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electronic MUSICIAN

GARRITAN Jazz and Big Band 1.15 (Mac/Win)

By Marty Cutler | June 1, 2006

The press release accompanying my review copy of Garritan Jazz and Big Band states that it is not intended to replace live jazz musicians. Garritan cites the nuanced, improvisatory vocabulary of rhythm, timbre, and articulation that characterizes the music as evidence of the futility of the task. Who am I to disagree? Gary Garritan and his team have taken extraordinary measures to provide a hyperrealistic set of instruments for jazz arrangers and just about anyone with a studio that can't host Maynard Ferguson's band.

FIG. 1: Garritan Jazz and Big Band is a plug-in and standalone virtual instrument that delivers more than 50 sampled instruments, ranging from saxes and trumpets to piano, drums, and guitar.

It's hard to take a MIDI arrangement for big band seriously if it sounds like the world's largest accordion rather than a finely honed ensemble of individual players who can shape the tone colors in different ways. Jazz and Big Band (which I'll call J&BB) offers a set of clever resources to avert the accordion syndrome, however. It is considerably more ambitious in its scope than a collection of brass and woodwind instruments; you get basses, guitars, electric and acoustic pianos, drums, and percussion, too.

Getting Jazzed

J&BB's program and sound content come on a single DVD-ROM (see Fig. 1). Installation is simple, concluding with a challenge-and-response procedure. The 2.7 GB sample collection uses Native Instruments Kontakt Player, which offers fewer user parameters than some sample players but allows Garritan to provide more-complex MIDI-control programming. In a departure from typical Native Instruments — driven plug-ins, J&BB lets you access updates on Garritan's Web site, and a major update was already available when I installed the program.

The plug-in accommodates a variety of hosts: AU, VST, and RTAS in Mac OS X, and DirectX, RTAS, and VST in Windows XP. You can also use ASIO in Windows and Core Audio on the Mac to run J&BB as a standalone instrument. Because most notation programs do not support any of the aforementioned hosts, Garritan has devised GPO Studio (Mac/Win, free), a clever plug-in host program that can load multiple instantiations of J&BB and Garritan Personal Orchestra.

I tested J&BB on my dual-processor 1.42 GHz Power Mac with OS X 10.3.9 and 2 GB of RAM. I auditioned the software as a standalone program and as a plug-in with Apple Logic Pro 7.1, MOTU Digital Performer 4.61, Steinberg Cubase SX 2.2, and Ableton Live 5.0.2. Additionally, I used the instrument as a target for PG Music Band-in-a-Box 12.

Band of Druthers

You choose your patches by clicking on the Load button above the user interface's pitch-bend and mod wheels (see Fig. 2). A drop-down menu lets you navigate to your folder of choice, or you can click on the button's upper or lower edges to load the next program in the folder. Folders are organized by general instrument type: Saxes and Woodwinds, Trumpets, Trombones, Tuba, Guitars, Keyboards and Vibes, Basses, and Drums and Percussion. Folders within the general instrument categories contain patches with customized controller mappings compatible with notation programs, such as Finale and Overture; a folder of Lite instruments; a mysterious Place Holder folder with no contents; and a folder of Multis for various ensemble types.

FIG. 2: Although Jazz and Big Band lacks the EQ and effects you''ll typically find in Kontakt Player–based software, it more than compensates by offering a wealth of expressive capabilities using MIDI controller data.

For the most part, J&BB encourages the user to build horn sections from individual instruments; you will find no composite brass ensemble patches. In fact, the majority of the brass and woodwind patches are steadfastly monophonic. The reasoning behind that apparent limitation is practical: channel-based MIDI data wouldn't let multiple sax voices, for example, behave independently. Instead of furnishing ready-made ensembles, J&BB gives you plenty of leeway to carve a dynamic timbral and rhythmic identity for each virtual player.

Apart from a variety of modulation tools to reinforce each instrument's individuality, you get multiple models of the same instrument. For example, the saxophones consist of Buescher, Conn, Selmer, and Yamaha instruments. For users who require polyphonic wind-instrument patches, the version 1.15 update gives you a folder of Lite instruments for each component of the horn section, with programmable polyphony.

You will need to use the Lite folder if you're using Band-in-a-Box, because that program often generates brass-section parts on a single MIDI channel. Also, using Band-in-a-Box requires that you set up your patches in advance. Kontakt Player can play a maximum of eight different parts, which means that more-ambitious orchestrations will require additional instantiations of the plug-in.

Control Your Expression

To maximize J&BB's potential, you will want to use the single-voice-per-channel approach for brass and woodwinds. The control options are copious and go a long way toward authentic emulation. Unlike other sample players with the Native Instruments imprint, J&BB offers no built-in delay, reverb, chorus, or other signal-processing amenities. Instead, Kontakt Player devotes the bulk of its DSP resources to clever manipulation of sample-playback techniques using MIDI-control conventions, most concentrating on the brass and woodwind instrument patches. For example, Control Change (CC) 64 lets monophonic instruments play legato lines without retriggering the attack — a crucial element in producing realistic wind-instrument lines. Keyswitch instruments use MIDI Note Numbers below the playable range to alternate between various muted and wide-open sounds.

