Software synthesis, sample playback, sequencing, mixing, and effects all rolled into one.
Now that PCs are Pentium-powered, music-software developers are determined to squeeze as much real-time synthesis as possible from them. The German-Hungarian company Audio Simulation continues this trend and takes it one step further with Dream Station 1.0, an all-in-one synthesizer and music-production program that costs less than $100.
Dream Station offers software synthesis in the form of analog simulation and sample playback with up to 96 oscillators, 32 filters, and 32-note polyphony. Its physical modeling of analog circuits produces some great sounds, but that's only the beginning. Dream Station also includes a built-in step-time sequencer complete with automation, an 8-channel stereo mixer, and dual stereo effects processors. Combine these features and you have a versatile software-based production studio that can make many of your techno, acid, trance, house, rave, and pop composing dreams come true.
I tested Dream Station on a Pentium II/300 MHz with 64 MB of RAM, Windows 98SE, and a Diamond Multimedia Monster Sound MX300 sound card. It performed nicely, but as you might expect of a first-version release, there was still room for improvement.
SETUP TROUBLENormally during installation, you simply type in the supplied serial number to authorize the software. Unfortunately, I was not quite so lucky, because I use a multiport MIDI interface. According to Dream Station's documentation, Windows doesn't allow more than ten MIDI drivers to be active at once, and the Dream Station installation program scans for this situation. If it doesn't find room for its own driver (which is needed to drive the synth from a sequencer on the same machine), Dream Station won't install the driver properly. So every time I ran the software, I received a MIDI-driver initialization error message. (If you select another MIDI port in the Preferences dialog box, you can still trigger the synth from an external MIDI controller.)
The documentation simply tells you that the installation probably didn't succeed, and suggests that you restart Windows and try again. But that does not work, because the archaic copy-protection scheme won't allow you to reinstall the program if it senses that a copy already exists on the machine. What's more, there's no easy way to uninstall the program in Windows 98. On my machine, Dream Station didn't even appear in Windows' Add/Remove Programs Properties dialog box.
Luckily, I was able to install the program on a second machine (with only one MIDI driver in use), and could then see how the Dream Station MIDI driver is implemented. After adding midi2=dsmidi.drv to the Drivers section of the System.ini file on the first machine, everything worked fine. But many users may not be so tech savvy. Hopefully, Audio Simulation will remedy this problem in a future version. Independently of copy protection, I should be able to easily uninstall and reinstall the software on the same machine if I am a legitimate user and have the original disc.
SKIMPY DOCSDream Station's very terse printed documentation poses another problem. All you get are 27 pages of short descriptions covering the program's features. That may be okay if you're an advanced user and already have experience with synthesis and sequencing, but beginners will most likely be overwhelmed by the software at first.
Furthermore, the documentation doesn't provide any step-by-step examples or tutorials. Some excellent demo files and a full bank of Programs (presets) show off the software quite nicely, but you have to spend some time getting to know this product before you can put it to good use. Unfortunately, the Help file doesn't provide much assistance either; it simply repeats the information the printed manual gives you.
AWESOME ANALOGAside from its installation and documentation shortcomings, Dream Station is quite impressive, and its synthesis capabilities are very powerful. The program's 32 notes of maximum polyphony (depending on your CPU) are each constructed of up to three Oscillator modules and Amplifier, Filter, LFO, User Envelope, and Vibrato modules. Individual modules represent each of these features in the synthesizer section of Dream Station (see Fig. 1). The combination of these modules makes up a single Program. A basic Program consists of the combination of the Oscillator 1 and Amplifier modules, which are the only modules that are always active. The other modules can be turned on or off.
All three Oscillator modules can be set to a variety of waveforms including sine, triangle, sawtooth, noise, and pulse/square. Only Oscillator 1 has a pulse generator that can be adjusted with its Pwidth (Pulse Width) and PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) controls. Oscillators 2 and 3 provide nonadjustable square waves. All the Oscillator modules, however, have a PCM option that lets you use 16-bit mono samples in place of the traditional waveforms for a wider variety of synthesis options. (I'll talk more about this option later.)
