Have you ever dreamed of making music on your computer but felt overwhelmed by all the choices and potential costs? Perhaps you thought it would be fun to try composing orchestral scores or video soundtracks, or simply to run your own jam sessions. Maybe you have a MIDI keyboard and want to expand the sound possibilities. Well, Cakewalk Dimension Pro might be just what you need.
Dimension Pro is a software synthesizer that comes with a wide range of real-sounding sampled instruments. (For an overview of synthesis and sampling, see the "Software Synthesis 101" sidebar.) The 1,500-plus presets in Dimension Pro cover every instrument category from brass to guitar to "orchestral scrapes." But its sonic Santa sack also includes swirling electronic textures and musical grooves.
If you were to buy the individual samples you could easily spend thousands of dollars, but Dimension Pro's list price is only $359, with a street price around $250. That makes it an attractively priced package whether you're a professional composer seeking to add fresh sounds to your palette or an enthusiast musician just starting out.
With nearly 8GBs of sounds, Dimension Pro turns your Mac or PC into a versatile MIDI synthesizer.
Dimension Pro runs on both Windows and Mac, a first for Cakewalk. It's not a stand-alone sound module; rather, it runs as a plugin inside a host program such as Apple GarageBand or Cakewalk's own Sonar. Dimension Pro supports most common plugin standards, including VST (Virtual Studio Technology), AU (Audio Units; Mac only), and DXi (DirectX Instrument, Windows only).
Once Dimension is loaded into a host, you play it with a MIDI keyboard or other controller (see "Choosing and Using MIDI Controllers"), although some people simply enter notes with the mouse. The advantage of using a MIDI controller is that it usually offer a variety of knobs, wheels, sliders, and touch-sensitive keys that help you add expression as you play.
Most synthesizer host programs are also MIDI sequencers, which means they can record your performance. Unlike audio recorders, sequencers let you edit individual notes, even assigning the notes to play back on different sounds. In that way, a sequence is more like a piece of sheet music than an audio recording. (These days, most sequencers record audio as well as MIDI.)
Installing Dimension Pro on both my Mac and PC was fairly straightforward, although it took quite a while to load the 7GB of sounds from DVD. The first time I tried it on my Mac G5 it took about an hour, but that was probably because I had several other programs running. Installing Dimension Pro onto my Dell took about half that time. Since Dimension Pro is a plugin, you won't see it until you open your sequencer and select Dimension Pro as a virtual instrument.
Figure 1: Dimension Pro's simple, attractive design provides all the controls you need to maneuver through the massive world of sounds inside. (Click to enlarge.)
Dimension Pro is simple to use thanks to its straightforward user interface. All the controls you need are either right on the front panel or one click away. Underneath this simplicity are some powerful technologies that are much easier to use than explain, but for those who like to peek under the hood, here's an overview.
Dimension Pro is a virtual instrument (often abbreviated VI). Virtual instruments are simply software versions of hardware instruments known as synthesizers or samplers. Synthesizers typically create sounds out of harmonically rich waveforms such as sawtooth and square waves. The instrument and player then "sculpt" the sound by filtering out the harmonics and varying the level over time, often with the aid of circuits called envelope generators. To synthesize a piano sound, for example, you would start with wide-open volume and filter envelopes, then quickly close them down to emulate the instrument's percussive decay. This type of synthesis is called subtractive synthesis; there are many more.
In contrast, a sampler plays back actual recordings—samples—of an instrument taken at different notes throughout its range. That generally sounds more realistic than synthesis, but often less expressive, because there are countless ways to play a single note (and to transition between notes) on an acoustic instrument.
In reality, the distinction between synthesizers and samplers is blurring, because many synthesizers can play back samples and many samplers provide advanced sound-shaping. And the biggest traditional difference, the ability of the sampler to record its component sounds, is disappearing in software instruments because many can load WAV files you record on the computer. What make Dimension Pro unique are its extremely large and excellent selection of sampled sounds, its ability to edit and alter the sound, and its simple and intuitive design.
Many synthesizers come with eclectic banks of sound presets that often make finding the right sound harder than finding cheap food at Disneyland. Not so with Dimension Pro. Its 1,500 preset sounds are neatly arranged into 25 categories, and within each category names are listed alphabetically. Simply select a category and choose from the list of presets. This well-organized library makes searching for a particular sound fast and easy. You can use the preset sounds as they are or create your own variations. And creating variations on the Dimension Pro is quite easy to do, as you'll hear momentarily.
If you look at Figure 1 you may notice that allows you to combine up to four sound "Elements" to create a single sound. For example, here's a sound called Lin Wu that contains two Elements:
Now listen to each Element individually:
Notice how the combination of the two Elements is much more effective. This layering architecture makes it easy to come up with your own unique sounds, either by swapping out Elements or making parameter adjustments to each Element. It doesn't take many sound combinations to get interesting results; many of Dimension Pro's presets are made up of only one or two Elements.
