Spectrasonics' new Steam‑driven bass module bundles 34GB of electric, acoustic and synth basses into one package. We delve deep and give you the lowdown.
Those of you who upgraded from Spectrasonics' Atmosphere to the all‑singing, all‑dancing Omnisphere over the last year will have enjoyed its remarkable metamorphosis from a comparatively simple plug‑in instrument to a complex, highly programmable and versatile sample‑based soft synth. That evolution occurred via the creation of Omnisphere's large, imaginative sample library, and also courtesy of the intricate programming functions introduced in Spectrasonics' custom 'Steam' sound engine. The Californian company have now completed a similarly radical transformation of the popular Trilogy bass module: renamed Trilian, this souped‑up instrument now enjoys all the advantages of Steam and sports a brand new 34GB core library to boot.
All of Spectrasonics Steam‑powered instruments (to date, Omnisphere and Trilian) must be installed in the same folder, so if you've already installed Omnisphere on your internal or external hard drive, you're obliged to locate Trilian's software and samples in the same place. As the Trilian core library is large, this may necessitate having to move your Steam folder to a new, larger-capacity drive, a straightforward operation that is explained in Trilian's printed user guide. For those who own both, the v1.1 version of Omnisphere can play Trilian patches, but as Omnisphere has more parameters than Trilian, the reverse is not true.
Installation and on-line authorisation took about 90 minutes and went fine for me, with hardly any swearing. The tutorial video clip included on the installation DVD explained that I needed to direct the installer to the folder level above my existing Steam folder — and, having heeded that advice, everything was plain sailing. Well, almost everything: once installation is complete, users are advised to download updates to the player software, sound library and patch library before attempting to make music, but, ironically, Trilian's 'check for updates' button didn't work! Fortunately Spectrasonics' on‑line updates page isn't hard to find and the updates restored the impotent button to full health.
Having served up pumping bass lines to the trade since 2003, Trilogy has now been discontinued, but the good news is that anyone who bought the instrument during 2009 will receive a free upgrade to Trilian. The same applies to all Trilogy Intel Mac customers. Other Trilogy owners will get a substantial discount on the new module — and if you're in doubt which category you fall into, you can follow the 'upgrade' link on the Spectrasonics Trilian instrument web page and check what your price (if any) will be.
Trilogy die-hards will be pleased to note that Trilian incorporates Trilogy's 3.1GB core library along with updated versions of its factory patches (see below for details). However, Trilogy user data can't be imported, so if you want to use your existing custom patches in the new instrument you'll have to recreate them manually. Alternatively, as Trilian and Trilogy will run side-by-side within a project, you can continue to run your old Trilogy patches, with one caveat: Spectrasonics warn that "Trilogy is no longer supported on the newest operating systems and hardware, so may not perform as expected.”
Some former Trilogy patches have been merged at patch level: for example, the miked and DI versions of Trilogy's upright bass's three dynamic layers, previously presented as six separate patches, are now united in a single Trilian patch. This streamlined approach helps to de‑clutter the patch directory and makes the instrument simpler to use, but if you want to access any of the original Trilogy factory patches, they're all faithfully preserved as single Trilian 'soundsources'. (Read our review of Trilogy in the April 2003 issue of SOS.)
A second, much older 'legacy product' also makes a welcome comeback here: Bass Legends, Spectrasonics' very first release from 1994, an excellent double‑CD Akai sound library which did an intensive sampling job on three leading bass players. The inclusion of its multisamples in Trilian means you're no longer obliged to fire up your old hardware samplers to hear Abraham Laboriel's earth‑shaking performances. The Bass Legends samples have been remastered and its patches updated by the addition of release tails and Steam's built‑in effects.
The 'Tri' in Trilian and Trilogy refers to the triple whammy of acoustic, electric and synth basses they contain. Trilian's electric (i.e bass guitar) category is by far the biggest, featuring 886 multisamples (or 'soundsources', as Spectrasonics call them) of around two dozen instruments. Some of these multisamples contain more than 10,000 samples, which explains why the makers recommend 4GB of RAM. However, as bass lines are typically performed one note at a time and rarely feature chords, Trilian tends to be significantly less demanding on CPU resources than the pad‑oriented Omnisphere.
