Studio9000 has three
modules: the Vibra9000 monophonic synth (pictured), the Stella9000 sample
playback instrument and the Gamma9000 drum machine. (Click
for larger image.)
synth, sample player, drum machine bundle
Native software synthesizers
were at one time dismissed for pro use due to their latency and poor sound
quality. They were considered okay for occasional sound design but were
shunned as real-time performance and composition tools. However, super
computerssuch as the Mac G4 and Pentium III classhave helped
rewrite the reputation of software synths. Virtual instruments, as they
are also called, now sport incredible synthesis engines and latency that
is practically nonexistent with the right setup. Studio9000, Koblo's software
synthesizer bundle, is an excellent example of the state of virtual instruments.
The Mac-based Studio9000
bundle has three modulesthe Vibra9000 monophonic synth, the Stella9000
sample playback instrument and the Gamma9000 drum machine. Two scaled-down
versions of the Vibra9000 are also included: the Vibra6000 and the Vibra1000.
(The latter is also available as a free download at www.koblo.com.)
All the modules share Tokyo, a real-time engine that's put
on your computer during the software install. An instrument's audio output
can be routed to your digital audio sequencer's audio mixer via Steinberg
VST2 or ReWire, MOTU MAS, or Digi's DirectConnect. To route the audio
separate from your digital audio sequencer's audio mixer, Sound Manager
and Direct I/O drivers are available. MIDI is handled via OMS or FreeMIDI.
Studio9000 can be routine or complex, depending on your needs. Using the
program as a stand-alone application is as simple as installing the program,
booting up the Tokyo engine, opening an instrument, and assigning your
audio outputs and MIDI inputs. Routing the instruments through your digital
audio sequencer's audio mixer requires assigning Tokyo an interapplication
communication bus (IAC). The manual clearly explains setting up an IAC
bus for OMSwhich I usedbut doesn't mention doing this with
FreeMIDI. Third-party audio drivers aren't automatically installed, but
they are available on Studio9000's CD-ROM.
Koblo suggests a minimum system requirement of a Power Mac 604e, 120 MHz
or better with 40 MB of available RAM, and OS 8 or higher. I'd suggest
a lot more horsepower. I used a 400 MHz G4 with 256 MB of RAM and OS 9.0.4.
This setup was fine working with Tokyo by itself, but once I started routing
Tokyo's audio through my digital audio sequencer and inserting effects
plug-ins, memory and CPU power were tight. As with most virtual instrument
applications, the more powerful your computer, the better the performance.
I auditioned Studio9000 using Digide-sign's Pro Tools Mix card with an
888|24 I/O converter.
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Studio9000 is accomplished via a key disk or by challenge/response codes.
Kudos to Koblo for including a key disk for folks that have floppy drives;
it's nice to avoid the challenge/ response routine if possible. Unfortunately,
because the G4 and blue-and-white G3 Macs don't have floppy
drives, the key disk isn't much good. Key disks don't often work with
third-party USB floppy drives; consequently, most users will do the challenge/response
anyway, registering a version and challenge code on Koblo's Web site.
A response code is e-mailed back to you (mine came within 24 hours).
The Studio9000 instruments aren't fashioned to look like any
particular type of real-world synth. Instead, they have their own look
that is decidedly electronicacool in my book! Though all the instruments
have similar front panel layouts and identical graphical control elements,
each module has its own color scheme, which makes it possible for the
user to distinguish between the instruments at a glance. Stella is blue,
Gamma is purple and Vibra is green.
Each instrument has a global parameter section with common controls, including
master tune, pan and volume knobs; discrete mute and solo switches; a
dedicated key for recording performances direct to hard disk; a MIDI panic
button for clearing stuck notes; a Trigger for playing instrument sounds
via a mouse click; and a Hold button that sustains the last note triggered.
Because drum sounds are mostly transients, Gamma lacks the Hold button
but has a global bend parameter. The Vibra1000 is the only instrument
without the record-to-disk feature. (Remember, it's the freebie.)
Monitoring includes stereo master LED meters with peak hold and a MIDI
activity light. Selecting any knob and a dedicated window displays that
knob's function and Control Change number. (Every knob has a CC number
for comprehensive automation.) The associated parameter value is shown
as a large, red, alphanumeric LED. The current patch name has its own
dedicated window, and the user's sound card's selected outputs are displayed
The filter, ADSR, LFO and modulation sections are similar
on both the Stella and the Vibra9000. Each has eight multistate filters,
three ADSR envelopes, three LFOs, arpeggiators and eight modulation sources/destinations.
