A German artist's unique instrument designs forge a new sound world.
For most of us, selecting an instrument we fancy owning is simply a matter of pointing at an item in a catalogue and saying 'I want that one'. Top pros can go one better by asking manufacturers to build them custom instruments, ranging in scope and nuttiness from Pat Metheny's 42‑string Pikasso guitar to Bjork's 'gameceleste' (a hybrid, keyboard‑driven metallophone). At a higher level still are the visionaries who construct their own experimental musical designs from scratch: among their ranks we can count Benjamin Franklin (American Founding Father and inventor of the mechanised Glass Harmonica), Russian electronics wiz Lev Termen (Theremin) and our very own Henry Dagg, the ex‑BBC sound engineer who dreamed up the Sharpsichord and the 'toy cat organ' — look up these names on the net, it's an entertaining way to spend half an hour or so!
Flying the flag for such far‑sighted musical creativity is German‑born artist‑musician Ferdinand Försch. While studying composition, percussion and electronic music in the '70s, Försch played in rock, jazz, big‑band and orchestral settings, and put in a stint with hirsute pop band the Dukes (no, not the XTC psychedelic spin‑off), before founding the improvisational Percussion Road ensemble in 1977. From the beginning, our man was interested in exploring the sonic qualities of 'objets trouvés' such as brake drums, baking tins and timber. After undergoing a Road to Damascus‑style conversion during a brief UK seminar given by the out‑of‑the‑box musical thinker John Cage, Försch decided (in his own words), "to dedicate my life to the research of sound. I built my first instruments, metal drums, in 1982 — and I never stopped.”
Having spent nearly three decades constructing 'sound machines', sound sculptures and installations, Försch's collection of over a hundred instruments has graced concert stages and galleries around the world. In an echo of the aforementioned XTC's Drums & Wires, they include drums, percussion and stringed instruments, many of them so visually stunning that they qualify as fully‑fledged works of art in their own right. A commentator remarked that these instruments look alien, but their other‑worldly, futuristic appearance is often tempered by a hint of something ancient — a few of the geometric shapes reminded me of Mayan symbols and Hindu mandalas, as well as evoking the Egyptian influence on Art Deco.
The maker shuns electronics in his live performances, preferring to let his instruments sound acoustically with no processing or sequencing. However, in his capacity as a composer of film and dance music, he does use computers and MIDI, like the rest of us, and it's reasonable to assume that this led him to the idea of creating a sample library based on his instruments. Försch played all the samples himself and recorded them in his rehearsal studio, after which he spent six months working long hours to program the patches. The resulting 2.9GB collection is called Klanghaus (German for 'Soundhouse'), taking its name from the maker's experimental music venue in Hamburg.
On a more mundane note, I should add that Klanghaus is formatted exclusively for Best Service's Engine sample player (you can see my comments on Engine at /sos/aug11/articles/world-percussion.htm), software for which is included with the library. The samples ship on a single DVD in a conventional product box (shame, I was hoping for an experimental polyhedron). Product activation is done at Yellow Tools' site, Yellow Tools being the company that developed Engine for Best Service; newbie Engine users need to register and set up an online account, after which activation is straightforward provided you faithfully follow the instructions set out in Klanghaus' 'How to Activate' document. Stray off the beaten path and you might end up lost in cyberspace.
One of the enjoyable things about reviewing left‑field sample libraries is deciphering unfamiliar names — what, for example, is an 'Arcton'? This mysterious term refers to an instrument that seems to have obsessed Försch since he built the first prototype in 1986: it consists of a flat, narrow length of metal over which are stretched several metal strings, each resting on an intermediate bridge that determines its tuning. The nearest equivalent would be a Chinese Gu Zheng or Japanese koto, but this contraption looks far more industrial. Fixed underneath the metal surface is a large, lozenge‑shaped, flared plate‑metal resonator very similar to that used in the Cristal Baschet (another exotic item for you to look up). The whole shebang is perched on a stand with castors, so you can move it around without doing yourself (or the Arcton) a mischief.
