Zero-X Digital Sound Processing
Zero-X - Beat Orientated Sample Editor and Slicer
When Zero-X first appeared in 1995, it caused a small sensation in the Atari community. Most Atari software reviewers agreed that Zero-X was the next killer app for sample editing, right beside Steinberg Avalon. However, both programs are totally different: if you’re looking for a sample editor with 3D analyzing and editing, Avalon should be your first choice. But if you want a beat slicer and loop finder, there’s only one choice: Zero-X from Swedish programmers Conny Pettersson and Peter Segerdahl - Jos van de Gruiter.
Zero-X’s Killer Feature: Beat Slicing
Nowadays, every modern PC or Mac can perform realtime audio time stretching with programs like Ableton Live, Acid, Cubase and Logic. If you want to change the tempo of one or more audio parts, all you have to do is adjust the Beats Per Minute (BPM) in your Digital Audio Workstation. But back in 1995 time stretching was primitive and time consuming. Programs like ReCycle for Mac/PC and Zero-X for Atari offered a different solution by finding the beginning of all separate notes or beats in an audio file. Simply explained, they do it by finding the middle points where a sample x-fades across the zero line (which explains the name Zero-X.) The program then slices the sample into the found parts.
Zero-X’s detection works best on short, percussive sounds but vocals, bass and piano can work too. Slicing is less successful on long sustained parts like pads and string sections. Once the audio sample is divided, it's possible to assign MIDI notes to each sample slice which can then be exported to a hardware sampler along with an associated MIDI file for playback. This way, you can change the tempo of your sample in real-time without actually time stretching or pitching the sample.
Obviously, this method of beat slicing is just cheating your ears because the sample itself doesn’t actually change tempo. But just as long as the new BPM isn’t too far apart from the real tempo, this method works great. If you slow it down too much, audible gaps will appear between the different slices. By speeding it up, no gaps will appear but the slices can ‘clash’. Keep in mind, these overlaps and gaps are not always unwanted; sometimes they can add an unexpected creative and musical effect to your production.
Still Relevant Today
“Yeah right,” I hear you say. “Cool for 1995, but we’re living in a different millennium. Why should I care for Zero-X? We’ve got Ableton Live and Acid now. We can stretch samples in real time.”
There’s more to beat slicing then being a poor man’s time stretching. Beat slicing gives you the creative option to change and rebuild your sample by improvising with a MIDI keyboard. In fact, this way of creative sample use is still relevant today, especially with Propellerhead ReCycle program. Beat slicing is also offered in Steinberg Cubase 5 and FL Studio's Slicex VSTi. Many hiphop producers use hardware Akai MPC to produce their beats. The MPC’s slicing and rearranging functions are an essential feature of urban music.
How Does it Look?
take a closer look at Zero-X
The GUI looks more familiar then Avalon in comparison to 'modern' sample editors. Zero-X uses GEM and operates by either the mouse or the same key commands as Atari Cubase (Control S: Save; Num Enter: Start; Num 0: stop playing, etc). There’s the usual menu above and 3 rows of icons. When you move the mouse over an icon, you can read its function in the upper right corner.
Under the menu and icons is the sample viewer. The sample’s appearance is a bit primitive with only the outline represented - Avalon and Studio Son do a better job. Perhaps the developers choose fast program response above pretty looks.
Zero-X operates under four main modes: Block, Loop, Crossfade and Split. Each mode has different Play and On/Off icons. Once you’re used to this, finding your way around with Zero-X gets a lot easier.
There are many icons to help you to set loops and blocks, zoom in and out, and cut and paste. However, the icons for all the different play modes do not feel intuitive. It would make more sense to have one Play button because the software should already know which mode it's in. But as long as you hit Enter to play your sample, this isn’t a real workflow killer.
Zero-X offers many possibilities, but some of them are hard to understand:
- When you choose Calculate BPM in the menu, a pop up screen appears. Calculating is fast and accurate. But if your loop is 120 BPM and counts 2 bars, Zero-X will tell that your sample is 60 BPM. It would be logical to include a cell here to tell the software how many bars this loop has. This function exists, but has been hidden under Split Settings.
- You can find all Loop mode functions under the Split menu - except LoopControl. This function has a place under the File menu!
- Save .MID File and Export Drums are functions you would expect under the File menu, but no, they’re placed under Split menu.
