You are here

Use Old Computers As Stand-alone FX & Instrument Racks

PC Notes By Martin Walker

Console is a host that not only provides an attractive 'drag and drop' graphic interface, similar to Reaktor and Tassman, but also supports VST and Direct X plug-ins, and can use MME, Direct Sound or ASIO 2 drivers.Console is a host that not only provides an attractive 'drag and drop' graphic interface, similar to Reaktor and Tassman, but also supports VST and Direct X plug-ins, and can use MME, Direct Sound or ASIO 2 drivers.

We offer a few suggestions about using your old computers as stand-alone effects and virtual instrument racks, and look at a utility to remap incoming MIDI velocities.

With technology continuing to advance all the time, many users will be tempted to replace their computer every couple of years with a newer and faster model. In some situations, you can keep some of your components during the upgrade to save money; but with so many new varieties of RAM, faster hard drives, cases, power supplies and so on, it's often more tempting or sensible to replace the whole lot.

In this situation, you may find yourself with an old (but fully working) second PC that almost no-one wants, and so long as it has a processor of around 800MHz or faster, along with 128MB or more of RAM and a 10GB or larger hard drive, you could consider using it to run additional software effects and instruments alongside your main machine. There are various ways to connect the two machines, ranging from a simple MIDI lead if both have a suitable interface, to a variety of LAN-based solutions, such as Musiclab's MIDI Over LAN (www.musiclab.com) and Helmut Eberhart's freeware MIDI Via Net (his software is available at various sites). I've even heard of such utilities being used via a USB network cable, without involving extra hardware.

The Virtual Rack

Unless you're going to run a stand-alone software instrument or sampler like Gigastudio on your second computer, you'll need a suitable host application to run your soft synths. Of course, you could run another copy of your favourite MIDI + Audio sequencer on the second PC. Some non-dongle-protected programs will allow you to install a second version without problems, for example, while users of Cubase SX who've upgraded from Cubase VST may still have their old VST dongles. However, this can be an expensive option if you need to buy a second copy of a fully fledged sequencer, and you'll be wasting many of its resources as well. A cheaper solution might be one of the various entry-level versions of popular MIDI + Audio sequencers, such as Cubasis for instance, but perhaps the best option is a simple host application that supports both plug-in instruments and effects.

A good approach for anyone using Cubase SX, Nuendo 1.6 or VST 5.2, and who already has a soundcard in each PC with digital I/O, is Steinberg's proprietary VST System Link. For those who just want to run a virtual rack on another machine, Steinberg have developed V-Stack, a virtual rack for up to 16 VST Instruments that locks to the main application with sample accuracy. V-Stack is available to download from Steinberg's web site for 50 Euros.

However, there are various other VST host applications out there, and the KvR web site provides a comprehensive selection at www.kvraudio.com. FXpansion's freely downloadable Simple VST Host supports up to 16 VST Instruments and VST effects, arranged as four channel strips with four insert points, and is compatible with MME or ASIO drivers. For $40, Spin Audio's ASIO FX Processor Standard Edition also has four chained slots for VST plug-ins, one of which can be loaded with a VST Instrument.

I've also recently discovered Console, a host that not only provides an attractive 'drag and drop' graphic interface, similar to Reaktor and Tassman, but also supports VST and Direct X plug-ins, and can use MME, Direct Sound or ASIO 2 drivers. Console's support for Direct X plug-ins gives it a much wider appeal, especially to Sonar users, and in addition to being able to run as a stand-alone host, Console can also be run as a plug-in from within other host applications to add Direct X support to a VST-only host and vice versa. Console is a $54 shareware product from Art Teknica (www.console.jp/eng), and it's very flexible, as you can see from the opening screenshot (above). After just a couple of minutes' use I managed to create a setup that ran the Pro 53 VST Instrument with Edirol's Virtual Sound Canvas DXi, along with a selection of VST and Direct X effects plug-ins, and with no great overheads in terms of resources, as you can see from the CPU monitor in the screen grab.

Changing Curves

Have you ever wondered if your master keyboard is letting you extract the maximum range of expression from your various hardware and software synths? Well, depending on your keyboard style, you may not be hitting it hard enough to generate the maximum MIDI velocity level of 127 (and some keyboards rarely output higher velocities than 110 even if you hit them with a sledgehammer), while very soft playing may still be outputting velocities in the 40 to 50 range, leaving your MIDI performances restricted to a range of 40 to 110 instead of 1 to 127.

