Considering the remarkable number of rhythm-oriented loop sequencers, drum machine hybrids, samplers, and various permutations thereof, it is surprising that any of them manages to bring something new to the table. FXpansion has been a significant force in the evolving state of loop and groove-oriented software, as has Devine Machine. The release of FXpansion Guru marks a prodigious collaborative effort between the two companies.
At first glance, Guru 1.0.2's interface is much like that of any other software drum machine. However, significant and powerful differences lurk beneath its surface. Although FXpansion touts Guru as an alternative to “fiddly” sequencer programs, don't let that fool you — you can get pretty deep into Guru's features. Yet you can build grooves without getting lost in technical details or a surfeit of menu options.
FIG. 1: Guru''s drum machine–type interface masks powerful editing features. The sequencing grid area hides formidable real-time timbral and temporal controls you can access by clicking on the black median strip just below the grid.
A single DVD-ROM contains the installation package, a PDF version of the manual (a hard-copy version is also included), and about 4 GB of sample content. On the Mac, the plug-in runs as a Core Audio standalone instrument and supports AU, ReWire, RTAS, and VST formats. Windows users get standalone and ReWire versions, as well as RTAS, VST, and DXi plug-ins.
I tested Guru on my dual-processor 1.42 GHz Power Mac G4 with 2 GB of RAM and Mac OS X 10.4.6. The host programs included Ableton Live 5.0.2, Apple Logic Pro 7.1.1, and MOTU Digital Performer 4.6.1. I tested standalone and ReWire versions of Guru, as well as AU and VST versions.
Load and Play
Installing Guru is about as simple as it gets: you run the installation package and type in your serial number. A separate setup application lets you install the sample content on your choice of drives.
Guru's user interface compresses a lot of functionality into a small area, but once you grasp its organizational logic, it makes good sense (see Fig. 1). The upper area of the plug-in is called the LCD, and most of the editing happens there, including the sequencing, pads, DSP, and MIDI manipulation. The lower left area holds the browser, with contextual buttons for loading patterns, kits, individual hits, and loops. The left-hand section of the browser lets you navigate through your hard drive, and files appear on the right-hand side.
You are not limited to using Guru's provided audio content. The program supports AIFF, WAV, and the three REX-file variants: REX, REX2, and RCY. One terrific aspect of the browser is that you can audition loops, kits, and individual hits in the context of a pattern or test a pattern with new sounds. Select the file you want, and it plays back in context. When you want to commit to a sample or a pattern, click on the flashing OK button, and the pattern or sample will load. Samples are distributed across 16 pads divided into 4 groups: Kick, Snare, Hi-Hat, and Percussion.
You can trigger sounds by clicking directly on the MIDI Pads, and you can layer each pad with up to eight samples for Velocity crossfading or simply to stack sounds. The pads flash when receiving note data from your controller. The smaller pads that are arranged like a piano keyboard above the MIDI Pads are used to select patterns.
The Sequencer Master section, which occupies the lower right portion of the instrument, includes controls for play/pause, master volume and tuning, and pattern-recording functions, as well as for master tempo (when Guru is used as a standalone instrument) and Tempo Multipliers.
Under the Hood
On the surface, Guru's approach to creating songs is similar to that of modern sampling drum-machine-sequencer hardware, such as the Roland MC-series and Akai MPC-series instruments: pads trigger individual instrument hits. In addition, you can analyze and adapt loops to new tempos and feels.
Guru is fundamentally an 8-part multitimbral synthesizer with parts represented by linked units called engines — the heart of Guru's work flow. Each engine holds its own batch of samples, with 16 pads and 24 patterns, and each pattern yields as many as 128 steps. Engine 1 is always the master clock, but engines 2 through 8 let you easily subdivide or multiply the master clock by setting a numerator and denominator defining its relationship to engine 1.
FIG. 2: When using Scenes, you can combine engines from multiple patterns, adding more rhythmic variety. Forty-eight Scene pads and their assigned MIDI Note Numbers replace the pattern-sequencing grid.
Unfortunately, Guru makes no provision for setting the meter; the master engine and the metronome are based steadfastly on four beats to the measure. Adding to the confusion is the fact that there is no overt mention of meter in the manual, only tempo as it relates to bpm and the relationship of engine 1 to engines 2 through 8. You can even set the number of grids to 12 rather than 16, but the metronome still clicks in 4/4. (The manufacturer says this bug will be addressed in the next revision.) That makes it difficult — though not impossible — to program odd meters, particularly if you are running Guru within a host sequencer. You can, of course, sequence Guru as a passive sound module, but then you won't be able to use Guru's event-based Graphs features, which would be a shame.
