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Reviewed By Gamma-UT [read all by] on 29th January 2020
Version reviewed: 2.1.157 on Mac.
Last edited by Gamma-UT on 29th January 2020.
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Functional but packed with niggling flaws

This is one of those products that looks good at a superficial level. It tries to make the most of natty GPU techniques like fading boxes. But as a sampling instrument it suffers from a raft of niggly, baffling usability flaws that make it often frustrating to use. Samplers are often inscrutable lumps of software because they have to deal with complex combinations of key and velocity mappings. They inevitably lead to a lot of clicky-clicky as you make adjustments. But in a product that is supposedly geared up for fast, creative sampling, Nuance can sometimes makes things harder than they are in one of the supposedly more "bloated" products like NI's Kontakt or Battery.

You will welcome the fact that it at least has a decent undo feature. That comes in handy when a click on the "Pad Root" setting – which you would assume simply sets the base note of something like an MPD – sends every single sample in a group that you've painstakingly keymapped to a single random key for reasons that I still haven't figured out.

It's at times like these ("why did it do that?") you work out that the manual is pretty terrible. There are two reasons.

Reason 1: It's perfunctory. It's really just a list of subwindows and commands. As a result, it gives very little help on how to get started with Nuance. If you've never tried to build instruments in a software sampler before, unless you're just going to drag in a single sample, have mapped it across a large chunk of the keyboard and leave it at that, it's going to be a bumpy ride. There are entire things that are simply missing, like the zoom function lurking above the keyboard in the mapping editor. Eventually, you'll find it. Things like the "Reset Root Key" context-menu command you have to work out for yourself. Maybe it's in all the manual somewhere but good luck finding it because...

Reason 2: It's presented as a set of web pages that aren't searchable and despite being presented as web pages there are very few hyperlinks that take you to where you can get more detail. For example, the UI introduction mentions the drum-pad display and how it's meant to support layered drums but doesn't link to any longer explanation of how you actually go about achieving that.

The result: trying to work out how to apply things like the pad mode are pretty much just trial and error. There are groups (which you can't rename to anything useful) and pads (which you can't...you get it) but working out how they are meant to relate to each other? You're on your own. In fact, quite a lot you wind up finding through trial and error.

Instrument building

There's not much of a factory library to speak of, so you will realistically spend a fair amount of time creating your own instruments. That's where the fun, er, stops. Keymapping samples is surprisingly tedious unless you are lucky enough get it right first time when you drag a group of samples in from the browser. Like Kontakt, it uses the position in the window to determine how many MIDI notes each sample will take up. Drag a group to the bottom and you get single-key samples. Problem 1: At the default display setting you have no way of working out which sample is which without moving the mouse to the top subwindow where its name will flash up momentarily before fading away (using one of those nice but not all that useful GPU effects). Then you realise some are not really where you want them. I know, let's drag each one to a different position. Oh wait, nothing happens if I drag to the left and it simply stretches out the sample across multiple keys to the right.

Unlike Kontakt, you can't simply place the cursor in the middle and drag. Nothing happens. Well, that's not entirely true. There's a zoom function that's not mentioned in the manual (well I couldn't find it). If you zoom in part of the name shows up and eventually you'll to the point where the software will notice you're clicking in the middle and will let you drag it somewhere else. Not too far, mind. Because by this point, you've got a grand total of two octaves on the screen and you need to drop the sample and readjust the zoom position in the lower bar to get it to where you want it. Yes, it won't scroll the window if you drag the sample to the edge. If you've got a moderately large drum kit and you need to shuffle things around, this is not good news. Pinch and zoom with a touchpad kinda works, expect it will only scroll while you're zooming. A regular two-fingered scrolling gestures does nothing.

MIDI control? Not so fast

Another requirement for a lightweight sampler intended for creative sampling is that you might want to map some things to MIDI controllers. Unfortunately, the MIDI setup is built almost entirely around MIDI Learn. The only MIDI CC you can select as a modulation source in its own right in the modulation editor is the modwheel. Any other CC has to be mapped to a control on the Nuance UI using MIDI Learn. This gives you a choice of three controls – X, Y and Z – that aren't tied to a specific function that can then be deployed in the modulation editor. Want more than that? Unlucky. You can MIDI-learn a bunch of other targets but then you are stuck with full-range movements, so be careful with those controllers when you move them. Now, four probably sounds like enough but it's pretty easy to max out with something like a TECcontrol breath sensor and a Linnstrument or a ROLI before you even get started on foot pedals.

