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electronic MUSICIAN

TASCAM GIGASTUDIO 3

By JASON SCOTT ALEXANDER | February 1, 2005

In the late '90s, a small company called Nemesys debuted a revolutionary product that pioneered the concept of streaming samples off a PC's hard drive. Its ability to load massive, nonlooped samples — rather than be hemmed in by the size constraints of expensive RAM-based samplers — quickly led top producers like Trent Reznor and Hans Zimmer to its altar. With astonishingly high polyphony counts, lightning-fast MIDI response times and the best sample libraries money could buy, GigaStudio quickly became the de facto standard for professional-level sampling, spawning a global army of Giga users. As one of them, I can attest to being die-hard — God knows I've earned that right, having sunk appreciable amounts of money into dozens of proprietary Giga-format libraries throughout the years. Of course, along with such investment comes fear of the day that the platform no longer holds up or delivers to your expectations. By the time Tascam took the product's reins, GigaStudio was indeed growing quite long in the tooth. Enduring what seemed like an eternity since the last major update (version 2.5 came out in December 2001), Giga users began watching from the sidelines as soft-sampler competition grew fierce, incorporating features that the aging GigaStudio sadly lacked. But the code heads at Tascam weren't resting on their new acquisition; to the contrary, they were devilishly hard at work coming up with version 3.

WHAT'S NEW

The new version is quite simply a ground-up overhaul that incorporates many of the wish-list suggestions from throughout the years — more is new to GigaStudio 3 than carried over from previous versions. Tascam clearly listened to its users and even managed to toss in some amazing surprises along the way. Like its predecessor, GigaStudio 3 is a Windows-only application that comes in three tiers. The top-of-the-line model, GigaStudio 3 Orchestra (reviewed here), boasts unlimited polyphony and supports as many notes as your computer can deliver. This annihilates the 160-note limit in previous versions. GigaStudio 3 Ensemble and GigaStudio 3 Solo have 160- and 96-note polyphony, respectively. Also increased is the number of supported MIDI In ports: eight (128 MIDI channels) for Orchestra, four (64 channels) for Ensemble and two (32 channels) for Solo.

GigaStudio has always been a stand-alone — only application, much to the chagrin of users owning a single PC and wanting to slave Giga as a plug-in within their DAWs for sequencing. In that sense, GS3 is no exception, but the brilliant addition of ReWire support eases this apparent shortcoming. Now, you can have GigaStudio running on the same machine as, and open alongside, programs such as Digidesign Pro Tools, Steinberg Cubase and Nuendo, Ableton Live and Cakewalk Sonar. ReWire routes MIDI from the DAW into GigaStudio, and the audio generated by GigaStudio shows up on its own dedicated faders within your DAW, right beside virtual instruments and audio tracks. This gives you the benefits of integrating GS3 into your sequencing software without performance lags found in VST-based applications. And thanks to improved kernel-level audio and MIDI processing (which is just a fancy way of saying that timing-critical data doesn't get interrupted by Windows), GigaStudio 3 has an even tighter responsive feel than before, still enjoying the lowest latency of any sampler ever created — hardware or software.

Answering what had to be one of the biggest gripes of users in the past, GigaStudio 3 now finally comes with VST — plug-in support for using your favorite effects within GigaStudio. Add to that an equally requested full-blown, expandable professional-caliber mixer; industry-standard 24-bit, 96kHz sample-library compatibility; sample-recording capability; a performance-style Quick Edit utility; advanced MIDI-performance tools; and a whole new user interface with a more cohesive look and feel, and you begin to understand just how monumental this upgrade really is. But that's not all, folks!

Retaining all the benefits of sample streaming that made GigaStudio “giga” in the first place, GS3 now boasts the largest sample-playback size of any sampler around, allowing you to load samples as great as a ridiculous 512 GB. And if you're new to GigaStudio altogether, GS3 ships with loads of high-quality samples to get you going. The Orchestra version includes five DVDs jammed full with teaser material from renowned Giga developers, including featured elements from the Vienna Symphonic Library. Tascam has even thrown in GigaPiano 2, a beautiful 24-bit sample library capturing the sound of a Kawai concert grand.

Now for one of those amazing surprises: Version 3 includes GigaPulse real-time convolution-reverb technology. Highly anticipated since its first announcement at Winter NAMM 2004, the surprise is in how incredibly deep and well-implemented this processor is. After all, since when does buying a sampler beget a top-drawer reverb workstation? Although Orchestra users get GigaPulse Pro, allowing them to make their own convolution presets, this tool is not included in GS3 Ensemble or GS3 Solo. Instead, GigaPulse SP is included in those versions so those users will be able to play back the same convolution-encoded libraries as users of GS3 Orchestra.

