Digital Music and Solid-state Drives: A Grand Match

When it comes to creating high-quality music on digital platforms, developers and digital artists need the latest platforms and the fastest technology. One of those tools, the Ivory II–American Concert D engine, has the ability to faithfully reproduce a renowned 1951 New York Steinway Model D concert grand piano, which has been played by some of classical music’s leading pianists, including the idiosyncratic Glenn Gould and the intellectual Rudolf Serkin.

Of course, in order to get a sound that’s close to these prolific pianists, digital musicians need powerful technology. While Ivory is great at recreating the sounds, the engine requires super-fast storage and is perfect for mobile computing platforms, such as an Ultrabook with a solid-state drive. Here, we give an overview of the software and how to optimize it for digital musicians.

Inside the Technology
At a recent trade show, Jerry Kovarsky, a 30-year music industry veteran and jazz pianist, was hired to demo American Concert D, the newest member of the Ivory II family of virtual pianos by Synthogy.

“Ivory uses a great many samples -- digital recordings -- to achieve a level of realism that’s never been achieved before,” says Kovarsky. “The library includes samples of everything from the initial strike of each hammer to the sound of each string decaying or fading out to full silence, with up to 18 velocity levels for each of the piano’s 88 keys,” he adds. “Ivory gives you all the nuance and tonal variation of a real piano.”

Ivory combines its extensive array of samples with advanced sample interpolation technology for ultra-smooth velocity and note-blending. For instance, velocity correlates to volume; the harder and faster you strike a key, the louder it sounds. Note-blending makes the transition between samples seamless.

Digital signal processing algorithms are used to simulate string resonance, half pedaling (the sound of the sustain pedal being partially depressed), and even pedal noise. The software instrument can run on its own or be installed as a plug-in to popular digital audio workstations.

“Ivory streams its samples off the storage in your computer,” says Kovarsky. “As you play, samples are loaded in RAM so that the moment you play a note or chord, it’s ready to sound.”

Optimizing the Engine and Going Mobile
The delays between when you strike a key and when you hear it -- called latency -- disrupt the creation experience. This means that fast storage is essential.

Even using a 64-bit operating system and loading your system with as much RAM as it will hold won’t deliver the kind of experience Kovarsky described. For that, you’ll need a system equipped with a solid-state drive, which acts as a large, fast data cache, such as one of the new Ultrabook devices from Acer, ASUS, HP, Lenovo or Toshiba.

While setting up for the tradeshow, Kovarsky discovered what a difference an SSD makes. “It was the first time I used Ivory on a computer with an SSD in it,” he says. “When you play a real acoustic piano, if you hold the sustain peddle down, each note that you play continues sounding after you’ve played it. To recreate that digitally, you need software that’s capable of sounding a great many notes simultaneously.”

“At home, when I play Ivory on my laptop with a core i7 processor, 4 gigs of RAM and a fast FireWire hard drive, I can play up to about 50 voices at once,” he says. “Pianos have 88 keys, so you might think 50 voices would be more than enough. But I like to ride the sustain pedal, so I find myself having to pay attention to how many notes I’m playing.” With an SSD, Kavorsky says he “was able to set the polyphony up to 700 voices! The technology was far outperforming what I was asking it to do. I could play a lot of notes. I could sit on the sustain pedal and leave chords ringing. It was incredibly liberating.”

Mobile computing platforms with solid-state drives, such as Ultrabooks, are perfect for running tools such as Ivory. But they also offer other advantages to both casual and professional musicians. Since they’re so portable, they’re easy to take on a gig or set up in the family room, hook a MIDI keyboard controller to the USB connector, and start playing. The platform also offers extended battery life and built-in security technology that can be used to disable the system remotely should it be lost or stolen.

The Dead Rock: Hollywood Undead on Cakewalk SONAR

In 2005, six musicians from Los Angeles started dissecting life as they knew it in a torrent of hip-hop, metal and industrial soul. Drawn together by their love of music and determination to have fun, the members of Hollywood Undead hunkered down in their bedrooms and started recording.

“For the first six months, we were just doing it for fun,” says J-Dog, who, like the other members of Hollywood Undead, plays multiple instruments and contributes vocals onstage and in the studio. “We put our music on the Internet and next thing, people were buying it. It shocked us.”

