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October 27, 2010

SPL DrumXchanger Review

Filed under: Drums/Percussion, Plugin, Software — Tags: , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 2:17 pm

Drum replacement tools were very rare a decade ago but have become much more common in modern music productions. When the inventor of the famous Transient Designer launched its own sound replacement plug-in, it was obvious for us at AudioFanzine to want to test this tool!

Application

SPL DrumXchanger

With the evolution of music production workflows, the trend seems to be to delay artistic and technical decisions of each production step as much as possible. On the other hand, recording techniques in home studios don’t really allow users to get a fully satisfying result, which can be heard in the final production. Sound replacement tools have become a necessity when it comes to improving the sound of a recording or providing it a different frequency or dynamic response. That’s why SPL developed the DrumXchanger, a mono/stereo plug-in available in VST, AU and RTAS formats, that allows the user to trigger a sound using another one. But as we’ll see it later, the plug-in can do much more!

The DrumXchanger requires an iLok and it is provided with an additional file that includes a small sample bank so you can replace the recorded sound with SPL samples. Installing both files (application + sound bank) is easy and quick; you may install the sound bank in the directory you wish. When you run the DrumXchanger (I inserted it in a ProTools track) you see a… grea user interface! Nothing sad indeed: the DrumXchanger just inherited the visual characteristic of the Analog Code plug-in suite… It’s true, it doesn’t look very joyful — a bit more color would brighten up my session — but then again, we are here to work, right? What are we waiting for!

Five in a Row

The first thing that strikes you when the DrumXchanger opens is the intuitive layout of the different processing stages. In fact, the plug-in is divided into five clear and distinguishable sections, each of them with its own special editing and setting possibilities…

Let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

In a market packed with developers who constantly offer new triggering plug-ins, SPL distinguishes itself once again from with a sound replacer that provides really effective detection and sound shaping features. With a dual detection system, two Transient Designers, three dual filters, a pitch shifter, and a compressor, the DrumXchanger is much more than a simple triggering plug-in. It is a comprehensive sound processing tool that provides plenty of settings for you to always achieve the sound you need. At $199.66 + VAT, the DrumXchanger is a no-brainer!

Advantages:

  • Overall structure, layout and design
  • Sound possibilities
  • Two Transient Designers in a single plug-in!
  • Dual detection system

Drawbacks:

  • Delay control is too imprecise
  • Hey Mr. SPL, how about including more samples with the DrumXchanger? Because your samples sound really good…

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  SPL DrumXchanger Review

October 20, 2010

Line 6 POD HD 500 Review

The new Pod has arrived, after three long years of waiting — ever since the launch of the Pod X3, which provided the same models as its big brother, the Pod XT, and thus disappointed most guitar players. This time, Line 6 engineers have been really busy developing new models to be hosted in three new pedalboards. We tested the flagship of the range: the Pod HD 500.

The new Pod HD Series includes three products: the Pod HD 300 ($330), the Pod HD 400 ($400) and the Pod HD 500 ($500). The main differences between them are the number of integrated effects, the memory size of the loop recorder/player and the connections. We will examine thoroughly the Pod HD 500, the flagship of the series that provides about one hundred effects, a 48-second loop recorder/player, 16 new “HD” models (join the hype!) and comprehensive connections.

This new series does away with previous models which were beginning to show their age. Behind the rather surprising “HD” label, you’ll find new models that will take up the biggest part of this review.

Line 6 POD HD500

But let’s start by unpacking the pedalboard, whose design takes after its older brother, the Pod X3 Live: a display on the left, an expression pedal on the right, pots on the top and footswtiches at the bottom. “Why change a winning horse,” you ask? Specially considering that the Pod X3 Live had pretty good ergonomics… “Old” users won’t be put off, quite the opposite! The plastic chrome knobs (a bit cheap, I must admit) have been replaced with black knobs that feel a bit more confident. The expression pedal is also new and seems quite sturdy. On the contrary, the quality footswitches are the same and the unit is still very bulky. But considering the number of footswitches (12) and in/out connectors it has, we can hardly imagine how the manufacturer could have made it more compact… The look of Line 6 products becomes drier every year, which is not a bad thing. The Pod HD 500 has less chrome than its older brother and its dark gray metal housing makes it more trendy. The unit looks rugged enough, even though the plastic encoders (protected with a metal rod) and the multi-directional button on the right of the display seem flimsy.

