Prominy have put 64GB of lovingly sampled Stratocaster into their SC instrument. That's a lot of Stratocaster — so does the end justify the means?
I love guitars — but sadly, I never learned how to play them. Do I hear sighs of relief? It's just as well, then, that various acoustic and electric guitar‑oriented virtual instruments have been appearing on the market — perfect toys to satisfy the urges of would‑be axe‑thrashers like me. Japanese company Prominy's latest offering on this theme is SC Electric Guitar, a sample‑based virtual instrument dedicated to reproducing the iconic sound of the Fender Stratocaster in some considerable detail.
To get an idea of SCEG's true metier, it's well worth catching the impressive video and audio demos on Prominy's web site — they're performed by SCEG's creator, Akihito Okawa. The overtly rock and heavy metal stylings make it quite clear where Mr Okawa is coming from! If you're interested in emulating expressive, overdriven rock guitar performances, then SCEG could be just what you've been looking for.
Prominy have opted for NI's Kontakt Player 2 playback engine to host the sizeable 64GB, 44.1kHz/24‑bit sample library that forms the heart of SCEG. Yes, it's big, particularly when compared to the 893MB library that drives RealStrat — but then the operational concepts behind SCEG are rather different. And despite using disk streaming, SCEG demands sample memory. Lots of sample memory.
The requisite Kontakt Player 2 is supplied on Disc One of the 10‑disc set, and this needs to be installed if you don't already have it on your system. During the install, you are asked to choose the location of the core library, which you may prefer to be on an external hard drive. After that, it's time to make a nice pot of tea, grab some biccies and settle down with this month's issue of SOS while you copy across the nine dual‑layer DVDs.
As with all Kontakt Player-hosted instruments, SCEG must be activated using the NI Service Centre application (also included on Disc One), after which it becomes accessible from the Kontakt Player's browser pane, along with any other previously activated Kontakt Player instruments you might own.
In order to reproduce convincingly realistic guitar performances, you need instantaneous access to many different articulations and playing techniques, all in real time. This is the main thrust of SCEG: to deliver a high degree of control and playability in live performance, as well as the speedy construction of authentic‑sounding guitar parts in a sequencing environment.
The basic method used to accomplish this would seem to be fairly straightforward — all the required articulations are loaded into a Kontakt Player Multi as individual 'instruments', all responding to the same MIDI channel, and keyswitches are used to provide instant access to any of those articulations. Sounds simple in principle, doesn't it? But without more specific rules, notes could interconnect unnaturally or hang across each other, and inappropriate noises might trigger at the wrong times — in short, a train wreck! The changes between articulations therefore need to be seamless and transparent.
Let's examine how SCEG combines the various elements to create a unified and playable instrument, and how the different parts of the library are organised.
Kontakt Player presents SCEG's sound library as two main categories: Instruments and Multis. The latter contains ready‑made, performable guitar setups (called Super Performance Multis, or SPMs) and full chord sets. The best way to appreciate what's going on under the hood is to load a Multi (the most RAM-efficient Multi) and check out what the component parts are doing.
The first menu choice we are presented with is 'bridge, middle, neck or switchable'. This gives an indication as to why SCEG's library is so large — every noise and articulation has been sampled three times over for each pickup, using a Strat that was specially modified with separate outputs for each pickup. This enabled each performance to be sampled from all three pickups simultaneously, then edited identically to guarantee phase accuracy between all three sets of samples. For our RAM's and our sanity's sake, we'll just choose a single pickup for now, and the 'SC_SPM_lite' Multi.
Once loaded, Kontakt Player is populated with 24 different instruments (ie. articulations), spread across two pages. All this to represent one guitar! The instruments that make up this Multi comprise four types: Main, High Velocity, Release and Feedback. There is a fifth type not used by this particular Multi, called Pickup Selector. It's not a playable sound as such, but a control module — more on which later.
Clicking on the '+' sign in the right‑hand corner of any instrument expands it to reveal a Performance View containing various controls appropriate to the type of instrument, and it immediately becomes apparent that Kontakt KSP scripts have been extensively used to enable instruments to respond to certain sets of conditions. Now let's look at the first four instrument types.
'Main' instruments generally include articulations that constitute the main body of a sound when a key is played. These are all keyswitchable, so you can instantly change between principal articulations such as single notes, tremolo, 4th or 5th dyads and unison bends. These are all real, recorded performances — so simply pressing a single key will provide a genuine trill, a continuous tremolo or a unison bend, for example.
The default status of Main instruments is monophonic, and their samples continue to stream to their end after you release the keys, until you play a new note. This has two benefits: you only have to hit notes briefly to set them going, giving your hands extra time to hit keyswitches and move controllers, and it also makes for very smooth legato lines. You can stop notes without playing new ones by hitting one of the two Stop keys, located below the instrument's lowest playing range.
The Single Note (melody) instruments can also be played polyphonically — either temporarily by pressing the sustain pedal, or permanently by manually defeating the Auto Sustain function. Picking direction can either be set to vary automatically according to sequencer tempo and to different resolutions, or forced to change with alternating notes, or forced to play only downstrokes or upstrokes.
The modulation wheel is generally used to change between the current Main articulation, palm mutes and pick noises. Values of zero to 31 play the main sound, 32 selects palm mutes, and increasing the value from there progressively crossfades between palm mutes and picking noise.
Finally, the default velocity range of Main instruments is between one and 125. Play higher velocities and you won't hear anything — because the last two values, 126 and 127, are intended for the next type of instrument...
