Given how well received products such as Virtual Guitarist and Groove Agent were, it is perhaps surprising that a 'virtual bass player' hasn't appeared before now. Just like buses, you wait for ages for one and two arrive together. Off the mark slightly before Steinberg's own Virtual Bassist is Bornemark's Broomstick Bass. The Bornemark name might not immediately be familiar to many SOS readers, but Sven Bornemark led the production teams for both Groove Agent and Virtual Guitarist, so his pedigree is well established.
Of course, musical auto-accompaniment is not a new idea, but the type of 'virtual band member' provided by Groove Agent or Virtual Guitarist has taken the process to a new level by including a high-quality sample collection. Whatever your own personal take on auto-accompaniment in the creative process, with virtual guitarists, drummers and singers already available, bass players were the next obvious target. So is Broomstick Bass a valuable 'session musician in a box' or a bunch of 'cheesy keyboard-style' presets? Let's get the lowdown...
Broomstick Bass is constructed from four elements. First, a large sample library (just over 800MB) has been built from 21 different bass instruments and is divided into four main types; acoustic, electric, keyboards and pedal basses. Incidentally, the plug-in takes its name from one of these instruments — a homemade 'bass' consisting of a metal bucket, a broomstick and a piece of string (see the screenshot on the left for an image of this). A full list of the instruments is provided in the 'Touching All The Basses' box elsewhere in this article.
Second is the auto-accompaniment section. This consists of dozens of individual styles, each grouped into a general musical genre (see the 'Style File' box over the page for details). As described more fully in a moment, each individual style actually consists of eight variations (bass riffs or patterns) and these are adjusted automatically to fit the chords arriving at the MIDI input.
The third element is the DSP section. This provides a collection of the more common processing options used with bass sounds and includes a three-band EQ, a pitch-shifter, compressor, chorus and overdrive. Finally, a Manual mode is included where Broomstick Bass can be used as a playable virtual instrument using any of the sampled instruments from the library.
Bornemark recommend that Broomstick Bass is run on a minimum 800MHz Pentium III PC under Windows XP, or a 600MHz G3 Mac under Mac OS v10.3, both with at least 512MB of RAM and 850MB of disk space. Both platforms require a DVD drive and a VST- or AU-compatible host sequencer (the latter on the Mac only, obviously).
The plug-in itself is provided on a single DVD-ROM (not a CD-ROM) with a slim printed manual. The latter is very well written and covers both the operation and concept/background to the instrument. Installation is simple, and allows user selection of the sample library location. Registration of Broomstick Bass can be completed on-line using the supplied serial number, and this provides access to updates and extras. These already include a 'gift pack' (a 14MB download) containing samples for two additional instruments and a dozen additional styles. Both the manual and the web site suggest that further add-ons will be made available to registered users at no charge — an attractive feature of the product. After installation, the plug-in was recognised without a problem by Cubase SX on my test system.
The main screen of Broomstick Bass is divided into three areas. To the right, the user can select the required instrument and this displays an image of the selected instrument. This section also includes the master volume control, a switch for Poly/Mono mode and smaller knobs for adjusting Glide, Release and Release Noise. The Release simply changes how long a sample is sustained after a note is released, while for added realism, the Release Noise control attempts to add more (or less) of the finger noise created as a note is released.
The bottom section of the window contains a virtual keyboard. This can be used for triggering patterns or individual notes if an external MIDI keyboard is not available. The shaded area of the keyboard is the 'Control Octave' and this is used to select patterns in Auto mode or articulations in Manual mode. Both of these modes are described more fully below.
Touching All The Basses
Aside from the homemade broomstick bass from which the plug-in takes its name, Bornemark sampled 20 different bass instruments. These are as follows:
Fender Rhodes Piano Bass.
Minimoog (four different sounds).
ARP 2600 (two different sounds).
ARP Odyssey (two different sounds).
ARP Omni (the bass preset).
Yamaha DX7 (preset Bass 1).
Fender Precision (picked and fingered, both damped).
Fender Jazz (picked and fingered).
Gibson Thunderbird (fingered, amped).
Rickenbacker 4001 (picked, amped).
Hagström H8 (picked and damped).
Music Man Sabre (picked and slapped).
Chapman Stick (tapped).
Ashbory Bass (fingered).
Manne Acoustibass fretless (fingered).
Double bass (bowed and fingered).
Tacoma Thunderchief (picked).
Church organ bass pedals.
Hammond B3 bass pedals.
Moog Taurus (Taurus preset).
