There have been some famous twin-guitar line-ups in rock history and, even if you can't strum a note, you can now have the virtual equivalent - both of these software instruments will play on time and in tune, and won't want a solo in every song! But are they both equally good?
When it comes to guitar virtual instruments, Steinberg's cunningly named Virtual Guitarist would probably be the first product to spring into the minds of most SOS readers. However, Steinberg are not without competition and, for acoustic guitar sounds at least, the recently released Real Guitar 2L — a collaboration between Music Lab and Best Service — provides a competitively priced alternative.
At first sight, these two products would seem to be direct competitors. However, a brief comparison of the respective feature sets reveals some obvious differences. For example, Real Guitar 2L only provides acoustic guitar samples, while Virtual Guitarist 2 (combining what was in the original Virtual Guitarist and Virtual Guitarist Electric Edition) provides both acoustic and electric guitar options. The other major difference is in the 'engines' of the two products. Virtual Guitarist 2 is very much based around Parts, essentially a set of pre-recorded phrases in a wide range of styles, which are pitch- and tempo-shifted to fit the chord and tempo needs of the project. In contrast, Real Guitar 2L provides a series of multisampled guitar instruments and, while it includes preset playing patterns, these are MIDI-based and can be edited as such. Via keyswitching options, Real Guitar 2L is a 'playable' instrument.
Of course, the aim of both products is to achieve credible guitar parts within a musical project, so we figured that a comparative review might be in order, to find out which virtual guitarist is best at this in practice?
SOS readers will be familiar with the Music Lab name through a number of products, but most notably the Rhythm'n'Chords MIDI plug-in that provided a way of creating realistic guitar parts from keyboard-based MIDI data. This technology eventually evolved into Real Guitar, the original version of which was released in early 2004. This new version adds a number of new features and comes in two flavours: a basic version and the top-of-the-range 2L version reviewed here.
The sample library is based entirely around acoustic guitars, and its primary aim is to provide a sample-based acoustic guitar instrument that can be played via a MIDI keyboard. The sampled guitars include two different steel-strung guitars, a nylon-strung instrument, a 12-string, and a stereo steel-string. Picked, fingered, and 'doubling' options are provided amongst these. As with the original version, Real Guitar 2L features a number of different performance modes; Solo, Harmony, Chords, Bass & Chords, and Bass & Pick. Some of these are described a little more fully below, but their names clearly indicate their functions. For each guitar type, the different performance modes result in a different set of sample keyswitch options appropriate to that style of playing.
However, common to all modes is that Real Guitar 2L responds to your MIDI keyboard in three distinct zones. Note ranges C1 to D#1 and C5 to C6 form two Repeat Key zones, while all the keys in between form the Melody zone, where notes or chords are played. The exact function of the Repeat Key zones changes in the various performance modes. For example, in Chord mode the white keys simply play a strum of whatever chord is being held in the Melody Zone, allowing complex strumming patterns to be played with ease. The black keys generate a muted version of the same chord, allowing more percussive elements to be added to the strumming pattern.
The end result of these various control options is that each mode provides a 'playable' sampled guitar instrument which, with appropriate practice with the keyswitches, can be used to create credible real-time performances directly from a MIDI keyboard. Real Guitar 2L recognises some 26 different chord types, including seventh and ninth chords and inversions, so even jazz fans ought to be reasonably well catered for.
Perhaps the key new feature in the 2L version is the Pattern Manager. This provides over 1200 preset MIDI patterns for use with Real Guitar 2L, and these cover a wide range of musical styles including simple strumming, picking, blues, jazz, Latin, pop, reggae, rock, and a number of others. While Real Guitar 2L is not compatible with styles from Rhythm'n'Chords, this feature is not dissimilar in function. The individual MIDI performance patterns can simply be dragged and dropped into your sequencer to an appropriate MIDI track to build a complete performance. Of course, because the performance is controlled entirely from MIDI, the parts created are fully editable.
Installation of Real Guitar 2L from the dual Mac/PC CD-ROM proved straightforward, and the short printed manual is supplemented by a PDF document that contains the most up-to-date documentation. I'd hesitate to say that the documentation was the best I'd ever read — it explains the basics of the control set and not much else — but for a real insight into what Real Guitar 2L can do, Music Lab's video tutorial is excellent. This is included on the installation CD, and there are further video and audio examples on the company's web site. These are well worth looking at for new users and potential purchasers alike.
The main window of Real Guitar 2L is perhaps not the slickest looking of software interfaces, but it does manage to cram a lot of features into a relatively small amount of screen real estate. The display is split into three main areas. The upper half of the window provides controls for the selection of the guitar and various options for modifying the sound. For example, under the Noises tab the user can adjust the simulation of the noises generated by the handling of the guitar in various ways, while the Tremolo and Chorus provide the expected effects, although the options are fairly limited. The centre panel of this upper section also displays the current chord arriving via the MIDI input.
