When hardware still ruled the earth, the Korg M1 workstation created quite a stir with its combination of sounds, multitimbrality opps, a MIDI sequencer, and effects. And when MIDI sequencing took off, workstations became essential elements of many a MIDI studio because they could play back multiple sounds from a single, economical piece of hardware.
Today’s software workstations can not only do pretty much anything their hardware ancestors could do, but a lot more. Let’s discuss how to maximize the potential of these virtual instruments, from your initial songwriting inspiration to the final mix.
Ready To Rock (or Jazz, or Techno, or . . .)
Software workstations are exceptionally useful for songwriting, because with one instrument, you can create eight, 16, or even more tracks. As a result, you can simply keep loading instruments into MIDI channels, create new MIDI tracks, and lay down overdub after overdub.
However, as you add more instruments, CPU consumption increases—sometimes dramatically. Many workstations let you adjust polyphony for particular channels (Figure 1), so take advantage of this feature to minimize the number of voices that need to sound at once. With many bass lines, for example, you probably won’t need more than two voices. Sounds with long decays—such as pads—tend to eat polyphony, so restrict these, as well. Often, the voices that are cut off are at a low enough volume—or are masked by other notes—so that you won’t notice they’re missing.
Another way to reduce CPU consumption is to use bus effects within the instrument (if present), rather than insert effects, whenever multiple sounds use the same effect. For example, insert reverb on a bus, and send signal to it from the instruments you want processed, rather than inserting reverb on all channels requiring reverb.
The MIDI Advantage
A big advantage to using a MIDI-based software workstation is that MIDI data is so malleable. During the songwriting process, if you decide to change the key or tempo, it’s much easier to do with a bunch of MIDI tracks than with digital audio. (Having said that, many workstations can also stretch digital audio loops with respect to timing, and, possibly, pitch.)
A corollary MIDI advantage is that when it’s time to mix, you can replace the sounds of individual tracks with individual instruments that may offer a better sound quality. For example, you can use the workstation to lay down a piano part, but then switch over to something such as Ivory or another dedicated piano program to get the best piano sound possible. The same thing goes for drums, as you can use a program like FXpansion’s BFD to replace the simpler drum sounds found in a workstation.
Also note that hosts with MIDI plug-ins get along very well with workstations. When you’re laying down tracks in quick succession, rather than deal with quantizing or tweaking as you record, you can often use MIDI plug-ins to temporarily do quantization, scale velocities, and the like. After you’re finished laying down tracks, then you can get into the editing process and tweak the MIDI data.
There’s a growing trend with workstations and multitimbral samplers to include ever-greater amounts of content. Generally, this defaults to being installed in the root drive where the program lives. If you use enough of these products, your main drive can run out of space pretty fast.
So, dedicate a big hard drive (250GB– 500GB) just to content and samples. If your computer’s motherboard has some unused connections for hard drives, you can mount the drive internally, but, if not, an external FireWire or USB drive will do the job. However, you will likely have to instruct the program where to look for the content. Check any available preferences dialogs, as that’s usually where you specify a path to the content.
With some workstations, you can create an alias/shortcut for the target samples in the original folder on your root drive. For example, if the workstation has a folder named “sounds,” you may be able to create an alias for the drive containing your samples and put it in the “sounds” folder. Other workstations recommend against moving factory content to a different location, as any updates might be written to the current location, thus making it difficult to keep file structures in sync—although you can create a path to your own custom content. The instrument’s documentation should mention any considerations involved in moving content.
Streaming vs. Loading into RAM
Some workstations can stream long samples from the hard disk, while others are restricted to what you can load into RAM. While using RAM is generally faster and smoother, you’re not going to load a 30GB piano into a computer with 2GB of RAM. Streaming often needs to be enabled—sometimes for individual instruments within a multitimbral instrument, or sometimes for the instrument as a whole. Just remember that neither solution is without issues. Streaming lots of samples from a hard drive can limit the number of audio tracks you can stream from the same hard drive simultaneously (which is why a dedicated drive for content is helpful), and pushing RAM to the limit can cause instability because that same RAM is shared with the operating system and your host program.