Since first developing the instrument, Försch has created bass and tenor Arctons, a double Arcton, and finally the fabulous 'Triple L'Arcton' featured in this library, which boasts two resonators, three metal sound boards and a total or 10 or so strings. Played with a drumstick, it sounds something like a giant zither or hammered dulcimer, but the comparison is academic: the Arcton's steely attack, stentorian tone and hugely resonant, slightly menacing chime place it in a category of its own. You can select full‑length, short or 'rebound' stick bounces with keyswitches: the 'short' option abruptly kills the sustain while allowing the decay of the note to carry on, which produces a fabulous subterranean rumble in the bass register, akin to that of the Close Encounters mothership, or a distant tube train in a tunnel — an unnerving effect crying out to be used in film scores.
While the sticked Arcton samples work well for anything from histrionic, Spaghetti Western‑style twangy electric guitar themes to crashing, pianistic bass octaves, the bowed version of the instrument is something else again: a grinding, continuous, metallic timbre like a tambura or hurdy‑gurdy, it's ideal for creating big bass drones, and its four‑octave range can also accommodate melodies and harmonies. The provision of high‑pitched overtones extends the bowed samples' compass by two further octaves. I particularly enjoyed the eerie 'flageolet' harmonic arpeggios; the only drawback is that these high harmonics can get pretty shrill; to mitigate the 'fingernails on a blackboard' effect, you can push up the mod wheel, used throughout Klanghaus as a low‑pass filter controller.
It would be a challenge for the Musicians' Union to establish a session rate for this weird and wonderful instrument — the porterage alone would be astronomical! Happily, Klanghaus buyers can now add the Arcton's steely tones to their mixes without first having to go on bended knee to their bank manager.
Klangrausch: now there's a good word. My partner assures me that the noun 'Rausch' loosely translates as intoxication, inebriation, a drugged‑up state or frenzy, which is a pretty fair assessment of how we SOS reviewers approach our work. Here the term is used to cover a diverse variety of performances on various metal instruments. My frenzied, inebriated key‑presses produced doomy, portentous, gong‑like bass resonances, the weird pitch‑bent groan of a large gong being dipped in water, and fantastic, scary, low‑pitched, roaring Arcton noises, all wonderful timbres for a horror‑film soundtrack. Best of the bunch were the tremendous 'String Sculpture' low, boingy hits. A 'Polytone' is also included; no idea what that is, but it sounds great, like a large gong crossed with a bass trombone.
Other Klangrausch patches feature speaker‑cone‑ripping rumbles reminiscent of a large tam tam gong played in a wind tunnel, massive steel resonator strikes, metallic edge hits and bowed, teeth‑on‑edge, baking‑tray screeches (something I've yet to see Delia Smith attempt), semi‑tuned, waterphone‑style spoke twangs, demented circular scrapings on what sounds like a metal salad bowl — you get the idea: a tremendous array of utterly unpredictable, powerful and highly usable metallic textures.
After a wild, drugged‑up romp through the Klangrausch samples, I was ready for something more chilled‑out, so was pleased to discover the library's 'Channel Gongs'. These are suspended tubular chimes with a beautiful, somewhat mysterious tone. Their upper notes have a soft, bell‑like, clear note, while the pitch of the low register notes is more ambiguous, which all adds to the sense of mystery! A set of keyswitches allows you to select soft beater, hard beater, tremolo or crescendo tremolo hits, as well as a couple of variants where the pitch falls away as the note decays, as if the chimes were being dipped in water — I absolutely loved this effect. The maker has also included splashy water sounds that form a strange sonic symbiosis with the gong‑chimes' metallic tones. Sensibly, the water has its own separate fader, so you can 'dry up' the sound if required.
In a similar vein (though much higher in pitch) are 'Aluminium Bells', which bear a strong visual resemblance to the 'mark tree' instrument used by many Latin percussionists — you'll have seen it in cutaway shots on countless TV music shows: a row of small metal chimes, gradated in size and suspended from a wooden frame, it's usually played with a quick sweep up the chimes and is a compulsory overdub for tasteful pop ballads. The Klanghaus version is a little more strident, but no less attractive: as well as performing the obligatory glissandi sweeps, Försch has individually sampled each of the chimes and mapped them out chromatically. Result: a pretty, perfectly‑tuned chimes patch that can be layered to great effect with other keyboard textures.
Taken together, these diverse instruments constitute a jamboree bag of highly enjoyable, eclectic metal percussion timbres.
