EastWest/Quantum Leap launch their new 64-bit 'Play' sample engine with two sound libraries spanning nearly 50 years of rock.
The American samplemeisters EastWest and Quantum Leap have been responsible for some of the most successful sound libraries of the last 20 years, joining forces in 2002 to create EWQL Symphony Orchestra, a mega-production prized for its big, lush, Hollywood sound. Given their sampling pedigree, it was always on the cards that EastWest would follow the example of other sound developers and devise their own custom sample engine. Titled simply 'Play', the new player is now available, and with it come four new libraries: Fab Four, Quantum Leap Ministry Of Rock (both reviewed here), Quantum Leap Gypsy and Quantum Leap Voices Of Passion (which will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of SOS).
The new EWQL libraries run exclusively on the Play audio engine, which will load only Play-formatted libraries. Two versions of the player (32-bit and 64-bit) are supplied with every library, and it works as a VST, AU and RTAS plug-in and as a stand-alone instrument, on Mac OS 10.4 and higher and Windows XP and Vista. A hardware iLok USB security key (not supplied with the libraries) is also required. Those with 64-bit operating systems can take advantage of the 64-bit player's ability to access all of a computer's RAM — up to 128GB for PCs and 32GB for Macs. This greatly improves computer performance and facilitates the loading of a far larger number of instruments than was previously possible. That said, there's no difference in sound quality between the 32-bit and the 64-bit player, since both use the same 24-bit samples.
Fans of the Beatles will love Fab Four, Doug Rogers' homage to the divinely talented Liverpudlians. Having bought his own recording studio (see the 'California Dreaming' box), Rogers embarked on a mission to meticulously recreate the group's instruments in sampled form. Enlisting engineer and producer Ken Scott gave the project an extra injection of period authenticity — having worked with the Beatles (not to mention Jeff Beck, Elton John, David Bowie, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and countless others), Ken knows which end of a microphone to point at a recording artiste, and his experience of '60s studio recording techniques would have been invaluable on this job.
The production team painstakingly researched the instrument/amplifier combinations used by the Beatles, in an attempt to exactly match the sounds you hear on their records. The patch names give an idea of this forensic approach: 'Get Back My Guitar' emulates that track's guitar sound by sampling an Epiphone Casino guitar played through a Fender Showman amp, while 'Get Back My Organ' recreates the Hammond B3 sound (vibrato, third-harmonic percussion and slow Leslie speed) used by Billy Preston on the same song.
The results are pretty inspiring. From the angry lead guitar of 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' to the ethereal, fluttery Leslie-cabinet sound of 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds', Fab Four is like a magical mystery tour (sorry) of the Beatles' catalogue of iconic guitar timbres. Clean samples ('Roll Over Beethoven' and 'Michelle') contrast with the distorted guitars of 'Revolution' and 'Everybody's Got Something To Hide', and there's even some backwards guitar (as heard on the wonderful 'I'm Only Sleeping'). My favourite is the 'Ticket To Ride' Rickenbacker electric 12-string — the jangly, chiming, quintessentially '60s timbre which has influenced countless thousands of guitarists down the years — as George Harrison said on first playing a 12-string, "What a sound on it!"
Fab Four's guitars (played by Laurence Juber, formerly a member of Paul McCartney's Wings) have plenty of performance options. The fantastic, ultra-bright, staccato Telecaster stabs of 'It's Getting Better' can be instantly key-switched between major and minor chords and octave intervals, and it's a doddle to program the 'Come Together' rhythm guitar to perform Chuck Berry's classic chugging rhythm pattern. The mono guitar samples can be transformed into larger-than-life stereo by turning up the 'stereo spread' knob. Underpinning the Beatles' guitars are Paul McCartney's two favourite basses: the Hofner 'violin' bass he used in 1963 is played in fingered and picked styles, while the brighter, somewhat cleaner Rickenbacker 4001S he still owns today has a more distinct and contemporary tone. Both basses play long and staccato notes plus semitone up and down slides — ample material for programming realistic bass lines, though I wish some longer slides had also been included.
The Beatles aren't known for their keyboard sounds, with one notable exception: the Mellotron flutes on the intro of 'Strawberry Fields Forever'. They're included in Fab Four, sounding as dreamily evocative as ever. Less famous examples of Beatles keys include the spindly, chiming percussive Lowrey organ preset used on 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds', the Baldwin electric harpsichord (a real rarity) featured on John Lennon's 'Because', and, best of all, a Clavioline, the charismatic, buzzy little monophonic organ used on 'Telstar'. For some reason the Clavioline samples aren't looped, so its 'long' notes are rather short.
