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MusicLab Real Strat

Virtual Guitar Instrument By Nick Magnus
Published January 2008

MusicLab Real Strat.

MusicLab impressed us with the playability and sound quality of their virtual acoustic guitar instrument, Real Guitar — and now they've gone electric...

Before the virtual instrument revolution, producing convincing keyboard-generated guitar parts was a rather hit-and-miss affair. Although it was possible to achieve some moderately passable acoustic and electric 'lead guitar' performances, given a decent source of sampled raw material and some appropriate outboard processing, it was usually at the expense of the finer details; those 'guitaristic' articulations and techniques that add an authentic feel of spontaneity and human interactivity. Altogether much harder to emulate were convincing strummed guitar parts. Two hardware MIDI products from the 1990s, Oberheim's Strummer and Charlie Labs' strap-on Digitar, made a brave stab at the job by analysing any chord presented at their MIDI input and producing a 'strummed' MIDI output, in an appropriate guitar voicing, to drive a target sound source. Of these, the Digitar allowed for true real-time strumming and was the more successful of the two in terms of realism; nevertheless the dark circles under my eyes still remain, testifying to the many editing hours spent bullying Digitar parts into submission. Yet even after all that work, they ended up being buried in the mix to protect their patently artificial nature from detailed examination!

Steinberg provided a groundbreaking solution in 2002 with the release of Virtual Guitarist, a software instrument based on time-sliced, sampled loops of real strummed acoustic and electric guitar performances that could sit prominently in a mix. The greatly expanded and enhanced Virtual Guitarist 2 followed in 2006. Virtual Guitarist 2 is nevertheless based upon a supplied library of rhythm styles which, despite being editable and customisable in a DAW, do not allow for real-time strumming performances.

Russian company MusicLab, in collaboration with Best Service, then raised the bar in 2004 with the first release of Real Guitar, the brainchild of Sergey Egorov. (For a more detailed low-down, see the head-to-head reviews of Real Guitar 2L and Virtual Guitarist 2 in the September 2006 issue of SOS.) Taking a different approach to Virtual Guitarist, Real Guitar is exclusively devoted to acoustic guitars, using discrete single-note multisamples taken at multiple velocities, driven by a dedicated engine that employs MIDI processing not entirely dissimilar to that found on Charlie Labs' Digitar. Chords played on a MIDI keyboard are re-interpreted to produce authentic guitar voicings which can then be 'strummed' in real time, using groups of trigger keys elsewhere on the keyboard. However, Real Guitar goes much further than that, offering a fully polyphonic Solo mode and four different Chordal modes, variously utilising numerous user-controllable 'guitar performance' tricks such as fret-slides, hammer-ons and tremolando effects, not to mention keyswitchable alternate articulations such as mutes, palm slaps and harmonics. At last, a highly convincing and playable 'acoustic guitar' that could be featured loudly and proudly in a mix without a hint of embarrassment or apology. Users fast became fans, and were almost immediately asking "will there be an electric guitar version?"

Enter Real Strat

It's a reasonable assumption that in deciding to develop Real Strat, as opposed to 'Real Les Paul' or 'Real Tele', Sergey Egorov settled upon that particular guitar as being a quintessentially iconic, versatile and ubiquitous example of the genre. Unlike Real Guitar, which provides eight different acoustic guitars, Real Strat currently offers only the one sample set, although we'll have to see whether this is augmented in the future with Real Strat-hosted add-on guitar expansion packs (with alternative GUI 'skins' that match specific guitars?), or perhaps Real Strat is just the first of an ongoing series of 'Real' electric guitar virtual instruments.

