STEINBERG RECYCLE 1.7 (MAC/WIN)

First introduced in 1994, Steinberg's ReCycle software has been on the sampling-and-looping scene for some time. Touted as "the ultimate tool for sampled
Author:
Publish date:

First introduced in 1994, Steinberg's ReCycle software has been on the sampling-and-looping scene for some time. Touted as "the ultimate tool for sampled grooves," its innovative strategies for changing tempos and manipulating beats have made it a favorite among sample-heads in all genres. For version 1.7, ReCycle received a major face-lift. A redesigned user interface and a host of new features make it more user-friendly and flexible than ever.

ReCycle 1.7 works on Macs and PCs and looks and acts pretty much the same on both. Differing key commands and the need to install OMS on the Mac (to access some samplers via MIDI) are the most conspicuous differences. ReCycle's output can be heard through the Mac's audio outputs, but PC users will need a 16-bit sound card.

A single CD-ROM and a manual provide installation and instructions for both systems. One product, in one box, for both platforms-very cool. This lets you perform multiple installations on different platforms without buying another piece of software.

THE UNINITIATEDNot familiar with ReCycle? Here's a quick overview. The program chops up a sampled groove into its component beats. These discrete samples, called slices, can then be exported to a sampler or a computer-based digital audio workstation (DAW). ReCycle also generates an associated MIDI file that contains the note and timing data needed to reconstruct the original groove. This allows you to, among other things, change the speed of the groove without altering its pitch. Just change the tempo of the file playing back the slices and alter the groove at will.

The slice strategy also permits easy manipulation of sounds within the loop. With the beats broken into individual samples, it's easy to swap one sound for another, or even rearrange the order of the beats themselves. Before ReCycle, music producers used to chop up and resequence their loops manually, a time-consuming and tedious practice.

Don't confuse ReCycle's operation with the time-stretching feature in your audio editor. Time stretching destructively stretches or compresses the audio data to change the loop's tempo without altering its pitch. It also leaves the loop intact, making it very difficult to change individual sounds or rearrange beats. Unlike time stretching, ReCycle's slicing involves no destructive audio processing. Therefore, the original sound is not colored or changed; it's simply broken up.

ReCycle does have a function called Stretch, but it's not related to time stretching and has nothing to do with beats per minute (bpm). I'll explain what Stretch is in a minute and why the function should have been named Tails.

UP AND RUNNINGInstalling ReCycle is a simple matter, and if you follow the instructions and enter the product serial number when prompted, everything should run smoothly. When you boot up the software for the first time, the CD has to be in the computer, but after that, you can tuck the disc away.

The CD-ROM offers a gaggle of great loops that you can audition and start fidgeting with right off the bat. The samples are from several libraries, including Amg, eLab, Sounds Good, and Wizoo. On the main menu bar, an item entitled Contacts connects you to the Propellerhead home page, where there are additional free loops for downloading. (Propellerhead is the company in Sweden that makes ReCycle; Steinberg distributes it and provides product support.)

THE LOOK AND FEELIf you have used an earlier version of ReCycle, the new user interface will seem familiar. Each sample still gets its own discrete window, and you can open as many samples as memory allows. In each window, you see the waveform, an overview of the waveform, and a Command section with tools and transport controls.

When lots of sample windows are open, the screen can get rather cluttered. A pull-down menu entitled Windows helps organize the jumble. Windows displays a list of all the samples currently open. Scroll to a sample's name, and it is brought to the front. This lets you navigate easily among samples no matter how many you have open. A tiling option is also available in the PC version, but not in the Mac version (see Fig. 1). Automatic tiling is the best way to view all your samples at the same time, short of manually resizing and moving each window so that they all sit side by side.

As in previous versions, waveforms can be displayed in a variety of mind-bending colors. Red, purple, blue, chartreuse, it's your choice. But now you can choose a texture (Plain, Shaded, or 3D) as well. Plain is the texture used in the original program and is certainly the easiest to view. Shaded gives the waveform a lighting effect. The "light" shines down on the waveform from above, shading its underside and making its top a little overexposed and difficult to see. 3D is a topographical effect that is easy to look at and definitely cool. A contrast control lets you adjust the relationship between the waveform and its background. Higher contrast settings make the waveform darker and the background lighter.

The zoom in/out control at the lower left of the waveform enables you to zoom in on the waveform for detailed viewing. The control has been improved from older versions and now has greater resolution. You can zoom in much closer than previously, which makes finding zero-point crossings much simpler. A waveform overview remains above the actual waveform. In the overview, the section being viewed in the main waveform window is shown bookended by two black lines. Magnifying options include Magnify to Fit for viewing the entire waveform, and Magnify to Fit Loop for viewing the looped section.