The centre section features a guitar neck display which shows the fingering being simulated by Real Guitar 2L during playback. Real Guitar 2L features samples from every fret of every string, and it is therefore possible to simulate the differences created by playing particular chords or notes in different neck positions. One way of controlling this is to change the virtual Capo position on the neck, although an Auto mode also tries to simulate this variability depending upon the part being played.
The bottom section of the display allows the user to select the performance mode, change elements of the MIDI control (for example, the velocity curve response), and adjust some aspects of the velocity switching, and also provides access to the Pattern Manager. The exact controls featured here vary depending upon the performance mode selected. For example, in Chord mode the user can control the neck position in which chords are voiced. In Solo mode, the user can specify four performance articulations (such as harmonics, muted, palm muted, smacks, velo mute, slide, and tremolo) to be controlled by keyswitches via C1 to D#1. Combined with the various other real-time control options available using the pitch-bend, modulation, sustain pedal, and velocity control, it makes for a very expressive solo instrument.
The only additional window is for the Pattern Manager, opened by pressing the PM button. The upper portion of this window provides a browser to search through the preset patterns provided, while the lower window provides a visual impression of the MIDI data within the currently selected pattern. It might have been nice if this window could have been resized for easier browsing, but, this minor gripe apart, auditioning patterns is simply a matter of activating the Pattern button in the main window, selecting a pattern in the Pattern Manager window, and playing a chord via your MIDI keyboard. The patterns cover both strummed and picked playing in a wide variety of musical styles.
In use, there are two approaches to getting an acoustic-guitar performance out of Real Guitar 2L: either enter a basic MIDI chord progression and then use the extensive list of supplied patterns and the Pattern Manager to create the performance you need; or, for more specific control, play Real Guitar 2L directly in one of its five performance modes, making use of the various keyswitch and control options to add the realistic nuances required of a believable guitar performance.
The Pattern Manager can be thought of as a collection of pre-programmed MIDI performances for Real Guitar 2L. Placing a pattern onto a sequencer track is simply a matter of selecting the required pattern in the Pattern Manager window and then dragging and dropping it onto the appropriate MIDI track. Within Cubase SX, I found it easiest to have two MIDI tracks routed to a single instance of Real Guitar 2L. In the first, I had recorded my basic chord sequence, while in the second, I dragged and dropped the required patterns. As can be seen when the patterns are inspected within a MIDI editor, they contain various combinations of notes from the Repeat Key zones. With basic strumming patterns, for example, this simply defines the rhythm of the full or muted strums and — as it is simple MIDI data — it can easily be quantised or edited by the user. This system is both easy to use and very flexible.
From a technical point of view, creating your own performances with Real Guitar 2L works in exactly the same fashion, but you have to play both the chord sequence and the various Repeat Key options. Doing this in one recording pass (or trying to do it 'live' in a performance context) does take a little practice. However, this is no different from keyswitching with any multisample-based virtual instrument (such as those found in many orchestral libraries), and very realistic results can be created with a little practice. It is also possible to record the chord data and the control data in two separate passes and, initially at least, I found this easier to do while I found my way around the Real Guitar 2L control system.
The technical side of the plug-in's operation aside, how does it actually sound? While it bothers the guitarist within me somewhat to admit it, Real Guitar 2L sounds very good indeed. The samples themselves have been very well recorded — crisp highs and full, solid lows. The 'doubled' steel-strung produces a wonderfully full sound that can be made to fill the stereo spectrum, as does the stereo steel string, although the two instruments obviously produce very different characters. When used with some suitable picking patterns, the 12-string evokes an instant '60s pop vibe. For me, the only slight weakness was the 'picked' version of the nylon-strung guitar, which sounded just a little too aggressive to my ears, although the 'fingered' version sounds absolutely beautiful — especially coupled with some slow picked patterns and a little reverb.
Despite the somewhat retro look of the user interface, Music Lab have created an acoustic guitar instrument that is easy to use and very playable. This last point is worth emphasising: Real Guitar 2L is designed from the bottom up to be a 'playable', MIDI-controlled, sample-based instrument. Whatever the mechanism, however, the end results can be totally believable.