The first free 'Gift Pack', which can be downloaded from the Bornemark web site, includes two new instruments; a Hofner 500/1 bass (made famous by Paul McCartney) and a suitably aggressive Elektron SidStation patch.
The left side of the window is somewhat busier. This includes the Auto/Manual switch which flips between the two main modes of operation. At the top of this section is the Style selector used in Auto mode. If the Link button is on, selecting a particular style also loads the appropriate instrument. The Memory tab brings up 16 user slots where you can save the current configuration of Broomstick Bass. You can automate the process of switching between these with MIDI continuous controllers, so the tab provides a simple way to move between different setups mid-song. This can include a change in the instrument used, but this may well cause a slight glitch as it involves loading the sample data on the fly. Running two instances of Broomstick Bass provides a workaround to this problem, as the plug-in only produced a CPU load of three to five percent when running under Cubase SX on my test system. A further useful feature is the Metronome button (with the drum kit icon) and this provides a basic drum pattern (in a suitable style) to audition the bass lines against. While it will not replace something like Groove Agent, it is certainly helpful to have.
Of course, the most obvious selling point of Broomstick Bass is its ability to act as a virtual bass player. In use, the basic operation of Auto mode is very straightforward. Broomstick Bass recognises basic chords fed to it via MIDI and, on the basis of the chord type, it will play a suitable bass line dictated by the selected style. Each style contains eight variations and, in many of the styles, these are based around a similar riff or pattern, with higher variation numbers containing more complex playing. You can switch between these eight variations via the on-screen display (the green Reference section or the grey Control Octave can be used). More generally, however, this would be done using the Control Octave from an external MIDI keyboard.
The 'Stop' and 'Bar 1' options within the Control Octave provide further possibilities. The 'Bar 1' switch forces any of the longer patterns (some run to four bars) to play only bar 1, while holding down the 'A' key stops the auto bass line until another key outside the Control Octave triggers it again. Usefully, while holding down the 'Stop' key, you can play your own bass line (similar to working in Manual mode). The modulation wheel on a MIDI keyboard also provides access to this basic 'manual' mode; pushing the mod wheel towards the top of its travel stops the auto playback and allows you to play the plug-in as a normal bass instrument. Additionally, with the mod wheel set between 10 and 90 percent of its travel, the pattern engine will just play repeated notes (usually the root note of the current chord) and this can be very useful for linking between chords or over rapid chord changes. Bringing the mod wheel back down to below 10 percent of its travel restarts Auto mode.
Other useful Auto mode features include the Latch option. With this on, a pattern can be triggered by hitting a chord and, even if that chord is released, the pattern will continue until the next chord is played. The Speed button allows patterns to be played in half-time or double time, while the Shuffle knob can be used to add swing to a straight bass riff (turn the knob clockwise) or to straighten out a bass line that is already swinging (turn the knob anticlockwise). Just as Groove Agent can output its rhythms over MIDI, Auto mode in Broomstick Bass includes the ability to output the bass lines created as a MIDI track. I've always found this really useful in Groove Agent, as it allows you to fine-tune the auto-generated parts by, for example, groove quantising. This MIDI output process is well explained in the manual and worked a treat in Cubase SX.
The whole operation of the Auto mode is very well thought-out and, once you have a basic chord progression for your song, creating a suitable bass line is a breeze — even if you do then decide to edit this further. At first glance, I was only really surprised by one feature of the Auto engine — the rather limited range of chord types that are supported. Essentially, Broomstick Bass will play patterns based on only major, minor and 7th chords and, while a much fuller range of chord types are recognised by the software, they are essentially truncated to one of these three basic types. Even using this fairly narrow chord palette (which, incidentally, is the same as Virtual Guitarist Electric Edition with the exception of sus2), Broomstick Bass is capable of producing solid, credible bass lines. Aside from real jazz aficionados, most users are unlikely to find this a significant restriction.
While Auto mode might be the main selling point of Broomstick Bass, the Manual mode is also well featured. In this mode, Broomstick Bass operates as a normal sample-based virtual instrument and, as well as velocity-sensitive sample layers, each of the instruments also contains articulation layers, accessed via the Control Octave. As well as the 'normal' sustained notes, Staccato, Slide Up, Hammer On/Off, Slide Down and Legato articulations are provided. For the acoustic and electric basses, further options of Fret Noise, Ghost Note (a heavily damped note where the pitch is unclear) and Smack sounds can also be added for additional realism. While this type of 'key-switching' system can add great flexibility to a performance, it does require considerable practice to make it work effectively.