Recalling Carl Palmer of ELP's notorious 1970s stainless steel drum kit (which weighed 2.5 tons), my heart sank when I read the words 'metal drum'. Fortunately, Klanghaus' version is no monstrosity requiring stages to be reinforced and roadies issued with body‑building supplements, but a fairly small instrument that partly adopts the design of a tongue drum (aka logdrum or Gato drum). Försch explains its inception thus: "With the help of a carpenter, I designed a rectangular wooden resonator and fitted a 3mm aluminium panel in which I cut different lengths of tongue. I added holes to the alu‑panel and screwed it on... After this first invention, I built this metal drum in different variations: rectangular, eye‑shaped, hour‑glass shaped, and I discovered: this is fantastic, each form has its distinctive, individual new sound.”
This design innovation has certainly created some beautiful tuned‑percussion tones: the instrument is played with soft mallets, avoiding the harsh, chinky knock of a hard beater on a metal surface, and the normal earthy thunk of a logdrum is transformed into a purer and more sustaining, metallophone‑like pitch. Four specimens were sampled for the main metal drums section of the library: the first is a dead ringer (if you'll pardon the pun) for the exotic chime of a Javanese bonang, the second has a marimba‑like quality, the third sounds something like an African balafon crossed with a logdrum and the fourth has a metallic, ringing, industrial flavour. These are the closest verbal approximations I can offer; the metal drums are truly tonally unique and, unlike mass‑produced instruments, each of their notes has a subtly different timbre from its neighbours.
Sadly, despite having 10 or so notes, these four instruments are limited to four pitches only, mapped to adjacent white notes in non‑linear pitch order right at the bottom of the MIDI note range (which means you need an 88‑note keyboard to play them in real time). That's a pity, because the first metal drum in particular has a gorgeous timbre, which, in my view, deserves the full chromatic treatment. However, I can see that this kind of conventional presentation may not be a priority for the instruments' inventor. By way of compensation, each metal drum has its own set of MIDI performances, which I'll describe shortly.
Complementing the metal drums are a set of 'water drums'. These appear to be of the same basic design as the metal drums, with the added attraction of water sloshing around inside. The water noise may be switched off on the instruments' front panel, and their straight hits are augmented by some fine, atmospheric 'finger tremolo' performances. Unlike their non‑watery brethren, each water drum is chromatically mapped across a couple of octaves.
As in other Engine‑formatted libraries, pre‑programmed MIDI performances are supplied, which may be triggered by a single key-press (the 'trigger keys' are marked in green on Engine's on‑screen keyboard). The metal drums offer 20 or so basic — and I do mean basic — MIDI performances created by Mr F, all consisting of a simple event that repeats at the top of every 4/4 bar when you hold down its key. These events are limited to, firstly, a single note; secondly, two, three or four reiterations of one note; and thirdly, a phrase consisting of a quick hit on each of the four pitches. Musically ambitious it is not. I'm perplexed that Klanghaus offers its users such rudimentary programming. What's the point of providing a 'performance' of a single note being repeated every four beats? Surely we can manage that ourselves?
The maker also created some 'Prepared Loops' performed on a fabulous set of big, strong percussion hits whose star turn is an enormous‑sounding, low‑pitched tar frame drum (or something that sounds remarkably like it). These also feature the one‑note‑per‑bar basic MIDI patterns, but as you go up the keyboard, a few syncopated mini‑phrases are introduced. I'm glad to report that in these patches, the big percussion sounds have been mapped chromatically, so there's nothing to stop us diving in and creating our own loops.
Försch's MIDI performances are augmented by a bonus collection of MIDI‑driven loops programmed by Markus Krause and Oliver Morgenroth. Mr Morgenroth's contribution is ambient and impressionistic, and the kits that load in with his loops include some lovely 'alien whales' sounds. Krause (clearly more at home on the dancefloor) has used imaginative sound combinations to create some fine, toe‑tapping performances. Some of his loops reminded me of the sublime rhythm work of Bashiri Johnson, a man who can whip up a killer groove from the humblest of materials. Given the unique nature of some of Klanghaus's samples, expect to hear the library yielding more top‑quality rhythmic material in this vein. (See technical note in the 'System Requirements' box.)
