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electronic MUSICIAN

CAKEWALK DIMENSION PRO 1.0

By ALEX ARTAUD | March 1, 2006

First introduced as a feature in Cakewalk Project 5 Version 2, Dimension Pro is a hybrid software synthesizer that combines real instrument sounds with advanced synthesis. This package includes a huge sound library; a streamlined, intuitive interface; and a powerful engine behind it all. Designed by Rene Ceballos of the well-respected RGC:audio group, Dimension Pro is — joy of joys — a cross-platform instrument that works with the plug-in formats DXi, VSTi and Audio Units. Packed with more than 1,500 programs, it offers a vast palette for the dabbler and a deep structure for the sound designer. For those of you out there with mammoth-size synths, take note: Those huge old dogs may start gathering dust once you start messing around with this young pup.

I tested Dimension Pro on an Apple PowerBook G4/1GHz laptop with 512 MB of RAM under OS 10.3.9. This is about the bare minimum that the company recommends, and with good reason. While I was able to run everything on that system with Apple Logic Pro 7 as the host application, it would be best to have a PowerMac dual-processor G5 with 1 GB of RAM or more for users to get the most benefit. The new Macs with Intel Core Duo processors should work splendidly, but Cakewalk must first update its software to be compatible. PC users should consider having at least a Pentium 4/2.8GHz machine. While there are programming strategies for reducing your CPU load, having plenty of power to play with is critical to derive the most out of this program. Also, since installing Dimension Pro loads about 8 GB of sounds into your system, you should have a chunky hard drive, as well as 30 to 45 minutes for installation.

TOURING THE PERIMETER

Once you instantiate Dimension Pro within your host DAW program, a field at the top of the main screen lists the name of the Program. Each Program can be composed of as many as four Elements, each of which contains a wave player/synth engine and a chain of filters, envelope generators, LFOs and effects. A set of four buttons (E1 to E4) selects one of the four Elements. Elements can be individually turned on and off, and you can set them up to respond to different MIDI channels. If you use Logic, Cakewalk's Website provides simple instructions to create an Environment that allows each Element to be controlled in a multitimbral mode. Of course, you should be able to configure that in any good program without too much trouble.

Dimension Pro's main browser is divided into three parts: the Program area, the Elements area and the Mixer area. In the Program area, you can load individual programs, use a MIDI Matrix window for flexible routing of MIDI commands or call up a cool Vector Mixer window that lets you mix together Elements with your mouse. The Elements area is the most extensive. It shows all the sound components, including sections for a lo-fi bit-reduction effect; a filter section with cutoff, resonance and 16 selectable filter types (lowpass, highpass, bandpass and allpass, to name a few); three stackable parametric EQs; and 15 delay and chorus effects with accompanying filter, LFO and mixing controls. An impressive Modulators section completes the Elements area. The visually stimulating Modulators section offers 20 graphical envelope generators, 20 tempo-synchable LFOs (each with 21 shapes) and 20 Keyboard Tracking generators. At the bottom of the main Dimension Pro window is the Mixer area, where you have global control over effects and control over the mixing of the four Elements.

Operating Dimension Pro is a straightforward process. To load a Program, you double-click either in the Program field or on the Program/Element Handling button right next to it. You can also drag-and-drop a .prog file directly from your hard drive onto the browser. All corresponding Elements with their effects, filters, envelope generators and oscillators should load fairly quickly, depending on their size. Some Programs can reach fairly large sizes — such as 200 MB — so you may have to wait a couple of seconds. (Note that because Dimension Pro's programs depend on large samples stored on the hard disk that you designate upon installation, Dimension will not respond to MIDI Program/Bank change commands.) Programs are divided into two groupings, Sound programs and Groove programs, the latter being audio loops that play back rhythms at various tempos. The accompanying MIDI files for each of the Groove programs are available to be edited in your host application, so you're not wedded to the original patterns.

GOING DEEP

To customize individual Programs, first you load and tweak Elements. Each of the four Elements within an existing Program is independent, so manipulating the characteristics of one won't affect the other three. After adjusting the Element's parameters to arrive at a desired sound, you can save that particular Element or save the entire modified Program.