Some keyboards already offer a selection of velocity curves to suit your playing style, but even if yours doesn't, it's nearly always possible to do this on your computer instead. Suitable real-time functions sometimes appear in sequencers, but are often limited in scope or difficult to set up, like the Cubase SX MIDI Input Transformer, which would need strings of logical command lines. Both Cubase SX and Sonar users already have access to real-time MIDI effects for velocity control, but these only affect playback, and not the recorded performance.

Trombettworks' MIDI Velocity Curve Changer.Trombettworks' MIDI Velocity Curve Changer.

The answer is to use a separate MIDI utility, and since this can process all your incoming MIDI performances for maximum expressive possibilities, it's well worth taking the trouble to optimise it once and for all. A good one that I came across recently is Trombettworks' MIDI Velocity Curve Changer (www.trombettworks.com), a freeware utility with a graphic interface that allows you to create your own 'transfer characteristic' by drawing in extra points on the curve and dragging them where needed. By monitoring the velocity of an incoming MIDI performance, you can determine the useful range of your keyboard decide how to enhance it. My own keyboard, for instance, 'topped out' at about 110, so I compensated by creating a new point (indicated by the cursor in the screenshot) to expand the input range from 0 to 110 to generate an output from 0 to 127. Most of my quietly played notes ended up at velocities between 40 and 50, so I also drew in a couple of extra points, ending up with a curve that generates a typical performance range of 20 to 127.

The only complication of Trombettworks' very useful utility is that you need an additional utility to pipe its output into your sequencer as a MIDI input. Most PC musicians will already be familiar with Hubi's Loopback for use with Windows 9x, and Midi Yoke for Windows 9x/NT4/2000/XP, although, as I mentioned last month, Windows XP and Gigastudio users can have problems with this combination. However, once you've tweaked the curve to suit your keyboard and playing style, it can be a revelation to switch between the original and optimised curves and hear what you've been missing.

Fancy running a second computer as a stand-alone instrument or real-time effects rack? Console can serve as a host application for your existing instrument and effects plug-ins, in addition to acting as a wrapper inside other hosts.

PC Snippets

Back in SOS June 2002 I mentioned Ian Lyon's Dspctrl software for the Yamaha DSP Factory soundcard. Apparently, many users have previously been unable to use the card fully until they downloaded this utility, and many have also suggested further improvements which now appear in the latest version 2.13. These aim to make the mixer software faster and more intuitive to use, and Ian hopes that Dspctrl will become an open source project with other contributors in the near future. A free demo is available, and the full version only costs £22.

Anyone who uses a convolving reverb such as Sonic Foundry's Acoustic Mirror, Samplitude's Room Simulator, or even the freeware SIR, will be pleased to hear about two web sites where you can download further impulse responses. Noisevault had 79 impulses when I last visited, covering many of the most popular manufacturers, including EMT, Eventide, Lexicon, and TC Electronic, along with a wide variety of real acoustic spaces, mics and preamps. Echochamber also offers a good range of impulse responses, including some created by effects plug-ins from Arboretum and Waves.

Have you ever come across two files with identical names and sizes, but not been sure whether they are identical and if one can be deleted? I've used the DOS File Compare command in the past, but entering the full pathname of each file in its command line can be tedious to say the least. However, a far easier approach is to use Trombettworks' File Comparer, from the same developer as the Velocity Curve utility mentioned in the main text, where you can simply drag the two files in question into a window and click the Compare button.

www.trombettworks.com

A Case Of Mistaken Heatsinks

I've seen a lot of comments about the advantages of using aluminium cases, and for me, the three advantages of my Lian-Li PC60 are its good looks, light weight, and the ease in which you can install new drives and expansion cards using its modular bays and chunky thumbscrews. However, despite many claims to the contrary (including my own mistake way back in SOS September 2001), it's generally not true that aluminium cases can act as a huge heatsink.

While it is true that plenty of heatsinks are made from aluminium, and there are probably thicker panels in an all-aluminium case than a similarly sized steel and plastic construction, a sheet of metal can only dissipate heat effectively if it's bolted to the hot object. So, in my own system, the cooling of the Silent Drive sleeves and the PSU casing may be subtly enhanced by being bolted to all that aluminium, but all the other components, including the CPU heatsink, any other motherboard chipset heatsinks and cooling arrangements for expansion cards, will be totally unaffected. So, in conclusion, an aluminium case is probably no more effective at cooling a PC than any other type — it's primarily the combination of heatsinks, vents, airflow, and cooling fans that does this.

Published July 2003