Although loop-based music production has made quite a splashduring the past few years, most of the serious action has been onthe PC. That is due in large part to Sonic Foundry's popularAcid program. Fortunately for non-Windows musicians,BitHeadz has answered the demand on the Mac side of the aisle withthe introduction of Phrazer — a standaloneloop-based arranger that supports all the popular Macintosh audioI/O options, including ASIO, Sound Manager, DirectIO,DirectConnect, ReWire, and MAS.
Like Acid, Phrazer addresses a fundamental limitationof traditional audio editors: changing the tempo of a sample (suchas a drum loop) also changes its pitch. Loop-based programs solvethis dilemma by slicing samples into short segments (to isolaterhythmic elements) and triggering the individual slices accordingto a specified tempo. Phrazer doesn't perform surgery onthe files. Instead, it adds nondestructive split points (markers)to the audio files and applies them during playback, matchingdifferent tempos as needed. The success of tempo changes createdthrough this process has much to do with the quality and nature ofthe samples: slowing things down may leave gaps of silence betweenbeats; whereas faster tempos sometimes clip the ends offsamples.
The number of simultaneous samples that Phrazer canplay back depends on your computer. I was able to play 15 factoryloops along with a few effects using a G3/300 MHz.Phrazer's preferred method of playback, which delivers thebest performance, involves preloading the loops into RAM; theprogram can also stream tracks directly from the hard drive, whichcould be important if you have limited RAM or if you're workingwith exceptionally large samples. Phrazer requires atleast 64 MB of RAM to get started, but more is definitelyrecommended.
Phrazer's versatile design lets you use it in a numberof ways. For example, you can set individual keys on a MIDI orcomputer keyboard to gate (mute) tracks in real time, which offerssome interesting possibilities for live performance or studio work.Moreover, you can record your performance onto your hard drive as a16-bit stereo AIFF file. You can also render a noninteractive setof tracks to disk at a speed faster than real time. Support fortechnologies such as ReWire and DirectConnect lets Phrazerinteract with a sequencer through external sync. (In theory, youcan use IAC to route tracks from Phrazer into individualchannels in a program such as Pro Tools, but the processcan be rather convoluted.) As of this writing, Phrazerdoes not properly receive external sync through FreeMIDI 1.45;versions 1.43 and 1.44 still work fine. (BitHeadz and Mark of theUnicorn are working on a solution.)
Phrazer imports WAV, AIFF, Sound Designer II, andCD-audio samples. It also reads ACD files from the many availableAcid libraries, although the Acid 2.0 format iscausing BitHeadz some problems, which the company is working toresolve. Phrazer cannot read Steinberg's ReCycle(REX) files directly, but you can save the files in Sound DesignerII format from within Recycle and then import them intoPhrazer. You can also easily convert BitHeadz UnityDS-1 files into a usable format, and you can record yoursamples from within Phrazer as well.
The handy Files window provides a hierarchical view of yourmounted volumes and the compatible files they contain withouthaving to go to the Finder or use the Open command. Clicking on afile name auditions it; double-clicking on it places it on a track.However, the Files window does not automatically update to show newsamples created with Phrazer's sample editor; you mustclick on the Finder and then return to the program before newcomersappear.
Phrazer's main window accommodates a stack of tracks,and each track can contain multiple nonoverlapping samples (seeFig. 1). The track display, however, offers only arudimentary set of features. For example, a snap-to-grid functionensures the tracks' visual alignment, but no metronome is providedto help you align beats aurally. In addition, you can't simply dragand drop samples between tracks; you must cut and paste them. Thetrack display doesn't scroll automatically to let you drag sampleswithin a track to hidden parts of the timeline.
The main window has a pop-up list that lets you specify whichcontrols appear next to the tracks. Available controls arerecord-enable, play-enable, MIDI and computer-keyboard assignments,track-color selector, volume, pan, two effects sends, and a meter.Many of the controls take up quite a bit of space, and whencombined, they consume much of the room that is needed fordisplaying the track contents. You can, however, drag a separatorto hide some or all of the controls. The program provides aseparate Mixer window, but it only includes faders, meters, and pancontrols (see Fig. 2).
