AIR Music Technology Xpand!2 by TNM
I must admit, I am a huge fan of romplers ever since I had my Korg 05RW and Roland JV2080 modules. I know they sometimes don't fall into favour with those that are into tweaking their own unique sounds endlessly, but for those of us who just want to pick a sound and press record, play away at our keyboard, and have a polished sound ready to use in the mix without any need to touch a single knob, or at most just make a few minor adjustments, they are a Godsend.
As with any instrument of this type, they are are only as good as their included sound library. Fortunately with Xpand 2, there is an abundance of high quality sounds ready to use in any mix. There are some exceptions which I will go into detail about as the review progresses. But overall, this is quality stuff.
As far as I understand, the team behind this are the one behind the first VSTI rompler many years ago, called Steinberg Hypersonic. It was highly popular, and rightly so, as it delivered an efficient way to get a variety of ready polished sounds into a mix, in a day and age where we didn't have quad and octa core i7 processors. It was a very unique product in the virtual music making world.
Unfortunately for some, Hypersonic was discontinued when the developers joined Avid - and thus Xpand, the "new" version of Hypersonic, was born. It was a dedicated Pro tools only product until now, and I am absolutely delighted to see Air Music having recently made their entire range of products compatible with VST and AU (and AAX of course!).
Please note - their entire line is 64 bit only, so you must be using a 64 bit host.
Xpand is big on sound, but has a small price and download size - cost of entry is a mere $99. I had to look at that twice when i saw the price tag. The download comes in at 1.4GB. For what is on offer, vs other romplers on the market, this is very small, and the server download speeds are consistently fast. This is the mac installer, so I can not comment on the windows version, but I dare say they would be similar in size. Does this affect sound quality vs the larger Halion Sonic, or the massive 33GB Sampletank 3? In some cases, yes. Again, more on that later.
For this review I am using the Audiounit version, in logic 10.07 and OSX Mavericks 10.9.5. My mac is a Sandy bridge 2.2ghz i7 macbook pro, 8Gb ram, 7200rpm internal Hard drive. It is now almost 4 years old and by modern comparisons, a rather average laptop at best.
Installation went without a hitch. I simply unzipped the download file, double clicked the installer, and off it went. A couple minutes later, I ran the authoriser installed into Applications, input my serial number and was instantly authorised. There is also an offline method for those who do not have internet access on their main DAW. (Note - the authorisation uses the ilok system but does not allow transfer to a hardware ilok dongle at this time - Air Music are aware of this and hopefully will rectify it at some point. The authorisation is hard drive based for the time being).
I excitedly launched Logic and instantiated Xpand2. I was greeted instantly, without any initialisation delay, with a clear, brilliantly laid out interface that is not difficult to understand in any area. It is, excuse the pun, logically laid out to a tee. I also appreciated the use of a low intensity dark green on silver interface. It gives the instrument an unusual, yet modern look, as well as being easy on the eyes even after prolonged use. it just works.
I have been using this for many days before reviewing, and have gone through every sound on offer. Let me give you the short version : If you are into using ready to go sounds, RUN, don't walk, to airmusictech.com and buy this puppy immediately. You will not be disappointed. Even if you are into tweaking and creation, there is more to this than you might first think. A huge assortment of individual sounds can be created by the user. This review is very detailed and will describe all the features making up Xpand and how you can create your own unique sounds.
The default sound is an analog style warm pad. Lovely. It is a single layer pad (Xpand has 4 layers - although it IS a multitimbral instrument, it is not multi output, just stereo or mono. I can not guarantee there is a mono version in other DAWs besides logic either).
The first thing i noticed as I started playing away at a 64 sample buffer, that there was barely a blip on Logic's resource meter. I was impressed! I then upped polyphony for the part to the maximum 64 per part (default is 32), and increased the release of the pad to maximum and went crazy on the keyboard. 64 simultaneous voices on Xpand uses about 15% of a thread (My quad core has 8 threads visible in Logic). At 128 buffer it drops to around 10%.
Think of the possibilities! - I was stress testing, and I can't see a real world situation, or certainly not often, when one would need 64 polyphony *per layer*. But even if one DID need that, and even on a 4 year old laptop, you could load all 4 layers of Xpand and make a huge combination sound, have 64 playable notes (which internally could be up to 256 voices per xpand instance), and using every single voice you'd only be using half a CPU thread. That's VERY impressive.
