Anyone who's been involved with music technology for at least five years or longer will surely regale bored studio interns someday with long-winded stories like, “When I wanted to sync several synthesizers and samplers together with a sequencer and add a string of effects, I had to connect huge metal boxes together with these long stringy things called cables, and only after hours of screaming and cursing my maker would it all work — maybe.” Of course, those interns will roll their eyes and go back to working on their fully automated computer studios.
However, today's musicians are yet in the nascent stages of the computer-music revolution and can still appreciate the extraordinary value that a software program such as Arturia Storm 2.0 provides. Instead of buying a DVD player or a few video games, anyone with a suitable computer around the house could launch a home studio with Storm 2.0's 13 instrument modules, 10 effects and integrated five-part sequencer and mixer. With the easy pattern-based editing and rhythm-creation and the drawing of melodies across a piano roll, the beginning musician doesn't even need a MIDI keyboard to get started with this stand-alone program. The Composition Wizard (new for this update) provides tutorials about creating different styles of music without stifling the creativity or growth of the musician.
However, Storm is far from being a beginners-only tool. The 2.0 update adds ReWire support, and Storm can also be used as a VST 2.0 Instrument. Storm can sync via MIDI to other software and hardware or act as the MIDI master device. All of the instruments and their parameters are playable from MIDI keyboards and controllers. Further additions to Storm 2.0 include Mac OS X compatibility, improved design and sound, and three new modules: the Shadow chord synthesizer, a vocoder and a compressor.
Arturia has constructed a fairly complete software studio built around the eye of the storm: the instrument and effect modules. Of the 13 instruments, five fall into the drum-machine category, five are synthesizers, and three are sample-playback machines. Making up the 10 effects are chorus, compressor, distortion, dual delay, flanger, lowpass filter, reverb, ring mod, sequence filter and vocoder.
Four of the drum machines play sampled sounds. These are Hork, with acoustic kit samples; Meteor, sampled from classic vintage drum machines; Psion, sampled from electronic drum kits; and Puma, with Latin percussion samples. Tsunami is a drum synth that takes its cues from 1970s drum machines. All five operate in a similar way, and four preset banks store 64 total rhythms for each machine. The user can edit these patterns or clear them and start from scratch. A grid contains 16 steps for each of eight instrument slots. Clicking on a spot on the grid will enter a note at the lowest accent level. Continue to click the note to add greater accent — up to four levels of accent. Some instruments change at higher accent levels; for instance, a high tom will switch to a low tom. Clicking-and-dragging a note will “paint” that note across the grid to save time. Each of the eight instruments on a machine has Pitch and Decay knobs that go a long way to alter the sounds for completely different feels. The exception to this is Tsunami, which gives you envelope, filter and other modulation controls for its drum sounds.
Five synthesizers include Arsenic, a single-oscillator, 303-type bass synth; Bass 52, which uses physical modeling to emulate a fretted bass guitar; Equinoxe, which uses the same engine as Arsenic but has three oscillators to generate chords; Shadow, another chord synth that specializes in sustained sounds and pads; and Orpheus, a polyphonic wavetable synthesizer. All of these instruments have 64 preset patterns that use either a piano roll or a chord grid for user editing. MIDI keyboards can also play back the synthesizers. Arsenic, Bass 52 and Equinoxe do not have preset sounds but rather launch at a default setting that the user can alter and then save within the Storm song file. Shadow and Orpheus, the featured synths, have 64 preset sounds and 64 user sound memories.
Shadow is a new addition to Storm 2.0, and it does an admirable job of emulating the '80s analog synths known for their dreamy pads, such as the Sequential Circuits Prophet-600. It's also capable of some tasty piano, organ and brass chords. Shadow patterns can be one, two, four or eight bars long. The chord grid allows users to easily set the length and type of chord played, as well as to add an enforcing bass note underneath. The grid menu gives the choice of automatically placing a perfect major, minor 7th or major 7th chord. Alternatively, choosing Custom lets the user input the chord with complete freedom.