Now, let’s take a look at the rear panel of the device…

Connectors, Connectors, Connectors

Line 6 POD HD500

You’ll immediately notice that the Pod HD 500 has very comprehensive connections: the rear panel sports 20 connectors. Inputs: 1/4″ jack for a second expression pedal, guitar input, 1/8″ jack for a CD/MP3 player, aux input for a second instrument, XLR mic input with input level control, and Variax input for the Line 6 guitar, which provides many advantages. Note that the mic, guitar, Variax, and aux inputs can be freely assigned to one of the two signal chains. In short, you can connect two guitars and get a fully different sound for each one.

Outputs: line outs on unbalanced 1/4″ TRS jacks and balanced XLR connectors, headphones out, and a so-called “L6 Link” you can use with the DT500, the manufacturer’s new amp. The L6 Link allows you to control up to four amps(!) with the footboard and vice versa. In this case, both units are synced and the amp will even have the ability to switch between different modes (class A, class A/B, biasing method, negative feedback…) depending on the preset selected in the HD500. Moreover, if you play a Variax guitar, you’ll have the possibility to control everything with your feet. Not bad, hey! The HD 500 also features a coaxial S/PDIF out delivering a 24bit/96-kHz signal.

Line 6 Pod HD Edit

An effect loop is also included: one stereo TRS 1/4″ jack for FX send and a pair of mono TS 1/4″ jacks for FX return. A selector allows you to choose stompbox or line level for the FX loop. Perfect! You also get MIDI in/out connectors as well as a USB port that allows you to use the Pod with a digital audio interface and also edit presets with the POD HD500 Edit software (Mac and Windows compatible). This software editor allows you to easily manage and edit presets thanks to its well-achieved GUI. All settings are transferred to the Pod in real time!

Do note the lack of an on/off switch, which means the device is on as soon as you connect it to the power outlet. This solution is not very practical for home use but it can avoid unwanted switch-off problems on stage!

Also notice that there are three switches on the front panel that affect the connections: one activates a pad to attenuate the guitar input level in case your active pickups are too powerful for the POD; another one, called “XLR Ground Lift,” allows you to avoid ground loops in the XLR outs; and the last one allows you to select line or instrument signal level for the 1/4″ outputs so you can connect the POD to the guitar input of your amp.

Now, let’s take a look at the settings and browsing…

Conclusion

Line 6 is back with a new pedalboard with (at last!) new models. The number of amp models decreased drastically (only 16 amps are available) but the sound quality improved as well. The effects from the M9 and M13 footboards are still very good in most cases, and the Pod’s interface became a bit clearer. We just regret that the factory presets are not always usable. Finally, Line 6 provides us with a rugged footboard with comprehensive connections and nice features, like the 48-second looper. At $500, the Pod HD 500 is a good investment that will fulfill the needs of most buyers. If you think the price is a bit high, take a look at the HD 400 and 300. They provide less effects and don’t use the Dual Tone technology (two amps in parallel); the looper has less memory (24 seconds), and connections are not so comprehensive. However, their price is much lower ($330 and $400).

Advantages:

  • New amp models
  • M13 effects
  • Very comprehensive connections
  • Rugged pedalboard
  • Ease-of-use
  • Simple and effective looper
  • Two models in parallel
  • Very flexible effects chain
  • Possibility to store 512 presets
  • Pod HD 500 Edit software
  • Accepts two independent signal sources

Drawbacks:

  • Factory presets not always usable
  • Some modelings are lower in quality than the others

To read the full detailed article see: Line 6 POD HD 500 Review

October 13, 2010

Pioneer DJM-2000 Mixing Console Review

With its 11 rhythm effects, multi-band frequency mix crossfader, RJ45 port to connect CD players, four-channel stereo sound card, and 5.8″ color touchscreen, the new Pioneer DJM2000 mixer is very appealing. And we obviously wanted to find out what it hidden under the hood. Let’s go!

