FIG. 1: Arturia Storm''s studio is centered on a rack full of virtual gear. The rack includes the sequencer (top), mixer (bottom), and browser (left).
Arturia's flagship all-in-one software studio, Storm, has been through a major upgrade with its lastest release, version 3.0. Gone are the rackspace limit of four instruments and three effects, the separate Studio Builder and Composition windows, and the fixed-window and region sizes. Also gone is the VST version — all interapplication connectivity is now done using Propellerhead's ReWire 2. Notable additions include the ability to import Standard MIDI Files (SMFs); a General MIDI (GM) — compatible synth to play SMFs; and a piano-roll editor for editing MIDI files, instruments' step-sequencer patterns, and automation.
Storm's basic features have not significantly changed from earlier versions, so aside from a brief overview, this review will concentrate on the new aspects of version 3.0. Check out the EM Web site at www.emusician.com to read EM's reviews of versions 1.5 (February 2002) and 2.0 (March 2003). For a comparison of all-in-one software studios, see the article “Virtual Workstations” in the March 2003 issue of EM.
Storm's graphical user interface (GUI) remains rooted in the Java Virtual Machine programming language, although all audio processing has been written in assembly language. In spite of numerous improvements, the GUI still has problems. Hot spots are hard to hit, graphics are slow to update (especially when zooming), keyboard shortcuts stop working when more than one window is open, pop-up menus don't always pop up, and the undo function works only for some actions. Although annoying, none of those problems are show-stoppers.
RACK ‘EM UP
The Storm studio is centered on a rack full of gear (see Fig. 1). Instruments and effects from Storm's built-in collection are dragged to the rack from the browser on the left. Unlike previous versions, the rack can have as many slots as needed, and the number of instruments and effects is limited only by your computer's capacity. Synthesis and effects processing are CPU-intensive tasks, however, and the rack shown in Fig. 1, which contains five instruments and four effects, runs Storm's CPU meter to 50 percent on my dual-G5/2 GHz Mac. Because the rack can now outsize available screen real estate, a handy scrollable overview has been added for navigation.
FIG. 2: Storm''s piano-roll editor is basic, but it gets the job done. It can edit step-sequence patterns, MIDI sequences, and automation.
Unlike earlier versions of Storm, you can add and remove instruments and effects from the rack, as well as move them around within the rack — even while the song is playing. Each instrument and effect has three sends for routing its output, either pre- or post-mixer, to any effect. Those sends can be displayed in the rack as in previous versions, but now they also can be managed in Storm's mixer.
Storm's complement of instruments includes five drum boxes: four are sample based, and one, called Tsunami, is a drum synth. The remaining instruments are two mono synths (Arsenic and Bass 52), two chord-based synths (Equinox and Shadow), and two polyphonic synths (Orpheus and GMSynth). All except GMSynth are based on subtractive synthesis, though their programming techniques vary. GMSynth is sample based and uses GM program numbering. Finally, there are three sample players: EZ-Track is for playing and recording extended audio files; H3Oplus is a four-track, four-bar sample player primarily for loop management; and Scratch is a turntable-style sample player.
Storm's ten effects are four delay-based effects (Chorus, Flanger, Reverb, and Dual Delays), Distortion, Compression, two filters (LPFilter and SEQ Filter, which contains a built-in 16-step sequencer), a ring modulator, and a vocoder. The effects are standard fare, but you can get a lot out of them with automation and complex signal routing (see Web Clip 1).
SEQUENCE UP A STORM
Storm's sequencer has been upgraded in several important ways: it's resizable and has resizable tracks; it can be hidden or detached; and, in conjunction with the new piano-roll editor, it can be used to record, import, and edit MIDI data. In previous versions, the sequencer was limited to recording pattern changes and parameter automation.
Storm's MIDI file import function couldn't be easier: you select a MIDI file, and Storm imports the tracks and places GMSynth instruments in the rack to play them. If the tracks contain MIDI program changes, the GMSynths will set themselves to the correct program; otherwise you can set them manually. If you want to use a different Storm synth to play a track, put it in the rack and copy and paste the data from the GMSynth track to the track for the new synth (see Web Clip 2).
