Archive for November, 2010

Get Gobbler!

gobbler.jpg
I just found a new piece of software called Gobbler that organizes your sessions (across multiple DAW platforms) then allows you to archive and share them on an offsite, military-grade server. The files are encrypted and losslessly encoded and because they’re in the “cloud” you can share them more quickly than via straight upload and download. Comment below or via Facebook, and I’ll include your thoughts in my online review of the product.

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Hollywood Strings

In an effort to keep stride with the latest generation of computers, sample developers are releasing products that yield more detail and greater authenticity than ever before. Orchestral string libraries designed to help composers create scores in the classic film genre are garnering a lot of interest. What does “EastWest/Quantum Leap Hollywood Strings,� set out to do, and how well does it achieve its goals?

INSTALLATION

This library is Texas large- over 300 GB- and is delivered on a 500 GB Western Digital SATA II Caviar Black hard drive with a 32mg buffer. EastWest suggests that you consider using this drive for installation and back up purposes only and transfer the material to a faster SSD drive (or multiple drives) in order to achieve maximal seek and retrieval times; for the purposes of this review I purchased a 3.5� to 5.5� drive bay adaptor and installed the original disk in my computer, a quad core i7 PC running Windows 7. East West offers content replacement drives at a fee of $129.00 if you do not wish to backup the content yourself.

HS is the latest EastWest release built upon the company’s proprietary PLAY engine. Besides the sample sets themselves, PLAY houses a convolution reverb, envelope filters, and a variety of editing functions specific to each of the virtual instruments that use this technology.

LIGHTS, CAMERA… HOLLYWOOD STRINGS, PLEASE

Where to begin? For starters, I’d highly recommend that you download the tutorials that EastWest has on its website and study them in detail. There’s a lot to this application, and taking mental notes while watching the videos will help you get off to a fast start. These tutorials- and the demos that some top midi orchestrators have put together using the product- make it clear that HS is intended to give composers the tools to create lush string arrangements that are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing.

Hollywood Strings was recorded in East West’s Studio One. Formerly Cello Studios, and prior to that Western Recorders, this facility has hosted a who’s who of LA based recording legends over the last half century plus, including Elvis, Sinatra, and der Bingle himself (Bing Crosby). Highly acclaimed film mixer Shawn Murphy engineered this project.

As you would expect, the sounds of the string sections are impeccable and the balance throughout their entire range is flawless. EWQLSO, East West’s complete orchestral library, was recorded in a concert hall using techniques designed to impart the ambience of that space along with the samples themselves, and at times I found myself yearning to hear these players in a larger environment. Whether you rely solely on Play’s reverb or one of the popular plug-in convolution reverbs, most composers will write and wet to taste.

Before we put the samples into motion, create templates, and assess how much computer power is required to take advantage of HS in a fully satisfying manner, a couple of words on controllers might be useful to those who may be considering purchasing this product but are not yet power users in this area.

The convention currently in fashion is to use two controllers, CC7 and CC11, in conjunction to impact midi volume. You’ll set your overall balances in your DAW’s mixer window using CC7, with the first violins at 90% of their maximal value, for example, and double basses at, say, 78%. Of course these values are only theoretical and may change with every piece you write, and in your final mix you might well ride a fader here and there, but the concept is to use CC7 to set a value that is essentially fixed. As you perform a part, or modify it in overdub mode, you’ll use CC11 (either by drawing in a curve or using an assigned slider or fader) to create volume changes on more of a micro level.

Hollywood Strings incorporates this methodology. It also uses CC1 (by default generally set to your keyboard controller’s Mod Wheel) to impart vibrato to most of the samples. Vibrato is a critical component of the “Hollywood� sound, and EastWest sampled the sections using a wide variety of vibrato attacks, from just a scootch all the way up to molto vibrato. Since vibrato is attached to a continuous controller you’re able to engage it at any time; it’s easy to play a note with a straight attack and dial in the desired amount of vibrato while it’s being held. You’ll use this to great effect. Some of the patches use CC1 to control both vibrato and volume, by the way, as we’ll see shortly. How well it captures the dynamic range of the string orchestra and the flexibility of the tools it offers in this area is a fundamental strength of HS. This last point needs to be emphasized: HS implements continuous controllers effectively, and your ability to create highly expressive performances depends on how well you master them.

