MusicLab’s latest update makes RealGuitar more real than ever.
It was 2006 when we first reviewed MusicLab’s RealGuitar virtual instrument. It was then at version 2, and has since passed through versions 3 and 4 and now arrived at 5. In the meantime we’ve reviewed other instruments in the series — RealStrat, RealLPC, RealRick. RealGuitar developed in tandem with these, and by version 4 they all shared (by and large) the same set of features and functions. Version 4 improvements included simulated double tracking, customisable humanising (randomisation) of various parameters, and a built-in Song sequencer that enables the integral library of patterns and chords to be arranged as an entire song, constructed entirely within the plug-in and then dragged to the instrument’s DAW track as a MIDI file. The fifth guitar in the series, RealEight (currently at version 1.0) was reviewed in the August 2015 edition of SOS. For those unfamiliar with MusicLab’s particular take on virtual guitars, the ‘Basic Principles’ box provides a brief description.
Cut-mix-dissolve to RealGuitar 5, which expands on the original set of acoustic guitars with a brand-new Steel String model. Rather than adding this Steel String to the existing engine, RealGuitar is provided as two completely independent plug-ins: ‘Classic’ and ‘Steel String’. Additional features to both versions include a new ‘Multi’ playing mode, in itself a significant upgrade providing alternative and more versatile ways of accessing RealGuitar’s functions.
The Classic version hosts the same eight acoustic guitar models as before (see ‘Guitar Models’ box), repackaged in an austere monochrome/orange GUI. All features and functions of previous versions have been retained to ensure backwards compatibility when revisiting older projects. As you’d expect with a new version, there are new features, the most significant being the aforementioned Multi mode, which joins the main tab strip in the centre of the GUI. Whilst you can still use the original Solo, Harmony, Chords, Bass’n’Chord and Bass’n’Pick modes of previous versions (found under the MIDI mode tab), Multi brings all keyboard performance aspects of RealGuitar under one roof via a multitude of methods including keyswitching, velocity, modwheel, aftertouch or sustain pedal, in whatever combination you choose. Given the almost infinite number of possible permutations, especially when keyswitch assignments are taken into account, RealGuitar helpfully allows you to save every setting and parameter value of Multi settings (except Humanize settings, which are global) as User presets. There appears to be no limit to the number of User Multi presets, so song-specific setups can be saved and easily recalled as needed.
Chordal playing in Multi mode expands on the ‘legacy’ Chord mode with options to customise the layout in numerous ways to bring greater mobility and additional playing techniques that were not possible in previous versions. Central to this are four Layout boxes that define strumming behaviour, melodic movement within chords, and the actions of finger-picking keys. The ‘Strum’ box determines what you hear when chords are played in the main playing area: the strummed chord, the leading bass note of the chord, or nothing (until trigger keys are pressed) if ‘silent’ is selected. Strumming realism is greatly improved here, with four different Dynamic options to control how velocity affects the number of ringing strings.
In the ‘Melody’ box you can choose whether or not to add melodic lines over sustained chords, have voice leading (movement within chords), or a combination of both. These particular chord/melody combos depend on accurate control of key velocity; higher velocities produce a chord, whilst lower velocities play the melody or leading voice, which may seem counter-intuitive as one’s inclination is to belt the melody notes out a bit harder. Fortunately you can add a positive velocity offset to melody notes if they’re too quiet relative to the chords. The velocity switching point can be set to any value — nevertheless it takes some practice to get the hang of it!
The ‘Strings’ box offers three different layouts for the finger-picking trigger keys: two variations above and one below the main playing keys. The ‘Black’ box assigns the function of the black keys in the picking zone, and becomes active only when the ‘string-picking’ trigger keys are also active. Options include harmonics, strums, mutes, hammer-ons and slides. Chords played in the main area now have both high- and low-velocity triggered effects (in MIDI Chord mode it’s either one or the other). New high-velocity effects include Hammer-on, a typically guitaristic gesture where between one and three notes of the chord fret-slide up to the target chord; Pre-Hammer, a similar gesture where the main playing zone keys sound the pre-hammer chord, the target chord is reached once a trigger key is played; and Slide, which is similar to Hammer-on but simulates a bottleneck slide rather than a fretted one. Both Hammer-on and Slide speeds can be adjusted freely, or tempo-sync’ed to specific note values to sit in with the feel of the track. The Multi section already presents a lot to take on board, and the features described above only scratch the surface. The manual, incidentally, runs to 138 pages! However, we haven’t yet taken keyswitching into account, and all the new tricks that brings to the table...
