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06 December 2013


'Know Thy Tools'? Why would I want to know my tools when there's a lifetime's worth of instant gratification to be had from VST preset flipping? You don't have to learn what all those knobs on a plug-in do, yet end up with an aural aesthete's appreciation of sound. Well just hold on there.

One of the latest kids on the Minimoog emulation block is Native Instruments Monark and Al Swettenham over at Groove 3 has made it his mission to force your fingers onto aforementioned knobs until you've learned 'em good. Al is from the Union Jack side of the pond, but has a clear voice so I doubt Americans will have difficulty understanding the accompanying audio.

I recognise his voice from other Groove 3 videos and the training company is right to ask him back since, after a couple of vids, it's clear he's going to make the effort to explain things clearly.

One thing I do like is that Al is not afraid to grumble about things he finds exasperating, so this series doesn't sound like a slick product ad - you get a feeling that there's honest advice here.

05 November 2013

TOONTRACK METAL! EZX Review | £49.95 / €69

The video above can mean only one thing: November is here and that means metal. Well, it does at the Swedish HQ of developer Toontrack, which annually celebrates the lilting tones and figures of heavy metal in its various shades.

Metal is a genre that lends itself to the usual lexical excess of sub-genre - one merely replaces 'heavy' with 'black', 'death', 'thrash', 'badger' and so forth. For Toontrack's 2013 celebration of Metal Month, the first product out of the bag is an expansion for EZdrummer and Superior Drummer, both sample-based percussion plug-ins of immense facility.

The developer already has EZX libraries devoted to metal but, rather than messing things up with a sub-genre monicker, this newbie's title sports just a single exclamation mark: Metal! That must have been one barn-snorting product-planning brainstorm. So what's the difference between Metal! and Toontrack's other metalloid EZXs, Metalheads, Metal Machine and the venerable Drumkit From Hell? Perhaps we can get an idea with some video showing how Metal! came together...

20 September 2013

IZOTOPE RX 3 Review | £249 / €299 / $349 &
RX 3 ADVANCED Review | £899 / €1,049 / $1,199

Noise is anathema to modern recordings. When once you could get away with a little background hiss in a demo, or a characterful clunk or amp buzz on an album track, digital tech renders rattle, clatter, belch and hum most unwelcome. At least, such is the sophistication of the audience's ears after years of digital audio.

Any audio chain is prone to the intrusion of noise, especially in live recording, but even in the controlled environment of a studio, aberrant sounds abound. A hissing amp, a click in the mains, an asthmatic wheeze near an open mic, the roar of flatus from a chorister suffering IBS... It all adds up when multitracking.

Of course, when there's noise in a take, you'd typically retake, but that's not always possible. Live recordings, expensive session musicians, highly strung divas and more are problematic. As is dropping in SFX sourced from location recordings, working with old movie or TV soundtrack snippets, or even attempting to polish up your own back-catalogue masters.

While audio-editing software is a must in the modern studio, tough cleaning jobs demand something else, such as iZotope RX, which has been relied upon by many pro recordists since its launch in 2008. Where an audio editor will enable you to chop out noisy sections of a recording and notch such unwelcome frequencies as mains hum and ringing drum, an audio cleaner offers a more surgical approach.

19 August 2013

ROB PAPEN THE 4 ELEMENT SYNTH Review Feature | £25.95

It's common enough to find that, although one knows a fair bit about a subject, trying to explain it to someone else causes the brain to seize. What appears so clearly mapped out in one's own understanding doesn't bear structured exposition, hence a lot of "y'know?" and "sort of", even though the audience doesn't know anything of the sort.

The internet is particularly good at imparting fractured information - so much knowledge; so little understanding, as the phrase goes, y'know? Hence, when there are oceans of info on all manner of synthesis types surging across the world's servers, you really need something to channel it into a readily navigable, easy-to-swallow form that won't make you seasick.