Test Configuration

Pioneer DJM-2000

I put on my prettiest sneakers, grab my good old CDJ-100 CD players (yes, I know, they are not as nice as the CDJ-2000…), a small Shure mic, my MacBook, a pair of headphones, a Sennheiser mic, and a fat RCF sound system to shake the ground under my feet. I am now ready to welcome the new Pioneer jewel… The picture on the box doesn’t look very attractive, but as soon as you open the box, you know that you have a serious mixer in your hands: 18.7 lbs of technology in a rather big housing (15.7″ x 16.9″). The package also includes 28 pages of operating instructions (the bare minimum, considering the device), a CD-ROM with PC and Mac drivers for the sound card, the power cable, a USB cable, and four rather unusual RJ45 Cat5e cables for DJ equipment. We will come back to this later…

It doesn’t include any software, but on Pioneer’s website you can download Rekordbox for free — like I did. Installation was a breeze with my Mac Book Pro but the software was quite useless for this review: it cannot read more than one channel simultaneously and it is quite limited if you have no CDJ-2000/900.

The Concept

Pioneer DJM-2000

Pioneer tried to pack as many technological innovations as possible into this new high-grade mixer. Some of them have been inherited from other products. With this mixer, Pioneer successfully implemented into a hardware product some unique features that you usually find only in computer software. The mixer is very well manufactured. It has a very nice and professional finish, pursuing the spirit of previous Pioneer products, especially through the classic level meters with peak indicators. Almost every button is backlit, some of them flash to show their status while others have different lighting intensity. We just miss the possibility to adjust their brightness more precisely.

You obviously have a headphones output to monitor all channels and effects, a mic input with a two-band EQ and talk-over (that attenuates the level of the master signal when the mic level increases), and a master zone with stereo meter that allows you to adjust the output volume and balance. We won’t spend much time describing these features since they are quite standard on mixers in this range.

Instead, we’ll focus on the four channels and their multi-inputs, the great crossfaders, numerous effects, and the sound card that make this mixer one of the most versatile in its category.

Channels

The four channels are placed to the sides of the center LCD. You can use the outer channels (1 & 4) to connect your turntables and the inner channels (2 & 3) for your favorite analog players. Each channel features an S/PDIF input and another digital input through the internal USB sound card.

Each channel has exactly the same features:

  • A trim control to adjust the input level
  • An almost standard three-band EQ with an “isolator” mode, which allows you to extend the range of the rotary controls to be able to cut the respective frequency band up to -40 dB instead of -26 dB. Thus, if you turn all three controls fully counterclockwise, you won’t hear anything anymore.
  • A “filter” control that allows you to adjust the level of the INST FX for the channel.
  • A CUE button dedicated to the pre-listen function in your headphones.
  • A fader to adjust the channel volume. You can choose the fader curve to be either linear or logarithmic. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it doesn’t seem possible to change the faders, in spite of the three visible screws (there is no information about this in the operating instructions).
  • A convenient selector that allows you to freely assign the channel to one side of the crossfader (see crossfaders section below).
  • A 15-segment level meter with peak detection.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

Let’s be clear: this is a great piece of gear! Well thought-out, nicely finished and with a great sound, it offers countless possibilities to allow the most demanding DJ’s to have endless fun. This definitively high-grade mixer was conceived by Pioneer to work with several CDJ-2000 or CDJ-900. If you want to get the most out of it, you’ll have to buy them as well.

And this results in the biggest problem for most of us: the basic setup (DJM-2000 + two CDJ-900) would amount to about $5,100… it’s hardly what you’d call cheap! With this product, Pioneer targets night clubs with big budgets who want to offer the best to their DJ’s. The latter will have the possibility to prepare their sets before performing, and to come to the club with only a CD or a USB key — no need for a computer.

Advantages:

  • Finish and sturdiness
  • Sound quality
  • Number of ins/outs
  • Integrated eight-output sound card (four stereo outs)
  • Seven crossfaders per frequency band via touchscreen
  • Real-time, BPM-synced effects and sidechain remix.

