DJs have been remixing music live for years by blending records, sampled beats, and drum machines into cohesive, seamless grooves. Through their remixes, a unique school of music production has emerged-one that promotes looping, beat matching, and transforming. You can hear this school's influence in almost every form of popular music, from an alternative track with scratching to a country song with a loop. With the acceptance of DJs and their craft into mainstream culture, it seems as though everyone wants to try a hand at remixing.
Unfortunately, unless you're a practiced turntable wizard or a parameter-happy samplehead, remixing is no stroll in the park. At least it wasn't until Mixman Technologies came along. Thanks to its Mixman Studio Pro, anyone with a PC can cook up a hot remix. This groundbreaking program has an original user interface that lets you combine sounds and grooves on the fly without doing your own sampling or worrying about timings. At the same time, if sampling and beat matching are what you live for, you'll find enough parameters and options in Mixman Studio Pro to delve deeply into the world of professional remixing.
ANATOMY OF A MIXMANMixman Studio Pro is a suite of four separate programs. Each represents a stage in the remix process, and together they make up a complete virtual remixing studio. The startup window displays an image of each: the Remixing Studio for remixing, the Recording Studio for sampling, the FX Studio for effects processing, and the Editing Studio for sequencing (see Fig. 1). Clicking an image takes you to that studio, and once inside, you can navigate to other studios by clicking buttons on the sides and bottom of the page. Getting around is simple and intuitive.
Mixman's main windows are modeled on an old-style television set, with each studio appearing as a picture on the tube. Switching studios changes the picture to a new user interface while keeping the controls on the TV frame pretty much the same (see Fig. 2).
Buttons at the bottom of the frame are action-oriented (such as, Play, Stop, Record, Save, and Load). Button sets change to match the current studio but always follow the same layout-a set of buttons on either side of an oval-shaped display that provides different information for each studio, ranging from bars and beats in the Remixing and Editing Studios to a VU meter in the Recording Studio. Toolbars for each studio are found on the left and right sides of the picture frame. The tool symbols and button hieroglyphics take a while to master, but holding the cursor over a button usually yields a pop-up label to let you know what you're looking at.
Stereo LED-type meters appear at the top of the TV frame straddling a text window that displays the current file's name and size. The 10-segment multicolor meters offer no peak hold option or dB markings, but they get the job done.
MANY A WAVE TO MAPMixman works with 44.1 kHz mono or stereo samples in WAV or Mixman's proprietary Track (TRK) file format. TRK files are used to address "beat-mapped" samples, which are samples that have been cut into several smaller samples to define and capture a recording's component beats. These discrete samples are then mapped to an event list (which is essentially a tempo map of the original sample's groove) for playback in sequential order. Steinberg's ReCycle software performs beat mapping, but slicing up a sample in ReCycle and sending the keymapped beats to a sampler-and an associated MIDI file to a sequencer-requires external gear, a solid grasp of MIDI, and additional software. With beat-mapped TRK files, Mixman acts like a sampler and a sequencer rolled into one; no extra equipment, software, or MIDI components are required.
TRK files are much more flexible than standard WAV files. With TRK files you can tune a sample without changing its number of beats per minute, and you can change a remix's bpm without tuning the sample. A WAV file has no tempo map, so changing its pitch (tuning it) speeds up or slows down its tempo, causing it to become longer or shorter than it needs to be. Furthermore, changing the remix's bpm causes the WAV file to be out of time, because no tempo map tells its beats where they should land. Of course, a WAV file can be forced to adhere to a specified tuning and tempo setting without beat mapping by applying a time-stretching algorithm, but this is not usually a real-time operation, so it's not appropriate for live remixing. Beat-mapped TRK files, on the other hand, let you make tuning and bpm changes on the fly.
If sampling and beat mapping are not your cup of tea, Mixman Technologies offers a variety of ready-made, beat-mapped TRK files. Mixman Studio Pro includes a collection of 450 royalty-free TRK files and 100 WAV files; others are offered on CD-ROMs that cost $39.95 each. The styles range from acid jazz to jungle, house, and funk. Everything I heard sounded great. (I especially liked the India TRK files; they were exotic and funky with some wonderful percussion and a cool vocal sample.) The CD-ROMs include TRK files from such musical luminaries as George Clinton, K-Klass, and Skinny Puppy. According to Mixman Technologies, the conversion of more name-act tracks to Mixman's file format is on the way. Watch the company Web site for regular updates on what's available. (Incidentally, Mixman's site is fantastic. It's informative and interesting, with lots of free remixes. A radio show dedicated to Mixman remixes should be up by the time you read this.)
