Essential Utilities

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FIG. 1: The pHATmatik Pro GUI lets you select and process individual slices as well as add master effects to each of the plug-in''s 16 channels.

It's hard to get excited about utility software; it usually does a job you'd rather not have to bother with. But when the job needs to be done, having the right tools can make it less of a chore and even fun.

In this article, I'll cover four software applications that will come in handy no matter what kind of music you make, and I'll offer some tips on how to make the best use of them. All are reasonably priced, and all but one are cross-platform (see the chart “Essential Utilities Compared”). In the sidebar “Little Gems,” you'll find six free or donationware downloads that you might rarely use but will be happy to have when you need them.

It's a Slice

With most popular DAWs and samplers able to import and manipulate slice-formatted audio files and to perform beat slicing and time-warping on their own, a plug-in devoted to sliced audio might seem superfluous. But iZotope pHATmatik Pro 1.52 has enough tricks up its sleeve to make it an indispensable tool for working with REX or Acid audio files as well as for slicing your own.

You gain control of a variety of playback parameters for individual slices, and you can route any slice to any of three auxiliary outputs for separate DAW mixing and processing. Master effects, which apply to all slices routed to the main output, include delay, distortion, multimode and comb filtering, and a modulation matrix for routing two built-in LFOs, MIDI Mod Wheel, and MIDI Velocity to various settings (see Fig. 1 and Web Clip 1). A single instance of the plug-in holds up to 16 audio files, each with its own master effects and MIDI channel (see Web Clip 2). MIDI Learn lets you control master-effects settings on the fly.

Although the pHATmatik Pro control panel has small icons with sometimes-obscure functions, the plug-in is easy to use and takes only a short time to learn. To start, open the browser (Folder icon at top left), audition files until you find one you like, and load it into the sample-slicing window. If you load a REX or Acid file, you'll see its slice markers. For unsliced audio, click on the Do Slice button to the left of the Sensitivity slider, and the plug-in will place slice markers at attack transients it detects. If you get too few slices, increase the Sensitivity slider and click again. No matter what format you start with, you can add, delete, and move slice markers at will.

Audition individual slices by Shift-clicking on them or by playing their trigger notes from your MIDI keyboard (starting with C0 — MIDI Note Number 24). When you're satisfied with the slicing, use the MIDI Export button (to the right of the Sensitivity slider) to save a MIDI file that will trigger the slices with the correct timing. Alternatively, Option-drag (Alt-drag on the PC) the button to place the MIDI file on a DAW track, and pHATmatik Pro will automatically save it next to the audio file. You can also drag audio slices to DAW audio tracks.

The two areas at the bottom of the GUI, labeled Slice and Master, contain the slice processes and master effects. Slices can play forward, backward, or alternating, and with or without looping. Looping and alternating become interesting when the slice is shorter than the time allotted to play it, which can result from lowering the tempo, triggering slices manually, increasing the length of recorded trigger notes, or shortening a slice's loop. (The envelope graphic doubles as a loop-tuning display that lets you adjust a slice's loop end points.) Each slice has its own pitch offset, lowpass or highpass resonant filter, amplitude, and pan position, along with ADSR envelopes for pitch, filter cutoff, and amplitude.

PHATmatik Pro requires only slightly more CPU power than playing audio files directly, and it offers the many advantages of MIDI slice triggering.

I Know It's Here Somewhere

Even with the flexible browsers in modern DAWs and samplers, finding what you're looking for in a large audio library is often a tedious, hit-and-miss operation. Iced Audio AudioFinder 4.8 is a fast and easy way to locate; audition; and move, copy, or alias audio files on a Mac (see Fig. 2). Beyond that, it offers a basic sample editor for trimming, crossfading, and slicing audio files; a Sample Extractor that's handy for separating clips in multiclip audio files; and processing and rendering with AU plug-ins. It will even follow your browsing in the Finder and automatically pop up to play audio files as you select them. But search is what this tool is all about.

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FIG. 2: AudioFinder 4.8 helps you find, audition, reorganize, and make basic edits to your audio files.

At the simplest level, you can manually navigate the folders on your hard drives while AudioFinder displays the audio files they contain. Selecting an audio file plays it, and you can step sequentially or randomly through all found files or have AudioFinder automate that for you. When you find an audio file you want to use, drag-and-drop it (or a segment of it) to any location, including tracks of your DAW, or use various keystrokes to move, copy, or alias it to locations you've bookmarked. Alternatively, a single keystroke saves it in a Session Favorites list, allowing you to review your favorites later. Another handy temporary location, Playback History, shows everything played since launch.

One of AudioFinder's most powerful features is scanning. You point it to a folder, a single volume, or all volumes and have the program scan for all audio files nested within that structure. You can specify what kinds of file extensions to include in scans (.aif, .wav, .mp3, .rx2, and so on). Furthermore, you can create your own Scan Sets to make AudioFinder search areas that are not nested within each other. For example, if you've grouped your libraries according to genre but want to scan only some of the folders in a genre or selected folders across several genres, you would create a Scan Set.

