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electronic MUSICIAN

New Gear For Production And Performance

By Craig Anderton | October 1, 2008

This article covers several types of gear where the line blurs between studio and stage; we’ll also have minireviews of some pieces of gear that are unusually well-suited to having a split personality. Of course, pretty much anything used in the studio can be taken out live, and vice-versa; so our gear coverage isn’t intended to cover everything. Instead, we’ll hit some highlights—and you can hit Google to take it further.

LIVE IN THE STUDIO
For many musicians, the trend is away from isolated overdubs in favor of doing more live playing in the studio; there’s something about a band interacting that gives a feel you can’t get any other way. Sure, there’s more leakage—so what? A little leakage can be an okay tradeoff for making music that’s more vital. Some musicians are even ditching the headphones, setting up so they can see each other, and essentially using the studio to capture a live performance— with the added luxury of being able to edit, do overdubs, and mix.

The parallel issue is musicians who rely on particular studio-centric devices (like virtual instruments) and want to use them onstage. This may not be just an aesthetic choice, but a practical one: Consider taking a boatload of keyboards on stage versus loading virtual instruments into a software host (e.g., Native Instruments’ Kore 2) or hardware host (like Muse Research’s Receptor) and just setting up a master keyboard.

EQ has covered this phenomenon before, in articles like “Mixers Are Musical Instruments” (04/07) and features on “performing engineers.” But current technology is making it easier than ever to live in both worlds . . . as we’re about to find out.

FIREWIRE/USB 2.0
MIXERS/INTERFACES
The concept of the FireWire or USB 2.0 mixer is simple: Build in a computer interface so that on stage, the mixer works like a traditional mixer but in the studio, it can serve as an audio interface with hands-on panning, fader levels, EQ, and the like. However, not all computer-ready mixers are created equal. Some send only two channels to the computer (particularly if they use a USB 1.1 interface), while others allow each input, as well as the main stereo output, to appear as an input in a DAW or other application. For example, the Alesis MultiMix 16 USB sends all 16 ins (“downstream” of the preamp, high-pass filter, EQ, and fader) along with a master stereo out. Thus, if you “play” the mixer as part of your performance, those moves will be reflected in the audio that goes to the computer. As another example, Phonic’s Helix Board 12 uses a USB 1.1 interface to deliver a stereo out to the computer, while the Helix Board 24 FireWire MKII streams 18 independent channels to your computer and accepts a stereo return for monitoring.

Some mixers lean more toward stage or studio. Yamaha’s N-series FireWire mixers are designed for tight integration with Steinberg’s Cubase AI in the studio, but also feature “livefriendly” features like their one-knob morphing compressor. On the other hand TC Electronics’ Konnekt Live is a computer interface with limited hands-on control (e.g., no long-throw faders) but includes several features tailored for live performance, such as built-in DSP (3-band master compressor, reverb, and filters) so you don’t have to load these effects into your laptop. It also includes an RIAA phono preamp for any turntables in your act, as well as MIDI I/O if you want additional hands-on control (e.g., a fader box like the Mackie Control).

MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS
Sure, any musical instrument works onstage or in the studio. But a new breed of keyboard workstations does a lot more than just play back strings and pianos, and groove-oriented instruments (like Akai’s MPC series) can move seamlessly between studio and stage.

A lot of the action involves handson control and studio integration; look no further than Korg’s M3 and Yamaha’s Motif XS series. The M3 includes sliders with templates for controlling many popular sequencers and virtual instruments, as well as velocity-sensitive drum pads. What’s more, it includes a computer editor and can serve as a VST plug-in, so you can “insert” an M3 right into your sequencer of choice. (Of course, unlike software, you can only instantiate one instance of hardware.)

Want more? Thanks to external inputs, the M3 can also serve as a signal processor—whether you want to add vocoding effects, or create a credible guitar rack. You can even hook up an external USB drive, and with the M3’s sampling functions, record stereo WAV files up to 80 minutes— perfect for recording rehearsals.

The Motif XS has similar capabilities (control surface, signal processing for audio feeding the external audio inputs, recording, editing software, etc.), although there are a few differences. For example, instead of having 8 pads, the control surface adds 8 knobs to the 8 sliders. But the big deal is integration with Cubase AI, from having the Motif XS serve as an audio interface (with the addition of an optional mLAN card) to transferring audio between the Motif XS and your computer. You can even call up sequences from the Motif XS, and open them within Cubase. And of course, there are plenty of master keyboard controllers with control surfaces (e.g., CME, M-Audio, Novation, etc.) that can change tone generator parameters live, or edit sequencer mixers in the studio.

