German company Yellow Tools started off as sample-library developers, but like many others, they've moved into the world of virtual instruments with the lovingly crafted MVI range. We check out all three...
Many of you will already know the name Yellow Tools — or more correctly, you'll probably be familiar with the German company's Pure series of sample CDs (released under the Best Service banner). Pure Drums, Pure E Basses 1 & 2 and Pure Guitars (the last reviewed in SOS August 2001) have been gaining a positive response since shortly after the company's inception in 1999. In fact, the libraries have been re-issued in single-set and multi-format 'New Editions' on DVD-ROM. Ultimately, though, Yellow Tools' development team found working for existing samplers restricting, and these days, the logical step for sample CD producers is to move into the development of dedicated sample-playback platforms. And this is how Yellow Tools' Modular Virtual Instruments — or MVIs — came about.
The first of these was Culture, a large, varied percussion instrument released in 2001. A couple of years later, the bass instrument Majestic followed, and more recently there's been Candy, which deals in saxophones. We'll be having a look at all three instruments in this review.
Before I get on to talking about the libraries, I should cover the structure of each MVI. First of all, the engine has been designed for efficiency and to have as small a load as possible on the host software. So it is that MVIs will run on comparatively venerable machines, according to Yellow Tools — the minimum system requirements are 400MHz G3 Macs or 400MHz Pentium, Celeron or Athlon PCs, with just 256MB of RAM (although more is definitely a better idea, as there are a lot of samples in each MVI). The instruments are supplied on DVD, so you will need a DVD drive and lots of free space for each MVI you plan to load — 16GB in the case of the Majestic bass. You also need a free USB port for the key-based Yellow Tools copy protection, of which more in the box over the page.
Part of the reason for the relatively light load the MVIs impose on their host computers can be understood by having a closer look at the screenshots in this article. You won't see any DSP-heavy additions such as resonant filters or built-in effects in any of the instruments, and this approach in itself almost ensures low CPU load. I wouldn't have minded a filter or two to let me get a little more creative with the Culture percussion set, but Yellow Tools obviously wish to let their samples speak for themselves. The MVIs' parameters are focused mainly on performance issues, with just a handful of subtle sonic-tweaking tools. Similarly, Yellow Tools have ensured that as many potential hosts as possible can accommodate MVIs. Practically anything running on PCs or Macs (even under OS 9) will do, whether it's a VST-, RTAS-, Audio Units- or DXi-compatible host — and the instruments can even be used in stand-alone mode.
As already indicated, the MVIs potentially handle a lot of high-quality samples: the library is supplied as 24-bit/44.1kHz audio files, and up to 16 velocity-switched samples are used per note with some of the multisamples. What's more, disk streaming isn't used here, so you might find the load times of complex material to be rather long. On the plus side, if you want to load a sample set twice, the second load is instant, since it refers to the samples already loaded into RAM. And you can save on hard disk space by copying individual instrument sample sets, as long as you remain aware that some preset material won't be available if the necessary samples are missing.
It seems a small issue, but what passes for patch information is quite independent of the central sample collection of each instrument. This data is very compact and can be easily transferred between platforms. The sample collection for each MVI is fixed, so that every user of a given Yellow Tools plug-in has exactly the same collection, and no incompatibility issues can arise. The opposite side of this coin is that the sample collections are not expandable, least of all by the user. This isn't such a problem, though, since users won't be buying these MVIs as generic sample-manipulation tools.
The 'modular' bit of the MVI engine's name sounds good, but I couldn't see how the three instruments were supposed to fit together in any way at first, or how they could fairly be regarded as modular parts of, well, anything very much. That, though, was before I heard about Yellow Tools' new product Independence, which was announced at this year's Frankfurt Musikmesse, and was about to be released as I was finishing this review (perhaps predictably, Yellow Tools were planning its release day for July 4th!). It would seem that just as instruments based on libraries in Native Instruments' Kontakt format can be dissected down to sample level and made fully editable if you have the full version of Kontakt, so Yellow Tools' MVIs will be fully accessible and editable within Independence. As it's still unreleased at the time of writing, though, a review of Independence will have to wait for another issue of SOS! There's more on the new software in this month's News section at the front of the magazine. Even without Independence, though, the MVI engine does offer the user some opportunities for custom sound creation within the context of each plug-in's sample set.
