3 Music Software Programs That Can Spark Your Creativity

I go through the typical peaks and troughs of creativity. I could write, produce, and record a few solid ideas one day, and then go a couple weeks without making anything ear-grabbing. Nevertheless, that is exactly why I lean toward plugins to spark new inspiration during my more lengthy creative lapses.

Enter Stream, Megaphone, and XO—three plugins that, respectively, spit out lush delays, cloak your sound in a saturated squawk, and streamline the sample selection process. At the very least, these three plugins offer something that, likely, is not yet readily available in your arsenal.

Sinevibes Stream

I spook easily. From the lowest heights to dogs barking through a fenced-in yard—it doesn't take much to rattle me. The same can be said about how I approach producing music. If it's got more than a few knobs and takes more than a minute to get a great sound, I tend to panic.

Sinevibes Stream
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I'm not saying that I hate complexities, but I've always been a plug-and-play kind of creative. That being said, this is exactly why I've been an avid fan of Sinevibes for the last couple of years—you get characterful sound in a friendly, coherent package.

Though at first I was skeptical, Stream is no exception to this rule. You get a colorful sequencer for four parameters (Time, Filter, Level, and Pan), eight faders off to the side, and then two options for "Fade" and "Quality." There are a few other minor tweaks, too.

My first instinct was to click and drag across each of the sequencers to create a wave shape throughout a 32-step pattern. What I got was a terrible, terrible disaster that made the room spin but, at the same time, showed a lot of promise. A few strategic movements later and a generous lowering of the Return and I arrived at a rather gorgeous texture surrounding my tasteless guitar picking. Success.

Applying the same methodology across myriad instruments resulted in similar successes: One of my favorite applications was to a minimal, vinyl-style drum loop with the kick on the one and three, the snare on the two and four, and the hat simply playing quarter notes. With the High Pass applied across the entire sequence and some meticulous panning (again, random dragging), I was able to keep the hats moving and, at the same time, realize a near infinite amount of patterns I could draw from a single stereo recording.

Throwing Stream into Vintage mode and automating Mod Depth, Rate, and Width in Ableton Live, I arrived at an intoxicating hybrid of contemporary and vintage.

While all that is well and good, I have a few grievances. The first being that, when I first threw Stream on a track, I had a friend in the room. Their first reaction was, verbatim, "Ew, that's gross." I replied, "Ew, you're gross." Stream damaged a friendship that day. To be fair, the track was already busy enough and, sometimes, even the littlest delay is too much delay, but I digress.

My second, and first legitimate, qualm is I think—given the success I had just dragging across the sequencers—a random button would do Stream a lot of justice. [Ed.: An earlier version of this article misstated that the Stream only has 12 presets. Our reviewer was using an advance copy, and the final version includes 36 presets.]

Now, can Stream hold its own in my favorites folder next to the offerings from Waves and Soundtoys? I believe so, and, for the last week that I've had it, Stream has proven to be one of the few tools to consistently combat writer's block and, for better or worse, inspire a new direction in a production.

AudioThing Megaphone

Let me start this off by clearing up my bias in that I love all things AudioThing. Reels has found its way on to pretty much every track I've created since its release, SR-88 is one of the few legitimately fun '80s drum-machine instruments, and Outer Space is my favorite space-inspired delay that I've come across.

AudioThing Megaphone
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My first reaction to Megaphone was that it's like Reels in that it makes your signal sound like trash, but in a very musical and heartwarming way. However, the saturation style is in a different tier than Reels, in that it's cleaner and more contemporary—though Megaphone is slightly less versatile in that, well, it sounds like a megaphone instead of a modulating, echo-equipped tape engine.

That being said, my favorite thing about Megaphone is that it's great at what it does, and, for my taste, it can excel via four knobs: Bandwidth, Drive, Input, and Output. Since there are no set rules on how to leverage a megaphone in your track, it's really one of those dial-to-taste plugins. In short, you turn the knobs until it sounds good.

So far, my favorite thing to do is to drive the input knob to bring Megaphone into a heightened, Super Saiyan state of saturation. If you crank bandwidth, drive, time, and throw Megaphone into Mode II, you'll have a lot of fun.

Though it's not part of the aforementioned four knobs, the Feedback section is definitely interesting. Messing with the Time knob creates some interesting, almost stereo-y effects, while the Amount knob introduces a kind of cool, kind of annoying pedal tone.