GUITAR AMP SIMULATORS
As more recording guitarists discover the flexibility of amp sims, the “big five” (Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig, IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube, Line 6’s GearBox, Waves G|T|R, and Peavey ReValver Mk III) continue to pick up fans. However, comparatively few have made the leap from using them in the studio to ditching a guitar rack and using a totally software-based setup on stage.

That’s changing. More powerful laptops at a lower price are one incentive to go virtual live, but another is a new generation of hardware controllers that allow changing sounds with the same fluidity as traditional foot controllers.

For example, consider Native Instruments’ Rig Kontrol 3: It combines a 192kHz/24-bit USB 2.0 stereo audio interface with an expression pedal, nine switches, and jacks for additional controllers, which are all about realtime control over Guitar Rig 3’s parameters. At the software end of things, Guitar Rig 3 builds in Rig Kontrol access: You can tie specific parameters to the controllers, and save this information with Guitar Rig presets. Another cool function is the “snapshot,” which lets you step through different settings within the same rack. Because you can load a lot of processors into a rack, you can set up multiple sounds—enough for at least a song or two—within that preset.

For Waves G|T|R, there’s GTR Ground, a USB foot controller with two expression pedals and 11 assignable buttons. It’s designed to accompany G|T|R 3, allowing you to bypass/enable individual “stomp box” modules, provide pedal control, switch between effects setups, and quite a bit more. Waves also markets a guitar-specific preamp, the Waves/PRS Guitar Interface, which buffers a standard guitar’s output and makes it suitable for feeding line and mic level inputs.

Unless you’re totally committed to tubes, it’s getting to the point where you no longer need to use amp sims in the studio yet maintain a separate rig for playing—and you can get the exact same sound live you do in the studio.

ONSTAGE SEQUENCING/SOFTWARE
The die was cast when Ableton introduced Live, and laptops became both powerful and less expensive: Music software, formerly part of the studio’s domain, started to gravitate toward the stage. Live doesn’t have a monopoly on the genre—I’ve seen musicians use Sony Acid onstage, as well as Cakewalk’s Project5 and other programs—but it has set the standard for software that crosses the stage/studio line.

Programs from the earliest days of personal computers, like Laurie Spiegel’s Music Mouse, Dr. T’s Fingers, and Intelligent Music’s M and Jam Factory, were clearly designed for performance but were also studio-friendly. However, Live incorporated two views—Session and Arranger—that might as well as been labeled “Stage” and “Studio” views. Over the years, Live has beefed up the studio end of things, incorporating DAW-type features like a configurable mixer, video window, and MIDI recording.

On the other hand Propellerhead Software’s Reason, which was mostly designed for the studio (actually, it pretty much virtualized a studio) yet was still used live, has incorporated more features that make it suitable for onstage use—particularly the Combinator mode that allows splits and layerings if you want to use Reason as a keyboard rack. It also pumped up support for hardware controllers (good news for realtime control fans) and sped up the browsing process, while remaining pretty laptop-friendly.

SIGNAL PROCESSORS
Think of the carefully-crafted vocal sounds and overdubs created in the studio, then compare that to what happens on stage: ooops. . . .

But no longer. Consider TCHelicon’s VoiceTone series, which takes what TC-Helicon has learned from doing studio effects, and puts them in floor pedals that are suitable for studio or stage. For example, the VoiceTone Create combines thickening, delay, reverb, distortion, chorus, flanging, filtering, and the like; get your sound on recordings, then take the same sounds to the stage. To further that dual identity, it has mic-level balanced XLR in and stereo XLR outs; for quick onstage manipulation, there are 99 presets, many keyed to specific musical genres, and two “tweak” knobs.

Another pedal, VoiceTone Double, allows realtime “overdubbing” of up to four vocal parts, while VoiceTone Harmony-G recalls the DigiTech Vocalist, offering two lines of intelligent harmonies that follow the chord patterns established by your guitar playing (the guitar feeds the device as well to provide a reference). There’s also doubling, reverb, EQ, dynamics, and delay. A similar device, VoiceTone Harmony-M, is designed for keyboard players as it follows MIDI input for creating harmonies.

