RoundUp: In Search Of The Ultimate Groove: EQ investigates gear and techniques to help you build big, bad, bangin’ beats

A “groove” is that catchy foundation for a piece of music you can’t get out of your mind, whether it’s the thundering drum beat of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” the bass line of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” the lilting rhythm of South African High Life music, or the hip-thrusting fouron- the-floor kick of techno. Groove is the engine that drives a song—the rhythms that make people move, not just listen. And if you want to reach today’s groove-savvy listeners, your beats had better be as good as any other element of your music.
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A “groove” is that catchy foundation for a piece of music you can’t get out of your mind, whether it’s the thundering drum beat of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” the bass line of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” the lilting rhythm of South African High Life music, or the hip-thrusting fouron- the-floor kick of techno. Groove is the engine that drives a song—the rhythms that make people move, not just listen. And if you want to reach today’s groove-savvy listeners, your beats had better be as good as any other element of your music.

This roundup includes an articlewithin- an article by DJ Myshell on how she blurs the line between spinning and playing by basing her sets on Ableton Live and MIDI controllers—there’s much to be learned from a musician working in a DJ format (or if you prefer, a DJ working in a musician format). I’ve also written a bunch of groove-oriented tips that are scattered around the roundup, and which you’ll hopefully find useful in your own music.

But the big surprise here is the reviews. If you haven’t seen the new generation of groove tools, you’re in for a treat—and a shock. We’ve already covered lots of groove-related tools in previous issues, from Native Instruments’ excellent Maschine (06/09 issue) to software like Acid, Sonar, Cubase, Reason, Logic, Pro Tools, and others that have incorporated groove elements. And as the four products reviewed here help underscrore, groove tools have gone from little sample-based toys and drum machines to serious, high-end, hightech pieces of gear. Having been involved in the groove scene for a long time, I have to say that today’s tools take the state of the art to the next level, and then some (all prices of reviewed gear are MSRP).

Ready to get your groove on? Then keep reading. The groove world continues to heat up, and you don’t want to miss out.

AKAI PROFESSIONAL APC40

Now you can touch Ableton Live
($599, www.akaipro.com )

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Anyone who’s seen my solo act knows I’m a huge Ableton Live fan—and that I don’t even bother to boot it up without having a hardware controller attached. To me, Live is a musical instrument and as such, I want to play it. A mouse just doesn’t cut it, so I’ve been using a Peavey PC-1600x MIDI fader box (with 16 faders and 16 buttons) as a control surface. It’s a great, maybe even legendary, piece of gear; but it wasn’t designed specifically for Live—the APC40 is.

As someone who really knows Live and really uses controllers, I can attest that the APC40 was designed by someone who truly “gets” not only the program, but what someone would want to do with it onstage. Over the years, I’ve seen people use Live in many different ways and amazingly, the APC40 accommodates all of them.

THE LAY OF THE LAND

The APC40’s left half is laid out like Live’s Session View—it takes about 30 seconds (on a bad day) to get acclimated. It’s all there: Clip launch and stop, Scene launch, activation button, cue button, solo button, eight channel faders, and one master fader.

The right half is almost, but not quite, as obvious. The top eight knobs control eight channels of pan or up to three sends, depending on which button you push. LED “rings” around the knobs indicate the current position, and bi-directional communication with Live means that if you change a control on-screen, the LED ring will change to reflect that. Conversely, altering an APC40 knob changes the on-screen virtual representation.

The lower eight knobs (also with LED rings) control devices like signal processors and synths, with page selection to choose multiple pages of eight parameters. This is hit-or-miss; Live’s devices are mapped very logically, and the knobs give the potential for expressive control over these devices. However, with standard VST effects, the mapping depends pretty much on the way the device exposes its VST automation parameters, which were almost certainly not done with the APC40 in mind. Unfortunately, unlike Cakewalk’s ACT protocol, there’s no way to re-assign controls to particular “favorite” parameters.

The Bank Select controls between the knobs are crucial, as they let you control different groups of eight channels or eight scenes—for example, use bank switching to control channels 9–16 or 17–24 instead of 1–8. You’ll also find buttons for Tap Tempo, Nudge + and –, transport, metronome and a few other functions, as well as a crossfader.