Each plug-in looks largely similar, barring overall colour, and has all its functionality in one window, with no hidden operating levels. That functionality is similar across all three MVIs, with only minor differences.
The top level of operation is a Multi, which consists of up to eight Layers; a Layer would be what in synth-like terms we might call a single patch, and is a complete set of samples that replicate an instrument. Of course, that collection might be a couple of claps in Culture or three octaves of individual bass notes (with eight levels of velocity per note) in Majestic! Layers can also have a suite of audio, mix and control parameters applied to them.
The Keygroup is another level in the Yellow Tools sample hierarchy and consists of the sample (or set of velocity-switched samples) assigned to one note. The playback of each Keygroup can also be customised. However, as it stands, it's not possible to break down a Layer/instrument any further: the sample level is in the MVI somewhere, but you can't access it.
The Samples in each MVI tend to be unlooped, and Yellow Tools' minimum quality standard of at least one sample per note ensures that no artefacts will be introduced by transposing samples (though pitch-bend can be used, and Keygroups transposed if you wish). Looping is used rather a lot on Majestic 's basses. Sometimes, though, turning the looping off on bass Keygroups reveals natural endings to notes, but this is not always the case.
Where there is no looping, you'll only ever be able to hold a note for as long as the sample itself. In these cases, the sample length is dictated by the musical and physical context. The samples are as long as a lung-full of air allows in the case of Candy 's saxes, or as long as it takes for a struck or plucked note to naturally decay to complete silence. Naturally, this means that a 'lung-full' will produce shorter notes at the low end of the range of a bass sax than in the middle range of a soprano, and that notes sampled with different dynamics will have different lengths.
The MVI window is divided into two editors: Basic and Pro. The Basic (upper) part of the window lets you load and save Multis and Layers, and edit and customise Layer playback, one Layer at a time. Your eye will initially be drawn to the Layer display itself. If you instinctively try to click on a Layer name or space in the Layer display itself, or access editing for that Layer, nothing happens: you need to click on a button in the 'Select' column. Layers can be soloed, and each Layer's MIDI input and/or audio output can be muted.
So, you've loaded a Layer and you'd like to tweak it. What next? The rest of this section is sub-divided into smaller chunks covering parameters relating to audio, key range, velocity range, MIDI response, and polyphony. The audio section is essentially one channel of mixer: all three MVIs have level, pan and output routing controls. Eight stereo output pairs are available, if your audio host can handle them.
An 'Alternate' parameter also appears on all three plug-ins, and ensures that when you're playing two notes successively with the same velocity two different samples will be used, for greater realism.
The remaining audio parameters differ between Culture, the percussion MVI, and the other two. Culture 's last parameter in this area is labelled 'pre silence', and is a simple but effective option that lets you delay the onset of a Layer's notes. The most obvious use for this is to replicate the effect of several percussionists playing at once: they'll seldom hit the same notes at exactly the same time. But then when you're playing several Layers from one keyboard, neither will you! Majestic and Candy, on the other hand, benefit from a 'legato' button here which enables a monophonic playback option that's customised in the Pro editor, of which more in a moment.
The remaining parameters customise playback in a big way. Layers can have key and velocity ranges, with scaling for the latter that lets you access the full velocity range in the plug-in from a limited range on your controller keyboard. It's also possible to enable and disable Layers from assignable keys (outside the playing range, of course!), and switch between two layers with the sustain pedal, complete with a crossfade value. This kind of instant switching between related Layers in a Multi doesn't impede your playing, and helps you create a more natural, smooth and authentic performance (depending on the Layers, of course!).
Manipulating polyphony within an MVI is part of deciding how an instrument will play. A small section on the right of the Basic editor provides amazing levels of control over polyphony, both for performance and system load purposes. The polyphony being used is reflected in a column in the Layer display: being able to see how many notes are playing at a given time will let you more easily make adjustments, and monitor how much load a given sound might put on your system.