Real Strat requires a VST/DXi host for PC, or a VST/AU host for Mac, and RTAS support is also available for Pro Tools 6/7 users with FXpansion's VST-to-RTAS Adaptor (which is available or both Mac and PC). A stand-alone version is also installed automatically. During installation, the Real Strat Bank Manager applet asks you to choose a sample rate for the core library appropriate to your usual working environment: six sample rates are offered, from 44.1kHz all the way up to 192kHz. I installed the 44.1kHz version, which occupies 892MB of disk space; if, however, you subsequently wish to change your DAW's sample rate you will have to run the Bank Manager applet again to re-install the library of the corresponding sample rate. Once the core library is copied over to your hard drive of choice, Real Strat is ready to rock in time-limited demo mode; to fully activate the product, simply apply for an authorisation code via email, and this will be returned in the same way.

Pattern Manager

Featured on Real Guitar and carried over to Real Strat, Pattern Manager contains a sizeable library of pre-programmed rhythms and picking styles, 1250 in all, and is a derivation of MusicLab's earlier Rhythm'n'Chords MIDI plug-in. These are categorised according to tempo range, meter and playing technique and cover everything from basic picking and strumming to blues, jazz, funk, reggae and world styles, amongst others.

The PM button opens the Pattern Manager window which is divided into three panes: the folder browser, the file browser and the currently selected Pattern display. Once a Pattern is chosen, simply play a chord on the keyboard and the Pattern plays in tempo sync with the host DAW. Incorporating these within a sequence is simplicity itself; just drag a Pattern from the lower display onto a MIDI track and it appears as one bar of MIDI trigger key data that can be copied as many times as required. Being MIDI data, it can also be edited, so applying different grooves and quantise settings is totally possible. The Pattern data does not include chord information, which you add on a separate MIDI track, making sure both tracks' outputs are routed to Real Strat. It's instant, ready-made accompaniment and a potential time saver. However, the pleasures of playing Real Strat are so great that I would opt to 'roll my own' every time!

Beneath The Scratchplate

Anyone familiar with Real Guitar will feel immediately comfortable with the Real Strat interface, as the two have much in common. Real Strat occupies around 15 percent more screen space than Real Guitar, due to the virtual keyboard and additional functions required by Real Strat's Solo mode, which goes into considerably more detail than that of Real Guitar.

The GUI is divided into four areas of interest. Across the centre lies the fretboard, upon which green dots appear when Real Strat is played, to indicate which 'strings' are 'sounding'. To the right is the pick-position selector, which can be placed in any of 15 positions between the neck and bridge, providing a useful range of tonal variation, and making up, in part, for the lack of a pickup selector.

This composite picture shows the performance control options of the various playing modes (Chords Mode is shown in the main plug-in screenshot).Above the fretboard, on and adjacent to the guitar body, are a number of controls that are always visible, regardless of performance mode. Strum sets the base strum speed (of chords or any simultaneously played notes) for the whole instrument. This can be modified (as can most Real Strat parameters) with a MIDI controller, and also overridden by longer Slow Strums whenever certain definable conditions are met. Attack has the effect of time-stretching or shrinking the plectrum noise, which naturally affects the apparent latency of the instrument. The default setting of 20 percent seems most effective; a setting of zero, while producing the fastest response, seems to detract something from the sound's 'physicality'. Release affects the rate at which the strings are damped, as you'd expect. The default of 100 percent is fine for most tasks although fast, über-metal-style passages or trills do benefit from shorter settings for cleaner, smudge-free results, especially when using high amplifier overdrive settings.

Part of the realism behind Real Strat's sound is the Floating Fret Position, which imitates the way a guitarist changes playing position on the neck. This is indicated by a 'capo' on the fretboard which automatically follows your movements up and down the keyboard. In Solo and Harmony modes, the button labelled 'Auto' lets you enable or disable this feature. If disabled, you can 'lock' the capo's position by right-clicking on the fretboard, whereupon the top five strings will only play samples above the capo position. The three Chord modes address this differently, as explained later. Two Accent Hi/Lo sliders vary the velocity threshold at which the three velocity layers will trigger, effectively extending or reducing the velocity range over which a specific dynamic layer will play. Like Real Guitar, Real Strat also features a full-time round-robin system that alternates samples for repeated notes. The Alter box offers five choices, the minimum representing three alternating samples, and the maximum being 10. This totally eradicates any hint of the dreaded 'machine-gun' effect, especially when playing tremolando or fast, Reservoir Dogs-style passages. In all modes but Solo mode, the Hold button substitutes the sustain pedal — in other words, all chords sound for their full duration until they either fade out naturally, or you play a new chord or one of the Mute trigger keys. In Solo mode, Hold works only while at least one key is kept held down, whereupon any subsequent notes will sustain until all keys are released.