Auditioning the range of bass guitars recorded for Trilian is like taking a stroll through the history of rock and pop. Starting with the present day, the flagship Studio Bass (a long‑scale Music Man five‑string Bongo model played by Matt Bissonette) contributes the largest selection of articulations. Spectrasonics have gone to town with this instrument — its largest patch contains keyboard‑split six‑dynamic sustains and staccatos, downward slides and semitone glissandi, round-robin variations for each note, and a complete set of release and legato samples. Since simultaneously recorded amp and DI versions are both included in the patch, the whole shooting match clocks in at 1.18GB, around 10 times larger than the largest patches in Omnisphere.
Loading this many samples takes quite a while and your eyes will inevitably be drawn to the yellow bar showing the progress of the load, but it's worth the wait — the instrument sounds clean, contemporary and powerful, with enough performance variations (slapped, pulled and thumb‑hit notes, harmonics, effects and string squeaks) to cover all practical requirements. If you're looking for more crunch and bite, a set of 'Hardcore' patches (a Music Man Stingray played with alarming vigour through an Ampeg SVT bass amp) push the sound towards punk/heavy rock territory.
Originating in the early '70s and subsequently popularised by King Crimson/Peter Gabriel bassist Tony Levin, the Chapman Stick is an enigmatic instrument designed to be played by tapping the strings down on to the fretboard. That gives it a somewhat delicate sound, but the bottom end still has just about enough weight to hold its own with a drum kit. The sampled Stick in Trilian sounds very agreeable, with a middle and high‑end sounding like a cross between a spinet and a muted Fender Strat. The Stick's abundance of strings and exceptionally long neck give it a very wide range, enabling users to play it in pianistic style if the spirit moves them.
Modelled on a 1964 Fender Precision (though built this century), the Lakland 'Rock P‑Bass' sounds modern and bright, with a clean open tone. Its powerful and tuneful picked staccato samples sound like a master class in how to articulate cleanly and precisely across the entire range of a bass guitar, and the muted pick staccatos would be just the job for covering '60s instrumentals. But if you want an authentic retro instrument, there's the early '60s Epiphone Viola semi‑acoustic, a bass that looks very much like Paul McCartney's early 'Beatles bass'. The tone is round and smooth, somewhat cleaner and less dull than the famous Hofner model.
Of the electric basses that originated in Trilogy, the pick of the bunch for me was the monumental, classy and enveloping sound of the 'Five‑string Finger' Fodera. An honourable mention must also go to the lyrical vibrato deliveries Dean Taba produces from his Fender fretless bass, some patches of which emulate the distinctive middly tone of the late, great fretless ambassador Jaco Pastorius. Despite their relative antiquity, the Bass Legends instruments still cut the mustard: I often turn to Abraham Laboriel's 'Old Soul' bass if I need some pure, fat bottom‑end — it has little discernible attack in a mix, but is unbeatable in the 'boom' department. John Patitucci's punky fuzz bass also continues to raise my musical pulse, and is now given added raunch by Steam's 'Smoke' amp simulator and 'Tape Slammer' compressor/limiter.
While Trilogy's acoustic stand‑up bass is pretty playable, you'd have to say that the new instrument recorded for Trilian is world class. Played by the versatile Dean Taba, the double bass was recorded simultaneously on four audio channels, using Neumann 147 and AKG C12 microphones and two different pick‑ups (one made by Wilson, the other by Schertler). The Neumann/Wilson combo (called 'Acoustic 1' in the patch directory) has a warm, sustaining sound, while the AKG/Schertler pairing gives a more distinct attack. The latter works better for fast or busy bass parts within an ensemble, but in a more exposed or open setting (such as a jazz ballad), I'd go for the luxurious, expansive sound of 'Acoustic 1'. In fact, given half a chance I'd send the rest of the band home and solo on it all night.