Although the feel of these MVIs is very much of dedicated single instruments, each Layer can be assigned its own MIDI channel. Thus, true multitimbral operation is eminently possible; this may not often come into play with the bass instrument, but I can see users of the other libraries accessing Layers in this way.
The remaining (lower) portion of the MVI display is dedicated to the Pro Editor. What this provides is control over how individual Keygroups play back. You can work on one, several or all the Keygroups in the currently selected Layer/instrument. If the thought of adjusting individual playback parameters for hundreds of samples — which is what Yellow Tools' multisamples contain — sounds daunting to you, it is. But the way they've been organised makes this mass of material easily accessible.
As already explained, a Keygroup in the MVIs is one note's worth of samples, which can be up to 16 samples at different loudnesses, triggered by different MIDI velocities. Individual Keygroups are selected in the display below the on-screen keyboard (shown above). The manipulation parameters are fairly simple, as was the case with the Layer level of editing, but they're exactly what you need to customise the playing characteristics and basic sound of the supplied sample sets.
The most synth-like parameter group here is contained in the Envelope section. The envelope controls are pretty excellent, and in a signal path without a resonant filter this may well have the most impact on the final sound of an edited Keygroup. It's a five-stage affair — attack, hold, decay, sustain and release — with a 'velocity attack' parameter that lets you modify the attack portion in response to incoming velocity. If you'd like a softer attack at low velocities, set the Velo Attack parameter to a lower value than the attack parameter itself. If you don't want an envelope at all, you can switch it off.
All three MVIs offer level and pan for each Keygroup, plus a 'note off' switch. This option is ideal for triggering a hand sample or fret squeak in one Layer after a note has played, adding to the illusion of reality. Keygroups can be reversed, and a 'skip' parameter lets you move a sample's start point, under velocity control. You'll need this when reversing samples that are very long and end in silence. Keygroups can also be tuned by ±50 cents, and another 'skip' parameter lets you offset the pitch change so that the initial attack of the Keygroup is retained.
Majestic and Culture also have a ±12 semitone pitch offset, again with Skip option. Majestic has a Keygroup-level Legato control that provides fine control over how one note blends into the next, emulating legato as it would appear on a real bass. Candy also has a customisable aftertouch-to-volume parameter section that helps simulate the level changes a real sax player can achieve within a single note. There is no breath control option for MIDI wind controllers, though.
All in all, each MVI offers a decent level of detailed editing options. But what do they actually sound like...?
I'm not a great fan of security keys — dongles — but I admit that developers who use them have good intentions. At least the USB key chosen by Yellow Tools is compact — and it's also yellow, which is kind of cool! One key is supplied with each MVI, but there is a way for you to avoid this duplication — buy one ordinary Yellow Tools virtual instrument, which will include a key, and then buy the more affordable so-called 'Loyalty Editions' of the others. All your authorisations can then be stored on the one key, saving you 80 quid on each Yellow Tools purchase you make after your first.
One good thing about the Yellow Tools key is that you can move it between computers — your licence lets you install the plug-ins on multiple machines with the one authorisation working for each.
Sadly, that's the easy bit over. I encountered a couple of hiccups when trying to authorise my MVIs and get the key to work — and it would seem, having heard the stories of other users, that I'm not alone. I had the Kafka-esque experience of knowing perfectly well that all the key-related files (and some Java gubbins that's also needed) were on my hard drive, yet the on-line checker insisted they weren't. When I booted up a plug-in, the software kept telling me the key wasn't ready.
I eventually got it sorted out by generating various ancillary files manually, with the help of someone at Yellow Tools, but it wasn't ideal. Eventually, though, I stopped moaning and was able to start playing!
Yellow Tools' first MVI collection is dedicated to percussion. There are two DVDs of samples (plus the main installation CD) in this set, making for a detailed 9GB of sonic material — over 25,000 individual samples. Many of the 'instruments' have different sample sets for left and right hands, and velocity-switched Layers up to 16 levels deep. Some of the instruments have over 1000 samples each. There is no mention of who played this prodigious amount of percussion, but I'll bet their arms are sore!