The final member of the VoiceTone line, Correct, is a truly unusual device that acts like an “android engineer” with adaptive circuitry that monitors your voice and adds dynamics control, EQ, de-essing, and optionally, warmth. It’s uncanny to turn on the “engineer” effects and hear what happens to your voice: It suddenly sounds, for lack of a better term, “produced.” Note that you can also tweak these manually, if desired. What’s more, it does realtime pitch correction and you can monitor the corrected signal.

VoiceLive is also a direct descendant of TC-Helicon’s studio processors. It includes 3-band EQ, compression, delay with tap tempo, reverb, pitch correction, doubling, harmony synthesis, and an optical limiter designed specifically for voice. Furthermore, there’s free editing software if you want to work on presets in the studio, then take them out live.

In addition to the new generation of studio/stage vocal processors, there are people plugging effects pedals into aux buses, and ripping effects out of racks and taking them onstage—and plenty of companies taking studio circuits and putting them into floor boxes. Of these, one of my hands-down favorites is Roger Linn’s Adrenalinn, which combines guitar modeling, beats, and synth-style/step-sequenced processing. In the process, you can take sounds obtainable only by software in the studio to the stage. Electro-Harmonix is introducing a new line of pedals specifically designed for stage and studio; for example, the Metaphors for bass includes an XLR out, standard balanced/ unbalanced 1/4" out, and direct out. And Eventide, long known for its studio effects, has migrated that technology to the TimeFactor and ModFactor floor pedals. Also noteworthy: The Boss line of Loop Stations, including the RC-50 and RC-20XL. These let you record and overlay performances, building up complete musical compositions, whether you’re playing live in the studio or simply want to blow away an audience.

VIRTUAL INSTRUMENT HOSTS
It’s not just guitarists who want to transport their rig between studio and stage, but keyboardists, electronic drummers, and other instrumentalists— and there’s gear for them, too.

Native Instruments’ Kore 2, a clever approach to managing instruments and plug-ins, is a cross-platform hardware/software package. On stage, it can host all your instruments and plug-ins, integrating them in an ergonomic, performance-oriented interface. In the studio, it’s a convenient way to find specific instruments and presets out of the thousands you’ll find in a product like NI’s Komplete. It can be a plug-in that operates inside a host, or serve as a host for plug-ins. There’s also an accompanying USB 2.0 custom hardware controller, which makes tweaking parameters easy (particularly with NI synths and effects), as the controller includes eight touch-sensitive knobs and multiple other controls.

Kore 2’s main element is the Kore- Sound, a “container” for VST/AU plug-ins that can hold complex combinations of instruments mapped across specific keyboard ranges with effects, mixing, MIDI effects, and routing. More importantly for stage use, a KoreSound can morph smoothly between eight variations, letting you get multiple sounds without having to load different KoreSounds. And because KoreSounds are tied to Kore 2, not the host, you can use a KoreSound with Cakewalk Sonar in the studio but then plug it into, say, Ableton Live when you’re on the road.

The original version of Kore was solely about managing workflow, but Kore 2 includes the audio engines that power Absynth 4, Reaktor 5, Guitar Rig 2, FM8, Massive, and Kontakt 3. So, Kore 2 has now become an instrument in its own right. It can load the presets included with Kore 2 or presets from various Soundpacks that NI offers. Although the engines don’t have the elaborate GUI of the full instruments, some parameters are available for tweaking.

If you don’t want to bring a computer per se on the road, in addition to the Muse Research Receptor (see review), there’s Open Labs’ line of keyboard- meets computer-meets-virtual instruments. These are custom-built Windows XP computers, optimized for the road, with built-in keyboards (both musical and QWERTY), touchscreen, and control surface. They’re true, selfcontained workstations; you can run almost anything that’s compatible with Windows XP (including DAWs) and can even burn a CD with it or surf the Internet. You can use this as your personal studio and do everything a sophisticated computer-based setup can do, then take it on the road as a keyboard rig, live performance instrument, backing track generator, etc.

