Exotic, repurposed, and just plain
twisted sample libraries for virtual
The coupling of synthesizer architecture with sample playback
makes any distinction between the two forms of sound creation
useless. Modern samplers can re-synthesize, modulate,
granulate, and warp sounds beyond recognition, producing
timbres you’ve never heard before, albeit with a hint of
This roundup covers recent libraries that represent the
advanced state of sampling, encompassing a feature-rich
synthesis architecture that is bolstered by powerful scripting
Big Fish Audio
You could be forgiven for thinking that most of Zodiac’s sounds derive
from synthesizers. In reality, the sources for the library’s unearthly
collection of pads, evolving soundscapes, melodic instruments, and
percussive timbres come from found sounds, heavily processed musical
instruments, recycled audio recordings, and other unusual sources. The
result is an adventurous, and often breathtaking gathering of sounds
ideally suited for cinematic scoring and ambient compositions.
Native Instruments’ Kontakt 5 hosts Zodiac, whose weathered,
metallic, steampunk-influenced design proffers a modest but useful
bunch of sliders for the amp envelope, tuning, reverb amount, delay,
and bass and treble controls. A drop-down menu at the center of the
user interface lets you select from 15 reverb presets of varying size
Most of the action is in the samples themselves: autoharps, guitars,
basses, and pedal-steel guitar are found alongside waterphones, soda
cans, metal lampshades, gas cylinders, and tank drums. These are all
plucked, bowed, tapped, and struck, yielding sounds that develop over
time in ways that few synthesized sounds can. The patches divide into
six categories: Pads and Atmospheres, Melodic Instruments, Percussive
Instruments, Zodiac Kits, and Experimental-Atonal Instruments.
There’s some functional overlap between pads and melodic
instruments, but every instrument has its own personality, in some
cases, evolving radically, over time.
With the exception of a few Velocity crossfades, the programming
is relatively simple—no tempo-synced content or effects. The sounds
and processing are allowed to speak for themselves, and that’s fine
(although I suspect there is a bit of subtle scripting behind the scenes,
as in the Water Gong melodic instrument, which has a beautiful
downward pitch swoop that retains a relatively consistent rate across
the keyboard map). In Bowed Acoustic Guitar, the low end sounds
like arco bass, but it takes on an undulating, organ-like characteristic
when played from the middle to the higher registers. And you will be
surprised by the lively orchestral-ensemble qualities of the bowed and
processed Dumpster Long Drone.
Big Fish Audio has done a stellar job: There is a wealth of fascinating
musical and sonic territory to explore in Zodiac.
I’ll admit to being a bit suspicious when I first heard of a sample library
based entirely on reversed sounds. After all, anyone with a computer
and a basic set of audio tools can reverse a sample, right? As it turns out,
there are many more facets to REV beyond sample reversal.
REV works with a different patch hierarchy from most Kontakt
instruments. Load one of the four patches, and the main window will offer
its own browser, with subdirectories of instruments immediately ready
for loading. The four main categories are Instruments, Loops, Rises, and
Timed Instruments. All of the Instruments and Timed Instruments folders
consist of dual-layer presets, with a pull-down menu of interchangeable
samples. The Main page and each layer have their own set of toggle
switches, which align with triggered effects arrayed below the sample key
maps. You can also assign MIDI Continuous Controllers (CC) to the switches.
Clicking on a Layer’s tab exposes a thorough complement of sound-sculpting
tools: envelope generators, filter parameters, pitch-modulation
parameters, and more. Clicking on a Layer’s waveform graphic mutes or
enables it, so you can tweak the sound in isolation or in context. In short,
it’s easy to get comfortable with the instrument simply by poking around,
but if you need assistance, a click on the question-mark icon brings up an
annotated image of the page you’re on, explaining most of what is visible.
The Loops section shows compatible fixed-pitch and tempo-synced,
construction-kit-style loops arranged across the upper reaches of the
keyboard. Two octaves of key switches in the left hand change pitch,
adapting the predominantly tonal loops to chord changes. Each loop in
the menu can be a different rhythm, so the potential for polyrhythms is
great. At the upper right of the patch header, choose from an ample menu
of effects, multiplying the versatility of any loop. Timed instruments are
ideal for that reversed, sucked-backward effect, but with a twist: You can
synchronize it to tempo, choosing whole, half, or quarter-note timing.
The sonic variety of the presets is impressive, with most of the patches
geared toward tonal instruments and percussion, rather than special
effects. The character of the sounds runs from smooth, animated, and
lyrical to abrasive, startling, and attention getting. Timbres blend well
and—despite plenty of sonic animation—allow room for other instruments
without upstaging anything. In addition to cinematic applications, REV is
an excellent collection for contemporary ambient musicians.