Shadow's sound-shaping controls consist of filter Cutoff and Resonance knobs, and an x-y axis sets the values or mixes the values of two parameters at a time. This control surface has six pages of two settings each, such as volume-envelope attack and release. Other pages control the oscillator shape, tuning and mix, as well as the LFO. This x-y device makes for a distinct synthesizing experience that encourages lots of experimentation to come up with user sounds. Recording a sweep of the x-y position into the sequencer is also easy and fruitful.
Orpheus is the most powerful of the synthesizers and thus takes up two of the four available instrument spaces in Storm. Its two oscillators both draw on a well of 32 wavetables (that each consist of four wave shapes). Another x-y axis control surface in Orpheus manipulates the four wave shapes of each oscillator to create sweeping, morphing effects. Other controls on the Orpheus include sliders for the filter and amp envelopes; two LFOs with five selectable wave shapes, as well as Rate and Amount knobs; a four-mode filter with Cutoff, Resonance and Envelope Rate knobs; and an oscillator section that includes tuning and frequency-modulation controls. Keyboard shortcuts also exist to tweak the filter knobs.
Adept at creating cutting lead sounds, bizarre sound effects, beefy chords and more, the 16-note polyphonic Orpheus is almost worth the price of admission alone. In fact, all of the Storm instruments produce convincing and usable results. That said, it should be noted that the overall sound-quality output from Storm is not quite as robust as other stand-alone instruments or software suites on the market. In these days of heightened expectations, little separates the best from the rest. So although Storm does sound great, it still lacks a tiny extra oomph found in some other (usually more expensive) programs.
No studio would be complete without sampling, and Storm has that area covered, as well. EZtrack is used to record, edit playback and export samples to another module. H3Oplus is a 4-track sample sequencer that can loop samples in the correct tempo and pitch of the current Storm song, as long as the original tempo and key of the samples are identified. Finally Scratch is a turntable emulator that loops two samples as if they were spinning on turntables. Users can then select the loop length, pitch the samples (while keeping them in tempo) and crossfade between them. As the name implies, users can also scratch the samples using the mouse. Although the sound of the scratching is spot-on, the method for achieving the scratches is cumbersome at best. Also, Scratch's response to mouse movement is slow, even on a reasonably fast 1GHz Apple G4. Storm can record and play back WAV, AIFF and MP3 samples.
All of Storm's effects produce a sound quality that is impressive for the price and passable for finished songs. The dual delay automatically synchs to tempo and can create intricate delay panning effects. Five types of reverb include Small, Medium, Large, Cathedral and Tunnel, and an x-y axis determines the clarity and absorption of the virtual room. The lowpass and sequence filters are also excellent for achieving filtered build-ups and interesting rhythms. One slight disappointment is the lack of user effects settings, but whatever setting is saved for an effect inside a Storm file will be preserved when the file is reopened.
The new compressor can make beats stand out in the mix and beef up other parts but, like all compressors, should not be overused. The module contains a few preset settings, or users can set their own attack, release and gain levels. A screen also illustrates the input and output levels.
Vocoders are heavily in demand by dance producers, and the new Storm 2.0 vocoder pulls enough weight to again justify almost the entire price of Storm. It includes a two-oscillator synthesizer for the input signal to modify. The input can come from any Storm instrument. The Mix knob mixes the input signal with the vocoder synth, and the Smooth knob adjusts the level of articulation of the vocoded voice. In keeping with the Storm style, the vocoder uses an x-y control surface to modify the filter, oscillator and LFO settings of the vocoder synthesizer.