This massive collection omits kit drums and electronic hits and instead majors on ethnic, world, orchestral and 'industrial' instruments. I counted 318 individual instruments or instrument sets, divided into 61 groups. The world and ethnic selections include Latin, African and a few Asian instruments: djembes, darbukas, shakers, frame drums, tablas, taikos, talking drums, udus, timbales, congas, cajons, bongos, agogo, guiros, rainmakers and much more. And there may be no surprises amongst the orchestral instruments — snares, cymbals, bass drum, temple blocks, thunder sheets, tambourines, toms and so on, including such simple sounds as finger snaps and claps — but there is a terrific variety in terms of size and playing style.
'Industrial' is an intriguing (and not wholly accurate) descriptor. The samples here are of a curious selection of objects being hit: flightcases, watering cans, plastic tubes, dustbins, that sort of thing. Of course, you may have found yourself generating rhythms or fun noises with any or all of these, but when have you found time to sample them? Now you don't have to!
Some percussion instruments are very simple — just a couple of hits, perhaps, with velocity-switched layers — and that's all you need with claps, really. But the hand drums offer a great deal more, and reveal quite a lateral approach to mapping. For example, a hand drum would normally be played by two hands... and that's what you do with the Culture equivalent. Yellow Tools have adopted a certain amount of common sample mapping throughout their percussion sets, particularly the hand drums.
The note G# is taken as a central point — it'll often have a hand stroke effect assigned to it. The left-hand samples are then arrayed to the left of this note and the right-hand ones are assigned to the right.
Symmetry is the key here, with related hits assigned to ascending or descending semitones either side of the G#. For example, a Djembe starts with the G# hand effect. Moving in semitones in either direction, your fingers will find left- and right-handed varieties of bass tone, open tone, mute, slap, finger, close slap, fingered flam, open flam, bass flam and slapped flam.
The snare instruments are even more detailed, with over 700 samples, and some Latin Layer sets offer three drums, each appearing in a different octave, but with the same symmetrical arrangement. So rather than feeling as though you're trying to play drums with a chromatic keyboard, you get the impression that the keyboard has been subverted into something more like a percussion controller, and you play patterns in a more drummer-like way than would normally be the case, without the 'choking' or 'machine-gunning' effects that often result from playing rhythm on a keyboard. All hits are allowed to breathe, and in some ways it's almost like drumming patterns with your fingers on a table, except you're triggering rich, expressive samples of real percussion.
The set contains a few disappointments — I was sad to see that 'gamelan chimes asian' simply contains long and mute chimes, and something equally gamelan-like is promised by 'gong set Burma', but frustratingly, it's been sampled in equal temperament. Perhaps the collective heads of Yellow Tools' developers would have exploded at the thought of sampling a typical Javanese gamelan, or similar gong, bell, drum and chime ensemble from other cultures — but in fact I think their meticulous nature and lateral approach to keymapping would have suited the job.
These niggles aside, Yellow Tools' approach has resulted in a percussion collection of massive appeal. So many users will appreciate the depth and weight of the samples — you often feel as if the drums really are in your room, a feeling helped by the way all the sampled hits have been allowed to decay to silence. It's easy to feel you're actually playing the drums with Culture, and not just triggering samples, thanks to the thoughtful multisampling.
If you're keen on the percussive opportunities offered by Culture, but know that rhythm programming is not your strong point, Yellow Tools have the answer. Patterns haven't been built into their plug-in — an approach taken by many other developers — but registered users can download the Culture Groove Pack 1 from the Yellow Tools web site. This collection gives you loads more Multi and Layer patches, plus over 1100 MIDI Files. These files can be up to two minutes long, and offer breaks, fill-ins, fill-outs and so on in a wide range of styles. The playing is natural and seems unquantised, and really shows off Culture remarkably well.
Majestic is the largest sample collection of the three MVIs, taking up no fewer than four DVDs. This entire review could be taken up with listing the variations available: there are thousands of samples here, and every one of them was played by German session bassist UMBO (or Unidentified Moving Bass Object), the player on Yellow Tools' original E Basses collections.
