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STEINBERG LM-4 1.01 (MAC/WIN)

June 1, 2000
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Regardless of whether you use Cubase VST, you've probably heard about VST Instruments, its virtual instrument plug-ins. Neon, a simple analog-modeling synthesizer and the first of these plug-ins, was introduced last year as part of the program's newest releases (version 3.7 for Windows and version 4.1 for Macintosh). VST Instruments are intriguing because they exist entirely inside your computer but function almost identically to external MIDI sound modules. Seamlessly integrated with Cubase VST, they can greatly simplify and streamline a computer-based music-production studio.

Imagine never having to deal with another external sound module: no more hassles with plugging in MIDI, audio, and power cables; SysEx dumps; recalling volume settings; tiny LCD screens (or no screens at all)-you know the drill. VST Instruments eliminate these problems by storing everything from signal routings to patches as part of the Cubase VST session. The flip side of this utopia is that VST Instruments require a lot of processing power. The complexity of the instrument, how smoothly it operates, and how many sounds can play simultaneously are all completely dependent on your computer's horsepower. VST Instruments won't do much for you without a reasonably high-speed system. But computers keep getting cheaper and faster, and the development of VST Instruments pushes on in anticipation of what Steinberg's Club Cubase magazine envisions: "1,200 MHz machines."

LM-4 is a straight-ahead drum module (see Fig. 1). Its 18 pads can produce up to 18 sounds simultaneously. The drum pads are polyphonic and can be assigned to one of six outputs (one stereo pair and four discrete) in the VST Channel Mixer. Up to eight LM-4 modules can be loaded per session-assuming, of course, that your computer has enough RAM. (Incidentally, eight is the maximum number of VST Instruments allowed in a Cubase VST session.)

Both PC and Mac versions of LM-4 come on the same CD-ROM, making it convenient for cross-platform users like me. Because LM-4 works by loading samples from your hard drive into memory, you'll need lots of RAM. Although the plug-in runs on 64 MB, I highly recommend 128 MB or more to take full advantage of sound sets with larger samples. Other than your audio card, the quality of the samples used is the sole determining factor of how good LM-4 sounds.

PLUGGING ALONGInstalling LM-4 is a snap, but you'll need at least 360 MB of hard disk space for the full install, which I recommend. (It includes sound sets from Wizoo that really make LM-4 shine; although the default kits from Steinberg take up only 17 MB of disk space, they don't do the plug-in justice.)

LM-4 provides 20 drum sets: 10 from Steinberg and 10 from Wizoo. The Wizoo sound sets use 24-bit samples, whereas Steinberg's samples are 16-bit. Wizoo's Acid Jazz XXL kit has some cool brushed toms; the Latin XXL preset contains an excellent, very playable ride cymbal; and the DrumnBass XXL has a fat kick-snare combo. (Wizoo XXL kits include multisampled sounds, whereas economy-size or ECO kits are single-shot sounds; more on both types of kits later.)

To use LM-4 and any other VST Instruments, you'll need to update to the most recent version of Cubase VST. The update is included on LM-4's CD-ROM. Once the software is installed, go to the Panels menu (the Audio menu on the PC version), open the VST Instruments rack, and select LM-4 as an instrument. Assigning LM-4 to the Instrument rack is identical to assigning a VST Effect to the Effects rack (see Fig. 2).

Clicking the rack's Edit button brings up LM-4's front panel for tweaking. The panel is attractive and nicely laid out, with a look reminiscent of a vintage Linn drum machine. Individual gain and tuning sliders control each pad. Above each pad is a multicolored LED: red indicates that the pad has been triggered, yellow shows that it is selected for editing, and green means it has been triggered and selected for editing. Once a sound is triggered, the LED glows for as long as the sample sustains. This is a nice touch, providing visual feedback on sample duration. It's handy for all kinds of things, from keeping an eye on polyphony to knowing when to fade.