Note that the APC40 is a class-compliant USB device (but not bus-powered—you must use the adapter), so it’s definitely plug-and-play. You need only set a Preference in Live to start cookin.’

WHAT’S THE CATCH?

I have only two complaints. The first is that eight sliders are not enough for what I do, and I originally thought that would be a deal-breaker. Then I found out you can actually gang up to six APC40s if you want to handle up to 48 channels . . . problem solved.

The other is that the faders are not user-replaceable, except for the crossfader. I’ve replaced several faders in the PC-1600x over the years—and that thing’s built like the proverbial tank. Time will tell whether the fader replacement thing is a real issue, or I’m just being paranoid; but if there’s ever a follow-up unit, I’d like to see a replaceable fader bank, or at least an easier way to replace individual ones.

CONCLUSIONS

I’ve been using the APC40 for a few months now, and instead of finding little problems with it the more I work with it, the reverse is true: The more I use it, the more I appreciate it, and the more facile I get with making the APC40 do my bidding. It doesn’t so much integrate with Live as it is Live—just in hardware form. I’ve yet to meet a Live user who isn’t excited about the APC40 . . . play with one for a while, and it’s obvious why.

Strengths: Superb physical representation of Live Session View. Logical layout. Easy to figure out. 16 knobs (plus Cue Level) and nine faders. User-replaceable crossfader. Can gang up to six units for additional control.

Limitations: Channel and master faders are not userreplaceable.

FXPANSION GURU

This innovative beat creation software hits version 1.6
($249, www.fxpansion.com )

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Guru was one of the first “virtual MPCs,” and they got the concept right from the beginning. Nonetheless version 1.5, a major (and free!) update, added tons of new features; now version 1.6—also free to registered users—is out, which allows for longer sequences (from 128 steps up to 512 steps), 16 stereo outs instead of 8, and other improvements . . . so Guru is definitely worth another look.

Guru works as a stand-alone instrument, via ReWire, or as a VST/AU/RTAS plug-in. (Note that if ReWire doesn’t seem to work in Windows, open GURUReWireApplet.exe. However, I prefer using the plug-in’s multiple outputs instead.) As a demo version is available from the FXpansion site—albeit without all the way cool content—we’ll concentrate on the highlights.

ARCHITECTURE

Guru has eight “engines,” each of which is a “virtual drum machine” with 16 MIDI-triggered pads, step sequencer, 24 MIDI-triggered patterns, master effects unit, and three aux effects. The eight engines respond to MIDI channels 1–8. Tempos are not independent; they can be set to the main tempo (the host tempo when used as a plug-in), or a multiple (2X, 0.5X, etc.) of the main tempo.

SLICE AND DICE

While Guru has much in common with later products (e.g., step sequencer “graphs” for editing various parameters), one unique feature is the ability to bring in a loop and have Guru not only slice it, but do a frequency analysis on the components and assign the four “best” kick, snare, hat, and percussion hits to pads. While this “SmartSlice” technique isn’t the only way to slice in Guru, it sure is convenient.

The effectiveness depends on the loop. Slicing with drum machine-type loops is stellar—in many cases, it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between the original loop and the sliced version. Moving, adding, or deleting slices can mess up the smoothness somewhat—or enhance things, so experiment (Guru thrives on experimentation anyway). There’s undo, but it’s only one level, so audition each change before deciding whether to keep it.

Loops with ambience are harder to deal with, because the slices add discontinuities in any sustained sections, and the resulting “roughness” can be unpleasant. For example, trying to slice the Discrete Drums “acoustic-drums-with-lots-ofroom” loops proved problematic, but slicing the patterns from a Korg Electribe hit the bulls-eye just about every time. Furthermore, you can add grooves, swing, and shuffle to the slices. And you’re not restricted to drums; I had great luck slicing the loops from my AdrenaLinn Guitars loop library.

Granted, most beat software lets you bring in external loops, but Guru’s approach is extremely cool. Don’t let the excellence of the included 7.5GB library dissuade you from bringing non-Guru loops into the program.