Steinberg's Virtual Guitarist will be well known to SOS regulars, and the original version was reviewed in SOS December 2002. The basic structure of Virtual Guitarist 2 is the same as that of its predecessor, and it's also similar to Virtual Bassist (reviewed in SOS September 2005), so there is little point in repeating too much detail here, other than for the purposes of a basic recap. At Virtual Guitarist 2' s heart is a large collection of pre-recorded rhythm guitar performances (7GB in total) arranged in a series of over 80 Styles — a significant increase in the number of Styles over the original. Each Style includes a number of variations (termed Parts) and, via some clever beat-slicing, these loops can be made to fit the tempo of the host sequencer and the chord pattern fed to Virtual Guitarist 2 via MIDI. In essence, Virtual Guitarist 2 is a sophisticated, musically intelligent, loop-manipulation engine.
The Styles cover everything from basic steel-strung acoustic strumming through to low-slung Nu-Metal power riffs, with stops covering nylon-strung acoustic, funk, pop, rock & roll, blues, and reggae amongst others — there are even a couple of Styles based on Mandolin and Dobro thrown in for good measure. Virtual Guitarist 2 comes with an improved guitar-orientated effects section, so it's easy to customise the basic guitar sounds if required. As with Virtual Bassist, a nice bonus of Virtual Guitarist 2 is that the effects section is also supplied as a separate plug-in, so you can apply the same effects to other audio tracks in your projects.
Aside from the expanded Style set, another improvement in Virtual Guitarist 2 is the new Part Editor. As described more fully below, this allows the user to tweak the preset Parts, within certain limits, to add some further variability to the performance options. This includes the ability to Groove Match the beat-sliced performance to incoming MIDI data. Part variations created by the user in this way can be saved for later recall.
Installation of Virtual Guitarist 2 was straightforward, although the plug-in does require a Steinberg key. Aside from the installation DVD, which covers both Mac and PC versions, the box includes a small printed manual that covers the basic operation of the plug-in. All the major plug-in formats are supported including VST, DXi, and AU, with Rewire compatibility as well. A stand-alone version is also supplied. As with Real Guitar 2L, I did all my testing of Virtual Guitarist 2 using the VST plug-in within Cubase SX.
If visual image is important for the members of your virtual band, then Virtual Guitarist 2 probably has the upper hand over Real Guitar 2L. The key controls are spread over three main screens. The first of these, the Play Page, is split into two areas; a Browser on the right can be toggled between Style selection or Part selection, while the main part of the screen contains Virtual Guitarist 2' s key controls, many carried over from the earlier versions. The circular 'orb' displays incoming MIDI activity, including the chord being played.
A number of the controls are self-explanatory, but a few are worthy of further comment. The Presence control adjusts the gain in the upper-mid frequencies; add a little for extra 'ching', or cut a little for a warmer sound. The Decay control alters the sustain of the individual slices (strums or notes), with shorter values giving gradually more muted notes and values towards normal letting the notes ring out, options that add a surprising amount of flexibility to Virtual Guitarist 2 's performance loops. A MIDI Learn function allows any of these controls to be mapped to a hardware controller for real-time adjustment. Of the rotary controls, Inversion is a bit of an oddity. The manual suggests its effect is rather like changing the scale length or body size of the guitar, but the end result is actually quite hard to describe — a picked guitar part might go from something that sounds very bright and like it is being played at the upper ends of the neck to a fuller, rounder sound from the bottom end of the scale. However this is achieved, it does add some further variability.
Switching Doubling on creates a doubled-tracked guitar part and this, along with the Stereo Width control, can create a big, wide guitar sound. This is a bit addictive, however, and in some mixes bigger is not always better. The Fret Noise and Speed switches do what is expected, while the Latch switch simply keeps Virtual Guitarist 2 playing even if you release the MIDI keys that triggered it. With Latch mode off, Virtual Guitarist 2 will only play while keys on your MIDI keyboard are held down.
The contents of the FX Page don't require too much by way of explanation, and a 'virtual stomp box' approach has been adopted throughout. Three amp models are provided (solid state, tube, and rectifier), with increasing amounts of distortion available through the range. Four different speaker cabinets are simulated, and there is a choice of two microphone types and two positions. Effects presets can be loaded, and user configurations saved, via the browser section. The stomp-box effects all work pretty well and, while the amp/cabinet modelling is not as versatile or sophisticated as a dedicated unit such as the Line 6 PodXT, the whole package is very easy to use.
As with Real Guitar 2L, when controlling a Virtual Guitarist 2 performance, the MIDI keyboard is split into zones. The keys between C1 and B2 form the Key Remote Range, and it is from here that the different Parts that make up the current Style can be selected. By default, all the Styles have different Parts allocated to the white keys from C1 to B1, while the black keys control the addition of slide or stop noise, trigger a Fill (a slight variation of the current part), duplicate the sustain pedal, or switch Latch mode on and off. Keys above B2 form the Pitch Range, and it is here that notes and chords can be played for Virtual Guitarist 2 to follow.
