In this review I’ll be taking a look at Air Music Technology’s Instrument Expansion Pack. An impressive looking collection of 7 virtual instruments including: Hybrid (An extensive synthesizer with lots of options), Loom (Additive, experimental synthesizer), Strike (Drum sound module and arranger), Structure (Sampler that comes with a 37GB+ sound library), Transfuser (Audio loop mangler, Vacuum Pro (Vacuum tube circuit modeled virtual analog synthesizer) and Velvet (electric piano emulation).
But do they sound as impressive as they look? Read on to find out!
The Air Instrument expansion pack contains the worst installation process I’ve ever encountered in audio software.
First of all: each instrument has its own installer so you can’t install them all at once, but that is not that big of a deal compared to the other flaws.
Secondly: the option to choose a custom install directory is not immediately clear. The first time I installed one of the instruments I clicked the next button on the install wizard expecting to be asked to select a directory but instead it started installing immediately into the default folder (as set by the developer). So I had to drag the .dll files manually into my VST plugins folder.
Later I found out that there’s an “Options” button on the first page of the installer which let you choose a custom directory. Granted, I didn’t pay attention to the page of the installer, but I suspect a lot of users will automatically click the next button without really reading it. You also don’t have the option to select what formats of the plugin (VST, AAX or RTAS) you want to install so it will just install them all., not ideal if you, like me, want to keep your PC as clean as possible.
So in the options page I chose my vstplugins folder which is inside my “Program Files” folder on the C:\ drive, but somehow the installer went ahead and installed it into my “Program Files (x86)” folder instead of the default 64-bit one so I had to move the .dll files to my 64-bit manually.
Thirdly: for Structure, Strike and Transfuser with their large sound libraries you can select a different directory to install the sound library to (again you have to open the option page for this), but for some reason the developer decided that it was a good idea to first dump the files on the system drive and then copies them to the directory that you selected in the installer!
It is really beyond me why they would do it like this… My system drive is not that big because it’s only meant for OS and Program Files so of course those libraries won’t fit on there and during installation I was prompted that there wasn’t enough space on disk when I had selected my samples drive where there’s plenty of space.
So I had to jump through hoops to finally get them installed. (For those wondering how I did it, I used the program Sandboxie to first install it into a virtual sandbox, then I manually moved all the files outside of the sandbox to the actual location I wanted them in.
So all in all, this is far from a smooth installation process…
The installers also automatically install the Pace drivers, you don’t need an iLok USB key, the plugins will be authorized to run on your machine but I have read on several forums that you can move the license to an iLok key should you want to.
The manual states that you have to start the authorization program (for which shortcuts have been created on the desktop) to authorize a plugin. The programs weren’t able to start however, immediately after starting Windows 7 showed an error message that the program had crashed. (And yes, I’m running a 64-bit version of course!)
I tried starting my DAW (Cubase 7) and fortunately an authorization window popped up so I could start the authorization process.
The authorization wizard will open a browser window where you have to fill in your registration code and your name, address etc. I had to fill in the form 7 times because you have to register every instrument separately though! A more streamlined way of registering the plugins without having to fill in the whole form every time would be very welcome.
After you click the authorize button in the browser the plugin will be activated to run on that computer. By default you get 2 activations per instrument but you can contact tech support if you need more activations.
There’s also an option to activate the plugins if your DAW isn’t connected to the internet. This works by generating a license file on your DAW, then e-mailing it to support and they will generate a working license file for you. This process is automated so you should receive a reply within minutes but I did not try this option.
According to the developer: “Hybrid is a high-definition software synthesizer that combines the warmth of legendary analog synths with a full range of 21st century digital manipulation capabilities. The result is the best of both worlds—a virtual instrument with a comprehensive set of precisely adjustable parameters that can sound like a synth you remember or something no one has ever heard before.”
Hybrid has 2 pages with identical layouts so that presets can sound very rich by utilizing the 2 synth engines. You can also create a keysplit where for example layer A will be mapped to the bottom half of the keyboard and layer B to the upper half. There’s also a handy function where you can load the Part A or Part B presets separately so that you can combine parts from different presets.