At the top of the interface are two groups of drop-down menus. The left-hand group handles output level, EQ, tuning, modulation and general instrument setup parameters. Here you can also choose whether Real Strat will add pitch-bend and modulation to all notes, or only those keys that are currently pressed. The latter option is the default, and is the most naturalistic, as it allows you to bend specific held notes within a chord while the rest are ringing via the sustain pedal. In the right-hand group, the Mixer allows you to balance fret noise, release noise, pick noise, mutes, slow-strum and velocity-switched effects against the main body sound, while the FX Mixer offers further level control of bridge mutes, harmonics, pinch harmonics, slaps and scrapes. Also found here are settings for Real Strat's own built-in wah-wah effect. This can either be set to respond automatically to your playing dynamics (like Electro-Harmonix's Doctor Q stomp box) with a choice of positive or negative sweeps; to auto-wah according to the set modulation rate; or be controlled manually via a MIDI controller. If you have a continuous MIDI footpedal that can be assigned to this task, so much the better.

The lower part of the GUI has two areas: one that contains the various performance control options (these change depending on which playing mode is active) and the other a virtual keyboard that shows the range of playable notes in the Main zone (see below), as well as displaying which keys are currently being played. The performance control display is the 'nerve centre' of Real Strat; an examination of its options for each of the various playing modes will follow shortly.

Basic Performance Technique

The MIDI keyboard connected to Real Strat is divided into three zones: the Main playing zone covers E1 to B4 and there are two Repeat zones above and below the Main zone covering C0 to D#1 and C5 to C7. The playing technique (particularly for the Chordal modes) essentially involves playing notes or chords in the Main zone, and repeating them (i.e Strumming) using the Repeat zone keys, although the exact technique differs somewhat depending on Real Strat's playing mode. The Repeat keys are subdivided into two tasks: white keys repeat the full sound (in Chordal modes, neighbouring white keys alternate between up and down strums) while the black keys play muted versions of the same notes.

Amplitube 2 Duo

Real Strat comes bundled with Amplitube 2 Duo, a cut-down version of IK Multimedia's Amplitube 2 Guitar Amplifier simulation plug-in. This limited version provides two Amps, two Cabinets, two Microphones and two Stomp Boxes, compared to the 14 Amps, 16 Cabinets, six Microphones, 21 Stomp Boxes and 11 Rack Effects of the full version. An amplifier simulation is, of course, an essential addition to an instrument of this sort, and Amplitube 2 Duo comes as a welcome bonus for anyone lacking in this department.

Judgements on the quality of guitar-amp sounds are bound to be subjective. While the two amp models supplied seem competent enough at the more bluesy or clean end of the scale, I struggled to obtain anything approaching the creamy-smooth leads that an (admittedly non-guitarist) ageing progger like me might gravitate towards. Having said that, the full list of amp simulations and other extras in the full version of Amplitube 2 may well contain the missing ingredients, and a reduced-price upgrade to the full version is available.

Those on a shoestring budget might like to check out the growing number of freeware amp simulators on the net. Two of my faves are Voxengo's Boogex ( and BTE Juicy 77 (, both quite different, but producing a range of tones between them that complement Real Strat very well.

Solo Mode

As its name suggests, Solo mode allows for fully polyphonic, freestyle playing of single lines, arpeggios, chords or whatever takes your fancy. This features the most detailed set of control options, enabling a vast array of different articulations, noises and guitaristic shenanigans to be activated in various ways. Of the four larger blue boxes shown in the top-left corner of the screen to the left, the left-hand pair govern velocity-switchable articulations and effects. These are selectable from drop-down menus, with independent velocity thresholds for low- and high-velocity effects. When the yellow LEDs are on, these are active; when off, their assigned functions are ignored.