All three oscillators can be tuned, with fine-tuning available in Oscillators 2 and 3. Keyboard tracking can be activated in Oscillators 1 and 2, but not in Oscillator 3. You can adjust the volume of Oscillators 2 and 3 only. Other options include hard synchronization and ring modulation between Oscillators 1 and 2. In addition, you can experiment with FM synthesis by adjusting Oscillator 2's FM Amount control, which sums the frequency of Oscillator 1 and the output signal (waveform) of 2.
The Filter module provides the usual cutoff-frequency and resonance controls as well as its own ADSR-envelope and gain controls. Keyboard tracking of the cutoff frequency is also available. The Filter can operate in one of five modes: 2-pole lowpass, 4-pole lowpass, 2-pole highpass, 2-pole bandpass, and 4-pole formant. The LFO module allows you to modulate the frequencies of Oscillators 1 and 2, the pulse width of Oscillator 1, or the cutoff frequency of the Filter. It provides the usual sine, sawtooth, pulse/ square, and noise waveforms, which you can adjust with the Depth and Rate controls.
The User Envelope module is a stand-alone envelope generator that you can use to modulate the FM control of Oscillator 2, the pulse width of Oscillator 1, the frequencies of Oscillators 1 and 2, the volume of Oscillator 2, and the cutoff frequency of the Filter. It provides the usual ADSR and gain controls. The Vibrato module is "hardwired" to modulate the frequencies of all three Oscillators with a global set of Delay, Depth, and Rate controls. (A bit more flexibility here would be appreciated.) The Amplifier - the final module in the chain - has the usual ADSR-envelope and gain controls, which affect the overall volume of the Program.
The Program module provides some overall parameters for the current Program, such as settings for portamento speed, note release, legato, and distortion. The Program module is also where you assign a mixer output channel and where you can name your new Program and store it in any one of the 99 available user locations.
You can create truly amazing sounds with Dream Station, easily producing fat, full sounds that you'll swear come from a real analog synth. The software ships with 99 default sounds - in Dream Station Instrument (DSI) format - that show the program's capabilities quite well. You don't have to worry about overwriting these patches, because an included file contains all of the default Programs. A Randomize Sound feature randomly sets all the controls to produce some unique textures that can serve as great starting points for new sounds. One thing missing, however, is a good GM sound set, which would let you quickly begin using the software with your current compositions.
SIMPLE SAMPLESDream Station provides synthesis but has only 16-bit mono sample playback. You can get around the mono limitation by splitting a stereo sample into two separate files (representing the left and right channels) and assigning each file its own Program. Then you simply assign each Program to a different Mixer channel and pan one channel hard left and the other hard right. You might run into sync problems with long samples, and this approach may be a slight waste of resources, but at least it can be done.
Before you can assign samples to an Oscillator, you have to load them into memory using the Sample Organizer. This dialog box allows you to change which samples are currently stored in memory. Along with the file name of each sample (only WAV files are supported), the sample organizer lists size (sample size is unlimited), root key, and loopback point. Only the loopback point is adjustable here, and you can't audition the results immediately, so you're probably better off using a separate sample-editing application for creating loops.
An especially welcome feature in Dream Station is that you're not limited to only one sample per Program. Using the Sample Split Editor, you can create sample splits to assign different samples to pitches across the entire MIDI note range. This is a great way to create drum kits. Samples can be assigned to individual notes or to a range of notes, and you can assign a transposition value to each sample in the list. The Sample Split Editor also lets you define up to 32 split presets (configurations). When assigning samples to Oscillators via the PCM option, you simply specify a split preset (1 to 32) instead of selecting a single sample. This feature works quite well. It would really be cool if you could change the split preset during sequencer playback, but unfortunately, that isn't possible.
CLASSIC SEQUENCINGDream Station provides tracker-type sequencing capabilities like those from the old days of DOS. This means that you compose songs by piecing together patterns. You create patterns using the Pattern Editor (see Fig. 2); each pattern can contain up to 32 tracks and be up to 128 steps in length. Each track in the Pattern Editor contains three columns: two for commands and one for note values. The note values can be entered from your computer or MIDI keyboard, but only step entry is available.
