In the past several years, digital audio has found a home in the virtual studios of personal computers. As systems become more powerful, software companies push the limits of performance. BitHeadz is one such company. Its new program, Unity DS-1, combines features of hardware samplers while incorporating aspects of analog synthesis.
Unity ($449) is available in both Mac and Windows formats. We ran our review copy on a 266 MHz Mac G3 system with 128 MB of RAM. Minimum requirements include 32 MB RAM, 120 MHz Mac PPC or a 200 MHz Pentium PC. As with most CPU-intensive software, the better the computer, the better the results.
Unity’s performance is dependent upon many factors, and maximizing performance can be a juggling act. For example, lowering the sampling rate and bit resolution increases polyphony and hard disk space. Additionally, the more samples, effects and filters residing in memory, the less resources will be available.
In an ideal world, Unity provides 64 note polyphony, up to 24-bit resolution and 96 kHz sampling rate. But most users with average computers have to settle for less.
To maximize performance while minimizing CPU requirements, BitHeadz designed Unity as a modular system. Comprising the main module is the sampler engine. This module is automatically launched when activated by one of the other applications. These include an on-screen keyboard, MIDI processor, editor, mixer and MIDI driver. While the separate components make sense, I found it less intuitive than if it were an all-in-one integrated program.
Unity’s functionality covers three main areas. By using a controller (such as a MIDI keyboard), samples may be triggered from an external source. Unity’s latency period is extremely low – very impressive indeed!
The program also functions as an independent sound module. Through the MIDI processor, Unity sets up patches as single programs (individual sounds), layers (two programs simultaneously) or splits (two separate programs on different parts of the keyboard).
The program also functions in the background to most Mac and PC software sequencers. Since I use MOTU’s Digital Performer, I specified FreeMIDI as a setup option. Working as a sound module, Unity locked perfectly to Performer. Up to 16 multitimbral MIDI channels are supported.
Lastly, the program creates and modifies sounds with the editor module. Samples may be recorded or imported (all major formats supported) and then processed with over 250 parameters. After editing is complete, sample programs are mapped to MIDI notes in the multisample page. The editor saves the sounds in the Bank File.
The main sound sources within Unity are two stereo oscillators. Working hand-in-hand with the oscillators are two stereo filters that are assignable per voice. Choices among the 13 filter types include four-pole resonant low-pass, high-pass, band-pass, all-pass, notch and state-variable. Inputs may be from either oscillator or filter and configurations include parallel and serial routings. On-screen sliders for each filter controls the cutoff frequency, modulation, resonance and overdrive levels.
As for modulations and routings, the only limitation is the host computer’s CPU power. Four MIDI controllers may be mapped for real-time modulation and most parameters function as sources or destinations. Up to 52 routings may be specified per program. There is also extensive control over envelope parameters, velocity curves and low frequency oscillators. To simplify life, Unity provides a drag-and-drop window to arrange program connections and routings.
Pulling this all together is the Mixer. This module sets up the playback of multitimbral sequences. Looking much like a mixing board, each of the 16 channels corresponds to a MIDI channel. In addition to defining the bank file and program, the Mixer controls volume, pan assignments, mutes, solos and global effects settings. Unity also provides an effects section. Up to four effects are available per patch. When editing is complete, the finished sample can be recorded to disk. This function writes the stereo output of the sampler to the hard drive. The advantage of internal mixing is the audio never leaves the digital domain. Supported resolutions include 8, 16 and 24-bit formats.
Unity ships with a healthy assortment of bundled sounds. These include bread and butter samples like the 8 MB GM bank, various synthesizer sounds, effects and percussion patterns. For a quick start, these 250 MB of sounds are great. For critical projects, however you might want to look elsewhere.
We reviewed an early version of Unity DS-1. As of this writing, the program is up to release 1.3.0. Some of the newly upgraded features include rewire compatibility, MOTU audio plug-in support, bit rate reduction and a variable attenuation parameter. I like the enthusiasm of Unity and it will be interesting to watch this program grow.
Contact: BitHeadz at 831-465-9898.