AF’s Weblog

December 26, 2011

Native Instruments Kontakt 5 Review

Among the host of new products introduced by Natives Instruments in September, we found a new Kontakt version. Here is a quick overview of its new features.

Over the years, Kontakt became a topper on the software samplers market. But after the launch of MOTU’s MachFive 3 and Steinberg’s HALion 4, Native Instruments had to react by updating its baby. What’s new in version 5? Let’s dive in…

Your Effect On Me

Native Instruments Kontakt 5

The German manufacturer often uses internally (or even externally) developed technologies to enhance some of its products. Thus, we have found some of its brand new effects in NI’s virtual drums Studio Drummer (G-EQ, Solid Bus Comp), or the convolution reverb Reflektor in Guitar Rig Pro 5, etc. Kontakt 5 is no exception and hosts four new already existing effects: Solid G-EQ, Solid Bus CompTransient Master and Tape Saturator. We won’t dedicate more time and space to these effects that we have already described on AudioFanzine. However, we are happy to find them in Kontakt because they extend its audio-processing capabilities. Considering the price of the single effects, it’s a nice gift from Native Instruments!

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

Kontakt hits the nail on the head by offering features taken from other NI products: effects from NI’s Solid Mix series, filters designed by the creator of Massive, “MPC vintage” modes from Maschine, and a new time-stretching algorithm signed by zPlane. Add to this more comprehensive routing facilities (inserts, Aux sends) plus an integrated MIDI-file player and you get the reference tool among virtual samplers. Given the price, version 4 owners who don’t have the Solid Mix effects should upgrade without hesitation. If you thought about buying Retro Machines mk2, consider buying Kontakt 5… If you don’t have a Kontakt license yet, we recommend you to take a serious look at Komplete 8: for about $100 more, you get a very comprehensive collection of Native Instruments software tools.

Advantages: 
  • Solid effects
  • 37 new filters from the creator of Massive
  • New time-stretching algorithm signed by zPlane
  • More comprehensive routing options
  • Integrated MIDI-file player
  • Retro Machines mk2 for free
Drawbacks:
  • No as many new features as we expected
  • The quality of some instruments is not top
  • Too much for beginners?
  • Kontakt’s single price compared to Komplete’s price

To read the full detailed review see:  Native Instruments Kontakt 5 Review

December 19, 2011

Native Instruments Guitar Rig Pro 5 Review

Within a few years, Guitar Rig has become a reference in the world of guitar amps and effects simulation. The fourth version, which saw the light of day about two years ago, already brought major sound quality improvements with itself thanks to the new –however limited— Control Room feature… Can the German manufacturer surprise us with this fifth version? Read on…

Guitar Rig Pro is one of the pioneers in the history of guitar amp simulation and thus it is now a pretty mature product. This fifth version doesn’t introduce major improvements but rather fills some gaps in the features list. As usual, this new version includes new amps and effects, an improved Control Room (which first integrated convolution technology into Guitar Rig, see the Guitar Rig 4 Pro review), and some new features that will be useful to certain users…

Let’s start with the two new amps: Van 51 and Hot Solo+.

Two Amps for a Wall of Sound

Native Instruments Guitar Rig Pro 5

One thing must be clear: if you don’t like distortion, the two new simulations aren’t for you. The first one is an emulation of the famous Peavey 5150, the amp of Mr. Van Halen, famous for his high-gain sound, palm muting and tapping, and his drop-D tuning. This amp, appropriately named “Van 51,” has two channels. The rhythm channel features two switches: Bright and Crunch, while both channels share a 3-band EQ, a Post Gain control (master volume), a Resonance control (low frequencies), a Presence control (high mids) and a Hi-Gain switch. Even if the amp wasn’t conceived with clean sounds in mind, we tried it out with a 335 and a Telecaster, and the results are quite ok even if not jaw-dropping. With an ESP or an Ibanez in the lead channel, the amp was much more convincing. The tone is accurate but not too artificial. Moreover, both guitars sounded different, meaning that the software stays faithful to the instrument, which is often not the case with amp simulations. The addition of this amp is good news because Guitar Rig was quite convincing with clean and crunch sounds, but distortion was not at the same level.

