A huge ethnic percussion library from down under circles the globe and arrives on hard drive.
Look at any sample-library distributor's catalogue and you'll notice, nestling alongside the dance, electronic, disco, dub, reggae, dancehall, funk, soul, jazz, hip hop, rap, RnB, urban and orchestral titles, a tidy collection of world percussion libraries. Though such ethnic‑based libraries are nothing new, their instrumental scope has grown steadily, and their demand on disk space is correspondingly high. In terms of sheer size, few (if any) match the scale of Evolution Series World Percussion, which weighs in at a slightly scary 204GB.
ESWP is the brainchild of Australian sampling team Anthony Ammar and Daniel Leffler, both experienced in film and TV music production. Trading under the name of Pulse Creation Productions for the last ten years, this industrious pair started out as audio engineers; Leffler stuck to that role for his support work on the BBC's high‑profile Walking With Dinosaurs, the movie Happy Feet and various rock albums, while Ammar graduated to composer for the likes of the Discovery Network, National Geographic, Animal Planet and The Apprentice Australia.
Living up to its name, the collection contains nearly 280,000 samples of percussion instruments from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and South America, all recorded from multiple microphone positions in a large scoring stage. The instruments are drawn mainly from the personal collection of percussionist Ian Watson, who performed the samples. There are no played loops or phrases; instead, most instruments have their own designated set of MIDI grooves and performances programmed by Anthony Ammar.
The library runs exclusively on Best Service's proprietary Engine sample player, compatible with both Mac and PC. Following a recent welcome trend, the samples and Engine player software ship on a small USB 2 hard drive. This is intended only as a delivery medium — to achieve decent performance, its contents must be transferred to a fast hard drive. Performance considerations apart, it's advisable to have a library of this size backed up on a second, provenly reliable drive, since low‑cost USB drives have been known to lose their data.
At the heart of ESWP is a very large menu of ethnic drums. One of the most recognisable to British ears is the African djembe, so often heard at UK outdoor festivals as to seem almost naturalised in this country: its thumping bass tones and deafening, clanging rim slaps will be all too familiar to those who have lain cursing in their tent at 3am praying for their neighbours to finish their two‑hour percussion jam. Three of the six djembe sampled here have metal jingles called seh seh (flat tin plates with wire rings fixed round the edges) attached to make the sound buzzier, a common African practice; the remaining three are jingle‑free and beautifully clean.
A recurring selling point of the current spate of so‑called 'cinematic' libraries is the inclusion of big tribal drums and 'impacts'. The large doundoun drums in this collection fit both descriptions perfectly, packing a tremendous wallop and a solid, booming low end that sounds big even on small speakers. Ethnic drums don't get any more powerful than this. Complementing the doundoun are equally strong, deep‑sounding sangban and higher‑pitched kenkeni. Taken together, this complementary trio of drums is a great resource for programming authentic African drum ensemble music.
Although eminently usable, the talking drum doesn't feature the subtle finger strokes you'd hear from a native player; the range of pitches is somewhat limited, and some of the bending‑pitch notes culminate in a rattly, string‑stretching noise that I doubt is an intentional performance artifact. The programmers missed a trick by disabling pitch bend, thereby denying users the opportunity to simulate the rapid changes of skin tension that characterise talking‑drum performance. Thankfully, you can activate pitch‑wheel‑controlled pitch bend in Engine without too much hassle, though you may have to consult the PDF manual (built into the player) to figure out how to do it.
No world percussion set would be complete without Indian tabla: the bass bayan drum and high‑pitched, ringing dayan are presented as separate instruments, presumably so you can tune the latter to the key of your piece (Engine doesn't provide access to individual samples, so tuning has to be done at instrument level). I missed hearing the quick upward pitch bend on the bayan, one of the most characteristic and exciting sounds in the tabla's vocabulary. Also hailing from the sub‑continent is a tasty ghatam clay drum, whose sharply contrasting bass tones and high‑pitched side-hits sound great playing driving, tabla‑like patterns.
Two balafon xylophones and a mbira represent the cream of African tuned percussion. All three are unashamedly buzzy — in the case of the balafon, the buzz is created by covering a hole in the instrument's gourd resonators with a membrane made from spider's egg sac filaments. (I don't think you can get that from Studiospares...) The attractive, light, metallic, plucked tones of the mbira (aka kalimba and 'thumb piano') are reminiscent of a European musical box — less cute but a good deal more funky.
Indonesian gamelan has grown very popular in Britain over the last 20 years, with many schools and colleges acquiring their own set of Javanese and (more rarely) Balinese instruments. The gamelan instruments in this collection come from the Sunda region of West Java — and though a relatively small set, they offer a decent range of sounds. Starting at the low end, there's a very large, portentous gong of indefinite pitch and a smaller kempur gong with a more discernible note. I was expecting the jenglong to consist of a set of tuned hanging gongs, but this instrument sounds and looks more like a Javanese slenthem, a pure‑sounding, medium‑to‑low‑pitched metallophone used in traditional gamelan pieces to play repeated bass lines.