The library's vintage Ludwig Downbeat drum kit exactly matches the one Ringo Starr played with the Fabsters. EWQL sampled it in a variety of styles and created nine kits which correspond to specific Beatles tracks: one of them is 'A Day In The Life', featuring a John Bonham-esque booming bass drum and stentorian, timpani-like ringing toms. Adopting the opposite approach, the manual proudly states that the 'Come To Drums' kit was recorded with 'tea towel on all drums', the advanced recording technique responsible for the dull, lifeless drum sound that marred many '70s rock records. Given this collection's fanatical attention to detail, we can assume that this it's the same type of tea towel that was originally laid on Mr Starkey's drum heads, and that the stain on it came from the same brand of tea the Beatles used to drink.
The icing on the cake (or the mango chutney on the poppadum) is the selection of Indian instruments the boys helped to popularise back in the day — sitar, some fine tabla drums hits and the surmandal zither used to great psychedelic effect on 'Strawberry Fields'. Unfortunately, the hypnotic bass drone of the tambura (used on several Beatles songs) is absent, but you can get a similar effect by slowing the sitar's attack and repeatedly playing a bass note with the sustain pedal held down.
For many people (myself included), the Beatles are musical gods, and even after 40 years their spontaneous, sparky, imaginative and groundbreaking recordings still sound like a breath of fresh air. Although these samples won't enable you to write like Lennon and McCartney, they should provide compositional inspiration to anyone with an ear for iconic '60s sounds.
Doug Rogers and Ken Scott at the vintage EMI TG12345 desk in EastWest Studios. Behind them you can see an EMI REDD 37 desk and a Studer J37 four-track tape recorder. And what's Doug reading? Could it be Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew's Recording The Beatles book?
If you're planning a sample library dedicated to recreating the heady sounds of the '60s, where better to record it than the studio in which Brian Wilson created the legendary 'Pet Sounds'? Founded by Bill Putnam in 1961, United Western Recorders at 6000 Hollywood Boulevard played host to America's biggest stars over the years, boasting a client list that included Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Phil Spector, the Mamas & the Papas, Tom Petty, Whitney Houston, REM, Madonna, the Rolling Stones and Elton John. In its heyday the studio was seen as America's Abbey Road. Being a huge Beatles fan, EastWest's Doug Rogers jumped at the chance to buy the studio complex when it came up for sale in 2006. Its acquisition spurred the decision to record the Fab Four sample library, a project Rogers had dreamed about for years. But accurately recreating the sounds was by no means easy, as Doug Rogers explains: "I did not want to start this project without having the right tools available... I knew I had to start by getting the original recording equipment, instruments and amps together."
The quest became obsessive. Rogers ended up scouring the world's second-hand markets for the ultra-rare EMI REDD and EMI TG12345 mixing consoles used on some Beatles recordings. Against all the odds, he also managed to locate a pair of valve Studer J37 four-track tape recorders, the type of machine used to record Sergeant Pepper. By the start of the sampling sessions, the producer had assembled "well over a million dollars worth" of rare period instruments, amplifiers, microphones, recording desks, EMI REDD 47 pre-amps, outboard equipment, Fairchild limiters, EMI RS124 modified Altec compressors and tape recorders.
The complex has now been re-named EastWest Studios. Its proud owner says of his new sound library, "These are just great sounds. The vintage tube equipment, developed with the finest audio components, provides a character that cannot be reproduced with today's digital equipment." What does he expect from Fab Four's users? "I don't imagine people are going to use this virtual instrument to make Beatles music; that wasn't my objective. I'm hoping they're going to use it to make new music." You can be sure the Beatles would have agreed with that sentiment!
Fast forward several decades. The Beatles' reign is over, but by a strange quirk in musical evolution, dinosaurs once again rule the earth. Yes folks, we've entered the era of heavy rock, which first reared its shaggy head in the '70s and has refused to die ever since. It's interesting to compare the guitars, basses and drums on QL Ministry Of Rock with their equivalents on Fab Four — the sound has a more distilled and manic aggression, and the recording techniques are aimed at focusing that sonic fury.
MOR opens with a Ibanez seven-string instrument known as 'the ultimate death-metal guitar'. I made the mistake of playing it through headphones without first checking the headphone-amp volume level, and the blood pouring from my ears confirmed that the description is accurate. Be that as it may, the sound is so exciting that I found myself jamming enthusiastically on the instrument for several minutes before my body's defences kicked in and warned me to turn the volume down! Played through a Krank amp (a name which suggests terrifying loudness levels), the Ibanez sounds unbelievably heavy, especially down on its low 'B' string. A separate power chords program contains chugs and smashes of tremendous potency.
