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Sample Logic Cinematic Guitars

Virtual Guitar Instrument By Nick Magnus
Published May 2011

You might think that the guitar wouldn't lend itself to creating cinematic soundscapes, but Sample Logic show us it's time to think again.

Sample Logic Cinematic Guitars

If you're a composer for TV, film, theatre or computer games, or your music tends towards cinematic soundscapes, the bizarre and all things unusual, you'll probably have been drawn to the growing number of exotic sample libraries that merge music with sound design. Sample Logic's Synergy, AIR, and the award‑winning Morphestra all fit into this category: adopting a construction‑kit approach, they serve up all manner of drones, atmospheres, tempo‑synced rhythmic loops, effects stings, musical phrases and thunderous percussion. These can be combined in layers, creating instant Hollywood blockbuster‑esque soundscapes where all the individual elements are interchangeable. Cinematic Guitars (CG) follows firmly in this tradition, but with some interesting and unique twists of its own.

Overview

The title gives away the fact that CG is based entirely on guitar samples. However, don't expect your standard virtual guitar instrument: this is creative guitar abuse for the modern age. Steve Ouimette of Guitar Hero fame created all the original samples, courtesy of a sizeable guitar collection, augmented by a number of esoteric instruments ranging from a beautiful electric fretted viol to some that look distinctly like reject school woodwork projects! Aided by a wide range of amps, cabinets and a mind‑boggling array of stompboxes, effects processors and other audio mangling devices, Ouimette employed numerous playing techniques to create his samples. Bowing, plucking and scraping were of course de rigueur; more unusual methods included the sound of strings being cut off with pliers or whacked with a screwdriver handle. The list of guitar mistreatments isn't fully documented, although the designers wryly insist that "no guitars were burned during the creation of this product”, presumably a nod and a wink to Spectrasonics' habit of burning pianos in the pursuit of musical Nirvana. One can nevertheless infer that little was considered out of bounds if it resulted in an interesting and usable sound. The raw samples were further morphed, distorted and otherwise post‑produced and mastered by CG's designers, Joseph Trupiano and Keith Robinson.

Library Architecture

The instrument 'Fractured Minds', showing its filter screen and the step sequencer controlling the Hi‑Cut parameter.The instrument 'Fractured Minds', showing its filter screen and the step sequencer controlling the Hi‑Cut parameter.

As usual with Kontakt libraries, CG is divided into two main categories: Instruments and Multis. The creative potential of CG is best demonstrated by auditioning the 125 'score‑ready' Multis, a number of which were programmed by top names in the film, TV and games music industry, including Trevor Morris (The Tudors), Jesper Kyd (Splinter Cell), Bill Brown (CSI NY) and Chad Seiter (Fringe).

The Instruments folder contains the individual instruments from which Multis are made, and is divided into three broad categories: Atmospheres, Instrumentals and Percussives. These are subdivided into groups according to style or function, with some being further subdivided by mood or musical genre, making it easier to zero in on the kind of sound you're looking for. Beyond this there are only the patch names to guide you, so it's a matter of loading them up and giving them a whirl — which often results in unexpected and pleasing discoveries.

Core Effects Sequencer

Whilst the raw sample material is fascinating in its own right, CG's trump card is its ability to create custom instruments using what Sample Logic describe as "the first ever core effects sequencer”, developed using Kontakt's KSP scripting language and built into every instrument patch. The core effects sequencer provides control over eight of Kontakt's own built‑in effects: distortion, lo‑fi, filter, phaser, flanger, chorus, delay and reverb. Using customisable step sequencers for each effect, tempo‑sync'ed rhythmic value changes can be applied to critical parameters. Each effect has its own control screen, and there are also five additional screens to control volume, pan, cabinet simulation, arpeggiator and performance options — a total of 13 control screens.