SLICING IT UPSlicing a sampled groove into easily digestible pieces is simple: load a loop and move the Sensitivity control (now positioned horizontally above the waveform) to the right until slice markers appear (see Fig. 2). Each slice marker indicates a piece of the loop that will be exported. The higher the Sensitivity control is set, the more sliced up the sample is. The goal is to adjust the Sensitivity setting so that each slice represents a beat or hit in the groove.

Some loops translate really well; others don't. The more defined the beats are-the deeper the valleys and the higher the amplitude peaks-the better the Sensitivity function is at catching everything. Loops with droning sounds, sustained bass notes, or lots of cymbals with long decays are difficult to deal with. Simple drum loops with plenty of transients and percussive hits or individual instruments with clearly outlined notes and chords work great. However, I found that even with the most ideal samples, there are times when the Sensitivity function lays down too many markers or too few.

A newly expanded Transport feature lets you audition each slice to determine whether it needs to be lengthened or shortened before exporting. Transport offers the standard Play and Stop controls as well as Play Next Slice, Play Previous Slice, and Play Current Slice. (Keyboard shortcuts are available for the Transport functions.) You can use these functions to preview each slice one at a time. Hitting Current plays the current slice (the one that the Playbar is resting on); hitting Next plays the current slice and advances the Playbar to the next slice; and hitting Previous plays the slice right before the Playbar. Pressing Stop once stops playback, and pressing it again takes you to the top of the loop. These new controls are invaluable in the quest for obtaining the perfectly dissected loop.

Once you've listened to the slices, you'll probably need to make a few changes. There are four tools to work with, which are the same as the tools in past versions. The default tool is a typical-looking arrow-shaped selector. Click on a marker's head (the triangle at its top) to select it. If Sensitivity has generated too many markers (for example, markers in the wrong places or markers in the middle of beats), use the Hide tool to render them invisible. This doesn't delete the markers; it just turns them off.

Draw in markers with the Pencil tool. When you know the beat is there but Sensitivity doesn't recognize it, just locate the beginning of the beat, zoom in on the waveform, find a zero-point crossing, and draw a marker with the Pencil.

A LOOPING MACHINEReCycle doesn't claim to be a looping program, but it does an excellent job of making looping effortless. Every sample that is loaded receives loop start and end points automatically. These points are, by default, at the very beginning and end of the sample (unless different loop points have been previously saved to the sample via another program). Of course, not every sample loops perfectly; maybe there are a few extra beats at the end of the loop. Or perhaps all you want to do is loop the second bar of a long phrase. That's when it's time for you to put ReCycle to work.

Once Sensitivity has placed a bunch of slice markers, it's usually easy to find perfect loop points. As the file plays back, watch the Playbar. You can see which markers delineate your loop as the Playbar crosses over them. Grab the loop pointers, wherever they are (you can usually find them at the extreme ends of the sample), and drag them to the markers you want them to align with. Drop the pointers on or near the markers, and they snap to those exact beats. That's it. Ninety percent of the time, this produces a beautifully in-time loop. (If it doesn't, you'll need to use the Pencil tool for manual marking.)

Once your loop is working, type in the number of bars and beats you want; the exact tempo of your loop (up to three decimal places) is then registered. I love this feature because it's a quick way of figuring out the precise bpm of a loop. To generate and export a MIDI file, you must fill in the Bars and Beats fields. If you forget to enter values, when you try to export the file, the program will prompt you.

FILES AWAYWithout a doubt, version 1.7's most impressive feature is its ability to export two new file formats, REX and TRK. The REX format is a ReCycle file that Steinberg's Cubase (version 3.7 for Windows and version 4.0 for the Mac) can read. Though a REX file is actually an audio file, when you load it into Cubase, you can treat it much like a MIDI file. For example, you can change its tempo without altering its pitch, rearrange individual beats as needed, or process it through VST EQ and effects. (For some hints about using drum loops as REX files, see the Steinberg Cubase VST section of "Sequencing Secrets" in the November 1998 issue of EM.)

With Cubase, REX files, and a powerful enough computer, you'll never have to download a loop to an external sampler again. Now you can do all your complicated loop arrangements right on the computer-a great way to work. You can get started with the numerous CD-ROMs containing REX files available via the Steinberg Web site.

The TRK format is similar to the REX format but is intended specifically for Mixman, the live sample-remix program from Mixman Technologies. (For a review of Mixman Studio Pro, see the November 1999 issue of EM.) Rather than using off-the-shelf TRK files (not that what's available is bad), you can now create and customize your own TRK loops with complete tempo and pitch control. This opens a whole new realm of possibilities.

ReCycle also can export the SoundFont format, but I didn't have enough time to play with any SoundFont files. On the PC, SoundFonts can be used by a number of RAM-based sound cards, such as the Creative Labs Sound Blaster series, and by various software synthesizers, such as Seer Systems' Reality. On the Mac, software by BitHeadz and others also supports the format. As with the REX and TRK formats, ReCycle exports both the SoundFont and a MIDI file to trigger the samples.

