Friends, this one's going to be short, because I just can't find the time to write a long review. I'm sure there will be many more though, as this is one killer instrument. First of all, installation was pretty painless, but only because I read the OS-X-related posts on FXpansion's forum. If you're on OS-X, do take the time to read them. I did have a few minor problems at first in Logic, but Angus, always the consumate pro, replied within... 10 minutes! The manual is clear, the interface as well.
The sound is fantastic. This is THE drum machine to beat, as it has 7 very-multi-layered drums to offer. They all have their particular characteristics (some are dark and woody, others bright and more metallic), and it's easy to load up different ones with the same groove to compare them. Auditioning individual kit parts is very user-friendly, as you can click on different parts of the images of the parts and hear the individual velocity layers. Sophisticated, I tell you. Keep in mind, though, that it does not have any percussion other than the standard drum set. You'll have to add your own tambourine or John Bonham gong!
Speaking of grooves, BFD offers a good variety, from rock to progressive funk to latin, and even throws in some 3/4 for good measure. You can have BFD randomly shuffle through related grooves, and have it add fills from a very useful collection. Of course, quantization is offered, as is a very interesting control over the 'humanization' of the playing. The drums are layed out in General MIDI format, allowing you to use other popular grooves as well. The exciting news is that FXpansion will be offering kit and groove updates in the near future.
My favourite part, however, is playing around with the mix of dry and the miced sound. It's a breeze to add room, overhead, and PZM mics (for extra body), and believe me, once you start playing with this kind of mixing, it's hard to go back to using drum loops and other drum machines. Oh, and these and other parameters are also fully automate-able, at least in Logic.
There are lots of easy-to-get-to controls over things like pitch, trim, panning, etc. The layout of the interface is really well thought out.
I did not experience any streaming problems with the audio, but I'm using a dual G5 with 2 gigs of RAM.
This is one fantastic virtual instrument, that comes with great support. Yes, it's a little pricy, but it comes on 2 dvds; that should tell you all about the amount of wonderfully recorded content. This, IMV, is a perfect complement to Stylus (which is grittier, more street-level) or Groove Agent (which has more of a wide-ranging/period groove set).
... and I said I was going to keep this short...
Xphrase is so deep, I had to read the manual twice in order to get the most out of it! Fortunately, the manual is very well written. The only omission, IMV, is an index. Installation? A breeze. It comes with many very usable presets. I found myself unable to stop trying another out!
The starting block is a Phraze, which can be made up of up to 32 cells that are played in a looped sequence. Each cell can be edited in terms of pitch, amp, filter, gate, etc. You draw in the cell to change the parameters, so editing is fun! You can also xfade the cells, which is particularly effective for evolving pads. Four Phrazes make up a Patch, and four Patches make a Combi. This means that you could play 128 cells with one key! A the highest resampling resolution, chances are high that your CPU will choke before you get to a triad. Fortunately, you can change the resolution, and/or reduce the polyphony. Xphrase comes with a good selection of waveforms and multisampled instruments, from acoustic to electronic. There’s an excellent variety of synth waveforms, including a very good electro drum kit.
The GUI is busy in a good way, with an organic aesthetic, not unlike Absynth. At first, I found the knobs too small, but I got used to it. Most parameters settings show up in a Parameter window, which I find very practical. Each patch has its own amp, multi-mode filter and aux envelope, and editing them is a charm. Zooming in and out, scrolling left or right (time) are easily accomplished using mouse and keys, as is looping any part of the envelope. This last function can yield some very cool effects, especially given that the envelopes can be in sync with your tempo, and that you have a choice of direction.
The modulation section is comprehensive and also very easy to use. You get four LFOs, with waveforms that you can edit by drawing - very cool! A patch also has a great built-in FX section. Nice to see the cross-delay make an appearance! These built-in FX can add a lot to a patch. Note: some of the settings in the FX section do not show up in the Parameter window. There’s also a global FX section, but you might want to use your reverb instead.
Anyone who has played a ws will not be shocked by the sound of Xphrase, but that doesn’t mean it’s just a clone. It’s more like the next step in wavesequencing/vector synthesis. The pads are thick and have movement. The leads are also quite good. What makes this baby stick out of the pack are the rhythmic patches (instant tempo sync!). I don’t care much for the drum patterns. Then again, I never liked the drum loops in the ws either. I do however really like the gated synth lines, and can see myself using these often. Other nices touches include the shuffle parameter (swing), and the ELF mode, which will vary a bunch of key parameters by an unknown amount to give your patch an organic touch.
It’s almost too easy to make classy tracks with Xphrase, although this synth just begs to be edited (just drag your mouse).