On a modern machine, i dare say anything made in the past two years, there would be massive further gains to be made. One could probably use over 1024 voices of Xpand per thread. And then some. Even my old laptop can do minimum 256+ (close to 512) voices per thread. This is insanely well optimised stuff here.
I haven't had a single problem with the product in the days I have been using it. Multiple instances, Project save/reload, Automation, etc. It is simply glitch free. Not one crash, and i doubt I will ever have any, so robust is my experience with it so far.
Ok, now into more detail:
The GUI takes just over half of a 1440x900 15" Laptop screen. I can imagine it would scale very well on larger screens. On the top left is a list - A, B, C, D and "Easy". What this list does is simple - A represents layer 1, B represents 2, and so on. "Easy" has pre defined macro knobs that affect ALL layers. Usually in the easy section you will find VCA attack, Decay and Release, Filter cutoff/envelope, and tuning. So for example, I can load 4 layers of different pads, and make the entire master output have a long attack and release, or vice versa. I could also for example sweep the cutoff of the entire sound. (On a side note, the filter quality is quite smooth and juicy).
Clicking the A-D buttons brings a set of 6 macro knobs specific to that layer. These are usually almost always what you would want to adjust. Sometimes the layers have an inbuilt effect *separate* to the global effects, and this can be lowered or eliminated in the macro area, or raised. Along with filter controls, Attack/Release, etc, Sometimes we see "Filter Harmony", "Formant", and such other unusual assignments. The only way to know their direct effect on the sound is to move them! This is where I would have liked an onboard undo button, (ala waves), but thankfully, if you want to get back to the original sound, you just re load it and it resets the sound to it's default state. (You can do this by quickly pressing left or right on the provided browser arrows, then vice versa).
On the remainder of the left side of the interface are the areas for the four layers, where you can load sounds via drop down menu or the above mentioned convenient left and right arrows. The layer names do not necessarily correspond to the Global sound name loaded into the master browser near the bottom of the gui, because many of THOSE sounds are made up of multiple layers. Of course in the case of single layer "master preset" sounds, they will often correspond to the name of the individual layer's sound.
We also have handy one click power on /off buttons per layer, midi channel selection for the layer, and then to the right of each layer a volume slider. This is followed by Pan, FX1 and FX2 sends (which correspond to two global FX inserts at the bottom of the GUI). On the right section of the GUI we have pitch (+- 36 semitones), fine pitch (+- 100 cents), Poly Mode Selection (64 voices per part), Mono Mode (Last, First, High and Low Note modes), and pitch bend range (0-12). We then have an arp switch which shows us all the types of available arps along with their sync-able rate, on/off and latch capability. Provided are a variety of traditional arpeggios as well as some AirMusic customised variations, some volume rhythm gate variations, and melodies (including some terrific for basslines).
As with everything else so far, all the above are selectable per layer! As a final, ahem, layer of icing on the cake, we have a modulation area with shape type (Sine, Triangle, S&H, Square, Random and Saw, synced and non synced versions, and a constant mode for the mod wheel). The parameters that can be modulated are pitch, wave, filter, volume, and pan. These are the same offered on both mod wheel modulation and pressure modulation (Aftertouch). These two master methods of modulation are usable individually or simultaneously.
Possibilities here are easy to create and a alot of fun - one can for example create synced (or unsynced, editable by time or hz) filter sweeps, tremolo, and so on. Or separate modulations for the wheel and aftertouch. And remember, once again, per layer! This can make for some very interesting and complex, rhythmic, multi layered moving soundscapes. Move the mod wheel to sweep the cutoff in a tempo synced wah wah style, and release the key on your aftertouch supported keyboard (or draw in midi automation) to change the pitch. Just one of many possible configurations.
Of course, a good deal of attention has been paid to exploiting this capability in a variety of provided patches. Move the mod wheel on everything you load, you just never know what will happen! Finally, you can override and alter these pre set selections to your liking.
On the top right we have the master volume (with a very responsive level meter to it's right), and an info box with details about the loaded sound. On the bottom we have the FX 1 and 2 sections, absolutely stacked with AirMusic quality FX algorithms. Here we have a vast selection of reverb (inc. reverse!), chorus (inc. Ensemble) and delay (inc. even a ducking mode) types, as well as Detune, Flanger, Phaser, Vowel Filter, Pitch Shifter and Resonator.