Slides are an important part of this instrument's arsenal. There are separate patches for upwards, downwards and bi‑directional slides, plus a choice of effects slides. Unlike some found elsewhere, these slides cut off quickly at the end rather than landing on a sustained target note, which is no bad thing; in my experience, the final note invariably introduces timing problems since the slide lengths aren't matched to any particular tempo. Staccatos, harmonics and upward tone glissandi and the usual obligatory squeaks and thumps complete the menu of performances. These can be fruitfully assembled in Trilian's 'Live Mode', which enables you to switch seamlessly between them in performance without cutting off the release die‑away of the previous patch.
Also included in this section of Trilian is a Martin acoustic bass guitar which first showed up in Trilogy. It sounds highly agreeable: super‑clean, long‑sustaining and with a very strong, warm low end and plenty of performance variations. I've never written music for acoustic bass guitar, but this instrument made me want to give it a whirl.
The list of synths sampled for Trilian is as long as your arm (see the instrument list elsewhere in this article). As well as familiar names such as Moog, Prophet, ARP and PPG there are ones I'm less familiar with, such as the Swedish Cwejman, with their semi‑modular Cwejman S1 MkII analogue synth, and the even more obscure, thrillingly‑named Metasonix KV100 Assblaster (or 'Bum Exploder', as we Brits prefer to call it). I wondered whether this was included just so we could all laugh at the name, but it turns out that this is a valve processor-cum-ring modulator that creatively mangles external signals, resulting in the kind of engagingly lo‑fi racket you can imagine burbling away behind a low‑budget, early-'60s, black and white, BBC sci‑fi series. Very enjoyable.
Although Trilian contains hundreds of different bass-synth multisamples, the boxed version included only a relatively small number of bass synth patches, but a subsequent patch update soon expanded this number to well over 300. They comprise an amazing array of synth bass timbres, ranging from Minimoog‑esque tight filter 'bowps', hard percussive patches and warm sub‑basses, to blissed‑out, filter‑swept drones, in‑your‑face thips and electronic barks, vocaloid timbres, some kicking arpeggio‑generated synth‑bass rhythm patterns and a selection of experimental, effects‑style noises reminiscent of the early days of electronic music. The sonic variety is astonishing, so much so that I found it hard to imagine ever getting tired of playing this instrument.
My first instinct was to find some uncomplicated Moog and ARP 2600 bass sounds, the meat‑and‑potato low‑register timbres of the studio synthesist. Trilian does these really well: the basic waveforms are intensively sampled at what sound like chromatic intervals, seamlessly looped and perfectly in tune. The range of filters in the instrument is impressive; I soon found one filter preset ('Rich & Moogie 1') that combined the warmth, size and power of my trusty Minimoog, and others that produced satisfyingly outlandish noises. Each of the two layers in a patch can have two filters, so users are really spoiled for choice in this area.
It's common practice to tune bass-synth oscillators an octave apart, and many of Trilian's synth-bass patches are based on that sound. I was very pleased to discover that in many cases the octave doubling is created by Steam's excellent 'Harmonia' voice multiplier facility, which means that you can turn the effect off if you don't need it. The Harmonia page also lets you pile up multiple oscillators playing different pitches on one key, or have them all thundering away in unison for a big bad bass grand slam. The degree of 'analogue warmth' (caused by unstable oscillator pitch) is totally controllable, unlike in the so‑called 'good' old days when you had to re‑tune your analogue synth at depressingly regular intervals.
Allied to the innovations and creative quirks of the Steam engine, these facilities go a long way towards convincing me that Trilian is a worthy (and far more capable) successor to the '70s generation of analogue instruments, which are now proving difficult to maintain in working order.
The Steam sound engine was introduced in September 2008 with Omnisphere. Trilian's Steam engine functions, controls, effects and basic patch/multi structure are basically the same as Omnisphere (including the arpeggiator and modulation envelopes), so if you want more information about those, read the December 2008 Omnisphere review (/sos/dec08/articles/spectrasonicsomnisphere.htm). However, some new features have been introduced to reflect the character of the instrument. Since the electric and acoustic basses were recorded simultaneously via mic and DI, Trilian has separate mic and DI volume controls for all instruments so you can adjust the balance to taste, which sound engineers and producers will find very handy.
