Sample libraries with virtual-instrument wrappers are nothing new, but Ueberschall's new Liquid Instruments have an extra twist — the front end is derived from Celemony's Melodyne, offering you complete freedom to change the pitch of the phrases in the library.
Ueberschall are the latest sound-design company who've made the transition from releasing their libraries on CD to wrapping them up in a virtual-instrument front end and putting them out as plug-ins. But their new Liquid Instruments series takes a different approach, featuring a playback version of Celemony's Melodyne pitch- and time-manipulation package, and a library of phrases that come pre-processed by Melodyne. In fact, Celemony's Peter Neubäcker and Carsten Gehle were right there in the middle of the development of Liquid Instrument Saxophone (LIS), the first release in the Liquid series (bass and guitar instruments have just been released as I write this).
In case you're not familiar with it, Melodyne is a processing and playback tool that analyses monophonic audio and creates a map of pitch, tempo, time and formant data. Once the number crunching is done, you're free to work with the audio almost as if it were MIDI data: quantise a performance and/or freely transpose it, superimpose the melody of one audio file onto another, or create a completely new melody for a given performance, and all with far fewer of the artifacts you expect from more conventional audio pitch-shifting techniques. For more on Melodyne, check out the reviews in SOS November 2001 and January 2004 respectively.
The upshot of harnessing Celemony's technology to this saxophone library is that the playback of the sax phrases can be very flexibly altered via a simple front end. You can make any phrase in the collection work with any tempo or scale (as well as different keys, you can work in different modalities), change any note in a phrase, and change the feel of a phrase. You're also offered control over formants, and the on-screen controls can be tweaked via MIDI.
The basic library of saxophone phrases at the heart of LIS isn't huge by the standards of many current sample-based plug-ins, at just under 800MB, but it's still too large to fit on a CD with all the other bits that are supplied, so everything comes on a DVD. All the major Mac and PC plug-in formats are supported, including VST, RTAS, AU (for Macs) and DXi (for PC). In addition, a stand-alone version is supplied for both computers. The system requirements aren't too demanding by modern standards, either: users should have a minimum 800MHz Pentium-based PC running Windows 98SE or XP, or a 500MHz G4 Mac, with a minimum of 512MB of RAM in either case.
A full manual is provided — I can think of several other developers who could learn from this example! It's produced as a CD booklet, running to 16 pages in total, 11 of which cover the nuts and bolts of the program. It's good to have, although the text is tiny and some of the terminology is occasionally confusing, and some of the controls described in the manual don't always correctly relate to what you see when you have the plug-in open in front of you.
On launching the plug-in, you may be surprised at how compact the main window is. But there are just a few controls, with a dual-function display taking up most of the screen space. There are two ways to get phrases into the plug-in, the first being a file browser in the upper part of the window, which is initially labelled 'Program' when LIS is newly launched (more on the second in a moment). In the Liquid Instruments universe a Program is a collection of related phrases, each assigned to a MIDI note starting chromatically from C1.
The tempo is displayed to the right of the Program browser, and can be set anywhere you like, or be locked to the tempo of your sequencer when you're using LIS as a plug-in. Two of the four sliders next to this are labelled Volume and Pan, and are self-explanatory, but the other two, Pitch and Formant, are controls from Melodyne. The first lets you fine-tune the current phrase's playback pitch by ±1200 cents: that's an octave up or down in single-cent steps. With the Formant slider, the character of a phrase can be changed quite dramatically. There are few enough artifacts when applying large pitch changes, but working with the formant control can make such changes sound even more natural.
A column of only vaguely related buttons finish off this section, toggling between Multi mode (where you can play several phrases back at once) and Solo mode (where you're restricted to one at a time), and offering access to Load and Save functions (the File button). The curiously named Actions button actually halves or doubles the playback speed of the current phrase in relation to the host's tempo. Finally, the Setup button lets you customise automation, sample colour and display and tell the plug-in where your sound banks are. One Liquid Instrument can play back phrases from another's library (if you have other Liquid Instruments installed, of course), but the program needs to be told where the phrases are located.
The large coloured display that dominates the lower half of LIS has two views, Sounds and Editor, each accessed via its own tab, and the Sounds tab invokes the second, more detailed, method of Program selection and creation. The display takes on a hierarchical form somewhat similar to the 'columns' view in Mac OS X (see the pic at the head of this review). The first column starts with your library of choice; if you own one Liquid Instrument, there will only be one library. The next column opens up to tenor, baritone, alto and soprano sax sub-divisions, and the next lists all the Programs for the selected instrument. There's one last hierachical level in the penultimate column on the right, and this shows the actual phrases in the selected Program as miniature waveforms (though you can set this to show phrase names or miniature notes), and reveals that some factory Programs have as many as 18 phrases assigned to them.
