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electronic MUSICIAN


By Allan Metts | November 1, 1999

Remember DOS? In this era of window-based, multitasking operating systems, it's hard to imagine that anyone would write a DOS-based application. But someone has. Space Station Pro, from Digital Audio Innovations, transforms your PC into a highly useful sampler, complete with audio recording, editing, and multitimbral playback capabilities.

Space Station Pro will run on your Windows 95/98-based system, if you don't mind that the program grabs exclusive use of the audio and MIDI devices it uses. Space Station Pro will not run under Windows NT, however. The program can eke out better performance in a native DOS environment because it doesn't have to deal with Windows' extra overhead. In fact, it can even run on an old 386 (although you'll need a Pentium PC for CD-quality output). So if you have an aging computer lying around, Space Station Pro could easily transform it into a useful studio tool.

Installing Space Station Pro is a bit tricky, but I managed to get through it. (Admittedly, I'm a little out of practice when it comes to properly configuring a DOS machine.) The program won't launch at all unless it can find a supported mouse and sound card, and it works only with Creative Labs Sound Blaster 16 or AWE audio cards. (Support for Aardvark's 20/20 is under development.) Once my drivers were installed and configured correctly, I was fine.

Space Station Pro is copy protected, which means you first have to type in a license key, obtain a serial number from the program, and then contact Digital Audio Innovations with both the key and serial number. The company will give you a security code, which you type in to unlock the program. Even then you're not home free: Space Station Pro prompts you for the installation CD-ROM every time you launch it. Failure to produce the disc causes the program to boot in demo mode (which means you can't load or save anything).

I understand Digital Audio Innovations' desire to protect its investment from software pirates, but I found this copy-protection scheme a royal pain. What's more, the correct security code can change between installations, so you'll have to contact the company with a new number if you install it on a different hard drive or reformat your existing one. I feel that the program should allow full use for at least a few days. With the present scheme, a hard-disk crash outside of U.K. business hours leaves you dead in the water. (Digital Audio Innovations will, however, sell you a second license at a nominal fee for use on a backup drive.)

FLYING THROUGH SPACEOnce you have it installed and running, you'll see that Space Station Pro is easy to navigate. Roughly one-third of the screen-the area where controls and status information are displayed-stays the same as you move about the program. The rest of the screen changes to reflect the tasks at hand.

Moving from the bottom of the screen to the top, you'll first find a keyboard display. Indicators for selected keys and keyboard ranges help with sample mapping (see Fig. 1); you can audition notes and select keyboard ranges by clicking the keyboard. Also present are a display of the keyboard range and controls to set the current MIDI channel. (Space Station Pro is 16-part multitimbral.)

Just above the keyboard (to the left) is a set of transport, time-signature, and tempo controls, with status indicators that show SMPTE time and the current bar:beat:tick position. Wondering what these controls are doing in a sampler? As it turns out, Space Station Pro has MIDI sequencing features "under construction," and the time display will be a vital part of that interface when it becomes available. For the time being, these controls set things in motion for Loop Mode 2 sounds (described later). LFOs and envelopes also require a running transport when you sync them to MIDI.

Moving to the center of the lower screen area, you'll find a set of four buttons that can be enabled with the mouse or with dedicated function keys. These buttons do different things, depending on where you are in the program. In one screen, the buttons are replaced by a nifty MIDI analyzer, with activity meters for each MIDI channel and for several types of MIDI messages.

To the right of these "soft" buttons are dedicated navigation controls that take you to specific parts of the program. This is, after all, a space station, so the program displays its screens according to Zones and Levels. Zones represent major categories of functions (Wave recording and editing, for example), and Levels represent the various screens within each category. Clicking the Ship button calls up a pictorial view of all Zones and Levels (see Fig. 2); clicking any of them takes you straight there. Each Zone has its own color that appears in the windows and buttons, making it easy to see where you are in the program.

Rounding out the set of common controls are Load and Save buttons as well as indicators for MIDI activity, memory usage, and system status. Also present are controls for synching, clicking, punching, and looping. Space Station Pro can sync to MIDI Clock and MIDI Time Code messages. You can start and stop audio recording automatically at any bar:beat:tick boundary.

Space Station Pro's sound structure is remarkably simple. Waves (samples) are combined into Banks, and Banks are combined into Groups. A Group is a collection of up to 16 Banks (one for each MIDI channel). I question Space Station Pro's use of the "Bank" moniker, however, because most musicians think of a bank as a collection of synth programs. Instead, a Space Station Pro Bank is closer to what I would call a "patch" or an "instrument."

There are Zones for Waves, Banks, and Groups, and plenty of functions for each of them. We'll start with Waves and work our way up to a complete multitimbral setup.

SURF'S UPSpace Station Pro has a capable set of Wave editing and recording features. When recording, you can assign Waves to keys without ever leaving the recording screen. Just select a key, click Record, and move to the next one. I found this to be a very efficient way to work.

