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BITHEADZ VOODOO 1.1 (MAC/WIN)

5/1/2000

Over the past several years, BitHeadz has gained a reputation for cooking up some great products that magically turn the common personal computer into a MIDI-controllable instrument. The company is best known for its Retro AS-1 analog synth and Unity DS-1 sampler programs (reviewed in the February and August 1999 issues of EM, respectively). Now BitHeadz sallies forth with Voodoo 1.1, a program that transforms your computer into a virtual drum machine for $199.

BANG FOR YOUR BUCKWith an integrated sequencer, waveform editor, real-time effects, and the ability to trigger samples directly from a QWERTY keyboard, Voodoo is a complete package; you don't need any additional software or hardware. And don't let the modest price fool you-this is a serious program with pro-level appeal. Aside from its support for 24-bit, 96 kHz samples, it offers comprehensive MIDI implementation (including up to 16 simultaneous continuous controllers), tons of polyphony (up to 64 stereo voices, depending on your CPU), extensive sound-designer features (letting you create custom kits by importing AIFF files and tailor sounds using envelopes and oscillators), and support for several popular audio drivers, including Sound Manager, ASIO, DirectIO, ReWire, MAS 2.0, and DirectSound. Voodoo is available for both the Macintosh and Windows platforms; here we examine the Mac version.

AN EASY INVoodoo operates on the Unity DS-1 engine, saving time if you already have it installed on your computer. Otherwise, it's automatically placed in your Extensions folder during installation.

The Unity DS-1 engine launches when you open Voodoo. From the engine's control panel, you can configure Voodoo's system, the audio driver, and the number of voices, as well as RAM allocation, headroom, master velocity curves (linear or concave), and other parameters. The engine's control panel can be accessed directly by clicking an icon on Voodoo's toolbar-and you'll want to do this right away. You can also try to assign the audio output or change sampling-rate playback from Apple's Sound panel, but it results in poor system performance and glitchy audio.

The program works by loading samples into RAM-so the more RAM, the better your machine can handle bigger kits, higher sampling rates, longer samples, and more multisampled instruments. BitHeadz suggests having 250 MB of free hard disk space for the full installation, which includes lots of preprogrammed drum kits. It's possible to load just the application without any kits and get away with eating up only about 26 MB of disk space, but you won't have any BitHeadz samples if you go this route.

To use Voodoo with an external controller, you'll need a MIDI device. The Unity DS-1 engine handles MIDI routing on its own, but it's also compatible with OMS and FreeMIDI systems. The appropriate Unity DS-1 drivers are dropped into the Free-MIDI and OMS folders when Voodoo is installed.

UNIQUE APPARELVoodoo has a truly distinctive graphic design. In a market flooded with techno-flavored interfaces and retro-styled layouts, Voodoo stands apart. The program includes 22 design "themes" to choose from, and its multiple color schemes, textured surfaces, oval knobs, single-window design, and unusually arranged drum pads (14 in all) lend the program a unique and at times even psychedelic appearance. Moreover, the drum pads actually look like the instruments they represent: the shaker pad is an image of a shaker, and the kick pad looks like a bass drum (see Fig. 1).

Almost all of Voodoo's functions are accessible from its main window, which is roughly divided into four sections: a main area composed of drum pads forming a semicircle around the pad parameters (LFO, ADSR, filter controls, and more); a master effects section; a pattern-selection list; and an area that switches between a waveform editor and a pattern editor depending on what's selected. Highlight a drum pad, and the waveform editor appears (see Fig. 2); highlight a pattern in the pattern list and you'll see the pattern editor (see Fig. 1). A tempo slider rests above the effects section next to the pattern list.

Voodoo has four floating windows: Transport, Meters, Tool Bar, and Keyboard. The Transport window has everything you'd expect-Play, Record, Stop, Rewind to Last Pattern, Forward to Next Pattern, and Loop Playback. Above the controls, an easy-to-read display shows the elapsed time in beats and measures. The Meters window shows the left and right master levels and effect 1 and 2 outputs. The meters aren't particularly informative (the effects meters are mono even though their returns are stereo), but they do let you see the signal. The Tool Bar window provides access to a dozen commands, such as Cut, Copy, Paste, All Notes Off, and Record to Disk. I liked it better than searching through the main menus but found the icons confusing; pop-up labels would be a big help. The fourth window, Keyboard, is handy for checking keymaps, locating samples with the mouse, and sending Note On messages directly from Voodoo.

