1: Emagic EXSP24 VST Instrument for VST 2.0 compatible applications.
      2: Emagic EXS24 Sample Player/Editor for Logic Audio.
      3: Emagic EVP88 Vintage Piano software instrument for Logic Audio.

    and


    Online Review Part 1:
    EXSP24 VST Instrument for VST 2.0 compatible applications.






    VST Instruments are becoming more and more an alternative for hardware synthesizers and samplers. The quality of samples in this category of software has increased dramatically over the past year or so. And computers are becoming faster and faster, thus better able to handle the demanding task combining a sequencing application with one or more software instruments.

    Looking a these developments, we've put ourselves a theoretical question. Would it be possible to produce a song completely from within the G4/500 we have in our studio? Meaning: no external devices, just software to do the complete trick. Even without a keyboard midi input, but only with pencil score and matrix editing on screen. All tasks from within the computer: composing, sequencing, sample playing, effects, post production and finally producing an AIF and MP3 final mix. All this in the very same application environment.

    We decided to ask Emagic to send in EXSP24, a VST Software Instrument that can be used in any VST 2.0 compatible software environment, like the Cubase VST environment we use in our studio. This goes for both the VST environments on Mac and PC, but we decided to test on Mac as we have a G4/500 with 512 MB of RAM, heavy enough to do the tasks in this test project. Our Windows PC is a Pentium 350 MHz, probably too slow.

    EXSP24 is the new VST-version of EXS24, a software sample unit that is equipped to run under Logic Audio environments only. The difference is that the EXS24 can also edit samples, while the EXSP24 only can play them.

    Emagic sent us in first shipment an EXSP24, and surprisingly the EVP88 Vintage Piano software instrument as well. Plus a NFR copy of Logic Audio Platinum, needed as the EVP88 will only run in Logic's environment. Emagic sent in a week later or so the EXS24 as well.

    Testplan.

    This changed the testing scope we had planned dramatically, as we originally planned to test the VST version only. We installed all of Logic's stuff an started working with Logic Audio Platinum for the very first time. After two nights of exploring this software we decided that we needed some more time to learn this software. We're used to Cubase for many years, and Logic's approach is so much different that it causes a longer learning curve. We decided to do the testing project as follows:

    - first we test the VST version EXSP24 under Cubase, as we know how to handle this software with our eyes shut,
    - then we teach ourselves the basics of Logic Audio Platinum (version 4.7.0),
    - and after that we will be ready to have a second testing round with EXS24 and EVP88.

    So: this online review will appear on Audiomac.net in three steps, being the EXSP24 review the one you are looking at now. Soon we will add the EXS24 and EVP88 to this review. OK? Here we go.

    Well.... first we had to solve another small problem. We have version Cubase VST 4.0r2 in our studio, and VST Instruments need version 4.1 or higher. So we phoned around a bit to colleague studio's and managed to borrow a version 5 for the EXSP24 test. (Thank you guys!). Now we were set and ready to fire up the test, in a real time production as usual.

    Smooth installation.

    The installation went smoothly. We had to point out a folder where the more than 500 MB (!) of factory samples that come with EXSP24 should be installed. This can be anywhere on your hard disk or network. EXSP24 will find them automatically and load them into memory if needed.

    At a certain point during installation we had to choose the VST plug in map of the VST 2.0 host application, our (borrowed) Cubase 5. After having finished the install process, we fired up Cubase and yip: the EXSP24 appeared in the VST Instruments menu. The first time you start using an EXSP24 module, an authorization process is started for which you need to leave the CD in the drive. The next and subsequent use do no longer need this process, and you van put away your CD to a safe place.

    Ease of use.

    An EXSP24 VST Instrument is very easy to use. You load it, assign a midi track output to it, and just click the pop up hierarchical menu in the middle of the EXSP24 to choose the desired instrument sample. Ready. No hassle with browsing through the folders on your hard disk to find the samples: EXSP24 "knows" where they are automatically. The next midi track requires the same procedure, and so on. Basically until the limits of your computer (determined by RAM and CPU power) are reached.

    When finished with the midi arrangement, you assign some plug ins for post processing, and save the audio tracks to an AIF (or WAV on Windows) file. Presto, your production in a nutshell, and done completely without any external hardware, exactly the goal we have set ourselves.
    We give you a part of the production we did during testing a couple of lines below, downloadable in MP3-format.