ACCESSORIES
This falls under the “too many to mention” category, but one item of particular interest to guitarists is Radial Engineering’s JDX Amplifier Direct Box. Unlike a standard direct box, this inserts between an amp head and speaker cabinet. By tapping the amp head, it preserves the amp sound; this signal then feeds a reactive transformer load. This is not a standard loading device that dissipates energy (in fact, you must patch a speaker to the JDX), but actually “monitors” the reactive effects that occur between the amp and loudspeaker, and passes this along to a speaker emulator circuit that to my ears, sounds like sort of an open-back 4x12, but a little tighter. This then goes to an active balanced driver to provide a balanced XLR output.

In the studio, this can give you a direct sound that faithfully reproduces the amp head’s characteristics, which you can use instead of or in addition to a miked sound. Live, you can forego miking and just feed the JDX out into a PA, giving a consistent sound from gig to gig.

READY TO MAKE THE TRANSITION?
Going from studio to stage is neither as complex or expensive as it once was, and is worth the effort: Your studio chops will increase dramatically if you also play in front of a live audience, and your recordings will sound more vital when informed with the performance ethic. Go for it!

Hot Tips for FireWire/USB Mixers

Check the mixer manufacturer’s website for any info on which FireWire chip sets work best with the mixer; some combinations refuse to play nice.
Dedicate a FireWire or USB port to your mixer—don’t daisy-chain hard drives and other devices on a port.
With desktop computers, installing a FireWire or USB card may give better performance than using the motherboard’s built-in ports.

Hot Tips for Workstations

If you want to process guitar, you’ll probably need a preamp or buffer. Synths typically include mic and line inputs,but not guitar inputs.
In addition to the controls that are intended to control mixers and virtual instruments, you can probably use mod wheels, joysticks, ribbon controllers, switches, data wheels, and other controllers to send MIDI data. Joysticks make great crossfaders!
When making USB or FireWire connections to a synth, check that all devices are powered-down before making any connections. Although these protocols are supposed to be hot-swappable, you don’t want some poorlyspec’ed FireWire hard drive blowing up your synth.

Hot Tips for Windows Laptops On Stage

With Windows machines, go Start > Run > Msconfig. Go to the “Startup” tab, and uncheck everything you don’t need (if you use Microsoft Office, make sure Fast Find is unchecked). When in doubt, feel free to delete: If Windows really needs something, it will load what it needs automatically.
You really don’t want your computer scanning its hard drive when you’re onstage, so turn off System Restore: Right-click on My Computer, select “Properties,” click on “System Restore,” and check “Turn off System Restore on all drives.”
In the same spirit, turn off Disk Indexing. Double-click on My Computer, right-click on a drive, select “Properties,” and in the “General” tab, uncheck “Allow Indexing Service to index this disk for fast file searching.”

PRICE: $1,049.99, $799 for existing AmpliTube users
STRENGTHS: Built to “rock and roll” specs. Extremely ergonomic. Great complement of I/O, including six jacks for expression controllers. Digital output. Integrates superbly with AmpliTube 2 plug-ins.
LIMITATIONS: Mono-in only (sorry, Chapman Stick players). In multichannel setups, can control only one instance of X-Gear at a time.

Pretty much any studio-oriented, computer-savvy guitarist is aware of IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube series of amp sims. But now, IK has zeroed in on making AmpliTube equally at home on stage with the StompIO controller.

The quality is obvious: The allmetal case is hefty, footswitches are spaced far enough apart for actual human feet, the display is readable, and there’s a wealth of I/O. What’s less obvious is the Class A DI, highend AD/DA, elegant automation handling in the studio, and simple preset management onstage. The package includes several amp sim programs: AmpliTube 2, Ampeg SVX, AmpliTube Jimi Hendrix, and AmpliTube Metal. The controller talks to another program, X-Gear, which serves as a “shell” for all these programs so you can mix and match, say, a cab from the Jimi Hendrix software with a stomp box effect from AmpliTube Metal. Including the software also helps justify the $900 street price, as an equivalent setup would cost vastly more as hardware. Assuming a modern computer with low latency, you really can replace a rack of gear.

If you’re not familiar with Ampli- Tube, it has a “creamy” signature tone, with excellent clean-to-dirty breakup characteristics. I won’t get into the “better/worse than Guitar Rig/G|T|R/GearBox ReValver” thing because like real guitar setups, these have different sounds. Suffice it to say that I use all five, and I wouldn’t want to give up AmpliTube. In many ways, it provides the closest experience to a traditional guitar setup.

