Today I’m diving deep into version 2.1 of Open Labs Stagelight.
So what is Stagelight? Apparently it’s the easiest way to create music, which is nice. And that’s just about all you get from the website – there’s lots of glossy images, lots of focus on the Timbaland and Linkin Park tie-ins, lots of lovely top produced videos but very little detail about what the software can do. But actually, underneath the glamourous exterior lurks a very interesting and capable bit of music production software. There’s a free trial version so there’s no excuse not to check it out……
(text continues after the video version).
The first thing to understand is that this is not an app. It’s designed to look and feel like an app, it has a complete internal in-app purchasing system and follows the app business model – but it’s a desktop program and this is very important. Modern Windows apps run in their own eco system and are restricted in what other things on the computer they can play with – they can’t use non-windows audio drivers like ASIO, they can’t pull in VST plug-ins or connect to other bits of software. Stagelight, being a desktop program fully supports ASIO drivers and multi-channel in/out, supports VST plugins and instruments, can run in the background and operate just like a regular bit of software. This projects it out of the fun music making app category like iPad apps and catapults it into the realms of Cubase, Pro Tools, Ableton Live and Reason….. but For 10 dollars. Ok, perhaps it doesn’t have the intensity of those programs…. Or does it…… let’s have a look.
Oh, before we do we have to get over an annoying technical glitch. Stagelight 2.1 uses a new version of the OpenGL API and so if you update from a perfectly working version 2.0 to 2.1 on your Surface Pro 3 the interface will come up completely screwed. This is because the SP3 doesn’t yet, as we’re filming this, have that driver. This has become a bit of an issue and so Open Labs have produced a utility which disables OpenGL support and allows Stagelight to work – the link is in the description below. https://stagelight.s3.amazonaws.com/StagelightOpenGLSetting.exe
However you won’t be able to take advantage of the graphic performance acceleration that OpenGL brings. Will you notice? Who knows? Microsoft say that there is a driver update on the way to sort this out so please keep an eye on Windows Update.
Stagelight is designed for tablets and touch-screen use and that alone makes it pretty unique. To that end the interface is very simple. There’s no cascading menus or complex workspace arrangements it’s all there, on the screen, in a simple and beautifully Tron like interface. This is a place designed for fingers so for this review the Surface Pen is pretty much redundant. Stagelight gives you two ways of working, the timeline which is your standard linear recording arrange page, and loopbuilder which is your Ableton Live style column of loops.
Each new project starts with a drum track loaded and the pattern editor open ready to go. You can choose between an audio track for mics and live recording, an instrument track for virtual instruments, or a drum track for the internal drum kits. Every track has a little inspector panel to the left which contains a number of controls. You tap the track name to reveal the track i/o options along with the ability to duplicate the track, rename it or delete it. You’ve then got solo, mute, record enable and monitor input buttons, and to the left a volume fader. Beneath that a pan slide and it’s finished off with a super cool little high-pass/low-pass filter. Tagged on the bottom is a rack for loading instruments and audio effects, both the included ones and any VST plug-ins that you have. You can route instrument and drum tracks to external MIDI gear and then you’d have to either mute or delete the loaded instrument – there’s no option to create an empty track which seems a little odd.
You can happily plug in a keyboard and start recording or you can double tap in the timeline to create a region and open the piano roll editor. You have full control over the grid and snap and you can paint on notes, change the length and move them about. Initially there’s no sound when adding notes but this can be turned on in the Options window – it was a bit hidden to be honest and could do perhaps with being a button on the editor. The note size is dictated by the grid size, but you can also tap and drag to increase the length or turn off snap to free yourself from the grid. A toolbar down the right side of the screen provides welcome access to basic editing functions such as cut/copy/paste, delete and note splitting. You can use the lasso tool to select a bunch of notes and hit “copy” and then hit “paste” which stays alight until you tap on the timeline to paste the notes in at that point. You could almost combine those two buttons into one. The Split tool allows you to split a note by tapping it – easy. Both the select and the lasso tool allow you to lasso a group of notes but the select tool allows you to move them all together whereas the lasso tool deselects or reselects any note in the group. Tapping with the select tool deselects all other notes.
