Avid Pro Tools Instrument Expansion Pack (Mac/Win) Review

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FIG. 1: Velvet captures the sound and vibe of classic electric pianos from Rhodes and Wurlitzer.

The Pro Tools Instrument Expansion Pack bundles the latest versions of five existing virtual instruments from Avid''s AIR division. The five—Structure 1.1, Transfuser 1.3, Velvet 1.3, Strike 1.5, and Hybrid 1.6—make up the entire AIR instrument line. The pack includes 55GB of content, 16.5GB of which is new, and more presets than you can shake a virtual stick at. In its previous incarnation, it was called the Virtual Instrument Box Set, but that version''s Xpand (now included with Pro Tools) is supplanted by Transfuser.

Previous versions of everything but Hybrid have been reviewed in these pages, so I will focus on the new features and spend a bit of extra time introducing Hybrid. Those reviews spoke very highly of the AIR instruments, and I share my colleagues'' enthusiasm: These are high-quality instruments with well-developed feature sets that are smoothly integrated into the Pro Tools environment.

The electric piano Velvet nails the most common Rhodes and Wurlitzer instruments and adds a number of nice touches (see Fig. 1). It models the condition of the piano—and the noise created by the pedal, the key release, and the key mechanism—for a remarkably realistic playing experience. The latest version adds a three-mode reverb (spring, room, ambience) to a simple but well-thought-out effects section. I''m particularly fond of Velvet''s ability to emulate the stereo tremolo of the Rhodes Suitcase piano (see Web Clip 1).

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FIG. 2: Strike combines great-sounding acoustic drum kits with sophisticated mix integration with Pro Tools. You can play it in the traditional way or trigger its built-in patterns.

Another new touch is the addition of several synthesized tines, including classic FM piano sounds. Blend these tines with the existing timbres to create rich, layered sounds. The best measure of success I can apply to Velvet is that I spend more time playing it than tweaking it because it takes only a couple of clicks to find a preset with sufficient character to lull you into believing you''re not playing a computer. However, considering the number of variable parameters and suitable effects, as well as the simplicity of MIDI learn on every control, mondo knob-twisting is an attractive approach, too.

If you''ve used FXpansion BFD or any of its competing drum kit romplers, you have a good idea of what Strike is all about (see Fig. 2). It doesn''t have any particular innovation that sets it apart from the field, but the quality of its kits and grooves makes it competitive. Strike can be played simply or controlled obsessively. Its main window gives access to the kit and style browser, essential mix controls, and a keyboard that allows you to play the built-in MIDI performances (called styles) or the individual elements of the kit (see Web Clip 2).

Songwriters will find plenty of prefab beats with which to build basic drum tracks for a song demo. Tweakheads will enjoy customizing grooves in an improved Style Editor, importing samples to create the perfect kit and routing kit elements to individual Pro Tools tracks for complete mixing control. I often search for realistic drum tracks, so this is my favorite feature as it lets me mix the kit exactly as I would a live drummer. The new version also includes 55 new styles and more than 10GB of new kits recorded in Nashville''s Blackbird studios. With the quality of the kits and styles, and the daunting level of fine-tuning Strike makes possible, you''ll have no more excuses for unconvincing drum tracks.

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FIG. 3: Transfuser has more ways to bend and twist loops than you can shake your booty at. It combines dance-oriented synth modules with the ability to drag loops directly from Pro Tools.

Structure is a full-featured sampler that ships with almost 18GB of content, including new orchestral samples replacing the East/West samples in version 1. What it lacks in sophisticated performance features (such as Kontakt''s scripting) it makes up for in the ability to drag in selected audio directly from a Pro Tools track. You needn''t even edit the audio first—just select and drag it into Structure. Structure is as much a sample-based synthesizer as a sampler. It offers two multistage envelopes, a wide variety of filter types, layering, multitimbral mode, multiple audio outputs, a modulation matrix, and built-in effects.

Structure''s latest version fixes problems with EXS import and adds Giga import. It also includes 5GB of new sounds—including orchestra, drums, and a new piano—that are on par with its previous sonic offerings.

If you use loops in your production, Transfuser is worth every second you spend mastering it (see Fig. 3). It combines powerful, musical loop manipulation with essential dance-oriented synths, including a new Roland TB-303-esque module. A single instance of Transfuser can hold enough tracks of loops and synths to create an entire rhythm background for a song. Each track comprises a sequencer, a synth or loop slicer, four effects slots, and mix controls. There are also two effects sends, groove quantization, extensive MIDI control (including the ability to record MIDI control to a loop), and intelligent randomization.

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FIG. 4: Hybrid is a sophisticated subtractive/wavetable synthesizer with oodles of modulation options. Between its LFOs, envelope generators, step sequencers, and MIDI control, it is capable of creating complex, evolving textures and pads.

With respect to the included content, it pales in comparison to the beat manipulation of Transfuser. The Beatcutter effect alone is worth a thorough examination, and when you start assigning knobs to each variable, it quickly gets deep (see Web Clip 3). Transfuser takes the often tedious work of slicing and dicing loops and turns it into a performance.

Hybrid is a synthesizer that combines the best of analog-style subtractive synthesis with digital wavetable synthesis (see Fig. 4). Its design comprises two parts, each of which has three oscillators and a sub-oscillator, multimode resonant filter, three LFOs, and four complex envelope generators (filter, amplitude, and two assignable). Each part has a 4-track step sequencer: Two parts are for pitch and velocity, and two are assignable modulation sources. Each part also has two insert effects; chorus, delay, and reverb are available as master effects.

Each oscillator, the filter, and the amplifier stage have a Modulation page on which you an assign as many as three modulation sources. The level (amount) of each modulation source ranges from -100 percent to +100 percent. This degree of control is easy to take for granted, but it can make the difference between a good sound and one with subtlety and vibe. And you can assign virtually everything to a MIDI control for real-time variation. In short, the amount of movement and shape that you can bring to bear on a Hybrid patch is nothing short of spectacular. The most recent version adds a multisquare waveform, three new noise types, and a bunch of new patches (see Web Clip 4).

Installing the Expansion Pack''s five DVDs was seamless on my PC desktop and MacBook Pro; iLok authorization means I can use the instruments on both computers easily and legally. Be sure to copy the documentation folder from the first installation disc as it doesn''t install automatically, and the documentation in Pro Tools 8''s documentation folder is for the older versions. The AIR documentation is thorough and clear, offering tables of default MIDI assignments, signal flow diagrams, and lots of shortcuts.

For less than $500, you can afford to like some of these synths more than others, but each of them offers plenty to love. The Instrument Expansion Pack contains five top-shelf instruments designed with character and flexibility. Their feature sets are deep but accessible, and opportunities for MIDI control are everywhere. They are an outstanding complement to your Pro Tools system.

Brian Smithers wrote Mixing in Pro Tools: Skill Pack, 2nd Edition and is department chair of workstations at Full Sail University.

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the Pro Tools Instrument Expansion Pack product page.