Installing Groove Agent was a breeze, except when it came to getting the kits to load for the first time. This problem does not occur with Cubase. If you’re a Logic, or other user, you can get the details about this extra procedure on the very useful Groove Agent website’s forum: http://vg.clubcubase.net/vgforum/viewforum.php?f=2
The samples are of high quality. There are dozens of kicks, snares, hats, percussion, from different time periods. Many have a boxy quality, but that’s expected when a 50s kit is used. Each element is also offered in one of two mic placements - very natural sounding. You can also route each element to one of four outputs, for further processing. The downside is that you can’t load your own samples.
GA has a fresh interface, the kits load quickly, and, since the pattern variations are MIDI sequences, it’s very easy to ‘jam’ with the machine in real-time. Everytime I start improvising with the complexity button, I easily loose an hour of my day.
The most authentic styles for me are found in the pre-80s offerings. The playing is very good, even a bit sloppy in some parts (that’s a good thing!). If you already have lots of techno, hip-hop, breakbeat, house loops, and you’re looking for something different, this tool might do the trick. As a soundtrack composer, I often have to re-create styles from the past, and this will now be the first VSTi that I will call up when I need a rumba, or a bossa nova, etc. On the other hand, I would not use this VSTi for more modern electronic music. Although, I did achieve a certain element of freshness when I combined their electronic kit with say, the bossa nova or fox patterns (50s).
In the info window, there’s a handy Range field that suggests a tempo range for each style. This helps to give your choice a realistic feel. I didn’t ‘get’ some of the styles until I set Logic’s tempo to a number in the suggested range. Of course, you can always play a Rumba at 174 bpm if you’re in the mood.
My favourite part is the MIDI keyboard shortcuts. Since all the samples are triggered below A#3, the keys above that note can do several things, depending on whether the MIDI channel is even or odd: you can select the level of complexity, add fills, mute elements, add accents, select memory locations (different kits!), even the mod wheel can add fills!
My major criticisism is that there could be more velocity layers for each element (kick, snare). You still get 3 to 5 different samples per velocity, but with the Giga libraries sometimes offering 16 samples per key, we’re all getting a little more demanding.
(As an update to this review, I'd like to state that along with many other Logic and DP users, I have experienced random muting in GA. This problem has been posted often on the official GA forum, but there has been no reply. I was hoping for news of an update, but 1 year after its release, there is nothing to report - too bad!)
I really love this baby! It’s most striking element? The modulation routings, especially in the Osc Synth. I have never see anything a simple as how one assigns modulation (and amount of modulation) in Vokator. Having 4 LFOs with which one can control parameters like wave symmetry, FM, harmonics, etc is fantastic. Being able to use those same LFOs on almost every other aspect of the Osc Synth is too much fun! In fact, there are so many ways to subvert sounds that I wonder if it will find its way to the mainstream... For someone who likes to tear away at the fabric of sounds, this is a perfect addition to SoundHack, SFX Machine, Pluggo, etc. The only limitation I've found is that you can't modulate an LFO with another LFO.
At first, I thought the Osc Synth's choice pf waveforms was meagre, until I realised that you can modulate freely (not discretely) between the four choices, thereby creating a huge number of variations. This synth can create so many timbral colours, it's really a shame that it only offers an ADSR env - why not go breakpoint, like Absynth? Sweeping the harmonics in real-time, I get a sound that reminds me of a PPG.
The Wave Synth (WS) is perfect for creating textures. By modulating the Loop Start point with a Random LFO (also affecting pan), and the Loop Length with another LFO, I had the base for a dynamic, flowing texture. One thing that I wish was included in the WS is the bpm of given drum loop. For now, if you have a beat as your WS, and you want to combine it with other loops, you'll have to either use your ears or import the file into ReCycle or your sequencer, and figure it out. That said, Vokator's not a ReCycle-like plug-in, it's just an übervocoder on serious steroids! The audio files that come with Vokator are varied and very useful out of the box (I had no problems calling up new audio files while the plug-in was running).
The worst part? The manual. It's much closer to a specs sheet than a manual. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out how to turn off the Osc Synth's dedicated LFO (not the 4 independent ones), until I looked at the Info Window and saw that in the centre position, the LFO has no effect on pitch. It takes a while to get used to looking at the Info Window everytime you change a knob or slider setting. One thing that's high on my update wishlist is the ability for the user to input precise settings by keyboard. I wanted to double the tempo of a given audio file, but I could only choose 1.978 or 2.066...
Something else I noticed: if you want to use the WS alone to mangle an audio file, mute the other input (say Input A = Live, Input B = wave synth), or else you'll get an echo effect (Input A/Live is getting a feed from Input B), and you might waste some time making sure the delay and other effects are turned off!
In case you're wondering why I haven't mentioned the vocoding part, it's because it sounds wonderful and does exactly what you'd expect. It's the rest of Vokator that gets me excited!