Review: The OPC musician's computer/amp from Orange Amps
The first OPC from Orange Amps was made available in August 2010 and we've been closely following its development ever since. The bundled musician-related software has remained pretty much the same since launch but the musician's computer was given a serious hardware upgrade towards the close of 2011, and it's the new Core i7 system which I've been getting to know over the past few weeks. I've also managed to discuss some of the finer details with the driving force behind the OPC, and its lead developer, Charlie Cooper.
The Orange PC project started life when Cooper's father brought home some old Orange cabinets and the pair were lost for what to do with them until Cooper Junior suggested housing a computer inside the cab and putting a TV on top. The idea grew into an early OPC prototype that had two wires sticking out which were used to start the system and included an early Intel ITX motherboard with an Atom processor and a mATX PSU. After an encouraging showing at Musikmesse 2010, the first production model was announced in the middle of 2010. The few years since have been spent tweaking, fine tuning and refining the product into the slick, feature-packed production model you see here. So, is it any good?
What's in the box?
- A bright orange OPC computer/amplifier
- Power cable(s)
- USB extension cable
- Wired mouse and keyboard
- Quick start guide and activation sheet
The OPC runs on Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit edition. The review unit I was sent is powered by a second generation Intel Core i7-2600K quad core processor running at 3.4 GHz with integrated Intel HD graphics on a Gigabyte H67N-USB3-B3 board. There's 8 GB of Kingston dual channel 1333MHz DDR3 memory over two slots, but there are four slots available for up to 16 GB of RAM. The 3.5-inch, 500 GB Seagate Barracuda ST3500413AS HDD spinning at 7200 RPM provides the onboard storage, there are five USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, and one eSATA port, and a Samsung (TSST) slot-loading DVD re-writer. The unit also benefits from 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi with included antenna.The OPC will need to be connected to a monitor or TV (not supplied) to interact with the software, catered for by two HDMI ports and one VGA connection. To the top of the unit is a 24-bit/96Hz ultra low latency instrument input next to a microphone/keyboard/instrument input with a 20 dB boost switch. These inputs feed into the OPC Sound Card, which Cooper says is "Orange's solution to getting a cleaner guitar signal and eliminating latency, while providing more recording options for vocals/keyboard/bass etc. - it is optimized for this computer configuration."
The OPC's stereo amplifier features two 6.5-inch, full range JBL speakers. Both optical and a coaxial S/PDIF audio out connections feature to the rear of the unit, along with a Gigabit Ethernet port, 7.1 surround sound High Definition audio jacks and 0.25-inch stereo in (for feeding in keyboards or rack effects perhaps) and out (to connect to external monitors) jacks. The left output can also be used for monitoring the speaker audio via headphones and the right input can bypass the computer system to use the OPC as a very clean, although not too powerful, practice amp. Users can also choose to make use of the 3.5 mm green side speaker out jack for headphones, although the path in the system settings will need to be changed from the OPC driver to the computer's audio.
System performance and component choices
The i7 review unit handled everything I threw at it with quiet ease - from watching full 1080p movies, playing graphic-rich games, photo processing, and of course all the instrument/voice related tasks. The OPC has already proven itself in the low latency department by being used in last year's successful world record attempt at the fastest error-free rendition of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumble Bee by Brazilian speed master Tiago Alberto de Quadros. I can only add that I found no detectable delay between the played note or vocal and the output through the speakers, headphones or recording software.There is a bit of an urban myth surrounding the detrimental effects of magnets in close proximity to hard drives, and as the Seagate HDD inside the OPC gets pretty cosy with the unit's JBL speakers, I wondered whether Orange Amps had considered the issue.
"The magnets found in hard drives are powerful and it would require a massive magnet to cause any negative effects - especially as we're using a full sized HDD (not a small laptop-sized one)," explained Cooper. "Even early prototypes of the OPC still don't show magnets causing any issues (system-wide), even with the large range of motherboards we trialed. We still did hours of proximity tests and found that the HDDs are immune to ceramic magnetic fields as long as they don't physically touch. We contacted all the major HDD manufacturers and asked their opinions. The overwhelming conclusion was that because the magnetic field between the heads and platter in a HDD is much stronger than the radiated field from a ferrous magnet, it is immune to any field effects."
Color me curious if you will, but vibration and movement were also on my mind while reviewing the OPC. If it were merely a desktop PC, the product would likely remain in one position throughout its operational life, but being a PC/amp hybrid could see it frequently travel between studio and rehearsal rooms, or put through the rigors of life on the road. Even the vibrations caused by playing rather loud might have some adverse effect on the unit's computer system.