The aggregation of patterns within the multiple engines comprises a sequence. Because you have eight engines to play with, you can create and experiment with dense, polyrhythmic structures on the fly (see Web Clip 1). Guru's Scenes section adds an additional dimension with its ability to recall layers of noncontiguous patterns. For example, a Scene can simultaneously assign and play pattern 1 on engine 1, pattern 10 on engine 2, and pattern 6 on engine 4, up to 8 engines deep, with up to 48 Scenes per song. When selecting Scenes, the main LCD window shows the array of pads. A legend on the left shows which engines and patterns are playing in that Scene (see Fig. 2).
Guru has no song-form arranging facilities of its own, relying instead on a host for playback. That restricts the standalone version to live use. If given the ability to create full songs, the standalone version would benefit from built-in audio-rendering capabilities.
Watch Your Step
You can step-enter notes by clicking in the 16th-note grid, playing them in with your MIDI controller, or clicking on the pads. A button in the Sequencer Master section lets you opt for quantization if you want it. If you've painted your pattern in the grid, left and right Shift arrows let you adjust the timing of individual events to change the feel. Two knobs are provided for dialing in groove quantization: one adjusts timing, and the other adjusts the dynamics of the feel using Velocity.
Guru offers a generous collection of effects, with one master effect, and up to three auxiliary effects for each engine, including reverb, bit reduction, distortion, ring modulation, and a variety of LFO- and envelope-controlled resonant filters. Given all that, I was surprised at the absence of simple Velocity modulation of filter cutoff. You can use one of the aux filters, but don't expect a realistic approximation of acoustic drum timbre changes. Among my favorite effects are TranceGate, which works especially well with sustained sounds and loops, providing a chugging, stuttering feel, and Freezer, which truncates loops and scrubs the pitch in real time.
FIG. 3: In the Repeat graph, dragging left to right at the top sets the duration and placement of repetitions for any sample. Dragging up and down changes the repetition''s density.
However, what sets Guru apart from other groove machines and their ilk is its Graphs section. Visually, the Graphs section resembles the step-edit interface of the Pattern section and lets you alter pattern events in numerous ways.
Graphs allow step-edited manipulations of individual samples as they are played back in a pattern. The Shift section, which holds three separate graphs, lets you loosen up the timing of individual note events and replicates the left and right Shift arrows in the Pattern step editor. Repeat can take a snare drum hit and create anything from buzz rolls to sustained, granulated pitches (see Fig. 3). Scrub alters the sample start or end point for individual hits and can reduce a ringing snare to glitchy, percussive clicks and pops.
I recognized a few drum sounds from FXpansion's BFD drum module. But if you're looking at Guru to create the same hyperrealistic drum performances as BFD, you're shopping in the wrong part of town. Guru's strengths lie in dance and electronically oriented grooves and in its real-time processing features. It has processed kits and other percussive sounds in spades.
Guru is able to use WAV, REX, or AIFF files of any sampling rate or bit depth. You can populate the program's drum pads from any drive you can navigate to in the browser; just drag the file from the browser and drop it on a pad. To create a layer or Velocity split, simply click on the appropriate Pad Edit button, select Layer, choose one of the eight layers, and drop a sound in from the browser. It couldn't be simpler.
The generous loop library is one of the more eclectic collections I've encountered in some time. Along with conventional kits, you can hear loops created from ethnic percussion, circuit-bent sound sources, tortured loops suited for industrial music, beats from found objects, drum machines, stuttering vocalized sounds manufactured in Symbolic Sound Kyma, and combinations of the above.
The algorithms offer varying degrees of sensitivity, but you can also divide the groove into 16 equal parts. You may need to experiment with these before you find the right algorithm, but you can preview the results in real time before committing to one. One hitch is that Guru has only 16 pads to assign the slices to, so given a 2-bar or longer phrase, it discards sample data and reuses samples beyond the count of 16 beats. Most of the time the program does a fine job of re-creating the original feel, but other times it leaves grooves feeling jackleg or oddly truncated. It would be nice to have an option to automatically assign data beyond 16 beats to another sequence.
Path to Enlightenment
Shortcomings aside, Guru's easy-to-use, on-the-fly path to groove creation belies a program of depth and complexity. If you're not convinced, navigate to the FXpansion Web site and download a trial version — then you'll understand my enthusiasm. Guru already has a permanent place on my Mac's Dock.
Former EM assistant editor Marty Cutler is working on a book about synthesis and MIDI.
FEATURES 4 EASE OF USE 4 QUALITY OF SOUNDS 4 VALUE 4
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Streamlined and flexible groove creation. Simple and effective groove slicing. Supports WAV, AIFF, REX, REX2, and RCY files. Generous variety of drum kits and loops. Can produce massive polyrhythmic grooves.
CONS: No support for meters other than 4/4. No Velocity modulation of filters. No built-in song-form arrangement features. No built-in rendering to audio.