As in Mac OS X, each entry in each column has an arrow on its right to invoke the next column. However, the arrows in the column with the mini waveform displays actually plays an audio preview of the phrase, which is rather unexpected — perhaps these buttons should have been made a little more obvious. Once they've been assigned to MIDI notes, phrases can be played back from an attached MIDI keyboard, by clicking the on-screen keyboard graphic along the left edge of the rightmost column, or by holding down your mouse button (the phrase will then play or cycle as long as the mouse button is held).
You can start using the technology from Melodyne while browsing the sound bank, transposing the recorded phrases into a different key or altering them to fit your choice of scale (the scale-mapping menu is shown overleaf). Ueberschall provide 28 altogether; standard classical, pop and jazz scales (major, minor, pentatonic, blues and bop, for example) are joined by many European and non-European modes. Whatever your choice, notes will be changed in the phrase to match your chosen scale or key.
The final column on the right in the Sounds view is the key-assignment area. If a Program has already been loaded, you'll see phrase names assigned to the keys on the graphical keyboard that runs up the left-hand side of this column — otherwise, the column stays blank. It's possible to drag phrases or entire Programs into this column — if you want to assemble multiple Programs into one 'super-Program', you just drag and drop them onto empty keys, and the assignment starts at the key where you let go of your mouse. You're even free to mix and match phrases from instrument Programs, and any transposition, key or scale settings you've chosen while auditioning the phrases are dragged along with the phrase, and can be saved using the File button mentioned above (the Volume, Pan, Pitch and Formant settings you've chosen at the top of the display can also be saved with each phrase). This is great.
In fact, there's only a slight restriction here: the bottom note is C1 and the top C4, giving you three octaves' worth of possible note assignments per Program. In practice, this isn't a limitation, as the Liquid Instruments don't currently offer any way to be used multitimbrally. I did notice that the titles of Programs named using the file saver window don't show up in the Program display on reloading. If you name the Program from the lower display first, then that name is reflected on reload.
One last file option allows the user to to save 'Keys' — individual edited phrases — so that new Programs can be assembled from bits of other custom examples. This is necessary since non-factory Programs don't show up in the library pop-up menu or sound browser: they can only be accessed via the File menu.
A pair of arrows to the right of each entry in the key-assignment mapping list provides basic audio out routing. This is an under-explained feature in the manual, and seems equally under-developed in the software. Within Cakewalk Sonar, a single stereo (ie. non-multi-channel) instance of LIS appears in the track list. Cubase SX handles this a little better, providing four output pairs, arranged as two stereo tracks. Each of these had a different character, rather as if the sax had been miked in two different ways for each phrase. This is potentially interesting, but no data is provided about it in the documentation.
And so to the Editor, a highly Melodyne-like display where note-level manipulation can be achieved. In contrast to the Sounds screen, the main attraction here is being able to work on each note separately rather than on the phrase as a whole. The Editor appears as a simplified piano-roll-type grid. Note names stretch up the right-hand side, and the notes themselves appear on the grid. Even grace notes and most ornaments get their own 'event': a miniature waveform inside what looks like a glass tube. The phrase on show is normally the phrase most recently triggered from your keyboard, or the last selected in the sound browser.
The grid itself is a little strange — it's clear enough what's going on, but I feel it could have been better customised to the job in hand. For example, the phrases in this library are not long — one or two bars mainly, with a couple in the five-bar range — and yet if you zoom out on the display, you can see up to 27 bars, most of which are empty, plus a single pickup bar at the start. Perhaps future libraries will have phrases this long, and need a pickup, but why not restrict the display when the current library, or phrase, doesn't need it?
Helpfully, the display can be navigated via vertical and horizontal scroll bars when there's too much data to display, and you can zoom on both the x and y axes, although the buttons for doing so are very small, and are on the bottom-right corner of the display itself, which means that they're often obscured by events on the display.
