore it and still enjoy Presence XT as an instrument, but you always know there’s something important lurking about the place. At a basic level it shows the preset name, sample size and voice count, and that’s all you get for the bank of synth sounds. But with more complex acoustic and multisampled instruments, the central display comes alive with additional information and controls.
By way of example, let’s load up a couple of sounds and have a look. From the presets under Guitars, select Telecaster and my favourite guitar preset, ‘Telecaster Slide FNVol’. This is a beautifully wobbly electric guitar sound which pulls in a slide if you strike the key hard enough. It also has some additional controls: there’s a button with which you can turn Fret Noise on and off, and above that, you can set the Probability of the fret noise occurring when you release the keys. You can set the level of the noise and adjust the unexplained ‘No Efx Time’, which also seems to affect whether there is fret noise or not according to some mystical formula. This sort of scripting can give you a very realistic performance.
The parameters available are specific to the instrument, so if you browse through the organs, you’ll find level control over various voices, you can turn percussion on and off and set balances. The biggest scripts appear to come with the acoustic pianos, where you can mix in mechanical noises and also define the envelope of sound, which supersedes the Amp Env section of the main interface.
The second function of the central display is to give information about the keyswitching or sound variations. You’ll find these all over the orchestral instruments. So, as an example, let’s go to Strings and Cellos and choose ‘Cellos Full’. There are no scripted parameters this time, but to the right of the program name we can show a list of five articulations: Sustain, Tremolo, Staccato, Pizzicato and Crescendo. Sustain is selected by default but you can switch to another articulation by hitting the corresponding note on your keyboard, which will be in the low octaves from C0 down. If you bring up the keyboard at the bottom of Presence XT you’ll see them marked in red. Using the keyswitches you can create an expressive and varied performance from a single track’s worth of MIDI.
Studio One interprets keyswitches as Sound Variations in the way it deals with them in the Score and Piano Roll editor. This allows you to change how the keyswitches work, and what action triggers the change. You can bring up the Sound Variations editor from the drop‑down menu of the loaded instance of Presence XT. However, the appearance of the keyswitches in the interface remains the same, so until there’s some deeper integration with the Sound Variations editor, the idea is that you are mapping different events, controls or keys to trigger those existing keyswitches.
The look and feel of Presence XT is very much like that of a synthesizer. There are LFOs, a filter, envelopes and a modulation matrix to tie things together. The majority of the presets don’t use this layer of sound tweaking very much, and it’s mostly left at the default settings. As you explore the presets, though, you will find some that start to add in modulation and effects, hinting at some further sound‑mangling possibilities. While it may seem initially straightforward there’s a lot more going on as you dig deeper. What you won’t find is much in the way of sample editing. Presence XT is a platform for playing sounds rather than creating instruments from samples. For that you’d need the optional Presence XT Editor, which I’ll cover in a future workshop.
The look and feel of Presence XT is very much like a synthesizer. There are LFOs, a filter, envelopes and a modulation matrix to tie things together.
On the left are two LFOs. Each has five possible waveshapes: sine, sawtooth, triangle, square and random. The Rate knob can be sync’ed to the project tempo and provide divisions or multiples, or it can be free to wander the whims of ever‑changing frequencies. It can be scaled to your keyboard and can start in time with the transport or just keep on going. The Delay knob is fabulously useful as it delays the start of the LFO; perfect for setting tremolo or vibrato to start later in the note’s journey.
Under the LFOs are four controls that act on the samples in the current preset. You can set a velocity‑controlled offset to the point at which playback begins. You can fine‑tune and transpose the sample’s pitch. Sample Shift manipulates the playback speed without changing the pitch — great for loops, apparently, but I haven’t been able to track any down in the library so far. They are probably something you’ll find in the extra library available in the shop.
In the middle you’ll find the Filter section. It has nine filter modes (more than Studio One’s Mai Tai synth!), including low‑pass, high‑pass and band‑pass in both state‑variable and ladder styles. The resonance is very well behaved and doesn’t give you too much drop in level, while the Drive and Punch controls give it some warmth and presense.
To the right are two ADSR envelopes. Both attack and release have variable response curves so you can get the feel of things just right. The top envelope is dedicated to the amplifier; the bottom one is free to be routed to whatever parameter you want. Which brings us nicely to...
The Modulation Matrix
While the amp envelope is hardwired to control the volume of the sound, every other modulation option requires a routing decision. You may think that your mod wheel is going to modulate things, but you’d be wrong, unless it’s been specified to do so in the matrix. Of course, many presets have their modulations all mapped out to add nuance and expression, vibrato and movement. But it’s also a tool of transformation. If you’re looking to move beyond the realism of sampled instruments, this is definitely where you need to play.
