In the early 1980s, with the introduction of drum machines from Oberheim, Linn, E-mu, Sequential, and Roland, combining step sequencing with a synthesis or sampling engine in an easy-to-use hardware package became wildly popular. That phenomenon started a development path that has led to the vastly more sophisticated workstations available today from all of the major synthesizer manufacturers. Although the options and programming flexibility of such machines have grown enormously, the basic concept remains the same: start with some sound generators, add pattern sequencers to play them, and top it off with a song sequencer for linking patterns together.
Music-software developers jumped on the workstation bandwagon as soon as desktop computing power was sufficient to support it. In this article, I'll look at six soft-synth workstations (SSWs) to see what the field has to offer. A downloadable demo is available for each; you might want to check those out as you read this.
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
All major audio-sequencing software now provides, by means of plug-in instruments and effects, synthesis and sample playback along with full-featured MIDI and audio sequencing. The obvious question, then, is why would you want an SSW in addition to or instead of a full-fledged DAW? The answer lies more in what you won't find than in what you will.
None of the SSWs discussed here include score editors, MIDI event-list editors, or complex MIDI processing environments, and only two offer any kind of tempo modulation (though those that can operate as plug-ins or sync to MIDI Clock will follow a master's tempo changes). Although all have the ability to render their output as audio files, only about half have audio-file players well suited to playing those files as tracks. All offer MIDI control of instrument and effects parameters. The ability to record automation is usually provided, but automation editing is generally limited, and some SSWs only allow you to overwrite existing automation. If you need those more sophisticated features, you will want a more traditional, full-featured DAW.
The absence of DAW features, however, should not be taken as a limitation. SSWs are designed to make fast work of generating and manipulating patterns and loops. Because they always contain a multitrack song sequencer for stringing patterns together, SSWs are often all you need to create a finished product. Even if pattern sequencing is only part of your bag of tricks, an SSW is probably the fastest, easiest way to get that job done.
The SSW's simplicity also makes it an excellent creative tool. Once you've learned your way around — and that doesn't usually take long — you can fire up an SSW and have loops and lines bouncing off the walls in no time. You can see from the “Feature Comparison” table included in this article that a certain amount of creeping featuritis has hit the SSW world. More is not always better, and your music might be better served if you choose an SSW with only the features you need to get the creative juices flowing, leaving the more sophisticated stuff for your DAW.
Before getting into specific SSWs, two options are worth mentioning. Although several of the SSWs I discuss have audio-loop-processing features, if looping audio is your main interest, then software dedicated to loop processing might be a better choice; examples include Sonic Foundry Acid Pro, Ableton Live, and BitHeadz Phrazer. If you're into creating your own tools, packages such as Native Instruments Reaktor, Cycling '74 Max/MSP, and Sound Quest Infinity provide excellent environments for building your own SSW. Before dismissing that option out of hand, keep in mind that do-it-yourself applications typically have dedicated users groups with many users freely sharing their work. Several free or low-cost SSWs are currently available for each of the applications mentioned. (See the sidebar “Further Reading” for more information on both of those alternatives.)
Image-Line's Fruityloops offers VST and DX instrument and effects plug-in support to supplement its array of built-in sound generators and effects. Fruityloops comes in two downloadable flavors, Pro and Full. You can use the Full version either standalone or as a VST Instrument plug-in in supporting hosts. The Full version is also available on CD-ROM with a printed manual and a large library of samples. It's available from Cakewalk, and it also includes Cakewalk's DreamStation DXi.
Fruityloops takes a slightly different approach to step sequencing than the other SSWs covered here, and it takes some getting used to. The reward is that it's extremely flexible and powerful and, once you know your way around, very fast to program.
Instead of having separate pattern sequencers for each sound generator, Fruityloops has a multichannel pattern sequencer with a separate channel for each sound-generator instance. The pattern sequencer's control panel is a button matrix with a row for each sound generator and buttons (called Dots) for each 16th note in the pattern (see Fig. 1). As you add new sound generators to a song, new rows are added to the pattern sequencer, which means that the 999 individual patterns might contain notes for one, several, or even all of the sound generators. That leaves you the flexibility of programming your patterns in the conventional manner, with only one instrument playing in each pattern, or of programming your patterns as song sections, in which several instruments play at once.