Like VST effects programs, drum kits are changed or loaded with the program forward and back controls on the rack. As with most plug-ins, LM-4 parameter settings (tunings, volumes, outputs, and so forth) can be saved for future recall. However, be aware that the Save/Load menu choices in Cubase haven't yet been updated to reflect VST Instruments. To save or load a kit's settings, you must use the Save Effect and Load Effect commands. (Settings are also saved within Songs.) The time it takes to load a kit into RAM varies according to the kit's size. It may take several seconds to load a large sound set, but be patient-when the kit is loaded, new names for the pads pop up and it's ready to groove.

With LM-4 turned on and a kit selected, the Instrument appears in the MIDI tracks' Output menu (where your studio devices show up). Highlight a MIDI track and choose LM-4 as the output of that track; if your MIDI controller is plugged in, you should be able to play LM-4's sounds. If you don't have a keyboard or other type of controller handy, you can click on LM-4's pads to audition sounds (at a fixed Velocity). However, you can't record that way-after all, this program is a drum module, not a drum machine, and the pads serve other purposes.

ON THE PADTo tweak a pad's parameters, click once on that pad-its LED should glow yellow. Now you can adjust the pad's volume, tuning, and output. Only one pad can be edited at a time. Volume ranges from 0 to 127. Tuning changes the sample's playback rate, just like on a keyboard. Pads can be tuned up or down by one octave in whole-step increments. I wish the tuning were in cents rather than in whole steps; that would allow more precise and exotic tunings (such as those used for gamelan or Middle Eastern music).

A big LCD shows the currently selected pad's output. When LM-4 is activated, all six outputs automatically appear in the VST Channel Mixer regardless of whether you use them. A knob labeled Panorama lets you adjust the pan position on the stereo outputs. It has seven positions on either side of the center. Panning for the individual outputs can be adjusted directly on the VST Channel Mixer.

Two dials in the upper right of LM-4 are for master or global controls. One dial affects the overall volume for stereo output as well as for the individual outs. The other knob determines Velocity sensitivity for the entire kit: a setting of 0 provides no Velocity sensitivity, while a setting of 10 provides high sensitivity. The Velocity knob is a nice feature; sometimes a kit doesn't need Velocity (for example, with electronic drums), and the master control saves you from having to dissect and reprogram the whole sound set.

Default MIDI note numbers for the Steinberg and Wizoo sound sets range from 36 (the kick) to 82 (usually some sort of percussion instrument). Sounds are mapped out reasonably well; instruments such as toms and hi-hats are grouped together, and kicks and snares are easy to play with your left hand. You can't change MIDI note-number assignments, however, without getting into some text programming, which I'll discuss shortly.

AUTOMATION IN MOTIONLM-4 doesn't offer many parameters, but those that it does provide can all be automated. These include pitch, panning, output assignment, and individual volumes, as well as the master Volume and Velocity dials. Automating these parameters simply requires ensuring that Cubase VST is enabled to record SysEx. Then you just pop Cubase into Record mode and move some knobs and sliders directly on LM-4's front panel.

Because fader and pan moves (the most commonly automated parameters) can all be done right on the VST Channel Mixer (see Fig. 3), you may not want to automate from LM-4's face. On the other hand, you have to automate LM-4's pitch changes directly because it doesn't respond to Pitch Bend. You can achieve a similar effect in combination with automation by using the pitch sliders, but they change only in whole-step increments. Pitch Bend recognition would be a great addition to LM-4. (Subtly changing a sample's pitch during playback with the pitch wheel can be a cool effect.)

One big difference between LM-4 and an external MIDI sound module is that LM-4 doesn't respond to patch changes. Because of the time it takes to load a sound set into RAM, patch changes on playback are pretty much out of the question. This isn't an insurmountable problem, though; when you need more LM-4 sounds, just open another LM-4 module. (If you run out of VST Instrument slots, it's probably time to start customizing your kits.)

A PAD OF YOUR OWNIt is possible to build your own LM-4 kit from scratch. You can do it the hard way by programming text files on your own, or simplify things with Wizoo's LM-4 Drum-Kit Editor. The free program is available for download at Steinberg's Web site (www.us.steinberg.net). It's in the LM-4 section of New Products.