FIG. 3: Storm''s mixer has channels for each instrument and effect. Three-band EQ and effects-send displays are optional.
One of the important advantages of adding MIDI to the sequencer's bag of tricks is that you can now convert a string of pattern changes in Storm's sequencer to a MIDI sequence on tracks for the standard synths: Arsenic, Bass 52, GMSynth, and Orpheus. That makes it easier to copy or move the string of patterns to a new location on the same track. More importantly, it makes it possible to move it to a different track and to modify the notes in the patterns using the piano-roll editor. It would be nice to be able to do the same thing for the other synths — especially the drum machines — and also to be able to export the edited patterns as MIDI files. Perhaps those capabilities will be implemented in a future release.
A NEW ROLL
Storm's piano-roll editor can be invoked by double-clicking in the sequencer or selecting Edit in the context menu (right-click on the PC, Control-click on the Mac) of any device in the rack (see Fig. 2). The context menu of a device presents a handy submenu for selecting which controller or pattern data to edit. From the sequencer, the editor opens immediately, displaying the selected data. Once the piano-roll editor is open, you can navigate to any pattern or controller data for any device by using a menu or forward-backward navigation arrows. Inconveniently, you can't navigate directly to a MIDI sequence unless you've previously invoked the editor by double-clicking on that sequence.
The piano-roll editor at best can be described as rudimentary. There are separate tools for selecting, deleting, and altering notes, and they must be selected, using the mouse, from the toolbar at the top-left side of the editor. Modifying data is difficult at high zooms. When quantization (called Resolution) is invoked, it applies to all of the data, not just the selected data, and it cannot be undone. Fine-scale controller editing is tedious with the tools provided. On the other hand, controller editing of any kind and note editing, other than in the built-in instruments' pattern editors, was impossible with previous versions of Storm. The current implementation is a vast improvement.
Storm's mixer has been improved in several ways (see Fig. 3). Like the sequencer, it can be hidden, resized, and detached. Each track now has a three-band EQ, and the middle band is parametric. Effect sends, which can be either pre or post, can be controlled directly from the mixer. Finally, each track has a solo and a mute button.
Storm's browser is now part of the Composition window and has been upgraded with the addition of sample browsing, which used to require opening a separate window. Like the other sections, the browser can be hidden and resized.
Storm's sample library is unchanged from version 2.0, but it contains a well-chosen if somewhat sparse collection of samples in a variety of styles. You also get access to Storm Hall, where you can theoretically share audio files, Storm songs, and ideas with other Storm users. I've never spotted any files or users, however, in Storm Hall.
Storm 2.0 introduced the Composition Wizard, which is a fast, enjoyable, and instructive way to build songs in Storm. Version 3.0 adds 7 new styles, for a total of 12: House, Electro Pop, R&B, Hard Rock, Tribal Trance, Ambient, Drum and Bass, Jazz Funk, Dub, Discovery (a tutorial version of the Dance Wizard), Dance, and Hip Hop. Most of the Wizards come with their own audio files and pattern sequences. That significantly expands the Storm library, although commercial rights to the samples may be reserved (see Web Clip 3).
Storm is an excellent piece of software for the price. GUI issues aside, it can put you on the fast track to composing pattern-based music in a variety of styles. It might not be all you need for a complete composition, but it integrates smoothly as a ReWire 2 slave, and you can easily route each of its instruments and effects to a separate bus in your ReWire host software. If you're already a Storm user, this is a must-have upgrade. If you've never tried Storm, the demo is well worth a look.
Minimum System Requirements
MAC: G4/1 GHz; 256 MB RAM; Mac OS 10.3
PC: Pentium III/800 MHz; 256 MB RAM; Windows 98, XP
Storm 3.0 (Mac/Win)
upgrade $50 (free for users registered after November 2003)
FEATURES3.0EASE OF USE2.5QUALITY OF SOUNDS3.5VALUE4.0RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Quick generator of complex patterns that almost always sound good. Composition Wizard sports seven new styles, single-window operation with resizable panels.
CONS: Java-based user interface is difficult to control. Minimal set of key commands. Sound library hasn't been expanded.