Looking for a new bass player? If you'd consider a software candidate, Steinberg's Virtual Bassist is now ready for audition...
Hot on the heels of Bornemark's Broomstick Bass, which I reviewed in these pages a few months back (see SOS May 2005), comes Virtual Bassist — Steinberg's take on the bass player for a software-based band. Virtual Bassist (or VB) is compatible with any VST, DXi and AU host, and a stand-alone version can be used with Rewire. Virtual Bassist will work under either Windows XP or Mac OS X 10.3.3 or higher, but you'll need a PC with at least an 800MHz Pentium III processor running Windows XP, or an 600MHz G3 Mac running at least Mac OS 10.3. Whichever platform you go for, you'll need at least 512MB of RAM, 850MB of free hard disk space, a DVD drive for installation, and a VST- or AU-compatible host (the latter, obviously, only applies to Mac users).
As with Broomstick Bass, Virtual Bassist offers a selection of musical styles (32 are provided in the initial release). Each Style has a suitable preset bass sound associated with it and offers a selection of phrases or riffs. VB refers to these phrases as 'Parts' and as many as 18 are provided for each style. These respond to either a root note input or a chord and any melodic/riff-based Parts are automatically adjusted to fit the chosen chord. The other major features include Groove Match (which, for example, allows the bass groove to be fine-tuned to match a drum groove) and the excellent 'Amp & FX' section, which, as its name suggests, is modelled, both in terms of its sound and its appearance, on a classic array of bass hardware. What's more, this section is also supplied as a separate VST plug-in, so it can be used to process other audio signals if required.
So, with Bornemark's excellent Broomstick Bass already in the market, how does Virtual Bassist, with the more considerable weight of the Steinberg name behind it, stack up?
VB is supplied on a single Mac/PC CD-ROM and includes a printed manual. Also enclosed is an Activation Key Code which is required in order to download a Virtual Bassist licence for your Steinberg USB Key. A hardware Key is not included, so if you do not already own one (as an owner of Cubase SX, for example), then you will face a small additional cost (in the UK, these can be obtained through Arbiter for £19.99).
As with most modern music software, installation proved unproblematic. Usefully, you're allowed to specify different hard drive locations for the plug-in and the sample/style library contents. The latter require approximately 5.5GB of hard drive space. Once installed, downloading the required licence to my Key also proved very straightforward using the usual Syncrosoft Licence Control Centre software.
Jokes about the appearance of the typical bass player aside, Virtual Bassist certainly looks dark enough to deliver some low-end growl. The styling is not dissimilar to that of Steinberg's Virtual Guitarist Electric Edition, with black 'amp covering' dominating the background and the majority of the controls designed to look like the knobs and switches that might be found within a typical bass rig. Happily, the realistic styling does not get in the way — the cool looks are matched by a general ease of use. The key controls of Virtual Bassist are split across three main screens; Play, Groove Match and Amp & FX, accessed via the tabs along the top of the plug-in. To the right of these, the Steinberg logo gives access to the Settings screen, although these are mostly of the 'set and forget' type.
For most general use, the Play screen is where the key controls are located. Like Virtual Guitarist, Virtual Bassist includes a guitar graphic with some virtual controls built in. Pickup position, volume, tone, attack and note damping can all be adjusted from here. A switch to toggle between a four-string or five-string bass model is also included. If the five-string model is selected, all the Styles attempt to use the low 'B' string within the parts played. The small padlock icon to the bottom right of this section can be used to 'lock' the bass sound, allowing the user to switch styles but retain the overall bass sound.
The left-hand portion of the Play screen can be toggled between the Style list and, for the currently selected style, a list of the available Parts. Parts are laid out across the two octaves C1 to B2 on a MIDI keyboard. This section of the keyboard is termed the Remote Range and, as well as being used to select a particular Part from within the Style, it also includes controls for switching to Single Note mode (C1), for stopping VB playback (C#1), and for toggling between four- and five-string modes (C#2) and between Chord and Note mode (D#2). In Single Note mode, VB 's automatic functions are turned off, and the software then behaves like a normal VST instrument, allowing it to be played manually via MIDI.
The Parts move from simple at the lower end of the Remote Range (for example, '1-2 and 3 Pulse' on D1, from the 'Modern Rock' Style, which just plays root notes on those beats) through to more complex ('Melodic Riff 5' on B2, which plays a more complex riff with notes based on the current chord type). Also included within the Parts list are a number of special Parts, called Fills, all located on the black keys. If these are triggered, they are played only once before VB returns to the previously selected Part. This is neat for adding a little variation or for providing a link to a different song section.
The key range between C3 and B4 is termed the Pitch Range, and it is this section that allows notes or chords to be played that control the pitch of VB 's output. This split-function keyboard layout is very similar in operation to that of Broomstick Bass, where the Control Octave is the equivalent of the Virtual Bassist Remote Range.
