This isn't a review of a Gary Burton CD, A Streetcar Named Desire, or the Greek alphabet. Vibra, Stella, and Gamma are Danish manufacturer Koblo's entries in the burgeoning software synthesizer market.
Koblo's Studio9000, a "rave in your Mac" bundle, consists of the Gamma9000 drum machine, the Stella9000 sample player, and the Vibra9000, 6000, and 1000 virtual analog synths (see the sidebar "Mini Vibras" for a description of the differences among the Vibra versions). Gamma, Stella, and Vibra share a common real-time synth engine named Tokyo.
MENU ITEMSThe Tokyo menu gives you access to the elements that all Studio9000 instruments share, most notably the audio and MIDI drivers. The supported audio drivers are Sound Manager, MAS, Direct I/O, DAE (Digidesign Audio Engine)/DigiSystem INIT, ASIO 2.0, and VST 2.0; the MIDI drivers are OMS and FreeMIDI. If you use an Audiomedia II or III card, download Digidesign's 1.4.2 sound drivers. These system extensions allow Sound Manager to route your signal directly to the card instead of going through the Mac's built-in audio hardware.
Audio and MIDI drivers are assigned in Tokyo's Select Drivers window, where you can also access and edit your MIDI routing setup. With the Option menu's MIDI setup item, you choose the channel and instrument that will control your selected software synth, and determine whether the synth will transmit MIDI. For the Koblo synths to exchange MIDI data with your sequencer, all the devices must speak to each other via an interapplication communication bus. Interapplication audio routing is available with Steinberg's ReWire and VST 2.0, Mark of the Unicorn's MAS, and Digidesign's DirectConnect drivers.
Studio9000 programs are always referred to as presets. A default preset is included as a template for your own programs, which you save and access with the Presets menu. Presets are changed by using the + and - keys to move through the preset list, or by transmitting standard Program Change messages from your sequencer. However, when I sent Program Change messages from my sequencer (at 120 bpm), I noticed a lag of 1 to 1.5 beats.
The presets are grouped alphabetically by category in folders that appear as submenus in the Presets menu, rather than by the standard Program Change numbers (0 to 127). As a result, when you change a preset with a Program Change message, you must check the change by ear or find the selected preset in the Tokyo menu. One work-around is to create a new Presets menu folder and name it a, b, or something similar that will place it near the top of the list. Tokyo assigns lower Program Change numbers to patches appearing earlier in the list, so when you place your patches in the new folder, they will assume lower numbers. In this way you can ensure that your patch choices will be at the top of the list (see Fig. 1). A nice touch is the Project function, a macro that lets you save presets from all your Studio9000 synths as a group.
A SLEEK LOOKAll of the instruments have the sleek, modern appearance you expect in a turn-of-the-millennium Mac product. Vibra is green, Stella blue, and Gamma purple. Each synth has virtual dials that rotate when you move your mouse up or down.
Every parameter has an assigned Control Change (CC) number, which appears in the Global window when you click on a dial. You can capture the output of dial movements by recording it directly to your sequencer. Because there are so many dials, a list of the CC number assignments in the manual would be helpful.
The Studio9000 screens are designed for a 17-inch monitor and don't resize, so you have to scroll around the entire window to bring the hidden section into view-a headache. On the positive side, the instruments have only one screen each, so you won't need to perform this chore on a monitor cluttered with windows.
VIBRA FUNVibra9000 is a monophonic virtual analog synth that includes two oscillators (with FM and AM), eight filter types, three LFOs, three envelope generators, eight modulation sources and destinations, and an arpeggiator. Its Global section has tuning, pan, and volume control dials. Dedicated buttons control functions such as triggering the synth without a keyboard and recording Vibra's audio output to your hard drive. Other buttons call up a display of incoming MIDI data and activate Hold, Solo, Mute, and Panic. Three data windows show the currently selected parameter, its value, and the preset that it affects.
The oscillators use typical analog-style waveforms-sawtooth, square, triangle, sine, and noise, but no pulse. There's also no oscillator sync. I didn't really miss either feature because Vibra's AM and FM capabilities offer seemingly endless sound-alteration possibilities.
The oscillator's Octave control spans a startling 15 octaves, so if you seek subsonic sounds, you've got 'em. When you're in the highest ranges, don't be surprised to find a pack of dogs outside your studio! Rounding out the oscillator section are Detune, Mix, Portamento, Bend, and a stereo on/off button.
BOSS TWEAKVibra's filters are downright boss (see Fig. 2). It has eight multistate filters with cutoff and resonance (2-, 4-, and 8-pole); double and quad (multiple parallel 12 dB filters); notch; and saw- and square-comb types (with multiple resonant peaks falling into a harmonic relationship or an odd-harmonic relationship, respectively). Your selected filter feeds highpass, bandpass, and lowpass outputs. One or more of these outputs must be turned up before you can hear the signal. The Spread parameter controls the balance of the final filter output. Vibra offers distortion, too, for some down-and-dirty patches.