LICENSE AND REGISTRATION, PLEASE

Upon reading a courtesy bulletin posted by Tascam's support just prior to installation, I downloaded version 3.02, which included fixes to some minor bugs and registration hiccups that I know affected early GS3 users. You're given the choice of installing the GS3 application alone or together with the included Giga Content, GigaPulse Pro/SP and GigaPiano 2. A 10-day grace period is provided before mandatory registration, which is of the challenge-and-response variety. I'm happy to report that my installation was flawless. The only delay that may come is if you have a previous version of GigaStudio installed on your PC, as you must remove it prior to installing version 3. (Sometimes, hidden or hard-to-spot files are left scattered on your disk following a removal, so Tascam has included a handy GigaClean utility on the GS3 installation disc should you need to scour.)

When you first fire up GS3, you're presented with an Update QuickSound Database prompt. QuickSound is a beloved utility that's been with GigaStudio from the start, and it's capable of performing rapid instrument searching of every (or specially designated) hard drive in your system. The QuickSound paths are not carried over during installation, so if you're upgrading from a previous GS version and have GIG files on many different disk volumes or partitions, you'll want to run this now. Finally, you're asked to “Review Configurations” and set the preliminary MIDI and audio hardware configuration for use in GS3. It's a quick and simple affair that is covered well in the 300-page user's manual, which, by the way, is extremely thorough and well-written in both a casual tutorial style followed by an indexed-feature format.

MAKEOVER

Visually, not much remains of previous GigaStudio versions. In version 3, Tascam has done a beautiful job of giving the user interface a contemporary look and feel that's easy on the eyes for improved work flow and usability. Yet, somehow, things still feel comfortably familiar. Most noticeable is the new panes' structure. GS3 opens with a much-improved MIDI mixer window in the top half of the screen that corresponds to all 16 channels of the first number of MIDI ports that your version supports — in Orchestra's case, the first of eight ports. A row of tabs along the bottom of the pane lets you quickly flip between available MIDI ports. Filling the bottom half of the screen is a revamped QuickSound sample-loader pane with improved disk browsing and instrument tree navigation, an audition mode and a convenient loaded-instrument list window. The handy Virtual Keyboard is given its own pane and, like the QuickSound loader, can be toggled on or off and positioned anywhere onscreen. Along the top of the screen is a new icon-based toolbar. With a single click, you can perform simple file commands, launch external sequencing and wave-editing applications, toggle pane views and select components, and start or stop recording via the Audio Capture tool (more on this later).

The MIDI mixer window may look rather innocent, but it offers several powerful new functions; one is Instrument Stack mode. When this mode is active, you can load multiple instruments onto the same MIDI channel (the channel slot expands downward as gray colored slots), assigning each its own volume, panning, keyboard range and splits, audio output channels and so on. (There is no limit to how many instruments you can stack on a single MIDI channel.) This can be an effective way to quickly build composite sounds or rhythm ensembles to be played on the same MIDI channel and be treatable as a whole for MIDI mixing, muting and soloing via the stack's master channel.

Another powerful new feature in GS3 with regard to stacking instruments is something called an Instrument Performance (GSI) file. This is different from a normal session performance (GSP), which includes all settings for the entire GigaStudio environment (typically thought of as a song file) in that it enables you to save a grouping of instruments along with its performance environment. For example, you can create a “Drums” GSI file in which you assemble your favorite drum and percussion instruments; then, you can call up this customized drum kit into other session performances — a very powerful time-saver!

MASTER OF THE MIX

Selecting the DSP Station component icon from the toolbar reveals GS3's all-new expanded audio-mixer facility. Compared with the DSP Station in previous versions, GS3 is capable of doing some pretty serious mixing. In fact, with GSIF2, as many as 32 channels of external audio (input hardware dependent) can be processed alongside Giga instruments or routed through GigaPulse Pro. GS3 can handle a max of 128 inputs and 32 fader groups, allowing you to submix instruments within GigaStudio so you don't need to deal with hundreds of faders during mixdown. As many as 64 outputs via audio hardware and a total of 64 ReWire outs are supported. Each instrument (or master channel in the case of stacks) automatically comes up as a separate stereo pair in the same order as on the MIDI mixer screen. Sadly missing in previous versions, the mixer now includes 4-band parametric EQ and compression/limiting on every channel, as well as traditionally implemented insert and aux effects.

By default, channel strips appear in their narrow view, showing only their volume fader; input and output assignments; panning/width; mute; solo; and inserts, dynamics and EQ bypass buttons. Maximizing a strip reveals a wide channel view, displaying graphical representations of EQ and dynamics, four insert slots and eight aux-send-level knobs with pre- and post-position selectors. More than one strip can be in wide view at one time, but they do take up a sizable chunk of screen real estate. For each of the four bands of channel EQ, there are six types to choose from: parametric, notch, lowpass, highpass, low shelf and high shelf. Bands are compositely represented along a graphic display whose vertical axis shows boost or cut as great as 15 dB and horizontal stretches from 16 Hz to 21 kHz. Unfortunately, there are no provisions for control-surface profiles in GS3. Given that half of all current Giga users are slaving a dedicated “Giga PC” to their Mac-based DAWs, the enhanced mixing facilities within GS3 would naturally lead one to want to perform detailed submixes there entirely, conserving their DAW resources back at the Mac for pure audio mixing. An integrated automation sequencer synched to incoming clock would be really sweet. Granted, this is only a limitation in stand-alone mode, as a ReWired Giga can be made tactile via the controller profiles offered by your DAW. Likewise, in stand-alone mode, GS3 still cannot host VST instruments, discounting Giga as an all-in-one sound-source application.