Straight Sample Editing in Block Mode
In Block mode you can do your bread and butter sample editing: cutting, pasting, optimising, cropping. There’s a nice option to save a block as a separate sample. Selecting a block is easy - just hold the right mouse button and draw your block. Use the icons for Move Start Left/Right and Move End Left/Right to make very precise settings. There’s also a function to change a Block into a Loop and vice versa.
If you work with a stereo sample, you can perform different edits on the left and right channel.
Cycling Beats and Tones in Loop and Crossfade Mode
This is one of the strengths of Zero-X. You can set the Loop Start with a left mouse click and Loop End with the right. Use the Loop On/Off icon to set the sample in cycle mode.
I already mentioned how you can Calculate BPM. But let's say you create a loop of 109.75 BPM but you want it to be 110 BPM. Just type the desired BPM under the Loop End to BPM function and Zero-X does the searching for you.
Naturally, the Loop mode is very suitable for beats and other musical phrases. But Zero-X has another card up its sleeve: the LoopControl function and Crossfade mode. These features work very well together for looping parts with sustained notes. You can get ultra long pads by setting a loop manually and then letting Autosearch find the best settings for seamless looping. This function can take a lot a time, so it may be wise to Turn off GEM on Autosearch in the Settings menu. If the loop still not smooth enough, then it’s time to go to the Crossfade mode.
Crossfade is simple enough once you’ve set the loop. All you do is set the start/end segments manually with the right mouse and Zero-X will morph these to ends together to make them sound more alike and to achieve a seamless loop.
Slice your Beats in Split Mode
And here it is - Zero-X’s killer feature: beat splicing! Begin by choosing Beatsplit from the split menu. It’s advisable to Calculate the BPM’ before you go any further. The only thing you have to do then is to fill in the Grid resolution (splits in one bar) in the popup screen. Look at the beats in your sample to see how many you need: 1/8 or 1/16 will do most of the time. You can always use Delete Splitpoint or Add Splitpoint to make new splits. Just select the place where you want the split to occur.
The visual representation of the splits is very sluggish and a lot of splits may appear a little bit wrong. But don’t let this sight deceive you. Zero-X does a good job. Just use the Zoom icons and you'll see most of the splits are spot on. If you want to adjust them, just use the Move Start/End and Left/Right icons again.
Once you're done, you can save the split-points in a separate file and export a midi file.
Suppose you’ve got a Four-to-the-Floor housebeat and you want a loop with 4 kicks only, or just the snare. The Create Pattern function makes it possible to choose a pattern that filters out parts of the beat. Just experiment.
Applying Effects and Other Edits
Under the DSP menu Zero-X has detune, delay, phase shift effects and different filters. They’re not much by today’s standard, but maybe you’re looking for old skool effects. Speaking of old skool, with sample rate convert you can create your own 22.2 kHz or lower rated samples.
Timestretch is also available under DSP. But don’t expect the modern ‘give me 128 BPM now’. You have to type in the percentage. For example, if I have a sample groove at 165 BPM, I can insert ‘0.80’, have a coffee, eat dinner, do the dishes, and sooner or later Zero-X will have stretched the sample to 206.xx BPM. You see, 80% of 206.xx is 165. If you want a slower BPM fill in a number higher then 1.00.
How does the stretched sample sound? Horrible!
Communicate with your Hardware Sampler
Just like Avalon (and ReCycle for PC/Mac until version 2.0), Zero-X can load and send samples to your hardware sampler through SCSI and MIDI. The application supports Peavey, Kurzweil, Ensoniq, Roland, AKAI and EMU samplers. However, the communication between Atari types and samplers is complicated. Read the SAMPLERS.TXT that comes with the program for more details. Generally speaking: you have better luck with MIDI, although this is much slower than SCSI.
For samplers that are not supported, Zero-X offers the SMDI protocol. I tested this by successfully sending sliced samples to my Yamaha A3000 sampler via SCSI. Getting samples from the A3000 was problematic as I could only receive corrupt data. Peter Segerdahl repaired this bug in Zero-X BeatCreator for PC.
Full Features of Zero-X 2.0
- HDD Recording through the Falcon's analog inputs or breakout box (all Line Audio, SoundPool, and Steinberg devices are supported)
- Playback/monitor through the Falcon's analog outputs or S/PDIF breakout box (all Line Audio, SoundPool, and Steinberg devices are supported)
- Works with BigDOS formatted harddisks for recording and editing PC .wav files
- SCSI & MIDI sample transfer supported:
- Falcon SCSI support for AKAI S1000 / 1100 / 2000 / 2800 / 3000 / 3200 / xl, EMU ESi-32 / E64 / E4, Kurzweil K2000 & up, Peavey SP & up, and any device that supports SMDI, Ensoniq EPS / EPS16+ / ASR-10.
