This innovative VST Instrument from Steinberg and Wizoo aims to take the donkey work out of producing realistic sequenced guitar parts.
One of the most difficult aspects of MIDI sequencing is without doubt the programming of realistic guitar parts — even the best multisample of an acoustic or electric guitar has a habit of ending up sounding like an undistinguished electric piano. Samples of complete phrases fare somewhat better, but then you have to work with whatever key and tempo the phrases offer rather than being able to create a part to fit your composition.
Steinberg/Wizoo's Virtual Guitarist offers a new alternative for the creation of rhythm guitar parts, though it hasn't evolved to the point that it can take solos yet. In concept, Virtual Guitarist lets you choose a rhythm style, either acoustic or electric, which follows the chords of your composition over a reasonably wide tempo range. What's more, there are rhythmic variations that can be introduced very easily to make the part seem even more 'real'.
To achieve this seemingly impossible task, the program contains a vast library of samples, but the clever part is that a technique (which, I'm guessing, is not dissimilar to Recycle) has been employed to break up the recorded rhythm parts into individual strums. This allows the tempo to be varied without changing the pitch of the samples, much as with REX or Groove Control drum loops, and it works surprisingly well over a reasonable tempo range, though setting a tempo much below 70bpm is not recommended for the most natural results.
Available for both Mac and PC, Virtual Guitarist functions as a conventional VST Instrument, enabling it to be used from within any VST 2‑compliant host software package. Mac users need to be running OS 9 or above while PC users need Windows 98, ME, 2000 or XP. Both need plenty of RAM and 512MB is recommended, although you can get away with less if you stick to the smaller chord libraries. To use the largest chord libraries, which provide more chord type variations, I had to increase Logic's memory allocation to over 300MB.
Because of the large sample collection needed to make it work, it comes on three CD‑ROMs and takes up around 1.6GB of hard drive space. These library files must be copied over to a Virtual Guitarist folder after installation and when the program is first run, a path to these files must be set up. Initial versions had installation problems with Logic where Virtual Guitarist sometimes couldn't locate its own sound files, but a revised version has now fixed this bug.
Once installed, Virtual Guitarist gives you 25 'players' or styles, divided between acoustic and electric guitars — in fact, the two guitar types appear as different plug‑ins. Each 'player' can be loaded up with one of three sizes of chord library, the simplest restricting chord types to two or three variations such as major, minor and seventh while the larger libraries provide more exotic chord types. The reason three sizes of chord library are available is that the bigger sizes take longer to load and eat up about three times as much RAM as the economy versions, so if you don't need all those fancy chords, it's easier to load the smaller set. Note, however, that not all players offer all chord variations. Boogie‑type rhythms, for example, seem to offer only major chords, regardless of the chord library chosen, presumably because other chord types wouldn't make sense in this genre.
One thing you don't have to do is think like a guitarist. You simply tell Virtual Guitarist what chords to play and it strums along at the tempo of your song, even if the sequencer isn't actually running. You can either use single‑finger triggering in the style of home keyboards (one finger for a major, any white key to the left for a seventh, any black key to the left for a minor or any black and white key to the left for a major seventh) or you can hold down all the correct notes as a block chord. Of course there can be an ambiguity if you play a three‑note chord comprising one white note and one black note below the top note, as Virtual Guitarist seems to have no way of deciding whether you intend this to be an 'easy' chord or whether you want the chord to utilise the actual notes you've played. As a rule, it's safest to use easy chords for majors, minors and minor sevenths, while using full fingering for other chord types.
A chord display window confirms the chord type, and a Latch function allows chords to keep playing until you play another one or until you stop them deliberately using a control key or a sustain pedal. A quantise function ensures that chord changes occur only where you want them to (whole, half or quarter bars) and hitting a key above a certain user‑adjustable velocity plays a syncopated version of the rhythm.
Rhythmic fills can be introduced using the keyboard's mod wheel, but where the fun really begins is in calling up other variations on the rhythm part (there are eight part variations), which can be mapped to the bottom octave of your MIDI keyboard, enabling the keys to be used as real‑time part selectors. These Remote Keys may also be used to trigger fret noise, stopping, fills and to duplicate the function of the sustain pedal. The sustain pedal fills a number of roles: it can stop playback, or it can trigger long chords when Latch mode is on, or it can maintain playback when the keys are released in non‑latch mode. Long chords work the same way as in Latch mode. The strumming/picking tempo always follows that of the sequencer, though you can halve or double the rhythm tempo relative to the tempo of the song if necessary.
To add further humanity to a part, random timing differences can be introduced using the Timing control and parts can be given swing or shuffle, in much the same way as groove quantise works on a typical sequencer. A Dynamics control introduces small random level changes in the strumming pattern, while a separate Decay control can shorten or extend the duration of individual strums. In the main, the default value sounds most natural.
As if that weren't enough, you can also mess around with the sound by switching in a doubling effect and/or by altering the stereo width (achieved using pseudo‑stereo comb filtering) while the acoustic guitar in particular can benefit from the on‑board enhancer to add extra brightness. Electric guitars get a Pickup Selector switch, which really sounds like some kind of preset EQ, and there's variable Presence.