At the quieter end of the decibel range (assuming you haven't already gone deaf) you'll find a beautifully-recorded Gibson J160 acoustic guitar delivering a chromatic set of strummed chords. You can keyswitch between various chord types, including the sus 4ths and add 2nds often used in contemporary rock. There's a choice of long and staccato strums played with up- and down-strokes, and strummed deliveries played in a slightly more 'broken' style can be accessed by pushing up the mod wheel. When combined, these musical options will produce very realistic rhythm guitar tracks. Back in Loudsville, the classic 1970s distorted sound of a Les Paul Deluxe sounds mighty strong when layered up into a Brian May-style 'guitar choir', and also works reasonably well for Holdsworthian faster-than-light solo lead lines. Play's 'auto-detect legato' mode helps smooth the transition between notes for that sort of quicksilver delivery. However, although it's a big improvement on the clunky sound of a series of disconnected initial notes played in quick succession, the resulting legato effect is not altogether convincing.
The guitar highlights go on and on — PRS and Fender Stratocaster guitars contribute some mad thrash rhythm samples, the Telecaster plays terrific 1950s palm-muted pizzicatos à la 'Shaking All Over' and there are oodles of iconoclastic heavy metal noises — plectrum scrapes, whammy-bar howls, ZZ Top squealing harmonics and so on. Without wishing to sound like an ad copywriter, even the most pusillanimous, knock-kneed, six-stone weakling can sound like a rock god with these guitar samples!
Moving down the scale, MOR's basses provide suitably muscular support to the guitar front-line. Sampled bass guitars often sound too clean and polite, but that's not the case here — the emphasis is definitely on attitude, and if that means that some notes aren't played totally cleanly, that only reflects how rock bassists play in real life. Played fingerstyle and with a pick, a Kubicki bass combines a big, booming tone with a hint of edgy distortion. A Musicman bass borrowed from the Quantum Leap Hardcore Bass library also packs plenty of welly and wouldn't sound out of place in a Quentin Tarantino film soundtrack. You might prefer the Specter model for rock ballads (although it's advisable to keep it well away from firearms), while the trusty Fender Jazz and Precision basses will work with virtually any style of electric music.
MOR contains four drum kits: the Ayotte kit is the cleanest, while the Gretsch 'Black' kit (named after Metallica's album) has a more '70s sound, mainly due to its rather low-pitched snare. I enjoyed the Octaplus kit's open, ringing sound and liked the natural room ambience surrounding the Ludwig set, but felt all the drums could use some extra processing to help them compete with the death-dealing decibels of the guitars. You can mix and match the kit elements, which is very useful. Volume levels are controlled by a little bar to the right of each element's name — but unfortunately this doesn't have a numerical readout, which makes level-matching a little unpredictable.
Don't be fooled by the acronym: MOR is definitely NOT middle of the road. It's a screeching, howling, booming, clanging, clattering, bashing noise-fest that will fool your neighbours into thinking you have a tame death-metal band lurking in your studio. It's hard to imagine any rock library getting much more powerful than this, and bearing in mind the enduring popularity of the genre, I have a feeling it will be one of Quantum Leap's biggest sellers.
I don't usually give much thought to the visual appearance of virtual instruments, but I have to say that the Play user interface graphics are extremely attractive. The player changes its colours like a chameleon according to which library you're using, so if you open Fab Four and then load a Ministry Of Rock instrument, the UI obligingly performs a costume change from a dark grey Vox AC30 look to a more contemporary yellow-ochre and brown. The Play engine has a very usable selection of built-in effects: both libraries offer built-in mono delay, ADT ('automatic double-tracking', the fast tape-delay effect John Lennon loved hearing on his vocals), a good-quality (though CPU-hungry) convolution reverb and a five-stage amplitude envelope. MOR also has a low-pass filter, very handy for extreme timbral manipulation and synth-like effects. One slight design glitch is that the ADT and delay effects currently ignore the filter setting, which sounds rather weird! I hope EWQL will remedy this.
As the name suggests, the new Play libraries are designed for maximum playability and minimum technical fuss. The downside for inveterate tweakers like myself is that it's frustrating not to be able to (say) extend the bottom note of an instrument down by a semitone or two. The inability to alter the player's pitch-bend range is a more serious problem: a full bend up gives a pitch rise of just under three semitones, while a full bend down detunes notes by something less than a full tone. This inaccurate calibration means that if you layer a Play instrument with another manufacturer's instrument and perform a pitch-bend in either direction, the two instruments will go out of tune with each other. EWQL should address this.
But enough of such quibbles; overall, Play is a triumph, and I can unreservedly recommend both of the new libraries. Users will have a lot of fun with these instruments and the colourful iconic sounds on Fab Four will be an asset for composers who work on film soundtracks and TV ads. I look forward to more sonic mayhem from Quantum Leap, and live in hope that Doug Rogers' next project will bring us the sounds of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys! .
Fab Four (13GB)
Ministry Of Rock (20GB)
Both platforms require an iLok key (not included).