To summarise this set, let's just say that UMBO plays a number of excellent (but equally unidentified) basses though a number of amps. There are four broad categories of Multi and Layer: American tube, British tube, DI and 'Warm' (the last collection is only available for download to registered users). The names speak for themselves, though some more detailed indication of which American and British hardware was used would have been nice. 'Warm' is a catch-all for fully produced bass sounds processed by EQ and compression to suit a range of specific styles.
Each set contains the same collection of somewhat curiously titled playing styles, (fingered ballad, fingered modern, fingered muted 1 and 2, fingered rock, fingered thumb — sic! — fretless 1 and 2, picked, picked muted 1 and 2 and slap 1 and 2). The choices within each sub-category are also duplicated. The exception here is the Warm set: the collection is organised by style, with categories like 'American ballad', 'American hip-hop', 'British ballad', 'European rock', and so on. There are 26 styles, each with a number of choices.
The individual Layers, or instruments, come in a variety of flavours, so you can access harmonics, slides, tapping, hammer-ons, fret noise and special effects. The sample sets start at a low 'E', or 'D', or 'C' (so five-string instruments are part of the set), and range just over three octaves, with multiple samples assigned to velocity splits for each note. Looping is used in this plug-in, but with no unwanted artefacts.
Amongst all the electric bass, there's an unexpected bonus in the shape of a meticulously sampled century-old upright bass. Truth be told, it sits a little uncomfortably in the collection, but it is definitely worth having. Again, various playing styles, tricks, harmonics and noise are supplied. It's been played by fingers all the way, with no bowing, but that suits jazz and pop contexts better anyway.
It can be fairly mind-numbing to listen to this collection all the way through; a certain 'sameyness' does creep in when listening to the repeated styles and effects. But then this is a four-DVD set of samples for the same price as the other two collections, so I think I can forgive that!
There is no denying the quality of the samples, and you will find something suitable for nearly every electric bass (and some upright) requirements. As with the Culture set, there's a fabulous depth to the plug-in's output. Clever Multis let you effortlessly switch, crossfade or otherwise access multiple basses to create a finished performance that could have been achieved on a real bass, moving from mute notes to long sustains, and fret noise on a note off to convincing slides and hammer-ons — the works. On the subject of tuning, any Layer can be 'moved' along the lower keyboard display, making for instant transposition, so if the lowest note in your current selection isn't low enough, you can just drag it; transposition artefacts don't really kick in for a couple of semitones.
There will always be something a little odd about playing bass guitar from a keyboard, as much as there is about playing percussion in the same way. Yellow Tools have organised the sample collections to gently manoeuvre the player into the right mindset, and the audio feedback tends to make you play more like a bassist. It helps if you actually play bass, of course, but the sounds and subtle touches do tend to move you that way, even if you don't.
Many MVI Keygroup and some Layer parameters can be automated from external MIDI control surfaces or your host sequencer. This aspect of the MVIs isn't as well documented as it might be, and is a little confusing. What's not made clear is that if different Layers are set to respond to different MIDI channels, then each Layer's parameters can be controlled independently via those MIDI channels. The documentation seems to indicate these are global assignments.
The Keygroup parameter assignments are global, with one MIDI controller-to-Keygroup parameter assignment tweaking that parameter in all Keygroups in a Layer. A list of controller assignments is provided, so you'll be able to set up your host sequencer or external controller accordingly. But be prepared for a surprise: some parameters that do not graphically appear on screen are still accessible over MIDI. Culture 's 'pre-silence' parameter is one example, and can also be tweaked, if you need to, on Candy and Majestic. The Keygroup level semitone pitch parameter can also be accessed in this way within Candy, though the AT Volume parameter knob actually moves on screen. Clearly, a little more polishing is needed, but the basic implementation is sound.
The name of Yellow Tools' most recent MVI apparently refers back to Dutch sax whizz Candy Dulfer, although all the saxes sampled on the library were played by German session saxophonist Ralph Gundel. His was a new name to me, too, but on this evidence, he plays really well, with an excellent tone. On Candy, he airs every modern member of the sax family — soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and even bass sax.