There are 3 oscillators, oscillators 1 and 2 have different modes (Saw Sync, Saw Cross Modulation, Multi-Wave (layer multiple detuned saws or squares), Square Cross Modulation, Square PWM, Wavetable) while oscillator 3 is very basic and only has static saw, square and triangle waveforms, a sub oscillator and a noise generator. Unfortunately you can only use one mode at a time per oscillator. For example: it isn’t possible to have a pulsewidth modulated square which is also hard synced. I would also liked to have seen a wider detune range, at the moment the detune goes to +/-50 cents and sometimes I just want to go beyond that for radically detuned leads or synthesized FX sounds for example.
There are 100 wavetables with up to 64 waves per wavetable, there are some quite usable and diverse sounding ones, there’s no function to import your own wavetables though.
The filter sounds very good to my ears, there’s a DCF mode (digital/precise) and a VCF (analog emulation) mode, the DCF mode has a thinner sound and comes in handy when you want a more digital sounding, thinner sound. The filter can self oscillate and with a basic waveform and the very nice distortion modes you can get a nice variety of sounds from smooth to overdriven to agressively distorted sounds.
The envelopes can be very snappy and have 2 stages of decay (so: Attack, Decay 1, Decay 2, Sustain, Release). But editing them is a little bit fiddly. You have to click and drag the points in the envelope display, I prefer regular knobs or faders because now you have to be really precise with the mouse to click on the tiny points.
The doubling feature is a very nice touch, now you can instantly make your sounds super wide without it starting to sound phasey. The unison sounds good as well but for some reason the instrument then becomes monophonic, a limitation that is unfortunate and doesn’t make sense to me!
The “Hype-Engine” can be used to boost both the low frequencies and the highs and you can really make bass sounds huge with it, or add more sheen to brighter synth patches. Although when the Hype High knob is turned fully clockwise the sound will become a bit harsh.
For both part A and B there’s also a very good arpeggiator/step sequencer. There are controls for notes, velocity, 2x parameter modulation, rate, gate length, swing. It also comes with several phrase patterns and you can even import a midi file. So all in all it is very flexible!
Furthermore you can assign multiple parameters to one of the four morph-knobs so that you can adjust several parameters at one time and radically change the sound with the turn of one knob.
Almost all parameters can be assigned to a midi control change number so that they can be controlled by an external midi controller but unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a way to control the wavetable selection.
Hybrid does sound beautiful and one of its strengths is the large preset library of over 1200 sounds. An impressive number but you might think that Air Music Tech opted for quantity over quality. That is definitely not the case here! A surprising big percentage of those sounds are very good, usable and, maybe most important of all, inspiring!
From beautiful pads and atmospheres to aggressive basses and cool sequences to add drive to your music, Hybrid 3 has a lot of them!
The CPU-usage isn’t too bad and ranges from 0,3% to about 4% on my Intel i7-2600K.
Here are a few interesting presets I selected:
Loom is an additive synthesizer that tries to make editing sounds easier than traditional additive synths by combining it with an “innovating modular approach”.
“The additive synthesis engine in Loom uses up to 512 different sine waves to create different spectra. This is why Loom is able to generate incredibly complex, and musical, waveforms. Loom features 30 different modules, which can be freely combined into any of the 10 cells. There are over 350 patches included in Loom or you can quickly create your own patches by using the intelligent randomization features. ”
It is fun to experiment with the various modules and presets. If you don’t exactly know what a module does there’s a handy info button on all of them which shows you a help text when you click on it.
The Macro knobs are very handy and work the same way as the smart knobs in Vacuum Pro, they are hardwired to several parameters so that you can quickly alter the sounds character, complexity, tone, emphasis and contour.
Loom is great for unconventional sounds which would be hard to make with traditional subtractive synths. It is a nice source of sounds and inspiration for sci-fi soundtracks and sfx or for creating otherworldy sounds.
