CREAMWARE Noah - EMusician

CREAMWARE Noah

CreamWare’s first rackmount synthesizer, the Noah, emulates various synthesizer types depending on the software model you load into it.
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Sometimes it's déjà vu all over again. In 1989, Peavey proudly unveiled the DPM 3 and proclaimed that it would never become obsolete because it used general-purpose Motorola DSP chips, which could be reprogrammed to do any type of synthesis. Out of the box, the DPM 3 was a straight-up sample-playback synth, and nobody outside of Mississippi took Peavey's claims very seriously. Indeed, to the end of its days, the DPM 3 was a sample-playback synth and nothing more. But the concept was viable; Peavey was just 15 years too early.

In the CreamWare Noah, Peavey's promise is finally coming true. Noah is a spin-off from CreamWare's popular Pulsar synthesis-and-effects platform, which can be installed as a PCI expansion board inside a Mac or PC. Like Pulsar, Noah comes with a handful of software-based synthesizers loaded up and ready to play. In fact, the Noah synths are also available to Pulsar users, though certain Pulsar items such as the modular synth, which would have been awkward to stuff into a unit that can be programmed from a two-line LCD, were dropped from the Noah.

Covering five separate synths in a single review, not to mention Noah's capable effects section and its arpeggiator and step sequencer, will take a few pages. So pull on them catfish wadin' boots, and let's get started.

A VOICE FROM ABOVE

The Noah comes in a sleek gray 2U rackspace unit (see Fig. 1). The 2-line-by-40-character LCD is big enough to read easily, but doesn't show nearly as much information in one screen as the high-resolution display in my trusty Roland JV-2080, whose panel is the same height. Four orange knobs under the LCD are used for data entry and real-time sound control. Located under the big data-entry dial is a slot for a CompactFlash Type 1 card.

On the rear panel, the Noah separates itself from the pack by including a word-clock input along with an 8-channel ADAT optical audio output and USB port (see Fig. 2). Only two analog audio outputs are provided, but the Noah also has two analog audio inputs, which means you can use it as a synth, an effects processor, or both at once. The absence of multiple analog audio outputs may or may not be a problem for you; many musicians never use the extra outputs on their synths.

The Noah is available in two configurations: standard and EX. The standard model has six DSP chips, and the EX has ten. Thus, the standard model has two DSP slots into which you can insert software synth modules, and the EX has four slots. That makes the standard model two-part multitimbral at most, whereas the EX can be four-part multitimbral and offer more polyphony. If you decide to purchase a Noah, I'd recommend going for the EX model.

Even the EX model is limited in its polyphony, however. Minimax (a polyphonic Minimoog emulation) loaded into one slot provides three simultaneous notes. If all four slots in the EX are devoted to the Minimax, you get 13 notes, which is about average for the included synths. Granted, digital synths that model traditional analog instruments tend to have less polyphony than sample-playback synths in the same price range, but other modeled analog instruments (from Access and Novation, for instance) manage to squeeze more notes out of their DSP than Noah does.

Although you can use the Noah as a standalone synthesizer, it comes with a CD-ROM containing Noah Remote Editor (Mac/Win) software. The disc also contains drivers that allow the Noah to use USB to receive MIDI data from and exchange audio data with your computer.

SYNTH STUDIO TO GO

In addition to Minimax, Noah includes synths called Lightwave, Vectron Player, Pro-One, and B-2003. A guitar emulator called Six-String ($249) is also available (see www.emusician.com for more information). The manual mentions that the Vectron synthesizer (presumably a programmable version of the Vectron Player) is an option, but Vectron's features — unlike those of Six-String and Pro-One — are not covered in the documentation. Vectron is not yet available, and its price has not been announced.