The ADSR envelopes can be inverted, and the overall envelope amplitude is Velocity sensitive. The LFO waveforms are Ramp Up and Down, Triangle, Square, Sine, and Random. Each LFO has an Attack/Decay envelope and can synchronize to MIDI Clock (so you can sync the LFO to the tempo's whole notes, 16th notes, 32nd notes, and so on, including triplets and multiplied values). The Sharp parameter is a lowpass filter whose lower settings smooth the edges of the LFO waveform.
The LFOs can modulate nearly all of the parameters-envelopes, Aftertouch, Pitch Bend, and other data types such as Mod Wheel, Data Entry, Note On, and Velocity (yes, even modulators). Modulation doesn't noticeably kick in unless you set relatively high amounts of it, however. You may need to raise the source and destination levels for more intense effects.
Finally, Vibra has a single arpeggiator that can sync to MIDI Clock and run up, down, or up and down. The pattern, length, and Slide (portamento) are each controllable by note number, and you can alter the pattern's rhythm by minimum and maximum Velocity settings. If you desire multiple arpeggiators, you can open more than one copy of Vibra9000, or run 6000 or 1000 with it simultaneously if your CPU can handle the task.
MR. FRED SPEAKSA number of fascinating presets included with Vibra9000 show off its potential. Among these are "Japanese Cave," a shimmering, dipping effect; "Mr. Fred," a chic vocal formant patch; and "Narrow," which uses the arpeggiator with a bobbing rhythm and portamento.
The emulative sounds miss the mark, but if you're using a synth like this for emulative patches, we need to have a talk. This synth can traverse a lot of sonic terrain and is far more effective at producing imaginative, animated sound. Vibra9000 is easy and fun to program, and it excels at arpeggiated textures, sound effects, and incidental enhancements. (I programmed some great lead and bass sounds, but latency in such usage could be an issue in real-time performance.) The synth sparkles when you dig into the modulation matrix; using an LFO to control FM or distortion, for instance, can shift a patch's texture dramatically.
STELLA!Stella9000 is an 8-voice sample-playback instrument that supports up to 32-bit, 44.1 kHz samples in AIFF, SDII, and SampleCell formats (no WAV files at this juncture). The lack of sampling capability may be a drawback to some, but I found Stella's simplicity refreshing. The interface resembles that of the Vibra9000, so I'll just explain the differences.
You assign samples for playback by clicking in the Sample field of Stella's main screen (see Fig. 3). As with Vibra's oscillators, samples can have a 15-octave range. You can tune samples to semitones and cents and set them for the desired degree of Pitch Bend. The Offset function changes the sample's starting point, enabling you to coax a lot of variety out of one sound source. The sample can also be looped or reversed. Stella provides a basic Attack/Decay envelope, and Velocity can be routed to offset, pitch, volume, or pan.
Version 2.5 can read only SampleCell keymaps; if you have sounds mapped in that format, you're in luck; if not, only single samples can be imported, and you'll have to settle for a sound with a playable range that's less than optimal. This is an odd limitation, as the Gamma9000 drum machine can freely distribute samples into keymaps (more on Gamma later).
Terrific on its own, Stella was a worthy companion to my Kurzweil sampler. The presets are excellent-"Blue Sky" and "Oceanic" are especially sumptuous pads-and the samples are readily available and easy to tweak. Stella also has several cool, ambient string-type pads.
Speaking of pads, creating new ones was a simple matter. I imported a pad into Emagic's Logic Audio from an audio CD, trimmed it, and saved it as an AIFF file. I then selected it in Stella's Sample section and quickly had myself a killer backdrop texture.
I put the hard drive recording feature to the test here, too. I recorded a Vibra arpeggiator pattern to disk, then trimmed it using a waveform editor. I opened the new sample in Stella (with the loop button on), and it looped perfectly. I performed the same task with a sawtooth wave from Vibra and was able to play the sample polyphonically, bypassing Vibra's monophonic limits.
GAMMA RAVESGamma9000 is designed to emulate older beatboxes such as the Roland TR-808. The upper half of the screen is devoted to Gamma's seven tracks; the first six hold one sample each, and the seventh is available for a separate multisample keymap. You can use your own SDII or AIFF samples (or SampleCell keymaps), or select from the preset kits, which include the Roland TR-606, -707, -800, and -808; the Inn 9000; and the Unix Micro-Rhythm 12.
Gamma alters your sounds in ways not normally possible with a traditional drum machine. For example, you can offset, reverse, or loop a sample. A simple lowpass filter is adjustable by means of a tone control, and Velocity modulation can be assigned to tone, pitch, pan, volume, and offset. You get a simple envelope with attack and release, and there's a section for setting the sample's pitch and pitch modulation with the pitch-bend wheel. In the Mix section you can solo, mute, and trigger tracks, assign them to outputs (including output through the filter), and enter volume and pan settings.
