Acid ised WAV, Stylus RMX, REX 2, Reason Refill, Kontakt, EXS24 & Halion
Zero-G's Degrees of Abstract is a multi-format sample library that is dominated by loops, with some 2GB of sample material spread over approximately 1300 files. I auditioned the material via Acid Pro 6. As might be guessed from the title, producers Dave and Nic Higham are aiming the library somewhat left-of-centre and, while there is plenty of dance-friendly material, there is also plenty of processed weirdness. The WAV material is split into two evenly-sized sections: a group of some 40 construction kits and a collection of individual loops, which span bass, drums, FX, guitar, synth and vocal sounds.
The construction kits give a good flavour of what the whole library is about. Within each of these are a dozen or more individual loops from which an arrangement can be built. With one exception, the original tempos span 70 to 130 bpm. The styles of the kits vary. For a chilled vibe, 'Summer In Winter' hits the mark with a couple of mellow guitar loops that are almost in Mike Oldfield territory. In contrast, 'Back Street Left' is much darker and could be taken down either a Nine Inch Nails or an aggressive hip-hop route. The 'Breeze In My Head' kit is a sort of 'classical chill-out with beats' crossover, and I could easily imagine an arrangement based on these loops working in an advertising context. Other kits stray into areas such as R&B or techno, so a fairly broad musical range is covered, but in most cases there are a couple of loops that can give the kit a quirky feel.
The 600+ loops outside the construction kits cover the same broad musical territory. The 'Beats' folder contains a good collection of drum loops organised by original recording tempo. While some acoustic kits are used, in the main these are electronic and processed sounds, and there is lots to interest industrial, hip-hop, R&B or dance producers looking for something a little unconventional.
While there are some useful bass and guitar loops, the best of the rest are the folders of synth loops and vocals. The synths cover a very broad range of styles, from filmic soundscapes through pads, into some analogue arpeggio loops — nothing drastically new, but there's plenty of character all the same. While there are not huge numbers of vocal loops, the female vocals are excellent. Many of these have an 'eastern' feel and could easily be used as vocal hooks in instrumental arrangements.
In some ways, Degrees of Abstract covers similar territory to the Bill Laswell loop libraries available from Sony and, like those libraries, manages to strike a good balance between being very useable and containing enough weirdness to give some edge. There is certainly nothing to criticise here in terms of audio quality and, given the sheer volume of content, Zero-G are also offering excellent value for money. John Walden
Audio, WAV, REX, Reason, Apple Loops, EXS24, Halion & Kontakt.
Transmission-X has been produced for Sample Magic by Ian Boddy, who is well known for his work with analogue synths. He has produced several other sample libraries (such as Zero-G's Morphology) and has been interviewed in SOS in the past. It's difficult to classify the content of Transmission-X musically other than to say it is most definitely a little left-field. Essentially, this is a collection of loops and one-shot samples based around analogue synth sounds, but with some percussive and other sound sources thrown in. Many of these are then heavily processed, with delays, filters and distortion all liberally applied. The result is a collection of weird, wonderful and occasionally scary samples that could be made to work in music styles such as techno or electronica but that would also provide good material for music and/or sound design in a film or TV context.
I explored the 400+ samples (about 670MB) using the Acid ised WAVs. The Percussive Loops, Synth Loops and Transmission-X folders contain loops organised into 100, 120 and 140 bpm groups. The Percussive Loops are as close to drums as Transmission-X gets, and they are certainly rhythmic, but they don't feature standard drum or percussion loops — at least, they don't sound like standard drum and percussion loops, given the processing that has been applied to them. The Synth Loops, while definitely having an analogue vibe, are perhaps a little more conventional. There are some nice, rhythmic arpeggios and chord sequences that would work in the musical styles mentioned above and, in a media context, I could easily imagine constructing a musical bed to sit under a trendy science show from these. Things are perhaps a little weirder in the Transmission-X folder, where the majority of the loops seem to be based on heavily processed vocal sounds — great for some distinctive ear candy.
By contrast, the Textures and One Shot FX folders contain one-shot samples (there is a further sub-folder of one-shot samples in the Transmission-X folder). A good number of the Texture one-shots are quite long (15 to 30 seconds) and contain slowly evolving soundscapes. If you need a sci-fi or spooky sound bed, there are some good starting points here. The One Shot FX samples tend to be shorter, but there are some excellent bleeps and bloops that would make good FX 'hits' in the right context.