With our Les Paul the difference between the two channels is pretty evident. The Rhythm channel sounds very heavy, but the sound is nice! With a Telecaster you can hear the twang of the instrument, which is a good point. In short, the Van 51 isn’t limited to heavy metal guitars with high-output pickups. This is a nice surprise that enriches the software’s already comprehensive amp collection.

Native Instruments Guitar Rig Pro 5

The second amp is the Hot Solo+. Based on the Soldano SLO (Super Lead Overdrive) 100, which is not an amp for dance balls but is considered the ultimate amp by many guitar players. This high-quality boutique amp is eagerly waiting for your high-speed solos! It provides two channels (Normal and Overdrive) with independent gain settings, 3-band EQ, Master, Presence (high mids) and Depth (low frequencies) controls. The good news is that the Hot Solo+ is available with two very different speaker cabinets. We recommend you to combine both cabinets for your guitar recordings because they complement each other very well, allowing you to fatten your sound. We recorded the same takes with the same settings but changing the cabinet so that you can hear the differences. With the 335 and the Telecaster in clean mode, the amp gives better results than the Van 51. The sound is deeper and definitely useful, even if we might prefer some other amps available in Guitar Rig Pro. With the Telecaster and the Les Paul in crunch mode the sound difference between the speaker cabinets is obvious. You’ll notice that the second one is more hollow. In high-gain mode, the Hot Solo+ is very convincing regardless of the guitar (Les Paul, Ibanez RG or ESP).

Check out the sound samples and make your own opinion…

Conclusion

The new Guitar Rig version has more than one trick under its sleeve and is a great tool for users who like to tweak their sound and to make the most of their gear. Containers, side chain and effects like Resochord and Filterbank allow you to get very creative. But Native Instruments didn’t forget standard users: you get a more versatile Control Room Pro and many more speaker cabinets. The two new amps are high-gain specialists, but they sound very good and complement the amp collection precisely where it was lacking the most. If anything, we regret that there are not too many new amps and, as always, bass players will feel neglected with only one amp! The update price is quite affordable considering the new features. And if you are still hesitating about changing to Native Instruments, this new version adds some new arguments to the debate.

Advantages: 
  • More versatile Control Room
  • 23 new speaker cabinets
  • The two new amp models sound good
  • 6 new effects
  • The container is very practical
  • Guitar Rig Pro is still a reference on the market
Drawbacks:
  • Only two additional amps
  • Still only one bass amp
  • Some new effects won’t be of interest for every user

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Guitar Rig Pro 5 Review

December 15, 2011

Mixing Rap Vocals – Part 2: EQ

Filed under: Mixing reviews, Singing — Tags: , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 6:24 am

I’ve read (too) many articles about mixing vocals. Cut 300Hz, boost 2kHz, compress 4:1, yada yada. Unfortunately these articles don’t actually give you any real resource – they simply speculate on generalities. What I’m going to give you is specific things to listen for and how to address them. This article will focus on EQ.

In my previous article, Mixing Rap Vocals Part 1, we discussed the importance of having an end game for your vocal sound. In this article I’m going to give you techniques for actually getting there.

Microphones

A vocal recording is an interaction between the vocalist and the microphone. In order to treat the vocal we’re going to have to address both the character of the voice, and the character of microphone interacting with the voice. Two common issues that arise from the microphone are low-end proximity build-up, and mid-range resonance.

Proximity Effect

When a vocalist gets too close to a microphone the low end will build up. If you have control of the tracking scenario, the optimal solution is to get the vocalist at the right distance from the mic. In the mix, the best way to eliminate this is to use a high-pass filter. I recommend not doing this haphazardly – the weight of the voice is caught in that proximity mud. Try using a gradual slope where the build up begins, or a medium slope to knock out the heavy build-up in conjunction with a low shelf or bell to ease off any residual build up in the higher bass range.