The selected sample appears in the sample editor at the bottomof the main window. There Phrazer assigns split pointsbased on amplitude changes in the waveform or based on a designatedtempo. The default amplitude-based settings for low threshold,minimum threshold, and minimum time generally get you in theballpark, but often the split points still require tweaking. Thetempo option is a much better bet if you know your loop'stempo.
Other editing features appear in a pop-up menu with which youcan specify loop points in several ways. You can select an area inthe waveform and choose Set Loop Selection. You can then engagelooped playback and make refinements by dragging the loop markerswhile viewing them at various zoom levels. Alternatively, the Loopdialog box allows you to adjust the loop points with nudge arrowsor by entering numbers.
A Munge pop-up menu provides several options for assigning tempo(essential for synchronizing multiple tracks) and key. A variety ofother Munge options (destructive edits) include normalize, reverse,parametric and shelf EQ, and flange. To hear the changes you makealong with the rest of the song, you must first hit the Savebutton. Unfortunately, a Save As command is not provided at thesample level, which means you must make backups of your samplesbefore you begin editing — a definite inconvenience.
Phrazer lets you specify how tempo mapping and pitchshifting are applied during track playback for each sample. Thedefault, Split Pitched, uses split points to affect tempo and letsyou transpose the music in real time. Split Non-Pitched is the sameexcept that it doesn't allow transposition. Pitch Shift ignoressplit points but allows transposition. The Raw option doesn't allowmanipulation, which is useful for working with samples that have notempo, such as ambient sounds. The sample editor also determineswhether the sample retriggers as a one-shot each time its track ismanually triggered from MIDI or computer keys.
Phrazer incorporates real-time effects at three levels.Two effects sends let you set individual track and master amounts,and two global effects let you process the mix output. You can alsoinsert dedicated effects (along with tempo changes, volume changes,and other events) in tracks. Unlike Acid, Phrazer allowsmultiple insert effects to reside in a track, but only one at atime.
The screen area that defaults to displaying the sample editoralso toggles to show the effects parameters (see Fig. 3).The available effects include parametric EQ, shelf EQ, flange,chorus, phaser, filter, dynamic filter, delay, reverb, compressor,distortion, and degrade. The effects' quality is about average.
For anyone new to loop-based music production, it's important torealize that Phrazer shares the limitations of similarproducts. You can't simply import loops willy-nilly and expect themto work well together, much less sound good at tempos that deviatedramatically from the original. Moreover, your success in grabbingand slicing your loops depends greatly on skill and attention todetail — especially if you don't know the samples' tempos. Asan example, I spent hours in Phrazer trying unsuccessfullyto get a simple conga slap to loop on the downbeat of the introdrum groove to the B-52's “Love Shack.” Well-designedloop libraries, such as BitHeadz's new Tempo Tantrum,definitely offer significant advantages.
Phrazer's user interface has several noteworthyshortcomings in addition to those mentioned earlier. For instance,you can't have the transport automatically return to zero after youhit the Stop button; the program also lacks a track-solo function,a sample-revert option, and a keyboard shortcut for auditioning inthe sample editor. To make matters even worse, the software'sonline-only documentation (a PDF file) offers little assistance inhelping users become more productive and less frustrated. Theprogram compounds the problem with its lack of online help andpop-up labels. According to BitHeadz, several of those issues arebeing addressed for the program's next update.
Phrazer definitely feels like a first release —not least because it crashed several times on two different butstable Mac systems. That said, however, Phrazer offers alevel of multitrack loop-based functionality that has long beenmissing in the Mac market. It has the potential to change the wayyou make music, especially if you have a library of high-qualityloops.
Jeff Burger is a songwriter and multimedia producer based inSedona, Arizona.
Minimum System Requirements
Power Mac G3/300 (optimized for G4); 64 MB RAM; Mac OS 8.6; 500MB hard-disk space (for full installation and included library ofloops)
BitHeadz Phrazer 1.0.1 (Mac)
audio loop arranger
FEATURES3.0EASE OF USE3.0DOCUMENTATION2.5VALUE3.0 RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Brings multitrack loop-based composition to theMac. Allows multiple samples and effects per track. Reads a varietyof audio-file formats including ACD. Live triggering of tracks withMIDI and computer keyboard.
CONS: User interface needs work. Poor documentationlimits productivity. Arriving at accurate split points for samplescan be difficult, especially when synching multiple tracks.