The bar length (from 4 to 64 16th notes) and the grouping of notes into beats for visual convenience is a global song setting. Fruityloops allows you to override the fixed bar length and the 16th-note quantization represented by the Dots by replacing any row of Dots with a piano-roll sequence. Piano-roll sequences can be any length and will all loop independently during pattern playback. You could use piano-roll sequences to program an entire song in a single pattern, but using Fruityloops' song Playlist is a better alternative.
The Playlist contains 999 tracks — one for each pattern. The tracks are divided into cells reflecting the fixed pattern length. Turning a cell on (by clicking) causes its pattern to play at that time position in the song. If you set up your patterns as song sections playing multiple instruments, then you would typically turn on at most one cell per time position (so that each Playlist column would contain at most one active cell). If you set up your patterns to play only one instrument, then you would most likely have several patterns playing in each column. Of course, the beauty of that scheme is that you can combine both methods, which makes song creation both fast and flexible. For example, you could devote some patterns to multiinstrument parts such as drum kits or strings and horns while devoting others to single instruments such as lead synths.
Fruityloops' assortment of sound generators includes all the usual suspects: a sample player, a SoundFont player for playing (but not for creating) multisamples, a subtractive synthesizer, a plucked-string physical-modeling synth, and a beat-slice player (software for beat-slicing is extra). You also get demo versions of several other synths, and you can expand your sound palette with VSTi or DXi plug-ins.
Fruityloops comes with an interesting complement of off-the-wall sound generators as well. It has BeepMap for converting BMP-format pictures to sound, Granulizer for sample resynthesis, and a speech synthesizer that will speak phrases you type using a variety of synthesized voices. Push that through a beat slicer, and you have a kind of robotic insta-rap. To hear an Orwellian example, listen to the MP3 audio file FruitSpeak on EM's Web site. Fruityloops also supports Buzz Machines (www.buzzmachines.com), an online collection of free virtual instruments and effects.
Each pattern sequencer channel has an associated Channel window for making sound-generator settings. The window typically has several pages, the last of which includes a chord arpeggiator that allows you to select from numerous chord and scale types for arpeggiation.
For a flexible, easy-to-program pattern- and song-sequencing layout that you can apply to a diverse collection of plug-in sound generators, Fruityloops is a top choice. If you're looking for extensive built-in synthesis and multisampling, however, you might do better with one of the other SSWs.
If you're comfortable using an audio mixing desk, Synapse Audio Software's Orion might be your fast track into the world of SSW. Orion comes in three flavors — Basic, Pro, and Platinum — differentiated by their complement of built-in sound generators and effects. The Platinum version comes on CD with a substantial library of sampled sounds; the other versions are downloadable. Because all flavors will host instrument and effects plug-ins in VST and DX format, even the least expensive Basic version might do the job for you (see the “Feature Comparison” table).
Orion's architecture is based on an audio mixing desk to which a channel strip is added for each new sound generator (see Fig. 2). Each channel strip has four effects sends, slots for two insert effects, and four bands of EQ, one of which is parametric. A Master mixer includes four Return buses and a Master output strip, each with EQ and four inserts. ASIO supports multiple outputs, and you can route the master mix and buses to separate physical outputs.
Orion's built-in sound generators cover most popular synthesis methods as well as synthesized and sampled drums. The multisample player reads Akai, SoundFont 2.0, and Kurzweil format sample maps. The accompanying multisample editor can automatically detect sample pitches and generate keymaps accordingly. The sampler in Orion Pro and Platinum features a built-in beat slicer, which you can use to slice sample loops and automatically create triggering sequences directly in the sampler's pattern sequencer. Orion is the only SSW to provide that feature at no extra cost.
Each sound generator, including VSTi and DXi plug-ins, has its own pattern sequencer that holds 64 patterns, each with a maximum 999 steps. The number and size of the steps are variable, and they apply to all patterns for a given channel strip. Generally, you enter patterns in a piano-roll-style editor by using either real-time MIDI input or the mouse, but the drum generators provide buttons for the first 16 pattern-steps. The piano-roll editors have a controller lane for editing Velocity and automating any control-panel parameter. Parameters can also be assigned to MIDI continuous controllers, allowing automation to be recorded using MIDI.