    Factory sample quality.

    The samples that come with the EXSP24 give you more than enough to start with. Drums, strings, effects, reed, pianos, guitars, choirs, it is all there, and even much more. Too much to mention all here. Samples come in two formats. A regular full quality version, and an economical one (called ECO) which consumes less RAM, good for lighter equipped Macs or PCs. The difference in sound quality between the normal and ECO format is minimal.

    When your collection of samples will grow, the hierarchical menu in the will grow accordingly. There is s handy find function to minimize the list of samples in the hierarchical menu. Handy feature.




    The shipment comes with sample CD's of sample producers, where you can order or download additional samples for your brand new instrument.

    How many EXSP24's can you use at the same time?

    Now comes the better (of shall we say fun?) part. Provided you have a heavy Mac like the G4/500 with 512 MB RAM we tested on. We gave Cubase 400 MB of RAM to play around in, and then started loading EXSP24 VST Instruments. We managed without any problems to load 8 EXSP24's. And that was just to start with. This means that you have 8 virtual sample players active at the very same time. Good enough to build rich layered compositions. Wow...

    And even then the processor had headroom enough to load some more, as you can see on the screenshot below. The processor load indicator (the little indicator just below the middle) is at about 70% of its total, while 8 EXSP24's (the stack on the bottom right) are playing the production. With full quality samples, not the ECO versions.

    And please note: the processor load indicator includes a reverb and a chorus effect in the group section, which are processor demanding tasks, Plus a Waves L1 Ultramax for real time final mixing in the master output! When we clicked these three plug in effects off, the processor indicator dropped down to way under 50%. This means that -in theory- without plug ins at least 16 EXSP24's should be possible. You can image that this delivers a rich sound spectrum, good enough for even the "fattest" production. Great!



    In practice, you will want to reserve some power and RAM for plug in effects. So let's say that 10 EXSP24's (still more then enough for "fat" productions) plus effect plug ins will give you an interesting composing and production environment, all in the very same application. Of course and once again: you need a fat Mac to do this, but it gives hope for good performance with even just a couple of EXPS24's on less equipped Macs. We were not able to test this, because our 9500/200 PowerMac was in use in another project (my son, building a website for a local music education institute ;-).

    Sample file.

    We offer you a small MP3 file to give you an idea of the sound quality of the EXSP24 VST Instrument. It's a small part of the production we did while testing the EXSP24, the same one shown on the screenshot above. The first phrase is without any effects, so these are the plain factory samples, as delivered with the EXSP24. As said earlier in this review: they sound pretty good.

    The second phrase went through chorus, reverb and Waves L1 Ultramax. Download the file and you most probably will agree with me: a couple of EXSP24's in memory and some basic plug ins can result in a pretty good sounding production. (Please keep in mind that MP3 at 128kbps gives less quality than an original AIF file, of course).


    exsp24.mp3 (128kbps, 620 Kb)

    When used without any effects, the EXSP24 sounds pretty good to me. This of course depends of the quality of the samples you use. Up to 24 Bit and 96 kHz is possible. The samples in the MP3 file above are taken from the 500 MB of factory samples that come with the software. This starting collection can be expanded with other EXSP-compatible samples collections, and with samples in SoundFont 2 format. Emagic says it is working on support for more sample formats.

    Using some plug ins when final mixing is recommended to bring the sounds to a bit more sparkling life. But isn't that the case with almost any synthesizer or VST Instrument? Except for maybe the latest models synthesizers like the Roland 5030 I just happened to listen to in a local store a few days ago. But just one short look at the price tag of this superb hardware brings you back to reality, and then VST Instruments like this EXSP24 are very good and much cheaper alternatives, When produced and post produced with care, you can reach surprising results.

    Parameters.

    EXSP24 is not just a straight sample player. The user interface gives you a wide range of parameters to change the sample's sound. Parameters like Drive, Resonance, Cutoff, LFO EG and LFO Rate, and Level give you the possibilities to change the sample's sound such that you hardly recognize the original sound. If you like, it's up to you how far you wanna go. Even Tune and Key can be altered, e.g. to bring a sample's key up or down to the key you need for your particular production.