Speaking of annoying—though I imagine other, more creative people might have fun with this, the Noise section, like (but to a lesser extent) on Reels—is a bit gimmicky and seems to be more of a nuisance than anything else. However, I should say I did get some use out of the "Button" source, resampling that sound to create some interesting percussive textures.

Now, does Megaphone live up to the AudioThing standard? Absolutely. It's niche, it's exciting, and it is so completely to-the-point that it's almost funny. At a list price of $19 USD (Just $9.95 on Reverb), I see myself reaching for Megaphone when I want a quirky kind of saturation that Soundtoys' Decapitator and AudioThings' Reels can't pull off. I love it on drum loops. I'm not a rapper, but I hear it working well on ad-libs. And I really think it shines when driven to its extremes.

XLN Audio XO

I've spent a lot of time researching virtual instruments and effects, and they typically promise one of two things. The first is a flawless recreation of a beloved hardware unit packed full of analog goodness, quirks, and idiosyncrasies. Conversely, other manufacturers hype up a reinvent-the-wheel-type product that will alter the way music is made for the next demi-decade.

XLN Audio XO
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XLN Audio's XO does fall into the latter category. The first thing I read about XO is on the XLN site, claiming it to be "a revolutionary new way of exploring sounds and making beats." I feel like I've read this kind of thing before, so I was immediately skeptical. Nevertheless, I decided to dive in.

The first thing you notice about XO is its enticing "universe" of sounds scattered across the Space menu. A wide array of one-shot samples float like stars in the night sky, but in this case, they're sorted by tonal similarity and color-coded so they're easy to find. With a click and a drag across this area, you'll be greeted with a rapid fire of percussion.

Having spent a decent amount of time researching and acquiring various sample packs, I was very pleased with the quality of sounds that ship with XO. Not only do they cover many genres but, for the most part, they all sound really great and are perfectly usable. If that weren't enough, XO makes it as simple as dragging your own samples in to add them to its universe.

The next thing you'll notice is how well XO's algorithm sorts the samples. The key here—since you've got so much going on in XO's Space—is finding the sound you enjoy with your mouse and then using the Similarity slider at the bottom to hone in on sounds of the same likeness. For the amount of time I've spent tweaking a sound that's not quite right, this Similarity slider is a real gift. Couple this with the built-in search and filter feature and History tab and I can't imagine ever being hard-pressed to find a sound again, unless it doesn't exist.

XLN Audio's XO announcement video

Now that you've taken all that you can from the universe, you'll want to explore the edit window. At first, I was a bit shaken by all the little sliders, icons, faders, and colors, but once you learn one row, you've learned them all. In fact, XLN did such a great job on this window that I felt encouraged to make tweaks I didn't even think I wanted to make.

I'm going to jump over all the little editing tools and come right out with my fondness for the master Crunch settings. From classic glue to bit reduction, resonance, and beyond, I think there is always a setting here to improve the overall sound of your sequence within XO. That being said, the reverbs and delays, though useful, are a bit meh. However, tweaks such as the per-sample, high-quality pitch conversions are more than enough to create interesting textures in a sequence.

Speaking of which, XO's Sequencer is fantastic. I love that you can draw in velocities with a drag of the mouse. And the included Roll options across every step make contemporary drum production a breeze. Coupled with the sequencer is an eclectic set of grooves that, when strategically placed across each individual sample, can swing you pretty much any way imaginable. I particularly enjoy the NUD slider—which allows you to surgically place your sample before or behind the beat.

Lastly, XO's Accentuator, well, accentuates select beats and brings—depending on what floats your boat—either a touch or an extreme amount of personality to the sequence. I don't like being the guy that sings the praises of subtleties in plugins but slight amounts of accentuation really seem to go a long way.

On the other hand, once you dive into the Beat Combiner tab, you dive into a world of endless patterns. From basic patterns to those extracted from presets, XO allows you to pick and choose from an array of patterns for each sample, which is very cool if you've selected sounds you know you love and don't really know where to go with them. Again, the inclusion of a randomizer button is super helpful in allowing you to cycle through the combinations with ease. There is very little over-thinking to be done with XO, unless you want to.

In short, that's precisely what I love about XO. We're at a stage in music production technology where the wheel doesn't really need to be reinvented, but it can be enhanced. XLN did a fantastic job of improving the sound search process while providing us with a fun, intuitive, and great-sounding sequencer. For the last year, I've been programming drums by dragging them onto the grid. However, there is an element of excitement and youthfulness that XO brings to the table that I know I will be revisiting again and again.

Download Sinevibes Stream, AudioThing Megaphone, and XLN Audio XO direct on Reverb now.

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