Using a mouse to adjust software sliders and knobs is a pain, but Voodoo's are particularly well designed and more mouse-friendly than most. All controls can be adjusted in large or small increments depending on where you click: clicking and holding a knob on the top or bottom lets you step through values in small increments; clicking and holding on the left or right sides allows you to zoom through values in large increments. Sliders work in a similar fashion. And every control has a numerical readout, which is a big help when making precise adjustments. Double-clicking on the readout highlights it and allows direct text entry; this is a handy option for inputting specific numbers.

Voodoo's main window takes a while to get used to. The program packs a lot of information onto the screen at once, which is nice in some ways, but it can feel cluttered. I'd prefer to have discrete windows that I could organize to best fit my creative flow; if I'm done adjusting the pad parameters, for instance, I don't want those controls taking up screen space until they're needed again. Voodoo does allow you to partially redesign its windows: you can change the background colors, replace the knobs, and alter the sliders (see Fig. 3). It's all very nice, but superficial-you can't physically reposition control elements within the windows themselves; you can only change their appearance.

SAMPLE THISBitHeadz packages Voodoo with a number of excellent kits, each of which sounds solid and may be all you need for years of blissful beat making. The kits include such standards as R&B, electronic, rock, orchestral, and Latin music. All are sampled with 16-bit resolution, and most employ a 44.1 kHz sampling rate. The Vin Time Traveler 1 kit is especially nice, with its phat kick and old-school flavor. The Justin Time set has beautiful deep-house percussion and effects. Latin Percussion has a sweet Velocity-zoned a-go-go. The Construction Kits folder even includes a batch of cool kits based on loops, such as straight-ahead drum loops, bass lines, fills, sound effects, and some smooth ride-cymbal patterns. (I'm always looking for ride loops because single ride hits played in eighth-note patterns never sound real.)

BitHeadz's samples impressed me enough to go looking for them on my hard drive to use as audio files for a remix I was working on in Pro Tools. I searched diligently, to no avail. It turns out that the samples are embedded in Voodoo's files. However, they can be extracted by highlighting the waveform in Voodoo and then using the Export Sample command.

Voodoo also comes with a bunch of Standard MIDI Files-including reggae, samba, waltz, dance, and jazz-that function as demos for the drum kits and as patterns for song construction. I wasn't particularly impressed with any of the files, but I rarely use preset patterns in my productions anyway. I'm sure they'd be fine for writing a song or working out a demo arrangement. Standard MIDI Files can be dragged and dropped directly into Voodoo's Pattern list from the desktop, which makes auditioning files a snap.

RHYTHM PATTERNSRecording your first pattern is a simple matter of selecting a tempo and popping Voodoo into Record mode. After the first pattern, you use the Add Pattern command to create more patterns. An onboard metronome provides a two-bar count-off. Meters and pattern lengths are set during a pattern's initial recording, but they can be changed at any time.

You can assemble several patterns into a playlist in the Pattern list area to create a song. The playlist order is easily rearranged by clicking and dragging the patterns within the display. Each pattern can have its own number of repeats, and the repeats are automatically played as part of the playlist. For example, if a pattern appears only once in the playlist but is set to repeat eight times, the playlist will loop that pattern eight times before moving on to the next pattern. Song construction with Voodoo is a piece of cake.

When a pattern is selected, its notes appear in the Event Editing window at the bottom of the main window, which can be switched between an event list and a graphic editor. The window is rather small, however, and cannot be resized except by enlarging the entire main window. Default tools include a hand, for selecting and moving notes, and a pencil, for adding notes. When the cursor is over a note, it becomes the hand; when it's not over a note, it's the pencil. Holding down the computer's Control key turns the cursor into a crosshair for grabbing regions, and holding down the Option key produces an eraser tool. Entering notes and values in the event list is a bit awkward, though. You can't, for example, use your keyboard controller to change a note; you must enter the note from your QWERTY keyboard. Neither can you zoom in or out on the graphic editor.

