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Published November 2003

The Dark Side Of The Groove ****


Dark Side sample CD.There is an increasingly common type of sample library which comprises innocent drum loops being arbitrarily tortured into submission through various effects and processors. It often sounds to me as if such CDs have just been boshed off by some pimply youth who should have been paying attention in double maths, and they are often practically useless. Either the drums have negative levels of groove, or the processing is ham-fisted and lacks attitude, or as little effort has been put into the library organisation and documentation as into the audio.

Fortunately, the loops on The Dark Side Of The Groove are a welcome deviation from this increasingly depressing norm. Drummer Neil Conti's playing is chock full of groove and, although the majority of the CD is made up of edited loops, there are also 14 live jam tracks which leave you in no doubt as to the breadth of the man's inventiveness, as well as offering some of the most way-out break-sampling opportunities in the library.

Although most of the tempos are comfortably above 100bpm, they still vary a great deal, from a sedate 71bpm to a head-spinning 185bpm. There are rock patterns here, but most of the loops are heavily laced with drum & bass-style skittering, additive ethnic intricacies, and even marching-band snare clichés.

The producers of this library have also bucked the trend by making the effort to work from original multitrack recordings, rather than just working from pre-mixed stereo files. This alone helps make the loops more interesting and inspiring, as different drum mics benefit from different processing, which means that processing suited to one of the instruments doesn't make the overall sound unusable. The result is that even the most aggressively processed loops remain well within the bounds of usability.

The combination of the versatility of Neil's playing and the inventiveness of the processing means that it's pretty difficult to categorise this release, because it covers such a massive sonic range — particularly given a final section of mad-as-a-brush live mixes and loops contributed by Brian Eno. However, I can say that there's something pleasantly warm, lo-fi and retro-sounding about most of this CD, reminding me a lot of the work of Husky Hoskulds on the recent Solomon Burke and Joe Henry records.

So why no five-star rating? Sadly, great-sounding though it is, the documentation for The Dark Side Of The Groove rather lets the side down. Can someone please tell me why sample library manufacturers still insist on calling their loops things like Bumbazoid, Ice3Step and CassioppeiaRodz, with no further explanation? Perhaps these titles immediately conjure up a perfectly representative 24-bit/96kHz mental soundscape for you, but if they do then call Fox Mulder, because you're a walking psychic phenomenon! For my part, if I matched a single title with its loop in blind testing then I'd suspect myself of cheating. Yes, I admit there are tempo indications for each loop (albeit rather hamstrung by a cautionary message that they are all approximate) and an attempt has been made to subdivide the main body of loops into Extreme, Resonant, and Dry sections, but these divisions seemed pretty nebulous to me. There is plenty of other information which would have been useful here — whether the playing's swung or straight, what the subdivisions are, what processing has been used, and which are the most prominent instruments.

Nevertheless, if you're after dirty great chunks of attitude from your sample library, and you're not in too much of a hurry when looking for the right loop, then you'll want to check out this title pronto. Mike Senior

Audio CD, £60; Akai Z-series/S5000, Apple Loops, EXS24, Gigastudio, Halion, Kontakt, REX 2, or WAV CD-ROM, £60. Prices include VAT.

AMG +44 (0)1252 717333.

Kick-ass Brass *****


This library describes itself as a virtual brass section. I tested the EXS24-format version, which includes all the multisampled note sets. There are four different instruments represented on the disc: 'B'-flat trumpet, alto sax, tenor sax and trombone. Despite being shiny, metallic and generally gold in colour, the sax is strictly speaking a woodwind instrument, though this particular combination of instruments together comprises what we normally think of as a modern brass or horns section. We're also told that Kick Ass Brass II is in the planning stage and is intended to include Baritone Sax, Piccolo Trumpet, Muted Trumpet and Soprano Sax, which can be used to augment this first set.

Latest Sample CDsAll the instruments were recorded using a Neumann U89 mic via a Neve preamp, and the subsequent samples were edited in Pro Tools. Each note over the natural range of the instrument was individually sampled at between two and five velocity levels depending on the playing style, and different sample sets (up to a dozen in the case of the trumpet) have been created to encompass stabs, trills, slurs, endings and other expressive nuances relevant to each particular instrument. There are also several multi sets included on the Akai Z-series/S5000 version of this library which make it easy to get a brass section up and running in the minimum time, the simplest being Eazi Brass and Eazi Split. The first of these uses eight MIDI channels and uses memory-efficient versions of the sounds (around 250MB in all), also missing out some of the trills and flourishes. Eazi Split uses all 16 MIDI channels, is again around 250MB, and places the saxes on channels one to eight with the trombones and trumpets on channels nine to 16. Alternatively you can get everything up and cooking at once with Brass All, though you may need more than one sampler to accommodate this, as it totals 440MB.

Using the samples in EXS24 format is straightforward enough, though if you don't have a full-range keyboard you'll find that all the samples are cramped up near or even beyond the top of your keyboard, which means using the transpose function of your keyboard or sequencer to get them back into range. The quality of the samples is extremely good, and the sounds are exactly right for recreating soul brass sections or your own Earth, Wind and Fire sound-alike parts. In fact there's enough variation in the playing styles and velocity switching to compose quite believable solo parts if you have the patience.