Keyswitching of effects and articulations in previous versions was only applicable in MIDI Solo mode. In RealGuitar 5, Multi mode also has its own keyswitch functions, so now there are two keyswitch layouts to consider. The two layouts’ modes also ‘communicate’ with each other — you can assign keyswitches in both to jump back and forth between them. This might sound like a recipe for total confusion, but in fact it’s one of RealGuitar 5’s greatest strengths, opening the door to a huge range of articulations and guitaristic flourishes with a single keystroke. Multi mode’s keyswitches breathe new life into chordal playing, allowing you to freely change chord position, insert harmonics, pre-hammer pull-offs, slaps, slow up or down strums, smacks, palm mutes and more, with great precision.
There are a number of caveats to bear in mind, however. If, for example, a Multi keyswitch is assigned to take you to Solo mode, you must assign a corresponding one in the Solo KS list (preferably not using the same key) to take you back to Multi mode — otherwise it’s a one-way trip, rather like travelling through the Stargate only to find there’s no dial-home device on the other side. Similarly, the Chord Position keyswitches have a persisting action: if you assign one to shift position upwards, you’ll need a second one to go back downwards, otherwise you’re stuck in the new position. This amount of flexibility does mean having to remember two keyswitch layouts, which could well cause confusion if you’re performing live. It’s not such a problem when sequencing RealGuitar in a DAW, as there’s time to pause and take stock; however, there’s another important consideration in that scenario. Keyswitch functions that toggle back and forth need to be in their correct starting states at the top of the track, otherwise their actions risk becoming inverted.
The ‘Steel String’ engine sports a monochrome/red GUI, slightly modified from the Classic engine. Firstly, the ‘legacy’ MIDI modes Chord, Harmony, Bass’n’Chord and Bass’n’Pick are gone, superseded by their equivalents found under the Multi tab as described above. Pattern mode has gone, its functions now contained entirely within Song mode. Gone, too, is Joystick mode that utilised MusicLab’s quirky Struminator technology, developed for those cute toy Guitar Hero controllers. I suspect the reason for this is incompatibility with version 5’s new features. Direct mode, which played the raw samples with no scripting, has also taken a dive (did anyone ever use it?), but Guitar mode (for MIDI guitar controllers) has survived, relegated to a tiny MIDI socket icon at the bottom of the GUI.
So how does the new Steel String compare to its siblings in the Classic version? Tonally, the upper mid-range is less pronounced than either of them, with slightly more subtlety at lower dynamics. Despite its warmer character, possibly due to having a larger body, it’s less boomy in the lower ranges, and sounds as if it was recorded slightly further away than the Classic steels. The pick attack and body thump noise are also less pronounced than the Classics, particularly compared to the original Steel Picked. Overall the sound seems cleaner; a spot of glossy high end EQ makes it shine very nicely.
There’s no mention in the documentation of which make or model of guitar was sampled — any incorrect, uninformed guess of mine would be as annoying as those who refer to The Pointy-eared One as ‘Dr Spock’. Perhaps a clue is in the three alternative tunings: Standard 6-string (theoretically E1 to C#6, though it stops at B5), 7-string (A0 to B5) and Baritone (theoretically A0 to Ab5, though it plays up to B5). The Baritone’s top E string is removed, so upper notes that would have been played on the top E string are now forced onto the B string. The tonal difference between the 7-string and the Baritone is subtle, but becomes more obvious when playing chords as some inversions inevitably play in different positions, depending on the chosen tuning.
Six-string, 7-string and Baritone are not the only tunings available; Nashville tuning, a popular practice in country music, is also provided in two flavours: Nashville A and B. The ‘A’ variation tunes the low E, A, D and G strings up an octave, whilst the ‘B’ version leaves the G string at its normal pitch. These tunings are only applied in RealGuitar 5 when strumming. It’s a lovely, transparent effect, useful in any style of music for preventing the lower mid-frequencies from becoming too muddy. Additionally, there are two 12/14-string models, A and B, whose lower string ‘twins’ follow the same octave tuning rules as the two Nashvilles. It’s most likely a simulation rather than a separately sampled instrument — the slight delay between string pairs is nicely observed, although it would be nice if that delay time could be modulated, especially by key velocity. Also, the ability to detune the unison strings slightly would mollify the upper registers’ tendency to sound ‘glassy’. One can only wish for that in version 5.1...