You can add automation right over the top of the piano roll, which is a very cool feature, but the list of controls does not include velocity, which is a bit odd. Come to think of it the velocity lane is something of a standard in a piano roll – how do you edit the velocity of the notes? Perplexed I scoured the interface and options trying to see if I’d missed something – and indeed I had. There’s an arrow at the top left of the editor which reveals a side window with some interesting controls. Tada, there’s velocity, it has its own knob. Select a note or group of notes and you can dial the velocity up and down – it will scale this relatively if the selected notes have different starting velocities. The notes change their shade of blue to reflect the velocity strength – this could have been a lot more colourful as it’s beautifully subtle and so quite hard to see. There’s also some neat controls over the placement and size of notes giving you some very fine control along with nudging and quantise – a handy little hidden box of delights.
The last button of interest in the piano roll is this little key. This turns on “keylock” which is stagelight’s ability to lock the on-screen keyboard to a musical key and mode. You access this from the key button at the top of the screen where you can set it to a major or minor scale, or a pentatonic scale or some far eastern modal something-or-other. It’s a very useful tool and if you bring up the keyboard you’ll see what I mean. I can now happily punch at notes with it always remaining in the right key – never hit a wrong note again with Stagelights Keylock! So yeah if you have that enabled you can show it in the piano roll, so it blanks out the notes not being used. I think this is a really cool and usable feature – however I think it would work better if they took the keylock keyboard and stuck it on its side to replace the piano keyboard in the piano roll. It would make more sense, and give it more consistency and be a little less confusing – or at least give me the ability to switch between the two.
Drum tracks are particular to the inbuilt sample based drum engine covering all the usual genres. The editor presents you with the classic step based rhythm pattern programmer of up to 8 bars in length and as you’d expect it’s darn easy to use and you’ll be grooving up patterns in no time. There’s a new feature in version 2.1 called “Autofill” which sounds an awful lot like the sort of automatic drum fills you get on electronic home keyboards – but it’s not that – it’s much groovier than that. Autofill allows you to fill in a bunch of hits on a particular sound just by dragging in the editor. So you want 8ths on the hi-hats – no problem, tap and drag and they’ll appear – or 16ths or triplets or something crazy. You don’t have to fill the whole bar, it starts from where you tap and fills in more as you drag. I can see how it perhaps can make things a bit samey and obvious but it takes the donkey work out of making patterns and with a tiny bit of editing they sound fresh again. It’s not a function I’d have thought of and it’s nice to see some innovation in an area where you’d thought everything’s been done already – so that’s pretty cool.
When adding notes building up a loop this is perhaps where you don’t want to have then sound as you add them – so again I wish they’d make that setting a button rather than hiding it in the settings.
Opening up the secret side panel you’ll find some controls over the individual drum sounds. First of all you can change the sound and swap it for any drum sample from the inbuilt library or downloaded sound sets. Unfortunately you cannot import any of your own samples. Each drum sounds appears to be made up of a single sample, no velocity layers and no sample editing. However you have control over the gain and tuning of each drum sound, you can set a high and low pass filter point and choose a pan position. At the bottom of this window is a “Note Edit” button which when pressed shows the grid more like the piano roll. I guess this enables you to change the note length although I’m not sure that’s very important with drum hits. A button next to this looks like an automation button but when you press it you are given options for velocity and pan editors. This then replaces the grid with something line a velocity controller lane giving you the gloriously easy velocity editing over the selected row that’s sorely missing from the piano roll. However, I don’t think it needs to go full screen like that. I think it would be better to fill up half the grid so you could still see the notes it’s referring to – but it’s some much better than the single control you have in the piano roll. Also, in terms of velocity you can tap and drag on any note in the pattern to instantly change the velocity.
In version 2.0 there used to be a rather clumsy but functional ability to save and recall patterns. This has gone in version 2.1 which is a shame, especially with the autofill function, it would be nice to able jam together a few patterns, saving out variations as I go. So if you wouldn’t mind bring that back in a more elegant form that would be great Open Labs.
