Discovery Sound are a Japanese company specialising in ethnic sounds, and in particular the traditional music of Asia. Their geographically themed libraries are culled from India, Tibet, Thailand, Indonesia, China, Vietnam and the Republic of Tuva. That's quite a journey, but to discover the Koto sample collection they didn't need to look any further than their own backyard.
The koto is the national instrument of Japan. Technically a 'long zither', it's a handsome, six-feet-long, narrow box with 13 silk strings. Tuning is done by inserting an intermediate bridge, shaped like an inverted 'Y', under each string. In performance, the right hand plucks with plectra on the thumb, middle and index fingers, while the left hand presses and pulls the string behind the bridge to add expressive bends and vibrato. The library's makers describe the Koto's sound thus: "It has a lightness of flying butterflies and the sputtering of fish, but has the strength of thunder.” I'd interpret that to mean that although it can sound delicate and pretty, the use of plectra adds an almost steely cutting edge. The 13 notes are traditionally tuned to some kind of non-Western pentatonic scale, but the samples are chromatic over a range of C2 to D5, so you can play in any scale you fancy.
The library has 15 keyswitchable patches comprising straight notes, pitch bends, arpeggios and a 'suritsume' effect, which sounds as though the string was swept with the plectrum. Three-dynamic plectrum plucks give perfectly smooth dynamic transitions, enabling you to jump from soft, rippling figures to austere, commanding lead lines simply by playing harder. The fingered 'pizzicatos' reveal the koto's feminine side, and are very appealing if played in an arpeggiated, harp-like style.
Using the pitch wheel to add bends and vibrato is slightly problematic. For some reason, only one of the patches responds to the pitch wheel, and since it's programmed with full decay, you have to wait for all preceding notes to die away before activating the wheel. An alternative (if you can live with the fixed timing) is to use the comprehensive menu of played semitone and tone pitch-bends. The lovely arpeggios reminded me of an autoharp; these exotic, luxuriant flourishes would work in a variety of musical settings.
Although beautiful-sounding and great fun to play, the koto only began to sound authentically Japanese when I used the traditional scales listed at www.kotonokoto.org and it's a shame that Discovery Sound didn't supply these. Koto's documentation is limited to a list of performance styles, a keyswitch chart and the usual stern copyright warnings, but this lack of information is the only noteworthy omission in a very well put-together, musically satisfying library. Dave Stewart