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19 June 2010


It’s all coming back to me now: The feeling I had when first loading Propellerhead's ReBirth RB-338. “It looks like a toy,” I thought on first sight of the dual emulated Roland TB-303 Bass Lines plus TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines. Then I got into it and discovered ReBirth, now reborn as an iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad app, is not only fun to use, it offers much to muzos who like their acid lines squishy and their beats tight and pooky. It’s a similar story with Toontrack’s Beatstation, but with added grunge and the facility to use custom sound sources. It does look toy-like - even the skinny (four-page) get-started manual appears graphically designed to appeal to modern yoof - but this sound-mangling suite does have depth.

The developer bills Beatstation as a sound-design tool and audio engine. I see it as a hybrid VST, AU and RTAS dual softsynth and REX/WAV/ MP3/MIDI file-player with integrated multi FX, sequencing, sample manipulation... An’ t’ing. Not quite as snappy or high falutin' as Toontrack’s description, but rather more comprehensive. Fuelled by a 1.5Gb core library, Beatstation has VST, AU and RTAS-compatible engines as well as one that chugs away standalone, an implementation offering a sample editor for found-sound fans. The skin-able interface has a performance area featuring blobby-looking trigger pads which can be resized, colour coded and reshaped into squares, shifted around to taste and stacked with up to five audio and/or MDI files apiece.

Two mini keyboards give access to stackable, melodic lead and bass synth patches which can be tweaked and saved, along with pad modifications, in user-defined configurations. You’ve access to a host of MIDI files, as well as many a multi-sampled audio snippet, each freshly sliced and served as sound source of REX file. The facility to scoop an individual slice out of a REX and ladle it onto a trigger pad means you can blend scrummy sample elements from several files to taste, doubtless creating a flava sensation in the process. Let's take a closer look, courtesy of Toontrack TV...

Files are presented in an efficient browser at left ready for audition before you stack them up in the main window. It’s simply a case of dragging and dropping files onto a pad or, accessible with a right-click, into the pad's Properties dialog. Three distinct styles are available in the base installation, although Toontrack threatens BTX expansion packs in the near future. We’ve Lowbit for grainy lo-fi zizz, Synthetix for (you’ve guessed it) synthetic sounds and Organic which has rather more trad timbres. We've some vid on Beatstation's sounds, so click for the televisuals...

UK distributor Time+Space’s product page presents a breakdown of the variety and number of files available in each style and also plays host to MP3 audio demo downloads if you’re cruising for an earful. And should Beatstation’s bundled library not suffice, there are juicy options to be had. Owners of EZdrummer and EZX expansion packs, or Superior Drummer and its SDX expanders, can load those percussion ROMplers’ content into Beatstation. Rather like this...

I’m guessing most of us have a wealth of WAVs on our systems. Well they can be loaded, too. Props’ ReCycle REX files are also invited, as are third-party MIDI files and, should you still be stumped, the built-in sample recorder helps out when running the software standalone. So, unlike a typical ROMpler with a fixed core library, Beatstation is stuffable to the gunnels with sonic goodness. Such sound-shaping essentials as EQ and reverb, routed as inserts or sends are on hand for each stacked sound, for the whole stack and/or globally. We’ve also the means to shift the pan position of each stacked file, apply ADSR envelopes, apply temporal sample offset, pitch shift, define mono/polyphonic playback, apply swing and flam, transpose, reverse, half tempo and double tempo each element and toggle looping on and off. Oh, and and there’s a big play/shut-it button for use when running the software standalone (Beatstation locks to the host sequencer’s transport controls and tempo when used as a plugin).

Still, enough with features. Fie on functionality. The big question is ‘what do you reckon it sounds like, Mr Karl?’. Put simply, ‘ouch!’. The default song is slow and super-fat, demonstrating Beatstation’s ability to deliver full-on grunge with aplomb. The default song on loading is a slow, grinding techno riff that certainly acts as a statement of intent from Toontrack and hints that this is a product aimed at muzos who like their club grooves titanic. Knocking up a new groove is a speedy affair, with loops locking seamlessly into project tempo thanks to being REXed. There are numerous gems in the sample library, many of which lurk in the Lowbit section. Consider that developers expend a great deal of effort capturing pristine percussion samples, so what better than to bung in some dirt for contrast?

Speaking of dirty, we’ve 250 heavy metal guitar loops played by Meshuggah’s Frederik Thordendal in the Organic collection and some pretty heavy-duty bass patches throughout. The two synths aren’t terribly editable - while ADSR control is offered to define envelopes, along with a fair variety of FX options, you’d be better off using something like reFX’s Nexus2 or CamelAudio’s Alchemy for synth parts. Both perfectly complement Beatstation’s signature, in-your-face tonality. An odd way of  describing it, sure, but that’s the impression you get. A plugin with character. Whatever next? Well I'll tell you. There are little slider controls by FX 1& 2 and main Volume rotaries by which to adjust the precise amount of character. Gosh! And there are further editing options, as shown here...

A total of 1,033 MIDI files provide a launchpad for inspiration but, as mentioned, you can use your own should the muse already have dropped by. It may be wise to invest in a copy of ReCycle, if you don’t already own it, so as to REX your WAV library and mash up the slices. There are many rather more capable synths than feature in Beatstation and most audio/MIDI sequencers can import REX files, but when inspiration is flagging, or you just want some fuss-free musical jollies without having to fight with a complex interface or mis-matched samples, it provides affordable entry to a house of fun. Elsewhere on the site, I mentioned the notion of 50 per cent perspiration. You can lop a few percentage points off that when firing up Toontrack’s latest, and you may just be encouraged to grab that laptop, get out and about and do the found-sound thing, as Chris and Adam demonstrate...

Make big, bouncy, beaty music wherever you go, as rough and ready as you like. If you tend to sketch out ideas quickly, have a yen for on-the-fly experimentation and need a 1.5Gb boost to your sample library, Beatstation is a no-brainer at £79.99. I doubt it’ll appeal to muzos working in more traditional genres, but those with an outré compositional muse may need tranquilizers to contain their adrenalin.

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