VST, Rewire & stand-alone
Regular SOS readers will be familiar with the Vocaloid concept. Yamaha's PC-only virtual vocalist engine, combined with a sample library of phonetic sounds recorded from a particular singer, provides the user with a software-based vocalist. You type in your lyrics and off you go. Well, almost.... because, while Vocaloid is certainly remarkable technology (and, for backing vocals and legato phrases, actually quite easy to use), creating a convincing lead vocal using only Vocaloid requires a great deal of work. Much of this involves detailed editing of the phonetic sounds (to improve the pronunciation) and the expression controls (to add some 'life' to the performance). Vocaloid 2 made this process easier and PowerFX's Sweet Ann was the first product to use this latest version of the Vocaloid engine. Now Zero-G (who were behind the Lola, Leon and Miriam releases for Vocaloid 1), have released Prima, based on 2.5GB of completely new sample data, recorded specifically for Vocaloid 2 using a professional soprano singer.
Like Sweet Ann (reviewed in SOS January 2008), Vocaloid 2 offers four modes of operation with Prima: a stand-alone editor; Rewire; a VST plug-in that can play back files created in the stand-alone editor; and a 'real-time' VST plug-in. The last of these was introduced in Vocaloid 2 and, while still requiring detailed editing to create realistic vocal performances, it provides a means of 'playing' the vocal via a MIDI keyboard, which is a much more user-friendly approach.
All of the products mentioned above delivered something different in terms of vocal style: Lola and Leon provided fairly generic 'pop' singers; Miriam (based upon the voice of Miriam Stockley) brought a wider range of possibilities, and could be pushed into slightly more classical areas if required; and Sweet Ann, which PowerFX described as a 'space lounge robo-vocalist sensation', was more suited to lighter pop or musical-theatre styles. Despite the soprano singer source, Prima could easily be used for some pop-styles, although the operatic flavour does come through.
The MP3 audio examples of 'Mon Coeur S'Ouvre' (from Samson et Dalila) and 'Ave Maria' demonstrate just how credible Prima can sound, particularly with long, legato-style phrases. Incidentally, a quick search of YouTube will reveal a goodly number of other Vocaloid (both v1. and v.2) demos created by users. There are good, not so good, and bizarre examples (including a cover of the Pet Shop Boys 'Go West', thrown in for good measure), but they might at least help you understand what's possible!
With each new singer, there's been an incremental improvement in the quality of what can be achieved, and the same is true for Prima. While it still requires a certain amount of editing work on vowel sounds (oohs, ahs and so on), it is relatively easy to get Prima to produce something that sounds very realistic within the context of a musical arrangement. In fact, it's possible to produce some really strident, window-rattling, operatic vocals — and if you add a suitable high-quality reverb the results can be impressive. As the Vocaloid editor allows up to 16 tracks to be layered, Prima could hold considerable appeal for media composers looking to add some operatic-style backing vocals or vocal 'washes' to their projects.
Things remain more challenging if you're trying to create a full lead vocal line based on a proper lyric (rather than just some vowel sounds). The basic creation of such a performance is straightforward: a series of notes is entered into the piano-roll-style editor and lyrics are typed into a small box above each note. While Vocaloid 2 makes it much easier to add basic expression elements (variable pitch-sliding into notes, or vibrato on sustained notes, for example), there's still a price to pay in terms of editing time to adjust details of both the expression and the pronunciation of the lyrics. It is the latter that is probably most noticeable with Prima. Without such editing, the results are a little like listening to a singer who has a very good grasp of English as a second language, but for whom the trace of an accent still appears. But, if you learn how to tweak the pronunciation via the phonetic editing function, Prima can be made to sound uncannily like the real thing.
In testing, the only problem I experienced was when using the VST 'real-time' plug-in (now at v.188.8.131.52) with Cubase 4.1.3. The issue persisted with a second audio interface and also occurred in Cubase 3.1.1. I'd not had any problems in this regard when doing equivalent testing of Sweet Ann, and I can only assume that if it's reported by other users an update will soon be forthcoming to fix it.
In summary, then, Prima is undoubtedly the best implementation of a Vocaloid virtual vocalist that's currently available. It still requires considerable time and effort to build a full lead vocal performance, and the soprano basis may limit its appeal for those working in straight pop production. However, if you need to add backing vocals or the occasional operatically-flavoured vocal line to a project, Prima will prove far cheaper than booking a session singer. Vocaloid is just as interesting for the nature of the task it attempts as for the results it can obtain, and while it is still not the Holy Grail of a perfect 'singer-in-a-box', Prima does represent another step in the right direction towards that very ambitious target. John Walden
Harley & Muscle are an Italian deep house production duo who've been successfully knocking out original tracks and remixes for more than 15 years, as well as running their Soulstar and Little Angel record labels. This eponymous contribution to Loopmasters' Artist Series comprises 435MB of loops and 96MB of multisamples and one-shots in numerous different sample formats.