Most of the electric and acoustic basses have release samples — and, unusually for this kind of product, these can be freely swapped between instruments, though for realism's sake I found it best to stick with like‑for‑like. A special set of optional legato intervals adds realistic performance detail such as hammer‑ons. They are interval‑specific and limited to an operating range of two semitones above and below the start note. Both the release samples and legato intervals can be switched on and off in the main control screen.
Listening closely to the raw electric and acoustic bass multisamples, I noticed that they decay naturally for a generous period and are then looped before they can die away altogether. This seems like a sensible musical compromise that allows you to sustain notes indefinitely if you wish. Alternatively, if you'd rather the strings eventually stopped ringing, as in real life, simply add a decay envelope.
I appreciate the fact that Spectrasonics don't adhere to real‑life ranges. The samples are stretched over the full MIDI 128‑note range, creating arger‑than‑life instruments comprising truly subsonic lows and ultra‑high frequencies that would mainly be of interest to bats. These pitch extremes are obviously well beyond the compass of any stringed instrument and may, therefore, sound ridiculous to purists, but believe me, there are creative uses for those kinds of outer limits.
Spectrasonics have always diligently supplied versions of their instruments with reduced numbers of samples to ease the burden on systems. In the Akai years, programs would come in A, B, C and D variants, each using progressively fewer samples to help squeeze more instruments into the hardware sampler's tiny RAM memory. This trend continues in Trilian with configurable 'Lite' versions of instruments. You can elect to reduce the number of round-robin variations, the number of velocity layers or even the number of sampled pitches that load in with a patch, with no resulting gaps in the sound. You can also purge all samples other than those used in a performance, or — a new one on me, this — load only the pitches that occur in a particular major or minor scale or a defined set of intervals (minor thirds from C, whole tones from C-sharp, and so on). All very helpful techniques for keeping the CPU strain down to a minimum.
Each patch loads with its own main screen custom controls. These are a collection of top‑level parameters grouped together for quick editing and typically include amp/DI levels, compressor and EQ settings for the acoustic bass and bass guitars, and filter, FM mod and effects settings for the synth basses. You can design your own main custom control screens, which will be automatically saved and recalled along with each user patch you create. This is a great help in making Trilian easy and quicker to use, and will certainly be welcomed by gigging keyboardists.
Apart from repeating the minor gripe voiced in my Omnisphere review about the browser window obscuring the instrument controls, there's nothing I disliked about this instrument. OK, we still can't import our own samples, but since Eric Persing's merry men have generously provided 112,997 of them (I know this because I made Spectrasonics count them), we're not likely to run out of options any time soon. Speaking of large numbers, victims of the economic downturn (i.e every musician you and I know) will be relieved to hear that 'Trilian' does not refer to the price tag — happily we're not talking bankers' bonuses here, just a couple of hundred quid or so. This seems a fair price to pay for a classy instrument with very wide applications and huge musical power, which operates on the same level as high‑end sample libraries. As I've found with every Spectrasonics instrument and library I've played to date, Trilian is an investment that won't let you down.
Following the example of Spectrasonics' 1994 Bass Legends, several companies have issued titles that combine electric and acoustic basses. On the market now are the 12.7GB Chris Hein Bass, which features a Music Man Stingray electric, a fretless bass and an acoustic upright, while the somewhat larger Yellow Tools Majestic instrument offers a range of four‑string, five‑string and fretless instruments, as well a stand‑up bass. To rival Trilian's lavish, in‑depth synth bass section you'd have to be looking at fairly expensive high‑end products like Arturia's 10 Year Suite, a set of eight software instruments modelling the Minimoog, Yamaha CS80, ARP 2600, Roland Jupiter 8 and Prophet synths. Of the dozens of individual bass-guitar libraries out there, Scarbee's select range promise to be the most forensically sampled. The 7GB Basis from Big Fish Audio is one of the few collections that combine contemporary and vintage electric, fretless and upright basses with synth bass, at a similar price to Trilian.
- Electric Basses
Epiphone Viola Bass
Fender Jazz 1*
Fender Jazz 2
Lakland Rock P‑Bass
Music Man Bongo five‑string.