Making Music on the Road
The band’s debut album, Swan Song, was released in 2008. It sold more than 800,000 copies. Since then, the band has toured the world and released their second album, American Tragedy. They have just wrapped up a two-month U.S. tour and have started recording another album, bringing ideas they started recording on the road into the studio.

“We’re always coming up with songs,” says J-Dog. “During days off, we’ll bring our gear up to the hotel room to write, but we’re usually working in back of the tour bus.”

To accomplish that, J-Dog leans heavily on Cakewalk’s SONAR digital audio workstation (DAW) software. “We use all of our road gear when we’re writing -- recording stems and bouncing them down to tracks to bring into the studio with us when we come off the road,” he says.

SONAR acts as the hub of their digital audio production work, both on and off the road. “All of the software synthesizers, the on-the-road recording interfaces and keyboards run off it,” explains J-Dog. “Rapture, Dimension … We love the sounds of those soft synths. I use a Korg Triton at home, but I don’t want to lug that around. With SONAR soft synths, I don’t have to.”

To control his software synths, J-Dog uses a Cakewalk keyboard. “I forget the model number, but it’s got the ACT button on it,” says J-Dog, describing Cakewalk’s Active Controller Technology, which automatically remaps parameters to the knobs, sliders and dials on the keyboard, saving him hours of tedious work. “The ACT button works for any Cakewalk plug-in. It’s really cool. It lets me automate things on the fly and makes automating stuff 10 times faster.”

The Tech Behind the Music
Hollywood Undead runs SONAR on PCAudioLabs Music Computers (MCs). “They’re workhorses; we’ve been using them for years, and they’ve always run perfectly. They’re really important to the show,” says J-Dog. “Most of our first album was recorded exclusively with SONAR and a PCAudioLabs computer. When it came time to do stems live, we decided to bring PCAudioLabs computers on the road with us. We’ve used them ever since.”

Hollywood Undead carries two PCAudioLabs MCs with them on the road. They’re linked, so if one were to cut out, the other would kick in without missing a beat. But as J-Dog puts it, “we’ve never had a problem.”

The band recently added a new MC from PCAudioLabs. “It’s a quarter of the size and a quarter of the weight of the older machines,” says J-Dog, “but I was shocked by how fast the new machine is. It’s the fastest computer I’ve ever used.”

What other benefits does he see from the new machine? “It lets me run more tracks and instruments. I can have way more stems -- I might have 36 running at the same time. With the older machine, I had to freeze a few of them.” (“Freezing” is the process of rendering effects into a track to free up processor power to handle other tasks.) “Before, when I’d be writing, I’d have to stop and freeze tracks so I could record vocals. Now I can just go and go. It’s a luxury,” says J-Dog.

“PCAudioLabs MCs are built for this stuff,” he continues. “They know what kinds of problems you’d encounter with a typical PC and work the kinks out ahead of time. I don’t have to worry about incompatible drivers and stuff. It’s a dream come true.”

Getting the Right Sounds
Fitting keyboard and synth sounds into heavy metal–laced hip-hop is no easy feat. “That’s why I’m really into Dimension Pro and Rapture,” explains J-Dog. “Their strings and piano really stood out. They have a good flavor that fits our band. I spent a lot of time looking for the right sounds and finally found them in SONAR.”

Another reason J-Dog turned to SONAR is that its soft synths integrated seamlessly with his keyboard controller. “It’s really user-friendly,” says J-Dog. “It lets me turn different sections of the synth on and off, which makes it easy to customize a preset to quickly build the sound I want. With other synths, you have to spend hours loading presets until you find one you like or sit and fiddle with oscillators and filters.”

That immediacy fits right into Hollywood Undead’s writing and recording workflow. “When you’re recording on a bus, looking for a synth sound and someone says they don’t like what you’ve done, you can’t sit there for half an hour reworking it,” says J-Dog. You’ve got to be able to stay in the creative flow.”

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Harnessing Digital Creative Power: Digital Composing

If there’s one breed of super-user that has truly benefited from the computer revolution, it’s the digital artist. Improvements in multicore CPU technology haven’t just spurred artistic creativity among digital content creators; they’ve unleashed their very souls.

