Cakewalk Project 5

Can an all-in-one studio do it all?

Recording software, at first content to merely emulate existing pieces of hardware, has made increasingly bold forays into all aspects of recording. Signal processors, drum machines, and synthesizers have all been taken off the desk, and placed on the desktop.

Programs now exist that coalesce around the “MIDI model” — the linkage of sound generators to form a system, much like the way Korg’s Electribes form a synergistic organism without the need for digital recording per se.

Arturia’s Storm and Propellerheads’ ReBirth and Reason were among the first pieces of virtual studio software. At first considered interesting toys, it’s clear that commercial projects can be realized using these “all-in-one” systems. The pi`ce de résistance was ReWire, a protocol that allowed host programs (Cubase, Logic, Sonar, Digital Performer, Pro Tools, etc.) to integrate with the all-in-one programs and add digital recording capabilities.

Project 5 (P5 for short) stretches these limits even further. It’s like nothing you’ve used before . . . but it’s also like everything you’ve used before. That’s because the elements that make up P5 — pattern-based song creation, software synthesizers and samplers, signal processors, “acidized” file time-stretching, automation, and MIDI — are pretty standard. But it’s the distinctive way they’re put together that differentiates P5 from other pieces of software.

P5 is all about patterns. MIDI patterns are birthed in the P-SEQ window, an environment dedicated to pattern creation. It resembles a MIDI sequencer’s piano roll window, but has convenient, friendly ways of showing velocity and controller (automation) data. After creating a pattern in P-SEQ, you can send it to a track, which lives in a fairly conventional arrangement-type window.

You can also record MIDI data directly into the arrangement window; it then shows up in P-SEQ for editing and subsequent re-transfer. P-SEQ doesn’t go through life alone, though — it’s wedded to a Pattern Bin with an Explorer-type interface and three major components: patterns stored on disk, patterns in use (e.g., not yet stored but either in P-SEQ or the arrangement), and most tellingly, “Scrap.” Say what? Well, P5 stuffs every pattern you create during the course of a project in the Bin, and incomplete or deleted ones go in the scrap section. It’s MIDI data, so it takes up virtually no disk space, and represents a brilliant failsafe move that you may not use often . . . but when you do, you’ll be so glad it’s there.

Synchron32, another pattern creation option, is a MIDI FX that inserts into a track. It has a step-sequencer interface (“drop a blob, make a note”) with up to 32 steps over a 9-octave range. Step values can range in length from 1/128th-note triplet to two bars, and odd time signatures are possible. Each step can have its own flam, legato, and bend setting, as well as any number of continuous controller amounts per step (e.g., a little controller 7 and a lot of controller 74, both on the same step).

There are four banks of eight patterns you can save as a group, and you can trigger individual patterns either from the Arranger or a keyboard. Once in the arranger, you can “roll out” a pattern and loop it for any number of measures. The only shortcoming: You can’t transfer a Synchron32 pattern over to the Arrangement as MIDI data. Once you use Synchron32 on a track, that’s the track’s method of pattern generation.

The remaining type of pattern is acidized WAV files. P5 knows how to time-stretch, and you can import and loop. However, it’s not easy to split WAV loops nor can you add fades, so they’re mostly meant to be used as full-length loops, with level or mute/solo automation used to take them out or bring them in on non-loop boundaries.

So workflow rule #1 is: Think in patterns. P5 isn’t intended for linear recording. Workflow rule #2 is: Think live performance, not just programming. We’ll see why in a bit.

Compatibility rules in P5-land. Driver support is ASIO, WDM, and DirectSound. And unlike more “closed” systems, P5 works with DXi and VSTi software instruments, as well as DX and VST processors. (Sonar fans take note: Installing P5 will also make VST instruments and effects available in Sonar.)

As a result, you’re not limited to the instruments supplied in P5. (Note: A very, very small number of instruments simply refuse to be wrapped reliably, although in practice this is rarely a problem.) However, you can’t send MIDI notes to a hardware MIDI output port. Bummer — what if you’ve created some great P5 pattern, ReWired into Sonar, and want to send that pattern out to a hardware MIDI device so you can record its audio output into Sonar? Well, you can’t (however, there are rumors that rgc:audio will soon introduce a MIDI out plug-in that works in P5). But to be fair, that’s not what P5 is supposed to be about.

P5’s instruments can also make a cool synth rack for ReWire-compatible hosts, or function as individual DXi instruments. However, the instrument types are fairly common, so you need to judge whether the instruments complement your synths or duplicate them.

Remember the comment about playing live? Case in point: Cyclone DXi, an innovative instrument that made its debut in Sonar 2.0. Think 16 MIDI-triggered pads, each of which holds anything from a single sample to an acidized WAV.

Each audio file appears on its own strip in a Pad Editor toward the bottom, and each “slice” created by the time-stretching process shows up as an individual rectangle. This can be moved, copied, deleted, dragged to a different pad, layered — you name it. Take the snare hit from a pad and repeat it elsewhere in the file, or in a different file altogether.