    The EXSP24 responds adequate and quickly to the changes you make, so you're able to work quickly and elegant. No irritating waiting. Parameter changes, such as enveloping, filtering and modulation can be saved as a preset, and samples will be load automatically when you load your EXSP24 insrtrumented song in Cubase or any VST application. At reloading your composition in Cubase for the next session, you do not need to search your hard disk to find again those samples you fitted so well in your song during previous session. Very good.

    There is one major difference between the VST version and it's Logic Audio only mother EXS24: editing of samples and instruments, and saving the results in altered or new sample files. For this, you will need the EXS24, and thus Logic Audio as well. We will have a look at these EXS24 features later.

    With the samples, Emagic provides with the program, I can make a long start. And should I start feeling the need for more different sounds, I can buy sample CD's or convert SoundFont 2 files. You can imagine this is quite endless and is going to cost me a lot of hard disk space in the near future ;-).

    Conclusion on EXSP24.

    With EXSP24, Emagic has -to my opinion- set a good standard for ease of use and quality in VST Instrument country. Software sampling, a good alternative for the much more expensive hardware samplers, is relatively affordable (you will need a speedy computer though) and not complex to use. I do not know if the software samplers are going to replace the hardware ones, as Emagic says in its documentation, but chances are big that Emagic has a interesting point here. If I had to make the choice between adding new sampling hardware or adding a software samples instruments, I'm pretty sure that I would choose the software one, given the fact that hardware samplers cost a lot of bucks more. Put it simply this way: with software instruments you get the same audio quality for a lot less investment. And isn't that appealing to all of us running studios? The software version is maybe even more easy to use and more functional while it is so nicely integrated in the application environment.

    I tend to think very practical when it comes to audio production gear. It should do what I want it to do, it should do it quickly and easily, and it should sound right. Only then, audio gear is really ready to be used by musicians and audio engineers. EXSP24 brings me all that.

    We managed to do a complete production from within a G4/500 Mac, without any additional hardware or external input. The entire composition was pencil clicked on the screen in the matrix editing window of Cubase, so we even did not touch a midi master keyboard this time. Just for the purpose of the test. I normally prefer working a good balanced keyboard of course.

    After having worked a couple of nights with EXSP24, my conclusion is clear and crisp. Combined with a good set of plug ins you get real studio horse power on your desktop, all in one application environment. Of course (mentioned once again to avoid disappointments), you will need a "fat" Mac to do this, but nowadays the G4 can be found in many studio's. By the way: the EXSP24 runs under the VST environment on Windows PC's as well, but as mentioned, we did not test that.

    Rating.

    In my country, we rate from 1 (very bad) to 10 (excellent). EXSP24 gets a well deserved
    9. It is well designed, easy to use, and gives you an almost incredible audio production horse power in your studio's computer. Maybe for the next release, Emagic might consider to include a slightly better quality for the factory sample collection. Some of the samples are a bit "thin", which might influence the users judgments on the whole product in a negative way. Which would not be correct, as the EXSP24 is big thing!

    I challenge our readers out there to give EXSP24 a try and do a trial production without any external stuff, just like we did. When finished, send me the URL where we can find the result in MP3 format, and we will link them in Audiomac.net.

    Pricing and downloads are available on the producers website:
    http://www.emagic.de/.


    Online Review Part 2:
    EXS24 Sample Player/Editor for Logic Audio.




    As you can see on the screenshot above, the EXS24 looks pretty much the same as it's VST daughter EXSP24 (shown in the screenshot at the top of this page). The big differences are: EXS24 will only run under Logic Audio, and -the most important difference- you can edit and save samples, where EXSP24 only plays them (with possible modifications, see first part of this review).

    All the nice stuff I already described above in the EXSP24 section, are valid for the EXS24 as well. So I won't dive into those features once again, and head straight forward to the editing section. It took us a while to figure it out, but the handbook that came with EXS24 helped us out here pretty well. So, after a couple of hours we understood most of the ins and outs of this software sampling editing tool, and we started working on a sample I will tell you more about later on. But first some of the features of EXS24 we liked very much.

    Editing samples.

    EXS24, being a software sample, works completely within your computer. No transferring of audio files back and forth between your Mac and an external device. So you work in the digital domain completely, thus preserving the best quality you can get, up to 24 Bit and 96 kHz. EXS24 can handle AIF, SD II and WAV audio files. And also AKAI S1000 and S3000 samples.

