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MOTU Ethno Instrument

October 9, 2006
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Ethno Instrument (EI) is a cross-platform plug-in/standalone instrument with a 4GB library of keyboard-mapped sounds and 4GB of loops (for the specs, visit www.motu.com). It’s quality all the way: The samples are well-recorded, looped, and mapped.

EI searches for installed components during installation (but not afterward), so if you have big hard drives, the program may seem frozen. It isn’t — be patient. As for copy protection, the program uses iLok.

APPLYING ETHNO INSTRUMENT

EI is a one-stop instrument, with 64 parts and 17 stereo outs. If you need to instantiate multiple instances (which you can do), you probably need a course on arranging. As such, it’s a “program within a program” when hosted in a DAW, and is also quite complete as a standalone device. Parts can stream from disk or load into RAM to strike the best balance of disk and RAM usage.

The selection of instruments covers a wide range of styles and geographical locations, and the browser makes it easy to select loops or instruments. Most of the instruments have limited ranges that match the instruments being sampled; I would have preferred to have the lower and upper limits stretched — I don’t always want authenticity. In any event, transposing the samples is a workaround. Better yet, it would have been nice to fill up those empty keys with idiomatic riffs and articulations.

For those who do enjoy warping things, there’s a synth engine with filter, amp, LFO, EQ, etc. Nice. And you can do MIDI automation, as well as “MIDI learn” for external control. Furthermore, you can apply velocity and keyswitching to layered instruments.

But the big deal to me is the way EI handles loops. The concept of slicing a loop into pieces and assigning each slice to a keyboard key is not new, but it’s particularly applicable here as you can create expressive variations on loops. You can also drop and drag loops (as MIDI data or audio that tempo syncs — very cool) into your instrument tracks. After dragging MIDI data, you can edit it to create useful variations. Again, this isn’t necessarily a new concept; many programs treat REX files this way. But the execution here is superb. Even with extreme stretching, sound quality remains intact. Granted, the loops are stretch-friendly to begin with, but that doesn’t minimize the work that must have been put into the slicing process.

EI also includes a convolution reverb, and particularly in standalone mode, strengthens the “one-stop” vibe. It’s bus-based, so each part can have different amounts of reverb, and adds value to the package.

Finally, it’s worth adding that the 120-page printed documentation is excellent. It not only takes you through all aspects of the program, but almost half the manual is devoted to describing the instruments and listing the various sounds and patch mappings.

CONCLUSIONS

The main competition for EI is East West’s Ra, which lists for over three times as much but has a 14GB library. I think Ra is great (and it includes more variations in articulations), but EI is so compelling — and handles loops so well — that it’s an excellent program by any standards, not just with respect to cost-effectiveness. I have the same kind of feeling with EI that I get from Stylus RMX, in the way that you can throw loops together and end up with cool rhythms and patterns; just layer some instrument parts over it, and you’re good to go. (The audio example at www.eqmag.com is a little African-flavored riff I threw together in about 15 minutes — that’s how easy it is.)

Just as cooking benefits from the occasional exotic spices, so does music. At this price, and with this kind of library, Ethno Instrument is a superb (and painless) way to get into world-class world sounds.

Product type: Plug-in/standalone instrument for MAS/VST/RTAS/DXi/AU; MacOS X 10.3.9 or later, Windows XP.

Target market: Studios needing easy-to-use, cost-effective ethnic sounds; stage musicians who use a computer.

Strengths: Handles loops exceptionally well. Lots of variety. Tempo-matching drag-and-drop loop integration with host for both audio and MIDI. Includes convolution reverb. Synth-based processors for editing.

Limitations: More samples of articulations would have been welcome.

Price: $295 list

Contact: www.motu.com

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