The presets range from raw basses and unique smooth leads to beautiful evolving pads and atmospheres.
Here are some interesting presets I selected:
Strike is a virtual drummer plugin, not only does it contain a lot of drum kits and drum patterns, but it also has intelligent functions to add realtime human-like variations to these drum patterns.
The interface is easy to understand, but I had to dive into the manual to get a better grip on the inner workings and nomenclature.
Strike works with so called settings, styles, kits and mixes. A mix preset recalls all the mixer settings, a kit preset loads up a full drum kit (you can also replace individual drum elements), a style preset loads up several drum patterns in a certain playing style and finally a settings preset loads a combination of all of the above in one go.
It’s very easy to mix and match these presets, say you like certain drum patterns but dislike the drum kit, just swap it for another kit or you can even just swap individual drum elements.
Instead of having to load a settings preset first to hear how it sounds there’s a handy preview button next to the preset name in the browser with which you can instantly hear the drum kit playing one of the patterns, a very nice feature which Improves the workflow a lot!
Speaking of the browser I experienced an annoying bug where I tried to double click a preset but the list would jump to the top after the first click. Usually the preset would load correctly but there were times that I had to try multiple times before I finally had selected the preset that I wanted.
The keyboard layout is as follows: on the bottom octave you can mute the individual drum parts, on the next 3 octaves you can trigger drum patterns and fills and on the upper octave you can trigger the individual drum sounds if you want to play your own patterns.
There are several pages on the plugin interface. On the main page you see an image of the drum kit and animations of when the drums are struck. There are also many handy options for when you work with the drum patterns.
First there’s the intensity slider with which you can scale the overall velocity of the patterns, then there’s the complexity slider which can add or subtract drum hits to the patterns for more variation. You can also determine the timing (fully quantized or with more human imperfections), the feel (slightly before or after the beat) and groove/swing. Also there’s the Jam feature which adds slight variations each time a pattern is playing to give it a more human feel.
Furthermore you can adjust the tuning of the drum kit, the amount of close- overhead-, room- and talkback mic- level you want in the overall mix, there are also 2 eq knobs for adding low or high end to the overall sound and finally there is a drive and attack control for a compressor which is on the main output.
On the style page you can adjust the intensity- and complexity settings, the dynamics, hit variations and timing per instrument.
Then there is the kit page on which you can adjust the tuning, sample starting point, attack and decay per instrument.
On the the mix page you can adjust the volume and panning of all the separate instruments, overheads and room mic. On each channel there’s an eq and room for two insert fx. Furthermore you can determine how much of each instrument you want to send to the overhead and room mics. On this page you can also route each mixer channel to a separate outputs of the plugin of which there are 16.
Finally there’s the pattern editor on which you can easily edit or create new drum patterns.
A handy feature is the audio and midi recorder. The audio recorder can record the main output for up to 4 bars and you can then drag this as audio onto a track in your daw.
The midi recorder can record an unlimited amount of bars and you can then drag this midi from the plugin to a track in your daw as well. There’s an option in the midi recorder to record the data in standard GM format, this way you can also use the exported midi to trigger another drum library you may have.
The internal drum kits sound ok but they are perhaps not as polished/detailed as say Addictive Drums or Native Instrument’s Abbey Road drums, but then again there are a lot of kits included in Strike.
I would have really liked to have seen a direct midi out option, this way if you aren’t happy with the internal sounds you can use the very clever drummer engine to trigger other drum libraries. Sure you can record the midi internally and use this to trigger other drum sounds on another track, but it would’ve been so much better if you could’ve done this “live”, this is a missed opportunity which would’ve really added to the value of the plugin.
So in terms of sound there are better options available but Strike makes it very easy to get a drum groove going and add humanly variations for a more realistic feel.