The Noah's memory architecture is a bit more complex than that of most instruments. In Single mode, each synth module has its own memory banks, with 128 presets in each bank. Most of the instruments have one Factory bank (which you can overwrite using the Remote Editor software) and one User bank. Minimax has two Factory banks, however, as well as a User bank. Multi mode provides a Factory bank in which only 32 of the 128 slots contain setups. Minimax and Lightwave each supply a bank designed for use with Vocodizer, Noah's 20-band vocoder model. You can also store effects settings, arpeggiator setups, and step-sequencer patterns.

Occasionally, the Noah's user interface and its response to commands betray the fact that the Noah is CreamWare's first standalone synth. It's the little things that trip you up. When naming a preset before saving it, for instance, you'll often want to leave a blank space in the middle of a long name. But because the Noah's list of available characters wraps around, you can't simply twist the data entry dial rapidly a few times to get to the blank-space character, the way you can on some synths; you have to hunt for it.

The documentation is harder to use than it should be. The 160-page printed manual provides no information on the Remote Editor software, for instance. The software installs with no less than 20 different PDF files for documentation, and there's no overall index, though some of the files contain their own indexes. Some PDF files contain the same information as the printed manual, whereas others provide entirely new information. And make no mistake: you will need to read the manual. The first time I created a preset in the Remote Editor software that I wanted to save, for instance, I couldn't figure out how to rename it; neither double-clicking nor right-clicking in the name field worked. The correct method is to press the computer's F2 key, which is not exactly intuitive.

MINIMAX

Because I've been reviewing a lot of real analog synths lately, the first thing I did when I started checking out Minimax presets was to hit the Effects Bypass button. The sound designers at CreamWare are a little too fond of showing off the Noah's capable effects section. The effects tend to obscure the analog character of synth sounds. Once I took care of that detail, I was favorably impressed by Minimax, which sounds very analog (see Web Clips 1 and 2). Not only were the tones satisfyingly thick, but I was able to play clear up to the top of my 88-note MIDI keyboard without hearing a trace of aliasing. Although the Noah doesn't have as many knobs as a real Minimoog, tapping the Control button brings up 4 sets of 4 controller knobs, for a total of 16 parameters you can adjust in performance.

Minimax is a pretty faithful recreation of the Minimoog — maybe a little too faithful. Like its inspiration, it doesn't have a dedicated LFO, so you have to switch oscillator 3 to low-frequency mode to get an LFO. The filter is strictly a 24 dB-per-octave lowpass. Keyboard tracking of the filter is programmed with two switches (1/3 and 2/3), exactly as on the original, which is usable but not exactly state-of-the-art. And both envelopes are attack-decay-sustain types, with an on/off switchable release stage. Bob Moog himself didn't try for nearly that level of historical accuracy in his new Minimoog Voyager. The only enhancements I spotted in Minimax were that it has adjustable Velocity response for amplitude and filter cutoff and that Aftertouch can control the filter cutoff; of course, it's also polyphonic.

LIGHTWAVE

Lightwave is another modeled analog synth, but with a more modern design than Minimax (see Fig. 3). It provides dual multimode filters, stereo panning, two LFOs, and three ADSR envelopes with Velocity and key-follow modulation. You can switch the two filters to either parallel or series routing, and each of the two oscillators can send its output to either filter or both. Using balance modulation, you can even crossfade an oscillator's output between the two filters — a solid, effective setup.

Lightwave's oscillators provide 128 different single-cycle digital waves, including noise and something called ReadingRoo, which is not explained in the manual and produces no sound. A parameter called Grunge lets you slightly boost the highs in the waveforms. Lightwave uses different oscillators than Minimax, and it is not free of aliasing in the upper range. I even heard aliasing on the sine wave in the Init patch; that doesn't happen with a true sine wave. CreamWare says that Lightwave uses a sampled sine rather than generating the waveform with modeling technology.

According to the manual, the Lightwave oscillators are “equipped with the wave shaping technology of the legendary Prophet VS.” Be that as it may, Lightwave has no waveshaping per se — no pulse-width modulation, ring mod, or anything of that sort — nor does it have four oscillators or an x-y envelope, which the VS had. The VS did have aliasing in the upper register, though; they got that part right.