Another feature that’s missing from version 2.0 is the step sequencer. This was essentially an instrument track with the drum track pattern editor – it was a bit of a mess, very few controls and, in my view at least, completely upside down, but it was a very handy way of creating cool bass and arpeggiator lines. It’s certainly true that most of the functionality is available in the piano roll but when using a matrix style sequencer you tend to work differently – it becomes less about notes and more about triggers, on/off states and pitch – are those the same things? Probably, but then in the same way that notation and piano roll editors are the same thing. I always use the Matrix module in Reason – it inevitably produces different results to when I use the piano roll or record straight in. I felt it was an important feature of version 2.0, along with the pattern save/recall function, but it did need some work and maybe that’s the reason they took it out. Having now played with the piano roll and pattern editors to some depth I feel the solution would be to somehow combine these two editors so that their functionality was more consistent and that melodic instruments and VST drum kits could benefit from a pattern based step sequencer. So, the velocity editor needs to also be in the piano roll. There should be a toggle button to switch between changing the velocity of a note by tap dragging or moving it. There should be a “Note Edit” switch on the piano roll to switch between notes and steps – just like on the drum track. The picture of the piano keys should switch to the keylock keyboard when keylock is enabled – and finally the piano roll should be more colourful! That would do it – that would be awesome!
Right, let’s talk about the virtual instruments included with Stagelight. There’s two; the ElectroSynth and the Electro Instrument Suite.
The ElectroSynth is your standard analog style synth with three oscillators (or voices), two LFO’s, one filter, an ADSR envelope and four effects. It’s lovely and simple, with some usable presets covering basses, leads, pads and keys, but what makes this a natty little synth is the beautifully laid out controls and multi-touch interface. When you fiddle with a hardware synth your hands tend to play on different knobs and in some ways randomly adjust things just to see what happens. With a mouse you rarely get that sense of exploration and accidental pleasure. But with touch, once you get into it with your fingers, you reclaim a lot of that playful experience and find yourself simply making cool noises. The LFO X/Y pad is particularly fabulous pushing the sound all over the place. It may be pretty basic but it’s a joy to use. I should note that the full GUI and controls are only available if you purchase the synth, a steal at $5, but if you are happy with the presets and a filter then stick with the free version.
The ElectroInstrumentSuite is a bunch of sample based virtual instruments covering things like piano, electric keyboards, bass and guitar. It gives you a reasonable sound palette to start making music with. Within each instrument you have a small range of presets for a bit of variation. The keys and organ certainly win out in terms of realism, but the muted pick bass is quite nice, as is the tremoloed Telecaster. I can find only about two velocity levels to the samples so we’re not talking about anything particularly sophisticated, but they are certainly very playable. The expanded editor is a bit more basic than the ElectroSynth offering a couple of LFO’s and control over the same four effects. There’s one more button of interest in all these instruments and that’s the “Show Params” button which replaces the GUI with a page of horizontal sliders for every single editable parameter. This shows up some deeper controls over the effects and other things not directly accessible from the main GUI.
The thing that’s really missing from all this is some kind of sampler – that’s really all the Electro Instrument are and it seems mad to me that there’s not an empty one into which you can drop your own samples. If you make the obvious comparison with Garage Band on the iPad I find that the sampler is one of the most fun parts. Surely Open Labs are missing a trick here – a basic sampler instrument would be an awesome thing.
Maybe the reason that Open Labs isn’t too worried about the included virtual instrument content is because unlike Garage Band or any other iPad app StageLight is fully VST compatible. This means that you can run any VST Instruments you want. So that means you can whack in the whole of Native Instruments Komplete and have an almost limitless palette of sounds at your fingertips. This is what sets StageLight apart and reminds you that it’s a piece of desktop software and not an app.
The Surface then reminds you that it uses scaling because of it’s ridiculously high screen resolution and we find that the GUI’s get out of control. Stagelight assumes the scaling works flawlessly and gives us a nice big box whereas the VSTi interfaces load up very small, ignoring the scaling and putting us in a silly position. All you can do, as far as I can see, is de-scale the Surface back to 100%, making everything very small and then increase the scaling within Stagelight to compensate. This actually works really well – but you probably wouldn’t keep the Surface at that resolution so it just ends up being a bit annoying – but that’s ok, I’m British, being a bit annoyed is my natural state.