Orion offers several handy pattern-editing options, including randomizing, Velocity scaling, quantizing, transposing, and humanizing. In addition, you can apply a variety of groove and strum (called Pluck) templates to your patterns. Each generator (again including VSTi and DXi plug-ins) has a built-in arpeggiator and chord maker. They can be used separately, and when they're used together, the chords are arpeggiated. Arpeggio patterns are 16 steps long, in anything from quarter- to 128th-note steps, and each step can be set to play or rest.
Orion's Song Playlist contains a track for each generator and works in much the same way as the individual piano-roll pattern editors. Controller lanes can be opened for any instrument or effects parameter for song-level automation. You can rearrange generators in the Playlist, and Orion will rearrange their mixer channels accordingly. Orion offers the most flexible tempo options, with a Tempo editor that allows graphic entry of tempo changes. The MP3 example DragDrum illustrates tempo modulation of a simple drum loop.
If you're interested in easy, button-style pattern sequencing, Orion might not be your first choice, but its mixing and effects handling are among the best of the group.
Propellerhead Software's Reason is probably the most sophisticated of our SSWs (whereas Propellerhead's other entry, ReBirth, is the simplest of the bunch). Its sequencer is the most full featured, though still well short of what you'll find in a professional DAW. Its sound generators run the gamut from basic synthesis to multilayered sample mapping, and its complement of DSP effects covers all the bases.
Reason works on the analogy of an endless rack to which you add modules as needed (see Fig. 3). Its signal path is completely patchable, allowing you to insert effects and create submixes as you choose. Numerous gate and control-voltage (CV) inputs and outputs provide extensive control and triggering options, as well.
Reason 1.0 contained four sound-generator modules: a mono, subtractive synth (Subtractor); a basic multisample player (NN19); a ten-pad drum machine (Redrum); and a loop-slice player (Dr.Rex). Version 2.0 adds two more modules: Malström, a stereo synth featuring a unique combination of granular and wavetable synthesis, and NN-XT, an advanced multisample player that allows zoning and layering of samples and offers an extended set of modulation and playback parameters. Reason ships with over a gigabyte of samples, presets, and sliced loops (in REX file format), and you can, of course, use your own. You'll need Propellerhead's Recycle beat-slicing software if you want to make your own REX files. The MP3 example Malfeasance illustrates some of Malström's capabilities.
Reason's pattern-sequencing capabilities offer patterns that can have as many as 64 steps; step size can range from 128th notes to half notes with eighth- and 16th-note triplets thrown in. In addition, you can control Velocity, and shuffle and flam are available. Redrum has its own pattern sequencer, but all other pattern sequencing is accomplished by patching in Matrix, a separate pattern-sequencer module. Matrix also has a CV mode that allows you to use it to automate other module parameters. You can merge Matrix steps to provide different step sizes within the same pattern.
Reason's sequencing options range the farthest of all of our SSWs from the strict pattern-sequencing model. Its dedicated arrangement-style sequencer offers piano-roll and drum-style note sequencing, pattern-change sequencing (not limited to measure divisions) for the Redrum and Matrix modules, slice-sequencing for Dr.Rex, and controller lanes for automating any panel control. You can record notes and automation in real time using either MIDI or onscreen controls. You can also use the mouse to enter and graphically edit data in the various sequencer lanes. On the arrangement level, blocks of data can be grouped for duplication and rearrangement.
Reason supports ReWire hosting of ReBirth, which allows ReBirth to function as an additional Reason module, with separate inputs provided for each ReBirth drum pad as well as all mixes and submixes. Reason does not have a dedicated audio-track player, though you can load arbitrarily long audio files into NN19 and NN-XT. A better solution for incorporating audio-file playback into Reason is to slave it to a ReWire host that supports audio-file sequencing and looping. Reason and Ableton Live are a good combination in that regard, each complementing the other's features.