Nitpicking aside, Lightwave is a good-sounding synth (see Web Clips 3 and 4). Some of its presets are a little dated, but others are quite striking and modern. I quickly warmed up some of the glassy new-age chimes and pads, such as the vocal-like PPG Soft. The spitty attack of the Dark RnB subbass inspired a riff that I could easily turn into a tune, as did the grinding sawtooth wave of Fade2Bass. On the other hand, I heard disturbing intermittent clicks in Digi SQ 02. I also noticed several patches in which an LFO being used for rhythm didn't synchronize correctly with the MIDI Note On event.

PRO-ONE

Noah's third synth is Pro-One, yet another modeled analog. (I sense a theme here.) The Sequential Pro-One was a fearsome little monosynth with a lowpass filter that could squeal like a stuck pig, and CreamWare has modeled it faithfully, right down to the odd set of modulation routing switches at the left end of the panel (see Fig. 4). Those switches were confusing the first time around, and they're still confusing.

The original design has been enhanced with polyphony and Velocity response. Unlike Minimax and Lightwave, Pro-One includes both oscillator sync and pulse-width modulation. Pro-One has a tight, solid sound, and bypassing the effects gives it a nice vintage flavor, though it sounds good with effects, too (see Web Clips 5 and 6).

B-2003

And now for something completely different. If you've never spent any time with a real Hammond drawbar organ, the parameters in CreamWare's B-3 model might seem a little bewildering. Veteran organists, however, will be delighted that everything in their gig bag is reproduced here: key click, percussion, rotary speaker braking and acceleration time, leakage, and so on (see Fig. 5). Separate sets of drawbars are provided for the upper and lower manual and pedals, and you can set them to separate MIDI channels if desired, or combine them on one channel and play them using a three-way keyboard split.

A few items not found in the original B-3 have been added to the B-2003. You can switch Velocity response on or off (to control loudness only; Velocity can't be routed to the percussion or key click). A cute knob called Condition adds some detuning to each tonewheel, thus mimicking the sound of a Hammond that's badly in need of a trip to the repair shop. You can control drawbar leakage and distortion. The pitch of the percussion can be set to any of the drawbars, not just the second or third, and both percussion level and decay time are programmable. Unlike the other Noah synths, the B-2003 keyboard is fully polyphonic.

Like most B-3 emulators, Noah lacks real drawbars. Fortunately, it was easy to assign the sliders on my MIDI slider box to control the drawbars in real time. Noah's drawbar-to-MIDI assignments are fixed and not programmable, but that's not a problem unless the sliders on your master keyboard can't be reassigned either. In addition, Control Change 4 (footpedal) operates as a loudness control, and you can switch the Leslie simulator from slow to fast with the mod wheel or Aftertouch (see Web Clips 7 and 8).

VECTRON PLAYER

Vectron Player is a four-oscillator synth that uses two-dimensional crossfade envelopes similar to those on the Prophet-VS. Although Vectron Player is not a programmable synth, you can select and program the effects, so it's a bit more than just a preset player. Filter cutoff and resonance are also programmable.

Vectron Player's pads are sweet, with plenty of animation, and its keyboard comps are very usable. The preset list doesn't include much in the way of basses, and the leads (none of which is in Mono mode) tend to be more new age than cutting edge.

STEP AND ARPEGGIATE

As arpeggiators go, the Noah's is toward the middle of the pack. It sports a number of useful parameters, from standard (gate time and direction) to mildly exotic (an LFO that can modulate note Velocity as the pattern plays). Using the arpeggiator's Hold/Transpose button, you can set up a pattern and then move it around with one finger on the keyboard. You can trigger basic control switches (Run/Stop, Clear, Hold, Scan Direction, and so on) from an assigned range of notes on a MIDI keyboard, which is handy for live performance.