Having a look at the plug-in's content list reveals that a total of nine instruments were used in the Candy sessions, from such noted manufacturers as Yanagisawa, Keilwerth and Selmer, and with a range of mouthpieces and various reed options. This level of detail makes it doubly strange that the equivalent data wasn't provided for the bass collection! Each instrument has been sampled playing long and short notes at several dynamic levels, with and without vibrato, but there are also honks, key slaps, falls, growls and other effects in the set. Despite this typical attention to detail, Candy remains the smallest set of the current MVIs: everything, including the 8GB sound library, fits onto one DVD.
I was looking forward to reviewing this MVI least of all — in my experience, saxophones and sampling are not usually a happy combination. If the bass performance is an expression of an individual's connection with their instrument, it's even more the case with sax. There are so many performance nuances available to sax players — and that's without considering the effect of changing mouthpieces and reeds — that sampled saxes can often just sound like polyphonic harmonicas in the wrong hands. Plus, it has to be said, sax can be so cheesy in so many pop contexts.
But a pleasant surprise awaited me. As I was expecting by now, the recordings were exemplary, and even though Candy features the smallest collection of samples of the MVIs on review here, there is still a great deal of variety. Timbrally and stylistically, the performance bias is jazzy, but in a classy rather than obvious way. Solo sax parts worked much better than expected from the keyboard, and even more so from my old Casio MIDI horn.
In ensembles, too, Candy 's box of saxes surprises and pleases — there's enough here to attempt big-band horn sections, and Phil Spector's wall of sound (just add reverb and brick-wall that compression!). To challenge the plug-in even further, I approached it as a saxophone quartet, and I was surprised to find that my efforts largely paid off! The eight-Layer Multi suits this approach, since I was able to double each instrument, and switch different timbres by velocity or MIDI keys. This way, I could have a genuine mezzoforte alto sax crossfading or switching with a full-on forte variant, for example, making for a more dynamic 'performance' without working too hard. Perhaps not enough timbral variety to ape a group as avant-garde as the Rova Saxophone Quartet, but enough for most normal situations! And I loved having bass sax as part of the ensemble: if your arrangements don't seem anchored enough with the baritone sax, then nothing comes more solid than this. It's not a sound for every occasion, but it's worth having.
Instrument ranges are pretty closely adhered to: the lowest note of the sampled instrument is the lowest note of the instrument being played, and the highest note tends to be a couple of semitones higher than the real instrument's nominal range. Saxes usually have a range of about two octaves and a fifth, but experienced players can often move into the 'altissimo' register, up to a sixth higher than that. Candy plays it safe, but not too safe!
I liked Ralph Gundel's playing a lot. I get the feeling he was really focused during the recording of all these long notes (and key slaps and mouthpiece pops). He has a really warm sound, with an almost oboe-like feel to his soprano playing. This feel helps when trying to use the instruments in a solo context. Once again, the keyboard seems to take a back seat as you play sounds which drag you into playing with an eerily sax-like articulation.
Summing up a single piece of software you like can be tricky, but juggling three is even more so. Broadly speaking, these are well-recorded sample collections married to a tidy, sophisticated, easy-to-use playback system. They're not the cheapest instrument-based libraries around, but I'd say their quality makes them worth it.
There's no denying that although Yellow Tools' MVI engine is very efficient, the sample-heavy nature of nearly all the Layers will make demands on your computer that will only be met if you have sufficient RAM — and having all three accessible simultaneously might well mean you need to increase your hard drive capacity. But that's it for nit picking. It's the sound that counts, and these MVIs are quality products. The depth and presence of the percussion and bass sets has to be heard to be appreciated. If your monitoring includes a subwoofer, be prepared to notice some serious floor movement! The saxes are also excellent, ear candy helped along by some splendid playing.
Finally, there's that elusive playability: the MVI experience somehow massages you into playing your keyboard as if it were a real drum, bass or sax. And what's that kind of magic worth?