Oh, this virtual world. Personally, I love it: It has truly made my creative process easier and faster. The ability to have your whole dream studio just sitting in your lap, ready to go at a creative moment's notice, is nothing short of amazing. It wasn't that long ago when owning the myriad keyboards, mixers, effects, drum machines and samplers found in a virtual-studio program was a virtual dream in itself. Now, for not even for half of the price of a good keyboard, you can have it all at your fingertips.
As the computers keep getting faster, the software companies are taking full advantage of that power by producing hundreds of wonderful virtual plug-ins. With so many companies entering the market — including outfits that used to be solely hardware-based — it seems that the true challenge in this new world is creating the new human interface: a way to package all of this power and these limitless options into one extremely user-friendly, all-in-one program that's easy on the budget and on the CPU.
Cakewalk, a pioneer in computer MIDI and audio sequencing, has jumped into the virtual-studio fray with Project5. Project5 is conceptually similar to other virtual-studio programs available, but it has the advantage of being an “open system” that is compatible with a wide range of virtual synths, plug-ins, drivers and formats. That alone gives Project5 its own identity and makes it extremely useful. The company describes Project5 by stating that it is intended for the creation of pattern-based electronic music using DirectX and VST synths and effects. You can play through Project5 using a MIDI controller or create patterns to play through synths and effects. Project5's MIDI input-filtering system lets you layer and control multiple synths simultaneously.
As I began this review, I couldn't avoid the inevitable question: How does Project5 compare to Propellerhead Reason? I decided to save that for another article and say simply this: Reason has become the centerpiece by which all other virtual studios must compete. It is also a program that I am very familiar with, and I enjoy its strengths. However, I intend to look at Project5 with fresh ears, a clear head, eager anticipation and a clean slate: no prejudices.
I approached the program in a slightly familiar but different manner by learning Project5 in a way many are accustomed to: install it, load the demos, press Play and read the manual every morning in the bathroom. My aim was to dive in and have a simple track finished, mixed and burned to CD by the end of the day.
The program comes with a printed manual; a handy four-page quick-start booklet with a key-command reference (thank you); and, of course, the program disc. I first installed Project5 onto my Dell Inspiron 5100/2.53MHz notebook with Windows XP Home Edition and the MOTU 828 FireWire audio interface. After inserting the CD, a nice and easy-to-use Install page appeared. A prompt alerted me that the program requires DirectX 9. After a quick search on the Internet for DirectX 9 horror stories, I went ahead with the install. After the computer rebooted and Windows came back up, the install didn't continue. I took a guess, ejected the install CD, pushed it back in to start the install again, and things went fine. It accepted the serial number and installed everything into its Default folder. There is a beautiful setup point at which it copies your VST plug-ins from other programs to Project5 automatically. It also lets you know which ones won't work with it: great programming work.
After starting up the program, I was a little confused by the fluorescent-green motif and the overall layout. But after some time with the manual, things became clearer. Project5 consists of a number of sections. The user interface contains basically four “panes” — Cakewalk's term for windows — that are used to create and control Project5. The main control view, stretched across the top of the screen, contains all of the important overall details of the current project that you're in, including transport controls, song title, tempo, a convenient CPU meter, time displays, reset audio, metronome, file options and audio-level bus control.
The Tracker consists of the Track pane and the Arrangement pane. Tracks are added and patched for your project's synths in the Track pane. It contains volume, pan, width controls, a global mute/solo/record function, add track and different settings for the arrangement grid. The Arrangement pane is where you edit and arrange patterns into a song.
The P-Seq is the built-in step generator, piano-roll sequencer and arpeggiator and functions in both real time or as a step editor. There, you create new MIDI patterns; edit and import patterns, automation data and synth/effects data; and save existing patterns to the Pattern Bin. The Pattern Bin is like Windows Explorer or a project browser that allows you to audition patterns and then drag-and-drop them into your project. Patterns that have been saved, new patterns and patterns that were created but are no longer being used all exist in the Pattern Bin for instant recall.
In the Syn.Ops pane, you adjust synth and effects parameters, set aux-send levels for each of the four aux buses and control the master bus level. When you click on a track, this pane will change to the controls of that particular instrument. There are also MIDI Effects and Audio Effects Bins. MIDI effects are patched in the MIDI Effects Bin, and audio effects are patched in the Audio Effects Bin. Project5 supports DirectX audio effects and VST effects that have been registered using the adapter wizard during installation. Effects include StudioVerb, compressor/gate, envelope/LFO filter, exciter, stereo delay, parametric EQ, chorus, flanger, classic phaser and Spectral Transformer.