"When designing what we figured would be our dream musician's computer, we needed to address foreseeable problems that we as musicians might face - such as what effect playing ridiculously loud (nothing wrong with that by the way) might have on the system," Cooper explained. "Early prototypes (pre-2010) were affected by vibrations to the Hard Disk but we've worked extensively to correct the issue properly. Like our Orange Amps, Gigabyte uses twice as much copper for both the power and ground layers of the PCB. This has lots of advantages for the PC side of things but the biggest one we liked is that it makes everything soldered onto the motherboard that little bit more secure - this motherboard looks much thicker and heavy duty when comparing it to some of the competition."
The prototype, which was used for the first public showing of the OPC concept almost two years ago, featured a Zotac 9300 motherboard and an ATI 4670 graphics card, but feedback suggested that users might not want pre-cut holes for GPUs that date quickly, so the design was changed to a generic slot instead.
"The OPC was always designed with graphic cards in mind," Cooper told us. "Two vents are placed next to where the graphics card would be and we've made the allowance for graphics cards that would be taking up two PCI-E slots (some of the ATI cards have big heat sinks). Users can choose whatever graphics card they want or even choose between different audio hardware - whatever their priority is for their machine. One user may find he really wants Firewire for recording, so will add a PCI-E card there. Other users like myself, will be using the OPC for audio and gaming so I've added an ATI 5670 to mine."
Providing the user with options continues through to the keyboard and mouse. My review unit came supplied with an unbranded USB keyboard and mouse, but buyers can opt to have the unit shipped without these peripherals and use their own instead.
"I looked at a lot of wireless peripherals for desktop systems and wasn't totally happy with the solutions," said Cooper. "The cheaper ones operated on the 2.4 GHz frequency range, where I live there are lots of wireless-G/-N routers and they would cause random gaps and pauses when moving the mouse which was especially annoying when playing online games. The more expensive versions use Bluetooth and seemed to work fine without issue. However, adding a Bluetooth keyboard/mouse would have raised the price of the OPC. What we did instead was to allow users to purchase the OPC without a keyboard and mouse to save on the cost there."
As you can probably gauge by now, a lot of thought has gone into the design of the OPC. This considered approach continues through to the bundled software.
IK Multimedia AmpliTube 3 with AmpliTube Orange
Thinking back to when IK Multimedia's AmpliTube hit the iPad, I remember being quite impressed by the amp and effect simulations on offer but, even with the roomy 9.7-inch screen, the layout felt a little cluttered and getting a decent sound involved wrapping myself in numerous cables between instrument and amp. The OPC experience is a vast improvement.
It's not just the fact that the unit sports the full version of the powerful digital guitar effects and amplifier simulation suite with all of the available Orange Amps already pre-loaded, there's bigger screen real estate to be had, much more processing oomph, the native instrument/vocal inputs and the surprisingly voluminous output from the unit's stereo speakers (which isn't enough to fill a concert hall without a little help from a PA system, but is enough to give my usual practice amp a run for its money).
"IK Multimedia is the only company we've worked with directly to get the look and sound of our amplifiers right," said Cooper. "We still feel this is the closest to Orange Amplifiers you can get using software, so it made sense to include it on the OPC. AmpliTube 3 is really good - we've installed the VST/RTAS/Standalone versions of the software so users have a lot of freedom of how they use it. For example if a user wants to install Pro Tools or any other DAWs then the plugins and software would still work."
Now I'm sure that those blessed with a professional or overly critical ear might be able to point to subtle differences between a real world setup and the digital reproduction generated by this software, but I have to say that I was more than satisfied with the results - and this from a dedicated analog effects user - although the occasional intended feedback did lack the warmth of my Vox tube amp. A few ticks in the plus column include not having to deal with excessive signal hum or contamination/corruption from cheap patch cables when chaining effects, the inclusion of very competent noise reduction, and the ease of experimentation with things like mic placement, room setup and amp/cabinet combinations.
It doesn't require too much of a stretch to imagine this powerful suite completely replacing a pedal board for live or studio work, and taking up a fraction of the space in the process. The downside of course is having to activate virtual pedals or tweak rack effect settings via the mouse instead of a stomp, taking a playing hand away from the instrument. With a little planning and thought, it's a minor inconvenience but an inconvenience nonetheless. Integration with something like the StompBox or a PC version of IK Multimedia's own forthcoming iRig Stomp might offer a workable solution to such things.
I've now spent an awful lot of time in AmpliTube and still have much to explore. The suite includes a huge number of amp setups to choose from, although some listed in the browser (such as the Fender amps) were missing and will presumably need to be bought and added. Control freaks will appreciate being able to swap around amp and speaker configurations, being able to choose the kind of microphone setup, and room or studio settings, as well as being able to fine tweak that all important tone. I was also particularly struck by the effectiveness of stereo effects like the UniVibe considering the closeness of the JBL speakers to each other.