(A quick shout out to Avery Burdette and Steve Deming of Yamaha. I’m still using my ancient Yamaha KX88 midi controller, which I had modified years ago to capture the full 126 steps of midi. The KX88 has four sliders, but assigning them to controllers involves a decimal to hexadecimal conversion which is not clearly spelled out in the manual. Avery and Steve did some digging around and figured it out- if any of you are KX88’ers and want me to send you the document they created, send me an e-mail and I’ll pass it along.)

NAVIGATING THE HS FOLDER STRUCTURE

Hit Play’s browser button, select Hollywood Strings, and then one of the main instrument groups, violas, for example. Choose any of the eight folders that are a subset of the violas (all of the instrument except the two that contain the Full Strings patches, which you may use to hash out ideas, follow the same folder structure) and— yes, you will be confused. Study the manual for a minute and the nomenclature (Violas 1 NV NV NV VV RR) becomes perfectly clear. This patch- and the similarly named ones that reside in the other instrument folders- uses the Mod Wheel to control both volume and vibrato. You’ve chosen this patch because you want to be able to ride the level of the violas AND you’ve instructed them to play with no vibrato until they get into their loudest range… good choice, this perfectly suits the passage you’ve just written. The RR at the end of the name simply lets you know that this patch uses round robin technology. Kabish?

We don’t have time to go through the entire folder structure and every articulation that you can access, but let’s take a look at some of the ones that serve to justify HS’s emerging reputation as a breakthrough application.

I’VE GOT THE RUNS

What I mean to say is I want the first violins to play a fast passage, climbing from the middle of their range way up into the stratosphere. We all know how difficult it has been to create convincing fiddle lines like this. HS takes a revolutionary approach to solving this problem, and the results are stunning.

Take a listen to Audio Clip 1.
A garden variety climb up the G melodic minor scale, this two bar run started when I called up the following patch: (1st Violins/Effects/Playable Runs/1st Violins Rep Runs Script). Like I said, the folder structure appears daunting at first, but it’s really a friendly beast.

Ok, so you can go page 46 in the manual and read EastWest’s explanation of how this script works. To my ears it sounds like there’s a tremelo on every note. When you play a run at fast speeds (or, forgive me, input at half speed and ratchet up to Paganini tempo on playback) the result is a performance that sounds like a big section playing the notes in unison, but with slightly different attack times- the authentic sound you’d expect on a live date. Lacking this scripting technology, which includes a detection capability that lets HS know if notes are being approached from above or below the previous one and adds “glue� to connect them, other libraries- no matter how large the sections they’ve sampled-construct runs that sound, well, like a keyboard playing samples.

Several years ago I wrote and recorded “Slither.� Heading into the final chorus I wanted to evoke the disco era and to do so I scored this transition with a string run typical of the genre. Listen to Audio Clip 2 and you’ll hear how much trouble I had pulling off this gesture. HS can create authentic sounding runs like this one with its sampled hands tied behind its sampled back. If you’re interested, “Slither� can be heard in its entirety at this location: (http://garyeskow.com/masterindex.html).

But wait, what about these other patches, the “Slur Runs� and “Spicc Runs?� Right, they yield just what you’d expect, runs that are heavy on the molasses or squeaky clean. Advanced midi composers know that layering articulations in ways that “real� players would never attempt to do can be very effective. If you’re looking for a mondo big sound for that climactic run, mixing the rep runs with either the slur or spicc runs- or both- might be just what you’re looking for.

AND…

Measured and unmeasured tremelos are included in HS, and the measured variety- synced to your host’s tempo- are a real plus. However, you can’t choose the rhythmic unit (quarter, sixteenth, etc.) that the trems play off of, which surprised me. EastWest says that some users have been asking about this lacuna, and if it can be filled in an upcoming release that would be a plus.

Do you notate bowing direction in your charts? Whether you maintain control over this parameter or leave these decisions to the first chair of each section, bowing can have a big impact on the sound of a string soloist or section. Direction- while important- is often secondary to the effect created when up and down strokes alternate.

Check out Audio Clip 3. The double basses are playing an ostinato figure, C to Db, in octaves. Using the key switch patch I alternated up and down strokes for the last two bars of this four bar phrase, leaving the first two with only down bow articulations. Notice the difference?

