Nothing adds interest and intrigue to a track quite like an exotic sound from a faraway land. Whether it’s a tribal groove from South America or a haunting vocal from an Iranian singer, a well-chosen sound or phrase layered into an otherwise ordinary song or cue can turn the project into something special. And with the virtual instruments in this roundup, it’s never been easier to take your projects to new places.
Sample libraries based on non-Western European instruments are not new, of course. But because this corner of the soundware market has been exploding with new products, we’ve gathered nine of the latest collections to help you navigate the crowded landscape—from the location-focused Indigisounds’ Soca Starter Pack Volume 1 to UVI’s expansive World Suite.
We’ve also included a handful of classic titles from EastWest and Quantum Leap, which are easily accessible via subscription from the developer’s Composer-Cloud website.
So whether you’re embarking on a maiden voyage into world libraries or you're an experienced traveler, the products featured in the following pages are sure to please.
BEST SERVICE: ETHNO WORLD 6
Ethno World (bestservice.de) is the brainchild of award-winning composer Marcel Barsotti, who released the first version of this library back in 2001. (Full disclosure: I’ve been an Ethno World user since then, and I have the Akai CD-ROMs to prove it!).
The library has been improved and expanded over the past 16 years, but it has always remained true to Marcel’s original vision. Being a film composer, he approached Ethno World’s sampling and programming from the perspective of his scoring needs. Rather than run down a checklist of instruments and rhythms from around the globe in an attempt to faithfully document every major musical culture, he’s chosen to focus on cinematic interpretations of his source material.
As a result, this library has a vibe and character that many others lack. That’s not to say there aren’t traditional sounds on board—there are. But because Ethno World 6 (EW6) isn’t intended to be the final word on any particular “ethnic” instrument, some patches may not represent certain articulations or performance types. Even so, the variety and scope of this collection are undeniably impressive.
EW6 Complete ($449) consists of two separately available libraries: Instruments ($259) and Voices ($259). Collectively, there are 320 sampled sources (80 of which are new in version 6) and a total of 800 patches. That’s a lot to learn and explore. Thankfully, the documentation does an excellent job outlining every preset and explaining the musical origins of each instrument.
Fig. 1. Ethno World 6 patches can be edited by accessing related parameters from the six tabs along the bottom of the UI.
These Kontakt libraries have been upgraded with a new user interface, which is larger, more intuitive and offers additional features (see Figure 1). Patches can be edited by accessing related parameters from the six tabs along the bottom of the UI.
The Quick Edit tab gives you basic controls (volume, amp envelope, reverb amount, etc.), with greater sound sculpting possibilities available from the Effects, Group Edit, and Micro-tuning tabs. The IDB-Info tab contains information about the selected patch, including a description of the source instrument, when it first appeared in the library, MIDI keymaps, and any special performance features that are used, such as keyswitches or mod-wheel. This is just one example of the care and attention to detail that has gone into EW6.
Kontakt scripting is used to provide added functionality. For example, the brass and woodwind patches employ scripted legato and porta-mento, which can sometimes sound synthetic, but mostly succeeds at producing natural-sounding transitions between notes.
Convolution reverb is tastefully applied to each patch, with no other effects enabled. This gives you a good starting point without requiring you to constantly dial back effects in order to fit the sound into your mix.
Instruments. Instead of organizing instruments by style or region, EW6 Instruments groups its content by type into nine folders with names such as Bowed Instruments, Keyed Instruments and World Drums. I’m a fan of this system because my brain thinks in terms of sonic characteristics. Plus, when I’m on deadline and I have a sound in my head, I don’t care whether it’s Asian or African, I just want to audition a bunch of similar patches and go.
The Stringed category now includes lovely takes on the dulcimer, raffele and zither, all from the Alpine region. I’ll use the rafelle patch to illustrate the kind of clever programming that’s used throughout: The instrument is mapped chromatically, starting at middle C, with 12 different loops and performances mapped below this (all tempo-synced); and below this, from E0 to F1, are keyswitches that include articulations and single-note repeats (also synced). This format puts a mix of musical firepower under your fingertips, which is exactly what busy composers need when the clock is ticking.
Other highlights include 5-string banjo, mandolin, charango and koto, all of which have been beautifully recorded and deeply sampled—highly dynamic and playable.
