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ToonTrack BeatStation ($129 street,

August 1, 2010
Beatstation is Toontrack’s “unified field theory” of VST/AU/standalone beat creation: It brings together drum, bass, and lead sounds into a single virtual instrument that has the vibe of being designed by people who had a great time doing so. The company’s slogan for Beatstation is “It’s what you want it to be,” so let’s see if it lives up to that claim.

BeatstationFig1_newFig. 1. Beatstation displaying its outer space skin, and some weird kit I created.

User interface: The look is re-skinnable, with pads you can arrange in various ways—show different numbers of pads, arrange them in a square à la MPC or as a series of floating drum pads, change pad shapes and sizes, do color-coding (e.g., all percussion as blue), show/hide particular pads, and even drag them around to different locations—see Figure 1. When you come up with a pad or kit layout you like, you can save either one individually. The little Bass and Lead keyboards are “special” pads that respond to MIDI note below and above the drum notes, respectively. And, all this is really easy to figure out—I didn’t even need a manual.

Browsing: You don’t show/hide the browser; it’s a permanent part of the interface with four main categories for accessing the included core library: Instruments, REX files, MIDI grooves, and sounds. You can filter to each category, or view all content. Beatstation is very drag-and-drop oriented—drag up to five sounds on to a pad (including the Bass and Lead pads), which makes it easy to layer sounds. You can drag MIDI Grooves from Beatstation into your host, and vice-versa; even drop REX files into hosts that support REX file import, and drag REX files into Beatstation from your desktop or host. If you drag a REX file to a pad you can set it to play in different modes: standard (from beginning to end), sequential (plays one slice at a time each time you trigger the pad), and Random (same as sequential, but randomly chooses REX file slices).

BeatstationFig2Fig. 2. Dig deeper into a pad, and you’ll find a lot of variable parameters. The smaller box lets you specify the pad size and color. And do you like effects? Apparently Toontrack does, too.

But, it doesn’t stop there: You can drag individual REX slices onto pads. So if there’s a REX file with a really worthy isolated kick sound, add it to the Kick pad. Or the hi-hat pad, for that matter!

The only disadvantage with dragging in REX or MIDI files from outside Beatstation’s folder structure is you can’t take advantage of the feature where if you click on a little magnifying glass in the file window, you can see the filenames highlighted in the browser.

Pad properties: Here’s where you can really dig into editing the pad (Figure 2). Drag additional sounds in, set a separate envelope for each layer (as well as adjust pitch, pan, and level separately for each layer), do solo/mute including mutes for individual layers, make a drum part of a mute group, edit an ADSR amplitude envelope, loop a sound, reverse, offset, insert effects, and more.

Effects: Beatstation doesn’t skimp on the effects, Not only are there lots of them—for example, 13 compressors—but there are effects slots within individual pads, another slot at the master out, and two aux effects (fed by the FX1 and FX2 sends in the pad properties page). What’s more, there’s a major surprise: sidechaining. Yes, you can gate the bass with the kick, but that’s one of only many options; sidechainable effects are compression, gate, and “mastering” effects. This ups the ante for getting cool sounds, and it’s something you don’t find all that often.

BeatstationFig3Fig. 3. The Sample Recorder app is available in stand-alone mode, and is perfect for grabbing samples.

Plays nice with others: Beatstation is compatible with all the various Toontrack expansion packs; if installed, they’ll show up in the browser. But, you can also import MP3, WAV, and AIF files, and there’s a new format (BTX) for complete Beatstation programs.

The Sample Recorder: In stand-alone mode, you can open a 10-second sample recorder (Figure 3). This listens to your default audio input, and its main purpose is to let you grab sounds that you can—you guessed it—drag into a pad layer. It’s rather good at what it does, as you can trim a sample easily (e.g., cut off “air” at the beginning), apply a fade in and fade out, normalize the signal, zoom in and out on the waveform, and change the level. Considering how many software samplers can’t actually sample, finding this capability in a low-cost program is welcome.

Conclusions: While Beatstation definitely isn’t a toy, you won’t find some “pro” features like multiple outputs for each drum sound, MIDI learn mode for tying parameters to hardware control, and direct audio export (it’s limited to either bouncing within the host then exporting, or dragging MIDI as audio to the host or desktop). But that’s sort of like complaining that a cute little sports car can’t carry a drum set in the trunk; a Maschinelike feature set is not what Beatstation is all about. The accent is on speed, fun, and efficiency—including the ability to bring in your own samples, and create unique sounds by layering, processing, or generally mutilating sounds.

Beatstation has a very high fun factor, and it invites you to play. It’s the opposite of “intimidating,” and Toontrack has done a good job of making it intuitive (if you get stuck, just remember two things: drag and drop, and if that doesn’t work, hold down Shift, Ctrl, etc. as you mouse around. You’ll find the answer). Even the sidechaining aspect is easy to figure out.

The bottom line is that Beatstation presents a different take on the subject of beats—but one that’s fun, valid, and at this price, cost-effective.

More from this Beats RoundUp:

RoundUp: The Beats Generation
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