Sound-set information is saved as text files that tell LM-4 which samples and parameters should be loaded. A text file can be opened and edited from any word processor or directly from Wizoo's editor. The Read Me file on LM-4's CD-ROM explains each line of an LM-4 text file. You can manipulate everything, including pad names, MIDI note numbers, Velocity ranges, and Groups (sounds that share the same voice, such as open and closed hi-hat samples). I slapped together a kit using a bunch of Brazilian percussion samples and was quite pleased with the results. Programming the kit in text took about 30 minutes; using the Wizoo editor cut that time in half.

Like VST effects, sound sets are organized into banks of 20. For example, when you load a Wizoo sound bank, the Wizoo kits in that bank become accessible through the VST Instrument rack's Program buttons. You can rename patches by simply clicking on their names in the VST Instrument rack. I loaded a Steinberg default bank, changed one of the patch names to Brazil, renamed and saved the bank, and then reloaded it. The Brazil kit was then recognized and properly loaded.

LM-4 pads have Velocity zoning, meaning that a single pad can actually hold up to 128 samples, with one sample for each number in the Velocity range. Velocity zoning is an extremely powerful feature that enables you to design multisampled instruments like Wizoo's XXL kits. These instruments contain several samples-a variety of hits to paint a more complete sonic picture of the original instrument. One-shot sampled sounds, such as Wizoo's ECO kits and all of the Steinberg drum sets, have only one sample per pad. They aren't nearly as dynamic or as realistic as multisampled sounds, but they're far less memory-intensive. Velocity-zoned sounds can be written into an LM-4 text file using Wizoo's editor, but be careful: multisampled instruments get large quickly, and without enough RAM you may be unable to load your creation into the VST Instrument rack.

BANG, ZOOM!Yesteryear's slower computers and early ASIO drivers posed latency problems for virtual instruments like LM-4. There was a noticeable time delay (due mainly to the latency of the sound card's ASIO driver) between a key's being struck and a virtual instrument producing the subsequent sound. In the face of such an obstacle, it's nearly impossible to create music effectively. With today's blazing-fast processors and Steinberg's ingenious tinkering, however, latency issues have become a relic: when I played a variety of fast drumrolls and speedy fills in LM-4, everything seemed perfectly in time. When I hit a key, I instantly heard a sound.

On my Mac G3/266 MHz computer, playback also seemed particularly smooth. I swear, my dance grooves sounded tighter with LM-4 than with any of my external MIDI modules. Steinberg claims that LM-4's timing is potentially 40 times better than any MIDI-controlled device's, and I'm a believer.

Initially, I was disappointed by LM-4's limited number of parameters. I like to see filters tied to Velocity sensitivity, ADSR envelopes, pitch envelopes, and other modulation sources. However, I came to realize that these features aren't crucial. In the days of hardware samplers and limited memory, controls like these were used to make single-shot samples sound more natural. With VST effects, comprehensive Velocity zoning, and so much RAM at our disposal, we now have much less need for such things. Still, it would be nice to have them, if only for mad sound designers like me.

CAN'T BEAT THISI don't want to sound like I'm pitching an advertisement, but VST Instruments are awesome. Having sound modules integrated into Cubase VST is really great-I can't praise this setup enough. Rebooting a session only to find patches, volume settings, and effects returns exactly as you left them is a dream come true. LM-4 doesn't have all the bells and whistles of its hardware counterparts (filters, ADSR envelopes, tuning in cents, and control by pitch wheel), but these limitations seem minor when you consider LM-4's price, automation potential, and comprehensive Velocity zoning.

Remember, however, that LM-4's sound is determined entirely by the sound set's samples and the quality of your audio card. Don't shy away from this plug-in because you think the Steinberg kits are unimpressive or you don't see enough front-panel controls. Build your own drum set, sample your own sounds, and then-with your custom LM-4 running through the VST Channel Mixer-choose from a wide variety of VST effects to really mangle your kit. In fact, combined with LM-4, VST effects can open a whole world of soundscapes that are perfect for electronica and dance genres. Experiment with flanging snare drums, distorted kicks, and percussion tracks with bpm-matched delays. The possibilities are really quite mind boggling.

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