Okay, so the sound passes the “tone test” in the studio. Live, StompIO’s most striking characteristic is that you can pretty much close your laptop and forget it exists. The vibe is like having a guitar pedalboard in front of you, because you do have a guitar pedalboard in front of you—just one with a USB cable going to a computer instead of an audio cable going to an amp.

My only disappointment: When using my Digital Les Paul with a host program (Sonar), I use six instances of AmpliTube 2 and was hoping to be able to control all of them at once. Not possible: X-Gear has a “StompIO” switch, and the controller talks only to the one that’s selected. However, you can control the other instances with StompIO’s traditional MIDI control if you have a MIDI interface—while not as powerful as full StompIO control, it gets the job done. Another MIDI-based application is using the MIDI out controls in the studio to control, for example, transport functions with the footswitches.

Aside from that admittedly rare application, any guitarist who carts gear between stage and studio will embrace StompIO. It’s already making inroads with pros (Stefan Lessard of the Dave Matthews Band uses it onstage for bass, as does P.O.D.—and Nine Inch Nails used it for recording “The Slip”). The whole AmpliTube/X-Gear/ StompIO system is brilliantly thought out, and moves the concept of virtual guitar setups up another notch.

     

YAMAHA TENORI-ON

PRICE: $1,200
STRENGTHS: Innovative. Extremely addictive. Easy enough to figure out in minutes, deep enough to be a serious instrument. MIDI out for controlling other instruments. Can load your own samples.
LIMITATIONS: Factory sounds not editable. You can change note lengths, but can’t mix different note lengths in the same sequence. No velocity or dynamics. Expensive.

It’s controversial: Some say it’s a toy, some say it’s a serious instrument. It’s expensive, but then again, it’s expensive to make. Some hate the onboard sounds, some love them (but you can always load your own samples via SD cards). It’s limited in many ways, but unlimited in many others. There are those who play with it and are willing to sell their first-born to get one; others couldn’t care less.

But the main issue here is the stage/studio connection, and for electronica, the Tenori-On straddles both worlds with style. Designed by Toshio Iwai in conjunction with Yamaha, it’s basically a work of art crossed with a step sequencer on steroids.

The heart of the Tenori-On is a 16 x 16 matrix of buttons, each with an associated LED. These can enter notes in up to 16 different layers, but the layers work differently: For example, there are seven “score” layers that are sort of like a MIDI piano roll, as well as additional layers for random, drawing, etc. Taken together, the 16 layers form a “block,” and the Tenori- On stores up to 16 blocks; you can switch instantly between them.

On stage, it’s possible for one performer to keep an audience occupied with nothing other than a Tenori-On and good musicianship— especially because the matrix lights up at the buttons on both the matrix’s front and back, making for intriguing visuals. In the studio, it’s a step sequencing instrument that lets you create complete sequenced backing tracks or loops, as well as serve as a MIDI controller (great for adding step sequencing to virtual instruments).

In either case, I find the Tenori-On totally addictive. I’ll typically start with one layer, and get a little melodic groove going; then switch over to another layer and create a drum part. The process of entering the notes and creating a sequence, piece by piece, actually enhances the performance value and in the studio, it’s definitely worth keeping the record button “on” because you’re bound to produce some wonderful sounds as a composition evolves.

Some think the buttons have a cheap feel because they rattle, but I don’t have a problem with that; in some ways, it produces a more tactile response. And yes, it’s expensive—but it’s the kind of instrument that normally would be hand-made by an artist, one at a time, and probably sell for at least five times as much.

After working with one for several weeks, all I can say is the charm hasn’t worn off, and I just get deeper and deeper into it. Don’t be put off by the toy-like look: This is a bona fide musical instrument—and I plan to get really good at playing it.

PRICE: $359.99
STRENGTHS: Nice mic pres and EQ. FireWire loopback function. It’s a DJ mixer, too.
LIMITATIONS: No MIDI port. 30mm faders on channels 1 and 2.

The U.402d has multiple identities: It’s a small studio mixer, DJ mixer, keyboard mixer, and general utility mixer. It features two mic/line inputs with +48V phantom power (one includes a DI function for guitar or bass), and two stereo line level ins, both with RIAA turntable inputs. Outs include stereo Main, stereo Aux, and phones.