THE BIG 'VERB

There's been a lot of noise about convolution, or sonic impulse modeling, lately. But GigaPulse is a monster piece of work that takes convolution to the next level. At its simplest, GigaPulse uses actual recordings, or impulse tones, to create incredibly realistic-sounding reverb and space resonances. So instead of being programmed to sound like a given space, it literally replicates the sound by analyzing and modeling it. What's more, an impulse recording can be imported into GigaPulse Pro, encoded and saved into an instrument or GIG file at the sample level. When this instrument is reloaded, the GigaPulse SP kicks in, and the effect reveals itself.

But GigaPulse is much more than a reverb. With real-time instrument-resonance simulation, microphone modeling and as many as seven channels of analysis for surround applications, GigaPulse becomes an indispensable recording and engineering tool. You can essentially place a performer or an instrument anywhere on the soundstage; pick from the best microphones ever made (including selecting their patterns and rolloffs); decide whether to mic in mono, stereo or varying degrees of surround (as many as seven channels); and mix these levels at your will. It's pretty insane. All of these features are included in GigaPulse SP so that libraries encoded with impulses in Pro will play back in every version of GS3.

CLOSE TO THE EDIT

Even in previous versions, the Giga Instrument Editor often got the better of me, and I never really came to grips with it. On one hand, if you plan to roll your own complex multisampled Giga instruments, you'll need to buckle down and learn it for yourself. On the other hand, say hello to QuickEdit. From the MIDI mixer screen, clicking on the tiny Q button beside any loaded instrument launches you into QuickEdit mode. With this synthlike interface, you can now perform on-the-fly, real-time edits of the most commonly accessed instrument parameters without having to roll up your sleeves and get dirty. Envelopes, filters, modulation/LFOs, attenuation, controller assigns and sample offset are at your fingertips. Any edits made with QuickEdit are saved at the performance level; the original instrument (GIG file) will not be changed.

Another welcomed component to instrument editing are the Intelligent MIDI (iMIDI) rules. Using iMIDI Tools, you can filter and act upon incoming MIDI messages, assigning them special functions such as continuous-controller-to-trigger type, round robin and random playback, “smart” pattern and articulation alternation and release triggers, as well as performing complex and specialized legato transitions of instrument sample intervals.

Borrowing heavily from the famed Vienna Symphonic Library concept, iMIDI replaces the need for running VSL's Performance Tool in the background. I auditioned it by playing VSL-Viola Ensemble Legato.gig, included with GS Orchestra, and was floored by the realism embedded in the transitions. With an expertly crafted Giga library, the intrinsic limitations of replicating nonkeyboard instruments on a keyboard are all but gone.

I'M LOVIN' IT

There's a hell of a lot to absorb and love (mostly) about GigaStudio 3. I did discover numerous little quirks along the way, to be sure. For instance, the NFX1 Reverb exhibited a strange and noncoherent hard panning when very short decay times were selected. The NFX3 Tap/Delay plug-in would intermittently die midsession, only to be awakened by restarting Giga. But when you look at what really made GigaStudio the classic that it has become — incredible-sounding libraries, advanced controller and key-switching assignment and in-depth editing — and add to that all of the improvements of version 3, these gripes seem ridiculously minor.

Most important, GigaStudio 3 simply sounds brilliant, and the new 24/96 libraries deliver incredible detail and dynamics. From a performance standpoint, ReWire was flawless with Nuendo 2.0, and I was able to max out the 64 outputs on my test system, barely putting a dent in the CPU. GigaStudio 3 is a hands-down triumph for the prosperity of the GigaStudio legacy.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

TASCAM

GIGASTUDIO 3 > $599 (ORCHESTRA); $369 (ENSEMBLE); $199 (SOLO)

Pros: Ground-up redesign. Unlimited polyphony. VST and ReWire support. CPU-efficient. Lowest latency of any soft sampler.

Cons: Still no VST-instrument support. Bug fixing required. No control-surface support in stand-alone mode. PC-only.

Contact: www.tascamgiga.com

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS

Pentium 4/1.7GHz or Athlon XP 2100 (SSE-compatible processors required for GigaPulse); 512 MB RAM; Windows XP; MIDI interface; GSIF-compatible soundcard or ReWire-compatible DAW host

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