The second problem is that MIDI learn is only convenient if you have a control surface that is all discrete knobs. If you have something like a Linnstrument, something with motion sensors in it, like one of TEControl's breath units, or even the X-Y pad on an SL, MIDI Learn is a royal PITA. In Nuance, you have no way of editing the CC it learns if it picks up the one you didn't want. If you're not feeling lucky, the only reliable workaround for this is to have a bunch of knobs set up for things like breath on, say, an SL so you don't have to futz about hoping it will latch onto the CC you want rather than the others coming through the MIDI stream.

And if you map something like a Novation SL's XY pad you'll notice that the Y direction reversed. It's not a major deal from a performance perspective but there's no way to set the 0,0 origin in preferences that would make it slightly less confusing when you're programming the modulation. On the plus side, the X, Y and Z settings are also reflected in the knobs under the pad itself.

It's at this point you start to think: "Why didn't I try to build this simple instrument in Kontakt? Maybe that NI thing isn't so bloated after all."

Drums and layering

One of the claims NSA makes for Nuance is that it's good for drum layering. That's partially true. It has some built-in features that lend itself to that and perhaps more so than creating pitched instruments but it's another good-news/bad-news situation here. For those with a Machine- or MPD-style 16-pad controller, it's got a lot going for it. You can set up a 4x4 grid of pads reasonably easily and add a bunch of samples, each with its own set of envelope controls and effects, to the same pad. Be careful with the drag-and-drop though as it's easy to accidentally replace a sample when what you really wanted to do was add a pad layer. Undo, comes to the rescue once again.

At first glance, the pad-layer editing seems to go further than, say, NI's Battery. However, I find layering easier in Battery because that provides easier access to the samples and velocity switches and crossfades. The thing about Battery is that you can't add non-destructive envelopes to layers within a cell. But in Battery there's nothing stopping you from mapping the same MIDI notes to more than one cell to achieve the same thing.

If you want to combine samples into one edit group with a common envelope, you need to get out of pad mode (though you are free to map samples to the keys underneath the pads - though you might need to be careful when transposing the pad-root key, as mentioned above). Layering can get tricky here. The problem with Nuance's approach is that it can sometimes get really hard to pick the sample you need to edit because there's no way to click on it without activating another sample that overlaps it. Battery, in contrast, lets you switch between samples in a layer easily with a drop-down menu on the sample's name. There's clearly space to have this in Nuance, but Nuance doesn't do it.

What looks like a missed opportunity when it comes to layering is that Nuance doesn't have the features of something like the defunct Stacker that sets it apart. There's no sample offset to let you create layer flams and big clap sounds unless you add silence to all your samples and rely on the start/loop controls. You're also on your own if you're trying to work out how not to get phasing between samples mapped to the same pad. You've got no way to nudge samples or adjust relative phase short of opening up the sample in an external editor and messing with it there. Battery doesn't do sample offset either, but if you're trying to get a sample player into a niche, you probably want additional features that will attract those users.

There's a bit more in the discussion down below as this review exceeded the KVR maximum character count.

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Discussion: Active
29 January 2020 at 5:22pm

Review: the finale

There are various other niggles that make Nuance an often frustrating experience, like the LFOs will always retrigger on each note unless they are locked to the DAW's tempo - making it tricky to do things like get shakers move back and forth with a filter if you don't want that locked to a fixed beat count.

I wrote this review after trying to spend some quality time with a product that I bought some time ago. I found I'd try to start using it only to decide to knock it on the head because it simply took too long compared to other tools to get a job done. It was only after going through this exercise I realised why. For every worthwhile feature there is an inexplicable omission or odd behaviour that just makes building sample maps a lot more painful than it needs to be. Most samplers are under performers in the UI department. And like most things, there are clunky workarounds for most of the problems. But when a vendor is selling a product on the basis that it's lightweight and fast to use (and with something that barely has a factory library at all), the deficiencies in Nuance become startlingly clear really quickly. I've avoided writing about the lack of timestretch and other common sampler features in Nuance.

Overall, Nuance is reliable. I don't recall it crashing. And it does the job of sample playback but it can be irritating to use if you're trying to do something a bit more complicated than combining a few samples on a pad for triggering and messing with their effects. The effects themselves are rudimentary but you get a decent collection of outputs for assigning to individual tracks in a DAW, so that's not a big issue. The remarkable thing about it is that to make Nuance a lot more usable the changes it needs as far as I can tell aren't big. But the various quirks it displays makes me wonder if the dev ever tried to build their own instruments in it.

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