    The procedure is basically simple. You load an audio file into a Zone, set some parameters like keynote and key range, loop yes/no, pitch and some others. When you save your new sample, a file with the .exs extensions is saved in the Samplers Instruments folder within LA's program folder. The sample audio file itself can reside anywhere on your hard disk: LA will find it automatically. It might be a good idea though to organize your samples the same way the factory samples that come with EXS24 are organized. When you produce a lot of samples, you quickly will get lost in file maintenance jungle. LA will still find them, but in the end you will not now anymore which samples you produced some months ago and where they are on your harddisks or network drives. So take this advice: keep track of what you sampled and where you stored the results. It definitely will appear to be a studio life saver some day ;-).



    When you loaded the sample file into a Zone, you can assign that sample to a keyboard range, as shown in the screenshot above (the white fat line under the keyboard in the screenshot above). Here we assigned the sample "Klassiek koor" (Dutch for Classical Choir) sample to C1 to C4. Here just one sample zone and assignment is used on purpose, so that we get a spooky effect in the higher tones. To keep it more realistic, you can assign more sample files of the same instrument (e.g. a piano) to subsequent keyboard ranges. As you may know: the more samples of an instrument, the better and more natural it will sound. You could e.g. make a single sample of the E2 tone of a Kawai stage piano and assign it to the corresponding E2 key in EXS24. Get the idea?

    Below is s screenshot of a sample with multiple zones and keyboard ranges. In this example there are 42 zones, but you only see 10 of them on the screenshot.



    Notice that the parameters of zone #1 are folded out, This looks like following screenshot:



    At "Audio file" you see the name of the file that contains the sample. Lower in the screen you can assign -among other things- the keyboard range, in this case from F#1 to B1. Within this range, the combined sample of a grand piano and strings will sound natural. The other 41 samples cover the according other regions of the keyboard, thus building a natural pitched sound over the complete keyboard range pitch. Very good.



    When you click in the little E buttons (in the red circle in the screenshot above), your audio file becomes editable. Only a part is shown in the screenshot, just to give you an idea of the looks. You can alter you sample is several ways here, to make it just fine for your musical purposes. Just to mention a few of a long list of parameters and functions you can use here: set the start and end of the sample e.g. to create a loop, sample rate conversion, audio energizer, normalize, fade in and out, trim, invert, reverse. You can combine Zones into one or more Groups and assign affects to these groups (see three screenshots backwards in the right half of the screen). You can even assign Adobe Premiere plug-ins to a sample through one of the menu commands.

    Got the idea?
    You have a complete set of tools to work on your sample files and bring them exactly to the sound you want. It will take some time to master it all, but the results you can get here are only limited to your imagination. Basically, all your sample dreams can become reality: it's all at your fingertips. Great!

    Demo file EXS24.

    We grabbed some samples from one of the sample CD's that came with EXS24. These CD's are plain audio CD;'s, so we had to convert the samples first to AIFF using iTunes. We did not alter most of the samples we grabbed this way, but decided to do some extra work on two choir samples. We made them a bit softer and more "hollow" to get a sort of distance spooky effect. We then combined these two AIF files to one EXS24 sample file with 2 Zones and 2 keyboard ranges, and called it "Klassiek Koor", which is -as explained earlier- Dutch for Classical Choir. If you're not Dutch, do not try to pronounce "Klassiek Koor". You will end up in hospital with a broken tongue ;-).

    We then loaded these samples in several EXS24 instruments and produced the sample file below. You will hear the altered choir sample in phrase 2 and 4. The file gives you an idea what you can do with EXS24. The result in this file was made after only two hours of exploring the features and functions of EXS24 for the first time. The construction of the arrangement from scratch took us about 30 minutes. Investing more time to learn EXS24 better will most certainly gives you better quality results. But for a first timer, we think this one is not bad though...


    exs24.mp3 (128 kbps, 400 Kb)

    Conclusion on EXS24.

