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AIR Music Technology Xpand!2 Review at SoundBytes Magazine

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What is Xpand!2 all about? In a nutshell, it is a four-part multitimbral workstation. Unlike Hybrid 3, this isn’t a synthesizer plugin in which you have a multitude of controls, giving you access to some complex sound design. What it does do is let you get to work quickly and work without a lot of complication getting in the way.

Some people are just not into preset design, and really love presets that are ready to go. Xpand!2 has a very large number of presets, and you’re able to easily manipulate the sounds. There are over 1,200 presets you can load into any of the four parts, and there are a total of over 2,500 patches waiting to be used in your next production.

A patch can use up to four presets at once. Each patch can also have different settings that affect the presets that are loaded in to it. The four parts can either be triggered separately, or any number of them can be set to the same MIDI channel.

For the PC, you’ll need Windows 8 Professional, Windows 7 Home Premium or Professional, or Windows Ultimate and Service Pack 1. They recommend a minimum of a dual core 2 GHz, and an Intel Core i5 or i7 is also recommended. They also recommend having at least 2 gigabytes of RAM.

For the Mac, you’ll need OS X 10.8 or 10.9, a Core Duo processor, and a Core i5 or i7 is recommended. They also recommend having at least 2 gigabytes of RAM.

 

First Impression

After you load it into your DAW, you’re greeted with the main display of Xpand!2. This is where you can load in presets, add effects, and more. There are four parts available, and each one can have a separate preset loaded in to it. One preset can work for many situations, but you can also layer them on top of one another.

The parts are labelled A, B, C, and D. To turn a certain part on or off, there is a button for that on the left side. Clicking on the label for a part (“A” for instance) will let you get at the “Smart Knobs” for that particular part. I will cover those controls in more detail later.

To the right of the On/Off button is the MIDI channel setting. Each part can be set to one of four MIDI channels. If they are all set to the same channel, then all of the parts will be triggered at once when a note is played.

You can select from 27 categorized banks of presets, and then skim through the presets in the selected bank using the display’s left/right arrows. Clicking on the name of the bank (or the preset name) will give you a menu showing all of the banks. Some of the many categories of presets included are pads, percussion, polysynths, synth leads, loops, vocals, ambience/FX, strings, pianos, bass, drums, and many more.

The patches can be loaded in at the bottom of the display. Just like with the presets, there is an enormous amount of categorized patches available. If you have set up your own patch, you can add notes for it at the top right in the “Info” display. These notes can let the user know to use the mod wheel for a certain effect or it can contain other useful information that pertains to that particular patch. To save the patch, you click the disk icon at the right side of the patch display. You are then able to give it a name, and it is saved to a folder called “User”.

In the middle section for each part, you’ll find the volume slider, pan control, and two effect send controls (FX 1 and FX 2). Over to the right of those controls is the Play, Arp, and Modulation section. To switch between those three modes, you just click on any of the three buttons along the right side. In the default state, Xpand!2’s parts are in the “Play” mode. The Play mode lets you get at the tuning, key ranges, poly modes, voice settings, and pitch bend range.

You can use the key ranges to separate up to four parts, so when you play on different sections of the keyboard, it would play a different part/preset. The voice settings range from just one voice all the way up to 64 voices for each part. If you set it to Mono mode, the menu switches from the voice selection to show different settings for the Mono mode. These include Last, First, High, and Low settings. This is what sets the key priority for playing more than one note at a time.

The Arpeggiator section has a control to turn it on and off, and a “Latch” mode which makes it keep using the arp even after the keys are released. To the right of the Latch control are the “Mode” settings. It includes an enormous 27 different arp modes to choose from. This is quite a few more than most of the synth plugins I’ve seen. Many of the standard modes are here, as well as some gated modes. It does include a swing and a shuffle mode setting, but there is no separate control to adjust the swing amount.

The Modulation section is where you’re able to set up different types of modulation, although in a somewhat limited fashion. They are tied to the modulation wheel and channel pressure/aftertouch. For the mod wheel section, you can assign different waveforms to it. There is a sine, square, saw, and nine others. After you’ve chosen the waveform you’d like, a destination can be selected. The destinations include Pitch, Wave, Filter cutoff, Volume, and Pan. Finally, you’re able to adjust the rate and depth of the modulation. In the channel pressure/aftertouch section, you have the same five destinations to pick from, and there is a depth control you can adjust.

The Smart Knobs are preconfigured to control parameters that the sound designers decided were most useful. I didn’t audition every single preset, but it seems they are set up differently for nearly every one. Some of these control settings include filter cutoff, resonance, unison detune, attack, release, pulse width, and there are many more. The number of the controls is always limited to the six that are on the screen.

The “Easy” button will replace the Smart knobs view with the Easy controls. Using it this way, you can change settings for many parts at once if they are set to the same MIDI channel. For instance, you could control all the filter cutoff settings for each of the presets at the same time. These controls are always the same, no matter which patch is loaded in. The Easy controls include Attack, Decay, Release, Cutoff, Envelope Depth, and Fine Tune.

 

Effects

Earlier in this review, I mentioned the send controls named FX 1 and FX 2, and that they are in each of the four parts. They send the output of the part to the effects processors. To change the effects themselves, you just use the controls for either effect towards the bottom of the display.

Each of the two effect processors has its own power button and a menu to select from the many effects that are included. Depending on which effect is selected, the controls for it will change to suit the effect that is loaded. One nice added feature is the “To FX1″ control. This will let you adjust how much of FX2’s output is sent over to FX1, instead of it going straight out to the main output. When “To FX1″ is used, I think of it as being similar to a serial configuration, as opposed to using parallel processing.

Speaking of effects, there is a large amount of them to choose from. There is a huge selection of reverb types, delays, chorus, flanger, phaser, and the list goes on. For certain effects, you have to determine how the controls change the sound, since some of the names are abbreviated. Looking in the manual doesn’t help because it doesn’t have a list of the many effects, or what controls affect which parameter.

Most of the effects are pretty much self-explanatory, but others such as the “Flapper” effect were a little confusing. After I played around with its controls, I basically figured out how the signal was being changed. It seems Flapper is some sort of delay, and it’s mixed with a reverb. The only two controls are “Size” and “Diff”, where size is the reverb size (size of the room or hall), but the delay effect is always present. You can’t change the delay’s timing. Also, I am guessing “Diff” means Diffusion, which is usually used for smoothing out the reverb’s sound.

 

Conclusion

The manual details many of the settings, but it is only a total of 19 pages in length. In a way, just that fact alone tells you there aren’t an excess of controls within Xpand!2. The good side to it is that it’s easy to understand, and you don’t have to study how to use it for a couple of days. However, I would like more detail on the effects, as I couldn’t find any extra details in the manual about them.

MIDI Learn is included, and you just right-click on whichever control you want to assign. This is a feature I wish was included in every plugin I have. You could set it up yourself so the controls know what to do inside the DAW, but it is always so much easier with MIDI Learn.

One thing I really like about Xpand!2 is that for whichever preset you’ve loaded, they have put in a good amount of thought as to what Smart Knobs will be available for it. They let you easily tweak the preset with some useful controls. If AIR designs an update for this, I’d like a few other parameters to choose from. My idea would be to have it setup so you can swap out some of the Smart Knob assignments for others, and then save that setting with the patch.

Xpand!2 excels in its ease of use, the huge amount of great presets, and the multitimbral/layering ability really extends its capabilities. It’s didn’t strain the CPU much at all, and that is always a welcome feature. Even though it might seem a bit simple at first, it really is a powerful workstation.
 

Original Review at SoundBytes Magazine

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