Saturday, July 11, 2009

M-Audio Torq review

Reviewed using Torq Version 1.0.3

TORQ's Browser
The Xponent is what you touch- it's the tactile interface. What's under the hood is the Torq software. It's a beautiful thing, how well the Xponent is configured to work with Torq- the excellent match keeps you playing, and spending less time pecking a computer. Still, one way or the other, you are going to have to get to know Torq, the software. And you are definitely going to have to deal with Torq's browser.
Bluntly stated- Torq's browser is a pain. If you have a big song library and have spent the hours required to properly tag it, you'll find that Torq's browser will not see the key information. It is also commonplace to have the browser hang for several seconds while you search it. Not a huge deal at home, but on the job it will make you extremely nervous. All I can say is don't wait until the last second to choose your next track. Also, the browser isn't able to be customized. Say you don't care what album a song comes from, and don't need to see that info- well, you can't tell that column to hide. Torq is innovative in so many ways, offering features that even the most expensive units haven't implemented yet- it's a shame to see it fall short in an area as fundamental as a browser. Even with the headaches, Torq/Xponent does so many things well that I can put up with its bad browser. If they don't make the effort to improve it with software updates I will be extremely disappointed.
iTunes is the salvation for the Torq browser. Torq easily recognizes your iTunes database. All the playlists you make in iTunes are quickly accessible in Torq, and it's a lifesaver. And no, you don't have to use iTunes songs to use iTunes software. I don't have a single iTunes song in my library and it works flawlessly. For the record, my files are mp3 from Beatport, WAV files from my record pool, and WAV files ripped from my vinyl collection. Aside from WAV and mp3, Torq will read AIFF, WMA, AAC, and Apple Lossless files. Any decent MP3 tagging program would be better for managing files than Torq's browser, and I find that since I use a Macintosh, it makes the best sense to use iTunes for tagging. My favorite approach is to make custom playlists in iTunes because they are easily and immediately recognized in the Torq browser.
Since I've bashed the Torq browser, let me go a little deeper to explain. Torq, like Live, Acid, and many other audio programs, needs to analyze every file before it can work with it. Each time Torq analyzes a file, it creates its own proprietary file to hold information such as: waveform, cue points, beatmapping information, and tag information. This is a tiny file, and it is created and saved right alongside the original audio file when Torq analyzes a song. It's where the 'magic' is stored, so Torq can work its wonders. So we love- and we hate it. Why? Because this teeny file holds the tag information: Artist, Title, BPM, Key, Comments, etc. And if you've added thousands of files to Torq, then you have thousands of these teeny Torq files. If you update a tag field in hundreds of your songs, after you've added them to Torq, using either iTunes or another MP3 tag program, then Torq will not recognize those updates. See, Torq has already written the small info file for the songs and as far as Torq is concerned, the info in those tiny Torq files are the last word for file information. Even though you just updated comments to 700 of your songs.
The only solution is to ask Torq to reanalyze the files whose tag info you changed. And before you do that, you have to throw away the original tiny Torq file (it's suffix is always .tqd) therefore losing all your cue points and beat grid info. It's one of the reasons people scream in the night. If Torq's browser was good for bulk updating tag info, then this would not be an issue. But Torq is horrible at bulk management of tags- it demands you to update one song at a time.
So, before you add songs to Torq, make sure the tag info is as complete as possible. Changing tag info after the fact is a royal pain. And, since Torq so wonderfully integrates with iTunes- use those iTunes playlists to keep yourself organized. Also of note- Torq can't play iTunes files with DRM. It can play the iTunes Plus files, because they don't have DRM. This isn't Torq's fault, it's DRM's fault: DRM limits your usage of a file. And, as of late, DRM is on the way out.