Camel Audio | Alchemy
Dream Voices and Water
Camel Audio’s Alchemy is a virtual instrument whose focus practically
defines the theme of this roundup. Its factory soundset merges virtual
analog synthesis with an assortment of instruments ranging from the
conventional to a variety of bangs and scrapes. You can re-synthesize
samples and play with the harmonic content, apply granular effects, and
lots more, all through a ridiculously ample modulation matrix. Add your
own samples or choose from a growing library of sounds and patches
created by a roster of well-known sound designers. It was difficult to pick
a single library, so I chose two—Dream Voices ($59) and Water ($59).
If you are expecting choirs and various permutations thereof, Dream Voices
won’t disappoint. But there is far more here—unusual and exotic phrases;
loops consisting of tempo-synced vowels; percussion derived from vocals;
improvised utterances. These are worked into arpeggiators, pads, polysynths,
and percussion kits—sometimes, several processes at once—thanks to the
instrument’s four-oscillator architecture, and then woven into a single patch.
The overall scope of Dream Voices (and most of Alchemy’s libraries)
runs from meat-and-potatoes patches to eerie soundscapes. One-Note
Chord was one of my favorites: By moving through the remix pads (a
matrix of eight squares with different modulation settings that you
can mouse through), I morphed from tempo-synced quarter-note
arpeggiations to a beautiful lead-synth tone, then into a Weather
Report-style vocalese effect, reminiscent of the one used in “Badia.”
Water blends synthesizer waveforms with samples from frozen
lakes, bathtubs, tidal pools, deep-sea recordings, and hydrophones. In
many cases, the samples are edited to create attack transients for tonal
patches, often providing an ethereal and sensual quality to the patch. At
other times, the sounds loop and sustain, providing the high-end sparkle
you’d find in classic digital synths such as the Korg M1, or endowing the
patches with atonal, low-frequency atmospherics. Such is the case with
the patch DeepCurrents23, which blends a smooth, hollow pad with two
water sources and something that sounds like whale songs. Create eerie
sweeps with this patch using the mod-wheel-activated comb filter.
Every Alchemy sound library has wonderful examples of audio that
is repurposed and stretched beyond its limits. If you own Alchemy or the
Alchemy Player, you owe yourself a visit to Camel Audio’s website, where
you can download a nice representative collection of their libraries.
Complete Toy Museum
It doesn’t have any arpeggiators, processing, or one-finger wonders.
Instead, with Complete Toy Museum, what you hear is what you get:
faithfully reproduced toys in all of their cheesy finery. What you do with
them, of course, is up to you.
The complete collection comprises two sets: Acoustic Toy
Museum and Electric Toy Museum. The libraries are compatible
with MOTU MachFive3 and BPM, and of course UVI’s own
Acoustic Toys includes folders of toy pianos and keys, tuned
percussion, an assortment of toy guitars, music boxes, and assorted
gadgets, blown instruments, wind-up and mechanical devices, toy
drum kits, and a variety of baby toys, including rattles, bellows-driven
animal boxes, and other novelties. Instrument subfolders
subdivide into folders from different makes and models—each
with several variants. For example, the Toy Guitar folder includes
an instrument called Children’s Guitar, with Hard, Stereo, and
Full versions. The Ancient Automates folder has mechanical bears
and monkeys and subfolders of loop menus and special effects. I
was pleasantly surprised by the overall sound of the drum kits
and some very well-played loops, which are available in REX-file
format and can be dragged into MIDI tracks. The Mini Drum
Kit patch with a bit of reverb and small-room ambience sounded
The Electric Toy Museum follows pretty much the same folder/subfolder hierarchy as its Acoustic companion. It is populated
with Stylophones, cheap toy keyboards and samplers such as the
Casio SK1, and a small handful of speaking devices, which were
fun and hilarious. As realistic as they may be, I was disappointed
by some of the toy synths, whose tones I could approximate on
almost any synth.
By far, my favorites among the Electric Folder were from the
Speech group, which offered phrases, animal sounds, numbers,
words, and effects, alongside synthetic drum kits and loops. Add
the processing capabilities of the UVI Workstation or MachFive
3, and there’s no telling how far you can take these unusual
It’s a little hard to believe that a sample collection of this depth and
dimension was created by focusing on a single type of material, but
Native Instruments did just that for this Kontakt 5 library. And, they
fronted it with one of their most innovative and best-looking interfaces.
Kinetic Metal seamlessly and continuously convolves various types
of metal—played and recorded in a variety of ways—with synthetic
waveforms. Among many other things, metallic sources derive from
a drawbridge, Korean drums, calligraphy equipment, rotary phones,
running water in a metal drain, clockworks, typewriters, garbage cans,
and current traveling through wire.
Kinetic Metal’s design invokes a steampunk-flavored alternate
world, with its weathered, wood-and-metal skin peppered with virtual
switches, illuminated buttons, and animated gears and levers. This
is way more than eye candy, however; the user interface encourages
experimentation. The large buttons let you shift between three
programming pages—Forge, Motion, and FX.
