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Journal Journal: Professional Music Studio Software

Want a hassle free, no dickering with the technology studio? Get a turnkey solution. Any of the major music chains like Guitar Center or Sam Ash will sell you one. Additionally, you can go to Carillon Audio to get PC systems. They are the defacto industry standard. Even if you don't need a complete turnkey system, go to Carillon for the computer; they have components that work right for audio. When I switched to a Carillon system from a homebrew PC, all my tech problems went away.

As far as software, unfortunately, there is no Right Choice these days for PC. Now that Logic is Mac only, there's nothing really competitive left. You come down to choosing between limitations. Here's my breakdown of the major software kits:


1) Logic Audio. Best all around. Comes with the best, most comprehensive set of plugins. It's hard to overstate how important this is--it will cost you hundreds to maybe a couple of grand to get equivalent plugins for any other program. Logic is the only program that can do serious mix work out of the box (IMO). Has very competent built in Score editor. Has very nice built in synthesizers (some for extra $$). Its MIDI programmability is outstanding, and the integration with SoundDiver is very nice (for working with external synths). Logic Control is top notch, and you can use quite a variety of other control surfaces too. Very customizable (also complex because of this), interface is cluttered compared to other programs. Will work with TDM systems, if you can afford it. A lot of people use Logic as a front end to DigiDesign (ie ProTools) hardware. Can import and export OMF files for compatability with other systems, but I had trouble trying to transfer studd with ProTools systems; maybe this works on Mac? (don't know if it's a Logic bug or a ProTools bug) Supports copy/paste with ReCycle, which is very handy, even more so with the ESX24. Can include physical inputs when bouncing down. This is very important for mixed MIDI/audio with external synths--other software requires you to record your synth stuff on seperate passes before you bounce. The outboard gear plugin lets outboard gear fit seamlessly into your plugin chains; this is great if you have outboard gear. They're good about releasing cool new features in free point upgrades, although stability of these upgrades varies widely. Can't be beat for the price if you use the program to its fullest. Note that many shortcomings compared to other programs have been addressed in the latest version (6.0). People are making a big hubbub avout the new "freeze track" feature. When you freeze a track, it transparently bounces down the track so that plugin and automation processing are no longer necessary. This lets you stack up plugins out the yin-yang without overloading your CPU. This is also hugely important working with soft-synths, which can suck a lot of CPU. DP4 is also picking up this feature (see below). Logic has traditionally been very lacking in the file management area, but 6.0 has a new project manager utility that promises to make this better, and magazine reviews tend to like it. The new groups in 6.0 seem better than the ProTools groups, as you have more control over which operations follow the grouping. On the downside, waveform editing (the sample editor) is still a major liability, with only one level of undo (ouch!). Very lacking compared to Cubase or ProTools.

Still to come: discussion of external sync.