- ST/E SCSI & support for EMU ESi-32 / E64 / E4, Kurzweil K2000 & up, Peavey SP & up, and any device that supports SMDI, Ensoniq EPS / EPS16+ / ASR-10. A SCSI/DMA cable is required. We recommend TopLink II, ICD Link II or Link 96.
- MIDI support for most 12 and 16-bit samplers; AKAI S900 & up, Ensoniq EPS & up, EMU, GEM, Kurzweil K2000 & up, Roland S7xx, Yamaha as well as any device that support 12 or 16-bit Closed Loop Standard MIDI Sample Dump .
- Akai SCSI D2D; send and receive audio files directly to and from your falcon's harddisk (no RAM size limit)
- Sample editing: Undo, Cut, Copy, Paste, Silence, Reverse, Swap Channels, Keep block, Stereo to Mono, Clipboard to Stereo, Mute, Create Pattern and automized cutting tools SmartCut and Digital NoiseGate etc.
- DSP tools: Mix, Fade In/Out, Optimize volume, Change volume, Cross fade Loop, Gate Loop, Cross fade Samples, Detune, BeatSplit, Mute, Create Pattern, TimeStretch, Phase Shift, Highpass filter, Chorus, Delay, Reverse Delay etc.
- Sample rate conversion (import/export) to and from: AIFF, PC-WAV, SD1 (Sound Designer 1), AVR, DVS, TKE (DAME) and RAW sample data (16 bit signed/unsigned) with no RAM limits
- Zero-X converts all loaded samples to 16-bit internally and exports in 16 bits. You can load 8-bit samples, and transmit 12-bit ones to external samplers that support 12 bit (such as Akai S950).
- Edit the left and right channels of stereo samples independantly
- Add pitch shift and delay to only one channel of a stereo sample
- Automatic sample looping:
- AutoSearch returns the most optimal loop pair from the your sample by searching every possible loop start and loop end combination
- AutoLoop scans the whole or selected area of your sample and returns the best matching loop start and loop end marker quickly
- Linear Phase FIR filters with a characteristic graph
- Remove noise from recordings with special algorithms
- Drum loop & groove editing:
- Calculates the BPM from single mono or stereo drum loops
- Splits a single drum loop into its individual drums (transients) and transfers each drum as an individual sample (via MIDI or SCSI) to your sampler along with an associated MIDI file that can be imported and edited on a sequencer.
What Happened to Zero-X?
Zero-X for Atari came to life in 1995. Version 2.0 appeared in 1997. In 2000 Peter Segerdahl released the programs Seamless Looper and BeatCreator for PC. Both are the offspring of Zero-X for Atari. In 2004 Peter introduced Zero-X Beat Quantizer. Until recently Zero-X Beat Slicer was included as a plug-in in FL Studio. Beat Slicer being a cutdown version of BeatCreator. Since 2006 Peter stopped all development of his software.
Alternatives to Zero-X
There are no other Zero-X alternatives for Atari ST. Although Avalon 2.x was another great commercial sample editor, it doesn't offer beat slicing. Avalon 3, which was announced for release 1995 boasting Falcon support, never made it to the market because the developer lost his files during a crash! However, Falcon owners can also try Studio Son or SoundPool Wave Master.
System Requirements & Suggestions
- There are three versions of the program available:
- 68000 for all Atari ST/STE/Mega models
- 68030 for TT and Falcons
- 68030+68882 for TT and Falcons with co-processors (FPU)
- Zero-X works on the Atari ST/STE/TT/Falcon with at least 1MB RAM.
- There's no sound support on a plain Atari ST
- Atair STe andTT only offer 8-bit sound playback
- A Falcon 030 with TOS 4.04, 14MB RAM, hard disk and FPU is is recommended for quick processing and 16-bit playback
- The application works best in 640x400 ST-high resolution (black & white). Falcon owners can choose 16 colour mode for best results but 256 is also possible with a small speed penalty. True color mode is not supported.
- Zero-X can work under MagiC and Mint. However, it tends to crash on newer versions of these operating systems, especially when closing. MagiC 4 was the last known stable operating system it worked well on.