AudioFinder's tool set for searching is also robust. At the basic level, you enter a search term and hit Return to find all files in the current list with that term in their name. Type in another term, and have AudioFinder refine the search to file names containing or not containing that term. For more-flexible searching, use the formal syntax of Regular Expressions. For instance, “piano|bass|guitar” finds all files with either piano, bass, or guitar in their name.

AudioFinder offers a variety of handy instant processes, ranging from normalizing, cropping, splicing, and channel management to sampling-rate, bit-rate, and format conversion. It will even encode files in FLAC or MP3 format (using the free LAME encoder), and it supports ID3 tags.

The Warm-up

There's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all compressor, but for analog-tape-style warmth, PSPaudioware VintageWarmer 2 is hard to beat. Offering both single- and multiband compression with optional brickwall limiting, it is suitable for tracking, mixing, and mastering (see Web Clip 3). You get vintage VU metering and digital Pseudo Peak Metering (PPM), both with adjustable ballistics, and the meter bridge is available as a separate, free download. Surrounding VintageWarmer with a couple of these lets you simultaneously meter input, output, and gain reduction.

VintageWarmer comes with 29 factory presets: 17 mixing and mastering setups followed by 12 tracking presets for various instruments. A surefire strategy is to audition presets that evoke the task at hand, and then tweak one that's close to the sound you want. Notice that all the factory presets have Frequency Authentication Technique (FAT) turned off, which cuts CPU usage roughly in half; they all have brickwall limiting turned on; and they all have the Mix knob fully clockwise. Turning FAT on always improves sound quality; you may want compression without limiting; and backing down the Mix knob gives you parallel compression without the need for an additional bus for the dry signal.

FIG. 3: VintageWarmer 2''s controls are designed to emulate warm, analog-tape-style compression.

The most prominent knob, Drive, adjusts the input level within a range of ±24 dB (see Fig. 3). The presets assume an input normalized to 0 dB, so when you're feeding the plug-in signals below that level, start by adjusting the Drive knob accordingly. To preserve the signal level for A/B comparison and to keep a track or submix at the same level in the mix, make an opposite adjustment to the Output knob.

Adjust the filter settings next. In single-band mode, low- and high-shelving filters come first, followed by the compressor. The Low and High Adjust and Freq knobs set the filters' cutoff frequencies and amounts. In multiband mode, the Freq knobs set the crossover frequencies between low, mid, and high bands, and the Adjust knobs set low- and high-band prelimiter gains. Each band has its own compressor.

Finally, work with the Ceiling, Drive, Knee, Speed, and Release knobs and associated buttons. In both single- and multiband mode, Ceiling sets the limiter ceiling. The Knee knob controls where, below the ceiling, compression kicks in, and Drive and Knee together have the greatest impact on compression. Speed (suggesting the effects that tape speed has on tape saturation characteristics) simultaneously sets attack and release times, and Release adjusts the release time relative to the Speed setting. In multiband mode, Ceiling works in conjunction with separate back-panel controls for saturation and release time for each band.

When dialing in compression settings, it sometimes helps to examine before and after waveforms, and the donationware oscilloscope plug-in s(M)exoscope from Smartelectronix is perfect for that (see the sidebar “Little Gems”).

What Was That?

Whether you routinely transcribe recorded songs or only occasionally need to decipher a few chord voicings or a quick lick, Seventh String Software Transcribe 7.5 makes the job a lot easier. You start by opening an audio file or simply dragging it into Transcribe (most audio, including compressed formats, is supported). You then select individual chords or notes, and the utility presents you with a spectrogram of the frequency breakdown of the selected audio, conveniently aligned with a keyboard graphic.

Transcribe will also guess what notes and chords fit the spectrum. Notes are shown on the keyboard graphic as green (for in tune) or pink (for out of tune) dots whose size indicates their prominence in the spectrum. Chord spellings are shown as text. To see the overtones of any note on the keyboard, Shift-click above it in the spectrogram. That will help you deduce whether Transcribe's guesses are played notes or overtones.

The trick to using this application effectively is to home in on what you want to analyze, and it's a big help to learn, and perhaps augment, its extensive set of keyboard shortcuts. It's also helpful to have a keyboard synth or sampler at hand with a sound similar to the material you're trying to analyze. The manual, which is in the form of searchable help, gives lots of tips and tricks for organizing, marking up, and transcribing large files such as complete songs. For shorter clips, the process is quite straightforward.

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FIG. 4: Transcribe 7.5 takes the tedium out of deciphering chords and melodies.

The user interface is divided by a green bar, with the audio waveform display and navigation aids on top and the spectral analysis below (see Fig. 4). You create markers above the waveform and navigate using the scrollbar and overview below it. A vertical line through the waveform indicates the current playback position, but Transcribe uses a special red marker called the Current Point Marker (CPM) for most actions. You position the CPM by clicking in the waveform or below the scrollbar, and you make selections by click-dragging in those areas. Typing E moves the CPM to the playback position, Period moves the playback position to the CPM, and D selects everything between the CPM and the playback position.

