Released in 1997, the hugely successful Buena Vista Social Club album is possibly the best example of what most of us non‑Cubans imagine Cuban music to sound like. The producers of NI's Cuba know this and have ensured that their product provides all the key instruments required for building similar‑style rhythmical and melodic compositions. Even the interfaces feature fedora hats and rooms needing plasterwork repair!
A distinction is made between percussion and melodic instruments, and another between ensemble and single instruments, resulting in four folders, each housing a number of unique interfaces.
For the ensemble options, which in the Percussion Ensembles folder are Cajon, Hand Percussion, Rumba and Salsa, the lowest active octave of the Kontakt keyboard is given over to a selection of catchy loops, which act as building blocks for compositions. From there on up the keyboard the individual instruments in the ensemble are found, each having approximately an octave of variations to itself. However, if a user decides that they want to focus on, say, a specific percussion instrument, they will probably want to look in the Single Percussion folder where they can select from Bongos, Cajon, Conga Set, Conga Solo and Timbales and subsequently get five octaves of loops and single hits of just that instrument.
It's a similar story with the Melodic Ensemble and Melodic Instruments folders: the Ensemble style options being Classic, Contemporary, Folkloric and Old School, and the Instrument folder offering Bass, Piano, Tres and Trumpet.
Common to all is the option to change instruments. For example, the piano can be changed from grand to upright and the bass from upright to electric. Making the change is simply a matter clicking on the graphic of the instrument in question to bring up its menu.
At first glance it seems as though there aren't a great number of loop variations, but Cuba has its own editable sequencer. By default, the sequencer appears as a slim panel on which things like tempo, style (from staccato to legato), feel and intensity can be tweaked. Here too are half‑ and double‑tempo time buttons, a host sync option and arrow keys for scrolling through pattern variations.
For more in‑depth tweaking there is an Edit button which brings up the note sequence. From here individual crotchets and quavers can be muted, as can entire instrument parts, and there is a menu of alternative chord progressions. Unfortunately it's only possible to subtract from what's already there, so initiating patterns isn't possible.
If a riff is proving unsatisfactory the user can browse 12 style alternatives, each of which has 12 variations of its own, and the sequence of any that are selected is editable. Thus, with a little work, a set of edited patterns can be assigned to the keyboard ready for triggering.
Although the default instrument mixes are all very good, a Mixer page gives the user the option of customising them. For the Folkloric Ensemble, for example, the channels are Bass, Piano, Tres, Trumpet, Perc and Clave, and each of those has a level fader, pan knob, reverb send and mute and solo buttons. As for processing, every channel has a four‑band EQ and width and drive controls, apart from Master, which has an EQ compressor and tape emulator.
The reverbs are Plate, Studio, Stage, Room and Club, but no adjustable parameters are built into the interface other than level, so changes have to be made from Kontakt's Edit mode.
Overall, Cuba is a well‑designed, flexible and easy‑to‑use instrument that should allow more or less anyone to create a convincing Cuban‑style track without breaking into a sweat. Tom Flint