The central panel of the Play screen is fairly busy. Starting at the top, this includes a display of the current chord and a useful MIDI In 'LED'. To the right of this is the Chord/Note switch. In Chord mode, VB will play melodic riffs, while in Note mode, the rhythmic structure of the current Part is played using only the chord root note or octaves of it. VB recognises a wide selection of chord types (including major, minor, sus4, maj7, 7, 6, dim, m7, m6 and sus2) and, in most cases, it doesn't matter what inversion is played. While VB follows the tempo of the host sequencer, the Speed control also allows for half- and double-time playing, while Latch forces VB to play continuously, even if you release the note or chord being played in the Pitch Range section of the keyboard. The Retrig switch determines when VB responds to a change of Part. Normally, this would be left off and VB will only change Part at the end of a bar.
The Swing, Variance and Early/Late controls all influence the feel of the VB performance. Swing allows offbeat notes to be moved earlier (clockwise) or later (anti-clockwise), while the Variance control allows a degree of random imperfection to be introduced to the timing. The Early/Late control allows the whole performance to be moved slightly behind the beat (for a more laid-back feel) or ahead of the beat (for more urgency). Immediately beneath these controls is a large rotary dial that allows the basic character of the bass sound to be blended from three types (Classic, Vintage and Modern), while for some added realism, a degree of fret buzz and finger noise can be added. The final controls (Compression, Drive and Master) do pretty much what you'd expect and duplicate the same controls on the Amp & FX page.
The Groove Match page allows some editing of Parts and Fills. Aside from the Part list located to the bottom right of the window, which duplicates that seen in the Play page, two main displays are presented. In the Macro Groove display, the overall rhythm and relative pitch of the Part (and Parts can be up to four bars in length) are displayed. As with a Piano Roll editor, notes can be repositioned within this display although, in this initial release, pitch can not be adjusted and changing note length is a little hit and miss. This said, it does provide extra flexibility — you are not stuck with just the preset Parts supplied with the plug-in. The vertical position of a note within this display is indicative of pitch, but of course the actual pitch differences between two notes will depend upon the chord type and root note that VB is trying to accompany.
The Micro Timing display operates as a basic, but functional, groove quantise facility. As well as offering some useful 16th-, eighth- and quarter-note swing presets, a groove can be manually adjusted by dragging the vertical red markers or activating the 'from MIDI' button, whereby the groove will be taken from the incoming MIDI signal. The Swing knob duplicates that found on the Play page and controls the overall strength of the applied swing. For easy tweaking of Parts, the Modifiers provide a range of preset patterns that can change a Part or Fill. Seven different Modifers are included in total (see screenshot, below left) and each one is itself supplied with two variations. This all helps to add to the options at your disposal.
The styles offered by Virtual Bassist cover a broad spectrum of contemporary music genres. While some of the rock and blues styles are fairly safe, the various funk styles have plenty of attitude (the 'Pop Fills' style provides a good example) with lots of slapping and popping going on. Another of my favourites is the 'Tapping' style which, as its name suggests, is based upon tapping rather than plucking the bass strings. This includes some virtuoso playing of busy arpeggios — they sound great, but I'm not quite sure what musical context I might use them in. The nu metal styles also work well and their character can be changed dramatically by use of the effects options — from bright, clean and powerful (think Linkin Park), through to grungy and snarling (more like System Of A Down).
The style palette is probably a little more contemporary than that provided with Broomstick Bass (for example, a hip-hop style is included), but the choice is broadly similar in both products.
Perhaps the most fun is to be had in the 'Amp & FX' page. This combines a fairly generic amp- and speaker-modelling function with six classic stomp-box-type effects — Wah, Fuzz, Octaver, Compressor, Flange/Chorus and Tremolo. A large collection of preset effects combinations is provided and these are listed to the right of the display. There are some pretty extreme settings amongst this lot, 'Grammophone', 'Sewerage Delight' and 'Weird Jet Ski' included — but there's also a good selection of solid, usable electric bass sounds suitable for almost all musical styles.
The amplifier can be switched between the more clinical Solid State and the warmer-sounding Tube models, while the Drive control simulates the gain fed to the preamp. Aside from the master volume control, the amp also features a three-band EQ, with a sweepable Mid band (although the bandwidth cannot be adjusted). Three routing switches are included, allowing the position of the EQ and the Compressor to be placed in front of the amp or after it (note that the Octaver, Fuzz and Wah effects are always before the EQ and Compresor). The DI signal can be switched between pre- and post-Drive control positions, with the Pre position giving an ultra-clean tone. Usefully, the Speaker simulation provides a slider that allows the virtual mic signal and the DI signal to be blended. For the virtual microphones, the choice is between dynamic and condenser types, with on- or off-axis positions available for both.
The stomp-box effects operate pretty much as expected and the key controls do their job in an efficient and unfussy fashion. The tempo-based effects can all be sync'ed to the host sequencer tempo. Usefully, almost all the controllers can be assigned to MIDI controllers by right-clicking and selecting the 'Learn' option from the pop-up menu that appears. The manual also lists the factory default MIDI Controller numbers for some of the key controls.
Knobs, switches and sliders aside, how did the plug-in actually perform as a virtual band-member? From a technical perspective, Virtual Bassist performed flawlessly throughout the entire test period, and I did not encounter a single problem in using it within Steinberg's own Cubase SX. During playback, a single instance of Virtual Bassist generated a fairly modest CPU load (between two and five percent) on my test system.