The filters sound great and include the following types: 2/4/8-pole, Double
and Quad (12 dB/octave multiple parallel), Notch (24 dB with split highpass
and lowpass), and Saw and Square Comb with multiple resonant peaks. A
filter output stage includes cutoff, resonance lowpass, highpass, bandpass,
distortion and stereo spread parameters. Keyboard tracking and a Separation
control can vary resonance and cutoff frequencies, depending on the filter
Each of the three ADSR envelopes can be inverted and is velocity sensitive.
The waveforms for the LFOs are Ramp Up and Down, Triangle, Square, Sine
and Random. Simple Attack/Decay envelopes are provided for each LFO. A
parameter called Sharp applies a lowpass filter to the LFO's shape in
order to smooth the waveform's edges. The LFOs can be synchronized to
incoming MIDI Clocka wonderfully useful effect. The eight modulation
sources include all three envelopes and LFOs, velocity, aftertouch and
the Mod Wheel, to name a few. Modulation destinations vary from Pan and
Separation, to envelope times and even the LFOs themselves.
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The arpeggiator is
flexible and great fun to play with. Typical controls, such as tempo,
octave range and sequence, (up, down, and up/down) are offered. In addition,
there are several advanced parameters allowing sequences to be played
back in a variety of ways. For example, rhythmic accents can be altered
by changing note velocities, the sequence length can be set from one to
16 steps, portamento between notes is fully adjustable, and there are
several settings that determine how octaves are played in an arpeggiated
chord. The arpeggiator recognizes MIDI Clock for perfect synchronization
with your digital audio sequencer.
The sound source for
the Vibra9000 consists of two oscillators with five waveforms each: Saw,
Square, Triangle, Sine and Noise. There is no oscillator sync feature,
but amplitude and frequency modulation can be achieved by using Oscillator
1 to modulate Oscillator 2a nice effect. Oscillator tuning spans
an ample 15-octave range. Other parameters affecting the oscillators include
portamento, detune, mix, bend and stereo doubling. A keyboard tracking
control is available for Oscillator 2's frequency only.
Stella supports up to 32-bit, 44.1kHz samples in .AIFF and SDII formats
and is 8-voice polyphonic (16 voices would have been nicer). It is a sample
playback instrument only and does not record. However, I didn't find this
to be a big problem, because there are plenty of sample sources on third-party
CD-ROM, and, if you own a digital audio sequencer, you probably use that
to record with anyway. A sample can be tuned to a 15-octave range and
by semitones and cents. The pitch bend parameter goes from zero to 60,
and a sample's start point can be adjusted. Reverse and loop are available,
as well as a basic Attack/Decay envelope for the sample itself. Velocity
can be set to modulate the sample's start point, pitch, volume and panning.
Samples are easily assigned for playback if the user clicks in Stella's
sample window, where the name of the sample is displayed. This opens a
typical Browser window where samples can be located. Unfortunately, there's
no way to audition samples from this window, which is a bit inconvenient.
Another inconvenience is that Stella only reads SampleCell keymaps. There
is no way to map your own samples from within the instrument. This is
a major drawback. If you don't have SampleCell to create keymaps, you're
stuck working with just one sample when creating your own patches.
The Gamma9000 sports seven sample slots (Koblo calls them
tracks). The first six slots hold one sample each, and the seventh slot
is for multisample keymaps. The samples in slots 1 to 6 are mapped from
C0 to B0 (this is fixed), and C1 and above are reserved for the keymaps.
Like Stella, Gamma can read SampleCell keymaps. But unlike Stella, if
you don't have SampleCell to concoct keymaps, Gamma will automatically
map a group of samples for you. All of the samples must reside in the
same folder and be either .AIFF or SDII format (.WAV would be nice, too).
Open the folder from within Gamma, and the samples are mapped alphabetically.
Each sample slot has several associated sound-shaping controls. These
controls affect the samples in slots 1 to 6 discretely, but the keymapped
samples in slot 7 are affected globally. Samples can be reversed, looped
and have their start point offset. Modulation sources include a simple
lowpass filter (called Tone), velocity and the instrument's master filter
section. The modulation destinations are volume, pan, pitch, sample start
offset and tone. There is a simple Attack/Release envelope, and each slot
has its own volume, pan and pitch controls.