Mid-range

Microphones also tend to be sensitive to the mid-range. It’s not uncommon for an airy-resonance to perk up somewhere in the 300-600Hz range. Usually a couple 2 dB cuts at a narrow Q will suck that right out. However, don’t make any cuts if there’s nothing there you want to get rid of! In fact – be very wary of this range – this is sort of the area where everyone wants to constantly cut – but that’s the body – the “thickness” of the voice. You want enough content here that the vocal feels “full”, but not so much that it feels “unmixed” or “sloppy.”

Now let’s take a closer look at vocals…

Conclusion

In conclusion – I am giving you certain things to listen for – not necessarily certain things to do. If a vocal sounds great – don’t mess with it. You have to rely on what you are aiming to hear, not the processing. The key isn’t to do a lot of processing, but to do just the right amount of the right moves. Also, these ideas apply to the vocal on it’s own merits – once we start bringing in the rest of the mix we may have to reassess our tone settings. Anyway, check back for my next installment: Mixing Rap Vocals Part 3 : Compression.

December 12, 2011

Native Instruments Maschine Mikro Review

Two years ago, Native Instruments introduced Maschine, a kind of hybrid MPC combining software and hardware technologies. The software is now in version 1.7 and the manufacturer has also introduced Maschine Mikro — a simpler but cheaper version.

Besides being a huge success, Maschine marked an evolution on the hardware and software levels. First of all, the reader should refer to the user reviews. You’ll surely notice that some cons that we pointed out in our Maschine 1.0 review (in French) have been already fixed. But let’s start with the hardware of Maschine Mikro and the applications for which it has been conceived.

Mikro But Powerful

There is more than a family resemblance between Maschine and the Mikro version, but their dimensions are slightly different: the smaller brother is 12.6″ x 7.7″ x 2.2″ big (against 12.6″ x 11.6″ x 2.4″). This means that the Mikro version is about 6″ shorter, which is not bad considering a small desktop already fully packed with the computer keyboard, a MIDI keyboard, a mouse, controllers, etc. With a weight of 2.6 lbs (1.3 lb lighter than the “Makro” version), the Maschine Mikro is easily transportable in a backpack.

The first visible change is that the Mikro has only one display (instead of two) with a lower resolution (half as many pixels). Second major change: it has far less encoders! From the 11 encoders available on Maschine you get only one, placed above the display. The backlit switches are also decimated: you get only 28 from the 41 present on the original Maschine. Luckily, the number of pads is still the same (16) and the software is identical.

The transport console is almost the same (Loop is replaced by Restart) but there is no more direct access to the groups. With Maschine Mikro, you’ll have to push a Group button and then one of the pads. Two steps instead of one; slightly less practical. Also note that you can select a group using a keyboard shortcut as well, which is the lesser evil.

Generally speaking, it’s more difficult to browse through effects, sounds, patterns, plug-ins, and projects using only the hardware, due to the smaller display and the single rotary encoder. As we expected, Maschine Mikro makes the user more dependent on his computer mouse, screen and keyboard… This is not necessarily an issue if you use your DAW at home with your sequencer, but it might become a problem for live musicians because they don’t have the possibility of storing parameter automation data directly unto the hardware unit nor adjusting several values simultaneously. They’ll have to use an additional MIDI controller, which is not the case with the original Maschine. The last hardware difference is that Maschine Mikro has no MIDI connections on 5-pin DIN connectors!

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

Maschine is back — smaller and more affordable ($349 instead of $599). The difference with its bigger brother concern mainly the hardware unit and the fact that it is more difficult to make music without putting your hands on your computer mouse and keyboard. In fact, Maschine Mikro is designed for musicians who work at home with a sequencer and want to use the hardware controller mainly for groove programming. In this case, Maschine Mikro fulfills its role very well because grabbing to your mouse is not an issue. If you want to use Maschine for live performances, real-time sound tweaking and parameter adjustment, and also if you want to control everything from the hardware unit, try the “complete” Maschine version, which thanks to the frequent software updates has become more and more powerful every time.