In addition to Sound programs, Dimension Pro also has Groove programs, which are audio loops that will play back in sync with the tempo of your host sequencer:
The Groove programs include MIDI files that can play parts of the Groove program. However, be sure to check your mod wheel (MIDI Control Change 1) setting, as it will alter the sound of the Grooves from standard beats to the strange and twisted. When you raise the mod wheel, the samples play backward. That's ideal for sound designers looking for mangled sounds but also quite a surprise if it's not what you're expecting. The mapping is mentioned in the manual, but I wish these program names had "MW" as a suffix to alert players.
If all Dimension Pro did was play samples and grooves it would be an impressive sample player. However, it also includes synthesis capabilities with filters, envelope generators, low-frequency oscillators (LFOs), effects, and two unique features called the MIDI Matrix and Vector Mixing.
By diving into the various parameters you can gain expressive control of the sound or alter its entire shape. Within each Element, you can select the waveform or sample sound and modify it with a variety of filters. You can also add effects such as delay, distortion, chorus, auto pan, and many others. There are also two global effects that you can apply to all Elements to unify the sound. They include a modulation effect such as chorus, phaser, or "Symphonic" and a hall or room reverb.
Also notice the large Envelope Generator (EG) window near the bottom of the display. Its deceptively simple layout belies the power beneath—you can use 20 EGs at once (up to five in each Element), each with an arbitrary number of segments. Buttons let you route the EGs to control pitch, filter cutoff, resonance, pan, and amplitude.
Fig. 2: The MIDI Matrix opens the door to expressive performance control by routing MIDI Control Change data to just about any parameter.
The MIDI Matrix (Figure 2) allows you to route any MIDI Control Change to just about any Dimension Pro parameter. For example, several of the sax programs are set up so that aftertouch (keyboard pressure) controls vibrato, whereas I prefer to use the mod wheel. To change that, I simply clicked on the MIDI Matrix icon and changed the MIDI source to CC1. That simple change made the programs much more musically expressive for my purposes.
The Vector Mixer is another powerful performance controller. It's reminiscent of the classic Sequential Circuits Prophet VS and Korg Wavestation synthesizers. Each quadrant represents a different Element and you can mix between these by simply dragging the cross hairs with your mouse. That can be particularly effective with a program such as Dimension's "Frightening Place 1" where moving between quadrants 2 and 3 takes you from tranquility to a scary place—perfect for controlling the mood of a film score.
Figure 3: The Vector Mixer allows you to mix the sound of the four Elements in real time by click-dragging the cross-hairs with your mouse.
Many musicians feel that certain synthesizers have a definable sound. Dimension Pro is more of a chameleon due to its large library of sampled sounds. There are few similarly priced sample libraries or virtual instruments with high quality sounds and as diverse a selection as Dimension Pro offers. (One competitor that offers a similarly wide selection of sounds costs close to $1,000.) In this sense Dimension Pro truly does blow away the competition.
Dimension Pro's library includes the entire Garritan Pocket Orchestra, a subset of the acclaimed Garritan Personal Orchestra. (See "Gary Garritan: A Personal Orchestra for Everyone.") You'll find a nicely organized selection of standard instruments such as guitars, basses, drums, pianos, organs, and synths so you'll quickly be able to find what you want. On the other hand, with 1,500 sounds it will take you a long time to go through them all, let alone explore even a fraction of the permutations and combinations.
Cakewalk released two free updates to Dimension Pro this year, adding significant features such as RTAS support for Pro Tools, Windows 64-bit support, REX-file support, microtuning and alternate tuning, MIDI learn, Master FX (with new reverb algorithms), Insert FX, and Copy/Paste Element FX. In addition, registered users got two free Expansion Packs containing hundreds of new programs and samples. To hear more Dimension Pro examples, visit Cakewalk's Dimension Pro mini-site.
Standout sounds for me were the "Dimension" sounds and pads, which make great use of the layering architecture by combining disparate Elements. There are three pages of Dimension sounds to choose from, but just playing around with a few will surely inspire your musical imagination.
There are a few areas, such as Brass Sections, where I would have liked to have additional sounds. Surprisingly, there are no brass sections in the Garritan Pocket Orchestra either—not even French Horn or Trombone Ensembles—although conceivably you could build your own out of individual instruments. That omission may be intentional, because Garritan strongly recommends building section sounds by overdubbing individual instrumental performances rather than playing all notes at once on a keyboard, which can produce the dreaded "organ effect." When you play sections one instrument at a time, ensembles will sound more realistic due to the slight variations in playing. Still, pre-made ensembles would be handy for roughing out ideas.
Woodwinds provide both individual and section sounds. There is an English horn in the Ensembles but I also wish there were a English Horn. The beautiful solo clarinet and oboe easily make up for this minor omission, however. Strings are extensively covered in both the Strings category and also within the Garritan Pocket Orchestra, and certainly the selection of orchestral instruments is large enough that you could build some nice orchestrations with just Dimension Pro.
With Dimension Pro's large selection of conventional instruments, synths, Grooves, and the orchestral instruments, this is one huge collection of sounds. Yet, given the number of instruments it contains, it's relatively compact in size, making it particularly useful for anyone traveling with a notebook computer. Dimension Pro's top-notch sounds and ability to create combinations and sound variations make it a very powerful instrument for anyone, whether they're a beginner or a pro.
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