A big advantage of owning a sample-based synthesizer workstation like the Korg Triton, Roland Fantom, or Yamaha Motif is that you have instant access to a tremendous assortment of musical sounds. Several software instruments, from IK Multimedia SampleTank to Quantum Leap Colossus, provide an even larger palette that encompasses almost any musical genre you can imagine. The new kid on the software block is Muse, a sample player paired with 37.5 GB of 24-bit content sampled at 48 kHz. Created by SoniVox (the soundware developer formerly known as Sonic Implants), Muse is that company''s first software instrument and the first third-party software based on Tascam''s Giga Virtual Instrument (GVI).
FIG. 1: Although SoniVox Muse is based on Tascam''s Giga Virtual Instrument, it can''t import or export samples in Giga format. Fortunately, Muse supplies enough instruments to keep you busy for a very long time.
Get It On
I installed Muse on my Dell D-610 notebook PC with a 2 GHz Pentium-M running Windows XP Pro SP2. It had 1 GB of RAM, a FireWire card, an 8x DVD drive, and an internal 40 GB hard drive. I installed the content on an external 160 GB drive connected by USB 2.0. An M-Audio Ozonic served as a FireWire audio interface, MIDI keyboard, and control surface. I ran Muse standalone and as a VST plug-in in Cakewalk Sonar 6 Professional Edition.
Muse''s only user manual is a 31-page PDF file, and it focuses mostly on specifics such as how the content is organized, how MIDI Control Changes (CCs) are configured, and how to use GigaPulse. I found it helpful to download the GVI manual, which furnishes much greater detail about the user interface, from Tascam''s Web site.
Installation was an interesting experience. As the first of five dual-density DVDs copied files to my hard disk, the progress bar repeatedly climbed from 1 to 255 percent, occasionally stopping at a random number. The manual reassured me that such behavior was expected. Each disc took about an hour and 20 minutes to complete, or just under seven hours for all five. Of course, installation would have taken less time if my DVD drive had been faster.
To authorize Muse, I inserted the included Syncrosoft copy-protection key into one of my computer''s USB ports, ran Syncrosoft License Download Wizard, entered the included authorization code, and downloaded a license to the Syncrosoft key. I completed installation by updating to version 1.04. The first time I ran Muse, it automatically opened the program''s Configuration pane so I could specify the content folder''s location, MIDI and audio hardware settings, maximum polyphony, and so on.
Although Muse comes with GVI as its front end, it is a totally proprietary version and works only with its own content. It can''t open files formatted for GigaStudio, GVI, or any other program; nor can GigaStudio or the standard version of GVI open Muse files. That''s unfortunate because I might want to customize sounds more than Muse allows, and it would be useful to edit Muse instruments in GigaStudio. Tascam is currently developing GVI for Mac OS X, and a Mac version of Muse should soon follow its release.
Only the System menu appears in Muse''s menu bar, and it contains just two commands: Configure and Exit. Clicking on icons in Muse''s taskbar performs functions such as loading and organizing presets, unloading instruments, and resetting defaults (see Fig. 1). Additional buttons open the Edit, FX, GigaPulse, and Loaded Instruments windows.
Below the taskbar is the MIDI Mixer, which displays 16 rows—one for each MIDI channel—containing slots for loading instruments and for adjusting mix parameters. After you load an instrument into a slot, you can replace it with another instrument or stack one or more additional instruments in the same slot to create splits and layers. No matter how many instruments I stacked, I was able to add more until I ran out of RAM. You can choose to show or hide all the instrument slots in a stack, but you can''t hide unused slots if you don''t need them. Clicking on a stacked instrument''s name reveals a pull-down menu from which you can open the Stack Properties window, in which a graphical keyboard allows you to define keyswitches, MIDI CCs, and note ranges for each layer in the stack.
Clicking on the Edit button changes Muse''s GUI to Quick Edit view, which provides four tabbed windows to adjust instrument-specific parameters. Clicking on the General tab accesses controls for volume, panning, pitch-bend range, and so on. The Amplitude/Pitch tab lets you change settings for a 6-stage amplitude envelope, a 2-stage pitch envelope, and two LFOs. The Filter tab lets you specify parameters for a single 4-mode filter with modulators that include a 6-stage envelope, an LFO, MIDI Velocity, and two MIDI CCs (see Fig. 2). And the Loop tab lets you specify start points and loop points for the currently selected sample.
You can use preassigned MIDI CCs to control not only MIDI Mixer parameters such as Volume, Tune, and Pan, but also synth parameters such as amplitude and filter attack, filter frequency and resonance, and portamento speed. Whereas synth presets provide default MIDI CC assignments to these mod destinations, orchestral presets provide different sets of mod assignments. For example, all orchestral instruments, as well as saxes and pop brass, allow you to switch release triggers off using MIDI CC 94 to conserve computer resources. Whereas CC 1 controls filter sweep when you''re playing a synth, it crossfades between fast and slow rotor speeds when you''re playing Drawbar Organ. The manual spells out exactly which MIDI CCs are assigned to each instrument.