The Sundanese bonang is nothing like the Javanese instrument of the same name; nonetheless, its slightly dim, earthy chime is a charming, evocative and unusual timbre crying out to be used in a nature programme soundtrack (preferably when the voice‑over pauses for a few precious seconds). In the high register, the bell‑like tones of the saron epitomise the sonic appeal of gamelan. The two sampled here each have 17 keys spanning well over two octaves. The first instrument sounds somewhat 'knocky' and percussive, but the second retains the magical, distinctive saron chime. A pair of keyswitches allows you to switch between ringing and damped notes.
In order to blend with Western arrangements, the gamelan samples have been re‑tuned to concert pitch with equal temperament, and chromatically mapped. This will probably upset the gamelan purists who prefer to hear real‑life pitches and scales. With Engine providing no means to tune individual samples, programming pieces in a traditional pelog or slendro scale is near‑impossible — that said, most people (including myself) will want to use the samples in a Western context, for which the corrected tuning is essential. The ideal compromise would be for the makers to provide an alternative set of 'native tuning' instruments that faithfully preserve the original pitches. The best of both worlds, as you might say! (For a fun demonstration of different types of gamelan, check out the interactive page www.cite‑musique.fr/gamelan/shock.html.)
If you'd like to add authentic accompaniment to the gamelan, try the kendang set: these Indonesian hand‑drums have a nice, subtly differentiated range of tones and hits, mixing deep, solemn‑sounding, undamped strokes from the kendang ageng (a large‑ish barrel drum) with a good range of lightly‑played taps and flicks from two smaller, higher‑pitched drums, ideal for accents and faster tempos. From the same part of the world comes the rebana, a small frame drum associated with Islamic devotional music: there are six in ESWP, some fitted with tambourine‑style jingles, the rest sounding like rather classy, souped‑up bongos.
Other ethnic tambourines include the Arabic raq (aka riq), which features a generous array of playing styles, including open skin hits with no jingles, muted accents, rim hits, jingles‑only finger strokes and shakes, and so on, enabling you to program tambourine‑like shaker parts, as well as lively hand-drum patterns. A similar (though lower‑pitched) instrument, the Egyptian muzhar, offers far fewer performance variations but makes an enjoyably raucous, jangling din ideally suited to accompanying a belly dance. Both instruments feature excellent played rolls that loop indefinitely.
Despite its unpromising name, the duff (aka daf, a large frame drum of Persian origin) has a fantastic array of timbres: its undamped open tone sounds low and sonorous, and its muted hits are reminiscent of an Irish bodhran. Thanks to an interlocked set of wire rings attached to the inner side of the shell, which buzz against the skin, it can also be shaken like a giant tambourine, to great effect, making a sound that reminded me of brushes on a snare drum. In the hands of a skilful player, this instrument can sound like a one‑man percussion orchestra. The 14 articulations provided here don't quite nail all the traditional playing styles, but by slowing the attack envelope in Engine I was able to simulate the characterful shaken sound of the instrument quite well.
A set of traditional Korean Samul‑Nori percussion includes resonant buk and janggu drums, the former combining a deep bass tone and forceful attack with some nice shell hits that would make a good, left‑field alternative to the ubiquitous sidestick snare heard on soul ballads! The Korean percussion quartet is completed by two gongs: a deep, sonorous jing and a smaller (and far more strident) kkwaenggwari.
Closer to home, three fine specimens of darabuka goblet drum impart an immediate and unmistakeable Middle Eastern feel, sounding tough and incisive. Double‑headed tabal and tupan (possibly of Mediterranean origin) have a two‑tone sound: one head (played with a large knobbly beater) produces a resonant, low‑pitched boom akin to a floor tom, while thin, whippy stick hits on the other head create a high‑pitched, whangy sound. A nice alternative to kick drum and snare!
In the old world of the European orchestra, percussionists still like to bang around on snare drums, bass drums and timpani. Since world percussion is now often combined with orchestral percussion in movie scores, the producers have done the sensible thing and included a selection of the latter in ESWP. Of the four military‑cum‑orchestral snare drums, I far preferred the first for its full, crisp, bright tone. The snares are supplemented by a grand, vintage orchestral bass drum of which Wagner himself would have been proud. Its samples are limited in scope, but you'll forgive that when you hear its impressively stentorian tones.