That's why the Synth King himself, Dutch software developer Rob Papen, has produced a piece of hardware called a book. Well, the covers are hard, at least, and tacked inside them are four DVDs with explanatory audio and video by which to ensure understanding is beaten into your brain as painlessly as possible.

The 4 Element Synth, at more than 200 pages and 10+ hours of video, is a weighty and well-crafted tome that, it transpires, took Rob more than eight years to author, possibly because there were few other titles about to serve as example.

09 August 2013


Electronic dance music has an increasingly voracious appetite for heavy beats and thunderous bass. Dubstep, and its deranged sibling brostep, are consequences of the dance producer's penchant for filling every frequency gap below 200Hz while honking midrange in your face with splat, wow and parp.

As PA manufacturers figure out ever more inventive ways to disembowel clubbers with low-frequency emitters, those at the munitions' supply end of sonic-attack are busily plumbing the depths of the sub-woofer domain with rich, analog tones from hardware synthesizers and the more cost-effective welly of certain soft synths. Native Instruments Massive is a key example of the latter, living up to its name when wobbling bottom, but it could be that Impact Soundworks has devised a more focused driving experience in Juggernaut: Cinematic Electronic Scoring Tools. Let's take it for a trundle...

04 July 2013

SOUNDIRON OLYMPUS CHOIR Review | £389 / $549

In the Soundiron Olympus Symphonic Choral Collection...
Soundiron Mars Symphonic Male Choir | £285 / $399
Soundiron Venus Symphonic Female Choir | £285 / $399

It's rare that one hears a human voice on a modern, chart-oid record. The artist may be billed as a singer, but what you often get is the pitch and time-corrected rasp of a synthesizer triggered by the performer's voice. In dance circles, there's no shame in smashing together crass rhyme and having the vocal glitch away like a demented Stylophone, but it's a bit rich when allegedly proper singers are used to trigger that auto-tune grind.

Soundiron sampled a 33-voice female choir for Venus
However, such a phenomenon has little to do with Soundiron's rather splendid Mars and Venus symphonic choirs, together known as the Olympus Symphonic Choral Collection. Yep, 'splendid' has given away the conclusion of this piece, but stick with it for revelation of fearsome facilities.

24 May 2013


How might an Australian greet Captain Antonio Corelli? "GDAE, mate!" And that's how you remember the tuning of a mandolin, the same as for a violin. But a mando is so much easier to play, especially if you're a a dab-hand on guitar.

You'll notice that a mandolin's four string courses, typically in pairs, are tuned in fifths, which gives an idea of the instrument's antiquity - chanting monks, and all that. The instrument is descended from the lute, which is rarely seen in ensembles not fronted by Sting these days.

You're most likely to hear a mando being played alongside violin, flute and/or pipes in traditional celtic folk bands, or strummed when a rock group gets folky (Tull, Zep, REM, to name notables). And let's not forget the rapid, tremolo-picking of mandorchestras (made-up word, there) with ensembles going for that 'theme from The Godfather' groove.

It's known that guitar emulation is tricky to get right in software, so how has 8Dio coped in devising its latest sample-based instrument, the aptly named Mandolin?

10 May 2013

£349 / €405 / $449

If you've been stocking up on stockings in anticipation of Reason 7 blowing your socks off, you'll have done well to keep the receipts. That's not to say there's little to set toes a-tingle in this latest version of Propellerhead Software's flagship title; it's just rather more subtle than might be implied by a whole-number upgrade. But before we jump in, let's step back and ponder.

What began as a modular audio-production suite, complete with virtual rackmounted tone generators, sample players, signal processors, basic mixer and a rudimentary sequencer, has sprouted a bounty of bells and wodges of whistles since it sprang from Sweden in December 2000. Reason stood out from contemporary DAWs with its spaghettified, yet versatile audio/control routing and sheer fun factor, but its sound capability was the clincher.

06 May 2013

FABFILTER PRO-DS 1.02 | £124 / $149 / $189

A multitude of maladies can afflict vocal takes and sibilance is one of the more pesky. It's the high-frequency hiss and spit of such consonants as 's', 't' and 'd', when unvoiced, which leap out of an otherwise tonally balanced vocal.

