Distortion, filth, grime and grit abound in EastWest's new library. Rubber gloves at the ready, we go in search of splendour in the dirt.
Though a few die-hards still mourn the day when the clean, wholesome twangings of 1950s rock & roll gave way to the deafening roar of the 100‑watt Marshall stack, most of us would agree that extreme distortion can have a galvanising effect on instruments. We've been enjoying the righteous racket of massively overdriven guitar ever since the first 1960s guitar god stamped on his fuzz pedal; basses and organs were similarly fuzzed up in the '70s, and over time, drums and vocals received the same treatment, courtesy of the influential 'industrial' movement and the acts it spawned. As a consequence of all this, in rock and pop, distortion is a byword for power.
EastWest's The Dark Side takes the idea to its logical conclusion. Virtually everything in it is distorted, messed up or heavily processed in some way, to the point where if one of its instruments sounded normal you'd think something was wrong. The library was co‑produced by EastWest's Doug Rogers and David Fridmann, ex‑bassist of Mercury Rev and leading US alt rock producer. With a list of credits ranging from Flaming Lips to MGMT, the prolific Fridmann appears to have the lucky Gold Rush prospector's knack of finding precious metal in dirt — many of the albums he produced in the last 13 years went platinum, gold or silver in the USA and UK, a satisfying record for a modest, unassuming musician who says his main intention in the studio is to help others achieve their goal.
The Dark Side is formatted for EastWest's proprietary Play sound engine, 32‑bit and 64‑bit versions of which are included with the library. There's no difference in sound between the two versions, but the latter can access much larger amounts of RAM. According to EastWest's boss, the PACE iLok driver issues that previously restricted 64‑bit Mac operation look set to be resolved by the time you read this, making Play fully 64‑bit on both Windows and Mac platforms. (For more information on Play, see /sos/mar08/articles/ewfabfourministryofrock.htm and /sos/sep10/articles/ewql‑hollywood‑strings.htm.)
The 37.4GB library takes a couple of hours to install. Noticing the scary, Saw‑like appearance of the user interface, I was concerned that authorisation might entail extricating a small key that some diabolical mastermind had surgically implanted behind my eyeball, but in fact it's a straightforward and painless online procedure that asks for a serial number and then deposits a license on your iLok security key (which you have to buy separately). Before auditioning, I downloaded Play v2.0.21, which worked without a hitch for me, both stand‑alone and as a VST plug‑in.
Six months before BP started its clean‑up operation in the Gulf of Mexico, the producers were happily spraying filth over everything in Dave Fridmann's Tarbox Road Studios near Fredonia, NY. The kits in The Dark Side get the full, uninhibited Fridmann treatment: 'Bone Crunch' packs one of the heaviest bass drums I've heard in a long time, toms that groan withpower and a selection of choked crash cymbals for snatched staccato accents. 'Verb Kit Morpher' gives you the authentic sound of a heavyweight rock drummer soundchecking in an empty auditorium, featuring a truly walloping snare and some slamming crash‑cymbal‑cum‑kick hits. The combination of room ambience, heavy compression and (barely) controlled distortion makes these drums sound enormous.
The reverb‑drenched 'Arena Kit' owes its stadium sound to one of the new Acousticas convolution reverb presets included in the library. Not all the kits are rock‑orientated: 'Dark Dirt' (the bass drum of which morphs seamlessly from dry, quiet hits to huge, booming, ambient loud ones) might be a good starting point for a trip-hop track, the relatively clean 'Slamming' kit would work in a pop ballad or even a jazz context, and the processed electronic edge of 'Underground' could find a home in experimental dance music.
In the aptly‑named 'Demolition' kit, the processing has totally shredded the bass drum and toms, while somehow leaving the snare and hi‑hats sounding merely raucous. Some snares are too low‑pitched for my taste (it's an American thing); you can pitch them up a little (or a lot) using pitch‑bend, which in this library defaults to an octave rather than the standard two semitones. Another useful feature is the filter built into all patches, allowing their tone to be softened and darkened simply by pushing up the mod wheel.
Fridmann's trademark distortion is applied liberally to the library's basses and guitars. The riotous slashed‑speaker‑cone snarl of 'Distorted Attack Bass' recalls the early days of UK punk, though its manic, over‑the‑top tone makes the bass sounds of that era seem polite by comparison. If you're looking for something a little more orderly, the more subdued 'Slightly Dirty Bass' has a set of keyswitches that let you specify which string the notes will be played on, while 'Relatively Clean Bass' has the option of short semitone slides up and down to a target note (but unfortunately no full‑length slides).
Occasionally the processing completely disguises the original sound source: 'Fuzz Bass' could be a synth tuned in octaves, and the buzzy, Vocaloid effect heard in 'Radioactive' also suggests the original source was a keyboard rather than a bass. Though there are plenty of usable timbres in this section, I missed the classic '70s fuzz bass sound best exemplified by Soft Machine's Hugh Hopper; 'Bass Hemorrhage' comes the closest, but to my ears its timbre is more synthetic than the spiky, buzzing boom of yesteryear.
The Dark Side's guitars range from smashed‑up to spectral. 'Dirt Boy Guitar' took me back to heady youthful experiments with £15 fuzz boxes — but though its extended low range is exceedingly powerful, its fierce, brutal tone and jarring attack won't appeal to everyone. Similarly strident, 'Organic Guitar' offers a nice 'glissando' option incorporating upward tone bends. You can use 'Distorted Lead' to create Brian May‑esque guitar choirs; a nice programming touch has its quieter notes switching to a heavy vibrato when you play louder. In a spookier vein, 'Ghost Guitar' sees the devastated remains of what might once have been a guitar coming back to haunt us, while the disembodied tone and galloping repeat echo of 'Guitars on Mars' would be ideal for a psychedelic cover version of 'Ghost Riders In The Sky'.
