As another killer groove poured out of my speakers courtesy of this virtual instrument, I started to wonder if Stylus RMX was really as great as it seemed — or had I missed some “fatal flaw”?
So I went to the Sound, Studio, and Stage forum and asked if anyone had found problems with Stylus RMX. This comment from a forumite in Los Angeles pretty much sums it up: “I’ve been using it for a month or so but I first saw Stylus RMX at NAMM last year. If, on my way back to my car, a spaceship landed and little green men got out dressed in grass skirts singing Milli Vanilli tunes in Russian, and someone asked me what the most unbelievable thing I saw at NAMM was . . . I would have said Stylus RMX.”
THE STYLE OF STYLUS
So what is it about this “drum library” that evokes this kind of response? First, it’s not a drum library. Stylus RMX is a virtual instrument plug-in with a huge core library of sounds (7.4GB), but also has hooks for “SAGE Xpanders” (see sidebar) so you’re not limited to what ships with version 1.0. As many of the stock drum sounds are processed and gravitate toward “remix’ genres, the Xpanders open up Stylus’s potential to accommodate any style that Spectrasonics sees fit to adapt to the SAGE (Spectrasonics Advanced Groove Engine) format.
The library includes a large number of “Suites,” which are families of related loops called “Elements” (e.g., the entire loop, just the percussion, the loop without a kick, and so on). As you browse, you can play the elements from a MIDI keyboard. This is good not only for auditioning sounds, but for playing an arrangement into a sequencer. Triggering can be quantized (like Ableton Live), or happen immediately.
Also onboard: The loops from Classic Stylus for backward compatibility, as well as “groove elements” — phrases of different instruments (bongos, congas, snare, tambourines, and so on) that are ideal for making custom loops out of multiple elements.
In addition to being able to work with loops as self-contained entities that you can trigger from a keyboard or sequencer in “groove menu” mode, you can also work with them in a “slice menu” mode (the loops use the Groove Control protocol, which is very similar to REX files in that they “slice” digital audio; see the July 2004 EQ for info on loop basics). Therefore, you can process these loops to a high degree via filtering, enveloping, signal processing, and much more, as well as change tempo without doing significant damage to the sound quality. Also in this mode you may use your keyboard to play each slice, but can also drag a companion MIDI file that triggers the slices into a MIDI track in your host sequencer. If you leave the MIDI file “as is” it plays back the groove, but of course, you can edit the MIDI data to modify playback.
Still not flexible enough? Then create drum kits out of 10,000 individual hits, and drive the sounds via MIDI, just as you would with a standard drum module. And, unlike the original Stylus, you can create your own libraries from converted REX files, and/or loops from Groove Control products issued on Akai and Roland CD-ROMs.
The Mixer screen should help make the architecture clear. There are eight “parts,” which in “multi” mode can hold a complete loop (each can be treated as a groove, or as sliced audio). In “kit” mode, each part holds a single hit, or set of hits triggered by different keys. You’ll find all the usual mixer suspects: Level, pan, four aux sends, mute, and solo.
The Edit screen affects whichever part is selected. Yes, each part can have an envelope for the amp, filter, and/or pitch, while multi-waveform LFOs mutate the level, filtering, or pan. The “power filter” has multiple responses, as well as a tasty drive control when you want to rough up the sound a bit. Pitch, additional filtering, pan . . . they’re all there, plus sample start time and reverse. Want to automate these? Sure. Click on a parameter, hit MIDI learn, then tweak a control surface or play back a controller envelope from your host sequencer (Stylus RMX also supports standard VST automation).
The only bummer is that the Mixer solo buttons aren’t able to “learn,” although as others report the function works, the problem may be unique to my particular combination of host and wrapper. Also, you can’t use notes to trigger buttons or control extremes (i.e., flip between all the way off or all the way on). If I could trigger the mixer solo buttons with keyboard notes, that would be truly wonderful.
The filter has a twist: It can impart woody or metallic qualities at high resonance. Turning a kick into a log drum is a good example of what this can do. The cutoff isn’t too smooth — you’ll hear the quantized gradations if you sweep with high resonance. Normally I’d complain, but the resonant qualities are cool enough that I’ll just shut up.
If Stylus RMX stopped here, it would still be impressive. But actually, we’re just getting started.
The 24 effects are excellent and musically useful, but it’s the routing that makes things interesting. There are inserts for each part, four aux buses, and master effects. Each of these has three slots for up to three series effects. In other words, you could have three effects on your kick, three different effects on your snare, route the kick and snare to any of four aux buses, each of which can have three effects, then process the whole mess with three more master effects.