The large box to the lower right offers a substantial list of effects that can be engaged using the sustain pedal; these can either be momentary or latchable, toggling on and off with alternate pedal presses. Sustain itself can be enabled or disabled along with these effects if desired. The upper right-hand box offers a selection of alternative articulations which engage permanently when the box is turned on, and which ignore any velocity-switching settings.

Hammer-ons and legatos are well catered for too; Legato offers smooth note transitions over a two-semitone range, and is very effective for ensuring that two adjacent notes played on the same 'string' don't run across each other. Hammer-ons also include automatic pull-offs, their operational range being between one an0d 12 semitones. A separately definable Bass Zone can be toggled on or off, allowing notes within that zone to ignore velocity-switched effects and mute trigger keys, enabling notes within the zone to continue sounding while notes outside the zone respond to all the set conditions.

In addition to these, various functions for the pitch-bender, mod wheel and aftertouch can be selected, with operational ranges for each. Solo mode allows different functions and ranges for upward and downward pitch-bend movements, so you could have, for example, smooth upward whole-tone pitch-bend and chromatic downward 'fret slides' over five semitones — very cool. Included amongst the pitch-bend options is MonoBend; this bends only the lowest of two or more notes, an effect otherwise known as Unison bend. On discovering this option, I found that uncannily authentic renditions of 'Honky Tonk Women' and 'Hocus Pocus' slipped out before I could stop myself! Another nice touch is that the pitch-bend range can be set to half, quarter or even one eighth of a semitone, all especially useful for performing ultra-controllable real-time vibrato using a pitch-bend lever.

If, even after all this, you're running out of ways to add more articulations, Real Strat keeps on throwing them at you. In Solo mode, the entire range of articulations is available to you via keyswitches. The KS button on the lower far left opens a separate window, listing 33 possible keyswitches (as shown in the screen below) operating across two ranges, C0 to D#1 and D#5 to D6. Each keyswitch has a drop-down menu to select an articulation or effect, and each one can be individually enabled or disabled. Three LED switches to the left of each keyswitch determine whether that particular effect will be momentary or togglable, have sustain (hold) added or simultaneously function as a normal Repeat key. Thoughtfully, Real Strat allows any keyswitch setup to be saved as a preset, so even the most involved setups can be easily recalled. By now you're probably wondering what these various articulations are. The list is too long to detail in its entirety, but a glance at the keyswitch screenshot on the left shows the vast majority. Slaps, bridge mutes and harmonics are here of course, along with violining (swells), tempo-synced trills and tremolandos, pinch harmonics and chucka-wah noises. You can even add feedback, at any of six selectable pitches, at the press of a trigger key! The intriguingly named Sustainer extends the length of held notes by overlaying an additional swelled version of the same note each time the trigger key is pressed. The Scrapes articulation is actually a complete multisampled collection of one-shot effects including squeaks, squeals, wibbles, scribbles, divebombs, plectrum scrapes and general full-shred guitar mayhem that add a genuine sense of grunge and attitude — barking mad and brilliant! If there's an articulation not included here, you probably don't need it.

Chord Mode

Identical to the mode of the same name in Real Guitar, Chord Mode is the place to come when you want to strum. Real Strat can detect 26 different chord types, the name of the current chord being displayed just above the fretboard. As hinted at earlier, the Floating Fret (neck position) behaviour is slightly different to Solo mode: it can either be set at one of four fixed positions or set to track your keyboard position. The capo does not (visibly) track the keyboard as you play, but you can manually position it by right-clicking the fretboard on any fret to override the current chord position. The capo's position can also be moved using a MIDI controller, making for a very flexible arrangement.

