Since its launch, the PSP has long labored to convince the masses that it is, in fact, a high-powered multimedia device and not merely a handheld gaming doohickey. Sadly, there has yet to be a definitive "killer app" released for the beleaguered instrument that demonstrates this theoretical puissance. Enter Definitive Studios, a plucky bunch that is determined to show the world that Sony is about more than just puzzle games and awkward platformers. How, you ask, have they attempted this seemingly impossible task? By releasing Traxxpad, a self-styled "Portable Studio" that promises casual users a professional audio workstation in the palm of their hands — or at least the fingers, as the ergonomics of the PSP suggest.
I feel it prudent to mention, in the most casual of terms, why I have been assigned this review. I front an industrial band, which means that the very core of our sound is rooted in electronic manipulation. We start with sequencing, sampling, audio manipulation, soft-synths, and MIDI, all before the live elements are even considered. While I don't proclaim myself an expert engineer, I do have some experience with a few software audio applications — Fruityloops, Sonic Foundry's (now owned by Sony) ACID Pro and SoundForge, Steinberg Cubase, Logic Audio, and even a tiny smattering of ProTools. What this means, in theory, is that I am qualified to say whether or not Definitive Studios has done a good job delivering on its promises.
At its core, Traxxpad is a sequencer, drum-machine, and soft-synth application, all wrapped up in a very pretty animated interface. It boasts a default library of 1,000 onboard samples, multiple skins for a custom viewing experience, a built-in sample editor, and import-export functionality via memory stick or network. All in all, it's a seemingly impressive array of features and functionality.
However, after only a few minutes, it becomes painfully apparent that Traxxpad is a disastrously overwrought program that can't seem to find a target market. Is it for casual people who've never used audio software before? Is it for professionals? In this case, it's far too complex for casual users and nowhere near comprehensive enough for professionals. Additionally, for a program that's supposed to prove the PSP is more than just a game platform, it's certainly been made to look as much like entertainment as possible, which just further confuses its purpose.
To begin with, using this program is about as easy as pulling teeth by using uncooked spaghetti for leverage. Traxxpad is one of the least user-friendly applications I've ever encountered. Not a single feature or function is intuitive, and the instructions are poorly written, uninformative, and there are entire sections repeated, verbatim, back to back — hardly the sort of thing that inspires confidence in your "how to" manual.
Once you do figure out how to actually open the step sequencer (referred to as R.T.I.S.T.) or the sample editor (the "chop shop"), it becomes fairly obvious that Traxxpad is little more than a too-complex drum machine. Sure, there are samples aplenty, but they are almost all lifted directly from classic drum machines such as the Roland TR-808. If there are any sweeping choirs or strings, I have yet to find them. So you plunk together a four-bar sequence of kick and snare, and from there, you can edit the pitch and volume of each sound. Once you've done that, you take your four-bar sequence of beats and stitch it together with a different four-bar sequence of beats, and this is how you are expected to write an entire song. This is exactly how I assembled "songs" with my old Yamaha. It's a clunky, slow, and inelegant way to put together music.
Touching once again on the lack of market focus, we come to the quality of the sounds themselves. First off, hearing them is a bit of a headache because the built-in speakers of the PSP just don't have the power or audio fidelity to be useful. That means that you have to use headphones, but no professional I know would restrict themselves to using headphones for all of their monitoring. Once you can actually hear the samples, you can then detect how poorly they were captured. Almost every kick, snare, and high-hat carries a click or pop at the beginning or end of the sound file. Again, no professional is going to voluntarily use poor quality sounds like that, not when they can find them so easily online with better quality.
I will give Traxxpad credit for the GUI. There are seven skins you can choose from: a rusted industrial microphone setup called warzone, a boom-box blaster called throwback, a tricked-out hydraulic monster of a low-rider referred to as S.S., an elegant Dj turntable strangely known as Rolie, the sleek Japanese cyborg named Trooper, and a basic Roland sampler dubbed "Fresh." All of these are animated, very cool to look at, and come in a variety of colors. Sadly, this is the only aspect of Traxxpad I can speak of in glowing terms, and even here I must add the caveat, "Why was this attention to visual gloss even necessary if this is a professional quality workstation?" The answer is simple: It isn't.
It's simple, really. Traxxpad fails no matter what way you look at it. If it's meant to be a game, something for casual players to noodle with to make some loops and show off, then it bombs because it's absurdly difficult to figure out for no good reason. I haven't encountered sound gear this hard to figure out or use since the Roland W-30. If this is meant for professionals, then why a platform with little access to new sounds or updates, and why no MIDI? If the target is somewhere in between, then what exactly is the point? There isn't enough reason on either side of the coin to justify the cost. The PSP needs a killer app to show off its capabilities beyond mere games, but I assure you that Traxxpad is not it.
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