The World Drums category hasn’t been beefed up, unfortunately, and many of the instruments here sound a bit dated, especially compared to some of the newer material. If you favor epic percussion, and lots of it, EW6 may not fit the bill. (To be fair, version 5 did add taiko and a handful of big toms that venture into “action” terrain; it’s just not EW6’s strong suit.)
On the upside, EW6 does add an entirely new category, Gamelan Orchestra, that includes instruments from both Bali and Java. Exhaustively sampled, these are exquisite representations of gamelan percussion, complete with loops, performance gestures and round-robin velocity-switched multisamples. I did detect the odd wart here and there, but to me this just adds a dash of reality that can make MIDI mockups more believable.
Voices. EW6 Voices brings several new flavors to the table, with an emphasis on African ensembles and Indian soloists. Disclaimer: The African and Indian samples first appeared in Best Service’s Spiritual Voices and have been remastered for EW6.
Women’s, children’s and mixed choirs from Malawi, Africa provide a variety of phrases that refer to the Love of God, prayers for a good harvest and successful marriages. It would be terrific in certain contexts, but I do wish there were sustained “hmms,” “oohs” and so on to complement what’s here. Criticism aside, the performances are upbeat, presented in several key signatures, and can be effectively transposed without changing tempo, thanks to Kontakt’s Time Machine algorithm, which also lets you change tempo without changing pitch.
Solo Indian men and women have been captured singing various folk and spiritual phrases. To my Western ears, this evokes the sound of R. A. Rahman’s score to the Bollywood blockbuster Lagaan. If you need to transport listeners to the markets of Mumbai, start here.
Overall, Ethno World 6 is a wonderful and wide-ranging collection of instruments and voices that have been expertly programmed for maximum flexibility and musical use. Sonically and functionally, version 6 is several steps up from the previous edition. As a comprehensive go-to for all your globetrotting tracks, EW6 Complete may be the only resource you’ll ever need.
INDIGISOUNDS: SOCA STARTER PACK VOLUME 1 & LAVENTILLE RHYTHM SECTION
As we were making the rounds at the 2017 Winter NAMM show, Indigisounds (indigisounds.com) caught our ear with what sounded like a great party. Turns out, the music was coming from a demo of their small-but-growing catalog of sample libraries.
A relative newcomer, this soundware developer hails from the twin island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, a region famous for its celebration of Carnival. Known as the biggest street party on Earth, Carnival is characterized by colorful costumes, hip-shaking dance moves, and the energetic sound of soca music. Indigisounds is now exporting this musical treasure to the rest of the world in the form of two Kontakt titles.
Fig. 2. If the sounds of Carnival move you, check out Indigisounds Soca Starter Pack Volume 1 for authentic soca-style drums, percussion, and guitar.
Soca Starter Pack Volume 1 ($79) is a construction kit that consists of three NKI patches: Guitar, Loops, and Single. The Guitar patch maps 17 discrete phrases and loops of 1 or 2 bars across the keyboard from C3 to E4, allowing you to create an arrangement by triggering a series of MIDI notes. Similarly, the Loops patch maps 93 individual drum and percussion patterns of kicks, toms, snares, hi-hats, cowbells, timbales, and more from C0 to G#7. Under the hood, Kontakt’s Time Machine Pro algorithm is used to automatically tempo-sync the loops, making it easy to work these grooves into your own productions (see Figure 2).
Lastly, Single is a multisample patch of individual drum hits that you can use to program your own beats. Sonically, this is a hybrid collection that offers a combination of traditional percussion instruments and modern hits that would fit into many hip-hop and dance styles.
Laventille Rhythm Section ($99) is named after a 30-piece percussion ensemble, which is commonly referred to as the “engine room” in Calypso music. This type of rhythm section traditionally serves as the backbone that accompanies steelpan instruments. Laventille Rhythm Section features just two NKI patches: a multisampled kit and a set of loops performed on the source instruments. Here again, the loops automatically sync to your host tempo, though there’s no MIDI-slice option for drag-and-drop into your DAW.
Fig. 3. Three mic perspectives are provided for the massive percussion orchestra available in the Laventille Rhythm Section virtual instrument.
The ensemble was sampled from three microphone positions—close, mid, and far—all of which can be enabled and mixed to taste (see Figure 3). Unlike the modern, processed sound of Soca, the drums in Laventille Rhythm Section are warm, earthy and organic. They’ve also been sampled at multiple velocities, resulting in a more dynamic and playable instrument.