Sync and sample
Once Torq has analyzed a song, it does a pretty good job at beatmapping it. As with all beatmatching programs, Torq doesn't get it right every time. Fortunately, Torq makes it easy to adjust for any inaccuracy via manipulation of the beat grid. You have a visual waveform with a grid overlay that is supposed to line up on the waveform beats. If it doesn't, just hold down shift (there is a special shift key on the Xponent) and use the jog wheel to get the grid aligned. I really like the tap tempo feature. It's for songs that can't be beatmapped and works wonders for quick beatmapping of acapellas. Once you have the beat grid right for any given song, Torq has a button called 'Sync" that will allow songs to be mixed in time with each other, even taking into account the down beat. It's really nothing new- Acid and Ableton Live have been doing it for years. Torq, however, has made it a little easier in the DJ booth. You will still need to know how to beat match in order to correct Torq when it goes astray. And, you don't have to use it if you don't want to. There are 3 modes for Sync: Bar mode lines up the beats and the downbeats; Beat mode lines up the beats, ignoring the bars; and Tempo is a manual mode. It's comforting to go manual and keep everything tight the old fashioned way.
The nudge buttons, jog wheels, and pitch sliders work very well. At times the Sync feature is great to when you get into looping and effects. It's all good, and not as automatic as some would have you believe. Even if a track looks properly beatmapped, your ears may tell you otherwise, and you'll need to be skilled at hearing this and adjusting for it. You can hit cruise control on the highway, but that doesn't mean it's time to take a nap. Some purists seem quite upset about this so called "auto beatmatching" feature. In the same way some painters used to think photography was sacrilege, or some people were afraid of electricity when it was introduced.
Torq has a 16 cell, tempo-synched sampler. It plays loops and/or one-shots and syncs to Torq's master tempo. You can trigger the samples from the Torq software screen, or an external controller such as a MIDI keyboard. Play melodies, drums, vocal phrases... whatever you like- either by hand or triggered in sync with the mix. If you're using Torq with Connective (where you use timecoded vinyl to control your files) you can play your samples from the control vinyl. Instant party trick: record your voice and start scratching it as a sample with some timecode vinyl.

Effects, VST, and ReWire

Torq has 10 built in effects that can be manipulated via Xponent. Each channel in Torq allows you to chain up to 3 effects. The delay effect allows a user to adjust the delay time by tapping a button. Very fun. The brake effect simulates a turntable being powered off. The strobe effect is a rapid rhythmic gating effect similar to yes, a strobe light, but in sound. The reverse effect instantly reverses any section of music while still playing it in time, meaning the user can reverse sections without losing relative position in the timeline. Perfect for obscuring vocals while staying on the beat. All effects have knobs and buttons and can also be manipulated using the XY trackpad on the Xponent. This is all great implementation of effects on a DJ console at any price. In keeping with the spirit of the Xponent, everything is hands on and a tweaker's delight.
Torq hugely expands effects possibilities with VST effect compatibility. Xponent allows control of VST parameters with its effect knobs and buttons, bringing into play a battery of possibilities beyond the scope of this review. To be honest, I haven't scratched the surface of this yet. VST support is one of the features that sets Torq apart from the pack. The large selection of professional VST effects and free online VST effects means the user has hundreds of effects options. Torq has a feature called "VST crash guard" that allows Torq to keep smoothly running even if a VST crashes, so people can try out the oddest homemade VSTs they can find online without fear of a buggy VST taking out their set.
Rewire support is another open-ended feature of Torq, and allows any application supporting Rewire to run in tandem with Torq- opening up a world of MIDI programming, soft synths, and hard disk recording. I have just begun running Ableton Live 7.0 in the background just to see if it works- and yes, it works! Your imagination is the limit here- one fun thing to try is playing one of Ableton's virtual instruments along with your songs. With Ableton Live's new instruments and sounds, you have a massive sound library to play right out of the box. Use the recommended computer requirements instead of the minimum requirements if you want to run lots of VST and programs like Ableton Live in companion with Torq and Xponent. Of course, you may elect to simply play one song after the other, but you will always have a powerful and compact production studio if you want it.

1 comment:

  1. Is it better than Native Instrument's Kontrol S4?


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