A good way to get an idea of how the core sequencer works is to load a single instrument, preferably one based on sustained single notes and with some core sequencing already applied — something like 'Fractured Minds SEQ', which is found in the Instrumentals/Pads folder. This has a repetitive modulating sequence applied to the filter cutoff frequency. Clicking on the 'Filter' label reveals the filter screen; click on the blue LED below the 'Filter' label, and the filter is bypassed and the unmodulated sample can be heard. Clicking on the red LED by the Hi‑Cut knob reveals the filter's step sequencer, which in this example has four steps. Four of the filter's parameters can be step‑sequenced in this way (parameters that can be sequenced have an LED switch by their labels) and each parameter can use its own individual step-sequencer preset. When a parameter's sequencer is activated, adjusting its knob value governs the sequencer's modulation depth for that parameter. Naturally, like pretty much everything in Kontakt, these knobs can be assigned to MIDI controllers — right‑clicking any knobby control in CG brings up the familiar 'Learn MIDI CC' dialogue. Step sequences can be anything between two and 64 steps long, and their relative timebases can be set to one of seven choices between one bar and 1/64th note. It quickly becomes clear that some interesting and complex tonal 'polyrhythmicalities' can be created using the filter alone, with each of the four parameters set to different lengths, depths and timebases, and with real‑time control over the amount of effect each one has (see the screenshot overleaf).

Ten step-sequencer preset slots are provided, all customisable (simply draw the desired sequence pattern with the mouse), and these can be also be selected in real time via MIDI, so patterns can be changed on the fly. This level and method of control is present for all eight effects, offering the potential for an almost unlimited range of tonal animation and rhythmic possibilities. Similar control and sequencing facilities are also found on the Volume and Pan screens.

Unsurprisingly, there is also a note arpeggiator with similar features to the step sequencers, plus familiar arpeggiating options of note order, octave range, note duration and number of note strikes per step. The two remaining screens are Cabinet and Performance Options. Cabinet offers 11 cabinet choices and a rotator effect, and each has a selection of presets, although no option to save your own. The cabinet controls can all be automated via MIDI, but not step-sequenced. The Performance Options screen is where you can stack, spread and detune voices, set the patch to play monophonically, and apply glide (portamento). And finally, the global section, visible at all times, controls gain, attack and release times, and provides overall Hi‑cut and Lo‑cut EQ to the patch.

In Use

The 'Fractured Minds' sequencer example discussed in the main text. In the upper part of the screen you can see that the original step sequence applied to the filter's Hi‑Cut has been changed to seven steps, with the additional steps' values filled in, running at eighth notes. The lower half shows the step sequencer applied also to the filter's Lo‑Cut, using a different sequencer preset running at 16th notes with 32 steps. This creates a dramatically different and complex rhythmic character, and by assigning MIDI controllers to engage or disengage the sequences, the nature of the rhythm can be changed on the fly.The 'Fractured Minds' sequencer example discussed in the main text. In the upper part of the screen you can see that the original step sequence applied to the filter's Hi‑Cut has been changed to seven steps, with the additional steps' values filled in, running at eighth notes. The lower half shows the step sequencer applied also to the filter's Lo‑Cut, using a different sequencer preset running at 16th notes with 32 steps. This creates a dramatically different and complex rhythmic character, and by assigning MIDI controllers to engage or disengage the sequences, the nature of the rhythm can be changed on the fly.

The RAM usage of the individual instruments is refreshingly low; some come in at only a few hundred kilobytes, most being well under 10 or 20MB. However, the CPU hit can mount up when using multiple Kontakt instances each running heavily populated Multis, owing to the sheer number of simultaneously engaged step sequencers and effects. On my quad‑core PC, running three Kontakt instances with large Multis in each had three of the cores averaging 20 percent and the fourth regularly hitting 40 percent. That's not exactly breaking into a sweat, but it's worth keeping an eye on your CPU meter and removing any CG instruments that aren't actually contributing anything to the fray if you plan on using other CPU‑intensive plug‑ins.

A Case For Upgrading?

Kontakt Player users can only use CG instruments as they were originally structured, due to the Player's inability to edit patches at 'engine room' level. This is unlikely to hobble creativity to any great degree, given that there are so many ways of customising sounds using the core effects sequencers. However, frustration may arise on discovering that many of CG's beautifully haunting melodic phrases are not tempo‑sync'ed, and their speed varies according to their played pitch on the keyboard. Owners of the full version of Kontakt will have a distinct advantage here, as they can get right into the works and edit whatever aspects they wish. The speed of musical phrases can be tamed simply by changing the sample‑playback setting from DFD to Time Machine, and manually adjusting the speed to fit the track's tempo.