Obviously, the best way to avoid sibilance is not to record it in the first place (less obviously, don't write lyrics in the English language, more on which later). But with today's production preference of everything louder than everything else, even care at the capture stage oft does not obviate the problem because swathes of compression make sibilance stand proud.

When dealing with a hissy fit, you could engage in sidechain antics to actuate a compressor targeting high frequencies, but it's way more elegant to insert a de-esser, such as FabFilter Pro-DS, that's dedicated to the process and so needs very little set-up.

15 March 2013

ROB PAPEN EDM SYNTH BUNDLE | £169 / €199 / $239
ROB PAPEN URBAN SYNTH BUNDLE | £169 / €199 / $239

Featuring the Rob Papen dance posse…
Predator synthesizer
Punch drum synth
Blade additive synth
SubBoomBass bass synth

Music journalists are fond of two things: Dreaming up musical genres to use as shorthand when hypothesising that modern music is going down the toilet; and bemoaning music's actual slide down the pan. The deaths of pop, rock, nu oom-pah and more have been reported frequently and widely for years, usually when a journo has taken to a new act that he or she is priming to be the saviour of music itself.

Pick up a music rag, read the writers' angst-ridden reports and meet another bunch of young hopefuls armed with a red guitar and a good PR, all the while attempting to decipher their place in the genre-sphere as defined by hand-wringing journos. By comparison, music-technology journalism is a doddle.

All you need are the facts about a product, some hands-on time, a view on potential and an idea of whether or not the price tag is justified (vast knowledge of music tech and the ability to do writing may also come in handy). As to what the end user gets up to with the gear, who knows? However, it's a fair bet that a software instrument will end up being used to make dance-friendly timbres somewhere along the line.

05 March 2013


The story arc for Toontrack's EZkeys line of keyboard-based instruments appeared to be following a predictable path. We began with acoustic pianos, both grand and upright, establishing sample-based sound libraries front-ended with an educative interface introducing learners to such concepts as the circle of fifths, the suspicious fourth and augmented, diminished and demented ninth. With stabilizers. In a word, theory.

Songwriters are also catered for by drag-and-drop MIDI files in core libraries of stock phrases, while the Transpose and Chord Wheel come in more than handy when seeking new directions for melody and harmony.

MuzoBlog offered opinion on the Grand Piano and Upright Piano last year, so skip back and mug up if new to this product. Since then, Toontrack has been gamely adding to its range of keyboardian MIDI libraries, issuing Blues, Gospel, Pop/Rock, Jazz and R&B phrases at £19.95 a throw via UK/Euro distributor Time+Space and direct from its online shop, but priced in something known as Euros.

23 February 2013


When dying on a film set, as you do, it's de rigeur to vocalise the Wilhelm scream. It's a kind of yodel-shriek that features in numerous movies, having become an in-joke among filmmakers, and illustrates a phenomenon that could be called dialog-replacement fatigue, but isn't.

The sound itself is from a series of audio takes named after the unfortunate Private Wilhelm who, in 1953 movie The Charge At Feather River, copped an arrow. Nowadays, barely a film goes by without some unfortunate having it dubbed over their demise and, of course, the knowing in the audience will eagerly listen out for it.

While all terribly hilarious, such readily recognisable sounds are a pain for those applying music to movies and other media. When one composer hits on a fabulous boink, drone or gargle, lo! Everyone else copies it, which leads to what some call patch fatigue. A reedy, swelling synth patch reeks of Vangelis, while an expansive arrangement using Spectrasonics Omnisphere is likely to Zimmer forth, despite that synth's diverse sonic capabilities.

There's the challenge for the developer - the relatively new Hybrid Two in this review - when putting together a collection of cinematic sounds: How to present film-friendly patches of such quality that everyone will want to use them, while offering sufficient diversity to avoid ubiquity.