Each pad has level, pan, sync to tempo, and loop controls (although no pad controls can be automated). Pads can be triggered over certain note and velocity ranges, so basically, this becomes a monster “remix machine” where you can bring loops in and out with a keyboard, while recording the keyboard MIDI triggers in P-SEQ. Wicked fun.

The other instruments are more conventional. Velocity is a sample-playback drum module that resembles a junior version of Fxpansion’s DR-008 (already included in Sonar 2.0XL, and available as a stand-alone product). The killer feature here is that each of the 18 “cells” in a kit can have up to 32 layers of velocity-switched samples, with automatable filter and level effects. There are also several non-automatable parameters, such as sample reverse and bit reduction (tasty lo-fi stuff). It’s fine, but redundant if you have the DR-008, NI’s Battery, some of the LinPlug products, etc.

nPULSE is a synthesis-based drum module with 12 drum voices. Each has plenty of automatable controls, and while oriented toward specific sounds (kick, hi-hat, cowbell, snare, etc.) they’re pretty tweakable. For example, you can ring modulate one pair of toms, frequency modulate another pair, and do the same for the two kick modules. Sometimes the sounds are little dull or lack punch, but as multiple outputs are available, you can process particular sounds with some of the included effects to season things.

PSYN recalls rgc:audio’s z3ta+ synthesizer; in fact, it seems like a subset, with similar design tricks. It’s a four oscillator/dual filter architecture (with sync and ring mod), along with five envelopes and three LFOs. Even if you have a decent emulated-analog soft synth, PSYN brings a lot to the party.

The DS864 sampler reads Akai S5000/S6000, Kurzweil K2000, and SoundFont2 format samples, but of course you can also import and keymap WAV and AIF files. However, when translating, the only thing transferred is samples — there’s no attempt to copy the envelope, filter, fine tuning, and other settings. So, expect some tweaking. The good news is that the DS864’s sound-shaping options (two resonant filters with dedicated envelope generators, pitch envelope, amplitude envelope, and triple multi-waveform LFOs) may be more flexible anyway in terms of getting the kind of sound you want.

Keymapping is tedious, as the view lacks the expansiveness of something like Steinberg’s HALion, NI’s Kontakt, or Reason 2.0’s NN-XT. But it’s doable, and the functionality is there. There is one small bug: Automation goes away if its Properties Page is closed. The workaround is to “float” the page, then minimize it.

Incidentally, P5 includes a fair amount of content for these instruments: over 90 DS864 programs including orchestral (solo and small section), pianos, “dream house”-oriented patches, Kodish drum and bass, several basses, and Afro-Cuban percussion from Q-Up Arts. There are also 22 mapped kits for the Velocity drum sampler, over 400 one-shot drum/percussion samples from Pro Samples for making your own kits, and hundreds of loops from Best Service, Smart Loops, and Zero-G, including drums, guitars, and world vocals. Add these to the 124 P-SEQ MIDI patterns, and you have more than enough to get started.

We return to the “play it live” theme with the SYN.OPS control panel, one of which exists for each P5 instrument (but which also works with several other synths I tested). It defaults to a group of eight controls, which are assignable to parameters from their corresponding instrument. There are two reasons for turning a SYN.OPS knob instead of the one on the synth: The SYN.OPS knobs can receive MIDI controllers from external fader boxes and such, and also, not all synths can record automation simply by moving their knobs (although P5’s bundled ones can). Effects also have their own little mini-SYN.OPS panel with four controls.

P5’s automatable effects include Classic Phaser, Compressor/Gate, High Frequency Exciter, Mod Filter, Multivoice Chorus/Flanger, Para-Q (two true parametric EQ stages), StudioVerb II, and Stereo Delay (with tempo sync). They provide the expected functions, but even so, a few twisted little features work their way into the mix. For example, the Chorus/Flanger has an EQ mode that emphasizes particular frequency ranges. The Gate can be MIDI-controlled — ideal for “stuttering” effects — and the phaser’s Quad mode will knock your socks off. A major surprise is the StudioVerb II, which delivers some lovely, lush high-diffusion reverb settings.

Another surprise is the Spectral Transformer, which sounds like something out of the “we don’t know what it is exactly, but wow, does it sound cool!” playbook of plug-ins. This does heavy-duty, DSP-intensive band shifting, transformations, hard reverberation, glissing, time-shifting, and spectral exaggerating. Unfortunately, this means latency — I couldn’t get it to process in any less than 11 ms. But the sounds are pretty amazing; even though it’s mono-only, I expect I’ll use the Spectral Transformer in digital audio editing programs so I can import processed files into P5.

…lots of other features, like the optional-at-extra-cost MP3 export (although if you already ponied up for Sonar’s encoder, you can use that), the four aux send buses, tempo mapping (yes!), the bitchin’ X-Y scrollbar handle that lets you scroll and/or change the zoom level simultaneously (waaaay cool)….

But you get the idea. Project 5 is a new type of software for a virtual, pattern-oriented world. Sometimes it feels like an instrument, sometimes like a groovebox, and sometimes like a recording studio. But one thing’s for sure: Once you get past the learning curve — and there is one — Project5 can be highly addictive. Consider yourself warned.