Anyway, StageLight is designed to be used with a touch screen and not all VSTi GUI’s are particularly touch friendly even when scaled correctly. Well, they’ve thought about this and had a go at doing something about it. Similarly to the expanded parameter view of their own synths there’s a “Show Params” button on the VSTi window. This lists all the parameters of the synth – according to the VST standard – along with touch friendly sliders. How well this works varies with the instrument. For instance Novation’s V-Station dutifully lists and names every parameter. Spectrasonics Omnisphere just numbers the parameters 0-255 and doesn’t like you touching them. I think if Open Labs could find a way to present the parameters in a slightly more elegant way then they could really be onto something very interesting indeed – providing a touch interface for non-touch plug-ins. You can use multi-timbral VST instruments but it’s a bit awkward at the moment as each track has to have its own instrument assigned to it, you can’t just load up an empty one. So you have to choose an instrument and then change the track I/O properties to route the MIDI to the other track on a different MIDI channel and then either mute or delete the track instrument to prevent it from playing. This is also true if you wanted to route to an external instrument – It’s not very elegant, but it does allow you to do it. So overall if they added an empty track option and gave better access to the I/O that would be a very helpful thing.
For recording microphones, guitars and other real instruments you’re going to want an audio track. For each audio track you can set the i/o based upon what you’ve setup in the audio options. The audio options are a little weird – you can specify the driver you’re using, and so you can use ASIO drivers (hooray!) and then you choose the “low” and “High” input – I don’t really know what this means but it appears that if you select your input number 1 on your audio interface as the “Low” and your last input as “High” then all the others in between become available as track i/o. Suffice to say that you can create as many tracks as you like and set them all on individual inputs and record into them all at once like any other regular multi-track DAW.
You can import samples by right-clicking on the track and selecting the “loop browser” or “import audio” options – it would be great to see this in the drum pattern editor. The loop browser shows all the core library and any sound packs that you’ve purchased in the store. Any loops automatically time stretch to fit the BPM. You can drag from the right side to loop the loop – there’s a “Breakup” button which will turn the continuous loop into individual loops and a handy duplicate button. Double clicking an audio track – loop or continuous – opens the audio editor where you can alter the gain and also step the pitch up and down. It feels like there should be more here – you can add automation and there is a “Detect Beats” option but I can’t for the life of me work out what that does – but there’s no wave editing or trimming of any kind so this is a bit of a weak area at the moment.
It’s worth spending a few moments checking out the included effects and having a look at the new premium ones that have arrived with version 2.1. These are the AutoWah and AutoFilter, Glitch6 and Gater. The AutoWah and AutoFilter are very similar, the Filter being operated by an LFO and the Wah being triggered by a threshold on the input. Of the two the AutoFilter is perhaps more fun because you can stick a finger into each x/y pad and fiddle for some really cool effects. But it’s also very good at what it does, you’ve got four filter types, the LFO can beat sync and go down to 1/64 using one of 6 different LFO shapes – it sounds excellent. The Gater and Glitch6 are also similar in form and function. The Gater is actually one of the simplest and most effective and controllable gates I’ve seen. You get 8, 16 or 32 gates, mono or independent left/right and you tap them on or off – easy and effective. The Glitch6 is a bit more intense – now I’m not totally sure what’s going on but it appears to analyse the input, splits it into 16 parts and then lets you apply a glitch repeat to any of the parts. But then you can also apply a pitch shift, reverse, gate, crush and reverb to any of the parts as well – and of course there’s a filter too. I’m uncertain if it’s doing exactly what I’m asking it to but there’s loads of scope for sound shaping and looping weirdness which is what we like.
I guess at this point I feel the absence of a mixer because you can’t really get an overview of what effects you’re using in your project. There’s also no scope for bussing or creating groups so you can effect those together. There is a master channel which you access by clicking the button at the top of the track list so you can at least apply some global effects. A couple of sends would be no bad thing though. I’d also like to see a “keep on top” button for the effect GUI’s as it would be good to be able to trigger different loops while still being able to fiddle with the effect controls.
The automation is pretty comprehensive and offered all over the place, on every track and in every editor. What it refers to is any parameters available in the left hand inspector panel – so volume, solo, mute, pan and filter plus any controls for loaded plug-ins. Every parameter is accessible and can be edited by creating dots on a line and moving them about to create envelopes. There’s a lot of potential for confusion where you have automation on both the region/clip/pattern/sample and on the track and Stagelight gives you a useful option to print the automation data from the pattern to the track or vice versa – nice.