Played with a choice of mallets and wooden beaters, a full two‑octave set of timpani is divided into left-hand and right-hand strokes and mapped for double‑handed playing. They sound great: big, super‑clean, resonant and tuneful, retaining a clear timbre on quiet notes and packing force when played loud. The timps' lower notes have a super‑long sustain, and with the samples programmed to automatically play full length, that can lead to a messy build‑up of overtones when multiple notes are played within a short period. You can cure this minor problem by reducing the release setting.
I was surprised that no sustained played rolls are provided for the orchestral percussion, but in the case of the snares, that particular performance style is very well simulated by built‑in MIDI performances (more on which shortly). The MIDI‑driven timpani rolls are of the short crescendo type, with volume swells controlled by the mod wheel, so if you want a long timp roll you'll have to perform it yourself (which is where the double‑handed mapping comes in handy).
Back in the New World, courtesy of Sound On Sound Airlines, we find ourselves in South America. ESWP covers most of the Latin percussion staples, including a set of four very nicely played conga drums of different sizes, a Cuban cajon box drum (a somewhat unmusical noise like someone thumping with a clenched fist on the side of a wardrobe), a massive‑sounding surdo bass drum (one of three), and an absolutely splendid pair of bongos. There are no timbales; the closest thing to their rousing, clangy clatter is a Brazilian repenique, which though it has a similar sharp and high‑pitched tone, lacks the timbales' sustain.
A South American pandeiro (another tambourine‑like drum) has a drier, crisper jingle than a regular tambourine and can thus be programmed to play convincing shaker parts. If you prefer the real thing, the library's menu of shakers includes the throaty African shekere (a gourd covered with a woven net of beads), a small, earthy‑sounding basket shaker from Brazil and a stunningly high‑fi 'Hawaiian shaker' which looks and sounds very much like a maraca to me!
"Wot, no loops?” I hear you cry. Fear not — the absence of real played rhythm patterns in this library is compensated for by the provision of deft, intelligently‑programmed MIDI grooves and 'techniques' (typically flams, short crescendo rolls and the like), which can be triggered by a single key press. These performances are incorporated in all instruments, with the exception of some tuned percussion. The grooves are refreshingly spacious and imaginative, the sound combinations they employ are well chosen, and the rhythm patterns never too busy. Due to the number of velocity layers (typically four or five, with more used on the timps) and the skill of the programmer, the 'techniques' sound uncannily like a real player.
The advantage to this approach is, of course, that MIDI is so much more malleable than audio; you can change tempo at will, with no need for the time‑consuming slicing, dicing, time‑stretching or time‑compressing that audio loops require. If you want to edit the grooves, simply download their MIDI files from the Evolution Series web site and import them into your sequencer.
Each instrument has a full, medium and small version, reflecting the number of built‑in round-robin variations they contain (10, five and two respectively). For ease of navigation, the three round‑robin types are presented in separate folders, each of which has its own set of subfolders corresponding to the five world regions. A fourth 'Easy Listen' folder groups together the smallest versions of the instruments for quick auditioning. To minimise CPU strain, you can program an arrangement using the small instruments, then record the parts using the larger ones. Keeping track of which RR versions you've loaded is made difficult by the fact that they are identically named! Personally, I found that although the small instruments sounded fine for most purposes, substituting a full version made the samples sound subtly more organic and a touch less mechanical.
Also provided is a bunch of multis called 'World Inspire Sets' (sets of complementary instruments, remapped and grouped together into a playable unit operating on a single MIDI channel). Thus, on loading the multi 'Fortress Of The Gods', you'll be rewarded with eight ethnic drums, a gong and a shaker, collectively spanning three continents. To help kick‑start your arrangements, the World Inspire sets have their own designated MIDI grooves and techniques.
A total of seven microphone positions is available. The first three (Close, Room and Hall) are self‑explanatory; on most instruments the close miking is mono, though it's stereo for the tuned percussion. Recorded six metres back, the room mics add a fabulous natural hall reverb, while the hall mics placed 12 metres from the source sound dramatically reverberant. Three further mikings are designed to create a ready‑to‑go 5.0 surround mix: Rear and Front stereo overheads were respectively positioned behind and facing the instruments at a distance of about two metres, while a mono Centre overhead mic was placed directly in front. The seventh option, PZM mics, has a bright, lively quality and sounds slightly more ambient than the Rear miking.
Each instrument in the library has five versions: the simplest (Stereo Compact) comprises the close and room mics, while the most elaborate (Surround Full) loads all seven mic positions. As with the round robins, more mics means more CPU strain on your computer, but you really don't need that many to get good results — the simple stereo compact instruments sound great and are perfectly satisfactory for building arrangements.