REMIXING STUDIOMixman's Remixing Studio is where you do most of your work, from previewing samples to performing the actual remix. The process centers on two virtual turntables in the middle of the screen (see Fig. 2). Each platter has eight slots for holding the samples that you want to use in your remix. Double-clicking a slot opens a window from which you can browse your hard drive for sounds. Once you've decided on a sample, click the Load button and it's assigned to that slot. Slots have an "X" in them when they're empty, so it's easy to see which slots have samples. To see the name of a sample, simply move the cursor over the slot to trigger a pop-up label. Unfortunately, the pop-up labels don't work in either Play or Record mode, and that makes it difficult to see which slots hold which samples while you're remixing.
With the slots loaded, it's time to start remixing. Click the Play button (or the Record button if you don't need to rehearse) and trigger a sample. The tone arm swings over the platter and a red strobe light turns on, just like on a real turntable. Triggering a sample is done by clicking a slot with your mouse or by pressing a key on your computer keyboard. The mouse just turns samples on and off, while the keyboard provides a variety of triggering options.
The keyboard is the program's primary real-time controller. Multiple samples can be triggered simultaneously by holding down several keys at once. A sample's playback can be locked (looped indefinitely) by holding down a sample's assigned key and a Lock key at the same time. You can execute breaks and solos, turn groups of samples on and off using macros, and start or stop playback from the keyboard. The manual fails to mention the fact that the left/right arrow keys allow you to scroll through a sample's parameters: pan, volume, pitch, and tempo. (Displays for these parameters are just beneath the turntables.) The up/down arrow keys let you adjust the parameters while remixing without having to touch your mouse.
Though Mixman Studio Pro's QWERTY controller system works reasonably well, it's anything but perfect. Computer keys are not designed for live remixing; they are small and densely packed, which makes them difficult to differentiate. Try using this controller in a dimly lit nightclub, and you're apt to have problems seeing what you're doing. Mixman Technologies has been developing a dedicated controller that will plug into your PC's keyboard port; it should be available by the time this review hits the newsstands.
Nonetheless, what Mixman really needs is MIDI compatibility so that it can take advantage of the great MIDI controllers that are already out there, such as the Keyfax PhatBoy and the Peavey PC 1600x. Live remixing with Mixman will then be the cat's meow. Mixman Technologies claims that MIDI for the Windows platform will be available before year's end and that Mixman for the Mac will have MIDI as soon as the software is released.
The Remixing Studio will not let you load samples while it's playing. In other words, you have to stop playback to access samples other than the 16 that are currently loaded. That's a disappointment-it means that you can't flow seamlessly from one set of remix samples to the next, and you can't change the remix smoothly over time by loading in new samples. In a professional setting, that can cause problems: at some point, the song will end, people will leave the dance floor, and you'll be twiddling your thumbs while the next sample set loads. If you plan to use Mixman at a gig, I suggest having another sound source handy (such as a drum machine) to fill in the down times.
EXTRA SETTINGSWhen you first choose a sample for loading into the Remixing Studio, you can make adjustments to how it plays back. You don't have to fiddle with these settings every time you load a sample, because samples work fine with their default settings. However, as you get deeper into the program and become more experimental, the extra settings become invaluable.
Samples can be time-stretched or compressed. The algorithm produces good results and is useful for fine adjustments. As with most time-stretch algorithms, however, big changes cause artifacts. Samples can be fine-tuned to a hundredth of a semitone. This is different from tuning a sample after it's been loaded into a turntable slot, because there you can make changes only in semitone increments.
A function called Time Shift provides complete control over where a sample starts within a bar. A sample can trigger on any beat or subdivision of a beat, with up to 480 ppqn resolution. A sample's loop length may also be adjusted. For example, if you have a 4-bar loop but like only the first two bars, and you want the loop to start on the upbeat of the second beat, set the loop length to two bars (instead of its default of four) and set the time shift to 720 ticks. That's it. Adjust these settings before loading the sample, and it will always trigger on the beat you specified, regardless of when you hit its sample key.