Each of the two guitar types has its own style of plug‑in window, the electric version looking not unlike a well‑known modelling guitar preamp. Here you can choose the player type and one of the eight variations as well as accessing controls for the functions described in the preceding section. Clicking Setup brings up an alternative window which applies to both electric and acoustic guitar types. Here you can select half, normal or double tempo, set which octave the remote keys on your keyboard will occupy and decide what size chord set to load. There's also a Vibrato section where you can apply manual vibrato using the mod wheel or aftertouch.
Other setup features include the choice of source for triggering fills, the velocity level at which the syncopated version plays, and a velocity below which 'wrong' notes will be ignored. I guess this would be most useful for MIDI guitar players, although why a guitar player would want to use Virtual Guitarist via a guitar isn't immediately obvious. This page is also where you turn fret noise on or off, set the chords to display as sharps or flats, set the quantise value that determines where in a bar chords are allowed to change, and fine‑tune the guitar.
If all this potential for setting up sounds intimidating, it's worth pointing out that you can just use the default settings, load a 'player' and get on with it. The great thing about Virtual Guitarist is that you can use it at many different levels, even to the extent of accessing the individual rhythm slices (on MIDI channel 16) to create new rhythms of your own.
Getting usable results out of Virtual Guitarist is surprisingly easy, but you may need to do a little tidying up in your sequencer to get the very best out of it. For example, if you intend to play an easy chord comprising a root note and one black modifier note below it to make this a minor, you have to ensure that the black modifier note isn't pressed fractionally before the root note — otherwise, instead of getting 'root note minor', you'll get 'black note major'. Fortunately, working with a sequencer makes it easy to correct any such problems.
Assigning the bottom octave of the keyboard to control the part variations is a great way to introduce subtle variations in style to give a more realistic impression, and in most instances, these can be mixed and matched pretty freely, though a few only make sense preceding a break. Certainly the 'reality' of the result is enough to make you smile, especially the way fret noises appear in appropriate places without you having to ask (unless you switch fret noise off). I particularly like the boogie styles in both electric and acoustic versions, while the wah guitar is surprisingly moody and usable and not in the least like the theme from Shaft!
If the XXL chord set is loaded, the style with the most variations can play all the following chord types: major, major seventh, seventh, sixth, augmented fifth, diminished fifth, minor, minor with major seventh, minor seventh, minor sixth, minor seventh with diminished fifth, suspended fourth, seventh suspended fourth and diminished. One‑finger easy chords are available for major, minor, seventh and minor seventh only, so you have to play the full chord for other types. However, you don't need to play the right inversion as Virtual Guitarist will always play the right guitar part except in those cases where two different chord types use the same notes, in which case you should put the root note at the bottom to avoid confusion. The diminished chord, for instance, repeats the same notes every three semitones, but in a different order.
Virtual Guitarist is claimed to be able to make sense of most chordal parts from GM files, but because of the possible ambiguities between one‑finger chords and fully fingered chords, you can come unstuck on occasions, which means a little sequencer editing to put things right. On the whole, though, it's instant gratification all the way: you feed in simple block chords at the right time and Virtual Guitarist does the rest.
Most of the rhythms are common enough in style to be easily integrated into many styles of song, but because Virtual Guitarist is based on styles recorded by real players, there's a limit as to how far you can stray from what you're given. While tempo and swing is quite flexible, some songs require very definitive strumming styles which aren't available here. Even so, you can stretch as far as reggae, chugging root‑and‑fifth rock guitar, rock and roll/boogie, straight strumming, rhythmic picking and a variety of very practical acoustic strumming and finger‑picking styles.
Virtual Guitarist offers the convenience and sound quality of a sample CD, but offers the very real benefits of allowing you to tweak the feel and tempo of the various rhythmic parts as well as play different chord types directly from your keyboard. The easily called up variations add greatly to the realism of the result, and if the on‑board sound‑modifying controls don't provide enough variation, you can always feed the output through other VST plug‑ins. Of course the finite number of styles means that you often have to modify your song to fit the guitar‑playing style rather than vice versa; to this end, some more straight‑ahead strumming might have been useful.
In the context of a backing track, I don't think many people would twig that Virtual Guitarist wasn't a conventional recording of a real player, though it may fare less well if used as the solo backing for a folk song for instance. Even then, by careful use of the variations, you might get away with it. Whichever way you look at it, Virtual Guitarist certainly heralds a new direction for virtual instruments, so it will be interesting to see what they come up with next. Further expansion styles could be handy, and a Virtual Drummer done well would be very welcome!
- Easy to use, but also lends itself to more sophisticated programming if required.
- Good sounds and styles.
- Works well over a useful tempo range.
- You still have to work around the styles provided.
A unique approach to adding MIDI guitar parts that achieves an unprecedented combination of realism and versatility.
- 800MHz Apple Mac G4 with 768MB of RAM running Mac OS 9.2.
- Emagic Logic Audio Platinum v5.1.3.