Characteristics of Elements can be copied, unloaded, reset or chained together. Chaining Element characteristics together allows multi-samples to share effects and EQ settings, which in turn reduces the load on the CPU. Multisamples have associated definition files, labeled .sfz, where keymapping and Velocity-switching information is stored. You can currently edit that information in text editors found in most computers, such as the Notepad application in Windows XP or the TextEdit program bundled with Mac OS X. As for editing multisamples themselves, Dimension Pro unfortunately doesn't include a graphical user interface to do that. It makes sense that Cakewalk didn't design Dimension Pro so that users could manipulate the root samples, although some power users would have appreciated it if the company had allowed for that. You can choose to edit individual samples with any number of third-party sample-editing programs, but be careful: You will likely alter the sound of any existing songs that use that sample, and you may have to reload the original sample to restore the sound. For that reason, it couldn't hurt to back up all your multisamples upon installation onto a separate drive. Giving yourself the freedom to mess things up is a great way to learn to master this program and sound design in general.

Dimension Pro lets you load 8- to 32-bit resolution single samples in WAV, AIFF or Ogg formats. Samples can be either mono or stereo, and Dimension Pro will recognize if there is a defined loop within the sample and play them.

A BROAD PALETTE

Like any other obsessive user, I cruised through all of Dimension Pro's Programs, noting some that grabbed the imagination and skipping the occasional gratuitous clunkers. There are a whopping 1,500 presets in all. The synth's strongest suit — and not surprisingly the group featured at the top of the Program menu list — is the group of soundscape/atmospheric Programs. Those are rich, varied and useful launching points for exploring the depth of the instrument — especially when considering the envelope generators. Along with outstanding filters, the high quality and flexibility of the Dimension Pro's envelope generators by themselves make this software worthwhile. Other favorite sets of Programs include the pads, bass, leads, layers, brass, saxes, strings and percussion. The pianos are among the best I've heard in software, and those include a Body/Damper simulator that models the strings and body of different pianos. In particular, the interresonances that are generated between notes when the Sustain switch is held in place are impressive. The realism is striking.

That said, of the conventional instruments, the most impressive of the lot has to be the Garritan Pocket Orchestra, something with which many users of Native Instruments Kontakt are already familiar. Offering most of the major instruments in a symphony orchestra, this set is marvelous and showcases the resampling quality of the Dimension audio engine. Strictly in terms of nonaliasing, that engine is probably among the cleanest available on the market for this price.

Dimension Pro's weaker spots are the Guitars, Vocals and Electric Pianos, which seem inexplicably tame and begging for customization. The editable Groove programs mentioned earlier are separated into Drum and Musical Grooves. While the sounds are good, the Groove programs are the least usable (other than some individual hits or riffs) of Dimension Pro's material, even when accounting for the option to edit the patterns in a DAW.

FORWARD IN TIME

There isn't enough space here to fully explore Dimension Pro's exhaustive array of sound and manipulation possibilities. Although it was not available in time for this review, Dimension Pro 1.1 (announced at the Winter NAMM) will add RTAS support for Pro Tools 7 on a Mac and Pro Tools 6.x on Windows machines. The update will also include support for the X64-capable DXi format, support for REX format loops, master and insert effects, the ability to load Scala (.scl) files for microtuning and alternate tuning and a MIDI Learn function, which will make it possible to assign any knob onscreen to any MIDI controller, including Aftertouch and pitch bend. If you have the space, the latter feature makes it an especially tempting prospect to dedicate an expansive MIDI controller specifically for programming Dimension Pro.

I wholeheartedly recommend Dimension Pro for newbie and seasoned programmers and musicians alike. Novices, however, will benefit enormously from some background on basic synthesis. Cakewalk provides a brief but useful manual with the program and also offers excellent support.

CAKEWALK

DIMENSION PRO > $249

Pros: Hundreds of varied, highly editable sounds. Straightforward operation. Groove patterns are editable as MIDI.

Cons: No editing of multisampled waveforms.

Contact: www.cakewalk.com

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS

Mac: G4/1.2GHz; 512 MB RAM; Mac OS 10.3.9 or later; VST- or Audio Units-compatible host, 8 GB hard-disk space

PC: Pentium 4/1.3GHz; 512 MB RAM; Windows XP; DXi- or VST-compatible host,8 GB hard-disk space

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