Up until now we’ve spent our time in the timeline but in version 2 they introduced the loopbuilder which is a bit like an Ableton Live style loop launcher. To get there version 2.1 has removed the helpful button and replaced it with a small icon shaped like an eye – so to change views you simply have to stab it with your finger. There’s no synced connection between the two views so anything you’ve recorded into the timeline won’t appear in the loopbuilder. However, if you hit record in the loopbuilder and start messing about your performance will be recorded into the timeline – awesome.
The loopbuilder is basically a whole big bag of fun. You can create patterns of up to 8 bars in length in either drum or instrument tracks and import samples into audio tracks. Each loop can then be triggered independently or as a column. If you want you can record directly into a loop, MIDI or audio and very quickly begin to build up ideas and grooves and any old load of nonsense. As each loop plays you get a travelling wave display which is totally fabulous and when stopped it either displays the notes or the whole wave.
There’s a new song mode where you can specify how many times each column will repeat and then the song starts with the left column and moves along in turn. That works pretty well although I found that if you tried editing anything when it was running the song would stop progressing and you’d have stop and start – maybe I just haven’t got the hang of it yet. You can export that into the timeline or as an external mix or directly to SoundCloud. There’s a lot of inbuilt opportunity to publish directly to social media which is far too casually self-promoting for me but I’m sure the kids will love it.
Where this wins out for me over Ableton Live is the sheer size and clarity of what’s going on. I spent a lot of time knobbing around in Ableton trying to see what’s going on, trying to trigger clips successfully and know where the hell I am – with Stagelight it’s all so very easy. Nice big boxes, a play button, a record button and a display showing me where it is in the loop. What more do you want? If I’m going to sit down and mess about with some ideas on my Surface Pro 3 then this is going to be where I’ll play.
The basic core content you get for your $10 is not very expansive – it’s just a taste, a flavour of what’s available and very quickly you find yourself spending a few quid on additional sounds. This is definitely worth it for the ElectroSynth and maybe the new plug-ins but perhaps less so for the other instruments. The quality and range of the sound sets is excellent but not huge, but for a couple of dollars a pop it might be worth while having a few sets to get you going – so maybe $30 gives you a more complete bit of software which is still amazingly reasonable. The Timbaland and Linkin Park tie-ins kind of leave me a bit cold – it’s like Beats headphones, where the Dr Dre attachment actually makes them less appealing to real sound engineers and musicians because it appears to be all marketing and little substance. I opted for the Linkin Park sound set and there’s some interesting stuff in there but I’m not convinced how usable they’d be in my own music. I would rather Stagelight focus on the awesome features of their software than the artists they are friendly with – I believe that would get them taken more seriously. But then maybe their target audience is a bit more groovy and with it than me – and that’s cool if it brings people in.
With most software reviews you tend to concentrate on the new stuff but this is my first time looking at the Stagelight world and so I thought it worth getting down to the nitty gritty. Overall it’s a very capable bit of recording and music making software. I love the interface, the way it’s working with the fingers – it’s very clear and accessible. Some things are still hidden behind right-click or tap and hold menus and I wonder whether those could be brought out a bit more. Playing with the ElectoSynth is a load of fun, being able to move all the controls with as many fingers as I can manage is exactly how it should be. I can even play the on-screen keyboard and play with the filter at the same time – fabulous.
The included effects are useful and interesting, the included sounds and drum kits are good enough to start with but of course once you release your collection of VST instruments into the mix then you can have whatever the hell you like.
The things that are missing are a sampler as I mentioned earlier but probably more annoying is the absence of a mixer. I find myself having to scroll up and down through tracks adjusting levels and pan whereas an overview console screen, with levels, pan etc – just take the inspectors and line them up – that would complete this music making environment for me. I’ll let them off the step sequencer if they do more about the colour and velocity in the piano roll and let you switch between notes and the grid like on drum tracks.
The loss of patterns is pure craziness but they’ve got to do what they’ve got to do. I love the improvements to the loopbuilder, I think that’s a really creative area and I’d like to see more finesse to the automation, with curves and freehand along with the current dot-to-dot line.
So yeah, I really like it and for $10 wow, it should come as standard on every surface. I think there’s bags of room for it to grow and hopefully it’ll continue to become more comprehensive over time but as it is, it’s pretty darn awesome.