Digital art files routinely reach over a gigabyte in size, putting tremendous pressure on CPUs and RAM. Today, netbooks with multicore technology serve as a readily available conduit to creativity, from capturing reverb in European cathedrals to recording crashing waves on California beaches. Ideas that might have been scribbled on a bar napkin can now be captured safely.

For digital musician Justin Lassen, the impact of technology boils down to three key assists for digital artists: speed, creativity and power.

Need for Speed
Lassen points to a subtle way that speed can help a digital artist. “Currently, even with a fast mechanical drive, when I load a project, I want to load up the 70-piece orchestra. Normally, that would take four to six minutes before I can start composing. That’s plenty of time to lose the idea completely,” says Lassen. “Or, say I wake up from a deep sleep and I want to get an idea down. So I go over to the computer and I’m like, ‘Oh, man, I’ve got to wait till this thing loads.’ By that time, my inspiration has dulled or has been tainted. But with SSDs, they’ve cut the load time down to 45 seconds, max. It gives my idea a fighting chance to get recorded.

“The best stuff that I make is usually created on the spot. It’s about being able to instantly create without waiting. SSDs are taking us closer to that dream.”

Mobile Creation
The second empowering aspect of computational muscle is the idea that artists can capture creative moments without losing the spark. Sometimes, creativity is like a fire hose, and ideas just pour out. You don’t want to be tethered to your monster machine back in the office.

Lassen points to the ability to use netbooks when traveling. “Inspiration happens anywhere, and now I can chronicle that and then take it back and do post-work on it,” he says. “You want to be ready for that idea. Otherwise, when you drive back to the house, you won’t have the same idea.”

“I have a famous remix called “Faint.” I did it for Linkin Park, and it got millions of listens on YouTube. But, I did two remixes. One, I spent two-and-a-half weeks slaving away to make it awesome, and it was popular. But the one that actually got famous was the one that I spent five hours on. I was in that mode of creating, and I didn’t feel like I did a great job on it, but I was going with the flow, feeling that spark of inspiration. So it’s funny how that works out.”

Harness the Power
Better technology will always benefit power-hungry customers. But what, exactly, is the significance of that connection?

Lassen believes part of the magic is how software vendors continue to upgrade tools to take advantage of the newest processors. “Studio One Pro is optimized for multicore CPUs,” he notes. “For a while, SONAR was the only software truly optimized for multicore, but Studio One Pro now does it. And more products are starting to come around. They’re getting ready for the future.”

The Tools in the Toolbox
Meeting the computing needs of digital content creators requires a deep understanding of the complex interdependencies between the hardware components and software applications. PCAudioLabs and Cakewalk SONAR X1 Essentials are on the forefront for digital music creation.

PCAudioLabs has been addressing the needs of professional musicians and producers for 10 years, with clientele including the U.S. Air Force, the Grand Ole Opry, Stevie Wonder, DJ Shorty, Hollywood Undead and many other notable musicians, producers and enterprises. This diverse group places high demands and even higher expectations on their digital audio and music tools.

“We call our systems MCs -- Music Computers -- not PCs,” says Greg Butler, managing director of PCAudioLabs. “A general-purpose PC can handle a lot of tasks very well, such as running spreadsheets, using email or browsing the Internet. However, they’re not built from the ground up to handle the special needs of musicians and producers.”

The PCAudioLabs Custom Shop specializes in building MCs tailored and optimized for the needs of its more discerning clients. The RokBox line of MCs is a prebuilt turnkey solution that has been tuned to specific music and audio applications.

At the same time, Cakewalk is one of the leading providers of award-winning digital audio recording software. The company’s flagship product, SONAR Producer, is one of the most advanced 64-bit digital audio workstations (DAWs) available. SONAR Essentials builds on Producer’s professional feature set, making creating music faster and easier than ever.

“SONAR Essentials features the same redesigned user interface as SONAR Producer and gives users access to more audio tracks than DAWs costing twice as much,” says Michael Hoover, Cakewalk’s executive VP of products. “With its powerful collection of effects and instruments, SONAR Essentials has everything an enthusiast needs to start creating music with ease.”