2) ProTools. If you get LE, you only get 32 tracks. That's *mono* tracks; so only 16 stereo. If you're working with synths that make stereo output, this is a severe, cannot be overstated limitation compared to all other programs. To get around this limitation, you have to fork over for a TDM system, which is $10K on the low end. Otherwise, LE is OK pricewise because it's free with hardware. Note, however, that the hardware is kinda crap at the pricepoint. There are much better USB interfaces than the mBox for less than $450, and the Motu 828 or 896 are far superior to the 001. Best audio editing capabilities all around. It's best feature (that other programs don't have) is the virtual track/playlist feature. Say you have 3 vocal takes; you can put them all on the same track and easily toggle between them (and each one can have its own descriptive name). Combine this with group functionality, and when you want to do another drum take, you're up and ready in seconds, while this can take a little while with other programs. ProTools can edit across groups very easily (so long as you create the group as an edit group). This is a big deal anytime you have multiple lines with bleed, like drums or a string quartet. I've now played with Logic 6 a little at the store (I don't have a Mac at home), and it also has this editing across groups; in fact the new Logic groups seem more powerful. ProTools is a studio standard, and LE has full compatability with big studio rigs. Note that Digi wants you to pay an extra $500 or so to import and export OMF files (something Logic provides for free!) Gotta watch for Mac/PC compatability (it's easy to do, but a lot of engineers don't even realise PT runs on PCs, so they never click the check-box. This has been a real PITA for me. Just this weekend, we wasted 20 minutes converting files 'cause of the frickin engineer who should know better by now). No score editing, MIDI is mediocre, uses a different plugin format (which makes buying 3rd party plugins difficult). On top of that, the default plugins are poor; you can't do any serious mixing with LE out of the box. Even the big rigs have pretty harsh limitations on inserts/sends per channel (5/5) compared to Logic (16/16). Cleanest interface (IMO). If you don't need the MIDI/Score/Synthesizer stuff, you're not doing serious mixing, and you're willing to compromise your sound quality for price, LE has good price/performance. That's meant to be sarcastic. Oh, and 6.0 supports ReWire, I understand, and 6.0 will be available for Windows in a couple more months, I guess. The big rigs are way overpriced, in my opinion, especially as general purpose CPUs get more powerful. A new HD system will cost you $15K unless you're cheap (not counting the computer!). That still only lets you run something like 64 tracks (at 48K), even less at "HD". Running multiple computers (sample-accurate linked) is a little more flexible and doesn't require proprietary lock-in. Steinberg is pushing this, calling it VST System Link (see below). With appropriate cabling and interfaces, you can treat other computers like an ADAT deck or whatever. Extra machines gives you multiple hard drives, which is typically a bottleneck in these systems, and the flexibility to run whatever you want. On the downside, though, you need multiple software licenses and it's more work to set up. With Mac hardware, it's may not be a win, but a cheap PC ($1000) with audio hardware and software license ($1000) will run a lot of tracks for you. With the new freeze track feature sure to be standard in a couple of years, CPU power is less important; stack up your plugins and then freeze the track. At that point, disk speed/capacity is your real limiting factor, and so multiple machines becomes a real winner.

Still to come: discussion of external sync.

3) Cubase. A real bear to configure. I still don't have it properly recognizing my audio hardware. Out of the box, it supports only a handful of cards, and I haven't talked with their technical support to figure out what's up. I don't use it much because of this. It's got nice audio editing features, it has an interesting feature to link multiple machines together to run bigger projects (I haven't tried it, so I don't know if it really works). I've never tried MIDI with it, although it does have a score editor (that I haven't used). The interface is clean, but I find it very constraining. Logic is very customizable, and PT LE just works for me (so I don't care that it's not too customizable), Cubase's interface just grates me the wrong way and I can't fix it. So I wind up using Logic and PT LE. Also, I need missing features, so it can't replace Logic for me. I don't think Cubase can take advantage of TDM systems (but I'm not 100% sure). The plugins that come with Cubase are pretty lame (the Grungelizer is just as lame as it sounds). The waveform editing is top notch, though, with unlimited undo/redo capabilities and built in ReCycle style analysis of note boundaries. It's still not as easy as ProTools for applying edits across multiple tracks. For example, if you need to apply the same copy/paste operation across all 12 drum mic lines, ProTools is more convenient (or at least I haven't figured out how to make Cubase do it). Only program to support ReWire 2 on PC right now (ProTools will soon, Logic 5 only supports ReWire 1).

Still to come: discussion of external sync.

4) Nuendo. Cubase's big brother, it's expensive. Targeted at movie/tv/ maybe radio/post production houses. I know some guys who swear by it, but they haven't used other systems. Never used it, but as I understand it, has lots of project management features. ProTools 6.0 TDM has a lot of these features; things like different logins for different engineers using the system, and remembering preferences (like custom keyboard shortcuts) for each one. Very useful in a pro environment, not so much at home. Otherwise, same general pros and cons as Cubase. Nuendo 2 and Cubase SX are based on the same engine, I think. They can link to each other--ie, you can have one machine running Cubase be a slave to another machine running Nuendo, using the aforementioned link feature.

