Giga Virtual Instrument
I'm beginning to wonder if sample library developers are secretly in league with hard drive manufacturers. If that's the case, then Sonivox can expect a healthy commission from Seagate for their Muse virtual instrument, which comes on six double-sided DVDs, and takes up 38GB of drive space. My drive space. It uses Tascam's recently developed Giga Virtual Instrument as a front end, which means that it can work as a stand-alone sample player or a VST or RTAS-format plug-in (see February's Sound On Sound for full details of the GVI player). Muse is available for Windows XP only, and is authorised to a Synchrosoft USB dongle, which is supplied in the box. Cubase users can, of course, choose to transfer the authorisation to their existing dongle.
However, this is not some Giga-kazoo library that wastes gigabytes of drive space multisampling a single instrument in unnecessary detail. Muse is a pretty ambitious attempt to provide a complete sound palette that covers not only the staples of rock and pop, but also a high-quality grand piano, a full orchestra and a decent selection of ethnic instruments, along with synths and electronic drum kits.
My first port of call in this sort of package is usually the acoustic drum kits, and Muse 's are good. Very good, in fact. There's a decent selection covering most musical styles, and they're all extremely playable, with nicely multisampled drums that rarely produce the 'machine-gunning' effect you get from inferior drum samples. The brushed kit is particularly nice, and it's easy to mix and match elements from different kits. A solid array of African, Far Eastern and Latin percussion complements these nicely, but I was surprised to see one or two fairly basic percussion instruments omitted altogether. I couldn't find a tambourine or shaker in the entire Muse sound library, and although I assume that they exist in the GM bank, for some reason I was unable to load this on my computer.
Moving on to the keyboard instruments, the obvious highlight is the Classical Piano, which makes use of the Gigapulse convolution tool to add sympathetic resonances, and sounds really nice. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it's not far short of many of the dedicated piano libraries out there, and certainly everything an occasional player like me would need. There's also a fine celeste, a very usable Clavinet, an accordion, a small number of Hammond organs, and Rhodes and Wurli patches that are smoothly sampled if arguably a tad on the bland side, but the other high point among the keyboards is a set of gorgeously grungey vintage string machines.
Over 14GB of the library is devoted to the orchestral instruments, which were part of the Sonic Implants Complete Symphonic Collection in a previous life (Sonivox being the new name for Sonic Implants). In terms of the number of instruments covered, it's more comprehensive than some dedicated orchestral libraries, especially when you take into account the inclusion of the Classical Piano and the harp, and the standard is generally high. I liked the woodwind in particular: the flutes are delicate and expressive, while the oboes and bassoons are suitably plaintive. The orchestral brass has plenty of power, and it's nice to see a really thorough selection of percussion, including timps, xylophone, glockenspiel, marimba, tubular bells and vibraphone as well as most of the unpitched percussion you're likely to need.
Moving over to the string desks, Muse includes most of what you'd expect, with various solo and ensemble patches for violins, violas, cellos and basses. These have a full, rich sound, but also a tendency towards heavy vibrato, especially on the solo patches, which seemed over the top to me. I suspect that any serious orchestral arranger would like to see more different playing techniques included: there are various 'fast' and 'slow' options plus pizzicato, but no tremolando, for example.
The most significant criticisms I can find are not to do with Sonivox's samples, but the GVI player itself. First, the effects structure is plain bizarre: you can have up to 16 different chains of effects, but there's no send/return architecture, so the wet/dry balance for each chain is fixed. If you want to have different amounts of reverb for each of the instruments in a drum kit, you'll have to route them to separate FX channels with separate reverbs on them. Second, the plug-in version has no internal level metering at all. I didn't find this a problem in Cubase, but for some reason, in Pro Tools, many of the instruments were obviously distorting when played at their default volume, even though the mixer channels in Pro Tools didn't show an overload.