If you have a Noah EX, four arpeggiators can run at the same time, each in its own slot. For folks who like arpeggiating, that's a big plus. On the downside, the arpeggiator is strictly monophonic, and swing/shuffle can't be applied to the rhythm. Initially I was baffled by how to get the arpeggiator running. Clicking on the Run button in the remote software didn't activate it. As it turns out, the synth you want to arpeggiate needs to have its MIDI input switched to Arpeg in Noah's MIDI Manager window. That makes a certain amount of sense, but it isn't as tightly integrated a design as you'll find in some hardware synths.

Instead of (or combined with) the arpeggiators, you can run as many as four step sequencers at the same time. The sequencers are also monophonic, and sequences can have a maximum of 16 steps each. Individual steps within the sequence can be set to a length of more than one time-step (for example, three 16th notes rather than one), and the overall length of the sequence can be adjusted to a maximum of 16 half, quarter, eighth, or 16th notes, making complex rhythms possible. Programming a step with a zero Velocity turns it into a rest. You can also transpose sequences with one-finger keyboard performances.

AFTER EFFECTS

In addition to chorus, delay, and reverb, for which each channel in the Noah mixer has sends, the Noah provides two insert effects. The insert effects can be used with individual synth sounds, for processing the external audio inputs, or on the Noah's main audio outputs.

The list of available effects is fairly long, and the effects I tried sounded quite good. Several flavors of flanger, phaser, and chorus are provided, along with some distortion algorithms, pitch shifters, autopan, tremolo, dynamics control, EQ, and so on. Suffice it to say, the Noah is no slouch in the effects department.

I had no trouble using the insert effects with the analog inputs or the USB audio input. Loading an audio loop into Cubase SX, processing it with the Noah through USB, and then bouncing the output back to Cubase (again, through USB) worked perfectly the first time I tried it.

THE SOFTWARE SIDE

Jumbled software installation instructions always make me a bit nervous. So when CreamWare started explaining the Noah software's installation procedure with “Verify that both Noah and the computer are switched on” in Step 1, and then says in Step 2, “Start the computer,” followed in Step 4 by “Start Noah by pushing the power button,” I can only shrug and say, “Guess I'll have to wing it.”

Fortunately, installation was painless. The software (which I installed for Windows; Mac OS X support is also available) has two components: the Noah Remote Editor and a USB driver that handles audio, MIDI, and data communications between the Noah and the computer.

The Remote Editor is extremely useful. It provides luscious graphic front panels for all of the Noah devices and also allows you to archive banks of presets. The Remote Editor is not actually required to program the Noah, as all of the parameters are available in the instrument's LCD. But if you have a computer, the software will make using the Noah a lot faster and more fun.

I had some problems with the USB connectivity, however. To start with, six channels of USB audio are planned, but currently only two channels are implemented. (The ASIO driver is still in development, but it should be released by the time you read this.) Also, whenever the Noah was hooked up to my computer's USB port, I heard soft but persistent motorboat noises coming from the audio output of the M-Audio Delta 66 that serves as my computer's main audio interface. The Delta is not a USB device — it lives on a PCI board — but somehow, the Noah was contaminating its audio stream. That was true even when the Noah itself was switched off, but pulling the USB cable from the Noah caused the noises to stop. CreamWare speculated that perhaps the Noah hardware unit I was reviewing had a ground loop problem. Aside from that, the Noah worked acceptably as an adjunct to Cubase, but it didn't perform as seamlessly as it might have, either in the MIDI department or in the audio realm.