All the effects are tempo synced where appropriate (for example delay, phaser, flanger), with a wide selection of rates. Each effect has 2 or 3 preset macro knobs which seem to always correspond to the needed parameters. For example, the vowel filter has rate and vowel type (and by the way, it sounds absolutely sublime), Pitch shift has left and right shift, Space Chorus has rate and depth, and so on.
Every single included effect is TOP NOTCH quality, and I am going to go out on a limb here and say that they are streamlined versions of the superb AIR effects included in Pro Tools.
A real tweaker could argue in this case that only two global effects is simply not enough. I can somewhat understand this, and the same goes for the types of arpeggios and gate patterns (for example there are "only" 4 trance gate types, the most common ones we would hear in dance clubs, along with a somewhat larger assortment of arpeggio patterns and a few melodies). These are preset patterns and not editable.
However, I refuse to look at this as a negative point for four reasons: 1) The price tag 2) The lowest CPU usage of any VI i have ever used 3) The Gui is not crammed in any way shape or form and is the perfect size, and there is only so much one can do in this space before ruining it, and 4) The effects included are of such high quality that they seem to work on a global basis for any type of sound layer. The included arp patterns seem to work in almost any genre also, they have been very carefully selected.
A usage example could be, that I could have a beautiful S&H arp going on one layer of a combi pad, and have a traditional up and down arp or nothing at all on other layers. I can create really evoking, moving sounds like this. Pan can be automated (as can everything else, directly exposing it's parameter to the DAW), which means i can have separate auto pan per layer.
I can have one layer drenched with reverb, and only a touch or nothing at all on the other(s). What i CAN'T do is have one type of reverb and chorus on one layer, then different types or different effects altogether on the others. In this case, I do not see it as a negative, especially considering there are often desirable effects already included in the layers themselves, that are independent of the global effects, and which can be level controlled also. In practise, there is enough to go around, without complicating anything.
At the very bottom of the GUI we have the "main" preset browser which brings up a huge selection of categories. Finally I just wanted to note that all the rotary knobs present in Xpand2 have a right click function with the following options : Learn Midi CC, Forget Midi CC, Set Minimum Value, Ditto Max, And Invert Range. I don't have a rotary midi controller to test all these, but there is no reason to doubt they would work as expected, just like everything else in Xpand.
So now we get to the final part of the review. The Sounds themselves:
I have included screenshots of the sound categories available in both the main global sound browser and the layer browser (as well as an example of the different sounds included in the same category between the two browsers, in this case, strings). The list is very comprehensive. I will cover my favourites, and my not so favourites here.
Firstly, the pads are absolutely *stunning*. This is going to become my go to pad machine. Almost every time I play beautiful pads with more than 12 polyphony on my machine using most any other VI, I run into cpu usage problems and pops and clicks. Here I can play to my hearts content with 64 voices and not even think about it, with terrific sound quality. The experts at Air Music have carefully crafted these pads to provide a vast variety of both "fillers" and "Huge showcases". There is a variety of cold and digital, or deep, analog sounding, and truly emotion invoking pads on offer. Some of these had the hairs standing up on my arms, and my body getting goosebumps.
Included are also some lovely string pads. Don't think you are going to create your next orchestral masterpiece with the strings on offer here, but you can *definitely* use the provided strings in your final master of pop/rock/dance/new age styles. You can also layer multiple strings to have a huge rich ensemble pad sound, that sounds very warm and once again, emotional.
I also like how hard pads, soft pads, huge Pads and "Action" Pads sections are provided. Action Pads are pads with "movement" or those that sound more "alive". These are often using different layer arps and modulation. There really is something here for every need. The other pad categories are self explanatory.
My next favourite is the synth bass section. This is just great. We have a huge selection of punchy bass here.. From talking, to sub, to hard, soft and silky smooth.. they are all there, and all usable. (there is also a real bass section, which is also of high quality but the selection is barely a third the size of the synth section).
In real basses we have the usual Double, full finger, fretted, soft, pick, etc. The main styles are all there. The real bass section is also of high enough quality to make it into your final mixes.
Next i love the soft and hard lead section. Once again, just a huge variety to suit various genres (including of course RnB/hip hop, Rock, Pop, and EDM). A real quality selection of warm, immediately playable sounds that can cut right through the mix.
Some more standouts: Multi track Arpeggios, Organs, EP's and Polysynths.