The Surround Full instruments have a set of three Surround Panner windows. The mics are pre‑assigned as follows: Panner 1 (front speakers): Close (stereo), Front, PZM and Room mics; Panner 2 (centre speaker): Close (mono) and Centre mics; Panner 3 (rear speakers): Rear and Hall mics. You can pan the mic sets wherever you like, but reassigning a particular mic position to a different panner (say, re-routing the Room mics to the rear) involves a somewhat time‑consuming rigmarole. The makers sent me a video showing how it's done, and say they hope the procedure will be streamlined in future by improvements to the player software. Due to a bug, Engine's first two outputs currently have to be a linked stereo pair rather than two separate mono channels. but Best Service's techs are working on it.
ESWP's surround panning supports all formats, from simple quadraphonic up to 8.1. For those committed to surround mixing, such facilities will be very useful indeed. As is normally the case, no attempt has been made to create the low‑frequency mono content traditionally assigned to the 'point one' LFE (Low Frequency Effects) channel employed in cinematic 5.1 mixes — that's best left to the dubbing engineer!
Although boasting more ethnic drums than you can shake a stick at, this library's instrumentation is not totally comprehensive — my wish list of extras would include taiko drums, piatti crash cymbals, a cuica friction drum and ethnic cowbells. That said, there are no glaring omissions, and with the obvious exception of the duff frame drum, nothing in it sounds duff. Everything is extremely well recorded: the combination of two experienced engineers and a tremendous, large scoring‑stage acoustic really brings the best out of the samples. And although you're unlikely to get round to using every single instrument, it's nice to know your choice will be limited only by their suitability for your arrangements, not by the fact that some of them sound naff! (No, that's not another world instrument.)
Evolution Series World Percussion is the first product from Messrs Ammar and Leffler, and they promise more to come. I suggest you keep an eye on this antipodean team, as small companies run by enthusiasts who are themselves sample users often come up with the most exciting products. In the meantime, if your pulse is stirred by the sound of big, ethnic drums and exotic world percussion, take it from me that you'll have a great time working with this fine collection.
If we confine our search to large‑scale, single‑hit‑based, ethnic drum and percussion libraries, and discount those collections that also include wind, brass and stringed instruments, the alternatives that spring to mind are Vir 2 World Impact: Global Percussion (12.2GB), Project SAM's 13.8GB True Strike 2 and Yellow Tool's Culture (9GB). However, none are anywhere near as large or extensively miked as ESWP.
- Djembe (6).
- Doundoun (2).
- Sangbang (2).
- Kenkeni (2).
- Talking drum.
- Kendang (3).
- Rebana (6).
- Tabla (2).
- Surdo (3).
- Congas (4).
Middle East / Mediterranean
- Darabuka (2).
- Bass darabuka.
- Tabal (2).
- Military snare (4).
- Orchestral bass drum.
- Sundanese gamelan
- Saron (2).
- Balafon (2).
- Banana bell (3).
- Jing gong.
- Kkwaenggwari gong.
- Mudang cymbal.
- Temple woodblocks (3).
- Brazilian shaker.
- Hawaiian maraca.
- Clave (2).
- Triangle (2).
- Agogo bells.
- Finger cymbals.
Numbers in brackets = instrument types.
Best Service's proprietary Engine software sample player is based on the Independence sampler created by German developer Yellow Tools. You can read the SOS reviews of Independence at /sos/jun06/articles/ytindependence.htm and /sos/jul09/articles/ytindependencepro.htm.
The Engine sample player that ships with ESWP has been customised for the library. Most users will be content to work with its Quick Edit page, which contains simple controls for master volume, global tuning, microphone levels, panning and the library's convolution reverb — but although very good, the latter may well be overlooked once you've heard the high quality of the room mics' natural reverb!
Experienced programmers will enjoy getting their hands dirty in Engine's Pro Edit page: this is the place for fiddling with ADSR envelope settings, adding pitch bend, glide and LFO modulators, and investigating a large menu of insert effects, processors and synth‑like modifiers. Although the blue‑on‑black, somewhat 'scientific' lettering is not exactly easy on the eye and some controls are not the most intuitive I've seen, the overall level of control is impressive and rivals Native Instruments' Kontakt sampler in its flexibility.
Engine runs stand‑alone and as a plug‑in on Mac OS 10.4 and higher and Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7 (32‑bit and 64‑bit). Minimum requirements are: G5 or Intel Mac, 1.8GHz or Pentium/Athlon XP 3.0GHz PC; 1GB RAM, SATA 7200rpm hard drive. Supported interfaces: stand‑alone, AU, VST, RTAS.
The library and Engine player software is supplied on a small USB 2 hard drive. Transfer the Engine software and library folders onto a fast hard drive of your choice, and you're (almost) ready to rock. If you're running low on disk space and need to buy a new drive to house the samples, the minimum size you should consider is 250GB.
After installation, you must activate the library online at www.yellowtools.com by creating a user account and following a challenge‑and‑response procedure. You'll be asked for your serial number, which is printed on the USB drive.