PreSonus Studio One Orange Edition
"The PreSonus Studio One Orange edition is an improved version of the PreSonus Studio One Artist edition," OPC's lead developer told us. "We liked PreSonus Studio One Artist but we requested a few upgrades to the software for our OPC customers. The dedicated VST support we wanted has been added so customers could use AmpliTube 3 with the included PreSonus Studio One software."Despite claims on the website that this multi-track recording, mixing, mastering and release software is painfully easy to use, I admit to being somewhat daunted and a little overwhelmed by its professional, clean design. There are numerous useful templates to get you started but even so, I spent the best part of a week's worth of evenings touring the workings of Studio One and feel that I've only scratched the surface of what's possible or available.
The work area of Studio One is contained within a single window, with a browser to the right of the main arrange view area that lists available panels and options, across the bottom there are counters, locators, tempo, audio record and play controls, master volume and other useful items, there's an Inspector to the left that gives information and caters for manipulation of audio tracks. Users can directly feed in the instrument or audio track via the OPC or create their own backing tracks by engaging the virtual instruments and using the onscreen keyboard to create tracks.
There are plenty of video tutorials available on the PreSonus website to help get the best from this powerful DAW package, and Cooper told us that, "users of the Studio One will receive free upgrades to future Studio One versions and even have the option to download a nice 64-bit version of the DAW from their PreSonus account if they want to use a 64-bit DAW."
Mixcraft 5 from Acoustica
"I wanted to provide a lot of choice so we have two DAWs - Acoustica Mixcraft and PreSonus Studio One," Cooper explained. "The great thing about these companies is that they didn't request us to supply LE or scaled down versions of their software."
I found this multi-track recording software package quite easy to get into because it reminded me of my real-world Fostex multi-track recorder - albeit in a much more complicated and powerful package. This familiarity allowed me to jump straight in and in typical try without reading the manual fashion, it took me a little while to work out how to hear what was being recorded - there's a selection on each track to monitor the audio via the PC or OPC output. The suite offers similar virtual backing track creation possibilities as Studio One, with musical notation or visual representation of an instrument loop timeline and a huge variety of instruments available.
Users can apply many effects to the audio input, and there's quite a selection of pre-recorded music loops if you've no inspiration to create your own. After only a short while I quite easily managed to generate some quality clips of my rock and blues repertoire.
Toontrack EZ drummer Lite
"I wanted to include full versions of software without any Trial/LE/Limited versions," said Cooper. "Often PCs arrive with useless software that is trialware or even request you to pay to continue receiving updates. EZ drummer Lite is the only exception to the no LE/Limited Edition rule as I feel it added extra features to compliment the other programs. For example, Mixcraft and Studio One have drum features included already but feedback from some people was that they wanted something a little more dedicated for creating drum loops. EZ drummer was everyone's favorite and I was able to include only the Lite version in the OPC - customers do get a huge discount if they choose to upgrade though."
I can't say I was taken by this basic version of the full digital percussion package, it seemed a might easier just to make use of the percussion capabilities of either multi-track studio suites when creating songs rather than using this software. With the Lite version, only the snare, one Tom, the kick drum, hi-hat and crash were available to play with in the software itself, although there were quite a few pre-recorded patterns to choose from, which were also available for use in both DAW suites.
LickLibrary Guitar Lesson Center
"LickLibrary contacted us about creating some software specifically for the OPC to help users learn guitar," Cooper said. "The company's videos are top-notch so I was happy to add it as long as the program didn't interfere with the normal operation of Windows."Like many players, I've spent my fair share of time working through freely-available guitar tab only to quickly discover that the author's interpretation of the song I've chosen to learn is more than a little off. I find video lessons a much faster and more reliable way to learn than tabs or from software like Guitar Pro, there's something comforting about having a competent player walk you through a difficult piece.
My review unit came supplied with 20 video lessons pre-loaded, plus a few DVD trailers. I've seen many free video lessons on YouTube and while it should be quality of tuition that makes the difference, it's quite obvious from the LickLibrary samples that the quality of the video production is also very important indeed.
More videos can be downloaded from LickLibrary's online archives but with so many quality tips and tricks available, it would be quite easy to get carried away, and while a lot of the content is relatively cheap, filling up the OPC's hard drive with lessons can soon add up.
Before closing this section on the included software, there is a known issue where certain software packages running at the same time will fight for the use of the OPC driver, with only one being the victor. Fortunately, both DAW packages are able to make use of AmpliTube via VST plug-in so there's no real need to have a recording suite and the amp/effects sim open simultaneously.
Superb sonic output and versatility in one package
As I've said before, the OPC combines two of my passions - computers and playing music - and it does so very well indeed. So much so in fact that since taking delivery of the OPC, my Marshall and Vox amps and my modest collection of analog and digital effects units have been completely ignored. The computer is very capable and there's an abundance of connectivity options and expansion/upgrade opportunities. The sonic output is superb and what is there not to like about the design?