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Cakewalk Case Studies: Sean Murray and Tim Wynn

When Cakewalk released its SONAR X1 digital audio workstation  (DAW), they weren’t just giving composers a world-class set of audio tools; they were giving them a solution to their production challenges. Here, DIG takes a look at how two game composers have integrated the suite into their studio workflows and brought the power of SONAR to bear on their latest projects.

Sean Murray
Composer Sean Murray started his career at the age of 19. His credits include the hit TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the games True Crime: Streets of L.A., Call of Duty: World at War and Call of Duty: Black Ops.

Production Challenges
On his latest project, Call of Duty: Black Ops, after first laying down his orchestral tracks using sampled instruments, Murray needed to swap them out for live orchestral recordings. This called for delivering a score for a 79-piece orchestra to another recording studio for recording, and then digitally manipulating the various stems.

The Solution
Cakewalk SONAR and a Mackie digital mixing board serve as the hub of Murray’s studio. SONAR’s complement of virtual synths and percussion, along with extensive MIDI and digital-audio recording capabilities, give him the flexibility to start composing right away.

He starts each audio cue by loading its corresponding video clip into SONAR. From there, rhythmic elements, melodic ideas or sound design elements drive the composition. “When you’re writing for moving pictures and games, it’s usually best to go with the first idea you have as you’re looking at the video,” says Murray.

Murray uses four computers: One of them runs SONAR, and the other three are dedicated to TASCAM GigaStudio sample player software, which he uses for brass, strings, percussion and for extended polyphony when he runs out of voices for a given cue.

On Black Ops, Murray was often running 110 tracks of digital audio, MIDI and orchestral recordings. He utilized SONAR’s Track Folders feature to organize his score by instrument groups. For example, he put 15 string tracks in one folder, MIDI and brass tracks in another folder, audio data for 36 tracks in another, and so on.

Orchestral stems from Pro Tools were brought back into SONAR, where SONAR’s battery of effects were used to, as Murray puts it, “absolutely destroy a sound beyond recognition so it’s something fresh.” Also used frequently were Transient Shaper, V-Vocal and the Z3TA+ virtual synthesizer that comes with SONAR.

Tim Wynn
Tim Wynn’s credits as a composer span a number of television shows and motion pictures, including the hit CW series “Supernatural” and the 2010 feature film To Save a Life. His game credits include Command & Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight, Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3 and Red Faction: Guerilla. He is currently working on two unannounced titles for 2011.

Production Challenges
As modern games strive to be more cinematic, Wynn’s challenge is to enhance the storyline by writing music that adds to whatever drama is taking place. “I’m at my best when my score helps the player make an emotional connection to the story, the characters and the gameplay,” says Wynn.

To accomplish that goal, Wynn needed a DAW that would allow him to import and play back video clips, while giving him the power to record and play back over 120 audio tracks and effects, as well as 30 or more stems, simultaneously.

For Command and Conquer, recording was done at Skywalker Ranch on an Avid Pro Tools system. So Wynn needed a DAW that could import stems (discreet parts of a composition saved as an individual audio element, often used in remixing) mixed in Pro Tools and further tweak them using various effects plug-ins, virtual synthesizers, synthetic percussion and instruments from multi-gigabit sample libraries.

The Solution
Cakewalk SONAR became Wynn’s go-to DAW. He found that it gave him the computing muscle to run multiple effects plug-ins on all of his audio tracks, and include virtual synthesizers and percussion as well as MIDI tracks in the mix -- all without having to render submixes before being able to hear the overall result.

He says he’s more than satisfied with the performance of his DAW system. “With SONAR, I don’t need to be so wrapped up in tech,” says Wynn. “I can just worry about creating music. The computer and the software unshackle me.”

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Audio for Games Reimagined: SONAR X1

Cakewalk’s SONAR is one of the most advanced 64-bit digital audio workstations (DAWs) available, offering composers a toolset with an unlimited number of tracks, world-class virtual instruments and an array of professional effects and audio production tools.

With the release of SONAR X1 late last year, the SONAR family of products has been reimagined. As Steve Thomas, Cakewalk’s public relations director, put it, “We’ve taken all of the pieces of SONAR and reassembled them in a manner that takes the power and maturity of an industry-standard DAW, combined with cutting-edge creative tools essential for today’s music, and wrapped them in one of the most modern and thoughtfully designed user interfaces available.”