The two number boxes named 'Strings' allow you to restrict the number of strings sounding, so, for example, an upper setting of one and a lower setting of four will only allow the upper four strings to play — invaluable for avoiding the muddiness of full, overdriven six-note chords in a busy mix. A switchable Chord/Bass option enables major- and minor-triad chords to be rooted by any bass note; for example, a chord of Bb-C-E-G sounds like a C chord over a Bb bass note, rather than being interpreted as a C7 with the Bb at the top. One velocity-switchable effect can be assigned from a choice of slow strums, slides up or slides down. Every setting here can be altered using MIDI controllers, so many subtle variations can be programmed with precision into a sequencer.

Other Modes

Bass & Chord Mode is similar to Chord Mode, but in this case the C5 and D5 trigger keys play the root and fifth (or occasionally the third) of the chord, while only the top four strings are strummed (or fewer, if you alter the Strings# value. The Bass Mono setting prevents the root and fifth bass notes from over-running each other, which lends itself to tidier results. This is the perfect mode for country and western stylings or that wedding party version of 'Mull Of Kintyre'.

Bass & Pick Mode has a performance control panel that's nearly identical to that of Bass & Chord Mode, but requires a completely different playing technique to the other Chordal modes. Here, the six trigger keys C5 to A5 each trigger one of six 'virtual strings'. While holding a chord in the Main zone, the six trigger keys are played in a finger-picking style, just as if they were the actual guitar strings. The Add-on String Keys selector box determines the function of the black trigger keys from C#5 to A#5. These can play mutes, as in the other playing modes, or, alternatively, if you select Unison they can duplicate the 'full' note that is one semitone above, facilitating easy performance of tremolando on one string. Even more interesting is the Chromatic setting, whereby the black notes C#5 to G#5 sound one semitone down from the next-highest white note (A#5 to C6 move progressively one semitone higher), leading to some very pleasing and often serendipitous chord voicings, without changing chord shape in the left hand. Dreamy, chorused Genesis-inspired arpeggios, anyone?

And finally, Harmony Mode. This is Real Strat's simplest mode, and is essentially a one-finger power-chord generator. Six preset power-chord intervals are provided, together with the option of velocity switchable upward or downward slides with configurable velocity threshold, slide speed and range.


I unequivocally love this plug-in. The range of sounds obtainable using various amp simulators, effects and general guitar-oriented processes is seemingly endless. From sparkling, LA-style compressed and chorused arpeggios to full-on metal and down 'n' dirty blues, Real Strat just works with them all. Techniques such as unison bends, legato fret-slides and hammer-ons, which were so difficult and time-consuming to contrive using my former methods, are a breeze and sound totally convincing now; so much so that I feel compelled to revisit a particular ongoing album project and replace all my previous guitar emulations with Real Strat — it really will make that much difference.

If any criticism at all could be levelled at Real Strat it's that it sounds so unmistakeably like a Stratocaster that some may hanker for the earthiness of a Les Paul or the manicured tones of a Paul Reed Smith — but the label does say 'Real Strat', and that's just what it does.

So does this mean that I will no longer be needing to hire the services of real guitarists? Not at all! But when push comes to shove and budgets are non-existent, I can load up Real Strat and know that the results, although a mere caricature of what a good player would provide, will be far from embarrassing.  


  • Stunningly vibrant, articulate and realistic.
  • Low CPU consumption.
  • Modest RAM requirements.


  • None, except 'more guitar models, please!'


Once you get to grips with the numerous and ingenious ways that guitaristic playing techniques can be applied to a performance, Real Strat really can produce believable results that might otherwise be impossible to achieve without using a highly-complex, dedicated sample library many gigabytes in size — or a real guitarist.

MusicLab Real Strat £133


  • Stunningly vibrant, articulate and realistic.
  • Low CPU consumption.
  • Modest RAM requirements.


  • None, except 'more guitar models, please!'


Once you get to grips with the numerous and ingenious ways that guitaristic playing techniques can be applied to a performance, Real Strat really can produce believable results that might otherwise be impossible to achieve without using a highly-complex, dedicated sample library many gigabytes in size — or a real guitarist.


£133 including VAT.

Time + Space +44 (0)1837 55200.