REBIRTH RB-338 (MAC/WIN)
Among the first generation drum 'n' bass sequencers, the machines that most captured the imagination of the techno and dance community — particularly the TR-808 Rhythm Composer, TR-909 Rhythm Composer, and TB-303 Bass Line synthesizer — came from Roland. Those boxes, if you can find them, cost more today than they did when they were new. Enter Propellerhead's ReBirth RB-338.
Feature Comparison Fruityloops Orion Reason ReBirth Storm TERA VERSION DETAILS
ModelProFullFullBasicProPlatinum—RB-338——Tested Version—3.5.4——3.063.062.0.12.0.12.01.1Price$49$99$139$49$99$199$399$179$149$279DeliverydownloaddownloadboxdownloaddownloadboxboxboxboxboxPrinted ManualnonoyesnonointrointronoyesfullOther DocumentationHelp, PDFHelp, PDFHelp, PDFHelpHelpHelpPDFPDFHTMLPDFCopy ProtectionInternetInternetInternetserial numberserial numberCDlibraryCDInternetlibraryDownloadable Demoyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes
PLATFORM AND PLUG-IN FORMATS
Platform (Primary/Secondary)WinWinWinWinWinWinMac/WinMac/WinWin/MacWin/MacAs Plug-inn/aVSTiVSTin/an/an/an/an/aVSTiVSTiHosts Plug-insVST, VSTi, DX, DXiVST, VSTi, DX, DXiVST, VSTi, DX, DXiVST, VSTi, DXVST, VSTi, DX, DXiVST, VSTi, DX, DXinonononoReWire Master/MixernononononoyesReBirth onlynoyesnoReWire Slavenonononononoyesyesyesno
PATTERN SEQUENCER DETAILS
Maximum Number of Steps64unlimitedunlimited999unlimitedunlimited64161664Variable Step SizeyesyesyesyesyesyesyesnonoyesPatterns per Track or Instrument999999999646464323264512ArpeggiatoryesyesyesnoyesyesnononoyesAutomatic Chord GeneratoryesyesyesnoyesyesnonoyesyesPolyphonic Steps (chords)noyesyesyesyesyesyesnoyesyesButton Step EntryyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesnoPiano-Roll Style EditornoyesyesyesyesyesyesnoyesyesAutomation Recorded in PatternsnoyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesGraphic Automation Editingyesnonoyesyesyesyesnonoyes
MIDI Real-Time Entry for PatternsyesyesyesyesyesyesyesnoyesyesMIDI Step Entry for PatternsyesyesyesnononononononoMIDI Control of Synth ParametersyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesMIDI Learn for Controller AssignmentsyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesMIDI Automation RecordingnoyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesStandard MIDI Files (pattern level)importimportimportnoimport/exportimport/exportnonononoStandard MIDI Files (song level)import/exportimport/exportimport/exportnononoimport/exportnonono
SONG SEQUENCER DETAILS
Song Sequencer Steps999999999512512512unlimited999100256Song Sequencer Variable Step SizenononoyesyesyesyesnoyesnoSong Tempo ChangesnononoyesyesyesnonoyesnoSong Meter ChangesnonononononononoyesnoGlobal Automation in SongsnoyesyesyesyesyesyesnoyesnoGraphic Automation Editingnoyesyesyesyesyesyesnonono
FMyesyesyesnononoyesnonoyesGranularyesyesyesnononolimitednononoPercussionyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesnoPhysical ModelingyesyesyesnononononoyesyesSubtractive (analog-style)yesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesWavetableyesyesyesyesyesyesyesnoyesno
Audio-File PlayeryesyesyesnoyesyesnonoyesnoMultisample PlayernoyesyesyesyesyesyesnoyesnoMultisample Mappingnononononoyesyesnonono
Automatic Time StretchingyesyesyesyesyesyesnonoyesnoAutomatic Pitch ShiftingyesyesyesyesyesyesnonoyesnoBeat-Slice PlaybackyesyesyesnoyesyesyesnononoBeat-Slicer Utility ($=separate product)$$$noyesyes$nonono
RECORDING, MIXING, AND RENDERING
Audio-Input RecordingnonononononononoyesnoChannel Strip MixeryesyesyesyesyesyesyesnoyesyesBuilt-in EffectsyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesEffects Inserts (Channel, Bus, Master)CBMCBMCBMCBCBMCBMCBMCBBMCMBounce to DiskyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesFast Renderingyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesno
The original version of ReBirth put two virtual TB-303s and a TR-808 on your desktop for $179. Version 2.0 (see Fig. 4) added a TR-909 to the package. All four software modules look and sound remarkably like the originals, which is probably why Roland granted Propellerhead the right to use the names and graphics.