Advantages:

  • Price!
  • Reliable and comprehensive software (version 1.7)
  • More than 6GB of sounds provided
  • Very affordable additional sound banks
  • Komplete Element for free
  • A real inspiring tool
  • Hardware quality

Drawbacks:

  • Not as powerful as Maschine for live applications
  • Recording automation data directly from the hardware unit is impossible

To read the full detailed article see:  Maschine Mikro Review

 

December 8, 2011

Fender Kurt Cobain Jaguar Review

Come on people now! Smile on your brother. Everybody get together. Try to love on another right now! To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the launch of Nirvana’s Nevermind, Fender presents a reissue version of the guitar bought by Kurt Cobain a short time before the recording of this album.

A collector lent the original guitar to Fender, who then decided to manufacture it in Mexico. Before its launch, Kurt Cobain’s Jaguar got a lot of people talking, especially due to the possible incompatibility between the “grunge spirit” and the signature and relic guitars trend. So… is this guitar a real instrument or a shameful business idea using the name of one of the most popular lefty rock icons.

Some History…

Fender Jaguar Kurt Cobain

Originally designed for surf musicians, the Fender Jaguar was introduced as the leading product of Fender’s electric guitar range in the 60′s. The guitar had two independent electrical circuits: a lead stage with volume and tone controls plus three switches (two switches for pickup on/off plus a low-cut filter to create a very sharp sound). Accessible via a switch on the left part of the guitar body, the Rhythm stage offered additional control for the neck pickup through the volume and tone knobs. But the Jaguar had little success and disappeared from Fender’s catalog in the 70′s. Even though this guitar had a vintage touch already in the 90′s, the Jaguar (as well as the Jazzmaster and Mustang) was still rather inexpensive then. But after the grunge wave, and especially due to Kurt Cobain, its price went up and Fender relaunched production. The famous Jagstang — an hybrid between the Jaguar and a Mustang (Cobain loved it), that was actually developed by Fender and Kurt himself — also comes to mind. But the musician wouldn’t have too much time to enjoy this honor and decided to take his life some time after receiving the first prototypes.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Rate Me

Without having the same magic as an original ’62 Jaguar (which would cost about $3,000 with custom pickups/electronics…), this Kurt Cobain signature is a very good guitar. Reliable, strong personality, beautiful, noisy, wild. The guitar is rather versatile but it is not made for guitar heroes regardless of music genre (jazz, blues, metal). This guitar will be the ideal partner for sound destroyers in music genres like pop, alternative, rock, post rock, etc. And of course, a lefty version is also available!

Advantages:

  • Nirvana’s spirit (if you like it)
  • Sturdy, almost indestructible neck
  • Right weight
  • Two independent pickup stages

Drawbacks:

 

  • A bit expensive for a Mexican guitar
  • Not easy to get used to the electronics
  • Access to the controls not easy

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Fender Kurt Cobain Jaguar Review

 

December 1, 2011

AVID M-Audio Fast Track C600 Review

With connections on the side and on top, the brand new Fast Track C600 breaks with the typical M-Audio rack and half-rack design. Have manufacturers decided to fight their battle based not only on features but also on design ? Yes, indeed.

Just like the textile and record industries, the small audio world has been hit by popular trends as we can see every year at the main international trade shows, like NAMM and Musikmesse. Not so long ago, Line 6′s modeling amps set a trend followed by all manufacturers, from Ibanez to Vox, Zoom, Fender, and Marshall. A few months later, and by unanimous decision, a new wave of pocket amps and all-tube 5-watt amps came out. Treading in Samplitude’s and Altiverb’s footsteps, all manufacturers wanted to have a convolution reverb in their product range — nowadays replaced by the “algorithm reverb is definitely better” trend. Another follow-the-leader example is the introduction of dozens of pocket recorders following the success of the Zoom H2.

And now, I’m pleased to announce the arrival of a new trend, this time in the world of external audio interfaces: the “desktop” interface. Where does it come from? Hard to tell, even if Mackie’s Onyx Satellite came out in 2006 and TC Electronic’s nice Konnekt 6 (2008) are precursors, recently followed by Steinberg’s CI2 & CI2+, Lexicon’s I-Onix U42S and Roland’s Capture series, and now by the Steinberg UR28M, Propellerhead’s Balance and M-Audio’s new Fast Track C400 and C600…

