Review: PreSonus Studio One 3

User-friendly DAW keeps getting better
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Now in its third iteration, PreSonus Studio One started with the promise of a user-friendly DAW that would avoid feature bloat while providing a streamlined workflow from song creation to mixdown and mastering. The recent update to version 3 is a major one, replete with—among other things—powerful new synths and some refreshing ways to combine them.

I put PreSonus Studio One 3 Professional through its paces on an Apple Mac Pro 2 x 2.8GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon with 14 GB RAM under Mac OS X 10 Yosemite 10.10.3.

SCRATCH ’N RIFF

One of the outstanding features of Studio One is the program’s smoothly implemented drag-and-drop capabilities. The efficiency of setting up a track by dragging a software instrument or effect plug-in into the timeline is undeniable. Moreover, the ability to take any section of MIDI or audio and drag it back to the browser to create a loop is an innovative idea.

Fig. 1. Studio One 3 Professional’s unique Scratch Pad lets you drag-and-drop anything from a snippet of a file to multiple tracks in order to rearrange your work. You can save multiple Scratch Pads in a single song file without using Undo. Studio One 3 Professional goes a step further by letting you rearrange song sections in a unique and elegant way. When you open Scratch Pad from the View menu, you are presented with a grid side-by side with another major new feature, the Arranger track. You can select any region over as many tracks as you need and drag them into the Scratch-Pad window (see Figure 1). Once there, you can arrange them in any way you like and even subdivide the events into smaller regions. Clicking on either window activates it for playback, so shuttling back and forth to compare results couldn’t be easier or more intuitive.

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Everything copied into the Scratch Pad retains its assignments, from patches and effects to buses. The most liberating aspect of the feature is the ability to rearrange a song at will without once having to hit an Undo button or alter your original arrangement. Better yet, you can treat Scratch Pads as takes, with alternate versions that you can save with the project.

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Fig. 2. The new Mai Tai synth includes the Character section, which lets you introduce unusual timbral qualities. The Envelope section allows you to adjust the curves of the envelopes manually.COCKTAILS FOR TWO

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Studio One 3 Professional adds some terrific new virtual instruments with novel ways to use them. Following Mojito, the monophonic analog-modeling synth from version 2.0, new on the Studio One 3 menu is Mai Tai, a well-appointed dual-oscillator, polyphonic synthesizer (see Figure 2). Each oscillator offers a choice of sine, triangle, sawtooth, and pulse wave (with variable pulse width). When enabled for either or both oscillators, the Random Phase (RP) button modulates the starting point for an oscillator’s cycle, generating subtle shifts in timbre.

For the most part, the two oscillators are identical, except that oscillator one’s Spread parameter adds phantom oscillators, each one slightly detuned. On percussive sounds, this created a nice, cloudy inharmonic attack. On softer patches the effect ranges from sweet, natural chorusing to hive-like buzzing effects. Oscillator two provides classic oscillator sync for nasal, sweeping tones.

The filter choices include highpass, lowpass, and bandpass ladder-style filters with 2-pole (12dB/octave) slopes; a 4-pole (24dB/octave) ladder-style lowpass; and a 4-pole (24dB/octave) Zero-Delay feedback filter, the function of which is minimally described in the documentation as closely modeling “the tone and modulation behavior of analog filters.” According to PreSonus, the instrument’s lowpass filters are patterned after classic Moog and Oberheim synths: With a touch of the filter’s Soft button and a slight lowering of the cutoff frequency, I was able to convert a somewhat brash sawtooth-heavy patch into a silky Oberheim-sounding pad.

In addition to controls for cutoff, resonance, and drive, the filter section includes the Punch parameter, which is great for adding a percussive front edge to synth bass patches. With colorful names such as Ardency, Talky, and Fuzzmonica, Mai Tai’s Character section enhances the filter to shape timbral changes— from subtle and delicate or brash and powerful—with a simple turn of a knob. The three categories are Analog Color, which models and morphs between a couple of analog-circuit models; Formant, which can add a vocal quality to the tones; and Harmonic, which adds spectra to the waveform. Depending on which of the three types you’ve chosen, the Sound knob can sweep and morph through the available circuits, formants, or range of harmonics. Simply dial in the amount of character you need to take your patches well beyond the typical analog-synth sonorities.

The three envelope generators are worthy of mention: Two have an extra knob to adjust the delay time before the ADSR parameters begin. Just click on the handles to adjust the curves for the attack, decay, and release segments. Rounding out Mai Tai are two LFOs, a pair of eight-slot modulation matrices, and a pair of multi-effects slots, which include reverb, modulation effects, delays, and gates.

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BENIGN PRESENCE

Fig. 3. Presence XT is a major update to the Presence sample player from version 2 of Studio One. The new instrument lets you shift the sample start time and adjust the sample’s root for interesting effects. Presence was a sample-playback synth in previous versions of Studio One, but it been been promoted to Presence XT: In addition to getting beefed up with a synthesis section derived from Mai Tai, it offers sampler- specific operations such as control over sample start time, compatibility with third-party software samplers, and the ability to import several sampler formats (see Figure 3). The instrument includes two ADSR envelopes, one for amplitude and one for the filter, and the same choice of filter types as Mai Tai, albeit without the Character section.