5) Cakewalk Sonar. Main plus: it's cheap, and works well for MIDI. Does have a score editor, I think. 2.2 release now supports ASIO (finally!). I saw a friend running Sonar recently, and the look and feel of it didn't impress me at all, and it doesn't have a great reputation. My only experience with this program is about 4 years old, so I don't have much else useful to say about it.

6) Digital Performer. Mac only, they've got a new version coming out with nifty new features (as always...), but I've never used it as it's mac only. So I can't give you a feature breakdown. Reading the literature, it has a score editor called QuickScribe. The new version now supports ReWire, and they are promising TDM support as a free upgrade "coming soon." Version 4 has the "freeze track" feature recently introduced in Logic 6 as well.

Synth Packages: I haven't used these nearly as much as the Studio packages above, so I can't give you quite the feature by feature breakdown.

1) Reason. Universally loved and acclaimed, it's not hard to see why. It's a great deal at under $300, and the new 2.5 upgrade makes it all that much cooler. I don't know of any direct competitors: Reason is a virtual synth rack. They provide you with about 6 different synthesizer types, including samplers, loop players, subtractive synths, and more. You can stack them up in any combination that you want, and then wire them together in Reason's mixer. This program is also why ReWire support matters in the studio packages. With ReWire support you can pump all the synthesized audio out of Reason straight into your studio packages mixer and use your studio packages effects and automation, etc. Logic's built in synths are more integrated, sure, but you can only use them in Logic. One thing people like is that Reason actually looks like a rack of outboard gear; the UI is modelled after real gear with nobs and switches, and it looks really good.

2) GigaStudio. King of the sampler world. More voices, more tracks, more control. Competes with programs like Kontakt, and Motu is releasing some new competitor. Also, Logic features the ESX24 sampler built in which can now read GigaStudio sample libraries. The ESX24 is way cool for its integration into Logic, but GigaStudio is still the big daddy. I haven't used it yet, but when I go full blown soft synth, this will be my program of choice. I'll fill this in more as I learn more of the ins and outs of different packages.

3) Reaktor. The ultimate music program for geeks. I just got Reaktor 4 (which just came out), and so I will update this as I learn it better. Reaktor really doesn't have any competitors. Reaktor lets you build your own synthesizers from basic components, oscilators on up. So the ES1, ES2 etc featured in Logic, and the subtractive synths featured in Reason can in theory be rebuilt in Reaktor if you understand the circuitry behind them. In essence, then, it is an electric circuit simulator, except that instead of dropping you all the way down to resistors and capacitors, it lets you work with the basic components of 70s style synthesizer circuits. Way cool! On top of that, it also has a GUI builder so you can control your synths, and you can then use your synths as VST instruments in your studio software.

Audio Editing/Mastering packages: I again haven't used these as much.

1) Cool Edit Pro.
2) WaveLab.
3) WaveBurner Pro.
4) Audacity.
5) ReCycle.

Obviously, I have glossed over some things and skipped others based on what's important to me. You may prioritize different things. There are standalone programs that fill in the gaps, as well.


Journal Journal: Kiki's Delivery Service And Other Anime

Over the weekend, I picked up the new release of Kiki's Delivery Service and Spirited Away on DVD. There was a good discount if you bought 2, so that was cool. Anyway, I had seen Kiki many years ago, but I had not seen Spirited Away. After watching them, here's my reactions:

1) Kiki's Delivery Service is *amazing*; she was Harry Potter before Harry Potter. Gotta be in top 5 animated films ever, and I would rank it in the top 100 films. Not that I'm a cinephile, but this movie is just too good to ignore. The painting and animation is gorgeous, for starters, and it has more personality and character than any other movie I can think of. And it's *adorable*! Don't worry that it's G rated, this movie is definitely recommended for everyone. I give it 10.5 on a 1-10 scale.