Let’s take a sound that has no effects and no modulation assignments, and see if we can turn it inside out. Under the Presets go down to Piano and load up ‘Acoustic Piano — Full’. Then at the bottom left press the MOD/FX button to reveal the modulation matrix and effects section, if it’s not already visible. Click Mod A and you’ll see the first eight modulation slots. Mod B has another eight, giving you 16 possible things to mess with.
In each slot you can select a Source at the top and a Destination at the bottom. Sources are modulators such as LFOs, envelopes, velocity, aftertouch, and also physical controls like mod and pitch wheels. Destinations are all of the parameters that can be modulated. Initially it looks like a long list, but only five of the Destinations actually affect the sound directly. The rest are other modulation parameters — you can use these to create fascinatingly connected and evolving envelopes and LFOs, but if you want these to change the sound, sooner or later you must route them to pitch, filter cutoff, filter resonance, amplifier, and wave level. But you’ll be surprised at how much you can do with these. We’ll come to the second modulator list beneath the Source in a minute, but the other thing to point out is the horizontal slider. This sets the depth of modulation, either positively or negatively.
Let’s jump in with something radical to show how simple and great the LFOs are. In Slot 1, click in the Source and select LFO 1. In the Destination select Wave AMP — Level. Move the Amount slider all the way to the right and set the Rate knob of LFO1 to about 11 o’clock. That gives us a rather nice tremoloed sound that’s already lost most of its familiar piano character. On the LFO press the Key button and you’ll hear how the rate of the LFO changes as you play higher and lower notes. Now try the Delay knob and you’ll get the piano sound back again, with the tremolo coming in later as you hold notes. You can reduce the Amount slider if you want a more subtle effect. Also try some different LFO waveforms; the random one is particularly good.
The difference between ‘Wave AMP — Level’ and ‘Amp — Level’ is worth noting. If you swap the destination to ‘Amp — Level’ you’ll notice how the tremolo effect is not as pronounced. That’s because the Amp level refers to the VCA that’s being controlled by the amp envelope, so the modulation is being combined with that. ‘Wave AMP — Level’ refers to the level of the sampled waves at source, before they reach the VCA. This is a parameter we can’t access anywhere else in Presence XT.
Meanwhile, back in our tremoloed piano there’s another way we can delay or change the effect, and that’s by using a modifier to the modulator. The second list after the Source comes up labelled as ‘Via’ if you hover your mouse over it. This allows you to put in another modulation source to control the depth of modulation by the original source to the amount set by the Amount slider. Got it? Let’s demonstrate this by adding Env 2 in from that second list to change how the LFO comes in over time. Initially nothing appears to change but if you wind the attack of Env 2 up to around 12 o’clock you then get smooth movement from normal piano sound to tremolo. Swap Env 2 for the mod wheel and you’ve now got manual modulation control over the depth of the LFO. Simple and very effective.
OK, let’s get weirder. Let’s remove Env 2 as the modifier of the first slot and put it in as a source for Slot 2. For the destination let’s put the frequency of LFO 1 and move the Amount slider to the right. Now that nice long attack rapidly winds up the rate into some weird FM‑type sounds. Then add LFO 2 to Slot 3, route it to the Pitch with the Amount slider about a third of the way up, and put the rate up to around 11 o’clock. The piano is going to be sounding pretty funky about now. Push the Env 2 attack past about 2 o’clock, add some delay to LFO 1 and you’ve got a deliciously lo‑fi broken toy piano. If you really want to crush its bits, switch LFO 1 to the random waveform. And keep fiddling.
No sound sculpting would be complete without a good healthy dose of effects. Presence XT has two banks of effects, and you can have them all on at once. FX A contains Chorus/Flanger/Phaser, Delay and Reverb, while FX B has Gater, EQ, Distortion and Panning. The Gater is a great way of adding rhythmic tremolo to the sound, and lets you treat left and right separately which is fabulous. The Hard Tube option of the Distortion effect is just the best for overdriving the instrument.
At the moment, the reach of the matrix is somewhat limited: none of the effects’ parameters appear there, and neither do the scripted parameters or keyswitches (although they do all appear as automatable parameters in the track, and you can also automate the source and destination selections by assigning them to Macro knobs). I think the matrix is begging to be expanded: there’s immense evolutionary and transformative power within Presence XT, but it needs a few more destinations in order to take full advantage of it. As it is, though, Presence XT is still a very capable sampled instrument player with some cool synthesizer pretensions.
Here’s a quick tip on saving your own presets (this had me foxed for a long time!). There’s a tiny icon next to the preset selection that looks like a sheet of paper. It’s the kind of thing you’d assume means ‘New Preset’, when in fact it brings up a menu where you can save (or store) your preset either on its own or with the audio effects inserted on the channel.