Audio demos from the developer:
Structure is a sampler that comes with a large sound library of 38GB, it contains bread and butter sounds in the following categories:
- 01 Acoustic Drums
- 02 Acoustic Percussion
- 03 Electronic Drums + Loops
- 04 Orchestral Elements
- 05 Keyboards
- 06 Pitched Percussion
- 07 Choral
- 08 Guitars
- 09 Basses
- 10 Synth Basses
- 11 Synth Pads
- 12 Synth Polys
- 13 Synth Leads
- 14 Big Surround
- 15 Surround Atmospheres
- 16 FX
- 17 Pop Brass and Woods
- 18 World
It reminds me a lot of Steinberg’s Hypersonic instrument in terms of layout and sound which doesn’t come as a surprise since that one was made by Wizoo which now goes by the name of Air Music Technology.
The GUI is quite intuitive and I could find my way around without really taking a look at the manual first.
Most of the sounds are quite decent and usable. Obviously the instruments aren’t as detailed as some 3rd party Kontakt libraries, but that is to be expected. There aren’t any patches with sampled or simulated legato transitions for example but I did find some patches in the orchestral category where you could use the modwheel to control the dynamics of a note. Most patches do have a decent amount of velocity layers. Some instruments patches with lots of samples did take a while to fully load though.
There are also a few drum kits and a few string short articulations, where I could hear that they utilized 2x round-robin samples.
I really liked the “Surround Atmospheres” category, with the Outdoor Ambience, Indoor Ambience, Transport Ambience and Airport ambience patches. Like the name says these contain 3 to 4 environmental ambience samples per patch that are sampled in surround. They also contain various sound effects like footsteps, jet take off etc.
You can also dive into the instruments edit page where you can edit sample mappings, pitch, filter, envelope and fx settings per samplezone and edit audio files’ start and end points and looping. And you can of course import your own audio samples to create your own instrument patches.
If you don’t already have a good bread and butter instrument collection this could be a good starting point, although most patches aren’t too detailed and some can sound a bit general midi. This is a nice competitor to other bread and butter instrument collections like IK Multimedia’s Sample Tank for example.
Audio demos by the developer:
Transfuser is a very flexible loop workstation, it is kind of like a cross between StylusRMX and FXPansion’s Geist/Guru, it has also several synths built into it. The GUI is quite small so it is hard find certain functions.
The factory bank contains a lot of good loops, but a few bad ones as well. For example the in string loops category most loops that try to imitate acoustic strings sound like bad general midi sounds. You can also import your own samples and loops.
In Transfuser you can get a nice groove going easily, just drag in a few loops from the browser and start tweaking all the parameters to customize it, great if you happen to need some inspiration to get your creative juices flowing!
All factory loops are perfectly in sync and in tune and you can easily transpose them by playing different notes on the keyboard.
Loops can mean a few things. Firstly there are normal audio loops, secondly there are sliced loops (like .rex files) for which you can re-arrange the slices, thirdly there are the internal synthesizers which you can trigger by a stepsequencer (polyphonic) or a chord sequencer.
There’s also a cool randomization feature to mangle up the loops. You can select a few destinations like: note, pitch, cutoff etc. then dial in the amount of randomization you want and click apply. You can always go back to a previous step as there’s an undo and redo function. It’s a very handy feature which can give you some unexpected results which you wouldn’t have come up with otherwise.
All in all this is a great tool to give new life to your loops or get some new inspiration from the factory content!
Audio demos from the developer:
Vacuum Pro is Air’s attempt to bring an analog sounding synthesizer into the software world, it is not based on an existing hardware synth but rather inspired by the overall sound of classic analog synths. It has several stages of tube distortion algorithms in a few sections of the synthesizer.
The GUI is a bit dark and the text is a little small on a higher resolution screen, but once you will get to know the layout a bit better this shouldn’t be that much of a problem.
The 2 oscillators sound good, you can morph between a triangle, saw and pulse (with pulsewidth modulation) waveform, oscillator 2 also has a noise generator.
On each oscillator you can activate quad mode which will add 3 more detuned copies of the same waveform to create huge sounds, it sounds quite fat indeed.
One of my favorite features of this synth is the delay function on the oscillators. The manual says: “This short feedback loop creates interesting tonal characteristics by simulating the electro-acoustical feedback that occurs while playing instruments like electric guitar.”