Most of the activities you’ll perform with are on the Forge window.
A pair of gears flank the Link and Motion switches, which engage the
gears. The left-hand gear indicates modulation between the layers in the
patch. On the right, the gear sweeps through effects parameters. With
the Motion switch off, drag the Forge gear’s position to create a desired
timbre, whereas a similar move with the FX gear will provide a fixed
effects setting. With the motion switch on, the gears will sweep on their
own, animating tones in exciting and often unpredictable ways. With the
Link button engaged, the FX gear will follow the lead of the Forge.
The default instrument folder relies on the innate animation of
the samples, but the real action lies within the Motion Enabled folder,
where the presets animate the gears by virtue of LFOs and recorded
motion. The metals scrape, swirl, and sing with harmonics and artifacts.
Programming your own motions is a breeze, and the FX window avoids
technical terms, instead providing levers to adjust such characteristics
as Space, Mix, Spectrals, Modify, and Circulate. Just grab a lever and
adjust the effect—it’s hard to come up with anything boring. The
brilliant design and intriguing sounds make Kinetic Metal a must-have.
In Geosonics, Sonic Couture combines its sound-design skills with the
work of renowned field recordist Chris Watson to create something
altogether different. Imagine Australian outback ambiences that were
recorded using contact mics attached to long stretches of vibrating wire,
rather than miked in the normal way. Such sounds blend with synth
waveforms in a robust and deep editing architecture using NI Kontakt.
Top-level folders are based mostly on environmental categories:
Wire (recorded as previously described), Ice and Water, Swamps,
Wind, and Original Recording Presets—which are single-oscillator
instruments derived solely from the recordings. The latter provides a
good starting point for building your own patches, or you can use the
full-blown three-oscillator patches for inspiration.
With the exception of the Original Recordings folder, patches comprise
a combination of an environmental recording and synthesized sources.
Depending on the mode (focused or non-focused, activated by a central
Focus button), the environmental samples follow the keyboard to sound
more congruent to the pitched samples. Not all of the synthetic samples are
static waveforms, either; many of them are endowed with graceful and subtle
timbral and melodic motion. With Focus off, the pitched samples are muted
and the environmental sounds are sliced and mapped across the keyboard,
available for individual or group editing, including envelopes, effects, filter
settings, and pitch. The parameters are accessible in either mode.
From the Options window, select the Jammer, which provides a
sophisticated arpeggiator/step-sequencer hybrid. Choose from preset
scales and patterns or record your own. Try it on patches with moderately
slow envelopes to create amazing swirling textures. You can further edit
the effects, including chorus, delay phase shifter, compression, saturation,
and Spaces, which is a generous batch of reverb and environmental impulse
responses, many of them taken from the field recordings.
It’s almost impossible for me to select my favorite patches among a
collection where just about everything is breathtaking in one way or another.
Imbued with imaginative sound design and virtually endless creative
possibilities, Geosonics is a stunning palette for the ambient musician, film-score
composer, or anyone in search of truly unique, unheard sonic territory.
The unusual instruments and sound sources
in Morphestra Generations meld with
conventional orchestral instruments, bringing
a generous supply of creative and flexible user
control to the party. Symphonic instruments
mix it up with world percussion, voices,
guitars, waterphones, animals, warehouses,
tools, and machinery. Native Instruments’
Kontakt houses the original Morphestra
library alongside the completely new
Morphestra Generations library of samples and
instruments. However, it offers a new playback
engine with plenty of new material, and the
original version is a welcome inclusion.
The new Multis alone are almost worth
the price of admission; if you like patches
with lots of motion, you’ve come to the right
place. Multis BREAK down into three folders:
Construction Beds, Instrument Stacks, and
One-Note Glory. As you can glean from the
patch names, Morphestra’s scope is primarily
cinematic. Eerie Flute Collective evokes a creepy
Lovecraftian cavern, complete with fluttering,
bat-like sounds and mournful, swooping pitches
bathed in a cavernous reverb. Instrument
Stacks are all about patch layering, and here,
Morphestra takes good advantage of its built-in
sequencers and its arpeggiator, which combines traditional arpeggiation with polyphonic,
rhythmic gating. For example, Molding The
Future builds delightful polyrhythmic patterns
and adds dancing, tempo-synced sounds that
evolve over synchronized rhythms and drones.
Be sure to check out Crystal Treasures, which
offers eleventh-chord pad and sequenced bellchime
motifs that elicit a powerful atmosphere
There’s lots of room to get creative from
patch to Multi, with step sequencers that can
play note or modulation choices, a generous
assortment of triggered effects, deep editing,
and a nicely designed user interface that
doesn’t get in the way. Morphestra Generations
is a powerful and inspiring instrument.
Marty Cutler’s music draws from decades
of experience as a bluegrass banjo player
and electronic musician. He has worked with
everyone from Tex Logan and Peter Rowan
to Twyla Tharp and Saturday Night Live.