By Peter Kirn, Macworld.com – August 26, 2009
Digital music workstation software can include an encyclopedic array of functionality. But when it comes to using these tools creatively in music making, a few details and the way they fit together can make a huge difference.
The new version of Logic Studio incorporates upgrades of the Studio’s traditional suite of applications: the flagship Logic Pro 9 workstation and its instruments and audio effects; Soundtrack Pro 3 () for stereo and multitrack recorded audio; MainStage 2 for easy access to instruments and effects for jamming and live performance; WaveBurner 1.6 for mastering and authoring CDs; and Compressor 3.5 () for file exchange. Deep in that vast suite, though, a single new feature called Flex Time could have the biggest impact on the way you work.
Overall, Apple’s Logic Studio 9 introduces some significant headline features. There’s an entirely new audio manipulation engine, allowing recorded sound to be reshaped in time. New models of amps and effect pedalboards emulate traditional guitar gear and open up new performance possibilities. MainStage has grown from a clever way to host instruments and effects to a more mature host, adding integration with other software, as well as playback, looping, and recording capabilities. But those highlights aside, smaller fit-and-finish enhancements are often of equal importance in real-world production.
Molding audio in time
Once recorded, sound traditionally ceases to be entirely malleable: you can slice and reorder sound, but changing its internal timing is more difficult. That can limit some creative possibilities: even when working with talented musicians, part of a take might be slightly out of time–especially when adding up a day’s worth of different takes. For sound designers, producers, and remix artists, there are creative reasons to want to re-groove recorded audio, as well. Logic Studio’s new Flex Time tool collection combines a new interface designed for making these changes with an under-the-hood engine that can warp sound more convincingly.
Switch to the Flex Time view in the Arrange pane, and blocks of audio become stretchable. Click a waveform, and you can add a Flex Marker—a pointer to a position in the recorded waveform—which you can move forward or backward in time. Drag the marker left and right, and the waveform squishes or stretches like Play-Doh. The effect is addictive and instantaneous; the interface never feels like it’s in your way, because you can drag on the waveform directly to warp it. You can change as few or as many points inside a waveform as you wish, whether re-grooving an entire recording or fixing one errant high hat. Different modes allow you to ensure the results fit the source material: Slicing and Rhythmic modes preserve the attacks of percussive material, whereas Monophonic and Polyphonic modes stretch the sound. The Speed mode changes the pitch along with the time, as would changing the playback speed of traditional analog tape. (This version also adds Speed Fades, which can simulate the braking of a turntable.) Apple says all of these modes are based on new audio algorithms developed in-house, and the results sound terrific.
This kind of functionality may be familiar to experienced users of digital audio workstations. Rival technologies from Steinberg, Digidesign, Cakewalk, MOTU, and others have all sought to make molding sound around beats easier. But there are certain advantages to being last. Logic’s implementation takes a little bit of the best of all of these features. It’s perhaps closest in spirit toAbleton Live (), though with important differences. Live focuses on mapping the entire tempo of a loop, whereas Logic leaves audio untouched by default. Logic is arguably better for subtler adjustments than Live, as Live’s warping is geared for regrooving large blocks of loops and combining them in non-linear ways. For recording and production workflows, Logic has made this kind of work uniquely accessible, and it can make the edits almost stunningly transparent. Engineers may not want to let musicians know they can change recordings this radically, lest Flex Time become to timing what pitch correction has become to tune.
Streamlined audio production
Flex Time combines elegantly with a complete set of features that transform the experience of editing audio in Logic. You can quantize audio and snap sliced audio on one track to a transient on another, which makes Flex Time even more powerful. You can extract an audio feel from one track, and apply it to other audio or to MIDI materials, quantizing portions or all of a track to one another without having to apply a mechanical grid. You can replace transients on a track with MIDI to make instant drum tracks, taking full advantage of Logic’s built-in arsenal of synths and sounds. An expanded Bounce in Place feature not only records audio, but takes into account the tail of effects like reverbs and maintains routings to sends. (This effect is destructive, but it’s also easy to bounce to a new track from the same feature.) You can also instantly slice an audio track for use as an EXS24 sampler instrument. All of this functionality is easy to get at, too. Advanced MIDI quantize options are available in the Channel Strip or via a floating window rather than being buried elsewhere, and audio options are available via a streamlined contextual menu.