2) Spirited Away is also great, but not on the same level. It's a little too Japanese to appeal to everybody, and Chihiro (the young girl/star) is not as interesting as Kiki. However, I find Spirited Away to be what I hoped Princess Mononoke would be. They both have a lot in common, with their spiritual sides, cast of characters, and just general feel. But Spirited Away is somehow much more vibrant than Pincess M. Princess M. herself is a more interesting foil than Haku, but the no-face monster and various gods and spirits in SA are more endearing than the animal spirits in PM. Even though Spirited Away has a PG rating, it seems much more like a kids movie than Kiki. The setting, a bath-house for the gods, is very interesting, although the ocean-front city that Kiki settles in has that European charm. I give SA an 8.5 out of 10.

In all, both are great movies, and a great way to introduce someone to Anime.

***Note Added 4/21/2003
I just watched Kiki over the weekend again with a friend, and he didn't want to read subtitles. So we watched the English dub. While not truly horrid, it definitely ruins the movie. My rating of the English version is about a 6 out of 10. Ouch! Phil Hartman as Jiji (the black cat) is the worst part, with the atrocious musical changes not far behind. They also added in a lot of extra dialog (when the characters aren't facing camera, so they can get away with it). Some of the added dialog is OK, but most of it is irritating. Of course, the voice acting is stiff, over-the-top, rediculous stuff. All in all, they did their best to turn this wonderful movie into a Disney flick without changing the animation. I thought that the intro by that Pixar shmuck was bad enough. At least they give you the Japanese language track, so this is all self-inflicted pain.

Added 4-29-2003
I just watched Metropolis, a recent addition to the Anime universe. Overall, I was disappointed, as I was expecting something really good. The problem with Metropolis is that it's a rehash of things you've seen over and over already, and it adds nothing new, interesting, or original to the mix. In fact, it's a pretty poor retelling of the same themes. Take Blade Runner, Battle Angel, and Ghost in the Shell, and cross them, you've got a good idea of the story arc. You have social stratification with robots/cyborgs at the bottom, and the Heaven/Hell symbolism where the rich live higher up than the poor people. In Metropolis, there are different zones; Battle Angel has a floating city--whatever. Harrison Ford's character from Blade Runner is reborn as Rock, who is no longer the main character, and is now something of a bad guy. Gally, the cyborg girl from Battle Angel, and Kusanagi, the Cyborg girl from Ghost in the Shell, are both more violent and more interesting than Tima, the robot girl in Metropolis. Although these cybernetic counterparts play more of a lead role than Tima, ultimately Tima has to be the central character of Metropolis. I would say that Tima is a flimsy cardboard character with no depth, but that's true of *all* the characters in Metropolis. Ken Ichi is the only other important character in Metropolis; he finds Tima when the factory she was made in is destroyed by Rock. Being just completed, she takes Ken Ichi to be her "father," much like baby animals will accept a care-taker as "mother." Then we go on a pointless adventure as Ken Ichi and Tima run from Rock, who is hunting them. After a few dull diversions, getting captured, escaping, getting captured again, etc, Tima is finally turned into the super being she was meant to be, destroys Metropolis, and is herself destroyed. Boo hoo. Move along, you've seen this all before, except 10 times better. Now that I'm done dissing hard on Metropolis, let me take a moment to talk about what everybody likes: art direction. Even though the movie sucks story wise, character wise, etc, it has the most amazing art direction I've ever seen. It reminds me strongly of Who Framed Roger Rabit? It juxtaposes animated and real like Rober Rabit, although in Metropolis it's early style animations (think Popeye) for all of the characters set against CGI sets. It is very awkward, but intentionally so; I think it's a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing. Unfortunately, this gorgeous art style is wasted on a stupid movie, and ultimately can't redeem the movie from being a poor rehash of other good movies. I give Metropolis a 6 out of 10.

There is never time to do it right, but always time to do it over.