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CAKEWALK GUITAR STUDIO 2 (WIN)

March 1, 2000
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Keyboardists are often considered the most savvy music-technology users. Lately, however, guitar players have also come to embrace the computer as a member of the band. Unfortunately, music software developers have been slow to recognize this trend, leaving guitarists with few applications geared toward their unique music-production needs. The situation is about to change, however, with the introduction of Cakewalk's Guitar Studio 2.

Guitar Studio is a digital audio sequencer that was first released in July 1998. It surprised the music community by providing guitar-oriented features not normally found in standard sequencers. The product was a solid first effort, but it wasn't quite complete. Now, at version 2, Guitar Studio boasts just about every feature a guitarist could ask for, including a built-in chromatic tuner, a fretboard display, tablature editing and printing, a drum-machine feature for creating professional-quality drum tracks, a vintage-amplifier simulation plug-in for audio tracks, and much more. And all this is in addition to a full-blown digital audio sequencer.

POWERFUL SEQUENCINGCakewalk has added plenty of tasty ingredients to its latest recipe, including everything you'd expect in a good midlevel (and perhaps even high-end) sequencer (see Fig. 1). You'll find lots of editing windows, or views, for manipulating your data in all the usual ways. The Track view provides access to MIDI and audio tracks and the sections of data (called Clips) within them; the Piano Roll view lets you graphically edit MIDI note and controller data; and the Event view allows numerical editing in a chronological list. The Audio view provides a waveform editor; the Staff view lets you display, edit, and print your MIDI data as standard music notation; and the Console view mimics a typical mixing board for onscreen control of MIDI and audio tracks.

Guitar Studio also offers a full arsenal of processing commands, including sophisticated MIDI quantizing functions (such as Groove Quantize), Fit to Time, and Fit Improvisation (for recording without a fixed tempo). The audio tools include graphic and parametric EQ, normalize, and crossfade, among others. In addition, more than 16 MIDI and audio effects come with the program, and they can be applied in real time or offline. The audio effects include pitch shift, EQ, delay, chorus, flange, and reverb. Among the MIDI effects are an arpeggiator and an echo/delay. Unfortunately, Guitar Studio lacks an audio dynamics processor. Though you could buy an effects plug-in for this purpose (Guitar Studio supports DirectX plug-ins), I feel that a program aimed at guitar players ought to have a built-in compressor/limiter.

Nevertheless, Guitar Studio's feature set is impressive. In fact, the program provides many of the features found in Pro Audio 9, Cakewalk's most advanced sequencer. For example, Guitar Studio now includes Cakewalk Application Language (CAL) and StudioWare. CAL is a scripting language that enables you to create your own MIDI editing functions; StudioWare lets you control your outboard gear via customizable onscreen panels. Guitar Studio 2 offers ready-to-use StudioWare control panels for several popular products, such as Roland's GR-1 guitar synth and Line 6's Pod effects processor/preamp. (The first version of Guitar Studio didn't include CAL; it had StudioWare, but you couldn't create your own panels.)

In essence, Guitar Studio has become a scaled-down version of Pro Audio 9. It remains in the midlevel category mainly because it supports only 16 audio tracks, 16 real-time effects, and 16-bit audio resolution. But these "limitations" are misleading-a project can actually have a total of 256 MIDI and audio tracks. (This number includes archived audio tracks, which can't be unmuted during playback.)

During playback, however, a maximum of 16 audio tracks can be active. If this is a problem, you can simply bounce down a number of audio tracks to free up others, and because you still have access to the original source tracks, you don't really lose editing flexibility.

You can apply effects offline, so being able to use only 16 effects in real time isn't much of a limitation. If it does cramp your style, consider using one or more effects as aux sends, which is more efficient than applying the same effect to a number of tracks on a track-by-track basis.

Finally, Guitar Studio's lack of support for high-resolution audio probably won't be an issue for most users. The program doesn't offer 24-bit audio the way Pro Audio 9 does, but 16-bit quality is fine for audio that is destined for CD (unless you plan to apply a large amount of processing to your material, in which case higher bit rates can be useful). Furthermore, Guitar Studio supports sampling rates of up to 48 kHz.