Let’s take a listen to a couple of brief cello examples. Audio Clip 4 uses two midi tracks. The part was entered using the patch “Celli Shorts MOD SPEED.� This is a fantastic patch that uses the mod wheel to switch between several different short attacks. Play a phrase and experiment with the mod wheel in overdub mode; purists may argue that it’s important to get exactly the right articulation at each moment, but for me, switching between closely related but distinct patches itself is what adds the realism.

I have no problem hard quantizing when it’s appropriate, and I did so in this case (to eighth notes) before copying the performance to a second midi track, which I assigned to a pizzicato celli patch. Muting parts of the phrases in each track yields the composite sound (which is not artistically convincing but makes the point).

It’s much more difficult, for me anyway, to achieve a satisfying result inputting a performance using a single patch when the phrase is designed to be played with two very different kinds of articulations. Audio Clip 5 is a short expressive phrase performed with no click or quantization. I used a legato patch to input both the front and back ends of this cello passage, and copied it over to a second midi track, which I set to a staccato patch. This phrase sounds ok, but it’s not perfect. In this case key switching in real time, which would have allowed me to hear the staccato patch while playing the notes intended for it, would have helped. At this time, however, Play does not allow the user to create his or her own key switches.

THE HEART OF THE MATTER

Without a doubt, portamento is the feature that most clearly distinguishes the new breed of string libraries from its forebears. How this essential string technique (sliding between two successive notes, with at least a schmear of schmaltz in many cases) is addressed plays a large role in defining the character of a modern library.

Open up either the Legato or Legato Powerful folder for any instrument (the patches in the “Powerful� folder make heavier demands on you computer) and you’ll see a long list of legato and portamento patches.

Patches that are built with slur and portamento patches use midi velocity to determine which of these techniques will be employed. Play softly and you’ll engage portamento. Heavier attacks will result in notes that are connected by slurs. You can also choose fast or slow portamento patches. The tempo of your piece will influence this decision. The catalogue of portamento instruments adds a high degree of expressiveness to this library.

THE BIG QUESTION

Can you run Hollywood Strings on one computer? If so, what threshold has to be met in terms of speed and RAM? Not to diss EastWest or any other developer, but let’s be honest: we’ve all had trouble running software on systems that meet the manufacturer’s basic spec set. So, what’s the deal here?

The computer I purchased about six months ago sports a Core i7 860 2.8Ghz processor. I loaded it with 8 gigs of RAM rather than 16 because the cost of RAM was relatively high at the time and I speculated that it would eventually drop in price.

This Windows 7 box meets the basic requirement for what is considered to be an excellent DAW device at this time. And it’s cheap: for less than $2,500 I had it built with a couple of 500 gig Sata drives, but please note that I used the monitors, keyboard and audio interface that I’d used on my old dual Athlon computer. The really good news is that for just a couple grand more you can have a hefty Dual Intel QUAD-Core Zeon E5520 processor centered machine built for you, with 16 gigs of RAM. I’ve been running PC’s for the last several years, so my tests do not reflect the current state of Macs.

Even if you were running one these beasts, let’s say two for arguments sake, with a total of 32 gigs of RAM at your disposal, you’d still only be able to access about 10% of the Hollywood Strings sample set at one time. All of us have to make choices.

I started out by loading three double bass patches into an instance of PLAY. The key switch patch was an obvious place to start. Legato? A no-brainer. I chose the Basses legato slur sm patch; the sm indicates that this is a “smooth� patch intended for slower legato phrases. I’ll go back and experiment with other legato patches, and perhaps substitute for this one at some point. For the third and final patch I chose the Basses Short MOD SPEED.

Loading additional patches into this template (which I saved in a folder I created on the HS drive) would have been possible, but I wanted to see how far up the strings ladder I could climb before I ran out of memory or ran into CPU problems. These three patches are more than sufficient for writing. When rendering I’ll create final tracks one instrument at a time and load as many articulations as are needed.

By the time I’d moved through the celli and violas, creating templates similar to the one I’d built for the basses, the computer’s memory was topping out at 80%. Experimenting with some short phrases using all three templates my CPU meter never hit 10%. Very impressive. I’ll continue to experiment, but based on these tests I’d conclude that a computer like mine loaded with 16 gigs of memory would be able to handle similar templates for all instrument groups at one time without a problem. Another option, of course, would be to write by pointing a single instance of the Full Strings patch to each of your midi tracks and when the lines have been fleshed out go to town on each part, render it to audio before moving on to the next one.