Asked how he began his search for unconventional percussion, Ferdinand Försch responded: "I went straight to the junkyards and rifled through them (looking for) what interests me. These were bizarre areas, from car parts to buzzsaw blades. I then went on to set up my performances in the conservatory with junk which would be played by three to five percussionists — at that time it caused a scandal.”
The timid, insular classical world of the 1970s is thankfully long gone: your average music professor is no longer shocked by the prospect of a man hitting a piece of metal with a stick, and today's audiences are certainly not averse to listening to junk. (No Simon Cowell jokes, please.) Klanghaus obliges modern listeners by serving up 'Metal Plates'. These turn out to be wooden‑handled metal scrapers, an essential fashion accessory for the trendy decorator. Stick hits on the metal end are a little ho‑hum, but the chromatically tuned version makes a great chimes patch, along the lines of the aluminium bells described above. Even better are the ultra‑high‑pitched bowed scraper samples, which sound almost like an electric violin — they too can be layered beautifully with lower‑pitched sounds, and their bat‑frequency high notes will cut through the densest of mixes.
Rounding off the junk percussion section is a collection of 'objets trouvés': 44 miscellaneous boings, biffs, clangs, bashes and thuds, which I assume emanate from radiators, bits of rusty old metal, biscuit tins and other 21st century detritus. ('Any old iron', as they used to say in the '50s.) The advantage of such nondescript sounds is that since none of them are quite colourful enough to leap out and catch the ear, they tend to blend together very well. This means you can sequence them into complex 16th‑note grooves without the overall sound picture getting too busy. This is a nice contrast to the dramatic, intense, attention‑grabbing sonorities found in the library's Arcton and Klangrausch sections.
In a similar (but more colourful) vein, Försch's 'Prepared Bonus Set' is a nice assembly of short, percussive, largely semi‑pitched sounds played on unidentified (and unidentifiable!) instruments, including (I think) some muted string plucks. If you're looking for something a little less esoteric, the 'New Percussion Set' single‑hit patch includes a mixture of kick drums, low frame drums, boobam‑style toms, China cymbal‑like crashes, gongs and various unidentified metal percussion hits: 42 sounds in all, mapped in defiantly non‑General MIDI style (although at least the kick drum is on bottom C!) Both of these sets are a nice resource for creating your own Klanghaus grooves.
Multi‑miking rears its head in this library, as it does in so many others nowadays. The facility is implemented only for the Arcton, which has three faders labelled Mic 1‑3 respectively, each with a radically different tone: the first focuses on the mid‑range, the second is very toppy, with no bottom end, and the third features only low bass frequencies. There is no apparent difference in listening perspective — the sound variations are purely tonal and quite exaggerated, so it seems likely that the three signals have been radically EQ'd. Although that's not the way most libraries handle multi‑miking, the good news is that if you whack all three up to full volume it creates a good, powerful, full tone with no missing frequencies. All's well that ends well, though I would have preferred to see some explanation of this feature in the manual.
Resonance is a big feature of this library: many of its big metal instruments have so much of it that adding extra reverb would be almost redundant. However, Klanghaus' smaller drums and hand percussion do benefit from a bit of reverb sweetening; this is done via a nice, built‑in convolution reverb which is perfectly matched to these percussive samples. You can turn the reverb up, down or off with a fader on Engine's 'Quick Edit' page (that's the one with the colour picture reminding you what instrument you're using). For more detailed tweaking, you can alter the reverb type, length, pre‑delay and so on on the player's Pro Edit page.
When using samples, I like to be able to hear their basic sound without any extra processing. I'm happy that Klanghaus' instruments load with convolution reverb turned on (it's a pretty subtle effect, after all), but I was concerned to see that the programmers have added a limiter and level meter on the Pro Edit page. Guys, we don't need to put a limiter on our samples at source, or look at an internal level meter — those activities are best done outside the player, in the mix environment. I don't know whether the additional modules add much to Engine's CPU demands, but it does seem like a case of trying a bit too hard.