Four different output options (Stereo, Mono 1, Mono 2 and Double) make use of two microphone positions. Mono 1 appears to be biased towards the neck, with Mono 2 towards the bridge. Stereo pans the two mics hard left and right, whilst Doubling simulates double-tracking by delaying one mic relative to the other (adjustable between 5ms and 50ms). There is one downside to this concept: our old friend, the Haas effect; the left channel (which you hear first) appears louder than the right, even though it’s not.
Further enhancements to both Classic and Steel versions include a well-specified reverb, with Hall, Room and Plate options, pre-delay, room size, HP and LP filters, damping and width — all these settings can be saved as presets. It’s not documented whether this is a convolution or an algorithmic reverb but, nevertheless, it has a pleasing, natural character.
Velocity response can be tailored in fine detail; upper and lower dynamics can be offset on an X/Y axis, the response curve is fully adjustable from convex through linear to concave, and Steel String (which enjoys four dynamic layers as opposed to Classic’s three) allows the velocity switch points to be positioned freely. Velocity settings can also be saved as presets.
More than just being a guitar replacement, this is an inspiring, expressive musical instrument in its own right, that just happens to have a keyboard attached to the business end. Version 5 of RealGuitar is like a steroid shot in the arm — the new Steel String model and its various tunings would be worthy of an upgrade alone, but with the introduction of Multi mode, the bar is raised further, bringing new levels of detail and realism. Check out the video tutorial by the amazing Jeff ‘Keytar’ Abbott to see how well it can work. Even with its new-found depths of control, RealGuitar 5 retains the immediacy of its forebears — and I’d be surprised if Multi mode doesn’t find its way into the rest of the MusicLab range.
Vir2 Acou6tic offers six acoustic instruments: a steel-string, 12-string, nylon string, ukulele, mandolin and guitalele. AmpleSound have five separate instruments available: AG12 (12-string), AEU (Ukulele), AGL (Alhambra Luthier), AGT (Taylor) and AGM (Martin). Orange Tree Samples offer their various acoustics individually or as a bundle. Prominy Hummingbird uses a mix of sampled and emulated chords to achieve esoteric voicings. Whilst the GUIs of all the above differ (some radically) from each other and RealGuitar, they all offer a comparable set of features and operate on similar principles.
Throughout the course of development, the conceptual approach to playing MusicLab’s guitars has remained the same; a similar approach has subsequently been adopted by several other virtual guitar manufacturers.
To recap briefly, RealGuitar’s Chordal modes employ variations on strumming and finger-picking techniques: hold a chord with one hand while ‘strumming’ or ‘picking’ it using dedicated trigger keys located elsewhere on the keyboard. RealGuitar analyses your chords and produces suitable guitar voicings. Voicings are dependent on several factors such as your position on the keyboard, the position of the virtual ‘capo’, and the facility to create custom User voicings.
Alternatively, Solo mode allows for freeform playing, giving access to a large number of articulations and guitaristic techniques triggered via keyswitches, key velocity, modwheel, sustain pedal, or any combination of these.
Classic: Steel Picked, Steel Fingered, Nylon Picked, Nylon Fingered, Steel 2 Picked, Steel 2 Doubling, 12-String, Steel Stereo.
Steel String: Steel String, 12(14)-String A, 12(14)-String B, Nashville Strum A, Nashville Strum B, 6-string, 7-string and Baritone variations.
- New Steel String model is a welcome addition to the existing Classic models.
- Multi mode opens the door to techniques not possible on previous versions.
- Reverb is well specified, and complements the sound of the guitars well.
- Dynamic control improved by custom velocity responses.
- Multi mode’s numerous possible configurations may initially seem overwhelming.
A worthy upgrade from previous versions, RealGuitar 5 brings more detailed control, new articulations, a good reverb, and a brand new Steel String with eight different tunings. Established fans will love it — the uninitiated should try it.