In last month's SOS I waxed lyrical about EastWest's Beatles-homage sound library, Fab Four, and described the enjoyable ear-bashing I'd received courtesy of Quantum Leap's well 'eavy Ministry Of Rock. Both libraries run exclusively on EastWest's Play audio engine, which works in plug-in and stand-alone mode on Mac and PC. Accompanying Fab Four and MOR are three more Play-formatted sample collections created by EastWest's partner company Quantum Leap: QL Gypsy, QL Voices Of Passion and QL Stormdrum 2. These libraries were first announced in the spring of 2007, but would-be buyers had to wait until February 2008 to get their hands on Stormdrum 2. At the time of writing, a sixth Play title, QL Pianos, is still under construction.
QL Gypsy (shouldn't that be 'QL Person Of Romany Extraction'?) brings you the instruments and percussion associated with gypsy music. Given the ancient origins, complex migratory patterns and wide geographic dispersal of that particular ethnic group, you might suppose this library would have to cover an awful lot of musical territory, but Gypsy avoids excessive globe-trotting by focusing on a relatively limited instrumentation drawn from the gypsy musical traditions of Romania, Eastern Europe and Spanish flamenco.
If accordions are your thing, you're going to love this library. I used to vainly imagine that if push came to shove I could probably get a tune out of an accordion because it has a keyboard attached, but in the case of the bandoneon, that idea's a non-starter: this rectangular squeezebox is played with buttons that produce different pitches depending on whether the bellows are closed or open! Like certain ghastly war criminals, bandoneons originated in Germany and later appeared in Argentina, where (unlike the Nazi fugitives) they play a prominent role in tango orchestras. Thanks to an accomplished sampling job, we can enjoy the bandoneon's wide range and big, stately reedy tones from the comfort zone of our MIDI keyboards.
The library has three more accordions up its sleeve: the Italian Campana model has a smaller, more friendly sound and its wheezy, warbling 'Musette' stop immediately evokes clichéd images of beret-clad Parisian onion sellers. Another Italian make, Excelsior, sounds grander and has a more percussive attack, courtesy of an optional layer of key-click samples, while the American Silvestri model has the most intimate tone of all. These accordions don't just play single notes at one dynamic; the bandoneon has long (unlooped) notes, short notes, portatos, accents and sforzandos, while the other instruments have 'air in' and 'air out' variants. A set of basic major, minor and dominant 7th chords are provided in all keys for accompaniment.
Acoustic guitar is the other main weapon in Gypsy's armoury. I enjoyed the subtle, natural dynamic response of the nylon-string classical guitar, and found that judicious use of the vibrato and legato samples livened up lines played with its no-vibrato articulations. In a jazzier vein, another acoustic guitar has a perky set of single-note multisamples played in the style of the fabulous Django Reinhardt — and these are supplemented by a comprehensive set of Django-esque chords, which include quite complex voicings. A Spanish steel-strung guitar contributes some fine single-note 'strum' patches which, if played in the right way, can do a very decent rendition of strummed chords, while the Flamenco guitar nails the fierce strums and staccato chordal accents of that dance style. Accompanying this haughty string-flailing are flamenco dancer percussive foot noises, castanet hits and a set of monosyllabic male vocal utterances, evidently intended to encourage the dancer. Thankfully, no-one shouts 'olé'!
We now head East. Quantum Leap's Nick Phoenix is right in identifying the cimbalon as a fantastic film score element: the instrument famously performed the The Third Man theme in 1949, was used by John Barry in The Ipcress File and makes an appearance in John Williams' Raiders Of The Lost Ark score. The cimbalon is an Eastern European 'hammered dulcimer' (aka a large zither) played with yarn-covered beaters. Its dim, dreamy twang is terrific for melodies and arpeggios, with grace notes and tremolandos adding to the mysterious, slightly oriental atmosphere. I layered two cimbalons and detuned one slightly (with some difficulty, as the fine-tune parameter is concealed in a box called 'Current Instrument Advanced Properties'). The result was a chorused, Leslie speaker-like sound — very nice indeed, an inspirational musical timbre.
It has been said that all a Hungarian needs to get drunk is a glass of water and a Gypsy fiddler. The violinist on this project deserves a drink too, as his legato performances use nearly 7500 samples. This bears witness to the fact that the producers have utilised 'interval sampling', a technique pioneered by the Vienna Orchestral sampling company. There's no doubt in my mind that it's the best way to produce effective legatos from a sampled instrument, and here it adds a silky sheen to the violin's emotional delivery and expressive vibrato. A similar technique smoothes over the pitch slides of the very presentable solo trombone, whose short staccatos are played with great precision in classic Quantum Leap style. In addition to these romantic sounds, Gypsy makes sure you will never again have to echo British music hall entertainer Arthur Atkinson's plaintive cry of 'where's me washboard?' by generously providing samples of that peculiar domestic object. They go straight into my 'samples I will almost certainly never use' top 10.