Storm's Studio Builder brings all of the instruments together — actually it brings them together four instruments and three effects at a time. Upon launching Storm, the Studio Builder appears, and the user drags instruments and effects into the virtual rack of the studio. With the studio built, Storm provides a 5-track sequencer and a 5-track mixer: one track per instrument and a fifth for the master output on the mixer. The sequencer records pattern and parameter changes for the instruments, with the fifth track reserved for changes to the effects, mixer and the Kepler module (more on this to come). Users can set a loop length in the sequencer and set the loop to record. The sequencer then records pattern and parameter changes made to activated tracks and continues to record the loop until stopped. Tracks can be muted in the sequencer or with keyboard shortcuts. There are also keyboard shortcuts for adjusting track volume in the mixer.
With loops or an entire song recorded, Storm can export audio as WAV, AIFF or MP3. Options include exporting individual tracks as samples that can be reimported by Storm sample modules. In effect, this means infinite resampling, so industrious musicians can make the most out of the four tracks provided.
The final element to Storm is the unique Kepler module, which transposes all instruments routed to it to a dominant note set by the user. You can create tone transposition sequences that change as often as every two quarter notes. Each instrument can set the Kepler effect on or off individually.
Some remaining options within Storm include the ability to route individual instrument outputs to separate outputs on a soundcard using Storm as a VST Instrument and ReWire support. When configured with ReWire, the Storm mixer can be used to mix the output of other opened ReWire instruments. Conversely, Storm's instruments can be routed to input channels of a master ReWire program, such as Ableton Live. In this case, you could activate more than one instance of Storm to set up, for example, eight Storm instrument channels active in Live.
WHIPPING UP A STORM
Some naysayers of modern dance-music gear claim that it encourages cookie-cutter music and makes it too easy for lazy producers to piece together presets into tracks. Discriminating listeners of course know the difference between an inspired original track and a hacked-together knockoff. Still, the Storm 2.0 Composition Wizard is likely to have its detractors. It pops up when you launch the program and offers a tutorial on five different styles that it calls dance, house, hip-hop, jazz funk and reggae/dub. Choosing a style begins a series of instructions about how to use Storm to create those types of songs. The Wizard automatically launches a Storm studio with preset instruments and effects. It then goes step-by-step through the composition process from setting a tempo to choosing the right patterns, establishing tension, breaking it down and recording parameter changes in the sequencer.
Although the Composition Wizard may enforce some tired notions about the formulaic nature of electronic music, it is better to think of it as a Storm tutorial than a blueprint for the music you make with Storm. The Wizard can be helpful in learning the idiosyncrasies of Storm's operation, especially for beginners but also for software veterans. It also encourages users to be creative during the tutorial, giving them the options to create their own patterns and to choose how closely to follow its advice. Furthermore, people who wouldn't want to ditch the Wizard and start making their own songs after becoming comfortable with the program probably aren't the creative types who would buy Storm in the first place.
Storm 2.0 is one of the greatest values in the music-software world. For less than $150, you get 23 instrument and effect modules and the possibility of downloading new modules from Arturia. Just about any shortcoming you can name for Storm — some lack of user instrument and effect presets, limited number of simultaneous modules, less-than-top-shelf sound — can be excused because of the price and the wealth of other features. The program's short learning curve and Composition Wizard make Storm 2.0 the go-to product for anyone who is just starting out in computer music and extremely strapped for cash. Its VST and ReWire support, as well as professionally usable results, also mean that Storm is a great bang-for-the-buck addition to any studio.
STORM 2.0 > $149
Pros: Incredible value. Near-limitless possibilities. Excellent tutorials.
Cons: Setup limited to four instruments and three effects at a time. No user effects presets. Sound could be more robust.
MAC: G3/400 w/OS 8.6-9.x (G3/500 w/OS X 10.1.4 or higher); 128 MB RAM; ASIO- or SoundManager-compatible soundcard; 200 MB available hard-disk space
PC: Pentium II/400; 128 MB RAM; Windows 9x/2000/ME/XP; DirectX- or ASIO-compatible soundcard; 200 MB available hard-disk space.