The third main window is Virtual Guitarist 2 's new Riff Page, which contains the Part Editor. The upper portion of this shows the beat-sliced version of the current part within a window that looks something like a mixture between a waveform editor and a piano-roll editor. However, given the way the Virtual Guitarist 2 engine works, it's not quite either of these! The lower portion shows a groove map, and provides various ways of adjusting the detailed timing of the Part or matching it to a particular MIDI groove — great for getting Virtual Guitarist 2 really tight to other elements in your arrangement.
Given that Virtual Guitarist 2 adjusts the pitch of the playback to suit the MIDI chord, the pitch within the waveform display is more representative than absolute. For strumming patterns, only the top half of the waveform display is used, but for those parts based on picked notes, both the upper and lower lanes are used to display alternate notes. While the technical details are not explained in the manual, my impression is that the audio engine is processing each lane separately in order to construct the overall performance.
The various Riff Page options do take some experimentation to become familiar with. However, it is well worth the time invested, as it does mean you can expand upon the various performances within each Virtual Guitarist 2 Style — even just muting one or two waveform sections can totally change the feel of a part. Using the Copy and Paste buttons, edited versions of parts can be placed into one of the blank slots within the C2 to B2 section of the Key Remote Range.
In use, Virtual Guitarist 2 is a very different beast to Real Guitar 2L and it is perhaps easier for the new user to obtain a performance from. Essentially, as Virtual Guitarist 2 is fed a MIDI chord progression, it will perform that progression in the chosen Style. The user can switch between the various Parts for that Style using the Remote Key Range. These two stages could, of course, be done in two recording passes, but even for someone with my modest keyboard skills, this soon becomes something that can be done in a single take and then edited accordingly. Virtual Guitarist 2 does cover a wide musical palette, and there are enough 'bread and butter' strumming options to cover most musical situations. That said, editing aside, you are pretty much tied to the Styles and Parts supplied and, good though these are, the options will eventually run out if you create several songs that fall into one particular musical area.
As ought to be expected given that Virtual Guitarist 2 's output is based on pre-recorded guitar performances, the quality of the sounds is first rate. If there is something that fits in terms of style, then Virtual Guitarist 2' s output is right on the money, and I've no doubt these performances will appear in any number of commercial releases — it is, frankly, scarily easy to create a credible guitar part. Through both the effects options and the various Play Page controls (Doubling, Stereo Width, Timing, Dynamics, and so on), it is also easy to customise the qualities of the guitar sound so that it will work in the context of your mix.
So, if you are in the market for a virtual guitar plug-in, should it be Real Guitar 2L or Virtual Guitarist 2 that passes the audition? This is exactly the question I was asking myself when both boxes arrived in my studio but, without wishing to sound like I'm copping out, I now think it is entirely the wrong question. While both of these products will enable you to add a professional-sounding acoustic-guitar backing to your latest composition, that is perhaps their only similarity. This end result is actually achieved in very different ways, and the designs of the two engines mean that these plug-ins will suit different tasks and different types of user.
If you want a playable instrument, then Real Guitar 2L is a clear winner. This is, quite simply, the best implementation of a multisampled guitar instrument I've ever played and, with suitable practice, I'm sure some users will be tempted to play it live. Admittedly, at present, it only caters for acoustic guitars, but it would be really interesting to see if Music Lab decide to explore this same approach with an electric guitar-based instrument. The fact that all the performances are fully editable as MIDI data gives complete control over the musical style and the parts played, while the collection of parts supplied with the Pattern Manager does provide a route to more instant results, more than justifying the additional cost of the '2L' version of the plug-in.
On the flip side, Virtual Guitarist 2 has the edge when it comes to sheer ease of use and musical breadth. If one of the provided Styles happens to suit, then a thoroughly professional guitar part — acoustic or electric — is so easy to create that you might still be tuning up your real guitar by the time Virtual Guitarist 2 has finished the job! I could imagine composers who work in a broad range of styles and to tight deadlines would find Virtual Guitarist 2 a very useful addition to their virtual instrument collection, particularly if they are not guitar players themselves.
Despite professing to be a guitarist, in the course of this joint review I used both of these products within a couple of my own projects. Frankly, when I just wanted a bed of strummed chords, either of them made it easier to achieve than miking up my own guitar. And when I wanted a rapidly picked part (never my strength!), both of them did it more accurately than I would have done without a multitude of takes.
That said, I'm not going to be putting my guitars up on eBay just yet — a virtual performer has their virtues, but there are times when the life, energy, and human error of a live guitar performance is exactly what is required to make the music real. However, both Real Guitar 2L and Virtual Guitarist 2 are capable of excellent results and, while both can be described as guitar virtual instruments, the route by which polished guitar tracks are achieved is very different. I suspect this will be the key factor in deciding which plug-in might most suit your own needs.