EDITING

You choose different editing functions with tabs (Pattern, Graph, Pad Edit, Aux Effects, Mix, and Scenes). There are plenty of ways to edit pads, including gain, pan, tune, filter, envelopes, reverse, and the ability to add a single insert effect or send signal to three aux buses. The insert effects deal mostly with distortion, EQ, compression, and ring modulation; but you can also insert a synth waveform, which takes priority over whatever sample is loaded. The Aux effects add modulation options (delay, flanger, reverb, phaser) but also include some of the insert effect types, envelope followers, and other goodies. The same array of effects is available for a master effect or as an insert effect for each engine.

Once your patterns are squared away, you can store settings for all eight engines as a scene, and call these up on-the-fly or export them.

CONCLUSIONS

Guru is anything but “just” a beatbox in software, although it can do that very well: It’s an open-ended, creative, and most importantly, downright inspiring program that excels at anything from light hip-hop to hardcore techno. Go ahead and download the demo . . . just don’t forget to eat and sleep.

Strengths: Extremely versatile and suited to numerous musical styles. SmartSlice is indeed cool. Excellent, edgy content. Efficient and clean interface. 48 scenes. Easy audio export of pad, track, group, engine, or all.

Limitations: Only one insert effect per pad. No quantization strength option. Only one level of undo.

MOTU BPM

MOTU joins the Beat Generation
($295, www.motu.com )

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BPM is a beat construction program (standalone or plug-in—VST/AU/RTAS/MAS) with an urban bent, and the usual 4 x 4 pad matrix for triggering sounds (or loops). Like other “Virtual MPCs,” BPM benefits from a hardware controller (I used Maschine’s, which works great). There’s a 15.2GB genre-specific sound library, with drums and various instruments for quick guitar licks, bass lines, etc.

The browser sorts the library into different elements—loops, kits, patterns, and the like. You can load patterns with kits, change kits, change patterns, add loops, and even sample/resample; all of this is fast and responsive.

Beyond Banks of drum patterns with the usual step sequencer interface, there are “Racks” for instrument sounds. You record patterns into these via a MIDI piano roll-type interface as well as bring in loops, which play back slices (à la REX files; you can edit the MIDI data that triggers the slices). Even better, you can import REX and (theoretically) load loops from other UVI-based instruments. However, while BPM recognized PlugSound Pro and UVI Soundcards, it couldn’t find the sounds for MOTU’s Ethno or Electric Keys—even though others have not had this problem. For a workaround, I inserted Ethno in a separate track, and ran it concurrently.

EDITING

The editing is outstanding, whether for one-shot hits, loops, an entire Bank, or whatever. In addition to synth-type parameters like a 12-mode filter, drive, separate filter and amp ADSR envelopes (for sliced files, this affects each slice), pitch envelope, and pitch adjust, there’s a wealth of effects—you can add multiple effects to individual banks and racks, and use three send buses. The effects exceed expectations in both quality and quantity (there’s even a convolution reverb).

Additional “graphs” (i.e., step sequencers) allow editing particular sequence parameters—velocity, pan, length, quantization, pan, filter mod, and more. You can then assemble edited patterns into Scenes and Songs. Scenes call up different sequences/patterns for the Banks and Racks, and in “Live Mode” you can map 16 scenes—the maximum available— to the keypads. You can trigger these via MIDI or pads (as well as quantize to the nearest bar or beat when launched), and also, string them together into Songs. Once you’ve finished a loop, Scene, or Song, you can export it as audio or MIDI data, as appropriate.

EXTERNAL CONTROL AND AUTOMATION

Most parameters allow for MIDI control, and the Learn function is easy: Right-click on parameter, turn control, done. However, BPM won’t do VST host automation; all automation is MIDIbased. This works well with physical controllers: Moving a real control beats mousing around with virtual ones. Note that while automation is tied to individual pads, you can control the same parameter in multiple pads simultaneously; for example, apply drive to only the toms, and crunch ’em as desired.

IT KEEPS ON GOING . . .