The principle of a desktop interface is simple: instead of having the controls on the front panel like an effect rack, all controls are placed on the top panel while connections are located on the front or rear sides. This way, the unit can’t be rack mounted but it gains in ease of use. The controls and lighting indicators are bigger, there is more space between them, and sometimes even more features. Which is the case with the Fast Track C600 we want to review today. It looks wonderful, like a fortuitous meeting…

… in a home studio between a sound card and Kubrick’s monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

AVID M-Audio Fast Track C600

The first thing you’ll notice after taking it out of the box is that M-Audio took a very unexpected turn regarding design. The gray PVC akin to previous interface series is gone. M-Audio decided to go with Darth Vader-like black plastic, sometimes matte sometimes glossy, together with green, blue, red and orange LEDs. The overall look is really great, even if we would rather have the manufacturer use higher-quality PVC or even metal to give it a more classy feel when you turn knobs and push buttons. However, I must admit that the overall design is very attractive. The C600 is rather light, but heavy enough to stay safe on your desktop (and it also features anti-slip pads). Its great looks and ergonomically designed sloping front panel look very promising.

AVID M-Audio Fast Track C600

The first thing that catches your eye is the big volume control on the right with a pair of smaller controls to adjust the level of the two headphone outs (independent, channels 1/2 and 3/4). Above these rotary controls, you’ll find three buttons to turn on/off the audio outs of the sound card pairwise: “A” for outs 1/2, “B” for outs 3/4 and “C” for outs 5/6. This way, you can use this section as a monitoring controller, connecting a pair of speakers to each output pair and switching between them very easily. This section offers another valuable feature: a MIDI transport panel allowing you to control your sequencer. Play, Rec, Stop, FFW and RWD: all main transport controls are there, and a “Multi” button allows you to program eight sequential steps (define eight operations you want to be performed one after the other when you press the button once). In other words, it’s not a Mackie Control but it’s enough to save you time and increase ease of use. Such controls should be available on all audio interfaces.

On the left you’ll find the controls dedicated to the four audio inputs of the sound card. And once again, the space available on the control panel provides valuable extras, like the 8-segment LED meter for each input. This makes gain adjustment much easier… All other features are pretty standard. You get a Pad button for each input stage and two buttons to turn on/off the Phantom power of inputs 1/2 or 3/4. Inputs 1 and 2 are equipped with an additional button to select the front or rear connectors.

AVID M-Audio Fast Track C600

Are they different? Yes, of course. On the front panel, besides two headphone outs on 1/4″ jacks, you have a pair of jack inputs, one of which (input 2) is a hi-Z instrument input. On the rear panel you have four XLR-1/4″ jack combos for inputs 1-4. So, for inputs 1 and 2 you can select either the rear or the front connectors and that’s why you have Front/Rear buttons on the top panel.

AVID M-Audio Fast Track C600

The rest of the connections on the rear are also standard: six line outs on 1/4″ jacks, S/PDIF in/out on RCA, MIDI in/out on 5-pin DIN, a USB port, and one connector for the power outlet. This detail has some consequences: when you’re using only the USB cable to power the C600, only inputs 1 and 2 are available. If you want to use all four inputs, you have to connect the interface to the power outlet. The same applies to the headphone outs since only one is available when the interface is used without external power supply.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

The new Fast Track C600 is a great success in every aspect. The desktop design is very practical, the controls are laid out in a very intuitive manner, instrument inputs and headphone outputs are easily accessible and independent, and the device looks nice. The full-plastic housing gives it a fragile look, but considering the price… When it comes to sound, we noticed an obvious improvement and the comparison with the much more expensive MBox Pro is flattering for the small C600. The preamps and converters perform really nice and this M-Audio interface will certainly be a good choice for musicians who don’t want to spend more than $400 and don’t need more than four preamps. Year after year the quality of budget products increases and the Fast Track C600 confirms this trend.

Advantages:

  • Nice look
  • Practical desktop design
  • Quality preamps and converters
  • Transport keys
  • Big volume control
  • Two independent headphone outs
  • S/PDIF in/out
  • Price

Drawbacks:

  • Plastic housing
  • Sequential Multi button not very useful

To read the full detailed review with sound samples see: Fast Track C600 Review

 

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