As in Melodyne, audio events can be moved and stretched almost as if they were MIDI data. You drag events up or down to change pitch in semitone steps, and can highlight several, or double-click on the grid to highlight all events in a phrase so that you can edit several at once. Two 'snap' options are available, semitone or scale, the latter only allowing you to select and drag to pitches in the currently selected key or scale/modality. You can also fine-tune notes by dragging events while holding down the Alt key (on Macs) or the Control key (PCs), although you'll need to be zoomed in close and have a steady touch. Shifting microtonally positions the waveform higher or lower within the 'tube' that makes up the event, rather than shifting the entire tube, as with semitone shifts.
Changing pitch keeps the feel of the original performance, although you can edit this too if you wish, changing note length and position. However, this is one area in which LIS, and Melodyne, don't work exactly like MIDI. It's not possible to move notes around independently; altering the length of a note or its start point simultaneously affects notes to either side, so as not to spoil the flow of the overall phrase. Thus if you shorten a note, the note immediately following will be lengthened and moved back in time to fill the space. Likewise, a note moved forward will not only become shorter, but will cause the preceding note to play longer, again to fill the gap. However, it doesn't take long to become accustomed to this.
The display grid has an impact on how note moves or length changes are made: though the resolution is set at a quarter, eighth or 16th note, the changes are 'quantised' to half that value, so the finest resolution is actually a 32nd note. In addition, in the same way that microtonal pitch changes can be made, 'microtiming' allows notes to be moved freely (while holding down Alt or Control), independently of the grid setting.
Another way to rejig a phrase is to change its start, end and loop points. These are indicated by little arrows above the display, which are almost as insignificant as the Zoom controls! A highlight bar indicates the section to be played and/or looped — you can start the phrase playing back anywhere, and have any section of it loop when the triggering event is held. It's even possible to start inside the phrase and loop from an earlier point. The purpose of the pickup bar now becomes clear; should you want to completely subvert the feel of a phrase, you can set a start point before the start of the phrase. You can even erase individual notes entirely (and you can Undo if you delete by mistake). Deleting is one case in note editing when the preceding or following notes don't stretch to fill the gap.
Generally, altering phrases with the Editor is very intuitive, and it's easy to forget that you're editing the performance within a plug-in, not your host sequencer — but of course, whatever you do to the blobs in LIS 's editor display, the whole phrase is always triggered by a single MIDI event.
The most important thing about the phrase library is, of course, the player (David Milzow) and the music he's playing. Using a variety of vintage horns and mouthpieces, David blows his way in jazzy and soulful fashion through the basic soprano, alto, tenor and baritone family (there's no bass sax, sadly). His experience shows in the neatly executed, stylistically appropriate licks, riffs and solos he provides. The baritone patch 'SoulSlap' is a standout amongst dozens, funky mouthpiece pops and all. In fact, it's the feel of these recordings, enhanced by the key noise and breaths, that makes them so strong. Sadly, the Program names don't give you much idea of what to expect: 'AFunk', 'Boogalues', 'MightyBop', 'SoulSlap', 'SoulGlow' are some of the more comprehensible ones, but some refer obliquely to tracks, styles and players, and you'll have to confirm by listening in many cases.
Whilst the playing is very good, the selection of styles broad, and the recording excellent (no compression or other effects were used, leaving that up to you), the phrases themselves are a little odd. There's little stylistic similarity between the Programs for each instrument — a completely different collection is played by each. Obviously Ueberschall weren't going for the 'mix and match' ensemble approach, but many users might like to at least have some pointers or short cuts to using more than one instrument in a larger context.
And I have to say, too, that as good as the playing is, the actual notes occasionally seem a little random. I feel as though the Ueberschall recording team were eavesdropping on a bit of a jam session, albeit one with some structure!
However, this slightly random feeling is mitigated by how flexible the phrases become in the Melodyne engine. It's as easy as clicking on a couple of menus to match the key or modality of a phrase to your host track, and the tempo always matches. This very ease of use makes it simple to forget that you're not dealing with a virtual instrument, but you soon remember if you try to get LIS to play your own melodies — re-shaping the existing sax phrases to play what you want takes rather longer than it would to play the same line into a virtual instrument. Getting the best out of this library, therefore, requires you to become familiar with its phrases, and to get used to tweaking them to suit your needs, rather than using it to create new melodies from scratch.
Sampled phrase collections obviously have a place in modern music making; specialised collections of phrases and loops can make up for shortcomings in our musical abilities, or musical circle. If you're bad at drum programming or don't know any sax players, why not borrow the playing or programming of a pro via sample collections? And Ueberschall's Liquid Instruments sit intriguingly between being sample libraries and virtual instruments. Sure, LIS is a phrase collection, but it's one that offers a lot more flexibility than most.