Upon its introduction, BitHeadz Phrazer was a godsend for Mac-based producers longing for a loop-composition tool to rival Sonic Foundry's PC-only phenom, Acid. The program offered the same type of automatic tempo-mapping and pitch-shifting of loops found in Acid, but it distinguished itself straight away with its onboard sample editor. With the update to version 2.0, Phrazer comes further into its own.
Compatibility is definitely not a problem; under OS 9.x, Phrazer supports about every possible audio I/O option: ASIO, DirectConnect, MAS, ReWire and Apple's Sound Manager. With Direct I/O, you can use Phrazer through Digidesign hardware without using any Digidesign software. Future OS X support includes MAS, RTAS, VST and Audio Units.
WHAT'S NEW, BABY BOO?
The new attributes to Phrazer 2.0 are useful but limited in quantity. However, the update is free to all registered Phrazer users ($25 shipping and handling is required), and the list price is $100 less than it was two years ago, so it comes out to a pretty nice bargain.
A big brouhaha stems from Phrazer 2.0's new Mac OS X (10.1 and higher) compatibility. The Core MIDI functionality of OS X eliminates the need for FreeMIDI or OMS to sync Phrazer to a sequencer or to use a MIDI device to gate tracks. Also new is Phrazer's ability to import MP3 files, though instead of using them natively, it first converts them to AIFF files. This works fine with most MP3 files converted from programs such as SoundJam and iTunes. However, for reasons BitHeadz is unable to explain, Phrazer does not recognize MP3 files, including loops and one-shots from a Norman Cook sample collection, downloaded from Emusic.com. (This bug, however, has reportedly been fixed with the latest update.) With a sampling rate as high as 96 kHz, Phrazer also converts BitHeadz Unity DS-1 samples and imports WAV; Sound Designer II; Acid 1.0, 2.0; and CD audio.
Another valuable addition is the ability to audition loops and samples in the tempo and pitch of the project without actually importing them into a track. Phrazer plays back samples in four ways: Raw, in which the sample plays at its original tempo and pitch; Split Pitched, in which the sample is affected by the tempo and key of the song; Split Non-Pitched, in which the sample is affected by the tempo but not the key of the song; and Pitch Shift, in which the sample is affected by tempo and pitch but is not chopped up by split points. Pitch Shift is most effective with sustained notes such as pads and many acoustic instruments. Whereas before they were limited to auditioning raw audio files, users may now audition samples directly from their hard disks in any of those four ways.
The new Save As Project option saves the Phrazer document and all its requisite samples into a new folder, making it easy to back up or take to another computer. There is also some new customization to the Phrazer interface. Users may eliminate any of the indicators that correspond to each track in the Main window. These include the volume, pan and send 1 and 2 dials; the Record and Enable buttons; the level meters; and others.
A final plus to Phrazer 2.0 is the 450 MB of extra loops and samples included with the program, bringing the total content to 900 MB of material from BitHeadz and 11 other respected soundware companies.
WHERE'S YOUR BITHEAD AT?
When Remix reviewed Phrazer 1.0 in March 2001, one of the major gripes was that there was no envelope-generated automation for track volume, pan and effects parameters. Surprisingly, that shortcoming is still a part of Phrazer 2.0. There is some automation available to volume, pan, effects levels and tempo via transitions. When you place an event change for volume, pan and so forth into a track, you may have a transition from the original value to the new value, and this transition may be linear or curved. However, transition time is not measured in beats or seconds, but in ticks, so 480 ticks equal one quarter-note. Not only does this method present some unwanted and unnecessary arithmetic problems, but it is also much less intuitive and inviting than drawable automation envelopes. Because such envelopes are all but the industry norm, their continued absence from Phrazer is a letdown.
Rendering is another area that I think could be improved. I would like to have a few more formats, such as MP3 and Sound Designer II, to render to. Also, the ability to render individual tracks to a sound file would be great for flying Phrazer tracks into another program for additional mastering. (It is possible, however, to mute all but one track and export the resulting file.) A few more minor nitpicks are that there is no 16th-note quantization. Also, you should be able to select a portion of a song and loop playback for just that portion.
COINING A PHRAZE
My spoiled-brat musings aside, Phrazer is actually a blast to use. It is every bit as intuitive and efficient as one could hope it to be. It does a remarkable job pitch- and time-stretching audio with no audible artifacts, and the onboard sample editor is no less than essential. It automatically sets logical split points that will assist you in editing the sample with the many sample-editing options such as reverse, splice, normalize, silence, crop and more. After altering the sample, you may choose to save it by another name so as not to overwrite the original.
Although it would be nice if more than just the delay effect could be tempo-synched, the effects sound very good. Each track can have one active effect at a time, though you may assign different effects at separate points within the same track. There are also two send effects and two global effects, and the algorithms include chorus, compression, delay, filters, flanger, phaser, reverb, EQs, distortion and degrade.
During the review period, my goal was to use Phrazer to remix a song from my guitarist's demo CD. The beats were already in four-bar loops, but the remaining tracks were instrument lines of a minute or two in length. Using the sample editor, I was able to pare down the tracks into all the short loops and phrases that I wanted without ever needing to open another program.
Using a G4/466 MHz with 768 MB of RAM, Phrazer began to introduce clicks and pops and stutter the playback when I exceeded six audio tracks. Changing the playback preference from Disk to Memory and allocating more RAM to Phrazer improved the performance. Also, the default setting for Phrazer's CPU usage is 50 percent. Raising this made it more difficult to run other programs with Phrazer but improved overall performance.
Fortunately, Phrazer is enough of a remix workhorse that almost no other software was needed to get the project in good working order. The onboard effects and dynamics were all I needed to get the tracks sitting well together. If I had not needed to cut up and rearrange the drum loop in Propellerhead ReCycle and a sequencer, I wouldn't have launched another program. Had I wanted to add MIDI tracks, Phrazer can run in sync with all of the major sequencers. Although some additional mastering may be in order, the results possible with Phrazer alone are impressive.
Credit should go to BitHeadz for letting Phrazer stand on its own. Phrazer 2.0 doesn't cover all the bases of the more expensive Acid Pro 4.0 — such as MIDI editing, VSTi soft-synth support and 5.1 mixing — but Phrazer has its own feel and personality and delivers solid results in a short time. If its ample loop arranging, editing and recording capabilities aren't enough to complete your project, Phrazer will run in tandem with your sequencer to keep your mixes loopy.
PHRAZER 2.0 > $299
Pros: Easy operation. Powerful sample editor. Various sample audition options. Nearly comprehensive sequencer and audio hardware compatibility.
Cons: Still no effects automation envelopes. Only delay effect is tempo-synched. No 16th-note quantization. Renders only to 16-bit stereo AIFF files.
Mac G3 or G4/400 MHz; 128 MB RAM (256 or higher recommended); OS 8.6-9.x or OS 10.1 and later; 30 MB disk space for application, 900 MB for included content