And there's a bonus: without too much trouble, you can create your own graphic skins for ReBirth and stuff your own sounds into the TR-808 and TR-909. Dozens of such customizations, called Mods, are available free to registered users from Propellerhead's Web site. That gives ReBirth a lot more legs than you might initially expect, because you can change Mods, and therefore sounds, without affecting a song's structure or patterns. The MP3 example Remod plays an eight-bar song using several Mods.
Each ReBirth module has its own pattern sequencer that stores 32 patterns. Patterns can have as many as 16 steps, and a step is always a 16th note. Shuffle, which delays alternate 16th notes, and flam, which produces double hits, can be turned on or off on a per-pattern and per-note basis, respectively. Thirty-two patterns is not a particularly generous endowment, but it's probably enough for most songs. Considering that you can load and save songs along with all their patterns on your hard drive, the 32-pattern limit is not terribly restrictive.
A ReBirth song is a four-track arrangement of patterns — one track for each sound generator. A measure is always 16 steps long, and pattern changes are quantized to measure boundaries. Patterns are not automatically retriggered at the end of each measure, however, and that allows you to easily create extended rhythm cycles by using patterns of different lengths. For example, playing a 12-step pattern against a 16-step pattern produces a 3-measure (48-step) cycle.
Theoretically, all songs are 999 measures long, but you can define a loop as starting and ending at any measure. When ReBirth renders your song to an audio file, it exports only the measures within the loop, so you can actually create songs of any length. If you synchronize ReBirth to other software or external MIDI devices, you need to leave blank measures (by using empty patterns) whenever you want ReBirth to be quiet.
You can create patterns and songs using ReBirth's onscreen controls or your computer keyboard. It's quite easy to create patterns and songs using the computer keyboard, and with a little practice, you can actually develop some playing chops. Pattern development is also facilitated by the Randomize, Shift Pattern, and Alter Notes options in the Edit menu.
ReBirth's output section consists of a four-channel mixer and four DSP effects: a Pattern-Controlled Filter (PCF), distortion, compression, and delay. The first three are insert effects, whereas delay is a send effect and can process a mix of the four channels. Each channel has a separate distortion processor, but only one channel at a time can use the PCF and compressor. If none of the channels use the compressor, you can apply it to the master output. The PCF is the most unusual of the effects, consisting of a bandpass or lowpass filter controlled by a retriggering envelope. Fifty-four retriggering patterns are provided, ranging from rhythmic to random; they are most effective on TB-303 bass lines.
ReBirth is not available as a plug-in instrument, but it does support Propellerhead's ReWire 2 interconnectivity protocol. That means you can channel ReBirth's audio output into any software that can act as a ReWire host, which includes most DAWs, as well as soft-synth workstations Reason, Storm, and Orion Platinum. The other function that ReWire provides is MIDI tempo synchronization, which allows you to slave ReBirth to another application's clock and follow its tempo changes.
ReBirth is the leanest of the SSWs considered here, both in terms of sound generation and sequencing flexibility. But for the fast production of techno and dance-oriented drum 'n' bass lines, it's a gem.
Arturia's Storm falls somewhere between ReBirth and Reason in terms of its sequencing and sound-generation capabilities, but it also incorporates several unique features. Like Reason, it uses the rack-of-gear analogy, but the rack size is fixed at four sound generators and three effects (see Fig. 5). You can double the module count by linking two instances of Storm with ReWire, but you'll need a hardy CPU to make it fly. The Storm package includes a VST Instrument plug-in version, so you can use Storm as an instrument with or without its sequencing features within any VST host (such as your DAW).