There are a few areas, such as basses and organs, where a wider range of sounds would be useful, and the synths are no substitute for a dedicated virtual analogue synth. Conversely, I can't imagine why anyone thought the Jazz Vocal samples were a good idea.In general, though, I think Muse pretty much achieves what it sets out to do, and I was particularly impressed to find that few of the patches rely on heavy-handed effects to make them sound good. As a hard-hitting all-rounder, Muse would make an excellent step up from the sound palettes provided in the freebies that come bundled with sequencers, such as Steinberg's Halion One and Digidesign's Xpand! Sam Inglis
Kontakt 2 Library
Another day, another guitar library, this time from prolific composer and all-round sample genius, Chris Hein. This 18GB collection covers nine instruments: nylon and steel, mandolin, banjo and then three electric guitars (clean, chorus and blues) alongside two jazz guitars (plectrum and finger). Arriving in Kontakt 2 format, it is bundled with a copy of the Kontakt 2 Player.
Continuing the current trend towards playability right out of the box, the actual number of patches is limited, but each one is filled to the neck with keyswitches and automatable control parameters. There are, however, medium and light patches for each, with fewer velocity layers, and others with only a limited number of articulations, in case you need to limit memory use.
I would use up most of this page if I were to list the switches (as many as 59 on some patches), but suffice to say all the usual suspects are present such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, falls, mutes, flageolet and so on. Over and above that there's a cunning slide mode, where you can create your own slides rather than being limited to pre-recorded ones. You can even then change the pace of the slide itself. The chord modes are another Godsend: you can play a chord and then either strum it, pick it or both, again with recourse to pull-offs and slides for added realism. Alternatively, the supplied MIDI patterns can control the rhythm, and you just insert your own chord choices. Whilst there are only a few patterns, they are a good base from which to kick off.
Interestingly, the library comes bundled with a demo version of Native Instruments' Guitar Rig plug-in — a clever addition from a marketing point of view, as I found some of the best results come from using this to process the standard library sounds. Guitar Rig is a worthy addition to your arsenal so, if you haven't already got it, be warned: using the demo tempts you mercilessly! A word should also be said about the manual: it's not only very well written, but supplied both as a PDF and hard copy, which is becoming a rarity these days.
So has CHG succeeded where so many libraries have gone before? As a one-stop library, a resounding yes — it gives you a little bit of everything at your fingertips, all well recorded and with enough articulations to sink a battleship. Other libraries dedicated to only one or two instruments may have a small edge in terms of sound, but few have the accessible playability of CHG, nor its wealth of playing styles. That is not intended to damn it with faint praise, either — I would happily have it as my sole guitar library. Hilgrove Kenrick
Audio CD, Halion, EXS24, Reason Refill, WAV
Sample Lab's latest drum-loop collection could be seen as the evil twin of the company's debut, the well-respected Luscious Grooves. The 250 loops are mostly four bars in length and cover a 70-135 bpm tempo range. Stylistically, the sounds are deep and gritty, with vast, lumbering kicks rattling your windows, while carnivorous snare drums tear out the backbeat's throat. Furry breaks and layered lo-fi programming are processed to within an inch of their lives (filtering, compression, and distortion feature particularly heavily), adding a rich, rough, satisfying patina to the production as a whole, and I found myself frequently reminded of the work of Massive Attack, Leftfield and Gorillaz in this respect, as well as of the classic Wall Of Vinyl sample series.
Just as importantly — as I'm coming to expect from Sample Lab's loop libraries — the impressive sonics are underpinned by performances and programming which consistently impress with their musicality. At the slower end of the tempo range there's a fantastic laid-back swagger to many of the loops, which is sure to impress those involved in urban styles, but as the tempo ratchets up this transforms into a cocksure strut well-suited to any underground dance or industrial rock style.
You can probably already tell that I think this library's a winner, but I do have one reservation: a lot the loops incorporate quite heavy-handed reverb and delay effects, which I sometimes found a bit OTT. It's not that they don't sound great — a lot of the effects are creative and/or gratifyingly vintage-sounding — but you can have too much of a good thing. Just 2-3dB less effect return in a lot of cases would have left more options open at the mix stage, and would therefore made a lot of the material more widely usable. Still, it's hard to gripe too loudly over this when the fastidious editing, multiple well-organised sample formats, and usefully descriptive documentation contribute so much in the usability department.
Overall you'd be daft not to investigate The Dark Side if you're creating grimy hip-hop, industrial rock, or the sleazier side of the dance spectrum. Bear in mind, though, that there is a great deal of subsonic energy lurking amidst these loops (as there should be!) so beware of this if your monitoring system doesn't give you the low-end extension to really hear what you're doing. Mike Senior