Drawbacks:

  • Price (about $2,500)
  • BPM counter works too slowly and not precisely enough
  • Only one BPM counter
  • Not Traktor ready

To read the full detailed article see: Pioneer DJM-2000 Review

October 5, 2010

Akai APC 20 Review

With the APC40, a control surface fully dedicated to Ableton Live, Akai created an extremely successful tool, so the launch of the APC20 comes as no surprise: an APC40 amputated of its right section and sold at half the price, to beat all competitors.

Because Akai has serious competitors: also targeting Ableton users, Novation didn’t try to compete with the APC40 on the features front but rather, on the price side, with its more basic Launchpad (only pads, no faders nor rotary controls) for under (the psychological price barrier of) $200. It wasn’t a surprise to see that anyone who didn’t have the money for the big Akai controller jumped at the Launchpad. This was enough to get on the nerves of  MPC’s inventor who decided to answer with the APC20 available for less than $200. Let’s have a closer look…

No Surprises

Akai APC20

Once you take it out of its big box, the APC20 makes a quite good impression. Made out of metal, it’s neither too heavy to be transported in a backpack nor too light to keep steady on a table (thanks to four wide rubber feet). Plastic is only used for the pads, the switches, the faders, the encoder, and the removable sides of the housing. The latter are held by six screws and thus can be easily removed for rack mounting purposes. We can easily imagine it between two turntables and a small mixer to rock the dance floor with hot loops.

The APC20 features eight channels, each of them with the following controls (from bottom to top): fader, “Record Arm” button, “Solo/Cue” button (for routing the solo track to the monitoring bus), and “Activator” button (for channel on/off). Next to the eight tracks, on the right, a fader controls the master volume while an encoder adjusts the monitoring level.

Above this section, nine pads give access to the main controls: play, stop, record, MIDI overdub, left/right/up/down buttons to navigate within the tracks and the scenes, and “Note Mode” to determinate the operation of the 8×5 pads on the top section of the APC 20. Although their main use is as clip triggers, they can also be used as a “MIDI keyboard” in Note mode, in which case each pad is assigned to a note. Even though it can’t replace a real master keyboard if you want to play melodic instruments, this feature is very convenient to program Ableton’s Drum Rack on the fly.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

Yes, the APC40 is much more comprehensive than the APC20! But if you have only $200 for a Live controller, the APC20 has only one competitor in the form of the Novation Launchpad. The latter is less expensive but doesn’t have any faders, which makes it less interesting. However, its larger pads make it more comfortable to use. The perfect product doesn’t exist, even if the numerous pros of both competitors provide unprecedented comfort of use with Live.

Advantages:

  • More comfort of use with Live
  • Plug and play
  • Attractive price
  • Manufacturing quality
  • The faders offer a small advantage over the Launchpad

Drawbacks:

  • It would be better with rotary controls, like on the APC40…
  • Backlit pads hardly readable in bright environments

To read the full detailed article see: Akai APC 20 Review

October 1, 2010

Korg MicroSampler Review

To everyone’s surprise, Korg has launched a small sampler keyboard. Let’s see what we can do with it and for what purpose…

The first all-in-one sampler keyboard saw the light of day almost 30 years ago. Born under the Californian sun in 1981, the Emulator provided four or eight voices, a four-octave keyboard and 128 KB of RAM that allowed the user to save four seconds of audio data at 8 bits/28 kHz. “Play a turkey” said the ads… you could even play eight turkeys if you paid $15,000! In those days, big Fairchild systems were the rulers and the Synclavier could not sample audio yet. The Ensoniq Mirage was the first to make this concept affordable in 1984. And the arms race began: memory, resolution, sample rate, polyphony, sound synthesis section, effects, sequencer… E-mu, Ensoniq, Kurzweil, Akaï, and Roland became the major players. And Korg joined in the adventure in 1986 with the DSS-1. With the advent of computers and their giant sample banks, the sampler keyboard market reduced to zero, nothing… until recently, when Korg surprised everybody by launching a feather light sampler keyboard called MicroSampler. For whom, for what and how?

