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SONY PICTURES DIGITAL

6/1/2004

Country music offers nearly as many stylistic variations as jazz or pop, having taken on facets of both. If you're looking for country tracks infused with a shot of rock, Sony Pictures Digital's Rhythm and Twang ($59.95) might be just the ticket. The single CD-ROM of 16-bit, 44.1 kHz monophonic samples is devoted to stringed instruments: guitar, bass, fiddle, and pedal steel. There are no drum grooves in this collection, although a companion CD of drums would not be amiss; good country-style drumming is deceptively simple and often difficult to program convincingly.

The CD comes with a number of additional files, including a copy of Sony Acid Xpress and a demo song. A Loops folder holds subfolders for each instrument. Every loop carries the tempo and original key signature in its file name — a good thing, because no other documentation is included. Files of the same key and tempo can often hold different feels, so a 125 bpm shuffle can be one file away from a 4/4 rocker in the same tempo. A little more information would be useful to sort out the loops.

All of the tracks confine themselves to three basic keys: C, E, and G. Those are reasonable choices, since they allow the guitar and fiddle to take advantage of open and closed position riffs in typically native keys, although tracks in D and A would be welcome for the same reason. You get four starting tempos: 65, 95, 125, and 155 bpm, and the Acid formatting can stretch or compress the files for alternate tempos. I dropped these loops into MOTU Digital Performer 4.1.2 and Ableton Live 1.5 for testing on my dual-processor 1.42 GHz Power Mac with 2 GB of RAM.

Pick Hits

The bass and fiddle tracks are dry, so you might want to add a bit of ambience to the latter. Pedal steel guitarists often rely on echo or reverb to maximize the instrument's sustain, and these tracks follow suit, featuring subtle amounts of reverb. However, the by-products of cutting up tracks for loops are truncated reverb tails. The problem isn't noticeable when the other tracks are mixed in, and you can always add a bit of reverb or delay to unify them. The guitar tracks are nicely overdriven and crunchy, with various amounts of slapback echo or room ambience as befits a contemporary country-rock tone.

Although the loops weigh heavily on the rock-oriented side of contemporary country, the players clearly possess more than a passing acquaintance with the music's roots. The soulful fiddle-playing draws on authentic elements of bluegrass, western swing, and mainstream country, and the guitar tracks show influences ranging from electric-guitar-pioneer James Burton to Albert Lee and other later-day pickers. The bass playing is tasteful and solid, and pedal steel guitarist and producer Troy Klontz coaxes a rich, soupy sustain out of his axe. Overall, there's a strong blues and rock flavor, so many of these loops could easily find their way into those types of projects.

All of the tracks exude the confidence and attitude of seasoned professional musicians. Tracks that have compatible tempos and feels fit together beautifully. However, to facilitate accurate timing for loops with pick-up notes, some files start or end with nearly a measure of silence. Of course, you can always snip the files if you need to place phrases just before or after the loop, but I'd prefer to have more files and less dead air.

Minor Quibbles

Rhythm and Twang is filled with high-quality recordings of beautifully played hot licks from great pickers. Snaky, stinging guitar licks; plaintive fiddle and pedal steel; solid, propulsive bass lines: what's not to like?

For starters, minor chord tonalities are completely missing in action; at least a couple of relative minor chords would be useful. Rhythm guitar parts and padding on the pedal steel are in short supply, especially considering the abundance of hot licks. The bass and the fiddle have a reasonable number of accompaniment-oriented tracks, but there is a shortage of less-active and sustained parts on steel and guitar.

I would have appreciated some pedal steel tracks that featured the C6 tuning (which is used more frequently in western swing and jazz). Some acoustic rhythm guitar parts would also come in handy to soften the high-frequency edge of the electric guitar and steel.

It's not a one-stop construction-kit solution for country songs, but I wouldn't hesitate to use Rhythm and Twang to add authentic country flavor to a project with existing instrument tracks. Be sure to check out the examples at Acidplanet.com.


Overall EM Rating (1 through 5): 3.5
Sony Pictures Digital Inc.; tel (800) 577-6642; email customerservice@sonicfoundry.com; Web www.mediasoftware.sonypictures.com

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