The VST Revolution
The Personal History of
an Audio Nut
by Kevin James Salveson
Lucky for me, the M1's sounds --unlike many others-- have seemingly remained ageless. The M1 piano sound is so famous that it's still used today. (Examples of the M1 piano can be heard on Madonna's Vogue, among others).
I took that M1 home and I wrote about five hundred songs on it in two years. I would keep a song in memory for a week then record it to tape and then write a new song. Or three. I remember I had a Bree leather satchel with all of my favorite songs I'd written on about 20 cassettes in it and I parked my little Dodge Colt --The Weinerdogmobile-- outside an apartment in Venice and the side window got smashed in and the tapes stolen with the bag. That left me with only about thirty or forty tapes of stuff at home, but some of that was our Undertoad band recordings… of which there were many.
Our friend Jeff Felman, who owned an Ensoniq sampler keyboard (not as rich soundwise vs the Korg M1 but it could record samples from any source instead of just working with onboard samples), was using his Ensoniq to write music and so he gave us an old Tascam 4 track cassette recorder that he used to use. (Later he also bought a lovely 16 track board for his Santa Monica beachside apartment; he was quite an inspiration).
The good ol' Tascam
You could record 4 tracks of audio but it also let you bounce the existing tracks to a new one and add a few more, so it allowed me to multi-track guitars with the M1 for the first time.
Then came the advent of digital recording on computers. I had moved to China at the time. When I left the states in 1994 computers were just starting to do email and connect to the net via a FTP client at my college. By 1996 when I had formed a band in Beijing with some Yuan Ming Yuan rockers, you could wander the Silk Market near Jiang Guo Men Road and get offers of "CD-Rom, Cd-Rom? Software!" everywhere you went.
We lived in the Hai Dian area which was near Beijing University and the city's technology center. The band we formed was with a singer named FAZI. His wife built computers for a living and so I got about $800 together and we bought a computer that had a soundcard in it. I bought the software in the local market. You could get a disk with Cool Edit Pro and Voyetra Sequencer and Sound Forge on it.
We recorded about five songs on it, then I flew back to the States.
For the next four years I bought a new Soundblaster card every year for that computer. You could plug your guitar into it and record each track one at a time. It was a whole studio in a box! No more $200 an hour rental of a space and an engineer and setting all these mics. It was all there on the hard drive. And you could then even burn your own CD. Essentially, the average person was now as powerful as a whole music studio and professional recording label.
I remember turning to my friend who loved to buy guitar pedals back then, in about 1998, and saying, "Seems to me that what goes through a guitar pedal is just an electrical impulse with a certain amperage and stuff. We convert a sound vibration to electricity. After that, it gets changed by some circuits and capacitors, and then it sends the electricity to an amp where it's converted back into soundwaves. So it's just electricity. Doesn't that mean you could have a software effects box and the software tells the circuits how to manipulate the electricity? I mean, you could have it all be software and you could just tell the software to give you the same tone output as that real BigMuff you're standing on right there."
And I wasn’t the only one with that idea, other people were already working on it and within a decade a real-time low latency software emulator of a Marshall amp was being endorsed by the guitarists in Korn.
Then I bought a theramin. Because, why not? I mean, I'm not one of those guys who spends a lot collecting vintage hardware, not when it is so easily found as a software emulation or a sample of the thing itself. It would be fun, no doubt, but I prefer to try and buy exotic or indigenous instruments from around the world. One synth is just like another, surely, but hand-made instruments are relics of man that seem to carry more of a unique timbre and soul to them, so that's what I like to collect.
Anyway, at that time to get your computer to record and then let you record another track to the first one you had to have a dedicated card inserted into your computer which could 'multiplex'. The first one I saw of this, I was in Beijing and it was the Soundblaster 16 bit which was being sold via a small team of salesman who were working out of several rented hotel rooms in Haidian at the time I wandered in to take a look at their offerings.
Several years later in the states I upgraded to theSoundblaster 32 and then came their crowning achievement (as far as I was concerned) the Soundblaster AWE 32. It could hold up to 32 megabites of sample memory!
But that was not enough, no, not for me. I wanted sampling power, which was what you needed to get the sounds of hip hop and other popular and interesting styles of the day. So I bought the AWE 32 expansion pack which allowed you to buy special ram memory placeholders which would double that 32 megabites of sample memory to 64 megabytes of it. Versus other professional grade synth samplers it was tiny, but for me it opened up a whole new landscape.
(A little more about samples: they are essentially a small bit of recording that has been inserted into a synthesizer which will then allow you to manipulate the sound file in real time. Sure, you can always record each track manually, but with a sample of a guitar solo in the keyboard's memory you could play the same lick at different speeds, different keys, bend it, chop it, detune it and layer it with just the simple commands of the midi and software or via the press of a key on your midi keyboard and add it to other samples to create crazy patchworks of sound in seconds.
Recording each of those sounds track by track would take days. It made numerous textures and creative options available to you that were before only available to the pros such as extreme stereo panning and especially multi-layering. This made it possible to take the sound of one singer's voice and layer it over and over until it was a chorus of a thousand warbling fifths and octaves.)
Using such off-brand software as Voyetra and Cybersound (also a nice sampler and teach yourself music sequencer for the whole family piece of software, I bought it because it came with its own mini midi keyboard and I wanted the midi to printer port attachment it came with) I again amassed hundreds of poorly written and recorded songs, but I was getting marginally better at it.
Heck, when sequencing the samples wasn't quick and dirty enough, I'd load raw 128k samples of drum hits into Bram Bros Hammerhead software (free!) and make my beats that way.
Since that heady time, over the years, I of course abandoned the Soundblaster family and the Turtle Beach family for solid USB-driven units like the Focusrite with decent near-pro quality pre-amps and such (necessary for recording vocals). But I still use the old workhorse Cool Edit Pro (at least, I do in one of its incarnations, Adobe Audtion 3. which was the upgrade given to CEP after Adobe bought CEP.
So now, along with that basic setup I still use, which emulates Pro Tools and other pro software bundles with a higher price tag but no better fidelity (it's all digital any way you slice it) I use a ton of sample-based VST or Virtual Studio Technology. This just means that the instruments I often record with are software based.
That's the way I like it because in my opinion one of the most important things that sets a professional recording apart from an amateur one is the amount of noise and hiss on a recording. While the warmth of recording to analog tape on a solid state board might be nice, the cost is prohibitive.
Meanwhile, these days there are so many different types of styles and fidelities that all get mashed into modern recordings that I doubt whether anyone can even tell what has been recorded where and when and what amount of warmth or presence or whatever has simply been emulated via software.
Again, after all, its just an electrical signal through a wire until it comes out the speakers, and electricity can be manipulated just as well by a computer as a solid state board from the 60s at Sunset Sound in Hollywood.
VSTs were a revelation to me-- it's the real sounds of an infinite number of instruments at your fingertips! This is truly a great age to be a musician. It's never been more affordable to produce professional sounding work.
So, what are my favorite VSTs of all time? I've been collecting them since 1999 when Napster came and the Mp3 revolution came online along with a lot of pirate software sites and you could search for all kinds free VSTs this way for the first time as well, so I've seen it all.
Well, since I've seen it all…
I might as well offer my honest reviews of many of them I've massed on the old hard drive over the last few decades, from the lowliest free VST to the biggest most expensive pro packages available today.
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