When playing the same note in quick succession (for example, a simple bass line playing eighth notes on the root of the chord) 'machine-gun' effects can often befall sample-based sounds, as it soon becomes obvious that the same sample is being played repeatedly. Broomstick Bass avoids this problem as the playback engine detects repeated notes. For normal notes, re-pitched adjacent samples will be thrown in to add variety, while for Staccato playing, a random selection of four samples for each note are used. This end result does sound very natural, with enough subtle variation to fool the ears.
So much for the technical details — what do the various instruments sound like? The simple answer is very good indeed. With the exception of the broomstick bass itself (for which I'm not sure I could find a genuine musical application!), all the instruments are eminently usable and appear to have been well recorded and edited. The recording methods obviously varied; while some have been recorded via a mic/amp combination, others seem to have been recorded direct. The manual includes an interesting section that details some of the methods used.
For a number of the instruments, several different versions are provided. For example, four versions of the double bass are included, providing fingered and bowed sounds, both with or without vibrato. This variety is useful but also necessary as, despite some relatively minor sound-shaping possibilities described below, there is little that can be done to edit the sounds themselves.
That point accepted, there are some absolute gems here. For example, if you want solid and reliable electric bass, the Fender Precision and Fender Jazz basses are pretty much spot on. In contrast, for something a little more aggressive, the Gibson Thunderbird and Rickenbacker 4001 deliver the goods, as both of these have been recorded via an amp. I also liked the very solid sound of the Chapman Stick, while the 'slapped' version of the Music Man Sabre has plenty of character. Of the keyboard and pedal instruments, perhaps my favourite was the wonderful Hammond B3 bass pedals — instant 'Green Onions'. Given how 'playable' the articulations make these instruments, the Broomstick Bass sample set is probably worth the price of entry on its own.
The Edit screen provides access to various bass-orientated effects which are both simple and effective in operation. The EQ section permits a reasonable level of tonal control if some minor fine-tuning is required to make the bass sit within a mix. The compressor and overdrive work well enough but don't overcook things, while the chorus sounds really nice and can easily add a little movement and character to any of the sounds. The pitch-shifter, while working well enough with the keyboard-based instruments, did not produce very usable results with the acoustic and electric basses. All these controls can be automated and the MIDI controller numbers are listed in the manual. The Edit screen also includes various settings that control how Broomstick Bass operates. For example, the MIDI Output function can be enabled here. Depending upon the size of your master keyboard, the other useful option provided is the ability to move the position of the Control Octave to any one of four positions.
There are several dozen individual styles included with Broomstick Bass. These are grouped into a number of broad musical types including jazz, rockabilly, boogie, blues, pop, rock, prog rock, reggae, funk, dance, and fusion. There are also a few stranger headings, such as 'Classic Synth' and 'Odd Meters', and a group named 'Streets Of....' which includes a small selection of bass styles from around the world (eg. Rio, Dublin, Dakar).
The blues and rock styles are pretty safe and solid but right on the money, while the funk styles contain some excellent material with plenty of slapping. The classic synth and dance groups include great '70s and '80s moods, particularly the Disco styles. While there is plenty of choice, I wonder whether Bornemark might add some more styles aimed at hip-hop, R&B and other modern styles. These could, of course, be easy targets for future 'Gift Pack' downloads.
In Broomstick Bass, Bornemark have delivered the kind of characteristics that most band members would think of as ideal in a real bass player; it is solid and dependable, plays in time with the drummer, always uses an appropriate bass sound and is happy to turn down (or off) when asked. I didn't experience a single glitch during the whole of the review period, and this gives plenty of confidence in the programming work done. The user interface is very straightforward, and the large range of styles and the quality of the sounds are commendable.
As with any auto-accompaniment function, what you can't really expect is virtuoso playing that, all of a sudden, is going to spring a musical surprise. In Auto mode, what Broomstick Bass does provide is a solid and reliable bass line. If more colour is required, then Manual mode includes enough creative possibilities to get the job done. While I'm sure I will still be turning to my Fender Jazz for many of my own needs, I'm also sure there will be times when Broomstick Bass will do the job just as well and with a minimum of fuss.
By the time you read this, Steinberg's Virtual Bassist may also be available and it will be very interesting to see exactly how Virtual Bassist and Broomstick Bass compare — look out for a review of the former in a forthcoming SOS. However, if you are keen to get a virtual bass player on board as soon as possible, then Broomstick Bass is a pleasure to use and comes highly recommended. A 15MB downloadable demo is available from the Bornemark web site for those that wish to try before they buy.