Along with the new file formats, ReCycle still writes standard AIFF, WAV, and SDII files. It can also save a file in Digidesign's SampleCell format.

Readable files include AIFF, WAV, and SDII. ReCycle doesn't recognize REX, TRK, or SoundFont files. In day-to-day use this isn't a problem, but in several scenarios it could tie you up. For example, what if you just spent a long time beat-mapping an AIFF file, saved it as a REX, and then realized you should have exported it to your sampler? Sure, you could open up the original file and re-create the beat map, but who wants to do that?

Or perhaps you have TRK or REX files on CD-ROM that you want to send to your sampler. (Though CD-ROMs from Mixman and other manufacturers come with duplicate WAV-format files, those files are not beat-mapped.) The only way to pass them through ReCycle is to open them in Cubase and mix them down to disk in a readable format. Of course, in the process, you reintegrate all the individual beats and lose all of your slices. In short, count on spending some time converting and remapping if you plan to load REX, TRK, or SoundFont files into your sampler.

STEREO BITESReCycle still cannot open stereo files. It sees them, but only opens them as monophonic files. You have the option of opening the left side, the right side, or a mix of both sides. If you must retain stereo, I suggest opening each side independently, slicing, exporting, and then panning each sample hard left and hard right. This takes up two tracks in your playback software but saves the loop's stereo imaging.

The program also only opens 16-bit files. When it encounters something other than 16-bit, the program usually responds with, "ReCycle only supports 16-bit audio files." Sometimes, however, this warning is strangely absent; the file is seen, but it won't open and you can't audition it.

SAMPLER SAGACITYA supplement to the manual is included on the CD-ROM. The document, in PDF format, covers working with hardware samplers and contains a list of supported samplers.

For the PC, several samplers are no longer supported via SMDI (that is, SCSI) transfer. The Roland S760 and several Akai samplers ranging from the S1000 series to the CD 3000 are incompatible with Windows 95 and 98. They are still MIDI Sample Dump compatible, but this method is dreadfully slow. Be sure to use SMDI if your equipment supports it.

ReCycle automatically scans for samplers when it is launched, and looks for both MIDI and SCSI connections. It creates instruments in the Export menu for the samplers that it finds. I tested ReCycle with an Ensoniq ASR-10, but because the program doesn't automatically identify the ASR-10 (as stated in the supplement), I had to create an instrument manually and assign it to the sampler. This was not a big deal and took only a few seconds.

When exporting samples, you can choose from several processing options. Sampling rates can be converted during transfer to rates ranging from 48 kHz down to 6.25 kHz. Because many loops are pulled from CD at 44.1 kHz, being able to convert them to lower rates during transfer is a great way to save time (and memory). Individual sample slices can be normalized on export, though that could have an unwanted effect on your loop's overall dynamics. (In certain cases, I'm sure it would be a cool effect.) The Silence feature lets you mute beats, creating a silent space in the loop without messing up the groove. I prefer to mute beats using MIDI, because once you silence a slice, it's permanently altered.

The Stretch feature I mentioned earlier adds a tail to each sample slice. A slider adjusts the percentage of "stretch," with values from 0 to 100 percent. The tail sounds a lot like reverb but doesn't make the whole sample wet. Only the reverb's tail hangs off the beat's end. Stretch usually sounds fine under 30 percent, but over that, the added audio portion starts sounding rather odd.

If you export a ReCycle'd groove and want to play it back at a tempo dramatically lower than its original bpm, there are things to consider. For example, taking a loop at 120 bpm and playing it back at 60 bpm could, depending on the loop, create large, audible gaps between the sample slices. There are two solutions: pitch-shift the sample down so that the slices become longer in duration, or stretch just the ends of the slices to fill in the holes. You might also try adding a bit of reverb to the loop. ReCycle will automatically pitch-shift your loop to a new bpm. Just type in a new bpm and export the file, and the program does the calculations for you. No more fidgeting with your sampler's tuning parameter to make a groove fit a tempo!

RECYCLE OR DIEWith a $199 sticker price, ReCycle hardly puts a dent in the piggy bank. The software is a solid value, standing alone in performance and originality. But it isn't for everybody. You'll need to run an additional program that reads its file formats or use an external sampler to take advantage of what it offers.

Version 1.7 upholds ReCycle's unique groove-slicing traditions while ushering in a new age of crosscompatibility. If you've used the software before and are thinking about updating, you won't be disappointed. If you have never worked with the program but use Cubase or Mixman and love working with loops, do check it out. ReCycle's ability to take any loop and export it in a format that gives you complete control of tempo and individually sampled beats is nothing short of amazing.