Music Man Stingray four‑string*
Music Man Stingray five‑string
AL Fender Precision**
AL Custom eight‑string**
AL Tyler five‑string**
AL Yamaha five‑string**
AL Valley Arts**
AL French fretless**
AL Hollow body fretless**
AL APX hollow fretless**
JP Yamaha four‑string**
JP Yamaha six‑string**
JP six‑string fretless**
MM Fender Jazz**
MM Fedora fretless**
- Acoustic Basses:
Acoustic Upright bass 1*
Acoustic Upright bass 2
Martin Acoustic bass guitar
JP Pollman acoustic bass**
Access Virus Indigo*
Analog Tone Chameleon
Cwejman S1 MkII
Dave Smith Mopho
Dave Smith Tetra
Moog Taurus bass pedals*
Moog Little Phatty
Metasonix KV100 Assblaster.
Novation Bass Station.
PPG Wave 2.2*
Roland Alpha Juno*
Roland Juno 60*
Roland Juno 106*
Roland Jupiter 8*
Sequential Circuits Pro One*
Sequential Circuits Prophet V*
Sequential Circuits Prophet VS*
Studio Electronics SE1
* From Trilogy
** From Bass Legends
AL = Abraham Laboriel
JP = John Patitucci
MM = Marcus Miller.
If you're in the market for some 21st‑century 'Steam bass' (not to mention the numerous electric options Trilian has in its locker), check out these system specs: Trilian requires a minimum 2GHz processor (Intel Core 2 Duo or higher is recommended), 2GB of RAM (4GB or more recommended for multis) and 35GB of free hard drive space. Steam doesn't operate in stand-alone mode and so needs Audio Unit, VST 2.4 or RTAS capable host software; it will run on Mac OS 10.4.9 or higher and Windows XP SP2, Windows 7 and Vista. Mac owners can install it on Intel Macs and older G5 Power PCs, so hopefully there's no need to buy a new computer just yet. Windows users can install a 32‑bit or 64‑bit version (both are provided on DVD) according to which OS they use, but the 64‑bit Mac version is still in development.
Here are some of the Trilian patches that I particularly enjoyed:
Electric Bass Patches
- Hardcore Finger True Staccato: The name says it all. Dial in Steam's 'Flame' distortion unit's 'Melt' preset and you're ready to burn the house down (if you don't blow your speakers first).
- Studio Bass (Full Range): A clean, powerful model apparently popular with progressive and metal bassists (though don't let that put you off), this sounds, to me, suspiciously like an absolutely perfectly recorded bass guitar.
- Jaco Fretless sustain: Shut your eyes and you could be listening to the great man himself.
- Marcus Hood Boom: Fifteen years since we first heard them in Bass Legends, Mr Miller's subsonic rumblings still hit the spot.
Acoustic Bass Patches
- Trilian Ac 1 Slide Up/Down: The iconic 'Walk On The Wild Side' acoustic bass delivery.
- Trilogy Martin Harmonics: A pleasant timbre with a soft yet emphatic attack that lends itself well to chordal playing.
Synth Bass Patches
- Lagoon Monster From '50s: Cheesy it may be, but the ultra‑sensitive velocity response of the filter cutoff in this patch demonstrates how accurately this bass module emulates the behaviour of a hardware analogue synth. The 'nuclear winter'‑style reverb effect adds contemporary ear candy.
- SEM Square With Four‑pole Filter/Steveland Wonderousness: Big, fat, warm and enveloping, these simple, classic bass synth patches sound great out of the box and respond precisely to small adjustments to the filter settings. Based respectively on Oberheim's Synthesizer Expander Module and Studio Electronics' SE1 rackmount synth, two of the all‑time analogue greats.
- Tough Tweety: A muscular, funked‑up bass rhythm patch based on Waldorf Pulse and ARP Odyssey waveforms.
- Plucky CS80 Arps: This arpeggio‑based racket gives exciting results when played chordally. Not so much a bass patch, more an instant pulse‑based music generator.
- PPG In Heavy Fuzz: No guitar bully will dare kick sand in your face once he's heard you playing this. The big, banging, distorted, timpani‑like low register reminds me why I loved my old Prophet V.