A Strange Package

Korg MicroSampler

With almost 4.4 lb., the MicroSampler is no tank! The front panel is made out of gray cheap-looking plastic. All controls are recessed into the housing; this design protects the controls during transportation indeed but it also makes access harder. It is specially troublesome for the “Tap Tempo” and “Sampling” buttons given that we would like to push them more easily! The unit is equipped with six encoders, that recall the program selectors of a washing machine, and 16 switches. The front panel is divided into four main sections: keyboard (that allows sample selection and assignation), pattern sequencer, sampling, and browsing. The latter consists in a backlit LCD, browsing keys and two encoders: the first one allows you to browse the parameters and the other one to edit them. The keyboard offers 37 velocity sensitive keys in small format. The MicroSampler is definitely made for skillful people when it comes to editing and playing, even if the black keys are a bit larger than on most compact keyboards… Right above the keyboard, you’ll find a 37-LED display inserted in a metal bar, which indicates the sample(s) being currently played or edited. By the way, the unit has no joystick nor wheels! On the other hand, it has two slots for a cell phone, a pack of cards, chewing-gums, or money…

Korg MicroSampler

On the front panel you can also find an XLR connector for the gooseneck dynamic mic included. All other connections are on the rear panel: headphones out, stereo audio output and input on 1/4″ jacks, Midi in/out, type-D USP port, power in, and on/off switch. The USB port allows you to connect the keyboard to a computer to transfer samples and Midi data (see gray box). Under the hood, there’s a closed compartment for six AA batteries that allow you to play for about four hours (battery indication with visual alert on the display), which is ideal to sample sounds on the beach or in the rain forest… Handling is rather easy and most controls are easily accessible since the unit is very slim. By pushing the “Edit” button and a key you’ll access the edit page directly above it. The only issue arises with the “Value” encoder, which is not absolutely precise for parameter editing. We would have preferred increment/decrement buttons.

Memory and Sound

Korg MicroSampler

The MicroSampler is stereo and has 16 bit/48 kHz resolution, like all Korg products since the Trinity… Its permanent memory allows you to save eight banks of 36 user samples each (160 sec. per bank and only half that in stereo). You can use only one bank at a time after having loaded it into the internal temp memory. We don’t know if audio data is compressed but 15 MB of internal temp memory correspond to 116 MB flash memory, in linear format. The polyphony provides 14 voices but samples that use time stretching require twice as much voices.

The MicroSampler is provided with a sound bank stored in the internal ROM. It includes 36 samples and 16 patterns, some of which you can listen to here (drums, pitched, looped): Not very generous and poor quality… In “sample” mode, you can access the 36 samples dispatched over the whole keyboard in their original pitch, except the higher C key dedicated to the stereo audio input. In “keyboard” mode, the current sample is applied to all 37 keys; the second C from the left corresponds to the original pitch. You can transpose beyond this pitch range, even with an external master keyboard! If other samples are looped while you switch to this mode, they will continue playing back. On the contrary, you have to release the notes to change the sample.

Now let’s take an even closer look…

Conclusion

The MicroSampler revisits a 30-year old concept with modern technologies. The results? Extremely light weight, mobility, permanent memory, real-time sampling, integrated effects, basic sequencer, and connection to a computer. With its small keyboard, basic editing, integrated mic and standalone capability, it will be best used for mobile or live applications; it cannot compete with software solutions in a studio. The ergonomics could be better considering the target users: better access to the controls, remote sampling start, standard-size keys, more banks… Finally, the MicroSampler is a nice compact tool which is less a toy than it seems, and it is just waiting for you to take it for a ride somewhere.

Advantages:

  • Very compact size
  • Easy to use
  • Real-time capability
  • Real-time time stretching
  • Flash memory
  • Comprehensive effects section
  • Memory exchange with a computer
  • Downloadable PC/Mac editor software
  • Wav/Aiff import via editor

Drawbacks:

  • Recessed controls
  • Limited sound synthesis possibilities
  • Proprietary sample format
  • Not conceived for multisamples
  • Playing limited to 37 keys
  • Only one bank in the RAM
  • Limited number of internal banks
  • Limited number of samples per bank
  • No save function for a USB key or a card
  • Almost no pattern editing possibilities

To read the full detailed review with sound samples see:  Korg MicroSampler Review

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