I brought in the first demo song to make sure that I had audio. After some fiddling with the setting on my MOTU box, things were coming through loud and clear. I pulled up the rest of the demo songs and was amazed at the sound quality. Before I began to really dig into the program, I wanted to rework my screen into something more to my liking. The panes resize like most windows: You can stretch them up and down or right and left. There are also selectable view options under the View window for quick variations on the pane arrangements. And now, the fun part.
SAMPLES IN SYNC
The Cyclone DXi is an audio-loop playback device that can be triggered like a sampler. Cyclone accepts both Acidized and standard WAV files. You're limited to the length or size of your loop: no more than 30 seconds of WAV and 64 beats of Acid. Each of the 16 pads can hold a separate loop and has various controls for each — like Pan, Volume, One-Shot or Loop (like the good old days) — and a handy Sync button to keep it in time and in pitch with the whole project. And to top it off, you have a Pad Inspector window for each pad, which increases your control even more. The Tails feature extends the decay of a slice, and Latch gives you another convenient mode to trigger from a mouse or keypad and “hold on” to the loop.
I got things rolling by adding an Acidized four-on-the-floor, two-measure loop to the first pad and by turning the Sync on and the Latch off. Next, I moved to the Arrangement window. I made a tied whole note to fit the length of two measures. All of the tools are right there for editing, and it was as easy as hitting the Send to Track button to add my pattern into the Arrangement pane. The sequencer is a pattern-based (nonlinear) MIDI sequencer. Next, I wanted to make some quick copies and paste a few bars together. (All of the patterns roll out like Groove Clips in Sonar — just click and drag.) After filling up more pads and using more notes to trigger, I wanted to see how it would all automatically sync together while changing the tempo, of course. It went well with Acidized files; however, if a WAV file was running and I changed the tempo, the program crashed — be careful with that one.
How about some bass and synth sounds? Enter the Psyn Virtual Analog Synthesizer. The Psyn models a full-featured subtractive synthesizer with four oscillators. Oscillator tone can be modified based on cross-modulating the oscillators to create ring modulation and frequency modulation models of synthesis. It includes two filters that can be independently enabled, each with its own unique character. The output of the first filter can be sent to the second for advance filtering techniques. The synth's internal modulation matrix allows for synching to tempo. Psyn parameters can be assigned directly to common control sources, such as mod or pitch wheels. For each oscillator, you can modulate pitch, portamento time and pulse width, as well as the level of the FM input from the other oscillator and the amount of envelope or LFO that is applied to pitch. Five six-stage envelope generators are included: Four are completely assignable; one is hard-wired to control the dynamics of Psyn's amplifier. Each envelope also provides performance controls that specify how the envelope functions during playback. Three LFOs can be assigned to modulate many aspects of the synthesizer, including amplifier (tremolo), pitch (vibrato) and filter (cutoff frequency).
After creating a simple two-bar bass line, sending it to the arrangement and pasting it along with the loop, I just had to go back and listen to the sounds. (The sounds or patches in the presets are conveniently grouped for easy access.) Just as I became frustrated with constantly having to scroll through sounds with the mouse, a pop-up appeared telling me to press Shift+B to go down through the patches and to press B to go up — very convenient. As the tracks looped, I changed sounds without any freeze-ups.
In short, the Psyn is one of the best virtual synths that I've ever heard. It overshadows all of my other virtual synths to the point that I want to replace half of my synth tracks with it.
The Velocity Drum Sampler is a multichannel, multitimbral sampler that provides 18 voices of polyphony. Four stereo outputs and a master are also available, and all voices can be assigned arbitrarily. Each voice is capable of storing multiple samples for multiple velocity layers. Velocity is capable of importing the following sample formats: WAV, AIFF and Cakewalk's own proprietary format. It can also import ready-made drum kits in Steinberg's LM4 format. Samples can be key-mapped and set to different zones to create dynamic programs. It is also possible to edit the start and end times, volume offsets, tuning and panning of each of the samples. All of the controls are fully automatable. The preset sounds — especially the trance sets — are incredible. For the song I constructed, I grabbed a nice reverberating 808 clap. (Each pad has a note number, which makes it easy to know which note to use in the P-Seq.) Making a quick 16th-note snare fill was easy. The Pencil tool worked like a Brush tool to quickly paste some notes in. I then used the Automation tool, set for velocity, and drew in a curve.
Project5 also comes with a modular-style drum synthesizer called nPulse, which is reminiscent of the Tama from the '80s. The kicks are great for techno and industrial tracks. I ended up using a few blips from it for my song.