It goes without saying that the library contains no easy‑listening guitar options, and in my opinion Quantum Leap's Ministry Of Rock is a better bet for contemporary metal guitar sounds. But if you have a penchant for tough, weird‑sounding processed instruments with a defiantly left-field attitude, these guitars will be right up your street.
Dave Fridmann's collection of synths, organs and pianos was also put through the Tarbox sonic wringer. The iconoclastic blasting racket of 'Brain Damage' reminded me of the dangerous organ playing of XTC's Barry Andrews; 'Distorgan' focuses perversely on the cheesiest aspects of the Hammond sound, while the theatre‑organ warbling of 'Bent Funeral Organ' sounds like something out of Eraserhead. Light relief is provided by some rather sweet arpeggiated chords and single notes played on a gizmo called the Suzuki Omnichord, but the mayhem soon resumes with the 'Chaos' patch, which sounds like what might happen if you gave your 10 year‑old brother a soldering iron and asked him to perform a freeform service on your vintage Farfisa organ.
A selection of formerly pristine sounds from EastWest/Quantum Leap's orchestral and choir libraries have deliberately been transformed into ghastly, Mr Hyde‑style parodies of themselves: 'Chorus Strings' sounds like a 1930s film soundtrack choir heard through a defective radio, while the tonal quality of 'Granular' suggests that the choir were recorded on wax cylinder rather than in Pro Tools. Such unusual timbres spark off ideas and are fun to play; I particularly enjoyed the dreamy orchestral quality of 'Dist Org String Thing', though I wished it hadn't been played in octaves.
These patches are supplemented by a handful of ethnic instruments: a steely hammered dulcimer and a piercing shenai wind instrument both get the Fridmann fuzz facelift, while a one‑dynamic plucked zither is presented in clean and distorted versions. Seemingly out of place but very welcome nonetheless, an excellent tabla drums patch offers a large menu of beautifully‑played clean hits. Other percussion highlights include 'Perc Sci‑Fi' (Hang-drum samples borrowed from Quantum Leap's Stormdrum 2) and 'Timp Explosion', which sounds like a series of atomic blasts.
The library is rounded off by a large, impressive selection of atmospheric sound‑design timbres and effects: some are mysterious and beautiful, others are rousing, many are completely bonkers and a few have comic overtones. Radiophonic Workshop fans will enjoy the collection of fuzzy bleeps and electronic tones, reminiscent of early computer game noises. These effects span the entire audio spectrum, from lovely, eerie, ultra‑high‑pitched backwards fairy bells down to the seismic rumblings of what sounds like a giant distorted lawnmower engine.
Distortion and processing are a vital part of modern production — even Britney distorts her vocals these days. With so many distortion boxes and plug‑ins on the market, choosing the right one for the job is a shot in the dark for most of us, so we can be grateful to these producers for making a selection on our behalf. The Dark Side's applications are extensive; though it may scare off those of a delicate disposition, the weird, heavy, idiosyncratic, gloriously scrambled and mad noises it contains will bring a slightly twisted smile to many faces.
Few, if any, libraries rival The Dark Side's range. Most titles offering distorted and processed material are loop‑based products aimed squarely at the dance floor, and thus lack its wildly experimental edge. The electronic 'glitch kits' in Soniccouture's Konkrete and Sample Magic's Transmission X (the latter created by veteran UK synthesist Ian Boddy) cover similar territory to some of its processed percussion, and Italian company MoReVoX's overdriven drum samples nudge into the same territory as Dave Fridmann's massively distorted kits. Though contemporary 'cinematic' releases such as Morphestra, Dark Skies and Deep Impact feature the type of sound design textures found in The Dark Side, no library contains such a large collection of processed instruments. There are therefore no real alternatives, but Spectrasonics' Distorted Reality volumes come closest in general style and spirit.
The Dark Side divides its instruments into seven categories: Drums, Basses, Guitars, Keys & Strings, Ethnic & Choirs, Misc & Perc and Instruments With Effects (ie. effected versions of selected instruments from the other categories). Co‑producer Doug Rogers recalls that over 10 different drum kits were used.
The processing used in this library bears testimony to Dave Fridmann's claim in his March 2010 SOS interview: "Every piece of gear I have, no matter how nice and pristine it can be, I've figured out how to fuck it up.” The ubiquitous distortion was created mainly by effects pedals and hardware units, including rare vintage valve equipment that Fridmann and Rogers have collected over the years. Software plug‑ins were also used on certain instruments.
The Dark Side runs on PC and Mac as a stand‑alone and plug‑in instrument, and requires 40GB free hard disk space and an iLok security key (available from EastWest). You'll need at least 2GB of RAM, a 2.1GHz or faster processor and a 7200rpm hard drive. PC owners need an Intel Core 2 Duo or AMD Dual Core processor, an ASIO sound card and Windows XP SP2, Vista or Windows 7, while Mac users require an Intel Core 2 Duo machine with Mac OSX 10.5 (Leopard) or later. For optimum performance, EastWest recommend 4GB of RAM and a 2.66GHz (or faster) processor.
- A thoroughly enjoyable collection of heavily processed instruments and effects engineered by a master of distortion.
- Weird in a good way.
- Massively powerful drum kits and basses.
- Reflects some welcome experimental trends in modern production.
- Many samples are distorted — no, hang on, that's deliberate!
- With this library you spend half the time wondering whether your speakers have blown.
If you feel your music is too clean, adding some of this library's dark'n'dirty samples could give it the all‑important 'grime factor'. Unpredictable, quirky and inspirational, The Dark Side has plenty to offer experimental (or just plain mental) composers, musicians, producers and programmers, and its remarkably heavy drum kits and basses will have a wide appeal.
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