When I first selected the Noah's USB MIDI as the output for a Cubase track, I could see the Noah's USB light blinking, indicating that the MIDI data was getting through, but I heard no sound. It turns out that you have to switch a given Noah synth to receive MIDI through USB rather than from the rear-panel MIDI jack. For an instrument that has tons of polyphony, that type of setup (which effectively gives the Noah 32 MIDI channels) would make a lot of sense. However, it's physically impossible to use more than 12 MIDI channels with the Noah EX, or 6 channels with the standard model. (The B-2003 can be instantiated separately in all four slots of the EX, and each instance can use up to three channels.) So why force users to go to the extra step of selecting the correct MIDI input? Why not just dump all the incoming MIDI data into the same buffer?

On the audio side, playing back Cubase's audio through the Delta 66 using the ASIO DirectX Full Duplex driver produced lots of nasty crackling noises. Using that driver was necessary for Cubase to send and receive the Noah's USB audio, so after bouncing a Cubase track through the Noah's effects, I had to go into the Cubase Device Setup area and manually select the M-Audio Delta ASIO driver to hear the results. Fortunately, the noises weren't recorded into the file.

WILL IT FLOAT YOUR BOAT?

The Noah is an ambitious attempt to provide musicians with high-quality physically modeled sounds in a rackmount box suitable for stage or studio. The sounds are exceptional, and the rear-panel USB, ADAT, and word-clock connections are bound to please high-end users. There's nothing else quite like this synth; several other modeled analog rackmounts are on the market, but none of them has a choice of analog models, a Hammond organ model, or an optional guitar model. Nor can they process tracks recorded in your computer-based DAW without the signal leaving the digital domain.

Even so, I suspect the appeal of the Noah may be limited. On the hardware side, it's competing with synths that have more polyphony and sexier user interfaces. On the computer side, it's competing with CreamWare's own Pulsar PCI board. Although the Pulsar has fewer DSPs, it can run all of the Noah synths and more. In addition, the Pulsar functions better as an audio interface for your computer, takes up less space, can be expanded in various ways, and costs less to boot. The dual advantages of the Noah for computer users are that it can interface with a laptop and that it is likely to be a lot more reliable on the road.

Ultimately, though, what matters about any musical instrument is the sound. The Noah has a wide-ranging palette of high-quality sounds, and I'm going to be sad to see it leave my studio.

Noah Specifications Sound Engineanalog modeling, drawbar organ modelingIncluded Software ModelsMinimax, Lightwave, Vectron Player, B-2003, Pro-One, Vocodizer, Interpole, arpeggiator, step sequencerMaximum Polyphonymodel-dependent: Minimax, (6) notes (EX, 13); Lightwave, (12) notes (EX, 16); Pro-One, (5) notes (EX, 11); Vectron Player, (7) notes (EX, 14); B-2003 has full keyboard polyphony for each DSP slot (2 instances in standard model, 4 in EX)Multitimbral Parts4Analog Audio Inputs(2) unbalanced ¼"Analog Audio Outputs(2) unbalanced ¼"Digital Audio I/O8-channel ADAT Lightpipe; BNC word-clock inMIDI(1) In, (1) Out, (1) Thru; additional In/Out via USBAdditional Control I/OUSB; footswitch jack (not currently supported)Program Memory(256) per synth model; (384) MinimaxEffectsaux chorus, delay, reverb; 2 insert effects (including EQ, chorus, flanger, phaser, pitch-shift, autopan, autowah, tremolo, filter, distortion, and dynamics)SoftwareNoah Remote EditorDisplay2-line × 40 character backlit LCDDimensions2U × 11" (D)Weight8.36 lb.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

CreamWare
Noah
DSP engine/synthesizer
$1,225
EX model $1,549

FEATURES4.0EASE OF USE3.0QUALITY OF SOUNDS4.0VALUE4.0RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Several types of synthesis in one box. Word-clock and ADAT Lightpipe connections. External audio input for effects. Includes editing software.

CONS: Limited polyphony. USB driver adds noise to some (non-USB) computer audio outputs.

Manufacturer

CreamWare Audio Solutions, Inc.
tel. (800) 899-1939 or (604) 435-0540
email info@creamware.com
Web www.creamware.com