Samples can be told to always play for their full duration (that is, a full release) whenever triggered, or just for the amount of time a sample key is held down. Minimum Spacing lets you adjust the amount of time that must pass before a sample can be retriggered. This is handy for controlling double triggers (if you accidentally hit a sample key twice). You can set the Minimum Spacing to a specific duration (a 16th note, for example) and intentionally double-trigger to create some cool in-time echo effects.
In addition, a new feature called WARP (Wide-Band Audio Real-Time Processing) offers real-time DSP audio effects that are triggered by mouse movements within a special display. WARP allows you to have as many as 12 presets loaded at one time (although there are several more to choose from), and you can switch between presets at any time during a performance and change parameters with mouse gestures as the music is playing. You can then store the real-time data as part of the performance.
JUST FOR WAVESMixman provides special settings for WAV files that are not applicable to TRK files. WAV files need to be perfectly looped or they won't play back properly in Mixman. If you need a waveform editor, Steinberg WaveLab Lite is included with Mixman Studio Pro. However, because WAV files are not beat-mapped, Mixman must know a WAV file's tempo and number of beats. Mixman can calculate a tempo automatically after you enter the number of beats. I discovered that the automatic tempo calculation worked great in the preview menu but didn't always result in a perfect loop when the sample was actually loaded into a slot. Manually entering the tempo yielded rock-steady results. (Hint: ReCycle can calculate the exact bpm of a sample based on its length and the bars/beats that you enter. You can then give that figure to Mixman as the tempo value.)
My favorite WAV parameter is Synchronized Start. With this function activated, a sample can be turned on and off (repeatedly) at any time during its playback while always remaining in time. In other words, hitting a sample key doesn't really trigger the sample but instead unmutes it. The sample keys then act as mute/unmute buttons rather than triggers. This opens up myriad performance choices, from transforming (rapidly clicking the sound on and off in time with the music) to isolating specific beats with a well-placed unmute (for example, unmuting only the snare in a loop). The only glitch I ran into with Synchronized Start was a strange amplitude ramp (a very rapid fade-in) at the beginning of certain WAV files. This caused trouble on some percussion samples, because it removed the transients of the first downbeat. Sounds that had slow attacks, however, presented no problem.
RECORDING STUDIOThe Recording Studio is quite rudimentary. You can record WAV files from your sound card's mic inputs, line inputs, or internal CD-ROM drive. Auto Normalize lets you automatically normalize your sample after recording. An Auto Trim feature allows you to strip silence at the beginning and end of your sample. You can adjust its threshold and pre- and post-strip times in decibels and milliseconds, respectively.
Unfortunately, there's no way to listen to your remix while recording, so rapping or singing along with the beats can be difficult. A metronome is available, but I couldn't get it to work. According to Mixman, the company has had problems getting the metronome to address certain sound cards, so you can't always use it. The only other options are to move your remix to an external medium (such as cassette, DAT, or multitrack) and work with it there, or transfer the tracks internally (as WAV files) to a multitrack program for recording. Of course, for just recording samples and sound effects, listening to your remix while recording isn't crucial. The Recording Studio is fine for this.
EDITING STUDIOThe Editing Studio (see Fig. 3) is a simple and straightforward sequencer. Because I'm used to high-end sequencers (such as Emagic Logic or Mark of the Unicorn Performer), I thought Mixman's sequencer was going to be a joke. I was wrong. It's certainly no bells-and-whistles sequencer, but it's well suited to editing your remix. It's also fast and intuitive, and it doesn't get in the way of the creative flow.
Triggered samples are represented by color-coded bars: green represents a locked sample, orange a manually triggered sample (played with a keystroke), blue a pitch-adjusted sample, red a soloed sample, and gray a muted sample. (Turntable slots use this same color scheme.) With the different colors as visual cues, you're able to quickly determine what's happening at any given moment. The only thing that would improve the user interface is if the names of the samples appeared on the tracks. (Pop-up labels give you each sample's name but only one at a time and not during playback.)
Navigation is extremely simple. A slider lets you zoom in and out. Clicking on a measure number at the top of the window moves the playbar to that location. There are also markers, but they seemed unfinished, as if they were an afterthought. I got some markers into my project, but they appeared misplaced; they were on the window frame instead of neatly placed inside the actual editing window. Action keys on the frame skipped the playbar between the markers, but clicking on the markers themselves had no affect. Nevertheless, I didn't really miss the markers, because clicking on a measure number is easy enough.
Clicking and dragging allows you to select an area to edit. Various tools allow you to draw in or erase events, cut, copy, paste, and quantize.