Less comprehensive than Stella and Vibra's filters, Gamma's master filter
section still sounds cool and sports all the essential elements. There
are three filter typeshighpass, lowpass and bandpassand dials
to adjust cutoff, resonance and distortion. This filter affects all the
samples routed to the instrument's master output. With a sound card with
multiple outs, it's possible to bypass the filter by sending specific
sample slots to different outputs.
A step sequencer for creating drum patterns is onboard. It has 16-step-entry
keys and tape-style transport controls. Up to eight patterns can be created,
looped and assembled into songs; you get four banks for saving your songs.
If you're familiar with the old Roland drum machines, circa TR-808, you
should feel right at home with this sequencer. Clicking on a beat's LED
lets you edit the sample on that beat. For example, you can change a sample's
velocity, duration and pitch independent of the sample slot parameters.
Controls for tempo, shuffle and accent are provided. And the sequencer
can sync to incoming MIDI Clock for locking patterns and songs to your
main digital audio sequencer.
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I worked with Studio9000 mostly on Pro Tools 5.0.1 with DirectConnect.
However, I also tried it in Steinberg's Cubase VST 24 4.1r2 using VST2.
It worked well in both cases, and I encountered no major problems. I liked
the convenience of having all of Koblo's virtual instrument power right
in Pro Tools. Studio9000 can save its instruments as a preset bank, which
is associated with your Pro Tools session and is opened automatically
when the session is bootedvery cool. Being able to call up the Studio9000
modules as VST instruments in Cubase VST is also useful.
Be forewarned that using Studio9000 with a digital audio sequencer requires
a lot of system memory. For example, if you load large samples to Gamma
and Stella, you will need to increase Tokyo's memory beyond the minimum
40 MB. Say you want to use a lot of effects plug-ins and other virtual
instruments in your digital audio sequencer, this also requires additional
memory. I've gotten used to needing massive amounts of memory to run native
instruments and effects, but to some this may come as a shock; expect
to spend some extra cash on additional RAM.
Apparently, I've been spoiled using the new multitimbral instruments manufactured
by Koblo's competition. I found myself wishing the Studio9000 instruments
responded to more than one MIDI channel at a time. (Each instrument can
receive different MIDI channels, so Tokyo as a whole is multitimbral.)
However, because the individual modules aren't multitimbral, you can hear
only one instance of each instrument at once. To hear more than one instance
of a module simultaneously, you'll have to submix your virtual tracks
down to your hard drive, which is a bit of a pain. On the flip side, though
the Vibra instruments aren't multitimbral or polyphonic, there are three
of them for layering.
A virtual instrument's sound quality depends on your sound card, and through
Digidesign's 24-bit outputs the Studio9000 instruments sounded exceptional.
And there are loads of cool presets. I particularly enjoyed Vibra's quirky
arpeggiated presets and phat bass sounds. Stella's presets aren't earth-shattering,
but some of the pads are definitely useful. However, the vintage drum
machine samples in Gamma are some of the best I've ever heard. These patches
include old standards like Roland's TR-909 and E-mu's Drumulator, specialty
sets such as the Linn9000 and Alesis HR-16, and esoteric machines including
the Casio PT-87 and Roland CR-8000.
Studio9000 is a deep software bundle, and a single review
can't truly do it justice. I've done my best to cover the bases, but certainly
there are details I've missed. Though Studio9000 does has a few drawbacksVibra
is monophonic, Stella is missing keymap and sample audition features,
Tokyo is a memory hog, and none of the instruments are multitimbralthese
are relatively minor gripes considering the overall package. For $595
retail, Studio9000 is a great deal. If you bought all the Studio9000 instruments
as hardware, you could easily spend four times as much money. For under
$600, you get three analog-style synthesizers, a sample playback unit,
a drum machine with great emulation sounds, compatibility with a variety
of digital audio sequencers, lots of cool-sounding filters and tons of
parameters that synchronize to MIDI Clock (arpeggiators, LFOs and even
a step sequencer). It's hard to top that deal.
Koblo Studio9000 is distributed by Digidesign. For more information, visit
Erik Hawkins is
a musician/producer working in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco
Bay Area. Visit him at http://www.erikhawkins.com
for more equipment chitchat and tips on what's hot for the personal
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a message in the Creative Mac World
Wide User Group.
with permission from Mix Magazine, December, 2000
© 2000, Intertec Publishing, A Primedia Company All Rights Reserved