Recording is improved as well as editing, thanks to enhanced takes and comps. Take Folders group together alternate versions of a track, created either automatically during a looped recording session, or manually by grouping regions. You can now edit within these takes, so you can try adjusting a take before you integrate it with the finished track, including warping individual takes with the Flex Tool. This makes it easier to produce comps or “composite” takes made up of the best bits of different recordings. Cool as Flex Time is, it’s really the sum of these different editing capabilities that makes Logic a pleasure for audio work.
With so much change, not everything is perfectly integrated. While Flex Markers are easily edited from the Arrange pane, the Transient Markers to which they snap cannot; adjustments to transient detection are accessible only from the Sample Editor pane. Transient Markers can be used to slice audio and to create new sampler instruments, but you can’t perform either of those same tasks with Flex Markers. Now that Logic has added this useful metaphor, potential extensions of the idea become apparent, and some will be missed. Ableton Live has the rough equivalent, for instance, of slicing to Warp Markers and not just transients.
Flex Time allows you to stretch audio seamlessly in time. Click to add a marker–snapping to a waveform’s transient markers or in any arbitrary position you’d like–then drag to move the audio around. The waveform visually compresses and expands along with the sound, with color coding to indicate a change. The interface is fluid and the results sound impressively transparent.
Virtual amps and effects
For all the power of Logic Pro’s editing engine, some users may simply want to plug in a guitar and start playing. The Amp Designer and Pedalboard expand the rich-sounding amps and effects introduced in GarageBand ’09 () with additional tools and models for simulating amps and effects. The sounds and behaviors have been meticulously modeled, so that every knob and stompbox behaves as you would expect, and the selection covers the gamut of amps and effects for different genres.
It’s nonetheless impressive what Apple includes right out of the box. In Amp Designer, you can mix and match models and cabinets, dragging around mic placement to adjust tone. The Pedalboard includes a splitter with frequency control and mixer, and lets you drag and drop the order of effects in a chain as you would icons on the Mac’s Dock. The Pedalboard also includes a selection of rotary and delay effects, a beautiful wah pedal, thick chorus, and reverb. Apple has particularly emphasized oddball, boutique-style effects that are sometimes absent in pristine digital collections. If you’re just looking for specialized guitar effects, competitors like Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig or IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube still provide strong standalone options, but Logic 9’s excellent interface and sound quality provide significant power for those looking for guitar effects integrated in their Digital Audio Workstation.
For guitarists, bass players, or any other instrumentalists or producers working with effects, Amp Designer and Pedalboard provide some sonic toys for adjusting sound. Some of these effects were heard in GarageBand ’09, but Logic provides many more tools, along with graphical environments for customizing chains of pedals and tweaking amps.
Live performance with MainStage
Some of the features that make Logic Pro powerful for recording and editing can make it restrictive for playing live. That gave rise in Logic Pro 8 to MainStage, a dedicated application for playing instruments and effects with Logic. MainStage 2 takes a promising idea and turns it into something with some significant depth.
The first MainStage worked well for instruments and effects, but lacked features needed for backing tracks, looping, and integration with other performance tools. Each of these deficits has been addressed. You can now drag audio files to your MainStage sessions or add the Playback tool to a Channel Strip to bring up an interactive sample playback instrument. That allows both simple backing tracks or multi-channel stems to be fully integrated with MainStage’s interactive virtual song set. A Loopback instrument makes it easy to lay down layered loop recordings, which can optionally be synced to MainStage’s session tempo.