Layered together and with suitable harmonies, the resulting brass sections come over as solid and assertive, not limp and flabby as so many brass samples are when used in this context. In fact the overall effect is most convincing, especially if you have the patience to properly exploit the different playing nuances. If you need a tight, professional brass section (but can't afford the brass!) and don't want to be restricted to using sampled phrases, Kick Ass Brass is an excellent way to achieve great-sounding results. Paul White

Audio CD, £60; Akai Z-series/S5000, EXS24, Gigastudio, Halion, Kontakt, or Refill CD-ROM, £60. Prices include VAT.

AMG +44 (0)1252 717333.

Drum N Bass Fast Forward ****


Latest Sample CDsGerman sample house Ueberschall continue their list of recent releases with this two-CD set (one audio and one WAV) of drum & bass construction kits. The collection kicks off with Ueberschall's ever-popular demo song (at least only one this time) followed by 24 construction kits with tempos ranging from 122bpm to 177bpm. Following the standard construction-kits route, the samples are grouped into three tracks: The first contains the full mix (around 45 seconds long) followed by the backing track minus the drum loops. Track two houses the drum track in its entirety and all the composite drum hits and sounds. This is rounded off by the third track that contains all the instrument loops and riffs.

Style-wise the kits range from aggressive, heavily electronic-influenced creations to lighter, funkier efforts, but the majority stay on the darker side of the genre. The rhythm tracks run along nicely, with good use of effects and rolls, but the majority have a programmed feel, and there's little in the way of cut-up breakbeats here — a pro or a con depending on your taste. Each kit is well put together, and the various components would work well if lifted and used in a new composition. Although most of the elements used are synthetic in origin, the slamming bass lines are particularly good, and some organic samples (piano, guitar, flute) do turn up to bring some light relief.

The construction kits are then followed by seven tracks of additional drum loops (44 in total) grouped in tempo from 150bpm to 180bpm. Once again these beats are of the programmed variety and continue to feature some nice processing and effects. Following up behind the beats we have some very brief collections of pads, effects, percussion loops and bass loops. All of these are well played/programmed, but, with only a handful of each, they come over as a touch 'throw-away' rather than a well-planned end to the proceedings. The CD is then rounded off by a further selection of single drum sounds, grouped into bass, snare, hats and percussion — just in case the hits within the kits aren't enough for greedy drum-heads like myself. The more the merrier I say!

On the downside, I'd have liked to have seen a wider variation in style. The dark, atmospheric kits work very well, but the slower, lighter kits miss their mark and in the worst cases come across as duff jazz-funk/cheesy-disco hybrids. Also, some of the synth lines are a touch too noisy, even for this lover of grimy samples. Overall, Drum N Bass Fast Forward is a good-quality collection of construction kits and samples that will defiantly appeal to fans of the darker, more electronic style of drum & bass. Oli Bell

Audio CD and WAV CD-ROM set, £59.95 including VAT.

Time + Space +44 (0)1837 55200.

Phat Beats From The Box *****


This library is dedicated to providing human beat-box construction kits. Four separate performers provide the raw sounds, and these have been sequenced into a total of 16 kits. Each kit offers about eight basic rhythm loops, along with a variety of fills, effects, bass lines, raps, and lead parts (the trumpet is particularly special!), all cleverly created using characteristic beat-box vocal techniques and a smattering of effects processing.

Latest Sample CDsAlthough many of the elements of the mixed rhythm loops are also provided separately, so that you can easily program your own patterns from scratch, perhaps the greatest strength of this title is the rhythm programming, which is gutsy and effortlessly propulsive. The ingenuity of the fills, and their combination with the loops, transforms what could so easily be just a bunch of programmed sounds into something which lives, breathes, and terrorises the neighbourhood when the moon is full. This inspired programming combines with extremely punchy and upfront sampled sounds, and immediately marks out this CD as something a cut above the rest.

To help you find your way around the library, each kit has a tempo indication (which seems to be bang on) and a demo track of about a minute. The demo tracks mean that you can scan through the entire contents of the library looking for sounds in about 15 minutes, which has always seemed to me to be a strength of the construction-kit format. Furthermore, the WAV files on the CD-ROM all have usefully descriptive names, which should take the sting out of finding the file you're after.

I was particularly pleased that the samples used in the demo were then almost all available free of any effects — although the downside of this is that you can't build the demo track itself easily, this isn't going to cause a problem with this library, as you'll probably be looking to take only individual elements of the mixes for use in your own music.

I was also delighted that the audio CD had a small click at the end of every sample to make editing a no-brainer, and that loops from the same kit could be put in series without the rhythmic lurches common to many lesser libraries. If only all sample libraries showed as much consideration for the user.

But the most important thing about this library is that it's a complete riot! There is something so playful, exuberant, and just plain bonkers about this whole production that every demo seems to have at least one element which simply begs to be sampled. Left-field pop, electronica, and hip-hop producers in particular should ignore Phat Beats From The Box at their peril. Mike Senior

Audio CD and Acidised WAV CD-ROM set, £59.95 including VAT.

Time + Space +44 (0)1837 55200.