Review of MuLab 8 DAW by MuTools

Review of MuLab 8 DAW by MuTools

 

Introduction

It’s hard to believe it’s been about four years since I reviewed MuLab 6 and over two years since I reviewed MuLab 7.  Version 8 was released earlier this year in April, the latest version at the time of writing is 8.1.5.  It is available for Windows (32 & 64 bit) and Mac (64 bit).

System requirements are not too demanding – Windows Vista and above, MacOS 10.6.8 and above; a decent soundcard / driver. A minimum resolution of 1024 x 768 and powerful multi-core are recommended but not necessary although it is an important point when considering how you will use MuLab. As you’d expect it will run more efficiently and with a lower CPU load with a higher spec machine but many modern synths and effects have complex architecture using a lot of maths and calculations and so require multi-core processors and their performance will be limited by your system rather than MuLab.

There have been a myriad of updates and improvements since the review of version 7.  The final version 7.7.4 saw a huge range of bug fixes, improvements, new oscillators, a resonator module, Chebyshev II audio filter, audio dispatcher module, frequency spectrum analyser module and rescalable GUI.

Version 8 brought about an even larger number of changes – improved editors, improved samplers, improved workflow and audio sequences featuring creative time stretching.  These act like a combination of midi note and sampler that can play any loop section of any sample in your project and time stretch it.

These are all listed on the change log page should you require any further information, I don’t feel like I’ve done them justice here.

MuLab is available for purchase direct from the MuTools website.  There are a number of different purchase options, a new MuLab licence costs 69 Euros which includes an integrated MUX modular system. You can purchase the MUX modular system separately as a plugin for 59 Euros and this allows you to use MuLab in other DAWs. You can also purchase both together for 99 Euros. Essentially you would only need to purchase a separate MUX licence if you are likely to run MuLab in other DAWs. Upgrades are also available at a discounted price. One point to note is that when you purchase the full version, you will be granted an initial user key so that you can use MuLab straight away. The permanent key is then emailed once the order has been manually processed which is normally within 1 – 2 working days.

The good news is that a free version is also available and it is recommended that you try this first to ensure that MuLab meets your needs. The free version is limited to 4 tracks and 8 VSTs.

Conclusions

I’m a massive fan of MuLab.  I use 2 DAWs for all of my music – Sensomusic Usine Hollyhock 3 is the DAW that I use for live and experimental songs, I use MuLab for more traditional composing, mixing and mastering.

Choice of DAW is a very personal matter.  What I love about MuLab is that it is intuitive and very easy to use.  There’s a superb balance of a very straight straightforward workflow with potential to set up complex signal routing and modular environments with ease.  It sounds great, is very reasonably priced and featured packed.  It’s very well supported and gets regular updates.

MuLab is also very slick.  My laptop is showing its age but it still runs seamlessly.  Impressively, I’ve only had a handful of crashes in the four years or so that I’ve been using it and that is mostly down to overloading the CPU with far too many instances of Kontakt.

MuLab is also bloat-free.  It is not packed with a million things that you don’t need or will never use but has more than enough for demanding users.  This means that another excellent feature is that the installation size is quite small, about 200Mb or so and it’s portable so that you can install it on a flash drive and take it with you.

Given the sound quality, features, continuous development and value for money I’d say that MuLab is now a serious contender amongst more well known DAWs.

Detailed Review

Version 8 is a further evolution rather than revolution.  It builds on core functionality so users of version 6 and 7 will still feel at home. The GUI is familiar but the updated fonts and design give a more modern look and feel and the huge number of improvements behind the scenes improve its use and functionality. It is still intuitive to use and setting up the audio and scanning VSTs is the same straightforward process. If you have a lot of VSTs like me it can take some time to scan them all but then any subsequent additions can be done very easily by scanning a single file or folder.

A useful feature when you upgrade between version 7 and 8 is that you can copy your user folder to retain your user settings and files.  Another useful feature is after the initial install, you can usually upgrade between version 8 updates with a patch rather than a full install. 

The factory content has always been very impressive and is even more so in version 8. There are a number of devices, these are the instruments – MuDrum, MuSynth, MuPad, MuSampla and MultiSampla as well as the effects MuEcho and MuVerb which are very good effects.

There are a number of factory instruments that cover a very wide range including bass, leads, pads, sequences, organs, soundscapes. Similarly a wide range of effects including chorus, distortion, filters, delay, reverb, flangers and experimental units. There are also a number of audio generators, audio processors, event generators and event processors.

demo_gui

This is what the GUI looks like using one of the demo songs as an example. The ‘Mulab’ and ‘project’ buttons in the top left provide the main menu / settings options. Next to these are the ‘compose’, ‘edit’ and ‘modular’ buttons which give you different views. Next to this is the transport panel and completing the top row is a focussed module keyboard.

