Originally exclusive to Pro Tools, Air Xpand was re-released as a plugin available across all DAWs as Xpand 2. This plugin instrument describes itself as a multi-timbral workstation. It consists of four "slots" to load in presets ranging from samples, to FM synthesis, to wavetables. These can be individually mixed to create complex textures and sounds. It costs $99.99 from their website.
The first thing you'll notice is that this plugin is easy to use, not only is it easy to load in the presets, but the basic interface is simple for everyone. Going a little deeper will require a bit more time with the plugin, but still not by much.
One of the key features is you can assign each different sound to the notes across the keyboard and so with some quick and simple tweaking, you can assign one sound to the lower octaves and another to the higher ones.
The four banks are very simple to mix, a big level fader is complemented with 2 FX sends and a pan knob for each bank. Selecting a sound is a case of clicking and scrolling through the menu, in which the sounds are sorted into well labelled folders. One of the joys of this plugin is spending hours playing through the sounds to see what is for you.
You can activate each bank individually so that only the ones you select play - great for soloing and checking each preset out. One downside is that there is no search feature.
The editing does go fairly deep. While you can't make your own sounds from scratch, the range of sounds available and the easy to tweak parameters for each bank (selectable at the top) give each sound a wide range of editing.
Alongside the bank presets are overall presets which you can add your own creations to, this also is very simple.
By now you can probably see that it is definitely a preset lover's instrument and so if you want complete control, you may prefer the alternatives. Having said this, by combining the presets you will unlock many thousands of different sounds.
One final note on usability, the website recommends having an i5 or an i7 processor power, I have run this plugin on an i3 with no issues so provided you meet the other requirements, it will most likely run on your computer.
The overall sound of Xpand 2 varies, one of the highlights is the absolutely superb FX that it brings, boasting 50 "studio-grade effects" which really do shine. If you are a knob tweaker, you may find the two controls per FX a bit lacking however they really do do the job. The second FX section also has a third knob for sending back into FX 1 allowing for control over the series/parallel routing of the FX.
When loading sounds, you will find that some are fab, others, not that much. In particular the pads are exceptional. You will find good sounds in each section of the menu and remember you can tweak them. However certain sounds seem beyond repair. This is OK if you use them as a component of a more complex sound, combining several sounds, but certain ones are near unusable as solo instruments.
The plugin has stereo outputs, but does not allow you to send each bank to a different output. This means you can't mix them externally.
On the most part, Xpand 2 is going to excel as a filler instrument, allowing complex textures in the background of your song. Due to the varied quality of sound, you may hesitate to use it for leading sounds. If your song requires strong, realistic orchestral parts, this plugin may not be for you.
To counter-balance the varying quality of sound, the range of presets is great. Sure, it doesn't compare to certain other plugins with vast, expansive, sound banks, but just demoing each preset takes it's time.
A notable highlight are the various pad presets, each one sounds super played alone, and by combining them with up to three other sounds available, you have a huge pad library. The pad's sound quality certainly brought up the star rating in the section above, it's range of sounds brought up the star rating in this section.
Sadly in contrast, the piano presets, along with the string and brass presets aren't fooling anyone. To be fair, there are many good sounding orchestral hits and sounds, but if you decide to use the majority of these presets as a leading sound in your track, it will sound quite fake.
That's not to say they are unusable, as they will bring another dimension to your pads and for quickly jamming out sounds, they are quick to choose and easy to play. Really though, for your final recording, there are several free instrument VSTs as well as SFZ files which are far superior.
While the percussion presets could be class as sub par, many are entirely usable and I think the best application for them would be to record, then resample and edit them yourself.
Another downside to the presets is that you get what you get. There are no expansions available. It is purely limited to what is in the box, while this may be an issue to some, many won't ever feel the need to expand from the already large collection, but the option would be nice.
In conclusion, I would recommend this plugin only if you have the money for it. It is not a game changer but it does bring a good level of streamlining to your song making and opens up a lot of sound potential. The only exception to this would be if you focus on genres like ambient music and any other heavily pad-based genre.
If you are making pop/EDM then you will find this to be a great tool for filling the background of your track but it will unlikely ever become your main plugin to lead the tracks.
If you are an absolute beginner, with some money to spare this may be a great start, you can focus on your composition, spending next to no time selecting your next instrument sound. Provided you aren't at the stage of needing superior sound quality you will be able to make some pretty good tracks with this.
Going beyond the beginner stage, you will quickly want more. It's not the cheapest plugin, yet it is far from extortionate and so for the amount of versatility you get, it is worth the price.
This software is occasionally bundled for free along with some hardware and so if you can get it that way, I do recommend it. I'm glad to have it but there are certainly other plugins to buy first for the same price!