I formerly advised bypassing the included effects with virtual instruments, as you could likely do better by adding other plug-ins into the signal path hosting the instrument. But times have changed. With better computers, instruments can include far more CPU-intensive, and better-sounding, plug-ins (Figure 2). Some—such as Kontakt, MachFive 2, and GigaStudio—include features like convolution reverb.
However, the issue here isn’t just about sound quality. Using effects included within the instrument makes projects more transportable and archivable. As long as you can load the instrument, you’re loading the effects as well.
Separate or Stereo Outputs?
Workstations usually offer multiple outputs so you can take advantage of your host mixer’s features to process individual sounds. Keeping in mind the above comments about effects, though, if you can do all your mixing and processing within the workstation, you again have a more ergonomic and transportable project. You can even save the workstation setup as a preset, and import it into a different host, knowing that the sounds and mix will be as you intended.
If you really load up the channels of a multitimbral instrument, you may need to freeze tracks to free up CPU power. Freezing essentially disconnects the instrument from the CPU, replacing it temporarily with an audio track that makes much fewer demands on the CPU.
However, freezing works a little differently with multitimbral instruments compared to single-channel instruments, and it varies from program to program. For example, you may be able to freeze one particular instrument of a multitimbral instrument, or you may only be able to freeze the entire instrument. Check your host program’s documentation for details.
Here are thumbnail descriptions of some common softwarebased workstations, listed alphabetically by manufacturer.
Apple EXS24. This is available only as part of Logic. While showing its age a bit, the EXS24 broke open the virtual sampler market.
Big Fish Vir2 instruments. Based on the Native Instruments’ Kontakt Player engine, these offer effects, mixing, streaming from hard disk, and other features derived from NI’s flagship sampler.
Cakewalk TTS-1. Available only within Sonar, this basic (and CPU-friendly) workstation is useful for blocking out parts while songwriting.
East West Colossus. While originally offered as a sort of overachieving General MIDI set, this Kontakt player-based instrument contains an excellent assortment of high-quality sounds.
E-mu Emulator X2. This brilliant sampler boasts excellent sound library support and innovative features, such as SynthSwipe for sampling older synths. It’s a good choice for those wanting to go beyond basic workstation applications.
IK Multimedia SampleTank, Miroslav Philharmonik, Sonik Synth, SampleMoog. These are all characterized by large sound libraries, and offer a comprehensive set of effects.
Korg Digital Legacy Collection. This set of virtual instruments includes a software M1, but it’s not your father’s M1. The sound is much cleaner, and it comes with all the M1’s expansion card sounds.
MOTU MachFive 2. The latest version includes advanced features such as beat-slicing, REX file importation, convolution reverb, the ability to import samples in just about any format, and a 32GB sound library.
Native Instruments Kontakt 3. This ambitious sampler includes features not found elsewhere, such as MIDI scripting (think of it as MIDI plug-ins you can write yourself). It also has highly developed slice-oriented beat-machine functions.
Propellerhead Software Reason. While not a workstation per se, the ability to ReWire it into any major host is compelling, and you can insert as many instances of the included synths and samplers as your computer can handle.
Sonivox Muse. Based on GigaStudio technology, this isn’t as editable as some of the “pure” samplers, but it has a ton of sounds, and it fulfills the concept of a hardware ROMpler brought to software.
Steinberg HALion and Hypersonic. HALion is a traditional sampler that can stream samples from hard disk and offers multitimbral operation. Hypersonic resembles a keyboard ROMpler—it’s less editable than HALion, but is faster to set up and easier to use.
TASCAM GigaStudio. This darling of the movie-scoring crowd was the first sampling system to stream from hard disk, and that process has been refined to the point where the program can play back really long samples and do so very efficiently.
Ultimate Sound Bank PlugSound Pro. This workstation also handles loops and beats well, with excellent time-stretching options. Optional-at-extra-cost “virtual soundcards” are available for expansion.