As mentioned earlier, when used to automatically generate a suitable bass line, the combination of the Pitch Range and the Remote Range makes the operation of Virtual Bassist quite similar to Bornemark's Broomstick Bass. As such, building an automated bass part based on an existing chord progression is a very simple process, as you can concentrate upon the Remote Range for Part selection and switching. The provision of the Fill Parts adds an extra dimension here, making it easy to add embellishments for linking song sections.
Steinberg provide a useful PDF that compares the Virtual Bassist styles with those in Groove Agent 2. While there are a good number of obvious matches (for example, VB 's '60s Soul' style, which matches GA2 's 'Tamla' style or VB 's 'Tribal Dance', which matches GA2 's 'Tribal Techno'), I was perhaps just a little surprised that there wasn't a somewhat closer integration between the styles of the two instruments. That said, much of the fun of experimenting with Virtual Bassist alongside Groove Agent was mixing and matching styles just to see what did work and what did not.
If you can't get exactly what you need from the supplied styles, Virtual Bassist can also be used 'manually' in Single Note mode. While this works well enough, the actual character of the sound does not change a great deal with the dynamics of the playing, aside from velocity-sensitive increases in volume. This is in marked contrast to the phrases within many of the Styles where, for example, some of the funk styles include some excellent slaps and pops.
On a more positive note, the Amp & FX section is excellent. The simplicity of the stomp-box-style controls makes all the effects very easy to use, yet the degree of control allows for all sorts of creative possibilities. The fact that the same effects are available as a separate plug-in is a real bonus — I used it with synth and guitar parts and the results were very good indeed, with a very small CPU overhead.
There was one omission from the VB feature set that genuinely surprised me, especially as it is available in Groove Agent. At least, I think it's an omission: I could find no mention of it in the manual or on Steinberg's web site, and there is no appropriately labelled control within the plug-in. Quite simply, there's no MIDI Out option. In Groove Agent, this allows an entire performance to be output to the host sequencer, where detailed edits can be made as required. The absence of MIDI Out in VB may well be something to do with the exact way in which the program generates its bass performances, but, as there are few technical details about the plug-in's engine within the documentation, it is difficult to speculate further.
As I mentioned in my May 2005 review of Bornemark's Broomstick Bass (see SOS May 2005 review), Sven Bornemark was a central figure in the production of both Virtual Guitarist and Groove Agent for Steinberg and, after finishing that review, I had the opportunity to ask Sven how the two virtual bass players came about. After the completion of Groove Agent in 2003, Paul Kellet, who programmed both Virtual Guitarist and Groove Agent as part of Sven Bornemark's team, was hired full-time by Wizoo and moved to Bremen where he eventually performed the programming for Virtual Bassist. While Sven Bornemark had had some discussions with Wizoo about the concept of a virtual bass player, it was clear that each wanted to approach the project from somewhat different directions. Sven therefore started work on his own vision with programmer Dave Brown and teamed up with MI7, a company based in Sven's own town of Malmö in Sweden. The result of all this is two completely independent 'virtual bass players', created by different teams in different countries.
With Virtual Bassist and Broomstick Bass so obviously aimed at the same function and being sold at a very similar price, it would be remiss of me not to make a direct comparison as part of this review. While the two plug-ins have been developed completely independently (see the 'Who Done It?' box for further details) and, I suspect, employ very different engines under the bonnet, the basic control method for the production of the automatic bass lines is remarkably similar. Both respond to MIDI chord input and can play back a number of phrases within any of the preset styles. Perhaps Virtual Bassist offers slightly more choices here within an individual style, particularly with the Fill options — but Broomstick Bass provides mod-wheel-controlled articulations.
There are, however, some notable differences that may make one product or the other preferable for individual purchasers. For example, Broomstick Bass undoubtedly has the more distinctive sample set; acoustic basses and keyboard instruments are included, and individual bass types are identified. Broomstick Bass also has the edge when played as a 'manual' VST instrument because of the performance articulations. On the other hand, the Amp & FX options within Virtual Bassist are excellent, and the ability to use the same effects as a separate plug-in is a real bonus. Virtual Bassist also offers more comprehensive quantise options.
Virtual Bassist does exactly what you would want from a virtual band member — it delivers a professional automated performance with a minimum of fuss, and sounds great within a mix. The playing styles cover a wide spectrum, from soul through to nu metal and, while Virtual Bassist is unlikely to throw any great musical surprises into your composition, it will hit all its cues, play in time and in tune. If only my own bass playing was as reliable!
Having used them both side by side within Cubase SX, the choice between Virtual Bassist and Broomstick Bass is a difficult one. In my own view, for basic automated bass-line construction — which is, after all, the key selling point of both — there is little to choose between the two products. However, the rest of the feature sets are quite distinctive, with each product having its own particular strengths. I hope that my two reviews will give all you potential purchasers enough of a flavour of these differences that you can determine which product might best suit your own particular needs.