After reading that I still don’t know exactly what it does but I know that by using it you can create some awesome sounds! It can sound very aggressive, metallic almost FM like which definitely adds to range of sounds you can make with Vacuum Pro.
The filter sounds pretty nice and smooth, but a bit too tame for my taste. I would’ve preferred to be able to crank up the resonance more to really drive the filter into the overdrive algorithm.
Speaking of the tube distortion emulation it sounds quite good and a moderate amount of drive really does add some thickness to the sound.
The modulation options are in my opinion a bit limited, the lfo rate doesn’t go up very high. LFO1 can only be sent to 3 destinations (Main Pitch, Lowpass Filter Cutoff and Main Volume), LFO2 has a few more options (Pitch, Osc 1 Waveform (also for pulsewidth modulation), Osc 2 Waveform, Osc 1 pitch, Osc 2 Pitch, HPF, LPF, Osc 1 DelayTime, Osc 2 DelayTime, Quad Detune).
One envelope is hardwired to the filter cutoff frequencies (can be used to modulate the LPF, the HPF or both) but you can also use it to modulate other parameters. Another envelope is hardwired to volume. And then there is a slightly more limited (in terms of parameters) modulation envelope with which you can modulate several parameters as well.
There’s also a doubling function as found in Hybrid which can add a nice wide stereo image to the sound.
The onboard chorus, phaser and flanger are pretty decent as well.
The synth can be played monophonically or polyphonically with up to 6 voices. But I wonder why the developer has implemented such a low limitation, surely CPU’s today are powerful enough to play more voices. Playing 6 voices with quad detune on both oscillators activated only took 2.3% of cpu power on my i7-2600k.
The smart knobs are a brilliant feature for those who don’t know a lot about synths but also to just quickly tweak a preset. There are 8 smart knobs with the descriptive names: complexity, tone, emphasis, fatness, punch, length, contour and modulation. All of those are routed to several parameters and can be increased or decreased.
The random function resulted in very useful sounds sometimes, you can also select what sections the randomize function should alter (Oscillators, Filters, Envelopes, Amplification or Modulation)
You can come up with quite aggressive sounds with the oscillator’s delay function and the tube overdrive sections. The filter is quite smooth so it is also possible to make softer and silky sounds but it would be great if the filter would’ve had a more raw sound as an additional mode for example.
Here are some interesting presets I selected:
Velvet is an electric piano emulation with models for: Rhodes Suitcase 73, Rhodes MKI, Rhodes MKII, Wurlitzer A200 and a Model-T.
The library is only 847MB in size so I think it is a hybrid between samples and physical modeling.
It sounds beautiful to my ears, it has a great dynamic range, from silky soft to piercing hard and the typical growling of the low notes at a high velocity sound very good as well.
It has also built in effects which are very suitable for E-piano sounds. A nice distortion and a wah effect for example. But I loved the tape delay most of all, giving you that great characteristic overdriven delay sound. The chorus, flanger and phaser are also decent.
With the mechanics function you can add several types of attack sounds to the notes which can add a nice twist to the sound. There’s also a condition knob, by turning it clockwise you can adjust the “age” of the piano introducing note-to-note deviations in tuning and dynamic response.
The vintage switch makes the sound what some would call “warmer”, it smoothes out the high end and boosts the low end a little, I liked the sound the most with this switch turned on.
All in all this is a very good and authentic sounding Rhodes and Wurly emulator!
Here are some audio demos by the developer:
First of all the installation process of these plugins is really screwed up and AIR should really do something about this.
For $299.99 you get a lot of value for the money. Three outstanding synthesizers, all different enough from each other to not make the other obsolete, with a lot of good presets. A very good electric piano emulator, a loop workstation for when you need some inspiration or feel experimental, a nice sampler plugin that comes with some decent bread and butter sounds and finally a virtual drummer with a very clever drumming engine inside.
My personal favorites are Hybrid and Loom, Hybrid for its massive amount of great sounding presets and Loom for its experimental sound design.