Next, I wanted to add some third-party plug-ins. I began with Native Instruments FM-7. Project5 had already detected it during my install, so it was ready to load in. Going through the same steps as when I used the Psyn, I made an LFO-synching patch, created a continuous pattern, put it in the song and didn't have any problems: Everything kept a solid lock. By the way, at this point, I had hardly made a ding in my processor.
I felt that this was a good time to push things, so I brought in the CPU hogs: Waldorf PPG Wave, a Waves Reverb, NI Pro-52, TC Works Mercury-1 and Steinberg Model E. That bumped my CPU load from 25 to 60 percent. Creating a simple two-bar pattern for the Mercury instantly brought on CPU-overload warnings. Removing the PPG and the reverb brought things back to normal. It was reassuring to know that the program releases its memory allocations when they're no longer needed. After trying numerous combinations of plug-ins, I found that Project5 handled everything very well considering that the third-party VST plug-ins were not specifically intended for Project5. However, you must be careful because they consume processor power quickly. Obviously, the DXi synths designed for the program ran much more efficiently, and it was not easy to get the CPU to overload.
I couldn't wait to use Project5 inside of my favorite sequencer: The ability to record audio tracks in your host program while locking to Project5 is virtual-studio bliss. To do this, simply open your host program before opening Project5. I used Steinberg Cubase SX as the host, and Project5 showed up automatically under Devices. It is possible to route as many as 69 outputs from Project5 to the host software.
The transports of both applications synchronize; moving a transport control (play, rewind, stop) in either application also moves the same control in the other's transport. However, the record function is independent in each application. Setting up loop points in either Project5 or the host application sets loop points in the other. If you set loop points in the host application, you won't see the new loop points in Project5 until the host application starts playing. When Project5 is in ReWire mode, a ReWire output number appears at the start of each track name. In a ReWire host, you can choose any Project5 bus or synth as an input for an audio track, giving you another layer of control of volume, pan and effects.
Controlling Project5 with a Korg Triton was glorious and flawless. I was able to whip up patterns quickly and lay in controllers and automation without a hiccup. Triggering samples that stayed in sync in real time was the highlight. I couldn't stop thinking about how great this program would be for live performance and live jamming. I even set the MIDI sync, making both slave and master, and never lost a beat. I also hooked up two computers with one running the host and the other running Project5.
SUMMING IT UP
At first look, the feel, the colors and the layout of Project5 seemed unusual and not very inviting: It will be confusing if you are not well-versed in all of the quirkiness of music software. Not convinced with just my own taste in music-program graphics, I asked several other colleagues, both professional and novice, for their thoughts, and they were also vexed by the green theme. For starters, P-Seq's green keyboard is tough to get used to, and for all of the emphasis on being able to use Project5 live, the green becomes quite difficult to see in the dark. Some color-scheme options would be nice in a future upgrade.
Not so confounding, the Syn.Ops pane is a clever way to save space on a notebook screen's single monitor. After discovering the Float Synth Property page button on the Syn.Ops pane, using Project5 became much easier, especially when working with multiple views on my monitor screen at one time. For instance, when running multiple layers of synths and effects, it's nice to see what they're all doing at one time and be able to make adjustments. This is a great strength for Project5 and a great weakness in other programs. Somebody did his or her homework.
Project5's MIDI input filtering is incredible, flexible and should have other companies taking notice. You can layer, control multiple synths at one time and have multiple channels running at once — in others words, stacks of synths! Once again, this reminds me of the early days of MIDI, when you could chain all of the keyboards you could find, hit one note and have a huge multilayered sound come out.
DJs and live musicians will find this program very handy. Thinking of it in terms of a MIDI synth hub, multiple musicians can play through Project5 simultaneously, using different sounds and samples. By using the easy and intuitive samplers, which also have additional file support, triggering samples couldn't be better or easier for performances. The effects are all quite usable. They lock together perfectly and provide instant gratification. The Mix pane is a very nice and easy way to look at your effects chain.
The more that I play with Project5, the more I like it. Aside from a few letdowns, the program becomes easier, friendlier and more fun each time. For me, Project5 as a ReWire device and a multiple-layered synth module will earn its daily keep in my virtual rig. I have to drag myself away from the Psyn and the sampler every day. Project5 will remain a staple in my virtual diet.
PROJECT5 > $429
Pros: Soft-synth workstation with third-party support. Excellent sound set. Built with live performances in mind.
Contact: tel. (617) 423-9004; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.cakewalk.com
Pentium III/800; 256 MB RAM; Windows 2000; WDM-, ASIO- or DirectSound-compatible soundcard; 200 MB available hard-disk space; CD- or DVD-ROM for installation