Ever since Lisa Gerrard did her ethnic-sounding thing in Gladiator, composers have been falling over themselves to hire female vocalists to add a human touch to their TV and film soundtracks. There's something immediately engaging about a solo voice, even if you don't understand a word the person is singing — and of course Lisa Gerrard, Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins and Miriam Stockley of 'Adiemus' fame all invented their own sung quasi-languages anyway, thus ensuring total incomprehensibility.
Quantum Leap's Voices Of Passion brings you more of the same in the shape of five solo female vocalists from different corners of the world. Naturally, I can't understand the Bulgarian singer's lyrics, but even if it turns out she's actually asking someone to call her a minicab, the sound of her voice is still mighty evocative. The vowel sounds, occasionally strident 'head' tone and elaborate multi-note ornaments will be familiar to anyone who's heard the amazing female choir on the Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares CDs. This is the sound of the ancient past, evolved through centuries of Thracian, Ottoman and Byzantine history: a fine collection of subtly evolving vowels, ululations, liturgical-sounding melodies and mini-phrases contrast with lovely soft oohs, ohs, eehs and ahs, all sung with great intonation. Play a string of moody string chords, pick the right vocal phrase, add some reverb, and the effect is absolutely spine-chilling.
From Bulgaria to Syria, whose vocal representative performs elaborate phrases with that unmistakable Middle Eastern melismatic delivery. The licks were sung in all 12 keys; many of them feature the characteristic Arabic scale interval of a flattened second, and their exotic, chromatic quality adds to the yearning, expressive effect. There's also some quarter-tone stuff going on which sounds out of tune to our European ears until you realise it's deliberate. (At least, I hope it is!) The South Indian vocalist also does some great improvisational stuff but a few phrases seem to have drifted sharp of concert pitch, which means you'd have to employ global pitch correction to make them fit with a backing track. It would be worth the effort, as the performances are excellent.
The Welsh singer doesn't sing in her country's language but instead performs a mini-dictionary of random English words such as 'breathe', 'dream' and 'fly' (and less cheerfully, 'death', 'drown' and 'hate'). The articulation is deliberately blurred and breathy and the words are indistinct, the intention being to provide a set of multi-purpose syllables that can be combined into quasi-phrases. Quantum Leap describe the performances as being in the 'Celtic shoegazer style', which says it all, really. If you like the singer's voice (as I did) but don't need the words, you can use her portamento slides and sustained vowel sounds, both based on legato intervals, to great effect.
Having scuttled swiftly round the globe, VOP ends up back in America with a singer who should be congratulated on the versatility of her performances, which range from soft breathy R&B 'oohs' and 'ahs' to proclamatory, near-operatic vibratos. The deliveries comprise a choice of simple and evolving vowel sounds, short ultra-breathy 'ahs', hums, crescendos and drifting-pitch sustains (good for spooky cluster chords). All in all, a very varied and colourful 7.3GB collection of expressive, finely performed and beautifully recorded solo female vocal performances, all patiently waiting their chance to make it onto the soundtrack of Gladiator 2 ('just when you thought it was safe to go back into the arena').
Cited modestly by its creator as "the most successful acoustic percussion library ever released", Quantum Leap's Stormdrum has won many fans since its release four years ago. This being a product aimed at the Hollywood movie industry, there had to a sequel, and sure enough we now find ourselves confronted by 'Stormdrum 2 — The Next Generation'. (I like to think the subtitle is ironic.) The brutal metallic graphics alone are enough to scare anyone half to death, so it was with trembling fingers that I tore open the box and installed the library.
What I found was a very satisfying mix of ethnic and processed percussion, presented as separate hits and also blended together in various fiendishly clever ways. The variety of sounds is enormous, as can be seen by a quick look at the instrument list above. Rather than souping up the samples with EQ and compression, the producers concentrated on capturing the natural resonance of the drums and added a very pleasing room ambience. This means that while the timbales (for example) don't clang manically like the ones in the theme tune of I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, big drums such as the giant odaiko and large, ambient dumbek really boom out impressively as nature intended. This boomy quality reaches its zenith in 'Earthquake Ensemble', a collection of low-pitched drums whose seismic rumble is capable of demolishing a row of houses. It's the kind of percussion sound that film composer Hans Zimmer is known for, with a low bass end designed to shake the walls of cinemas equipped with 5.1 surround systems.