12 February 2013


Anyone remotely interested in the Devil's music will know from whence the blues comes. That's right, it's from middle-class 40-somethings who, having given up trying to be rock stars in their 20s, persist in taking to the stage at local bars to keep their hands in should a long overdue call arrive.

Armed only with three, maybe four chords, a handful of pentatonic licks and as gravelly a voice as can be coaxed from a throat that gave up smoking stogies when the kids arrived, today's blues artist howls in grief at falling victim to the wage-slave trade. Or that their baby done left them. Or they've had too many babies which are lately demanding the latest consoles and mobiles. OK, so the story of the blues is rather more involved, taking in tell of hideous inhumanity and the music that helped sustain those crushed by the free market. But for all the horrific backstory and depressive outlook, it's still a pretty popular genre. Blues acolytes, while not as cataclysmically morose as country artists, have good reason to be fed up.

They've accepted loss of liberty and the fierce lash of the paymaster; the real downer is that many in the modern era will never be authentic. They're not old enough, or of the wrong heritage, or are insufficiently hard up. However, as with people, shades of authenticity can be bought and here's a blue-hued comestible in the shape of Toontrack's latest EZdrummer expansion, The Blues EZX.

06 February 2013


Today's muzo is positively spoiled for drums, from basic rock kits, through orchestral and electronic percussion, to world timbres and SFX. So how does Vir2 aim to apply its, thus far, left-field take on sample-based instruments to the needs of the recording musician, trigger-equipped player or both?

The developer has a sterling reputation for adventurous sampleism, oft times taking traditional sounds and warping them into the bizarre. Electri6ity, for example, mangles the electric guitar into new territory with a host of treatments at sample level, further tweakable by some cunning coding for Native Instruments' Kontakt engine.

For virtual violin, we've the distinctive eructations of Violence; for acoustic guitar, Fractured. It's not all strum, Drang and smack your pitch up, however. The company's Acoustic Legends HD, presenting a host of plucked and fretted instruments, has been around for a while and has picked up numerous plaudits for its realism and the control offered. So let's learn of Vir2's virtues with acoustic percussion.

12 January 2013


Newton's 9th Law of Dynamics states that a body travelling backwards inside an rhomboidal universe gets squishy before it, inevitably, pops.

Well, it would if Isaac had ever got that far. But no; after the 3rd Law, he frittered away all that genius trying to turn base metals into gold. And if a smart lad like him can get lost in alchemy, coincidentally the name of mega-synth Alchemy, favoured sonic weapon of such groove-meisters as BT, Sasha and Alchemy soundbank contrib, the human beatbox and World Loopstation Champion Shlomo, what hope for the rest of us?

This is the question that's been bothering me with Camel Audio's Alchemy for the past two years. It's my go-to synth for anything beyond standard synthesis.

I love the presets and expansions, and can throw audio files together to come up with happy accidents. But my problems come when I want to understand why it sounds a certain way and how I can tweak it to create the sound I have in my head.

When I heard of Groove 3's video series Alchemy Explained, I moved faster than a duchess boarding the last lifeboat leaving the Titanic. Captain of our rescue vessel is Laurence Holcombe, member of high-octane AV assault squad Rebel Sonix and noted for his work with breakbeat duo DEF inc.

01 January 2013

LOUDNESS METER 1.2.1 | €159/$199 & €449/$599

There are few third-party DAW plugins that could be considered absolutely necessary. The big-gun developers of digital-audio workstations typically bundle all you really need. Sure, a GAS-driven list of desires may fill many pages, but a list of absolute, honest-guv'nor essentials will be short. The DAW's virtual-desk equalization may well be adequate to the task of sculpting frequencies. And bundled plug-ins offer dynamics, ambience and SFX control compliant with the bog standard.

However, there is one plug that could make the difference between having a global audience for your mixes and having no audience at all. It's neither a fashionable audio-mangler currently appearing on every track that makes the top 100, nor is it an old secret weapon known only to a star chamber of producers.