There are some unexpected features; the two mic/line ins have 3-band EQ (high 12kHz, low 80Hz, and sweepable mid 100Hz–8kHz), while the two stereo ins have fixed high, mid, and low frequency controls which when rotated full left, provide a DJ-style “kill” function. Furthering the DJ options, there’s a crossfader (with slow/fast curve option) for channels 3 and 4, and a Cue function for feeding channel signals into your headphones. The U.420d is also a good bet if you want to preserve vinyl, as you can take advantage of the phono inputs and stream the audio to your computer via FireWire.

In the studio, one cool function is that you can add overdubs easily thanks to the routing, which places the headphones and associated volume control upstream of the master control for the monitors. Suppose you want to overdub vocals: Plug in the mic, turn down the monitors, turn up the headphones, and go—there’s a return from your DAW for monitoring. For live recording (onstage or in the studio), you can take a feed from software running on your laptop, add more signals via the analog inputs, and send the combination to the master outputs. However, there’s also a FireWire “loopback” function so the entire mix can be recorded back into your computer.

The main limitations are no MIDI input—if you want to use a hands-on controller with your software, you’ll need a separate MIDI interface. Also, all faders are 30mm; this makes setting levels on channels 1 and 2 fiddly, although the shorter travel lets you do wicked fast moves with the crossfader (rotary controls set the levels for channels 3 and 4). Also, unlike Mackie’s compact VLZ3-series mixers that are encased in metal and built like a tank, the U.402d has a high-impact plastic case.

Keyboard mixer applications are obvious if you’re running a keyboard rig live: The FireWire out can take the output from virtual instruments running on your computer (although the lack of a MIDI input is a bump in the road), while inputs 3 and 4 can take stereo outputs from a hardware workstation, and you can stick a couple mics into the first two inputs for your vocals.

While not a full-blown mixer, the U.420d is a handy utility mixer that does double-duty as a surprisingly serviceable DJ mixer, and can serve in other applications as well.

digi

PRICE: $295
STRENGTHS: Ergonomically combines multiple modules into a single instrument. Lots of “hooks” for hardware controllers. Lack of “hiccupping” when making changes is perfect for live use. Cost-effective. Useful bundled content. Very CPU-friendly.
LIMITATIONS: Works only with Pro Tools. Closed system (e.g., can’t host plug-ins). Requires iLok.

But, you say, it’s not a sequencer. Well, although Transfuser is an RTAS plug-in, it works well as a self-contained step-sequenced/slicing-based instrument. Transfuser incorporates three main elements: the patternoriented Drums, Slicer (somewhat like Reason’s Dr. REX player, and great for time-stretching), and Phrase, which uses DSP for stretching (e.g., like Sony Acid). Each element has a sequencer section, where you can modify the slices or patterns, and a synthesizer section, which allows considerable modification of the sounds you’re using.

In the studio, Transfuser integrates with Pro Tools, with the option to bus individual outputs to various tracks, record your playing in realtime, and the like. You can drive it with MIDI (including triggering loops from a keyboard), and create arrangements using the standard toolset in Pro Tools. When recording, you can record both the MIDI that’s triggering various aspects of Transfuser as well as the audio that results.

But to me, live performance— whether onstage, or “live” in the studio— is what turns Transfuser from “another plug-in” into something else. For example, with beats, a Beat- Cutter effect offers freeze, re-order, and scratch functions for doing realtime sound mangling. Even better, the MARIO function produces semirandomized/ intelligent changes to individual modules. With beats, this is stellar: Click on it to mash things up for a measure or two, then hit the back button to return to the original pattern. When applied to slices, you’ll end up with completely different melody lines.

There are “smart knobs” that can control multiple parameters and tie to continuous controllers; you’ll also find trigger pads, a crossfader between two buses, global groove functions (e.g., swing, laid back, import Pro Tools groove template, etc.), tons of effects for individual tracks/buses/master, and . . . and . . . lots of cool stuff, basically. But I don’t need to get into too much detail, because you can get all the detail you want by downloading the trial version at www.digidesign.com.

Bottom line: While oriented pretty much toward dance/electronica music (the product name should give you a clue), Transfuser is a very worthy addition to the arsenal of great groove-oriented tools.

