This new software instrument majors on lively and evocative loops and phrases that can be flexibly combined to create convincing world music atmospheres.
MOTU's Ethno is essentially a sample-playback software instrument based on the ubiquitous UVI playback engine, which is also used by developers such as Spectrasonics, for their Atmosphere, Trilogy and Stylus instruments, and Big Fish Audio. The UVI engine claims low latency — though much depends on the buffer size set in your host audio application — and up to 250 notes of polyphony per preset, depending on CPU power.
Ethno works within all the mainstream Mac and PC plug-in environments (MAS, RTAS, HTDM, AU, VST and DXi) and is capable of 64-part multitimbrality, though VST, DXi and AU users are limited to 16 parts because of limitations in those plug-in formats. (A stand-alone version of the instrument, which requires around 8GB of hard drive space, is also included on the installation DVD.) When Ethno is used multitimbrally, up to 17 stereo output pairs are available, each with separate level and pan controls (the default routing is stereo). I tested the instrument with Apple's Logic Pro software, and all 16 expected MIDI channels appeared automatically via the Audio / Audio Instrument / MIDI path from the Track menu, so no further setup was needed. Copy protection is via an included, ready-authorised iLok, which plugs into any free USB port
In addition to RAM-based sample playback, Ethno also has a disk-streaming facility, which can be set individually per part. This saves on RAM, but at the expense of a greater disk-activity load. Generally speaking, the samples provided by Ethno are not directly accessible by the user, other than from inside the instrument itself, but users of MOTU's Mach 5 v2 can access them if they feel they need more sound-shaping, layering or stacking facilities than Ethno offers. Having said that, the instrument does include all the essential sound-shaping tools for filtering and applying envelopes, as well as a multi-function LFO that can control any combination of pitch, level and timbre. There's also a built-in convolution reverb that can add a very convincing sense of space and location to the instruments.
As its name suggests, Ethno's main focus is on world instruments. Unlike conventional sample libraries, this instrument provides playable multisamples, phrases that can be triggered via MIDI, and ready-sliced audio loops that can be dragged and dropped into your host software's audio tracks at the currently selected tempo. These sliced loops appear as contiguous audio files once they're in your Arrange window, so the tempo needs to be correct before you do the dragging and dropping, as you can't make further adjustments later.
One attractive feature of Ethno is that the user interface comprises a single window: the only other windows you need to see are content browsers or setup-parameter windows. At the centre of the main window is a triangular area where up to 16 parts can be loaded and viewed at one time. If your host supports multiple MIDI banks, you can use the bank buttons to access and load up to 64 parts. Once you've clicked on a part to select it, the controls surrounding it become active for sound editing, and double-clicking gets you into the content browser. In cases where the instruments sampled don't conform to what we think of as the conventional western scale, there are often two versions available — one at the original pitch and one retuned to notes of the chromatic scale. ADSR envelope adjustment is available for both level and filter cutoff frequency, and parts may be transposed in either semitone or octave steps. Basic high and low EQ is also provided.
When a part is loaded, it comes up with a suitable polyphony setting (usually) but this may be changed using up/down click buttons. Global level and tune controls are available, which is useful if you need to retune your entire composition to match your old acoustic piano. Speaking of global, you get a little slice of a map of the world at the right of the screen, to show you where the current instrument comes from! An Expert Mode button allows you to access parameters related to key switching, velocity crossfades and zone splits, as well as allowing some disk-streaming options to be adjusted.
Because many of the samples are in the form of loops, there are some settings dedicated to how loops sync, including half- and double-speed playback options and the facility to adjust the sample start point. The three available loop modes are Sample, Stretch and Slice, though Slice isn't applicable to single-shot phrases. In Sample mode, the sample's pitch and duration change when it's triggered from different MIDI notes, whereas Stretch maintains the original length and tempo. Slice also maintains tempo, but by repositioning the audio slices making up the phrase, rather than by true time-stretch processing. Sync can either be off, on without positional sync, or on with positional sync. The last mode is the most useful, as it ensures that your loop starts at the right beat of the bar. Interestingly, in Slice mode the Sample Start knob lets you move the starting slice rather than the sample start time. Simple transport controls allow loops and phrases to be played together, and these may be locked to the host's transport controls for synchronised playback, if that's the way you'd like to work.
Double-clicking on any part slot in the centre of the window brings up the browser menu, which has further buttons to enable sample viewing by geographic location, instrument type or sample type. The Auto Play button provides an easy way of auditioning loops without the need to load them first, and you can either hear them at your song's tempo or at their original tempo. An info box pops up with details about the loop, which is useful, as some phrases are only MIDI triggerable, while loops tend to be sliced audio in the style of REX files.