The program places several recording options at your disposal. You can choose any of the input sources on your sound card, a sample rate of up to 44.1 kHz, mono or stereo, and a triggering method. The triggering method determines how recording starts and stops; choices include Normal (you press a button), Mouse (you click the mouse), an audio level threshold, or a bar:beat:tick range (that is, punch in and out). A nice touch is the ability to record Space Station Pro's output as an input source. Resampling, anyone?

Once you've recorded or loaded your Waves, you'll probably want to edit them in the Wave Editor (see Fig. 3). You won't find any esoteric processing features here-the Effects Rack and Processor Rack are nonfunctional in this version of the program-but you will find the tools you need to do basic editing. You can cut, copy, and paste Wave sections; insert silence; mix audio material; and create fade-ins and fade-outs.

The zooming, viewing, and selection tools allow precise placement of your editing selection's start and end points. What's more, the auditioning tools let you hear the entire Wave, a selected portion, or the sections just before or after a selection. The program can display time in seconds, samples, bytes, SMPTE time, or bars:beats:ticks, with grid markings placed on the Wave display at user-selectable intervals.

The Bank Zone is where you'll head when it's time to apply keyboard zones, envelopes, LFOs, and looping to your collection of loaded Waves. Each Wave in a Bank also has independent settings for level, pan, tuning, and sustain-pedal response.

Space Station Pro's loop editor is a good tool, with one display showing the entire Wave and another showing the loop's end right up against its start. You adjust loop points by dragging the start and end points or by incrementing and decrementing the numeric displays. (The latter option is best for fine-tuning.) You can save eight sets of loop points as you work and easily switch among them; only one set gets saved when you leave the window. You can also choose whether a loop moves from start to end or bidirectionally.

Finally, a handy Auto-Loop window restricts your loop to those points where a crossover or zero value occurs (you decide which one). All in all, I had no trouble creating respectable-sounding sample loops with this set of tools.

If you're into sampled dance grooves, Loop Mode 2 is for you. It lets you assemble a 1-, 2-, or 4-bar loop by loading Waves into locations within the loop. Start the transport, press a key, and Space Station Pro plays the samples in perfect time (provided the tempo of your sampled groove matches the one specified on the transport bar).

SPACE MAPPINGIf you didn't assign Waves to every root note as you recorded or loaded your samples, you'll need to use Space Station Pro's keyboard-mapping feature. Mapping Waves to notes is relatively painless: just choose a Wave and open the mapping screen, then specify the root note of the Wave and indicate the high and low key ranges. Space Station Pro does the rest.

Though Space Station Pro supports Velocity switching, you can switch only between two Waves. Alternatively, you can set up a crossfade, which lets you fade gradually from one Wave to the next as you move up and down the keyboard. Unfortunately, you can never have more than two Waves assigned to one key (within a given MIDI channel). Also missing is the ability to set up mutually exclusive groups, so your open hi-hat always gets cut off when the closed hi-hat plays, for example.

Space Station Pro provides a very capable screen for creating amplitude, pitch, and panning envelopes (see Fig. 4). You can draw each of these envelopes with the mouse, and plenty of tools help you get just the shape you need. Each envelope appears in its own color directly on top of the Wave display, so it's easy to visualize the sound you're creating. You can hide any envelope-or the Wave display itself-if things get too crowded onscreen.

Although only the attack and release points of an envelope are MIDI controllable, you can use a nearly unlimited number of breakpoints to create as exotic a shape as you want. If you don't want your envelope to remain at a fixed sustain point, you can add a loop starting point; the envelope will cycle back to the loop start when it reaches the sustain point.

Envelopes can take a constant amount of time to execute, but they can also speed up or slow down with the Wave's pitch. You can also link the envelopes to Space Station Pro's tempo setting, which causes the envelopes to move faster as the tempo increases. An envelope's attack and release times can be set to increase or decrease according to Velocity. You can also set an overall amplitude-sensitivity value for each channel. And, finally, envelopes can be saved to disk and reused as needed.

I don't think I've ever seen a more capable tool for creating envelopes, but the astute reader will notice one thing missing from this discussion: the program has no filter envelopes. With up to 768 envelopes per Bank, it would be very difficult to know which envelope was controlling the filter, but perhaps a solution could be found. Space Station Pro offers two 24 dB resonant filters per MIDI channel. They are controllable both internally and externally through MIDI continuous controllers. While you can't trigger a filter sweep with every keypress, you could route an LFO (described shortly) to one of these MIDI controllers.

The filters themselves offer lowpass, highpass, bandpass, band-reject, and "additive" modes, with controls for cutoff frequency and resonance; additive mode combines the original and filtered signals. You can also run the filters in series or in parallel. They sound fine to me, although I could hear a fair amount of "stepping" with resonant filter sweeps. Because a single 7-bit MIDI continuous controller has only 128 possible values, the stepping doesn't surprise me.