BPM is one of those programs where you keep finding goodies. “SP mode” emulates the sound of E-mu’s legendary SP-12 drum machine. To my critical ears it doesn’t totally nail E-mu’s “sample skipping” sound when transposing, but it’s still very useful. You can call up a drum synth for any pad and create your own sounds, and layer sounds—put as many sounds on a pad as you want, and layer them with velocity ranges . . . even sample or re-sample into a pad, and slice non-sliced files.

Of course, there are some annoyances too: No quantizing for an entire pattern (like Guru, you have to do it per-pad on a graph), no undo, you can’t select patterns via MIDI, and some (but not all) controller assignments disappear when you change kits.

CONCLUSIONS

Overall, BPM is solid, fun, and straightforward. And while the library is urban-specific, you can load anything you like into BPM anyway, so that’s not much of a limitation. What’s more, the price is right, and it’s easy to take what you’ve done and convert it into a loop. Overall, BPM is great bang for the buck, and a fine software realization of hardware groove boxes.

Strengths: Cost-effective. Quality sound library and patterns for excellent “out of the box” experience. Extensive editing. Plentiful signal processing options. Step sequencer and piano roll editing. Easy external controller setup.

Limitations: No VST host automation—MIDI only. No pattern quantize. No undo. Some MIDI control limitations.

RADIKAL TECHNOLOGIES SPECTRALIS 2

Listen up: This is what hardware groove box + synthesis is all about
($2,499, www.radikaltechnologies.com )

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When was the last time you heard a software or hardware synth whose sound made your jaw drop? Spectralis 2 (S2) is that kind of machine—the sound is so detailed (yet fat) you can almost reach out and touch it, and it belongs in the same class as some of the finest analog and digital synths ever made. This is perhaps not too surprising, as S2 combines both analog technology (two of the three filters) with digital technology (the oscillators and various other elements). But even the digital part doesn’t cheap out; the sounds are rich and well-defined.

And the sound better be great, given the price—which could buy you a very nice workstation from one of the “Big 3” synth companies. But where said workstations are a marvel of versatility, S2 concentrates on being the world’s ultimate hardware groovebox. It’s designed for live or studio use, and in addition to the sound quality (did I mention it sounds fabulous?), there’s also a very capable—and even performance-friendly—sequencer.

The original Spectralis sequencer was often considered confusing, especially for those raised on the transparency of a track view splashed across a computer’s dual-monitor setup. Yet all it really took was a little familiarity (well, okay, a lot of familiarity—this thing is deep) to be able to work your way around it, and S2 has put some effort into further streamlining the workflow. Yes, you can play it live, and the sequencer is definitely up to the task—it doesn’t burp or stop.

SO WHAT’S IN IT?

The four digital oscillators offer continuously variable waveforms, FM, sync, bit reduction, phase modulation, and other goodies that would be difficult to accomplish in the analog world. On the other hand the analog filters are fourpole lowpass (very Moogacious!) and a state-variable, multimode response type. The third filtering system is further proof that someone at Radikal Technologies has studied the Moog Modular legacy: a filter bank with eight bandpass, one lowpass, and one highpass filter. But note I didn’t say “fixed” filterbank—you can automate filter levels, slope, Q, and even filter frequency spacing, and it also accepts external audio inputs.

The sequencer goes way beyond the usual “one measure of 16th notes”: There are 32 parameter “control lines” and up to 192 steps, all with an interface that is easier to interact with than the original Spectralis, despite retaining the 2-line x 40-character LCD. The envelopes are tight, which is a good match for the sequencer’s tightness; you can make the thing swing, or be as metronomic as Kraftwerk synced to an atomic clock. What’s more, the steps in the step sequencer can be actual envelopes, allowing for variations within that single step. Once you get familiar with the workflow, you can do some pretty incredible on-the-fly sonic mangling and improvisation.

Sampling is not an afterthought. S2 comes stock with 4GB RAM, while an SD slot lets you do backups or import data sets without needing a computer. S2 does true multisampling with a 32 (stereo) voice audio engine, and you can transfer WAV or SoundFont samples from computer via USB 2.0 (Spectralis 2 shows up as a USB storage device; there’s no editing applet). As expected from a groove box you can create patterns and string them into songs, but you can also save everything in the box as one big project file— sequences, samples, the whole thing—to your computer. You have no excuse not to back up!