The command values provide control over some of the various synth parameters; for example, you can select a Program for the current note, adjust the Filter cutoff frequency, or retrigger the LFO. Special codes for these and many other settings are outlined in the documentation. One annoying characteristic of the Pattern Editor is that it can display only seven tracks at a time. Its window isn't resizable, and that can make composing patterns a bit cumbersome.
After you have created your patterns, you piece them together with the Musicparts Editor. Each pattern is assigned a number, and you simply list these numbers in the order you want their corresponding patterns to play. After you've completed your list, you can play your song or save it as a proprietary Dream Station Sequence file, which stores all the sequence data and all the Program data together. Unfortunately, Dream Station lacks support for Standard MIDI Files, although you can export your song as a 16-bit, 44.1 kHz stereo WAV file.
With the Dream Station MIDI driver, you can compose using your favorite sequencer. Just assign the MIDI output of your tracks to drive the Dream Station synth engine, and set up the appropriate MIDI channels using the MIDI Mapper. This allows you to run both the sequencer and Dream Station on the same PC, which shouldn't pose a problem with today's CPUs. I had no trouble running Dream Station and Cakewalk's Pro Audio on my Pentium II/300 MHz. Of course, you can also drive Dream Station using an external MIDI input. With either method, you can easily share your sequence data and still use Dream Station.
AUTOMATION STATIONFor further flexibility, Dream Station provides internal automation with its Automation Controls box (see Fig. 3). You can assign up to ten different automation controls to be recorded, and you can assign these controls to any knob on Dream Station's synth panel. Changes made to the specified controls are automatically recorded. Unfortunately, the automation data cannot be viewed or graphically edited. If you mess up, you have to record it all over again. You can copy and paste data to be used in multiple patterns, but that's about it.
Fortunately, Dream Station's MIDI driver comes to the rescue. Instead of recording automation internally, you can do it using your favorite sequencer. Every knob, slider, toggle switch, and control in Dream Station has been assigned a MIDI controller number. By changing the values of these controllers, you can externally control every aspect of the program - a nice touch. You can also create a custom controller set, but it's limited to a modest set of functions.
MIXED REVIEWWhen you're creating a synth Program, you have to assign it to one of the channels in Dream Station's Mixer module (see Fig. 4). The Mixer provides eight channels routed to a stereo master bus. Each channel includes a volume fader, a pan control, and two effects sends.
Some other nice features are the level meters in each channel and the mute function, which you activate by simply clicking on the channel name. I was disappointed, however, to discover that you can't assign the output of each channel to its own sound-card output, a capability that Audio Simulation should add to the next version.
MINIMUM EFFECTSAlthough Dream Station's effects sound pretty good, they are, unfortunately, limited. For example, the program has only two stereo effects processors, which means that all 32 synth voices have to share the same two types of effects. All you can vary is the amount of the effects applied with the Mixer module. In addition, only a limited number of effects types are available, although they do cover the basics: delay, phaser, flanger, chorus, and reverb. The number of choices you get within each type is rather slim. The program offers only three reverb selections, for instance, which isn't much to work with.
Finally, Dream Station doesn't support DirectX plug-ins, which would easily solve the problem of limited effects types. I do like the fact that the connection between the effects processors can be specified as parallel or serial. I also like that the second processor allows you to define two effects types, so in essence, you can have three types of effects going at once. But neither of these features makes up for Dream Station's other limitations in this section.
DARE TO DREAMAs you can see, Dream Station has some room for improvement. The copy protection should be dropped or at least better implemented, and the documentation needs to be beefed up a bit. The program also needs stereo sample support, resizable windows, Standard MIDI File support, automation-data editing, individual mixer channel outputs, more effects processors and effects types, and DirectX support.
This may seem like a long list of complaints, but many are actually wish-list items. Dream Station delivers on its promise to provide an all-in-one production studio that lets you compose many types of music using a single piece of software. The limitations won't stop you from creating some awesome sounds and songs. With a price tag of only $89, this program is definitely worth the money, considering the very real power that it provides. If you are interested in checking out Dream Station, download the demo from the Audio Simulation Web site; I think you will be pleasantly surprised.