Review: Soniccouture Electro-Acoustic

Vintage drum machines gone bad, in a good way
By Marty Cutler ,
Soniccouture’s Electro-Acoustic shapes drum-machine kits with alternate samples and convolution reverb.

Although I love electronic drum sounds, my enthusiasm for vintage drum-machine emulations reached its limit long ago. I was sure that the ubiquitous sampled 808 and 909 had worn out their welcome. Of course, I hadn’t counted on the increasingly rich synergy of sampling, synthesis, and sophisticated DSP that recent software instruments have achieved. With Soniccouture’s Electro-Acoustic, classic drum machines take on a new life.

The title of the collection notwithstanding, don’t look for acoustic drum kits; the concept behind this instrument (and a far more compelling reason for the Electro-Acoustic title) is that, rather than simply recording instruments directly, they are also sampled after passing through a host of processors and a club P.A. system, then allowed to resonate acoustically.

As a Native Instruments Kontakt and Kontakt Player instrument (V. 5.5 or later) user, you get standalone as well as AU, VST, and AAX versions.

MORE UNTZ TO THE OUNCE

But Electro-Acoustic is not all 808 and 909 samples. Along with other Roland instruments, Electro-Acoustic gathers sounds from Yamaha, E-Mu, Korg, Simmons, Linn, Oberheim—even a Bentley Rhythm Ace. There are 15 different drum machines in all, and you can mix and match kit pieces. Moreover, the recordings include round-robin samples, a technique usually reserved for acoustic instruments. But the payoff here is that the additional samples capture kit pieces with various parameter changes, such as accents, decay times, and tone adjustments; aspects that sampled drum machines usually lack.

Electro-Acoustic has two pages. In the Drum Design Engine, you can choose a kit using Kontakt’s patch-selection arrows or click on the adjacent pull-down menu to jump ahead to a specific instrument. Clicking on a kit piece in the graphic lets you choose another device’s kit piece, alter its tuning, and edit channel-strip effects (see Figure 1). Selecting a room sound, channel-strip processor, or the virtual P.A. response adds alternate samples of the kit piece you are editing.

Fig. 1. Clicking on a kit piece selects it for editing from the panel just below the main GUI.

You can further tailor the sound by adjusting the kit piece’s envelope and filter settings and their response to velocity. Click on the little gear-box icon at the left side of the panel to remap drums to other MIDI notes and adjust the polyphony of each kit piece.

IN EFFECT

Below the Drum GUI, Electro-Acoustic presents several processor panels, which mix alternate samples of the kit pieces recorded through vintage high-end equipment. The list includes a Neve 1073 and a Thermionic Culture Rooster preamp (both of which are overdriven at different levels), a 12345 EMI-desk compressor, and an Ampeg bass amp, in addition to kits sampled through high-end mics in two different rooms. You can deploy any or all of these sampled instruments simultaneously.

Most interesting is the ability to mix individual kit pieces with resonating artifacts—snare wire, a screw box, batteries, a step ladder, tissues, rattles from a full kit, and so on—adding sustained noises, papery tones, or buzzy and resonant artifacts. Basic attack, hold, and release envelopes let you adjust each kit piece to sound as crisp or as squishy as you please. Moreover, you can independently adjust the pitch for each kit piece and its rattle sample. This, alone, greatly increases Electro-Acoustic’s timbral possibilities.

The mixer panel is where you adjust the levels of the individual kit pieces, reverb send, and master channel (see Figure 2). Each piece has a mute button, solo button, and pan control. Clicking on a kit piece in its master triangle gives you access to its equalizer, compressor, saturation, reverb, and stereo width effects.

Fig. 2. The Electro-Acoustic's Mixer lets you select and finetune effects.

I’VE GOT RHYTHMS

The Beat Tools page harbors three distinct drum machines that are accessed from a pull-down menu on the right. These are certainly not your ordinary drum machines: Each has an interesting creative wrinkle, and you can freeze, save, and interchange patterns.

Beat Shifter is the easiest one to grasp. With a choice of six rows, you select which kit pieces to trigger, via the step sequencer in the center of each row. Global controls for the patterns include swing, pattern length, and step duration.

If that seems ordinary, below each kit piece’s row are sliders that elevate Beat Shifter out of the mundane. Shift increases the likelihood that a step will move forward or backward, with increasing probability as you move the slider to the right. Step adds to the complexity by determining how far ahead or in advance of the original step the displacement will be. The Dir (direction) slider determines the likelihood of a step being displaced. To add a bit of variation to any kit piece, use the Random slider to increase the odds. The Chance slider increases or diminishes the odds of playing a hit you have input, with the frequency of occurrence diminishing below values of 100.

Euclidean Beats makes another Soniccouture appearance (it was used to great advantage in the Imogen Heap: Box of Tricks library). The script lets you place hits in a pattern, with even numbers of hits creating more uniform rhythms. For instance, a 16-step pattern with 4 hits on the kick track will evenly place the hits in a four-on-the-floor fashion; 2 snare hits shifted by 4 distributes them on two and four. However, changing to an odd number of hits will change the feel radically: selecting 5 snare hits created a feel closer to a Bossa Nova. Using odd numbers can seed unique syncopated rhythms, with results that mutate and evolve into jazzy and grooving feels.

Between the three engines, Poly Beats is the most intriguing and complex. Rather than altering the length or placement of the bar and inserting events, circular sliders to the right of each track alter the duration of the trigger events, and by doing so, changes their number and how way they fit into the single-bar pattern (see Fig. 3). You’re given an assist from each track’s Velocity menu, which can insert preset patterns, randomize velocities, and affect copy-and-paste routines.

The outcome of my experiments with the Poly Beats script ranged wildly between Weather Report-inspired Boogie-Woogie Waltz grooves, to reckless drum-kit flurries reminiscent of the Shaggs first album, to amazing Prog-style polyrhythms, with little clue how I got there. Even so, once I found something I liked, I simply saved it or dragged it to a track.

Electro-Acoustic doesn’t feature any sort of aggregate song-form sequencer. Instead, all three drum-machine engines let you drag your grooves to a track.

MY FAVORITE DINGS

As different as the Beat Tools may be, there are a couple of minor inconsistencies in the workflow. The mute and solo buttons which appear in the Beat Shifter are conspicuously absent in the Euclidean and Poly Beats engines. You can click individual kit-piece channels on and off, but the one-click convenience of soloing is missed.

It would also be nice to lock a pattern and switch kits to audition rhythms with another preset, but unfortunately, selecting a new kit brings new patterns. You can load a new setup, but preset kits also include their own processing and mixer setups. You’ll just have to save patterns and import them into another kit, which puts a bit of a dent in the workflow.

A BEAT APART

Far from being yet another vintage drum-machine collection, Electro-Acoustic is one of the coolest sampled-drum engines out there. The enormous amount of sound shaping it offers can radically transform the kits into edgy sounds you haven’t yet heard, and the evolving rhythms you can achieve between the three Beat-Tools are unique and fun in the making.

STRENGTHS
Tremendous sound-shaping capabilities. Interchangeable kit pieces. Unusual and creative rhythm generation.

LIMITATIONS
Inconsistent arrangement of mute and solo buttons. Auditioning patterns on new kits needs improvement.

$179
soniccouture.com

EM contributor Marty Cutler's new book, is The New Electronic Guitarist (Hal Leonard Books).

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