MIDI CCs are fixed and you can''t change them; that''s fine if you have reassignable controllers, but otherwise you may need to reroute them in your sequencer. You can, however, reassign which parameter you control using the sliders in each instrument''s MIDI Mixer slot. To reassign sliders normally used to control Volume, Tune, and Pan parameters, you click on an adjacent triangle and select a MIDI CC from a pop-up list. Unfortunately, the list displays only the MIDI CC''s name, and not which parameter a given CC affects for a particular instrument.
Muse has no search or browser functions, but with more than 1,000 presets, organization is crucial. You select instruments from a hierarchical pop-up menu that organizes them into 15 families, each containing several subgroups that SoniVox calls clans. Each clan contains numerous articulations, groups of instruments, or instruments further organized by type. In addition to presets containing complete multisampled instruments in all their detailed glory, Muse provides quite a few lite versions it calls EZ Instruments, which have fewer Velocity layers and are less demanding on your computer''s resources. Some EZ Instruments have reduced keymaps, meaning that fewer notes were sampled and pitches are transposed further. In most cases, you''ll find two EZ versions; for example, whereas Solo Violin is a 550 MB, 4-layer preset, Solo Violin EZ1 is 135 MB and 2 layers, and Solo Violin EZ2 is 60 MB and 1 layer.
Some presets are designated Preview Instruments, which group every instrument in a clan into a single stack. Those are useful for loading a bunch of sounds and auditioning them one by one using the Mute and Solo buttons. The Orchestral and Ethnic Percussion families provide Ensembles, which offer several instruments in a single keymap. And in the case of drums, some presets let you load entire kits, while others let you load individual drums and cymbals.
General MIDI Matters
Muse has two General MIDI sets, Smaller GM and Larger GM, but neither the user manual nor SoniVox''s Web site mentions how to use them. SoniVox explained the procedure to me, but it''s hardly intuitive. After loading a GM set into a slot, you open Muse''s Currently Loaded Instruments window, which displays hundreds of choices; you then select an instrument and drag it to the desired slot. After you drag-and-drop the instruments you need, you can detach the GM set.
Muse supplies more than the standard complement of 128 GM instruments, and they load almost instantly. Most sound really good, though some had too much ambience for my taste. When I loaded Larger GM, Muse''s memory meter shot up to 96 percent (remember, my PC has only 1 GB of RAM), but even when I detached the preset, it remained at 96 percent until I rebooted Muse. Muse''s GM instruments don''t respond to Program Changes, and they''re less GM compatible than, say, a Roland Sound Canvas. You''ll probably need to do some tweaking if you plan to use them for Standard MIDI Files you download off the Web.
Muse furnishes a large number of synthesizer presets. The Synth menu offers analog, digital, and stacked leads and pads, as well as monophonic, polyphonic, and portamento basses. Their quality ranges from rather bland and cheesy (like Synth Lead 7 Dirty Patch) to huge and impressive (like Synth Pad 6 Animated Digi Stack). I found enough really useful synth patches to make sorting through them well worth my while.
Likewise, a comprehensive collection of keyboard presets includes a grand piano, an authentic-sounding harpsichord, a very nice celesta, a DX7-style FM piano, and a versatile Hammond (called Drawbar Organ), as well as Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Clav, accordion, and even a vintage string synthesizer—almost all of them with several variations.
Muse''s beautiful grand piano is more than 2 GB in size. One version features GigaPulse convolution to capture the resonances of playing with the sustain pedal down. Pressing or releasing the sustain pedal triggers recordings of a real sustain pedal, and you can adjust the volume of those recordings. Other variations include classical, rock, jazz, and studio piano, as well as hard-strike, soft-strike, and EZ versions.
FIG. 2: Four tabs in Muse''s Quick Edit view let you access parameters to modify the individual presets. Here, the Filter tab offers hands-on control of all parameters related to a synth preset''s multimode filter.
The Guitars & Basses menu presents you with 14 clans that include electric and acoustic guitars and basses. Acoustic steel- and nylon-string guitars and electric jazz, overdrive, single-coil, and humbucking guitars come in an assortment of single-note and chord variations. Some instruments let you instantly switch between major and minor chords using the mod wheel—a nice touch. Muse also has a terrific array of basses. In addition to acoustic upright and classic fingerpicked electric, you get heavy picked, Rick Pick, slapped, fuzz, and fretless.
Pop Brass contains five clans: baritone sax, tenor sax, alto sax, soprano sax, and the redundantly named pop brass, which provides sax and brass ensembles. All of them sound really good and provide enough articulations for you to construct realistic performances, though some keyswitching would improve their real-time expressivity. I especially liked the ensembles, which knocked me out with their big, live sound.
The Drums presets offer some of Muse''s most effective samples. All the kits are mapped to the GM standard, and most of them sound quite realistic. Muse divides kits into studio, custom, session, bedrock, brush, and electro flavors to accommodate just about any musical genre. In addition to kits, you can also load individual instruments from each clan.