To the right of the screen is the file manager where you can browse and load samples, midi files, instruments etc. The main part of the screen is determined by the selected view button. ‘Compose’ shows the whole of your composition, ‘Edit’ allows you to edit an individual sample or pattern and ‘Modular’ allows you to add different effects and modules and route the signal between them accordingly.

The left hand side shows the tracks within your composition and the bottom of the screen shows the racks. The racks hold modules, VSTs, effects, event processors etc and are very flexible. They can be linked to specific tracks, used as part of an elaborate effects chain or used for event processing to control external hardware for instance.

The devices are worth a further look because they offer lots of creative potential.

MuSynth

MuSynth is a versatile and flexible synth. It has 2 oscillators, multi-sample player and noise generator. These 4 sources can be processed by a ring mod and up to 3 filters which have very flexible routing options and there are also 4 plugin slots to insert global effects.

MuDrum

MuDrum is one of my favourite drum modules. It allows you to create virtual analog sounds, use samples or a hybrid of the two. As well as volume, panning, tuning and envelope controls you can also layer 2 samples which is a really useful sound shaping tool in itself. There are 4 racks so you can apply specific effects to individual drum sounds and well as 3 plugin slots to insert global effects. There are 12 pads which correspond to each note of an octave so you can trigger the sounds by pads or a midi sequence and save created drum kits as presets for future use. It has four stereo outs so if you want to get really creative you also have access to a complete MUX which offers virtually unlimited modular options with envelopes, filters, LFOs etc.  In version 8 it has also been updated with time stretching.

MuSampla

MuSampla on the one hand is a ‘basic’ sample player but this is not the best description because it is very capable and flexible with parameters for amplitude envelope, pitch with envelope and LFO, filter with envelope and LFO which can be switched on and off as required. There are also 4 plugin slots to insert global effects.

Grain Player

The grain player is excellent, you can get some very interesting effects by changing the start and end points of a sample and then adjusting the start, length and attack settings for the grains and then altering the global pitch settings.

step-seq

The step sequencer is very well featured.  It has multiple steps, per note velocity, octave, transpose, length, offset and modulation settings offering 5 different modulation groups.

Audio recording is very simple. You create an audio track, select the input whether this is direct such as a microphone or from a rack. Decide how to monitor i.e. always or just whilst recording and then click record to record the desired vocals or vst output etc.

Snap markers are used for precisely aligning timings, for example aligning vocals with a drum beat. They are easy to use, simply put a marker at the desired point on the vocals and set as a snap marker so that the file snaps to the marker rather than the start of the recording.

The MUX modular deserves a special mention. This is essentially the engine behind MuLab and is a modular synth and effect. It allows you to create pretty much anything you like from synths to sample players to unusual effects. You can combine the three different types of signals – audio, event and modulation in the modular area and create a front panel to control the different parameters. There are a number of modules and presets that you can use to get started.

Extensive online documentation is available here.

Examples of MuLab In Use

An example of an album created in MuLab is embedded at the top of this post.

As I’ve previously stated, I find MuLab easy and intuitive to use. The workflow has a logical feel with tracks on the left, racks at the bottom and the composition components such as midi files, audio files etc in the main window which are arranged linearly. It’s easy to create racks by adding VSTs, devices, effects or processing modules as required and select the appropriate routing for the audio signal. Completed racks can be saved as presets and you can also colour code them and arrange them in an order as you see fit. You can drag a rack to create a track or alternatively you can add a track and then assign it to a rack.  There are often different ways to achieve the same thing and you’ll find and use the ways that work best for you. 

Once you’ve created a track, it’s easy to add an audio file or sample loop, load a midi file, create a new sequence and record with a midi controller. You can then copy and paste sections, edit to give variations, record automation of VST parameters or volume, adjust fade in / fade out, set sequence loop points for poly-rhythms and so on.

grains_gui

This is a screenshot of the project for Grains from the recent album of the same name.  This has two instances of a phone recording with volume automation and different effects, audio recorded from the Cumulus VST and drone chords from eDNA Earth. 

Ocean_gui

This is a screenshot from the project for Ocean, a song to be released on an upcoming compilation by The Climatronica Collective.  This features a chord sequence created in Scaler.  It’s straightforward and simple to copy these chords with drag and drop, I’ve edited them and they are played with various Spitfire Audio collections and layered against phone recordings.  I’ve used volume automation and a range of effects.

My last four albums have been created in MuLab 8, as well as assemblage embedded at the top of the post there are:

 

 

 

Although I use MuLab a lot, there’s still a huge amount of potential that I haven’t explored yet. For me that’s the hallmark of a great DAW. It does everything that I need it to do, it’s intuitive, slick and seamless yet I know there’s still a huge amount of new things to discover.

Loopcloud Sounds