Although culturally aware, the library is by no means purist; the producer thinks nothing of bunging a lot of reverb on a sample if it helps it achieve its effect. Consequently the massive, reverb-enhanced crescendo hits in the patch 'Rumpfs' sound absolutely devastating. But it's not all big bangs: some of the smaller hand drums sound very tuneful, making it easy to program more delicate grooves. I found some of the nomenclature a little unhelpful: the 'Malaysian' djembe sounds exactly like the African drum of the same name and the Indonesian 'bongos' sound more like high-pitched clay drums. I thought the intriguingly-named Roman war drum was going to raise the roof, but it turns out to have a rather pacific sound, somewhat like a softly-played tImpani! The drum performances are comprehensive and varied, and it's good to hear brushes as well as sticks used on some of them.
There's a lot of very nice stuff in the metals department: the bell-like Asian bowl gongs (bowed and hit), some great large gongs (including deep Javanese-sounding specimens), the obligatory spooky waterphone, scary piano noises and even an "80-foot metal bridge". (How did they get that in the car on the way to the studio?) The stand-out instrument for me was the 'hang drum', a resonant, metal, drum-like instrument that produces tuneful pitches in the manner of a Caribbean steel drum, but with a much softer, more beautiful sound. I found myself jamming along for ages with its attractive, understated, almost gamelan-like tones (which are tuned to a D-minor scale). For those who need a drum kit, Quantum Leap have included a scaled-down version of the 'Black' Gretsch kit from Ministry Of Rock. A set of powerful tom-tom samples from different kits recorded at the MOR sessions (but not used in that library) are also included.
Acoustic percussion is only half the story — a large part of Stormdrum 2 centres on processed 'sound design' percussion, much of it distorted, reversed and generally messed up. This kind of thing has been done before, but SD2's programmers have a talent for creating hip, contemporary noises that work well for programmed rhythm patterns, especially in conjunction with the library's giant drums. To get you in the programming mood, 106 MIDI files are included, in a variety of tempos. Each has its own multi-instrument set-up; the moods range from Alien 2-style military snares and bass drums to BT-esque fuzzed-up breakbeats. There are so many fantastic electronic noises in there I couldn't begin to describe them — suffice it to say that they rock, big time.
Mac: G4 1GHz or faster, 1GB RAM, Mac OS 10.4 or higher, DVD drive.
PC: P4 2.5GHz or faster, 1GB RAM, Windows XP SP2 or Vista, DVD drive.
Both platforms require an iLok key (not included).
Reviewing these wildly disparate sound libraries gave me the opportunity to get more familiar with the Play audio engine. The absence of on-screen multiple sound slots gives the erroneous impression that it's a single-instrument player, but in fact one instance of Play can handle multiple instruments operating independently on up to 16 MIDI channels. To create a multi-channel setup, you load a selection of instruments (choosing the 'Add' option rather than 'Replace'); their names are then listed in the Instrument window, and clicking on one reveals its individual screen display, where you can select the instrument's MIDI channel (which may be set to 'omni') and/or alter its volume, pan, ADSR and effects settings. It's a simple, flexible and effective system that enables you to quickly build complex setups without having to continually look at a cluttered screen.
Stormdrum 2 contains 16,000 samples, and I don't even want to think about how long it took to record the countless performances in Gypsy and Voices Of Passion. There's a sense of devotion about these projects, the long months spent recording and programming seeming to go well beyond the call of duty. As a consequence, each of the three Play titles is an artistic success. Sample libraries don't get much better than these, and any composer with an ear for sound will find much inspirational material in them.
QL Gypsy & Stormdrum 2 Instrumentation
QL GYPSY (12GB)
Classical nylon-string guitar
'Django' acoustic guitar
Flamenco nylon-string guitar
Spanish steel-string guitar
Flamenco dancer foot stamps
Male vocal yells
QL STORMDRUM 2 (13.1GB)
African bowl (kettle) drums
Darabuka with jingles
Tong zi drums (China)
Kettle drums (China)
Indonesian small drums
Roman kettle drum
Piatti (clashed cymbals)
Gretsch kit (from Ministry Of Rock library)
Chinese hand cymbals
Peking Opera gong
Persian metal castanets
Miscellaneous metal objects
Aboriginal shaker and bone hits
Chinese rattle drum
Chinese wood blocks
Bamboo stick hits
'Devil chasers' (hollow wooden sticks with grooves)
Vietnamese shakers and rattles
Piano staccato low notes
Piano interior effects
Sound Design Percussion (partial list!)
Processed drum, percussion, synth hits and loops
Miscellaneous backwards 'swoosh' crescendo effects
'Psycho' low groans, scrapes and slithers