As you can see, Guitar Studio 2 provides a great deal of sequencing power, enough for most projects. And we haven't even explored the cool guitar-oriented features yet.

TUNE IT UPGuitar Studio has a Chromatic Tuner with a display that imitates handheld digital guitar tuners (see Fig. 2). Simply plug your guitar into your sound card (Cakewalk includes a 11/44-inch-to-11/48-inch plug adapter) and start plucking. The Tuner analyzes the input signal, determines which string you are trying to tune, and displays the string's name.

The small VU meter at the bottom of the Tuner display shows the string's loudness; the large meter above it shows its intonation (in cents). When the string is in tune, an up arrow lights up. If the string is sharp or flat, a right arrow or a left arrow, respectively, lights up. I found the Tuner to be very quick and accurate. By the way, you can also use it to tune any other electric instrument and even acoustic instruments (you simply plug a microphone into your sound card).

DEGLITCHIf you use a MIDI guitar controller/synthesizer system, you'll appreciate Guitar Studio's Deglitch function. It allows you to filter out the extraneous note data often generated by MIDI guitar controllers. You can also use Deglitch to clean up other types of MIDI performances. The filter parameters include pitch, Velocity, duration, and any combination of the three.

You can set up Deglitch to remove notes higher than a specified note, softer than a certain Velocity, and shorter than a specified duration (in ticks or milliseconds). And you can select which tracks (or sections within a track) are to be processed. It's important to set the parameters to reasonable values, however, or you might filter out some of the actual music data. Guitar Studio 2 helps you by highlighting the notes in the selected region with the highest pitch, the greatest Velocity, and the longest duration.

FRETBOARDGuitar Studio's Staff view includes a real-time fretboard view. It displays the notes in a MIDI track as they would be played on guitar (see Fig. 3). This is a great tool for learning prerecorded riffs.

What's more, you can also input data with the fretboard. By right-clicking on the fretboard, you can change the cursor to a Select, Draw, Erase, or Scrub tool. These tools allow you to select, add, delete, and quickly audition notes in a MIDI track, and any changes you make with the fretboard are automatically reflected in the standard music notation. So even if you have trouble reading music, you can still compose using the fretboard and then see how your input looks as notation-yet another educational benefit. As a guitarist, you may find that working with the fretboard is quicker. Entering chords, melodies, and bass lines is very easy.

TABLATUREThe Staff view can also display MIDI bass or guitar tracks as tablature. This is a new feature of Guitar Studio 2. You can enter and edit notes as tablature or generate it from existing data. (Notes entered via the fretboard can also be translated automatically into tablature.) As with the fretboard display, any data that you enter in the Staff view as tablature is instantly translated into standard notation, and all three views-fretboard, tablature, and standard notation-are synchronized. In addition, you can print your music, including lyrics, chord symbols, and performance notes, along with the tablature and notation.

Guitar Studio comes with a QuickTab feature that creates tablature based on standard fingering patterns. If you need something different, however, you can easily define your own tablature styles and save them as presets. A tablature style is defined as Floating, which allows the notes to use the entire fretboard; Fixed, which specifies a region on the fretboard where notes must be played; or MIDI Channel, which determines the string on which a note must be played according to the MIDI channel being used. If you choose Fixed, you define the region you want to use by setting the Finger Span and Lowest Fret parameters. The MIDI Channel option is handy if you use a MIDI guitar and record parts with each string transmitting on its own MIDI channel.

To further define your preset, you can input the number of frets to be used, and you can specify an alternate tuning, such as Guitar Open G, Bass Drop D, and others. You can also create your own alternate tunings, but they must be saved with the tablature preset.

CHORD SYMBOLSGuitar Studio lets you add chord symbols and guitar chord grids to your notation in the Staff view. The program includes a comprehensive library of predefined chords, but if you don't find the chord you need, you can create your own. To do this, you simply supply a chord symbol or create a corresponding guitar grid by choosing a finger number (you get additional choices, including thumb, open string, and muted string) and clicking on a string within the grid. Guitar Studio will play the chord so you can hear how it sounds.