Storm's complement of sound generators includes five drum boxes that feature everything from standard and Latin acoustic kits to the ubiquitous Roland TR-series sounds (from the 606, 808, and 909). There's also a drum synth based on sine-wave and noise generators. Each drum box holds 8 sounds and has a 16-step pattern sequencer filled with 64 patterns, which you can modify or replace. The patterns are especially easy to program because the pads are arranged in an eight-by-eight matrix, allowing you to see all the parts at the same time. You can click each pad through five Velocity levels, which provides an unusual level of dynamic control from buttons. If you load Storm's rack with drum boxes and throw in compression, delay, and distortion effects, you have full-featured and easy-to-program 32-pad drum machine.
For synthesis, Storm offers two bass synths (one resembling the TB-303 and the other emulating an electric bass), two chord synths, and a polyphonic synthesizer. Like the drum boxes, their pattern generators are 16th-note based, but the polysynth and one of the chord synths accommodate patterns as long as eight measures. Also like the drum boxes, each comes with 64 user-modifiable patterns.
User Profile Fruityloops Orion Reason ReBirth Storm TERA
Spare me the details. Get me straight to the groove.••I need lots of audio loops and samples to work with.• (CD-ROM only)• (Platinum only)••I want to play all those synths and samplers live with my MIDI keyboard.•••Step sequencing is my thing. I want all the bells and whistles.••Bring on the drum 'n' bass.••I need lots of multisampled acoustic instruments.•I want to use my own plug-in effects and instruments.••I must be able to beat-slice my loops.•••Give me lots of knobs. I want to program my own sounds.••I need to make my own multisampled instruments from my sample library.••
Storm's collection of sound generators is rounded out by three audio-file players: EZtrack, for recording audio as well as playing bounced tracks; H3O+, for playing clips and loops; and Scratch, which is a dual turntable for DJ-style scratching. Storm is the only SSW in our roundup that will record audio input. Storm comes with a generous 500 MB collection of samples.
One unique feature is Storm's harmony-pattern generator, Kepler. Kepler patterns are four measures (eight two-beat steps) long, and each step designates a root key and mode (major or minor). You can link all of Storm's pitched sound generators (including the H3O+ loop player, but not EZtrack) to automatically follow the root key. The chord generators will also modify the third and sixth degrees of the scale according to the mode.
Storm's song sequencer quantizes measures like ReBirth does, but you can specify the number of beats per measure on a measure-by-measure basis. For example, you can follow a measure of four beats by one of three beats to get a 16-step pattern followed by a 12-step pattern. You can also record one tempo change per measure and insert nonplaying tags to delineate sections of the song.
The song sequencer contains four tracks (one for each sound generator), along with a fifth track for effects and mixer automation. Drum-module automation is always recorded within the drum patterns, and synth automation is recorded on the corresponding song tracks. You can record pattern changes and automation either in real time or in Static mode, in which a setting or pattern change is applied to all selected song measures.
Storm's factory patterns for its various modules have been carefully designed to work together. In fact, it's difficult to stuff the rack full of virtual gear and then select four patterns that don't work well together. Storm comes with Composition Wizards in five styles — Dance, Dub, Hip-hop, House, and Jazz Funk — and you can download a new Ambient Wizard from Arturia's Web site. Storm's Wizards are interactive tutorials that lead you step-by-step through constructing a song in the indicated style. Those features make Storm a top choice as an idea generator, especially if you're new to the SSW style of music construction. The MP3 example JazzWiz illustrates Storm's composition wizardry.
If you're a traditional synthesist who's familiar with multitimbral hardware workstations, VirSyn's TERA might be just the SSW for you. TERA is about as close as you can get to the synthesis and sequencing architecture that's typical of those machines.
TERA provides you with 16 instances of one extremely flexible modular synthesizer. Those instances can be mapped across 16 MIDI channels or grouped among fewer channels with any desired Velocity and key-zone layering. And if your computer boasts enough processing power, you can assign as many as 32 voices to each instance. Like Storm, TERA includes a VSTi version, making its powerful synthesizer available from within any VST instrument host. (According to Virsyn, TERA will also support Audio Units by the time you read this.)