Honourable mentions go to the Strings (Gorgeous pads and some with modwheel keyswitches, but don't expect many convincing solo types here), guitars (uniformly good sounding acoustic and electric but unfortunately only one velocity bend guitar), Acoustic Piano (many of the presets have melodies through the switchable arp feature, but there could be more piano types here), Bells, Hits, and Mallets.
Sections which do not really stand out, unfortunately: Ethnic (quality is mediocre to good but variety is not good including a dearth of decent ethnic flutes) and the Drums & percussion sections (I wouldn't use this over any dedicated drum instrument, there is some average GM like stuff here).
The one section which I simply do not like at all, is the brass and woodwind section. I remember Halion Sonic 2 having a very usable variety here and had high hopes for similar from Xpand.
Unfortunately, the sax just sounds artificial, sounding like a synthetic lead of some kind. This goes for every type of sax on offer, and there quite a few of them. The same goes for the entire brass and winds section.
It looks good on paper, as the variety is there, but sounds decidedly average. The brass is "ok", yet once again there is a dearth of flutes , and the few there are lifeless and lack fidelity, and the ensembles have no "power". I have personally decided to overlook this section completely, along with the drums.
In the grand scheme it is not a huge problem at all, but I was hoping I could sell my halion sonic and use just this, as halion sonic uses 3x the cpu usage and alot more space and ram (as well as being way more complex to edit, but to be fair it has a full phrase editor also) - but halion sonic has an excellent brass and woodwinds section, so for that I need to keep it.
Finally to end this review, I am also disappointed at the multi timbral section. Only 10 multi timbral patches are provided. It is easy to make one's own, but considering the lengths Air have gone to to provide every other kind of patch, i am surprised at the lack of attention in this area. It would have been a treat to see a bunch of multi timbral patches covering different song instruments in different genres, ready to load and play.
Is it impossible for one rompler to do everything well? Perhaps. Yes, we have to take the small relative size into consideration, and yes, ditto with price. But there are free soundfonts of a small size that have a good sax available, for example. Food for thought, and I do hope AirMusic considers improving some areas in a future update. Also, if size was a problem, there wouldn't be so many other areas of the instrument that sound so good ! But really, the good sounds on offer here far outweigh the not so good.
Let's wrap this up with my final list of Pros and Cons.
- Incredibly cheap to purchase
- Ultra Light Cpu & Ram Footprint
- Gorgeous and clearly laid out interface
- Very High Quality Effects inserts
- Per LAYER Arp, Trance Gate, and Melody Patterns
- Per Layer LFO modulation via Aftertouch and Wheel
- Nice juicy filter sound
- Staggering number of preset sounds
- Sample Loop Points are seamless/free of clicks
- Good editing capability to create unique sounds through the layering, volume controls, Pan, modulation, Arps and more
- 4 Part Multitimbral or 4 layers over one channel
- A selection of truly wonderful sounds in many genres and types....
- but some not so good ones, especially woodwinds and brass
- No mod or Pitch Wheel on GUI
- No compressor in FX Section
- Mini Up/Down arrows would be welcome for some subsections such as Arp Type
- No insert version to use the FX on other sources (There is a sidechain input which is not described at all in the manual and seems to have no function!)
- May not be suitable for those wanting to create a sound from scratch
- No search field for sounds
If you can look past the small cons, are not a dedicated sound designer/tweaker, and you want a plethora of immediately useable sounds at your fingertips, look no further. Just be aware that it can't do absolutely everything well, but what it does do well, it does REALLY well. Overall, A jack of all trades, but a master of many!
A killer buy. Get it!
-reFX nexus 2 ($299) - very dance oriented with less sounds on offer and expensive expansion banks. Generally of very high quality also, and more arp and gate control with many more preset rhythm styles and a better drum section. It gets very expensive quickly and most presets are heavily drenched in reverb, even the bass and drums are. Limited effects section and alot more finicky to go into menus to edit layers. Mono timbral.
Halion Sonic 2 ($199) - After a recent price drop this is now also stunning value. A very comprehensive effects and pattern section, and 16 layers, multi timbral, as well as multiple outputs. Sound quality is stellar across the board. Unfortunately, cpu usage is high for this type of instrument, there are persistent sound menu bugs in the AU, and the interface is overwhelmingly complicated. Deep doesn't have to mean hard to use. Easy to load and play, hard to tweak. Worth it though for the quality, and a great compliment to Xpand.