Vocals and Ethnic Timbres
The Vocals family includes three clans: mixed choir, female jazz vocals, and vocoder sounds. You can select male, female, or mixed vocal ensembles from mixed choirs, and half the presets let you control filtering with your mod wheel. I didn''t find the female jazz vocals very useful unless I layered them together. They include scat syllables, which assign a different sample to each MIDI Note. The vocoder sounds are kind of interesting, though probably no more useful. Five presets give you vocoder-processed synth timbres modulated by a person speaking the words “muse,” “virtual,” “mythological,” “inspiration,” and “yes.”
Muse has two world-instrument families: Ethnic Percussion and Ethnic Melodic. Though the variety of instruments isn''t tremendous, they represent several geographic regions. Percussion from Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean, China, and Cuba ranges from atsimevu (a large African hand drum) to vibraslap. Ethnic Melodic includes three Chinese stringed instruments, Indian tambura, two Indonesian flutes, Scottish bagpipes, and American banjo and harmonica.
Muse''s four Orchestral families are taken from the four libraries in SoniVox''s Complete Symphonic Collection. I''ve watched these products evolve, and it''s great to have many of the same sounds in an affordable collection. Almost half of Muse''s content is devoted to symphonic instruments, and you''ll probably find enough variety to suit most musical scenarios unless you specialize in orchestral arranging.
The Orchestral Strings family supplies violin, viola, cello, and bass, both solo and in ensembles. Variations on the solo violin preset include classical, bluegrass, and round-robin varieties. The violas provide up- and down-bowed versions, and the cellos include a fast version. The bass extends much higher and much lower than its normal range, and it also offers up, down, and fast variations. All solo strings supply numerous EZ versions with and without release samples. The player has no control over vibrato, which has been recorded in virtually all string samples. Ensembles stack all four instruments into chamber and larger groups.
Similarly, Muse''s Orchestral Brass family supplies solo and ensemble trumpet, trombone, tuba, and French horn. Each features variations such as swell, fast, and espressivo. Again, some ensembles stack different instruments together, and EZ versions come with and without releases. Likewise, the clarinet, oboe, English horn, bassoon, flute, and piccolo in the Orchestral Woodwinds family deliver plenty of variety.
I was impressed with the selection and quality of the instruments in Orchestral Percussion. I was especially pleased with the harps, which budget-minded orchestral libraries often overlook completely. There are no sampled harp glissandos, but you can play your own glisses and control releases using the mod wheel. Mallet percussion includes glockenspiel, marimba, vibes, xylophone, and tubular bells. Along with the expected bass drum, field snare, crash cymbal, clave, and triangle, you also get ratchet, slapstick, sleigh bells, and some nice wind chimes. Drum-group and hand-percussion ensembles map several instruments across the keyboard.
GigaPulse and Effects
Because it is based on GVI, Muse features Tascam''s convolution reverb, GigaPulse (for details, see the GigaStudio 3 review in the May 2005 issue of EM). Like GigaStudio, Muse offers four stereo NFX plug-ins: Reverb/Multi, Chorus/Mod, Tap/Delay, and EQ. There''s no limit to the number of FX Inserts you can add, and each contains up to four effects. Unfortunately, the GUI for effects is too small to use comfortably.
You route instruments to effects by loading GigaPulse or NFX presets into a slot and then routing the instrument''s audio output to that slot''s input. Once you''ve created an effects insert, you can route any instrument in any slot to the same insert, but you won''t be able to control the amount of each instrument that''s routed to the effects. When you load an instrument that has embedded GigaPulse content, a stacked layer containing the effects automatically loads at the same time.
I was much happier with Muse''s content than I was with its GVI-based framework. The techniques for selecting instruments felt a bit cumbersome, but at least GVI provides shortcuts that allow you to quickly open instruments you''ve opened previously. Effects routing is a little awkward, and I was disappointed to have so little control over individual effects sends for each instrument. Still, I was more than satisfied with the ability to easily split and layer instruments. I was also impressed that Muse performed so well on a computer that barely exceeds its minimum system requirements.
If you want a sample library that covers all the bases and you don''t already own a sampler, Muse is a great place to start. Even if you have a sampler and an extensive library of sampled instruments, Muse can fill in any gaps in your collection. The price is pretty reasonable, and the quality of the included content is uniformly outstanding. Check out the audio demos on SoniVox''s Web site to hear what a rich and versatile virtual instrument Muse is.
Associate Editor Geary Yelton has been composing and recording since the ''60s and playing synthesizers since the mid-''70s.
EASE OF USE: 3
QUALITY OF SOUNDS: 5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Uniformly excellent sound. Stylistically versatile. Easy, infinite stacking. Runs standalone or as a VST plug-in.
CONS: Can''t export sounds to GigaStudio or GVI. Can''t import Giga libraries. Confusing GM loading. Limited effects routing.