IT’S A WRAP

There are more corners to this application- we haven’t discussed the divisi patches, or the option that lets you play Bach’s “Air On The G String� on just the fourth string, for example- but we need to wrap up. We can’t conclude, however, without saying a few words about the multiple microphone set ups that are an important part of the Hollywood Strings Play feature set.

All of the instrumental groups were recorded using five sets of microphones, including the Decca tree that’s been a critical part of large orchestral recording sessions for decades. If you throw in the separate recordings that make up the Divisi sections you’re talking about a lot of miking possibilities, and they add depth, diversity and detail to your projects.

Unfortunately, none of the other sample libraries you may own can access these microphones. It would be great if you could use the Decca Tree or surround microphones on all of the instruments in your sound palette, but that’s currently not possible.

Choices have to be made in a library of this size and not every articulation can be included. I did question a few choices the EastWest crew made, particularly the decision to provide sul ponticello samples for only the violas and no harmonics at all, and I would have liked to have had patches of smaller groupings- first chairs only, perhaps- included, but what the hell, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Carrying a price tag of just under $1,500, Hollywood Strings is clearly aimed at the serious midi composer. A thorough understanding of string writing is required as well. East West has clearly put a lot of thought into this project. It provides an in depth set of articulations and some highly innovative performance techniques. Hollywood Strings is a major release that seems destined to become a staple in the library of every serious midi composer. If you have the cash, chops, and the need to create lush string arrangements, Hollywood Strings is a library you must investigate.

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iPad Apps Control Pro Tools

Offering yet another reason to buy an iPad (but wait until January for the rumored new iPads with neyrinck_v-control_pro.giffaster processing and better battery life) Neyrinck has introduced V-Control and V-Control Pro. The apps, downloadable from the iTunes store ($19.99/$49.99), provide access to transport, editing, and mixing functions of any Pro Tools system connected to a Wi-Fi network. V-Control provides core features for portable, mouse-free recording and mixing while V-Control Pro provides fully-featured, professional control comparable to expensive hardware control surfaces. Both apps utilize the iPad surface and the iOS operating system to provide innovative features such as a big counter overlay, swipe gesturing to bank channels, and a popover plug-in editor.

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Pro Tools 9: OPEN for business

Thursday afternoon, in a worldwide pre-AES convention press/user event at the W Hotel in San pro_tools_9_box.gifFrancisco, Avid released the latest version of Pro Tools that fulfills the wish lists of users and then some. Completely re-written and compatible with Windows 7 and Apple OS X Snow Leopard (exclusive), the next generation of Pro Tools software offers more capability and flexibility than ever before. The new version replaces Pro Tools LE and spans upwards to Pro Tools HD TDM (Pro Tools M-powered remains untouched for now.)

Features include:

Compatibility with any audio interface including ASIO and Core Audio compliant devices (yes you can run PT9 without an audio interface by simply plugging in the new iLok interface)

Complete EuCon integration

ADC (Auto Delay Compensation)

Timecode OMF/AAF/MXF and MP3 export support

96 stereo tracks, 256 buses, 64 instrument tracks

If Pro Tools 9 for $599 is not enough for your workflow, you can step it up with the Complete Production Toolkit for an extra $1,299. This enables you to do virtually everything that Pro Tools 9 TDM can do, excepting HEAT and TDM plug-in integration. One of the questions that came up at the event was, “can you ‘freeze’ the effects of TDM/HEAT and port it down to non-TDM systems and the answer was “we’re working on it”.”

Prices are as follows:
Pro Tools 9 (stand alone SKU) $599
LE to Pro Tools 9 crossgrade $249
MP to Pro Tools 9 crossgrade $349
Pro Tools HD 9 upgrade $349
DVTK to CPTK2 $299
MPTK to CPTK2 $1,599

Click on the thumbnail to see Pro Tools system comparisonspicture-1.jpg

The only hole in the boat I can see is that Avid failed to bring 5.1 integration down to the basic system as does their competition (Logic, DP etc…) Other than that, the pricing and packages are competitive and once and for all proves that Avid is listening to and responding to the requests of its users.

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