Playa''s interface bridges the gap between MPC-style beat creation and the typical computer-based virtual instrument.
SoniVox Playa ($149) is a sample-playback virtual instrument that provides quick access to a wide range of hip-hop and R&B sounds. More than 400 presets are offered and assignable across 16 user-programmable pads for MPC-style beat construction. Note that Playa is strictly a sound module that must be driven by a DAW host or from a real-time controller: it does not have integrated sequencing capabilities.
Playa works standalone and supports the AU, VST, and RTAS plug-in formats. The application is very light on the CPU, and authorization requires only a serial-number challenge and response — no dongle is needed. I ran it as a VST plug-in on a 2.8 GHz Pentium 4 with Windows XP, and it barely tickled the processor meter. (Vista is also supported, and Mac users will need an Intel-based processor and OS X 10.4.1 or later.)
DRESSED THE PART
The 4-by-4 pad matrix is prominent within the attractive GUI. Beside it are controls that let you access Playa's four modes. You're in the Pads play mode by default, which lets you crank out beats right away from any of the 50-plus factory layouts. Alternatively, you can enter Keys mode for standard keyboard-based melodic performance using the multisampled instruments. Because Playa is not multitimbral in this mode, you must run several instances in order to build arrangements.
Map mode lets you assign new sounds to pads and set their pitch by entering note values with the virtual keyboard, located at the bottom of the interface, or from a MIDI keyboard controller. Parameters for a selected pad are displayed in the blue porthole, where you can also load, save, or clear your custom pad layouts. The turntable arm serves no function.
Learn mode allows you to program which key or pad from your external controller will trigger a given pad. You can have any number of MIDI or USB hardware controllers connected to Playa at once. Typically, you'd combine a standard keyboard controller with a pad controller, such as the M-Audio Trigger Finger.
Pad layouts are different from Playa instruments in that they contain only the MIDI notes and remote trigger assignments for each pad: they do not contain the sounds themselves. Because of this, you can use a pad layout as a template for any Playa instrument. Also, there is no limit to the number of sounds or notes that you can have mapped to a given pad. You can stack multiple kick drums, for example.
But what's really cool is applying the tempo-synchronized (to host), variable-resolution Retrigger function in Pads mode. Because Retrigger can be set individually for each pad, you could have it turned off during one-shot sounds while it is set to whole, half, quarter, eighth, or 16th notes on others. Because you can adjust the retrigger resolution in real time, it makes for a fantastic live remixing tool, mimicking DJ-style sample cutting on the fly.
You can sculpt the response of each pad using the AHDSR envelope section. If your hardware controller sends MIDI continuous controller messages, you can assign those to the envelope parameters in real time. Sadly, there is no real-time pitch control per pad, as on the MPC, nor is there a filter anywhere within Playa. The 4-band global EQ section is handy for adding some low-end bump or wedging sounds into a dense mix. Chorus and delay effects are provided, which are quite lush and sweetly analog-sounding to my ears.
The more that I dug into Playa, the more I felt like the coolness of the interface began to outshine the sounds. Playa boasts a sizable 5 GB of core content, which hits on all the categories you'd expect to find in any hip-hop or R&B tune. There are many nice electric, acoustic, and synth basses to choose from, and dozens of synth lead and pad programs as well. But there is a hit-and-miss nature to the keyboards, guitars, orchestral, and ethnic instruments folders, and many of Playa's sounds lack attitude. (SoniVox has a couple of instrument expansion packs in the works that should remedy the situation.)
Nonetheless, with its utilitarian sound set, Playa's real value is in giving budget-conscious beat producers a solid collection of genrecentric, meat-and-potatoes sounds at a low price.
Value (1 through 5): 3