My only real criticism might be the relatively modest number of samples included in the collection, but this comment is countered somewhat by both the quality, which is excellent, and the range of formats supplied. You might not want to build a complete track from this sort of collection, but adding two or three loops would certainly give a twist to a more conventional arrangement. Transmission-X might not be to everyone's taste but if you do like the occasional bit of electronic sonic oddity, this collection is well worth auditioning. John Walden
Reason Refill for Mac & PC
Propellerhead have created a number of their own Refills for Reason but their latest addition, Abbey Road Keyboards, is perhaps the most interesting to date. Abbey Road studios are associated with some of the most famous recordings of all time, including countless classic Beatles tracks and film scores such as Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars; artists who have recorded there make a 'who's who' list of rock and pop. In that sense, capturing the essence of some of the keyboard sounds associated with Abbey Road in a sample library has considerable appeal. However, the Propellerhead team have not just created sampled instruments that 'sound like' some of the classic keyboards used in the Abbey Road studios — they have recorded the actual instruments in Abbey Road's Studio 2 and used the original mics, outboard and mixing desks. The whole process is described in the extremely interesting (and beautifully produced) manual. Needless to say, the sampling is detailed and multiple mics were used to given the user full choice over the degree of studio ambience.
The Refill is supplied on two DVDs: a 16-bit version (just under 2 GB) and a 24-bit version (just over 4 GB). As explained in the documentation, providing you have the disk space, both versions can be stored on your hard disk and the three .rfl files simply swapped to move from the 16-bit version when tracking to the 24-bit versions when mixing.
Only seven basic instruments have been sampled here, but these are seven of the most iconic instruments in the history of recorded music. The 'Mrs Mills' piano is a Steinway upright with a bright sound and a wonderfully subtle 'detuned' sound, while the Challen studio piano has a slightly warmer tone and excellent sustain. The Hammond RT3 with Leslie speaker, a Mannborg Harmonium, Mellotron Model 400, Schiedmayer Celeste and a set of Premier Tubular Bells (not strictly a keyboard, but they do sound excellent) complete the collection.
In each case, not only are different mic combinations provided for NNXT or Combinator (with options including, amongst others, close, bottom, back, top, floor and ambience), but there is also a selection of 'style' patches that are clearly aimed at particular artists or songs. For example, the inspirations for 'Mad On A Lady' (using the Challen piano) or 'Purple Distortion' (using the Hammond) are not difficult to guess. These make excellent use of Reason 's Combinator to combine the samples with some suitable processing to create the required sound.
While ARK might be something of a niche product, it is hugely impressive. It has also been beautifully put together. You can undoubtedly get similar sampled keyboard sounds within other libraries, but all the ARK instruments will add huge dollops of character to any recording. If your music really does have to have a very authentic dose of the classic Abbey Road sound, then this is considerably cheaper than booking the studio itself! John Walden
Apple Loops, REX 2, WAV
If ever there were an opportunity for an unscrupulous producer to convert the raw output of a modem directly into cash, the Glitch/IDM loop library is it. Fortunately for their already excellent reputation, Soniccouture have resisted this temptation here, despite treading a path neither straight nor narrow.
What you get is 43 feverishly neurotic rhythm construction kits, comprising a total of around 200 loops. Tempos ostensibly vary from 80bpm to 195bpm, but the highly synthetic nature of the material and the ready-sliced REX2-format loops will probably make this fairly arbitrary for most users. Combine this flexibility of tempo with the arrangement possibilities afforded by the construction-kit format, and that makes for pretty good usability.
In a time of multi-gigabyte loop libraries, the 350MB WAV directory might initially seem a bit on the slim side, but there are two things to bear in mind: firstly, this is an inexpensive library; and, secondly, the sound design and programming here are of consistently high quality, including little of the kind of dead weight that pads out some other titles. In terms of sounds, all the usual suspects are present and correct: CD-skip chitterings, crunchy granular bursts, tuned feedback buzzes, and the kinds of digital squawks that under normal circumstances let you know that you've accidentally phoned someone's fax number. Ideal, in fact, if you want to inject a little of the spirit of Aphex Twin into the soundtrack for a cyberpunk thriller — something involving hackers, say, or perhaps a psychotic knitting-machine on the rampage.
What elevates this collection above the norm, though, is that ticking the right stylistic boxes is only the start. In particular, Soniccouture have paid much attention to careful and creative use of effects, in some cases giving the loop a front-back depth which throws particular elements into sharp relief, and in others shading around the typically grating and spiky textures to blend them into a usable whole. The use of stereo field is particularly virtuoso, lending a shifting, swirling quality which nicely complements the unsettling atmosphere of the production as a whole.
Another thing that separates the sheep from the goats with any electronica library is whether each loop becomes more than the sum of its constituent samples, gelling into something with an unmistakable touch of real humanity. This is the magic ingredient that makes me impatient to start using a library even before I've finished listening to it, and there is no mistaking its presence in Abstrakt Breaks. As much as it might seem an odd thing to praise in a glitch library, there is a rare fluidity to the programming here which really sets it apart and makes you want to make music with it.
In short, don't let the price mislead you — this is a serious, professional product for musicians, albeit a compact one. Mike Senior
£32 including VAT.