Have you ever thought that the difference between sampling and synthesis is obvious? I used to think so, but that line has been getting blurrier for years. Unity Session from BitHeadz ($649) is a sample and software synthesis editing environment that provides a single interface for its multiple sound generation engines. Unity closes the gap even more by combining multiple architectures in single instruments.
Product PointsApplications: Software sound module for sequencing, live performance and studio use
Key Features: Synthesis, physical modeling and sample editing; imports Akai S-1000, S3000, Roland S-760, S770 and TASCAM Gigasampler formats; also reads BitHeadz Retro AS-1 and Unity DS-1 sound sets; supports Logic, Pro Tools, Digital Performer, Cubase and others
Contact: BitHeadz at 888-870-0070, Web Site.
Unity Session combines the DS-1 sampler, AS-1 synthesis, physical modeling synthesis and a plug-in architecture that includes MIDI and audio effects. It is only available for the Mac OS. DS-1 was previously reviewed in Pro Audio Review (1/00). The modular approach described in that review is also present in Unity Session. Separate applications provide editing, live playback, mixing and MIDI input selection. On-screen keyboards provide click-and-play sound previews.
I reviewed version 3.0.6, which recommends a Mac G4 with at least 256 MB RAM, Mac OS 8.6 or higher and 2 GB of disk space for the complete installation. BitHeadz claims to have rewritten the core code base to take advantage of OS X, the AltiVec engine and multiprocessors. I tested the package under OS 9 and OS X on a G4 dual-1 GHz Mac with 512 MB RAM. For sequencing, I ran the RTAS plug-in in Pro Tools 5.3.1.
Unity ships with a companion sample converter application called Osmosis. While Unity can read Gigasampler format natively, other formats such as Akai and Roland can only be imported into the Unity environment using Osmosis.
Unity provides a synthesis engine that is compatible with AS-1 patches. It features up to three stereo oscillators and two stereo filters per voice. Also included are synthesis plug-ins for physical modeling of bowed strings, flutes, clarinets and hammered strings. Programs based on sampler, physical modeling and synthesis plug-ins can be combined into layered or split instruments.
Getting the most out of Unity Session requires patient attention to configuration parameters (as I found with DS-1). Getting the memory, sample buffer, processor use and other parameters at their optimum settings requires trial and error and, oh, yes, it helps to read the manual. An e-mail exchange and a phone call with BitHeadz tech support was all I needed to get things working properly. I am happy to report that BitHeadz tech support was prompt and knowledgeable.
The only snag I found with the installation process was its attempt to place the entire 2 GB sample library in my System Folder! This is clearly not workable if you have repartitioned your drive and created a smaller boot volume. I hope this will be addressed in an upcoming release.
I focused mainly on the editor and mixer components for my testing and found that some operations are a bit slow under OS 9. I also experienced a few crashes, but these may have been due to extension conflicts or incorrect settings. I also tested the mixer under OS X and was pleased to see that the application loaded much faster, the screen redraws were faster, and the application is much more stable.
I also tested the Osmosis sample import application. Osmosis had no trouble with the Miroslav Vitous Mini set (Akai) or the Ultimate Strings library (Roland). Both were on CD. The program was also able to read my Zip disks with a few other sample sets that I use in my live performances. Osmosis creates an editor document for each volume that is ingested. The editor document contains the samples and sample zone layouts for each program. Samples can also be ingested independently? from their programs if you want to use them directly in an audio application.
Even though a variety of sample formats can be read, Unity Session does not necessarily support all parameters native to each format. Whereas the Akai format supports individual volume and filter envelopes for each sample in a program, the DS-1 architecture provides envelopes only at the program level. Be aware that your sample library may not behave exactly as it does in your native sampler.
I was amazed at the sound of my Akai library through the 96 kHz I/O converters on my Pro Tools HD system. Granted, the comparison is unfair given the age difference between my S2000 samplers and the HD system and their intended use. However, the point is that making use of my existing sound library without having put them through analog and back to digital is a big plus.
The samples provided are a good starting point for any collection. I would like to see more attention in the General MIDI set since these tend to be the most useful sounds. The pianos are workable, but if you are serious, you may want to look into a higher end orchestral set. Speaking of which, the ability to import popular sample formats such as Akai, Roland and Gigasampler means that a good supply of high-end samples is readily available.
At version 3.0.6, I saw very few crashes. Still, I would like to see some improvement in the stability of the product and the speed in loading sounds under OS 9.
If sample playback alone is what you are after, then you may want to look at DS-1. If you are interested in a product that mixes samples with a variety of synthesis architectures, then Unity Session might be for you. It packs a lot of punch into a versatile set of tools.