Whether you're looking for authentic bluegrass instruments or trying to program orchestral harp samples to sound like a kora, Ra ($995), by EastWest in collaboration with Quantum Leap, is a tool that you should check out. Ra features a 14 GB collection of beautifully recorded plucked, blown, bowed, and struck instruments from around the world. Ra is also an 8-part multitimbral instrument (in Native Instruments' Kompakt Instrument format) that works by itself or with AU, DXi, RTAS, and VST hosts. I tested the program as an independent instrument and as a plug-in for the Mac applications Steinberg Cubase SX3, MOTU Digital Performer 4.5.2, Ableton Live 4.1, and Granted Software Rax 1.2.3.
EastWest/Quantum Leap''s Ra includes an 8-part multitimbral Kompakt Instrument player for independent triggering of the program''s 14 GB collection of instruments.
A relatively simple Web-based challenge-and-response procedure had Ra up and running in a few minutes. As with other Kompakt Instruments, the program has eight slots into which you can load sample programs. Each can have its own MIDI channel, transposition, key range, effects, and synthesis settings. The microtuning section is especially useful in this collection, because it has a number of presets for different styles of music, including Arabic, Chinese, Egyptian, Indian, and West African tunings.
Sounds are grouped geographically and by general instrument type, such as Bowed, Perc, Plucked, or Wind. If a particular instrument classification has more than one instrument, you'll find a subcategory for it. For example, selecting India and navigating to the Bowed category opens a subdirectory for baritone violin, esraj, and sarangi. Furthermore, each of these subcategories may hold multiple versions of the instrument that are tailored for different performance techniques, such as key switching or Velocity crossfading. Because of the nested submenus, it can be awkward to navigate to the instrument you need. Native Instruments should implement scroll buttons to aid in selecting samples.
Many of the Quantum Leap programs take advantage of round-robin programming, which lets subsequent strikes on the same note access similar but not duplicate samples. That technique creates more realism in sounds such as up-and-down strokes on a picked instrument or repeated percussion hits. Ra's generous use of multiple Velocity levels makes instruments progressively brighter and louder without reliance on filters, which are available if you need them.
Ra gave me considerably more than I'd bargained for. For example, the banjo category contains a round-robin version and neck- and bridge-positions instruments. The neck- and bridge-position instruments are a great addition, because expressive banjo players will vary their right-hand position between the bridge and the neck. The separate programs, however, could have been combined and used with a key-switching map or accessed by Modulation Wheel crossfades. Nevertheless, it's good that both groups are present.
If you love the sound of Indian percussion, the Tabla group will delight you. You can choose Tabla and Baya, which offer subtle and dramatic strike variations. (Authentic tabla actually consists of two drums: the dayan and the lower-pitched bayan.) According to the documentation, the sample map encompasses nearly the entire vocabulary of traditional tabla articulations. Variant sample groups include the higher-pitched instrument and a set peppered with finger rolls and flams.
Forget the cliché-ridden shakuhachi patches that you may have heard. The key-switched, Velocity-layered version in Ra is an immensely evocative instrument. The sound is full of breath with beautiful harmonics — the kind induced by overblowing the real instrument — swirling in and out. Triggering the notes C0 to C#1 in half steps lets you hear the wealth of varied playing techniques used to create the samples (see Web Clip 1). And I can now stop trying to simulate the sound of a kora with nylon-string guitars and orchestral harps; Ra's Kora is mellow but resonant and responds to higher Velocity values with a satisfying snap of the string (see Web Clip 2).
The decent complement of synthesis parameters in the Kompakt Instrument player lets you morph samples into unique sounds, a flexibility that's countered by the fact that in Ra, samples cover a limited range of the keyboard. If you own a full version of Kompakt or Kontakt, you can extend the map of the upper and lower sample ranges, but other Ra users shouldn't be shortchanged in this fashion.
EastWest/Quantum Leap Ra is not a comprehensive collection of instruments, but the program's designers have chosen a sensible balance of quantity and quality, and I hope that the company will develop additional volumes. For now, the instrument does what it does exceedingly well. Ra is easily the most expressive collection of the world's instruments that I have heard. Despite a few quibbles, I highly recommend it.
Overall Rating (1 through 5): 4