The chord features are quite flexible and highly useful. I'd like to see a QuickChord feature (similar to QuickTab) that would enable Guitar Studio to analyze the music and add default chord symbols to the score automatically. Depending on its accuracy, such a feature could save a lot of time. Perhaps we'll see this in a future version.

VINTAGE AMPNo audio-recording software for guitarists should be without an analog amplifier simulation plug-in. (Its absence was one of the factors that made the first version of Guitar Studio incomplete.) Guitar Studio 2 comes with a special edition of the Amp Simulator plug-in from Cakewalk's Audio FX 2 amplifier- and tape-simulation effects package (see Fig. 4). This DirectX plug-in lets you turn your guitar recordings into some really cool and raunchy tracks. I tested it on a number of electric guitar tracks, and I was able to produce quite a few effects, such as deep, muffled grunge and screechy, bright distortion.

The Amp Simulator plug-in includes two amplifier models: American Lead and British Overdrive. Each lets you adjust a number of parameters for fine-tuning: drive, presence, volume, and EQ (bass, mid, and treble). You can also select No Speaker (direct out) or a 4 by 12-foot Cabinet Enclosure with on/off settings for Open Back and Off-Axis. Amp Simulator's tremolo controls are disabled because this is a "lite" version. You can get some great sounds from it, and you can upgrade to the full version for $149. Still, it would be nice if Cakewalk were to include the fully equipped plug-in with Guitar Studio.

SESSION DRUMMERAlthough the Session Drummer isn't exactly a guitar-oriented feature, it can provide valuable assistance to percussion-impaired guitarists. It takes the place of the Song Wizard (which was included in the first version of Guitar Studio) and automatically generates MIDI drum tracks for quick compositional assistance and inspiration (see Fig. 5). In essence, the Session Drummer is a software drum machine that lets you put together Songs by combining Patterns from several Styles. You can set each Pattern in a Song to loop a number of times, and once a Song is complete, you can apply it to an open MIDI track in your project. Songs can also be saved to disk in a proprietary format for later recall. The Session Drummer has 69 Styles that cover genres ranging from alternative to world, and each Style has approximately 25 various Patterns.

As with any good drum machine, you can create your own Styles and Patterns, and because they're stored as Standard MIDI Files, you can easily share them with other musicians. However, you have to create your Patterns using the usual MIDI recording functions in Guitar Studio. This might seem cumbersome at first, but in the long run it's actually a good thing because it provides great flexibility and lets you create Patterns in real time (free of quantizing, if that's what you want). This helps ensure that your tracks keep their human feel.

ROCK ONAt $249, Guitar Studio 2 packs a lot of power into a midlevel package. Although I covered most of the program's important features, there are still a few I didn't mention, such as the vector-based track volume and pan automation and the video support. These may not be specifically guitar-oriented features, but you never know when they'll come in handy, especially for film-scoring gigs.

Guitar Studio 2 still has room for improvement, though. For example, the next version of the program definitely needs some kind of dynamics processing. Another annoyance is the lack of a printed manual. The documentation comes on the CD in Adobe Acrobat format, so you have to print it out (prepare to use a lot of paper) or read it onscreen while you're trying to use the program. Still, these are minor complaints.

So, if you own the original Guitar Studio, should you upgrade? Most definitely. This latest version brings the software up to semipro status, whereas the first version was geared much more to beginners. If you find that you need even more power, consider Cakewalk's Pro Audio 9 multitrack recording studio; it includes everything in Guitar Studio 2 and more. In any event, if you're a guitar player looking to make technology a part of your act, you can't go wrong with Cakewalk's latest offering.

Scott R. Garrigus is an author, musician, and multimedia expert. In addition to his frequent contributions to EM, he publishes his own online periodical, Comp-media (www.garrigus.com/comp-media).

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