    I'll put it plain and clear: if a product gets our
    10 rating, it should be d..... good. And that is exactly what EXS24 is. No more, no less. That's why it gets a plain 10. With EXS24, you get functionality that will enable you to produce at true professional level, all in the digital domain, and without having to buy expensive hardware equipment. It already works nice on slower Mac's, but if you want to utilize the full power by producing complex productions you will certainly need a G4/500 or better with lots of RAM. These machines are no exceptions in smaller studios nowadays, though not every musician will be able to afford such a heavy Mac. For them, EXS24 will bring the very same horsepower, but the restriction will be in the number of EXS24's that can be used at the same time. Of course, in this case you can work in two or more steps, meaning making one or more submix audio tracks throughout your production. When this is done with care, even one the lighter Macs great results can be obtained, with a little extra effort. This is another reason EXS24 deserves our 10 rating: it brings true professional production capabilities to even the owners of less heavy equipped Macs. I already said it in the VST part of this review, and I will repeat it here: EXS24 is Big Thing!

    Just another small example to convince you that the highest rating we can give away at Audiomac.net was given for a good reason:


    exs24test_03.mp3 (160 kbps, 748 Kb)

    Pricing and downloads are available on the producers website:
    http://www.emagic.de/.


    Online Review Part 3:
    EVP88 Vintage Piano software instrument for Logic Audio.




    Way back in the wild days of bands, touring, stages and long rides in old rusty transporters, I owned one. A real 88 keys Fender Rhodes piano. I loved that piano for it's wonderful bell sound, but had to sell it one day because of a heavy shortage of money. Ever since, I mourned a bit for this loss, but on the other hand never bought one back again, though the financial situation had become much better over the years and I could afford one without any problem.

    Emagic brought EVP88 on the shelves, and sent it to us for a review, along with the EXS and EXSP you read about above. I must confess I was somewhat septic about this virtual instrument. How can one put the emotion I had with my old Fender Rhodes into a virtual instrument? Impossible, I presumed.

    Well: I bumped into a nice surprise. I recorded one of my old compositions, written in the old days on my Fender Rhodes. And while using a good balanced midi keyboard, after just a few chords I had the good old feelin' back. The EVP88 sounds just like the real thing, with the very same tough and bell. It appears that Emagic has done the sampling work for this virtual instrument very well.

    With the EVP88, you get several old keyboard goodies at hand: Suitcase MKI, Stage Piano MKI, Stage Piano MKII, Bright Stage MKII, Hard Stage MKII, Mark IV, Wurlitzer 200A, Soft Wurlitzer, Funk Piano, Electra Piano, Metal Piano. Stuffed with parameters, most of them also found on the real things, you can tune the virtual instruments just the way you want them. In the user interface, you will find knobs for Decay and Release, Bell and Damper, Stereo Intensity, EQ, Drive, Phaser, Tremolo, Chorus, Stretch, Number of voices (up to 88 if you like), and Tune. Most of these parameters or parts of them were built in the old pianos, and it is good to find them all back here.

    Now, I can play my old stuff with the true old sound again, and I must confess it made me make a little jump of joy. This virtual instrument sounds just right. And I am not the only one who thinks that way. Emagic found some heavy dudes in the music business that wanted to comment on the EVP88. You can find the movies on www.emagic.de. Of course, I know that this is marketing after all, but I think these guys would not step into this when the instrument sounded like shit so to speak.

    Conclusion on EVP88.

    Well, I certainly agree with these guys. EVP88 is good stuff, especially when your musical roots are back in the early days of electronic gear on stage. This root thing might be the reason that EVP88 will have most appeal to us oldies in the music business, who live long enough to have seen the real Rhodes and Wurlitzers on stage. The young music generation might not fall that quickly for the warm and melodic sounds EVP88 produces, as they mostly are more keen on the fatter and hard techno or dance stuff. For them, EVP88 might be a little too classic. Being one of those oldies, I appreciate EVP88 very much, as it brought me back good old sound emotions. That's why my rating is a 9.

    For the youngest music generation, EVP88 is probably a little bit "too old stuff". Although you never can tell:,my 19 years old sun recently discovered old Ten Years After records stuffed away in a box in studio. He has been playing them since over and over again. Maybe EVP88 will find its way to the young computerized music dudes anyway ;-).

    Pricing and downloads are available on the producers website:
    http://www.emagic.de/.


    All reviews in AudioMac.net are written by Peter J. Bloemendaal. All rights reserved.

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    11.10.2002