TERA's synthesizer combines a variety of synthesis methods that include standard subtractive synthesis; frequency, amplitude, and wave modulation; physical modeling; and formant-shifting additive synthesis (see Fig. 6). Four types of oscillators in combination with a tuned delay line (for Karplus-Strong physical modeling) provide the sound sources. The signal path provides two multimode filters and a peak or notch formant filter. Those are followed by five effects processors: ring modulation, waveshaping, stereo delay, distortion, and phase-shift effects (chorus, flange, and phaser). All modules are activated independently, and inactive modules do not draw on the CPU. Inactive modules also have their controls grayed out to make the control panel easier to decipher — a real blessing, because things can get pretty complex. Listen to the MP3 file TeraFirma for examples of formant-shifting and physical modeling synthesis.
Aside from its variety of modules, what makes TERA such a powerful synth is its modularity. Instead of using patch cords, signals are routed using drop-down menus for audio and dialog boxes for modulation by TERA's four envelopes and four LFOs. Any module's output can be routed to the input of any other. A five-channel mixer can be reconfigured as separate three- and two-channel submixers, letting you mix sources before routing them through the various modules. For example, you could use the two filters in parallel by routing them through a submix or in series by routing one into the other. TERA comes with plenty of factory presets that illustrate its full range of capabilities, but you'll get the most out of it if you're into synth programming. Otherwise, an SSW that combines sample and loop processing with a less robust synthesis engine might be more appropriate for your needs.
TERA offers a very robust MIDI remote-control system. Any MIDI continuous controller may be instantly assigned to any active synthesis parameter by using TERA's MIDI Learn function. Furthermore, a separate screen, called 8D Access, contains four onscreen x-y controls, each dimension of which can be assigned to any synthesis parameter with any desired range and direction. You can control each of the eight dimensions with MIDI, which allows you to use a single MIDI controller to modify multiple synth parameters with different ranges and directions in real time.
TERA has perhaps the most powerful step sequencer of all the SSWs mentioned in this article, and again, the model is classic analog. It can hold 512 patterns in memory, and you can use any pattern in any of the 16 song tracks (corresponding to the 16 instances of the synthesizer). Patterns have a maximum of 64 steps. Step size and gate time can be varied on a per-step basis, and individual steps can be skipped or muted. Each pattern has its own beginning and end markers, and if the end marker is placed before the beginning marker, the pattern will play backwards. Each pattern also has Velocity and controller lanes, both of which can be applied to any synth parameter. You can enter patterns onscreen or record them in real time with incoming MIDI.
Each step in a pattern can be a single note or a chord. Chords are selected from a drop-down menu containing most of the common three- and four-voice chord types, including inversions. You can also use the pattern sequencer as a very flexible real-time arpeggiator. In arpeggiation mode, each step is assigned a position within the currently held chord (played on your MIDI keyboard). When a pattern step holds a chord, the whole chord is transposed to the arpeggio note.
TERA's song sequencer has 16 tracks (one for each synthesizer instance) and allows songs as long as 512 measures. Each 16-beat measure is represented by a cell, which can be empty or linked to any of the 512 available patterns. Patterns longer than 16 beats automatically fill the required number of cells. A loop can be defined between any two cells, making it easy to construct and edit song sections.
WHICH ONE'S FOR YOU?
Choosing an SSW is like choosing a pair of shoes; no one size or style fits all. The six I've covered here offer different approaches to generating sounds and creating patterns. On the other hand, with the exceptions of ReBirth, which is limited to drums and bass, and TERA, which is pure synthesis, you could probably produce very similar results with any of them. And you could buy them all for a fraction of the cost of a full-featured hardware workstation.
For instant gratification, ReBirth and Storm are both standout choices. The setup is fast, the options are limited, and their sequencers come packed with factory patterns that work well together. Storm's Composition Wizards provide an excellent starting point for creating songs in various styles.
For pure synthesis, TERA and Reason will keep you busy for a long time. TERA's synthesis engine is as robust as any you'll find inside or outside of an SSW. Reason's two synths, Subtractor and Malström, offer a lot of programming flexibility. With some back-panel patching, they become a powerful duo.
If you have a DAW that hosts VST or DX Instrument plug-ins, then TERA, Storm, and Fruityloops offer dual functionality by providing their resources as plug-ins. That adds step sequencing and additional sound generators to your DAW kit.