A step sequencer containing a row of 16 step-entry buttons lets you create rhythmic patterns (see Fig. 4). Up to eight patterns can be recorded, looped, and assembled into songs. (You get four banks in which to store songs.)
To edit a pattern, you isolate a track by selecting its button, then click on the desired beats. You can easily accent a specific beat or alter its pitch, duration, or Velocity; manipulations such as reversing and randomizing can be performed on entire tracks. The Shuffle and Tempo functions provide additional creative control, and a tape-style transport controls playback when you're ready to let it fly.
More sound-shaping parameters are available in the Filter section. Here you'll find settings for cutoff, resonance, and distortion, along with buttons to activate highpass, bandpass, and lowpass. These features can give your patterns considerable character.
One fun way of using Gamma is to assign nontraditional percussive timbres, such as truncated vocals, animal sounds, and industrial samples, to the tracks. The step-entry interface provides a different and inspirational perspective on rhythms, and using weird or twisted sounds is simply a gas.
SKIP, HOP, AND WOBBLETo test Gamma's performance, I closed my other applications, cleared existing patterns, and clicked in four bars of 16th-note hi-hat attacks. Listening carefully, I noticed slight lags in what should have been a very steady rhythm. Gamma fared better with intermittent hi-hat rhythms and more sparsely played snares and kicks.
I then used Gamma as a sound source with Logic Audio as the sequencer (bypassing Gamma's internal sequencer). The timing was much better, so consider this option if you encounter the same performance problems.
THE KITCHEN SYNCOne element that makes Studio9000 especially appealing is its ability to sync to MIDI Clock. Gamma has this feature, as do the LFOs and arpeggiator in Vibra and Stella. This enables all the Koblo instruments to work as a synchronized team in a sequencing environment.
I used a Power Mac 7100 with a Newer Technology G3/300 MHz CPU accelerator card and OS 8.1 for this review. Those of you who own a stock Mac G3 or G4 will attain superior performance with their faster CPUs and system buses.
I first tested the Vibra and Stella arpeggiator sync by running them with Logic Audio in a composition. I used both (at different points in the piece), with 16th-note arpeggiator patterns at 166 bpm. They performed beautifully; they also responded well when I modulated parameters on the fly using the Keyfax PhatBoy controller.
The ultimate test was running all five Koblo synths at once with Logic Audio: Gamma played a fast techno rhythm, Stella a pad, Vibra9000 an arpeggiator pattern, Vibra6000 a bass line, and Vibra1000 another arpeggiator pattern. In this context Studio9000 had difficulty with timing. The sequencer stuttered and everything dragged.
Undoubtedly, the problems were due to my Mac's limitations (even though my system runs faster than the recommended minimum speed). Running Logic Audio, OMS, and Tokyo at the same time consumed most of my 80 MB of RAM. Tokyo alone uses 40 MB, so Koblo's recommendation to use 128 MB should be well heeded. The keys to optimum software-synth performance are a fast CPU, a fast system bus, more RAM, and high-quality audio I/O.
CODALet me make my stance perfectly clear: these synths are very cool. Studio9000 is relatively inexpensive; it resides in your computer (freeing up studio space); and Gamma, Stella, and Vibra all have a hip sound. Digidesign recently picked up the Koblo line for distribution, so you can integrate Studio9000 into Pro Tools systems, and the bundle is compatible with Digidesign audio drivers.
Studio9000 won't replace my hardware synths, and I doubt that I'll use it as the sole source of sounds for a whole tune. But the programs are certainly useful as add-ons to my main rig, and their simple yet powerful architecture complements my musical style. Give the demos a try and see how these synths fit your style.
Jeff Obee is a bassist and synthesist whose CD Obee Sings Mary Poppins Whilst Wearing a Tutu has been turned down by several record companies. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pared-dowm versions of Vibra9000 also come in the Studio9000 package. Vibra6000 has one oscillator with the same waveforms as in 9000. It also includes octave, portamento, bend, and stereo on/off controls. The arpeggiator, filter, Global sections, and Control Change (CC) data control are exactly the same as in 9000, and you'll also find Velocity sensing. But the versions differ in that the Vibra6000 oscillator and filter each have only one (hand-wired) envelope, and the envelopes cannot be inverted. Another difference is Vibra6000's lack of modulation capabilities and LFOs.
Vibra1000 is available for free download from Koblo's Web site (www.koblo.com). Its lone oscillator (no stereo) has four waveforms (saw, square, triangle, and sine), and the filter consists of a lowpass with cutt-off. Simple attack/ release envelopes are dedicated to the filter and amplitude. The arpeggiator has all the parameters of its siblings. And Vibra1000 lets you tweak CC data, too.