Ferdinand Försch says that the relationship between the acoustic and the visual is a central inspiration in his work, so it's good to see Best Service supporting that idea by supplying an eight‑page, DVD‑style colour booklet. Most of the booklet pictures are replications of the GUI images that appear on Engine's screen when you load an instrument, virtual faders and all. The only extras are a superb wide‑angle shot of Försch's elaborate stage setup, a moody cover image of a bowed Arcton and a shot of Mr Försch sharing a joke with Best Service's Klaus Kandler. I was disappointed that the booklet didn't make more use of the maker's large archive of beautiful photos — though I guess we're unlikely to ever see again the likes of the handsome, 56‑page, catalogue‑style book that accompanied the 1990s Supreme Beats percussion library, I nevertheless felt that this visually rich collection deserved something more substantial and arty.
Thankfully, that minor omission does not impinge upon the central purpose of this project, which is to give the world and his wife (if she's interested) access to one man's fascinating, idiosyncratic and highly evolved sound world. Those interested in unusual percussion timbres will find plenty of inspiring sounds, though you may have to spend a little time getting to know where they are. The documentation is somewhat minimal and it's easy to overlook some of the great sounds lurking in the corners.
Klanghaus effortlessly avoids the mainstream; its non‑standard approach should provoke a correspondingly creative response from the artistic community (that's you, dear reader). This is not a go‑to library for banging dance beats, though there's no reason why its contents can't be channelled into creating some awesome grooves. In this utilitarian, conformist age, it's great to hear some genuinely new, experimental sounds, and given the unique nature of the instruments, we should be grateful that their inventor decided to throw open the doors of his Klanghaus.
Klanghaus' instruments are unique one‑offs, so there is no true alternative. However, libraries such as VSL's Elements and Soniccouture's Glassworks feature small collections of unusual, left‑field percussion instruments and maintain a similar spirit of experimentalism.
- Triple Arcton
- Steel Resonator
- 'String Sculpture'
- Water gongs
- Metal drums (4)
- Water drums (3)
- Channel gongs (chimes)
- Aluminium bells (chimes)
- Metal plates (scrapers and so on)
- New Percussion Set (mixed drums & percussion)
- Prepared Bonus Set (mixed percussion)
- Objets Trouvés (junk percussion)
- Ferdinand Försch Metal Drums rhythms (4)
- Ferdinand Försch Prepared Loops (3)
- Markus Krause loops (8)
- Oliver Morgenroth loops (9)
(Numbers in brackets = types of instrument or loop.)
Klanghaus is formatted exclusively for Best Service's Engine sample player (based on Yellow Tools' Independence player). Engine runs stand‑alone or as a AU, VST or RTAS plug‑in on Mac OS 10.4 or higher and Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7 (32-bit and 64-bit). The minimum recommended systems are G5 or Intel Mac 1.8GHz or Pentium/Athlon XP 3GHz PC; 1GB RAM; and a SATA 7200rpm hard drive. You also need a DVD drive for installation andnternet connectivity for product activation.
Owners of Windows XP systems should take note that older, sub‑3GHz PC processors sometimes can't cope with the CPU demands of the Engine player. As a result of user feedback on this topic, Best Service's minimum system requirements for Klanghaus Windows buyers has been upgraded from the "1.4GHz processor, 512GB of RAM” printed on the library's product box to the numbers shown above.
Technical note: most of the MIDI performances in the Klanghaus review copy would not play in time on a Windows XP machine; a pronounced delay was audible on the front of all of them, and the delay tended to be a different length each time (anything from a 32nd note to a full quarter note at 120bpm). This occurred in the PC stand‑alone and plug‑in versions, both over MIDI and when playing the samples by pressing the keys of Engine's on‑screen keyboard. Strangely, the Markus Krause loops were unaffected by this issue, and it didn't occur at all on a Mac.
- A beautiful, unique set of percussion, stringed and hybrid instruments created by a visionary designer.
- Contains a large range of exotic unpitched and tuned percussion textures, many of them unlike anything you'll have heard before.
- Arguably not the greatest bang‑for‑buck, although one should factor in the rarity value of these instruments.
- Some of the MIDI performances are very rudimentary.
Unique, arty and fiercely non‑standard, this is a great collection of unusual percussion sounds for those looking to add something different and fresh to their mixes. Film composers and neo‑classical experimentalists will love it, and its esoteric, colourful and powerful timbres have the potential to enhance many styles, from left‑field pop to underground dance. The library focuses on single hits; there are no played loops and some of the MIDI performances are pretty minimal, so be prepared to program your own grooves.
Best Service +49 (89) 4522 8920.