Transcribe distinguishes Section, Measure, and Beat markers, and, for longer clips, it's useful to first drop those in on the fly using the S, M, and B keys. Then drag the markers as needed to refine their positions. Optional automatic subdivision markers may come in handy. Although they cannot be moved, marker-based navigation commands do locate to them. For example, if you place a Section marker every 8 bars in 4/4 and call for 32 subdivisions, you'll have fairly accurate beat markers. For short clips, you may want to just drop markers at the events you want to analyze.

Among the most convenient keyboard shortcuts, the bracket keys [ and ] with modifier keys such as Command or Option move the CPM along with the current selection, if any. The Left and Right Arrow keys move the left end of the selection, and with Shift they move the right end. U and I cancel the selection, moving the CPM to its left or right end, respectively. 1, 2, and 3 move the CPM to the left, center, and right end of the visible area.

Transcribe offers a variety of effects to facilitate transcription. You can choose mono, single-channel, or Karaoke (canceled center) playback; invoke a 40-band EQ; fine-tune and transpose; store up to ten preset selections; and slow down without changing pitch. Even at very slow speeds, notes and chords are easily recognizable.

Len Sasso is an associate editor of EM. For an earful, visit his Web site

Little Gems

These six free or donationware utilities will make your life easier. You may not use them every day, but they'll be there when you need them.

Snoize MIDI Monitor

When your MIDI keyboard or control surface is not talking to your DAW or your DAW is not controlling your hardware synth, Snoize MIDI Monitor should be your first stop. It will eavesdrop on any combination of MIDI inputs and outputs, and you can set it up as a MIDI output destination for other applications. You don't have to sort out messages of different types or from different sources; instead, open multiple specifically targeted windows.

Filtering lets you decide what MIDI messages are shown in the multiline display, which will retain an event history as large as you want. Filtering includes SysEx as well as individual Voice, System Common, and Real Time message types on all or selected MIDI channels. You can even configure the MIDI display format, for example to show notes by number (decimal or hexadecimal) or note name.

Sonalksis FreeG

If your DAW channel strip is not quite up to the task, Sonalksis FreeG will pick up the slack. It comes in mono and stereo versions and sports a giant level fader with matching meters; trim and pan knobs; and mute, bypass, fine-resolution, and invert-polarity buttons. Polarity inversion is especially handy for converting between stereo and mid-side signals. Pre- and postmetering includes both peak and RMS levels with digital and graphic readouts for highest-since-reset values. Flip to the back panel to choose peak-meter ballistics (Digital PPM, PPM, VU, or BBC), pan law, and fine-tune and trim ranges.

Smartelectronix Fre(a)koscope and s(M)exoscope

When you want to know what's going on under the DSP hood, these two plug-ins are a big help. Fre(a)koscope is an FFT-based, real-time spectrum analyzer, and s(M)exoscope emulates an oscilloscope that lets you capture very short events, such as single cycles of an audio waveform, as well as longer events, such as several beats from an audio track. You might, for instance, use Fre(a)koscope to analyze the effect of EQ and s(M)exoscope, the effect compression.

ESSENTIAL UTILITIES COMPARED Product Company Web Site Price Platform Format

Fre(a)koscope lets you choose between linear and logarithmic line graphs and bar graphs with three resolutions: semitones, third octaves, and the 24-band Bark scale.

S(M)exoscope offers free, threshold (rising and falling), and internal retriggering, and you can set the resolution of its 630-pixel display from 32 pixels per sample to 1,000 samples per pixel. High sample-per-pixel settings display larger chunks of audio, which is often useful for analyzing DSP effects.

Lost Memories Music Math 4

How much is enough? Lost Memories Music Math will tell you in virtually any units you desire. You enter values in one of the calculator's seven tabs — Tempo, Transpose, Delay, Tap, Samples, Notes, and SMPTE — and it displays the relevant conversions. For example, if you want to use tape-speed-style pitch-shifting, the Transpose tab will tell you the speed adjustment for the desired semitone shift. To find the LFO frequency in hertz corresponding to a note division, use the Delay tab. To convert times between SMPTE formats, use the SMPTE tab. For MIDI Note Number, frequency, and note-name matchups, the Notes tab has the scoop.

Cycling '74 Soundflower

When Propellerhead ReWire won't get you from here to there, Cycling '74 Soundflower will. It provides both 2- and 16-channel pipelines for moving audio between applications running on a Mac. Combine that with the Mac's built-in IAC interapplication MIDI routing, and you have do-it-yourself interconnectivity. Depending on the targeted applications, you either route inputs and outputs directly to Soundflower or use aggregate devices you create in Audio MIDI Setup.

AudioFinder 4.8 Iced Audio $69.95 Mac standalone Fre(a)koscope and s(M)exoscope Smartelectronix donationware Mac/Win VST, AU FreeG Sonalksis free Mac/Win VST, AU, RTAS MIDI Monitor Snoize free Mac standalone Music Math 4 Lost Memories free Mac standalone pHATmatik Pro 1.52 iZotope $149.99 Mac/Win VST, AU Soundflower Cycling '74 free Mac background app Transcribe 7.5 Seventh String Software $50 Mac/Win/Linux standalone VintageWarmer 2 PSPaudioware $149 Mac/Win VST, AU, RTAS