As I mentioned earlier, there's a built-in convolution reverb section, whose controls allow you to call up the reverb type you need, then do some basic editing, such as adjusting pre-delay, reverb time, HF and LF damping, wet/dry mix and stereo spread. (Because the reverbs are of the convolution variety, bear in mind that longer decay times take up more CPU power.) The reverb is set up in a similar way to that in a mixing console send, so although all parts have the same reverb type, you can adjust the reverb level for each part.
Installing and operating this instrument is easy, providing you follow the instructions and install the data file first (this can go anywhere) and then the instrument, which looks for the data file and sets the correct path. As the data file is almost 8GB, I put it on my second internal drive, where I keep my other sample libraries.
My first impressions when I checked out the playable multisamples without reverb were mixed. From what I can tell, few, if any, of the instruments have more than a couple of velocity levels and the recordings sound very close-miked and dry, although they come to life somewhat when you add reverb. The struck instrument sounds work well, as do the buzzy, drone-style sounds (sitar and tambura), so there's no problem with balafons, thumb pianos and gamelans. I felt that the flutes were a bit uninspiring, though, and you don't get velocity-controlled articulations by default, as you do (for example) with the Irish whistle on the Roland JV synth World expansion card. Neither is the LFO set up for use with your keyboard's mod wheel, so you have to enable this whenever you call up a new patch, unless you keep re-saving patches. I like the ability to have the LFO control the pitch, timbre and amplitude of the sound, as this has the potential to make instruments such as flutes sound more realistic in performance, but it would be more useful if you could adjust the relative amounts of the three options, rather than just switching them on or off.
A similar frustration relates to sounds like bagpipes, which fire up in single-note polyphony mode, so you can't do the 'drone pipes' thing without enabling more polyphony. There should also be more intelligent note control for drone instruments, including sitar, so that note robbing wouldn't affect the held drone notes. I'm not singling out Ethno for criticism here, as most of its competitors also fall down in this area. It would also really help if you could set a keyboard split-point below which the pitch-bend or mod wheel had no effect, so that you could keep the drones at a steady pitch while applying bend or modulation to the melody notes. (There was a nice feature on the old Yamaha FB01 that didn't apply pitch-bend to notes once they'd been released. This made it much easier to play realistic-sounding string bends, as all the previously decaying notes didn't also bend.)
I have a problem with certain sampled plucked instruments, such as guitars; to my ears, they all sound like some sort of piano, clav or harp, and the ones in this set are no exception. You can just about knock up a convincing nylon-guitar arpeggio, but on the whole mere samples can't capture the variety of articulation that a real guitar produces.
I felt much more inspired when trying out some of the huge library of drag-and-drop loops: these really do convey the feel of a genuine music performance, and if you use Slice mode you can play them over a surprisingly wide tempo range without them sounding false. Some of the African balafon loops are lovely, as are the percussive loops on offer. If you had to do a soundtrack for an African wildlife conservation documentary in a hurry, Ethno would probably get you out of trouble! There are harps from around the world, plucked and blown things, and a good selection of bells and percussion, including Irish bodhran and African djembe, plus middle-eastern reed flutes, bouzoukis, lutes, banjos, Dobro guitar and the inevitable Latin percussion sets. All the usual Asian suspects are there, including koto and shamisen, as well as shakuhachi. While the single-note shakuhachi samples sound like a rather sterile, generic breathy flute, the 20 or more shakuhachi phrases sound as rich and evocative as you'd expect, and this is true of almost everything in the loop section — it sounds lively and authentic. Best of all, you can audition these elements extremely quickly and then drop the ones you like directly into your composition.
The only incongruous elements are in the World Synths section, where you'll find a lot of perfectly accomplished but not particularly outstanding synth patches, many of which sound as though they're made of layered elements taken from existing hardware instruments. World Voice Pads also fall into this category, as all are synthesized and few offer anything we haven't heard before.
When I first went through Ethno's playable samples, I felt somewhat disappointed by the sounds and wondered how they'd managed to use up nearly eight gigabytes storing them. However, I then went on to the loops and phrases, and my perception of the instrument changed entirely. These are wonderfully varied and evocative, featuring lots of really usable material, so perhaps the best way to look at Ethno is as a source of great loops and phrases, with the playable mutisampled notes selection being provided mainly to help you create phrases that link up the ones you've chosen from the phrase library.
The front end makes it very easy to audition loops, then drag them into your own composition at whatever tempo you need, while the MIDI-triggered single-shot phrases are equally impressive, not least because the Stretch algorithm lets you keep the tempo while changing pitch, without sacrificing too much sound quality.
Despite initial reservations, I've grown to like Ethno very much. It might be going too far to say that this instrument is all you'll ever need to create ethnic-sounding music, but if this is a genre you're interested in you should certainly consider adding it to your collection.
While there are plenty of ethnic sample CDs out there, as well as expander cards for synths, I don't think anything currently compares directly with Ethno, because of the way in which it integrates single-note sample playback, phrase playback and loops.