LFOs IN SPACEIn addition to its extensive envelope control, Space Station Pro really delivers on its LFO capabilities. The program lets you specify up to six LFOs in a Bank, and any of them can modulate pitch, amplitude, panning, or other LFOs. The LFOs' output can even be sent to external MIDI devices as continuous controller data. A mapping screen allows you to draw modulation routings and also lets you establish connections with external MIDI controllers for real-time control.

LFO shapes and LFO connection maps can be saved separately as disk files. Space Station Pro comes with several examples of each. If you don't like the LFO shapes provided, you can draw your own in the LFO designer window. Now that's a feature I haven't seen before!

As you create or load Banks in Space Station Pro, the program begins to fill up your Group list. There are 16 Banks in a Group-one for each MIDI channel. Each Bank gets its own pitch-offset and tuning control. To try out Space Station Pro's multitimbral abilities, I loaded up a bunch of Banks and played some rather dense sequences into the program from an external sequencer. Everything sounded quite acceptable.

So just how much polyphony do you get with Space Station Pro? The program comes with a built-in test for this. Under DOS, I was able to get 117 voices on my 400 MHz Pentium II. According to the manual, you could expect about half that many voices on a 166 MHz Pentium. These numbers are quite respectable for an all-software sampler.

MIXING MAYHEMSpace Station Pro includes several mixers. There's the poorly named Output Mixer, which manages all the inputs and outputs of the sound card itself. Output Mixer is similar to the controls that a Windows wave driver gives you, with volume controls for the line and mic inputs, CD Audio, and so forth. Because Space Station Pro is a DOS application, controls like these have to be written into the program.

The Main Mixer (see Fig. 5) provides volume, pan, attack, and release faders for each of the 16 MIDI channels. Each fader can be locked to one or both of the Special faders, allowing you to move multiple controls simultaneously. There are mute buttons for each channel and a solo control for the currently selected channel. The faders all respond to MIDI control. Channel settings can be saved one channel at a time and restored individually or all at once.

If you need to generate additional MIDI messages, you can do so by creating User Mixers. Each User Mixer consists of 16 faders and 16 switches and is capable of transmitting almost any MIDI message on any MIDI channel. User Mixer 3 comes preconfigured to control the two filters on each MIDI channel. It also provides controls for a MIDI-based delay, which enables you to equip your sounds with some basic echo effects.

As in the Main Mixer, faders in a User Mixer can be locked to Special faders for group movement. (These faders also respond to MIDI control.) You can use four User Mixers simultaneously, and you can save them to disk.

SPACE: THE FINAL FRONTIER...Space Station Pro's documentation can be a bit cryptic at times, and it lacks a decent description of the MIDI-controlled filters and delay. The only printed documentation included is a 15-page installation guide; everything else appears in the programs context-sensitive help. HTML and PDF versions of the help files can be found on the installation CD, which is nice if you want everything in one place. This reference information was hard to follow, however. A well-written getting-started guide would be very useful.

Although the program is stable for the most part, I did keep the folks at Digital Audio Innovations busy by uncovering several bugs. A couple of these were serious; for example, I couldn't save Waves when running under DOS without my PC locking up, and I had to reboot each time I exited the program. The manufacturer claims that it has not been able to duplicate these problems and that they have not been reported by other users.

The program comes with numerous Groups, Banks, Waves, envelopes, and LFOs on the installation CD-ROM. A wide variety of sounds are thrown in, including acoustic instruments, synth waves, special effects, and dance grooves. Most of the supplied instruments are only 22 kHz samples, however, and many of the Banks were loaded with only one sample per octave. This surprised me because I had no trouble loading lots of 44.1 kHz samples. Unfortunately, Space Station Pro loads only WAV and Space Station Pro-format files, although converters for Akai and Roland formats are provided.

Overall, I wasn't thrilled with the sound quality of this program. Without filter envelopes and a good set of effects, I had a hard time creating sounds that knocked my socks off. Throw in the 22 kHz samples included on the CD and output them to a $99 Sound Blaster, and you end up with sounds that say, well, "ho-hum." Perhaps if I had used the digital output on a Sound Blaster AWE64 Gold card, I would have felt differently. (Of course, including support for other sound cards would also be useful to many musicians.)

Space Station Pro does many things very well, but even with its low price tag, I can't really recommend it for serious professional use at this point. Digital Audio Innovations is heading in the right direction, though, by planning to support additional professional gear and more common sample formats. With a few more features, this could be a powerful music-making platform. (I would also love to see an alternative copy-protection scheme.)

In the meantime, you may be in luck if you have some cash and a dusty old 90 MHz Pentium PC sitting in the closet. Space Station Pro can help you put them both to good use.

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