Behind the Technology
SONAR X1 gives game audio professionals a streamlined, next-generation workspace with dockable, floatable and collapsible views; customizable window configurations; easy-to-access media assets; and simplified context-driven control over vital features.

At every level, the emphasis has been on creating a refined workflow and an intelligent layout that focuses on making more music.

“Ten years ago, game composers would’ve built their loops using one software tool and then imported the loops into another program, such as Cakewalk’s Pro Audio, where they’d handle the audio editing/recording and MIDI work,” explains Thomas. “Today that workflow all takes place in SONAR, along with many time-saving features, such as Track Folders, which can be vital to a game audio composers’ organization of a large project.

“People creating scores for motion pictures or modern games typically utilize a gigantic number of tracks,” continues Thomas. “If a full symphony orchestra is involved, there may be as many tracks as there are orchestra seats. Track Folders in SONAR X1 are particularly helpful for managing a large number of tracks, especially if the composer is limited to the visual real estate of a single monitor.”

Improving the Scores
To bring sonic variety and color to their scores, game composers often combine SONAR ’s virtual synthesizers -- such as Rapture, Dimension and Pentagon -- with live recordings of orchestral instruments.

Alternately, composers might sketch their work by using very large sample libraries of strings, brass and orchestral percussion instruments before committing to recording a live orchestra. Playing back dozens or hundreds of virtual instrument tracks -- complete with digital-signal processing such as reverb, echo, level compression, equalization and transient shapers -- is an incredibly processor-intensive task.

Previously, numerous tracks had to be pre-rendered, a process that baked effects, volume changes, and other mixing parameters into audio clips to lighten the workload and eliminate latency, dropped notes and unwanted sonic artifacts. The latest multicore, multithreaded processors, however, are helping to accelerate this process. And the results just keep getting faster and better.

A Game Sound Studio in Action
Chuck Carr has been creating music and sound effects for games since 1994, when he worked on id Software’s Doom II. He later served as a sound designer at 989 Studios, a former division of Sony Interactive Studios America, where he created sound effects and scary dialogue for Tanarus, Spawn and numerous other titles. He has since been an in-house composer, music manager and songwriter for hit titles such as Gran Turismo, EverQuest, Twisted Metal: Black, The Mark of Kri, Neopets: The Darkest Faerie, MLB: The Show, Hot Shots Golf and more. His latest game projects are Jerry Rice & Nitus’ Dog Football and Twisted Metal X.

For his latest project, Twisted Metal X, Carr is writing a heavy-metal-influenced game soundtrack using his signature rock sound, which he developed writing the theme for the popular PlayStation Network game, Pain.

Carr prefers to write and record his own songs, calling in talented musicians to play solos and various instrumental parts. To accomplish this, he needed a DAW that could accommodate recording live guitars, drums, bass, harmonica, vocals and other instruments as needed in his own studio.

Solutions to Production Challenges
Carr’s choice of DAW is SONAR. To help jumpstart the recording process, he built a rock music template -- a preset track layout for drums, guitars, vocals and other instruments he plans to record. For rock tunes, he starts by laying down a guitar track and follows with drums and other instruments. For dance tracks, synthesizers or keyboards get laid down first. Carr also includes a vocal track in his game tunes, although he’s never sure if the lyrics will survive the final mix, because sound effects such as explosions will easily drown out the vocals.

Virtual pianos and the many soft synths in SONAR, as well as Native Instruments virtual synths, play a major role in Carr’s sonic toolkit. Carr is also particularly fond of SONAR’s PX64 percussion strip processor designed for shaping drum and percussion sounds. He supplements them with iZotope plug-ins and Steven Slate drums, which he plays through the Kontakt 4 Player.

Carr runs the DAW system on a laptop equipped with a multicore processor and 6 GB RAM. To bring audio into SONAR, Carr relies on Great River ME-1NV mic pre-amps. He prefers to record 44-kHz, 16-bit audio, and uses Sony Sound Forge for his 5.1 surround audio mixes.

Two Macintosh computers run Apple Logic and Avid Pro Tools, which Carr uses when collaborating with other artists. For storage, Carr turns to six external 7,200 rpm eSATA hard disk drives. He stores his sample libraries on 80 GB solid-state drives, because as he put it, “Not only do they work, they’re way faster! I love them.”

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