But there is a caution — when you start piling on the loops and effects, your CPU will complain, and Stylus RMX is not shy about chowing down on CPU cycles. You can always increase the latency a bit to free up some “performance headroom,” or use a host’s freeze function. Often, though, careful effects assignments (e.g., use buses instead of inserts if you want to process multiple parts with the same effect) can reduce CPU usage a lot.
Now we enter the realm of the seriously twisted. Chaos Designer adds variations to a loop that affect timing, the order in which slices play, slice reversal, pitch, and dynamics. This happens in what sounds like at least a semi-intelligent way, although for my tastes, setting low probabilities of change produced the most satisfying results. The drag/rush timing option is particularly effective for changing “feel,” while changing pitch is great for electronica weirdness.
Now, not all chaos is necessarily going to sound cool, especially with higher probability settings. But if you hear some improvised chaos you like and the part is in slice menu mode, hit the Capture button, and Stylus RMX captures the last 16 loop iterations as MIDI data. You can then drag this into a host, and of course, edit it as well. Or, export some of this chaos as a separate MIDI file. You can use chaos with a part in groove menu mode, but it’s real time only — no capturing. You’d have to capture it as audio, then edit the audio file.
THE BEST ’TIL LAST . . .
So far, we’ve acted as if all these editing operations — chaos, effects, filtering, and more — happened on the part as a whole. But I’ve been holding back a bit because I didn’t want your head to explode.
Stylus RMX has what’s called an Edit Group mode, which is initially hidden behind a virtual panel so that casual users won’t be exposed to megatons of explosive loop mutating power. Click on the panel, though, and the innocent-looking Edit Group appears.
Here you select groups of notes to be affected individually — downbeats, backbeats, upbeats, just the first 16th note of the loop — 23 options in all. These are mutually exclusive, so this feature can also exempt particular sections from processing; for example, keep the downbeats and upbeats rock steady, but add chaos to everything else. Or, add rude distortion to four-on-the-floor kick patterns, while leaving everything else untouched . . . you get the idea.
Whoa! Serious stuff — and in the right hands, pretty close to magical.
WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE?
So there you have it, a loop-based plug-in whose main mission in life seems dedicated to making loops sound like they’re not loops. And it succeeds beyond all reasonable expectations. Stylus RMX also lends credence to the conspiracy theories that believe alien technologies have been appropriated for use here on earth, but that’s a whole other subject.
The original Stylus drew fire from some who felt the sounds were overly-processed, and useful mostly for hip-hop and perhaps electronica. As someone who works in both genres, hey, no problem. Stylus RMX has a similar sound palette, but with more adventurous percussion, and sounds that work well for world music. However, the ability to accept Xpander packs and REX/Groove Control files pretty much removes any musical limitations. If you have some great rock loops in REX format, they’re welcome in RMX-land.
The only complaint I have is the exclusive reliance on video tutorials (aside from an installation guide) for documentation. The problem isn’t that they’re not helpful — essentially, you get Eric Persing and some other folks from Spectrasonics sitting down and giving you a one-on-one. That’s cool, and gives a welcome, personal vibe. But for random access, it doesn’t fly. Want to learn about automation? You’ll have to wade through a bunch of videos in the hopes you’ll find the info. And nowhere did I find out what sample rates Stylus RMX supports, although I tested it at both 44.1 and 96kHz and it worked. Nor is there info on internal bit resolution. (However, as we go to press Spectrasonics has posted searchable PDF file indexes for the Video Tutorials, which helps.)
Anyway, the point is probably moot because Spectrasonics will be making a PDF reference manual available on their web site, which will likely be there before this hits print. Besides, it’s still worth watching all the videos if you want to be a power user.
BEAM ME UP, SCOTTY
Stylus RMX is a wild ride; this tool is just begging to be put in the hands of creative crazies who want to take loops to places that no one, and I mean no one, has ever taken them before. Speaker-thumping sounds, sure; and if all you want are some superb loops, that alone justifies RMX’s existence. Then throw in lots of ways to use them – great. Fantastic effects? Even better. But when you can drag and drop MIDI files into your host sequencer, introduce chaos that essentially lets loops improvise (and capture chaotic effects that spin your crank), then set up edit groups to micromanage editing on a super-detailed level — the only option is an EQ Award.