DIGITECH VOCALIST LIVE 4

PRICE: $699.95
STRENGTHS: Surprisingly non-robotic harmonies. Plenty of other effects for enhancing your voice. Uncannily accurate tracking.
LIMITATIONS: No MIDI input. Footswitches require care to make sure you hit the right one.

DigiTech was first with a harmony synthesizer that followed your guitar playing—the Vocalist Live 2 ($499.95). A smash hit, and deservedly so, it spawned the Vocalist Live 4 covered here as well as the rack-mounted Vocalist Live Pro ($849.95), which includes a MIDI input so that its harmonies can also track keyboard MIDI data.

I’ve used the Vocalist Live 4 in the studio since it came out, and have incorporated it into my work with the band EV2 to give a bigger live sound (important for a twopiece). In the studio, I prefer to do my own overdubs but still use the VL4 thanks to one of its strongest assets: It does much, much more than just generate harmonies, although of course that’s the focus. It can create vocals that don’t sound like me, and includes a raft of signal processing such as pitch correction, EQ, dynamics control, de-esser, modulation, noise gate, reverb, delay, and the like—I often use it as a “vocal strip” even when not doing harmonies. For live use, it even includes guitar effects (and a tuner), so singer/songwriters may not need to bring their effects to the gig.

Although DigiTech promotes this as a guitar-oriented processor, I’ve used it successfully with keyboards and recorded signals. When I asked DigiTech why they didn’t promote this aspect of the box, they said that the MusIQ technology that recognizes chords and patterns is optimized for guitar, and while it does work with keyboard audio, it’s not really supported because it’s possible to come up with patches that confuse it. Okay . . . but if you get a VL4, don’t be afraid to try it out with keyboards and synths, too.

The harmonies are convincing enough that you can mix them up pretty high in the studio, and they’ll blend well with other tracks. For live use, I prefer mixing the harmonies in the background, thus “thickening” my voice but without calling too much attention to the harmonies; I don’t want it to seem like I’m

MUSE RESEARCH RECEPTOR

PRICE: $2,099 (basic version), $2,949 (pro version), $2,499 (with Native Instruments Komplete 5), $1,999 (Total Workstation Rack from IK Multimedia)
STRENGTHS: Rugged, reliable way to bring plug-ins onstage. Networkable in the studio. Excellent support. Multiple configurations.
LIMITATIONS: Not compatible with all plug-ins. Plug-ins purchased specifically for Receptor work only with Receptor.

The list of Receptor users reads like a who’s who of performers, from the Oak Ridge Boys, to U2, to Herbie Hancock, and a whole lot more. The idea seems simple enough: Build a custom Linux-based computer optimized to run virtual instrument and effect plug-ins, but house it in a super-roadworthy 2U case. Originally, it seemed like the ultimate alternative to elaborate keyboard rigs; you could just load it with your virtual instruments of choice, use the included software to route them through your favorite effects, hook it up to a MIDI controller and PA system—done.

But over the years, that simple idea has grown into a variety of custom configurations for different type of performance situations, from a custom version for drummers based around Fxpansion’s BFD, to a version that comes pre-loaded with Native Instruments’ Komplete 5 (as shown in the picture). Another version is IK Multimedia’s equivalent to Komplete, with their line of virtual instruments, and there are also different versions within the basic Receptor model— Basic, Pro (with a faster processor and 750GB hard drive), and Pro Jr., with a 500GB hard drive.

However, Receptor is also great in the studio, not just because it relieves your DAW of having to do the “heavy lifting” with plug-ins, but because of the Uniwire networking protocol that allows networking up to 10 Receptors via Ethernet. Think about it: You can load each one up with dozens of GigaBytes of sounds, all hooked into your DAW of choice, but requiring virtually no CPU power or track freezing. The days of Hollywood composers having 30 Akai S3000s loaded with sounds are over.

One fine point: Receptor doesn’t need a computer to do its thing in live performance (it even has rear panel keyboard, mouse, and video monitor connectors if you want to access plug-in parameters graphically). However, you’ll need a computer to get the most out of Receptor; it’s the only way you can load new plug-ins, purchase the full versions of demo plug-ins, and update the system or software.

Receptor enjoys excellent support. Check out their website for more information, as it explains the intricacies of how you install plugins, the various model options, how various people use it, and manual downloads. As a Receptor user, I can attest that it works as advertised—and more.

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