According to its liner notes, the purpose of Urban Ballads is to provide R&B producers with "authentic” sounds. What qualifies as "authentic” remains unclear, but the sample content includes guitars, electric and acoustic pianos, basses, synths, pads and effects.
As is the way with all the Elastik instruments I've encountered, Urban Ballads is made up of Construction Kits. Within each Kit, all the samples and loops share the same tempo, key and rhythmic characteristics, and form a song-like composition when combined. Urban Ballads offers 22 kits, amounting to 3.6GB of data and comprising 1261 samples. The idea is that the end user builds an arrangements from loops and samples belonging to a Kit, but there's nothing to prevent you selecting a drum hit or solitary loop and using it as a basis for something completely different.
In terms of sample organisation, each Construction Kit folder contains a Main Kit carrying the dominant theme, phrases and sounds, a Variation Kit offering alternative loop ideas, and Intro and Outro Kits. Tempos range from 50 to 77 BPM — approximately half the speed of a typical dance track — although the hip-hop inspired 'beatz' prevent the feel from becoming too laid-back.
Having developed a preconception from seeing the cover image, of a sparkling, gold-plated acoustic piano played by a lover of 'bling', I must admit to being disappointed by some of the content. I might be wrong, but the acoustic piano samples sound as though they're from a virtual instrument, albeit one that is pretty good and attempts to emulate the sound of pedals clunking. The same goes for the all-important vibrato Rhodes and wind-chimes samples. Although using virtual rather than actual gives the sounds a contemporary feel, the overall impression is that the material lacks the depth of fully-produced 'artist' tracks. Moreover, the same sounds are used across all the kits, which is good for consistency but not quite as good for sound options. The use of virtual instruments and the aforementioned electronic beats does keep things contemporary, as I've observed, but much of the material draws heavily on '70s and '80s R&B and funk production, where strings, tremolo guitars, chirpy synths and cheeky basses play a big part.
The samples themselves are well played and programmed, and are generally ambiguous enough on their own to be useful in many different compositional contexts. I suspect that the Rhodes piano examples will have the longest shelf life, particularly as they wouldn't be out of place on the Dirty Harry soundtrack, but there are other minor gems too. I was quite taken by the range and quality of the acoustic guitar riffs, for example, many of which could form the basis of a new composition. Other highlights include the organ samples and the FX folder content.
All in all, Urban Ballads does the job pretty well, offering a variety of solutions to composers who are unsure about which sound combinations work. It doesn't quite have the slickness suggested by the cover, but you can always add a little processing gloss here and there. Tom Flint