Great automation features abound. Simply select the bars you want to automate, click on the attribute you want to work with (volume, pan, tempo, or pitch), and enter a beginning value and an ending value. There are displays for each parameter just beneath the edit window. Each display has two fields to show the beginning and ending values of selected bars. Unfortunately, you can't select bars that are playing to see their changes; playback must be stopped to view a selection's values.
FX STUDIOAlthough Mixman Studio Pro's effects aren't the best I've ever heard, they are great for processing samples. With very little tweaking, it's easy to create dirty, underground, dance, and ambient sounds. Up to five effects can be cascaded (or chained) together in the FX Studio (see Fig. 4). A total of 23 effects include auto pan, flange, filter, delay, pitch shift, time stretch, wah, and reverb algorithms, and all of the effects have an ample number of presets to choose from (more than 150 altogether). Most sound good right off the shelf, but if you don't like what you hear, there are plenty of parameters to play with. I particularly liked the filter effects; they were quite dramatic-perfect for adding that hard-core edge. Mixman's effects processing is not done in real time. (You can't audition effects changes while the sample is playing.) If you have a slow computer, count on taking a coffee break while some algorithms, especially long reverbs, process.
These are the kind of effects that would sound really sweet in stereo; unfortunately, they are all monophonic. Even Auto Pan is essentially a mono effect. It works by assigning a pan value to the sample whenever it's triggered. The result is not a smooth panning effect, like when you twist the pan knob on a mixing board, but instead a choppy effect as the sample gets stuck, for its duration, at a pan position each time it's triggered.
You can rename and save samples after processing for loading into any remix. Your own effects presets can also be saved. User presets can contain a single effect or multiple effects. Recalling an effect is as simple as clicking on an effect slot and loading the preset. Just don't try to load a multi-effect preset if you've already got an effect loaded-you'll crash the program.
A new feature called Time Adapter allows you to import files with widely differing tempos. It adjusts the beats to match without destroying the original feel of the tracks by slowing down or speeding up the samples too much. In other words, a loop with a fast tempo can stay fast while still being metrically matched to a slower tempo.
SAVE OUR REMIXOnce you've created a remix, you'll want to save it. Mixman's proprietary remix files are called Mix files. They contain performance data only (event lists, a sample directory, an effects directory, and so on). Because of this, they take up very little hard drive space. If you prefer to keep all of a remix's samples together instead of in different folders, there's an option for storing the Mix file with its samples in a single folder. However, doing this creates duplicates all of the samples from the other folders and eats up significantly more hard drive space.
Because Mix files can be read only by Mixman, playing your remix outside of the program requires that you save it to a different format. A variety of options are available: stereo WAV, TRK, RealPlayer G2, MP3, Windows Media Audio, and SoundFont (SF2). Saving as a WAV file yields a 44.1 kHz, 2-track master that's ready for burning to CD-R. Exporting as a WAV file is amazingly fast; a six-minute piece took only a couple of minutes to process.
There is little point in exporting as a TRK file, because only Mixman can read this format, unless you plan to reintegrate the 2-track master back into your remix. Exporting in RealPlayer G2 or MP3 format makes your remix Internet ready. You can also save your remix in Creative Labs' Sound Blaster format (as an SF2 file); it includes all of a remix's samples saved as separate SoundFont instruments with an associated MIDI file. This is great for throwing the whole remix into a multitrack audio program that is able to read SF2 files, so you can do more complex work on the track-for example, mix down with individual outs or apply true stereo processing.
HOW PRO CAN YOU GO?Although its low price belies the fact, Mixman Studio Pro is no toy. Live remixing and the production aesthetics that go along with it, however, are not for everybody, so Mixman will probably be considered a "pro" program only by DJs, sampleheads, and other people working in alternative dance genres like jungle, deep house, and electronica.
Mixman Studio Pro may not be perfect, but it's hard to quibble when you consider how novel and inexpensive the program is. It doesn't support MIDI and can't load samples on the fly, and those are certainly shortcomings. But in the end, how serious you get with Mixman is entirely up to you and your creative inclinations. Because the program uses 44.1 kHz samples and has a variety of importing and exporting options, sound quality and cross-platform compatibility aren't issues. This program is on the cutting edge, and it's a real bargain to boot. So keep an eye on Mixman, because it's the future of live remixing.
Erik Hawkins is a musician/producer working in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area. Check out his fledgling indie label at www.muzicali.com.