Effects are minimal: There are programmable delays, which include modulation for effects like flanging and chorusing.

CONCLUSIONS

Spectralis 2 is coming out at an interesting time—although the economy makes it difficult to afford high-end items, there’s a growing desire to find synthesis engines that go beyond the current generation of everything-for-everybody workstations, despite their general level of sophistication. Inventors like Dave Smith and John Bowen have tapped into this by producing “back to the future” synthesizers, while Spectralis has gone for more of a hardware groovebox orientation.

One thing’s for certain: Spend some time on the net looking for opinions from Spectralis owners, and you’ll find superlatives about everything from the sound to the support. Based on my time spent with it, all I can add is . . . they’re right. If you want a superb synthesizer with a groove orientation, this is it.

Strengths: Breathtaking sound quality, with the clarity of digital and the warmth of analog. Extremely capable sequencing. Good storage and backup options. Reasonably understandable interface. Excellent build quality. Doesn’t skimp on sampling, with USB 2.0 port for sample transfers. Plenty of I/O (stereo ins, multiple outs).

Limitations: Basic LCD readout. No computer editing application. Only effect is delay.

If you’re recording material that you want to turn into a loop, record it at a slower speed. Slowing down a loop is much tougher than speeding up because data has to be created where none was originally—to speed up, you simply “discard” data. As a result, you can often speed up a loop by 50% to 100% and still have it sound good, whereas slowing down even by 5% or 10% may introduce undesirable artifacts and glitches. 90–100 BPM is a good choice for loops that need to stretch in the 90–160 BPM range.

Even if you’re not into loop-based music, loops can add some great “final touches” to any music—such as ethnic percussion on a rap tune, or maracas to supplement rock drums.

There’s a misconception that Pro Tools can’t handle looping well, but that’s wrong. Digidesign introduced “elastic audio” in Pro Tools 7, which allowed for easy looping as well as warping of longer files. Although somewhat late to the party compared to other DAWs, they made up for it with an excellent implementation.

Many DAWs support both REX and Acidized or Apple Loops file playback, so here are some recommendations for particular applications. REX is the ideal format for percussive signals with strong, defined transients and little (or preferably no) ambience. REX files don’t do well with sustained sounds (e.g., pads). The slices produce discontinuities in the sound because there are no obvious places to add splices in such a way that the sound’s percussive nature “covers up” the splice point. Acidized files and Apple Loops, as well as the stretching options in Ableton Live and Pro Tools, work well with a broader range of material—from percussive to sustained—although REX files will generally give better fidelity with percussion-only files, providing there aren’t a lot of cymbal crashes.

REX files generate a companion MIDI file whose notes trigger the audio “slices” that make up a REX loop. You can alter the placement, timing, quantization, etc. of these MIDI notes to change the REX file’s character completely.

Swing is your friend, but few can define it precisely. 50% swing (i.e., no swing) means that each quarter note is weighted so that the first eighth note takes up 50% of the quarter note, and the second eighth note takes up the other 50%. With a swing factor of 55%, the first eighth note spreads out slightly to take up 55% of the quarter note, while the second eighth note shrinks slightly so that it takes up 45% of the quarter note. It’s common to use higher swing percentages at slower tempos, and less swing at higher tempos.

To make a loop more percussive-sounding, apply noise gating to remove lower-level sounds, so that just the percussive peaks remain. One possible enhancement for the gated loop is to add reverb. The space between hits leaves lots of room for the reverb tails, and produces a tight, yet spacious, sound.

Watch your levels: Acidized loops use crossfading to cover up splice points, and it’s possible that certain tempos could cause these fades to add, thus increasing the signal level compared to the original, non-stretched loop, and possibly causing distortion.

Don’t like how people use tools like Beat Detective and AudioSnap to quantize everything to a grid? Neither do I, but you can use them to quantize one loop to another so their grooves match. For example, if you have a great drum loop with swing, and a bass loop that would be a perfect accompaniment if only it did have swing, quantize the bass to the drums and they’ll lock together.