Commands for selecting specific events, transposing notes, changing Velocity values, quantizing, and using the Go To function are accessible from a column of buttons to the right of the Event Editing window. With this toolbar, along with the graphic editor and the event list, you can edit just about everything. Only one Swing setting is provided, however, so don't count on this sequencer to make your grooves feel better. You'll have to do that the old-fashioned way: by playing the rhythms the way you want them to sound. On the other hand, you can quantize notes while recording, during playback (the recorded positions aren't altered), by pad, by range, or individually. One level of undo is available, and the sequencer's resolution is 960 ppqn.

The onboard sequencer is quite complete for a program of this type, more so than on any drum machine. However, it's certainly no competition for a full-featured dedicated sequencer, mainly because its single-track design and small editing display make it awkward to use. I was also disappointed to learn that the sequencer doesn't record continuous controller data. Yet with Voodoo's ability to have up to 16 of its parameters-including filter cutoff, delay times, pitch, and LFO speed-piloted by Control Change messages, the program offers a lot of sound-warping power. Unfortunately, because the sequencer doesn't record these messages, you can't automate the parameters from within Voodoo. (Of course, you can always use an external sequencer; more on that later.)

IN EFFECTVoodoo's two real-time effects can be used simultaneously. Each pad has an associated send for each effect, providing you with complete control of the wet/dry ratio for every instrument. Master sends, a master return, and a master pan control are available for both effects.

Either effect can be one of three types-delay, reflection, or reverb-and you can tweak three parameters per effect type. Delay has two delay times and feedback. Reflection offers predelay, brightness, and length (the number of reflections to decay). Reverb has predelay, brightness, and decay parameters. Effects presets are not provided, but the effects changes that you make are saved with the kit, and the effects are all in stereo.

A different batch of effects-reverse, gain change, EQ (parametric and shelf), flange, and delay-is provided for destructive editing. The effects are monophonic, but processing a stereo file does not change its format to mono-so in the end, the processed file sounds stereo because its original imaging is preserved. Reverse is nice for creating weird, sweeping, backward effects. Gain change lets you alter a sample's amplitude from 0 to 200 percent. The parametric and shelf EQs aren't the cleanest I've heard, but they get the job done. The flanging effect is pleasantly raw and dirty. The delay is similar to the real-time delay but in mono.

Voodoo's effects are not particularly impressive; they're sort of lo-fi, though they work fine for most sound-mangling experiments in hip-hop, electronica, trance, and similar genres. If you need big, lush reverbs; clean, pure delays; and warm, precise EQ, stick with third-party plug-ins-or use a good external signal processor.

HAVE IT YOUR WAYOne of the best things about Voodoo is its well-rounded set of sound-design features. Any AIFF, Sound Designer II, Unity DS-1, or audio-CD file can be imported and assigned to a pad, allowing total sound-set creation from the ground up. All but the audio-CD format (which must be imported) can be dragged and dropped from the desktop straight into Voodoo's waveform editor. From there, the sample is automatically assigned to the currently selected pad.

Each pad has up to four Velocity layers, allowing it to hold up to four samples. Layers are easily selected for editing with a vertical bar on the right side of the waveform editor. The layers are in different colors, making their zones easy to identify. Two mute groups are also available for assigning instruments that use the same voice-as, for instance, when you want open and closed hi-hats on different pads to share a single voice. Mono and stereo samples are supported.

The waveform editor works fine for quick cutting and pasting and for simple looping (for example, forward loops with no crossfading or bidirectional tricks), but more-complex operations like normalizing, phase inverting, and plug-in processing are best done with a dedicated editing program. Voodoo's editor is difficult to work with because its output is routed only to Sound Manager. Even though the pads' outputs can be assigned to your sound card, you can audition the waveform on the editor only through the Mac's minijack output. (Voodoo's onboard metronome has the same problem.) According to BitHeadz, the next Unity DS-1 engine update (version 2.0) should be out by the time you read this, and it should fix the problem.

Each pad has four sound-shaping parameters: a tuning oscillator, an amplitude envelope, a resonant filter, and an LFO. The tuning oscillator is used for keymapping and tuning samples; the pitch can be controlled by a continuous controller of your choice but not by the Pitch Bend wheel. The amplitude envelope offers full-fledged ADSR envelope shaping, and it even includes a sustain decay stage. I love the resonant filter for its gritty, pronounced character. It's comprehensive with lowpass, bandpass, and highpass options, and you can set a variety of parameters, including distortion, envelope shape, resonance, cutoff, and Velocity control. The LFO, which is great for creating demented ambient percussion sounds, can be tied to the pitch, filter, or amplitude parameters using sine, triangle, square, or sawtooth waveforms.