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Presence XT’s sound library is largely excellent, although you don’t get access to the individual oscillators; you can do little more than tweak the top-level parameters, and there is no ready facility to import and compile your own sample maps.

Importing presets from Native Instruments Kontakt and Apple Logic EXS instruments was hit or miss and sometimes involved a secondary search for missing samples. Older Kontakt files generally fared better. The manual touts the simplicity of dragging files from the desktop, but I found it preferable to load from the Studio One 3 Professional browser, where the info pane at the bottom warns you when selected presets are incompatible.

The issues are understandable, as both the Native Instruments and Apple sampler-file formats have changed. Presumably, future updates will bring fewer compatibility issues. PreSonus anticipates the release of Presence Editor, a separate and optional application that will provide access to mapping and scripting routines (and hopefully some workarounds to the above-mentioned issues).

ASSEMBLED MULTITUDES

Another welcome addition in Studio One 3 Professional is the Multi instrument. As with a hardware synthesizer’s Combi or Multi section, you can drag instruments from any AU, VST, and PreSonus instrument to create your own splits and layers, along with effects chains and Note FX (which I will describe shortly) to create your own composite instruments. Drag-and-drop capabilities are in full bloom here. Simply drop an instrument onto a track, then add another to the same track; a pop-up will ask you if you wish to combine or replace the other instrument, and the graphic will change to reflect the Multi’s programming interface with individual instrument ranges depicted as color-coded bars above a virtual keyboard. Drag the bar at the end of either range to create splits, or simply limit the playable range of one of the presets. Ranges, inserts, sends, and transposition settings are displayed in a discrete inspector for the Multi.

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You can drag-and-drop Studio One 3 Professional’s new Extended FX chain presets from the browser into the Multi’s insert section, and here again, you can combine third-party effects into the chain. FX Chains are similar in organization to Multis in that you can use splitters and routers to create a nest of serial and parallel chains. This provides a way to create complex processing setups for audio tracks as well as Multis.

Fig. 4. Anatomy of a Multi: I have combined three Instruments by dragging a Splitter to isolate the Camel Audio Alchemy patch and a Note FX Input Filter to limit its Velocity to the upper 15 percent range. Note FX is an elegant adjunct to the Multi, allowing you to create Velocity limits to layered sounds for Velocity switching. I quickly assembled a choir from Presence, an organ from Native Instruments B4II and an arpeggiator patch from Camel Audio Alchemy using the Multi’s splitter to route Velocity limits via Note FX’s sophisticated Input Filter to the Alchemy patch. Consequently, when I hit the keys harder, the arpeggiator kicks in (see Figure 4). Note FX also has its own arpeggiator, a Chorder (with which you can assign MIDI chords to individual keys), and a repeater, which triggers MIDI patterns polyphonically.

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REMOTELY USEFUL

While I was working on this review, PreSonus released version 3.0.1 of Studio One. The upgrade process could not have been simpler and quicker, involving a disk-image download and Studio One’s characteristic drag-and-drop replacement of the entire shooting match.

Fig. 5. Studio One Remote adds touchscreen control capabilities to the DAW via the iPad. That update was quickly followed by the release of the Studio One Remote app for iPad (see Figure 5). The app connected easily and quickly to my Mac, and the graphics are gorgeous and easy to read. With a single touch, you can view and edit channels, inserts, and sends; add inserts and buses; edit faders; open the Channel Editor; add automation; engage record and playback; and bounce and nudge events. This is easily the most comprehensive iPad app I have seen for any DAW, and it brought events and control right where I can touch them, proving indispensible for my workflow.

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ONE TO 3

There are many more improvements and new features in Studio One 3 Professional than I have space to cover in this review fully, including the Rotor and Bitcrusher Audio Effects, a user-definable Smart Tool palette, automation curves, and the ability to use macro controls, not to mention the terrific sound of the software’s audio engine.

Users of multitouch computers will appreciate having access to consoles, faders, and the browser. Studio One 3 Professional’s implementation of drag-and-drop extends well beyond simple convenience into a brilliant application of workflow. For all of this, its code is still sleek, and Studio One 3 Professional launches more quickly than any of my other digital audio workstations.

I look forward to every revision of Studio One: It’s a kick-ass DAW that keeps getting better.

STRENGTHS
Scratch Pad is flexible, easy to use. Mai Tai with Character section. Multi-instrument. Studio One Remote for iPad.

LIMITATIONS
Some editing functions need definable selection criteria. Reference Manual requires launch of Studio One program. Presence XT lacks full editing and mapping features. Presence XT Import of other sampler formats is inconsistent.

Studio One 3 Professional: $399.95
Studio One 3 Artist: $99.95
Studio One 3 Prime: Free
presonus.com

Former EM editor Marty Cutler is a contributing artist to the Bob Moog Foundation Encore Soundbank.