High Velocity instruments, as the term suggests, are those that trigger at velocities of 126 and 127. Typically these could be picking harmonics, but could also be an upward glissando or a whammy-bar harmonic. Their velocity range can be changed — but bear in mind that you must also adjust the velocity range of all the Main instruments accordingly to avoid velocity range overlaps or 'holes'.
Feedback instruments do what their name suggests: holding any note of a Main instrument for longer than a certain time causes the main sound to fade and be replaced by feedback when the key is released — devastatingly effective with heavily overdriven amp simulator settings. Be sure to hit a Stop key if you end a phrase with some feedback, or it will continue indefinitely!
Release instruments include fret noises, position change noises, bridge mutes and glisses. These are triggered, unsurprisingly, when a key is released, and can be configured to operate full‑time for certain instruments using keyswitch ranges. Alternatively, they can be triggered on demand by either the Hold or Stop keys.
Confused? It's hardly surprising, yet it all falls easily into place once you've played around with SCEG for a while. You'll soon be flying around the keyboard, knocking out full‑shred heavy power‑chord grooves and blisteringly realistic solos.
You may find one single‑pickup 'SC_SPM_lite' Multi program to be more than adequately equipped to produce great guitar tracks. However, these Multis are the least demanding on your computer's RAM, even though they eat up 354MB. Without disk streaming, I dread to think how much memory they would consume. The non‑lite versions use even more — which brings us to the Grandaddy of Multis, the pickup-switchable 'bmn_SPM_001' program. This loads almost all the standard SPM articulations three times over, providing bridge, middle and neck pickup variations.
This Multi makes use of the fifth instrument type, the Pickup Selector. Pickups are selected via the ever‑present keyswitches. Five pickup choices are possible in SCEG, as it allows for bridge/middle and middle/neck combinations as well. Not only can the pickups' relative levels be adjusted, but each pickup has a high‑cut tone control.
However, this monster‑sized SPM was too much for my computer to handle — after five minutes of loading, it threw up a 'cannot allocate enough memory' message before it aborted the load. Trying again after booting Windows into '3GB Switch' mode and providing Sonar with a vital extra 1GB of RAM, 'bmn_SPM_001' loaded successfully, taking around six minutes to complete. Kontakt Player 2 showed that 1.61GB of sample data had been loaded into RAM, and checking the total RAM usage in Windows Task Manager showed a whopping 2.17GB — so no surprise then that it wouldn't load with the XP default of only 2GB! Even using the 3GB Switch, I wouldn't fancy my chances of loading much more in the way of sample data. The upshot is that if you want to have the full SCEG experience and still be able to load any significant additional sample data, you'll need to be running Vista with upwards of 4GB of RAM.
If you only wish to use a small number of articulations, you can create your own Multi from the SPM instruments that are found in the Instruments folder. This folder contains not only all the possible SPM articulations that can make up a Multi, but also Chord instruments and Normal instruments. The Normal types are essentially 'raw' versions of the SPM articulations, and are broken down into submenus of progressively more simplified patches. However, the Normal types have no KSP scripts, and consequently are best used as add‑ons to an SPM.
SCEG can also be loaded into the full version of Kontakt 2 or 3, and there the opportunity exists for brave souls to write their own KSP scripts for Normal instruments.
There are various ways to reduce the impact SCEG can have on your computer and to help you find your way around. Firstly, any unused articulations in a loaded SPM Multi can be removed to free up RAM. Alternatively, only load the articulations you need at the outset. In certain circumstances you could use Kontakt Player's Purge function to clear out all unplayed samples from RAM — but be careful of this with certain instruments that use randomised samples, as the chances are that some notes may be missing on subsequent playback.
To help with the initial learning curve, you may also find it useful to place a scribble strip or sticky labels above your keyboard with the keyswitches marked out. It's easy to get lost at first, but it does sink in eventually! On that note, some video tutorials covering playing techniques would not go amiss, as well as some tips on how to set up your own Multis. The PDF manual explains what all the components are, but offers little practical help otherwise, leaving the user to work out why the instrument they've just loaded doesn't seem to make any sound.
Despite the quoted system requirements of 1GB RAM, I wouldn't recommend trying to use SCEG with any less than 2GB, particularly if you plan on using it alongside other sample‑based plug‑ins. However, with careful planning it can still deliver great results on a 2GB machine.
As a musical tool, SC Electric Guitar is most suited to heavily overdriven guitar performances, and this becomes evident when playing it on 'clean' amp settings. The volume discrepancies between velocity levels are quite disproportionate, suggesting that levels have been carefully chosen to produce the optimum dynamic response when overdriven.
Once again, I recommend watching Akihito Okawa's video demos. He makes it all look totally effortless, and once you get the hang of SCEG, you'll soon find performing on SCEG comes very naturally. And all of Prominy's attention to detail certainly pays off — when used with a good amp simulation, SC Electric Guitar sounds fan‑bloody‑tastic!
In common with SCEG, Musiclab's RealStrat virtual instrument is dedicated to the Stratocaster, offering numerous articulations on the fly, but with a relatively economically sized library and the benefit of short load times, together with a more flexible approach to chords. However, the cost is a comparatively higher CPU usage.
Virtual instruments dedicated exclusively to the total rendering of a single instrument seem to be quite rare at present. Big Fish Audio's Raging Guitars is perhaps the nearest match, being geared exclusively to electric guitar, but of unspecified make or model. Both Chris Hein Guitars and Ueberschall's Liquid Guitar go into some detail with multiple articulations, but also include various types of acoustic guitar. The only other product I have found that tackles a single guitar to the same level of detail as SCEG is Prominy's own LPC Electric Distortion & Clean Guitar, which is to the Gibson Les Paul what SC Electric Guitar is to the Stratocaster.