If you have a relatively fast computer and lots of RAM, then Reason, Orion, and Fruityloops let you build large and varied kits of sound generators, as well as take advantage of their advanced step-sequencing features. For Windows users, Orion and Fruityloops offer the advantage of hosting all of your instrument and effects plug-ins.
For users of ReWire master applications such as Cubase, Live, Logic, Orion Platinum, and Sonar, you can synchronize to ReBirth, Reason, and Storm and pipe their audio output directly into those hosts.
Have a look at the “Feature Comparison” and “User Profile” tables accompanying this roundup, and then download demos of the SSWs that might suit your needs. It won't take you long to tell which shoe fits.
Len Sassocan be contacted through his Web site atwww.swiftkick.com.
NAME OF THE GAME
Here's a brief glossary of terms used in this article as they apply to soft-synth workstations.
Automation: Most sound generators and effects processors have onscreen control panels for adjusting their settings. Automation is the process of recording changes in those settings on either the pattern or song level. All the SSWs covered here allow automation recording in patterns. Some also support global automation on the song level. Some SSWs provide graphic editors for automation data, whereas others allow you to rerecord only rather than edit automation data.
Beat slicing: Beat slicing is the process of cutting an audio file — usually a beat loop — into sections corresponding to time segments or audio events within the file. For example, you might cut a drum loop into equal slices a 16th note long or into slices that correspond to individual drum hits. Some SSWs include a player for beat-sliced files along with a library of such files. Doing your own slicing usually requires a separate software application, though Orion includes that feature at no extra charge.
MIDI remote: Many SSWs allow you to assign incoming MIDI continuous controller messages to the onscreen controls for their sound generators and effects processors. That allows you to change settings for those devices from a MIDI control surface or even the modulation wheel of a MIDI keyboard. Most SSWs also offer a MIDI Learn feature that automatically assigns the next incoming MIDI continuous controller message to the selected onscreen control.
Multisample: A multisample is a collection of individual audio files (samples) together with a keymap that defines what keys and Velocities play which samples. Most SSWs include a multisample player and a collection of multisample files, but currently only Reason allows you to create your own multisample files for its samplers.
Pattern sequencer: A pattern sequencer (aka a step sequencer) records and plays short sequences of equally spaced notes. In the case of drum sounds, the patterns are usually programmed using a matrix of onscreen buttons in which rows correspond to specific drum sounds and columns correspond to fixed time positions. For pitched sounds, there is typically an onscreen music keyboard for selecting pitch and a knob or numerical field for selecting the position in the sequence. Most SSWs incorporate some form of pattern sequencing, though it's now common to also include a piano-roll editor and allow unlimited length as well as unquantized note positions.
Piano-roll editor: A piano-roll editor is a two-dimensional window for graphic editing of note sequences. The vertical dimension represents pitch and usually displays a music-keyboard graphic. The horizontal dimension represents time. Notes are displayed as horizontal bars whose position indicates when they sound and whose length indicates their duration. Piano-roll editors are a staple of MIDI sequencing software and are now available in most SSWs as well.
Standard MIDI File: In addition to defining how MIDI devices and computers exchange information in real time, the official MIDI 1.0 specification includes a digital file format for recording time-stamped MIDI messages (for example, sequences of notes). Most SSWs can import and export files in the Standard MIDI File (SMF) format.
To learn more about some of the software discussed in this article, check out these reviews in past issues of EM:
Ableton Live 1.1June 2002BitHeadz Phrazer 1.0.1June 2001Sonic Foundry Acid Pro 3.0May 2002
Digital Audio Sequencers
Cakewalk Sonar XL 2.0October 2002Emagic LogicMarch 2003MOTU Digital Performer 3.01January 2002Steinberg Cubase VST/32 5.0January 2001
Cycling '74 Max 4.0/MSP 2.0April 2002Native Instruments Reaktor 3.0March 2002Sound Quest Infinity 2.05August 2002
Arturia Storm 1.5February 2002Image-Line Fruityloops 3.5November 2002Propellerhead Reason 1.0July 2001Propellerhead ReBirth RB-338 1.5May 1998Synapse Audio Orion Pro 3.03January 2003VirSyn VirSyn 1.1April 2002