An oddball feature called Drum Fill is hard to figure out. I expected it to create a fill automatically when I hit a pad; in other words, I figured that hitting, say, the snare drum pad would trigger a snare fill. That was not the case. Instead, Drum Fill is meant to work specifically with sampled drum fills, not with individual hits. Hitting the pad with the sampled fill should trigger the sample in time with your beat (for example, on the upbeat of 3). However, Voodoo's documentation doesn't reveal where these sampled drum fills are located, and I couldn't find them. BitHeadz has suggested that it may drop this feature from Voodoo altogether.

BLACK MAGICTo automate Voodoo, you must use an external sequencer to record the continuous controller moves. In theory, this is a great idea; in practice, it's a bit of a pain, because the program responds to only one MIDI channel at a time. I was able to lock up Voodoo with Steinberg's Cubase VST digital audio sequencer and record Mod Wheel data for controlling resonance. Everything seemed to work fine. But on playback, I discovered that every drum with the resonance filter turned on was getting the Mod Wheel message. Needless to say, the result was not pretty. I wish there were some way to assign each of Voodoo's 14 pads to its own MIDI channel. A multichannel mode instead of a single-channel poly mode should solve the problem. In the meantime, controllers have to be used judiciously.

I did run into a bit of a latency problem when using Voodoo with ReWire in Cubase VST. The trouble became apparent only during playback of already-recorded MIDI events. I didn't notice any latency when I just played Voodoo by itself or when I routed it through the VST Channel Mixer. But when I compared a cowbell playing downbeats to Cubase VST's audio click (also playing downbeats), I noticed a significant delay. Delaying Cubase VST's click until it was locked with Voodoo's cowbell took an adjustment of about 800 samples-a substantial amount. I spoke with a BitHeadz representative about this latency, and he attributed it to an audio-playback buffer problem. Apparently, Voodoo's audio is delayed from the time it gets the MIDI note to the time that Cubase VST and ReWire let the audio pass through the VST Channel Mixer. The rep went on to say that ReWire's developer, Propellerheads, was currently working on tightening up the Voodoo-ReWire-Cubase VST connection. He was quick to point out, however, that the problem originates with the way that ReWire and Cubase VST handle the audio and is not inherent to Voodoo. Furthermore, the degree of latency is to some extent CPU dependent and may also be affected by various parameter settings, so your results may vary from mine.

When you do run out of DSP power-which may happen if you use Voodoo with Cubase VST and lots of plug-ins-Voodoo can export its master output (complete with effects) directly to your hard drive as an AIFF file. The program can do this on its own-without Cubase VST-or through the VST Channel Mixer. I love this feature because it lets you free up processing power for other tasks. Just drop the AIFF file back into your project and keep working.

VOODOO YOU DOThis program is deep. It's impossible to cover all its features in a single review. Suffice it to say that it offers good bang for the buck. With onboard effects, lots of solid drum sets, loads of Standard MIDI Files, powerful envelope controls, and the ability to import samples for creating your own kits, this is some mean voodoo. I could argue that Voodoo's user interface is a bit annoying in areas, but that's a minor point considering the power this software provides. Besides, I've become spoiled from using programs that cost significantly more than Voodoo. Most people will find the interface quite adequate.

My main gripe-the latency I encountered on playback with Cubase VST-may not be Voodoo's fault, but it's something that needs to be remedied quickly. The potential for an excellent partnership between these two programs is exciting. Imagine using Voodoo with Cubase VST's groove templates and VST effects without worrying about timing problems, and a whole world of creative possibilities opens up. Voodoo also works with Digital Performer and Logic Audio, but I wasn't able to experiment with either of these applications.

If you're looking for an inexpensive stand-alone virtual drum machine, you're in for a treat with Voodoo. If your goal is to seamlessly integrate Voodoo with a high-end sequencer, it may not be your dream program, depending on your other software. Nonetheless, it's hard to go wrong at this price, even if you do have to nudge MIDI events, delay audio buffers, and export Voodoo's audio output to disk to get a tight track. After all, it's not as if we don't do crazy stuff like that already.

Erik Hawkins is a musician/producer working in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit his Web site at www.erikhawkins.com for more equipment chitchat and tips on what's hot for the personal studio.

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