The drum loops have the unmistakable mark of authenticity about them, and a smoothly rolling groove that propels things along firmly, plus there's a variety of well-handled percussion, effects, and vinyl sample details in the background, which make for a nice, cohesive atmosphere. Some of the drum tracks are presented with separate loops for percussion and effects layers, although there's no indication in the file names of which loops belong together in this way, which is a bit tedious. Another issue is that lots of the drum loops (and, indeed, the other loops in the library) are eight bars long, but on many occasions smaller two- or four-bar patterns repeat within them, and the more cynically minded might interpret this as a ruse to pad out a given megabyte acreage using the minimum of musical material — particularly as many of the 54 drum loops form small groups of variations on or layers extracted from the same basic pattern.
The bass sounds really deliver the goods sonically, with the kind of warm tone that almost seems like it's coming through the bodywork of that Golf GTI at the traffic lights! These are the best bit of this library for me, really full-sounding while at the same time still providing enough information in the low mid-range to work on smaller speakers. It's a relief, then, to find multisamples, albeit at one note per octave, for ten of these (alongside 10 electric piano multisamples and 216 drum kit one-shots) in a separate folder, given that the loop performances left me fairly underwhelmed.
The rich, dreamy added-note Rhodes ripples in the Piano folder are also well on target sound-wise, with undulating modulation effects and long tempo-delays all present and correct. However, I found only a couple of loops of the soloing that appears on the demo, which brings me to a wider point: there are no vocal samples, and only the stingiest allocation of special effects and lead synth loops (cynics might suggest that these are primarily there to make the audio demo possible). This seems like a serious omission to me, given how much this style (and indeed H&M releases such as A Decade Of Truth and the Play Deep House series) relies on these more inspirational elements to liven up the fairly static repetitions of its structural backbone. Sadly, a final folder of string loops rather adds to the general air of complacency, with lots of static block chords and lugubrious one-finger lines, as well as timbres that, while fairly lush and warm, are also at times clunkily programmed.
If you need a few authentic and ready-to-rumble deep-house drum loops and some great bass multisamples to go with them, this title is maybe worth a punt, given the fairly modest price. If you're in search of more than that, however, you may find that this library's cover art raises more of a smile than its content. Mike Senior
Urban Ammunition (great title) is a new hip hop/R&B sample collection from Zero-G, featuring a chunky 4.2GB of content duplicated over two DVDs (Acidised WAVs on one DVD, Apple Loops AIFFs on the second).
As this title is firmly aimed towards the construction kit format, it's unsurprising that these should take up the bulk of the content, with a whopping 128 kits to wade through. Tempos range from a head-nodding 64 bpm to a livelier 145 bpm, with the majority hanging around the 90 to 100 bpm range (this also goes for all the loops included in the collection).
Each kit contains an example of the full loop, the beat (with all the single drum hits included), bass line and often five or six melodic elements. In keeping with the modern urban trends, the majority of the sounds are synthetic, but it's nice to see some guitar lines scattered about as well. Sound quality is high, and the beats thump, rumble and crack as they should, while the bass, string hits and synths sound chunky and powerful.
Style-wise, things lean heavily towards the more chart-friendly urban sound rather than anything too underground or cutting-edge. Occasionally the same sounds crop up in different kits, or an element gets a bit 'samey' but on the whole everything is well put together and sounds authentic.
Alongside the kits, Urban Ammunition also throws in quite a chunk of extras, some good, some not so good. On the rhythmic tip, there are an additional 400 programmed beats, 300 percussion loops and 100 live drum loops. The programmed loops are once again of a high standard, with plenty of power and punch, and really come into their own when they are allowed to stray away from the familiar 'boom-bap' patterns.
The percussion loops are also programmed and feature shakers, tabla, hand drums and deep udu-like tones. Although these aren't as strong as the drum loops, they would work well layered over a beat or perhaps filtered and used as a rhythmic sweetener. The only real let-down beat-wise is the collection of live drum loops which, although having a nice raw edge to them, are basically variations on five or six core beats. The lack of any individual hits from the live kit seems puzzling, as does the fact that some of the loops have been allowed to clip, during either the recording or mastering process.
Rounding things off are the MPC tools loops, basically an additional 100 loops cobbled together from the leftover/unused kits and 40 of the worst 'scratch' samples I've heard in a long time. Most are badly performed 'spin backs' or sound suspiciously synthetic; these really are bad (meaning bad, not good!).
Apart from the above niggles, Urban Ammunition delivers its payload, providing a large resource of beats and loops that is easy to dip into when you're stuck for a slice of urban flavour. Oli Bell