Other CC messages invoke idiomatic techniques, such as breath noises, falls, and doits (rapid upward pitch changes). CC 18 introduces the rapid flutter-tonguing effect known as growl; used sparingly, that added lots of expression to some trombone noodling I recorded (see Web Clip 1). You can even dial in key click and valve-noise release loops, although the effect is easily lost in ensembles (see Web Clip 2). You can control the most salient characteristics of a real-world performance with the most commonplace hardware controllers, such as mod wheel, key pressure, and sustain pedal. However, because some performance artifacts occur on a note-by-note basis in the real world, you are better off inserting individual events into a sequence rather than playing them in using a controller.

The way that J&BB handles volume and timbre for brass and woodwind instruments takes some getting used to; their default volume is zero, with Modulation (CC 1) controlling volume and brightness. Velocity controls attack time only. That's a very sensible combination, as sustained notes on wind instruments usually exhibit a proportional, continuous increase in brightness and volume that Velocity can provide only at a note's onset. MIDI Volume (CC 7) sets the instrument's volume ceiling. Although conventionally the modulation wheel invokes vibrato, J&BB relegates that task to Aftertouch.

Most of the programming is musical and convenient, but a few settings were not to my liking. I was surprised by the default vibrato rate for brass and woodwind instruments, for example, which was fast and reminiscent of the Sidney Bechet era rather than that of more recent playing techniques. Nonetheless, CC 17 alters vibrato rate, with lower values producing a slower vibrato. The vibrato's depth sounds quite musical, with none of the exaggerated warbling that's so characteristic of abused LFO modulation. Basses and guitars had very long releases, but fortunately, you can adjust release time to taste. I am far more comfortable regulating note releases and sustain using Note Off messages. The ability to adjust those parameters, however, makes long releases an extremely minor issue.

Strokes of Genius

Wind instruments are not the only instruments that benefit from expressive Control Change assignments; the electric piano and vibraphone patches, for instance, feature tremolo controls. Most of the instruments have two Variation controls: the first randomly regulates slight to exaggerated variations in pitch, and the other produces timbral differences between one note and the next. Most drum kits are already programmed to avoid the machine-gun effect, but slight pitch variations can also aid realism.

For drum sounds, brush stirs use Aftertouch as a switch to simulate figure-eight brushstroke patterns in different directions. Getting comfortable with this technique took a little bit of time (mostly due to the stiff response of my controller's key bed) and generated large amounts of Aftertouch data, but provided a nice tactile, expressive component to the part. More remarkably, the tempo of the brush stirs accommodates your host's tempo.

Too often, sampled-instrument libraries are guilty of indifferent and sketchy documentation, supplying only a list of CC assignments, with little in the way of explanation behind their musical applications. By contrast, J&BB's manual is hands down the finest I have seen in a long time. It explains not only controller-message assignments, but also the real-world instrumental techniques they allow you to emulate and how to pull them off convincingly. The manual provides extensive notes that indicate control assignments for every instrument. There's much more, including essays on the history of jazz.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the Garritan Web site hosts a very active support community, along with terrific audio examples and tutorials. Gary Garritan and his cohorts are frequent participants.

Gratuitous Sax

J&BB's sound quality and the variety of instruments are uniformly excellent. The assortment of brass and woodwinds is large enough to create realistic ensembles. The selection of saxophone types is startling — in addition to baritone, tenor, and alto saxophones, you also get subcontrabass, contrabass, bass (two choices), C-melody, mezzo-soprano, soprano (again, two choices), and sopranino saxes. Brass instruments come with a variety of mutes, including Harmon, plunger, and cup, and you can modulate between plunger and open notes on one trombone and one trumpet patch (see Web Clip 3).

Sampled guitars are one of my personal red-flag instruments, and I found J&BB's to be quite good when played with a MIDI guitar (convincing keyboard-generated guitar parts are a tough nut to crack). Like the bass instruments, though, the guitar patches usually required shortening the envelope's release stage.

With its subtle ambience and sparkling brilliance (CC 20 adjusts brightness), the acoustic grand piano sounds terrific even in exposed situations. You also get a very expressive electric piano, hard- and soft-mallet vibraphones, and even an accordion (Milton DeLugg or Art Van Damme, anyone?).

Band Leader

Jazz and Big Band is a great companion for any composer or arranger who wants to hear his or her charts realized using sampled instruments that can respond to idiomatic performances. Creating instruments that are perfect stand-ins for the real thing is at best a quixotic task, especially for brass and woodwind instruments. Even on a single held note, many acoustic instruments go through radical timbral evolution — more than the most extensive instrument library can provide. Garritan's software does not aim to replace the real thing, but it still goes to extraordinary lengths to endow its instruments with as realistic a performance as current sampling technology will allow.

Jazz and Big Band works best as a whole, providing realistic ensemble parts and solo instruments with a wealth of expressive capabilities. Whether you're arranging for a small fusion band or plotting the next incarnation of the Duke Ellington Orchestra in your bedroom, J&BB is a terrific tool that should find its way into every jazz education program in the country. I recommend it highly.

EM contributing editor Marty Cutler lives in northern New Jersey with his wife and five cats.


Jazz and Big Band 1.15

soft sample player/sound library $259

PROS: Extensive library of great-sounding instruments. Plentiful and thoughtful array of expressive tools. Terrific user manual and online support. Versatile sound set and programming suitable for any jazz style.

CONS: None worth mentioning.

5 = Amazing; as good as it gets with current technology
4 = Clearly above average; very desirable
3 = Good; meets expectations
2 = Somewhat disappointing but usable
1 = Unacceptably flawed




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