One other mild frustration is the lack of a smoothing parameter for the step sequencers. Step values change instantly, which is fine if you want a crisp, percussive effect, but this can become a little overbearing when lots of step sequencers are doing it, all in strict unison. Smoothing might have been possible if the step sequencer were present as a standard modulation destination, by increasing its 'lag' parameter. However, it isn't: it seems this feature would have to be built into the KSP scripting.

Conclusion

Whilst there is a certain degree of overlap in sound and function between CG and other similarly styled construction‑kit libraries (I even found myself reminded occasionally of Eric Persing's old, classic Distorted Reality sample library), the ingeniously created collection of sounds, textures and wonderfully evocative polyphonic and melodic phrases brings CG its own distinctive personality.

When combined within Multis and further brought to life by an army of core effects sequencers, the results are frequently strong enough to stand on their own as complete musical arrangements. As such, CG tends to want to lead rather than follow, so it's perhaps more likely to find itself being used as the basis of new musical ideas rather than fitting comfortably into existing pieces, but that's a generalisation based on personal observation that many users are bound to disagree with. Nevertheless, Cinematic Guitars offers an entertaining and intuitive way of creating customised, composite soundscapes from its core library of unconventional guitar sounds, and should continue to inspire new ideas long after the TV ads have been saturated with the factory presets.  

Alternatives

Sample Logic Morphestra, Heavyocity Evolve and its Evolve Mutations expansion packs, Bela D Media's Sampled Landscape and Zero G's Deep Impact are all examples of libraries that address the building of complex textures and soundscapes by layering different elements together. Cinematic Guitars is the only such product to do so using entirely guitar‑originated sounds, and so far is the only one to offer the depth of customisation provided by its core effects sequencer. CG can therefore currently be considered unique in what it provides.

A Touch Of Normality

Although CG doesn't fall into the 'virtual guitar instrument' category, the library includes a decent collection of 'traditionally' playable instruments, both acoustic and electric, including basses and the aforementioned bowed electric viol. These are presented mainly as straightforward, velocity‑switched patches — although some employ velocity morphing via Kontakt 4's AET filter to smooth the transition between velocity layers. There are no fancy keyswitches or articulations, but despite the absence of performance frills they sound musical, lively and well recorded, and provide some welcome and naturalistic 'freeform' melodic tools within the CG environment. You can of course totally subvert and mutate these with the core sequencer effects that are available to every CG patch, if you don't feel like being quite so sensible.

Specs

Cinematic Guitars occupies one DVD containing 5.8GB of sample data in NI's .NKW lossless compression format, which is equivalent to 9GB of uncompressed data. Samples were recorded and processed at 48kHz/24‑bit, and provided at 44.1kHz/24‑bit. Kontakt Player 4.1.1 comes bundled with the library; CG can also be used with the full version of Kontakt, as long as it's version 4.1.1 or higher. Kontakt is VST, AU, RTAS and DXi‑compatible and also runs in stand‑alone mode. It has native 64‑bit support for all formats and platforms.

  • Minimum requirements for PC: Windows XP (SP2, 32-bit), Vista (32-/64‑bit), Windows 7 (32-/64‑bit), Pentium or Athlon XP 1.4GHz, 1GB RAM.
  • Minimum requirements for Mac: Mac OS 10.5 or higher, Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz, 1GB RAM.

Pros

  • A fascinating palette of unusual textures, melodies and rhythms.
  • The core effects sequencer offers immense creative potential.
  • Low RAM usage.

Cons

  • CPU hit can mount up when using multiple Kontakt Multi instances.

Summary

Cinematic Guitars sounds weird, beautiful, haunting and often dangerous, and is sure to become a go‑to source of inspiration for many composers, especially those working in the film, TV and games music business. The numerous interactive controls and core effects sequencer offer endless potential for creating custom sounds and evocative cinematic soundscapes.

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Published May 2011