Stylus 1.0 (Mac/Win)
Spectrasonics' Stylus ($299) is a software sample player for VST, RTAS, and MAS sequencers, and it elevates the genre of sliced loops to the status of instrument. The plug-in is a breakbeat-oriented sound module built on Spectrasonics' Groove Control format, a variation on the slice-and-dice approach popularized by tools such as Propellerhead Software's ReCycle loop editor. Groove Control provides libraries of sliced loops along with the MIDI sequences that trigger the slices into a groove. Spectrasonics added a few proprietary tricks, but the basic result is that you get independent control of tempo, pitch, and most significantly, feel.
Get Your Groove On
Stylus takes Groove Control to a whole new level. For starters, the product comes with 3 GB of presliced grooves produced specifically for Stylus. The system is self-contained, so you can't import other elements or loops. However, the collection is both robust and top-quality within the genres of hip-hop and breakbeat. The two main categories, Breakbeat Loops and Percussion Loops, come in several different layouts and provide a flexible-working environment. Each loop appears in a basic menu organized by bpm. Clicking the Preview button auditions the loop at its default pitch and tempo. You can also trigger the loop from a MIDI controller, in which case the pitch and tempo change as you deviate from the loop's root key.
Once you locate a loop that you like, you switch to its Groove Control equivalent, in which each slice is mapped to a MIDI Note for independent triggering. You then load the associated MIDI file into your sequencer (most sequencers support drag-and-drop). By triggering the Groove Control version of the loop from its corresponding MIDI sequence, you can change tempo, quantization, swing, and dynamics, thereby changing the feel without affecting pitch. This opens the door for many creative opportunities such as editing song section variants, triggering the loop elements manually, or using a different sequence.
These same loops are organized under Groove Menus and Swing Menus as well — a different loop mapped to each of 61 MIDI Notes, each locked to the tempo in the menu's name. That makes comparisons and auditioning easy, but the real juice is in the ability to trigger multiple loops at once by holding down more than one note. The ability to audition complex loop combinations in real time is alone worth the price of admission.
Stylus also offers menus of one-shot sounds such as turntable scratches, claps, snaps, clicks and what appears to be the complete collection of kit and percussion elements that constitute the loops. For example, you get a collection of approximately 1,000 kicks and snares to choose from. Although you can't change a slice's MIDI Note map within a loop, you can use multiple instances of the plug-in and manipulate the events in the MIDI files.
By the Slice
Stylus' controls elevate the program beyond sliced-sample playback. The sexy interface includes controls for Pan, Velocity, pitch, filter (highpass plus three slope variations of lowpass), master ADSR envelope, and two LFOs (sine wave only). These controls normally affect the entire loop; however, pressing the Zone Edit button followed by a MIDI note from your controller applies the onscreen controls to the individual loop slice mapped to that note. The ability to shape the sound of the individual loop elements means you can mutilate grooves in incredible ways. Stylus sends and tracks the zone control changes you make during playback — including multiple passes to tweak multiple parameters.
Installation was easy, although it takes about 30 minutes to transfer the 3 GB library from the five CDs onto your hard drive. The installer places the necessary files in the plug-ins folders of your sequencer. Installation also adds aliases for the library elements in neatly organized hierarchical submenus in the Apple menu or the Windows Start menu for quick access to the files. Authorization is by way of online challenge-and-response with a 48-hour grace period.
Stylus is much more demanding of memory than CPU cycles. The installer suggests boosting sequencer memory allocation by 100 MB (125 MB for DAE with Pro Tools) for up to eight instantiations of the plug-in. Each instance beyond that requires approximately 10 MB more. PC users can run Stylus with Windows 98. As of this writing, Stylus only works with OS 9 (9.04 minimum) on the Mac side. However, by the time you read this, an update with support for VST, MAS, RTAS, and OS X Audio Units should be available as a free download.
Tools that become inspirational musical partners are among the most exciting recent developments in music technology. Stylus fits that description with its magical blend of elegant architecture, ease of use, high fidelity, and powerful results that make it a masterpiece. Most importantly, all of that adds up to endless hours of musical inspiration and experimentation — and that's really what it's all about.