If you just want a more accessible way to play Logic’s deep set of sound tools, MainStage comes with a variety of useful presets. But its real power is in its deep customization. It can require some work to set up instrument and effects racks, channel strips, and interactive visual modes, but once you’re done, you have a unique environment for live performance. New in this version, custom on-screen layouts can now be grouped, customized, and controls mapped to multiple parameters, making MainStage a tweaker’s delight.
MainStage won’t solve every performance scenario. The looper doesn’t allow you to set the tempo of your session with the length of the first loop you record, a key feature in hardware loopers and a capability recently added to Ableton Live. The new playback features, while well-suited to backing tracks, aren’t really designed for triggering complex sets of loops. That’s where the addition of Propellerhead’s ReWire, a technology for interconnecting music applications, could help MainStage fit a wider range of users. MainStage acts as a ReWire host, which means applications like Ableton Live or Propellerhead Reason can route their audio directly into MainStage, with the two applications synchronizing tempo in both directions. This could allow, for instance, more sophisticated sets of samples and loops in Live to integrate with favorite instruments from Logic. MainStage’s ReWire implementation is too new to fully determine how stable it’ll be on tour, and you can’t invert the relationship and use MainStage as a ReWire client, but ReWire support is nonetheless a welcome addition.
MainStage is finally a solution for people who want a backing track with their performance, thanks to the new Playback instrument. It complements the dedicated tool’s powerful features for setting up performance layouts for mixing, instruments, and effects.
Suite updates and a continued legacy
Logic Pro and MainStage have gotten the bulk of the updates, but they’re not alone. Soundtrack Pro 3 has two new killer features. For podcasters and vocal work, it can automatically match vocal levels of one clip to another clip, a huge production time saver. Apple also now lets you do editing in the Frequency view, making it easier to edit audio by frequency and not just time. Apple’s bundled Compressor is still fairly video-centric, and it’d be nice to see more audio profiles than exist currently, but if you are working with video or are doing batch processing, Compressor output workflow access in Soundtrack Pro is also useful.
Also, Apple should be commended for not taking anything out. If there’s an arcane effect you love, if you’ve been programming the interactive Environment for years, if you tweak MIDI in the HyperEditor, or if you use WaveBurner for making CDs, everything is still there. These features aren’t the focus of this upgrade, but they aren’t ignored, either. The Score Editor in this version adds a library of guitar frames. Keyboard shortcuts have been improved and expanded, and a visual highlight shows which pane is focused for keyboard input. Menus have been reorganized in logical ways, without disrupting the design for existing users. You can import settings between sessions more easily, and import tracks intelligently, selecting parameters.
MIDI and the non-guitar Logic instruments and effects definitely get less attention this round. Some of Logic’s add-ons haven’t seen an update since Logic was an Emagic product, and it’d be nice to see more in this category. Long-time users who spend more time with MIDI and virtual instruments may be hungry for the kind of refresh that audio editing has gotten in Logic 9, to better align these areas of the tool with Logic’s evolving design approach. That doesn’t diminish the ongoing value of Logic Studio’s breadth, however, and there’s more than enough new in the version to keep you busy. Apple’s approach appears to be focusing intently on specific areas of the tool with each release, which with such an expansive suite is a laudable approach.
Macworld’s buying advice
The new version of Logic Studio is a great value, but paradoxically Apple puts so much in the bundle that it’s almost impossible for every piece to fit everyone–especially when considering picky musicians and audio producers. What will likely convince users that it’s a good choice isn’t its breadth, but its depth, and that’s where Logic 9 is a marked improvement.
For existing users, the choice is easy: Logic Pro 9 should not be missed. If you work with audio at all, you’ll value not only Flex Time but more flexible audio editing all around. For prospective users, two features stand out. One is its new set of audio editing tools, which make managing takes and manipulating the innards of audio recordings exceptionally easy. The other is the steadily improving live performance features of MainStage 2.
Logic remains a deep tool, and while it’s still fully compatible with GarageBand ’09 files, some entry-level users may find it overkill. But if you’re willing to invest the time to take advantage of its heavily configurable tools, you can benefit from one of the most mature, production-friendly digital tools around.
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