As what is generally termed a bedroom musician (with youthful gigging and recording experience), the recording software included with the OPC did not take up as much of my playing time as the AmpliTube package. Were I a hands-on kind of musician who wanted to control all aspects of my creative process then the OPC certainly has the tools for that, including DAWs that include many features used by professional studios. It has other potential, too. The 500 GB HDD has lots of room for games and videos to entertain users when they're not being creative.
That said, I've spent a while discussing the unit with musician friends and have been a little surprised by the rather tepid reception shown by some to the idea of a combined computer and amplifier sporting some serious music production software. Whether this is due to such artists having already found their own distinctive sound or setup and see no need to experiment further, or that they prefer to leave mixing and recording to seasoned specialists, or they're a little hesitant about new technology, I can't really say. Whatever the reason, I suspect that such thinking would benefit from getting to know the OPC a little better.
"The person who probably wouldn't be buying this is the guy who already has a home studio setup that works and he's totally happy with," Cooper told us. "This system is for those who don't want all that drama and want something looking and sounding special on their desk."
There is one more thing I discovered that's worth mentioning - when cranking up the OPC's volume all the way up, some of the chosen amp/effects sims in AmpliTube 3 caused the audio to falter or cut out altogether (although in some instances, this kind of audio break up is desirable - think ZZ Top).
"I know about this but the fix would be simply lowering the overall volume of the OPC," admitted Cooper. "Some audio sources need the amplifier to boost the volume a lot to get a nice sound. Listening to a song could be perfectly fine when you have music from an external source playing via the OPC, but sound too loud when you're playing, say, a cranked up virtual amplifier with overdrive pedals."
"Rather than lowering the volume of the entire unit we added orange marks on the volume dial to let users know when their volume is being amplified at a massively loud level - which is fine for audio sources that have a low audio volume but bad for these that are already cranked. We figured we'd let the user decide what volume they like. Personally, I have my volume at the 12 o'clock level and move it when needed. We didn't want to limit anything where possible - we love speakers that allow users to go to 11."
One thing that is conspicuous by its absence is a dedicated vocal processing package, even though both DAW packages are more than capable of dealing with vocal input via the OPC interface. Cooper said that this is something that Orange Amps is currently looking into.
The Core i7 configuration that I reviewed is currently shown as available for US$1,579, which may seem like a lot to part with in one go but consider what you'd need if you wanted to mix and match your own version of the OPC (which is not strictly possible, but for the sake of argument).
A quality Intel second gen Core i7 desktop computer running Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit edition and coming supplied with 8 GB DDR3 RAM will slice your savings by at least $800 (I've seen a few cheaper options available but they're cheap for good reason). Next you'll need to grab yourself a practice amp, something from the Orange Crush PiX line (starting at around $100) would probably be a good fit but as Cooper points out, the OPC includes two flat response JBL Hi-Fi speakers instead of guitar or Celestion speakers so that the output is not flavored by the tone of the amplifier speakers but allows the computer-based software to dictate the sound.
"We were worried that using our current guitar speakers found in the Orange range would be coloring the sound that the software/computer delivers to them," Cooper explained. "We wanted the sound that musicians hear when playing to be the sound that ends up on the final recording played on other systems - the OPC doesn't use guitar speakers. The same goes for the amplifier unit, this is a special amplifier unit we made designed not to color the sound. The software makes the sounds/tones you hear. We also use a different type of wood to most of our cabinets, the wood you'll find in the OPC sounds better for the particular speakers it's housing. It's also lighter than the alternative."
To connect the two, you'd need to add a low latency instrument interface into the mix, something like IK Multimedia's StealthPlug CS ($100), Ion Audio's GuitarLink Air ($60) or the GuitarPort from Line 6 ($100), for example.
AmpliTube 3 costs $349.99 for the full suite (although there is a free version with just a few amp models and effects), then you will have to grab 145 AmpliTube 3 gear credits from the Custom Shop to gather all of the various Orange models into your library (at an additional cost of $120). Mixcraft 5 starts at $74.95, but the version of Studio One bundled with the OPC was specially designed for this product. The standard Artist version on which it was based, though, is shown as $99 on the PreSonus website.
Toontrack EZ drummer Lite is available to OEMs only so you'd have to plump for the whole package at EUR119 (about US$155). A free basic account with LickLibrary will give you access to a few sample video tutorials but there's a monthly fee to get to more involved lessons.
Adding that all up, we come to around $2,000 (give or take). The OPC is not only cheaper but presents everything in one neat, cool-looking, great sounding package. Opting for the Core i3 version will bring the price down even further.
The next public appearance for the OPC will be at Musikmesse in Frankfurt, Germany (March 21 to 24, 2012). I heartily encourage you to take a closer look for yourselves if you can, it will be well worth the effort.