Both Soca and Laventille Rhythm Section are fun, niche libraries that I can imagine using in a variety of tracks. But they’re also a bit odd. For example, the UI knob for both instruments seems oversized and is continuously variable with no way to specifically transpose by half-step increments, making it tricky to change the pitch with any precision. Both libraries also feature basic attack and release parameters, but they affect the entire instrument, making these controls barely useful, unless you want every loop or hit to have the same envelope characteristics.
Strange design choices aside, if you’re a Kontakt user and your tracks need an injection of traditional or popular West Indies dance music, Indigisounds is worth adding to your shopping list.
NATIVE INSTRUMENTS DISCOVERY SERIES: CUBA, WEST AFRICA, INDIA, BALINESE GAMELAN
Native Instruments (native-instruments.com) is widely known for its cutting edge synths, but the developer also knows what it takes to produce premium sample libraries. For several years, NI has been cranking out some of the best “ethnic and epic” region-specific instruments on the market, so this month we examine the four titles in its globally themed Discovery Series: West Africa, Cuba, India, and Balinese Gamelan. These Kontakt libraries can be purchased separately, and they’re included in the latest Komplete 11 ultimate bundle, which may be reason enough for owners of previous versions of Komplete to upgrade.
Fig. 4. Native Instruments made extensive use of Kontakt scripting in the development of West Africa to increase the virtual instrument’s flexibility.
West Africa. Like all the Discovery Series collections, West Africa ($99) offers a meticulously sampled set of traditional instruments designed to add authentic flavors from the region. In total, there are 26 percussion and eight tonal instruments, along with 74 programmed ensemble patterns (see Figure 4). Due to their generous range of velocity samples and articulations, both the percussion and pitched instruments are remarkably dynamic, expressive, and playable. The aim may be to re-create traditional styles faithfully, but I found that these sounds could easily fit into modern soundtrack and pop contexts, too.
Presets are organized into three main categories: percussion ensembles, single percussion instruments, and melodic instruments. Each of the preset types is cleverly designed to produce musical results quickly. With the single percussion and melodic instruments presets, for example, multisamples are mapped to the upper register and patterns are mapped to the lower register, so you can trigger performances with your left hand and improvise with your right. To help guide you, the keymap assignment is displayed on the main interface—a nice touch.
Ensemble presets combine six different drums, each with separate timbral controls, and feature a sophisticated MIDI pattern player that triggers the individual drum sounds to create ensemble performances. These are assigned to single MIDI notes in the lower register, one performance per key. Behind the scenes, NI has exploited Kontakt’s scripting capabilities to give you an impressive degree of control over the timing and feel of each pattern, and you can create your own. It’s extremely powerful and makes it embarrassingly easy to achieve believable results. My only gripe is that it’s not possible to drag-and-drop the MIDI patterns into your host sequencer, which is possible with India and Cuba.
Fig. 5. Cuba’s varied instrument palette reaches beyond the expected percussion timbres.
Cuba. Afro-Cuban music has influenced many contemporary styles, and short of flying off to Havana, NI’s Cuba ($99) is the next best way to add this infectious Caribbean sound to your productions. The library is divided between 11 percussion and four melodic instruments organized into ensemble and solo presets. Percussion includes the usual suspects such as maracas, bongos, congas, and timbales, while the melodic instruments consist of acoustic and electric bass, piano, trumpet, and tres, which is similar to an acoustic guitar (see Figure 5).
As with West Africa, Cuba’s user interface is large, informative, and user-friendly. The main page adds options for choosing ensemble and mixer presets directly from the UI, making it quicker to audition sounds and change the mix.
Speaking of which, the mixer includes a 4-band EQ as well as controls for stereo width, drive, and reverb send per channel, giving you plenty of options for tweaking the mix within Kontakt. NI’s sound designers have put this functionality to good use by providing a variety of mixer presets, which can instantly transform the sound from classic to contemporary.
Ensemble performances are generated using a similar MIDI pattern player, but you get more control. Specifically, with the melodic ensembles you can set the key signature and choose from among five chord progressions, which are predetermined for each pattern. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to define your own progressions the way products such as PG Music’s Band-in-a-Box lets you. I would love to see this added in a future version. Still, the pre-programmed parts are stylistically spot-on and sound fantastic.
And because the MIDI patterns can be brought into your DAW, you can rework the performances for your specific needs; much more flexible than working with audio loops.
Fig. 6. Snapshots included in Native Instruments’ India provide you with additional performance variations for each instrument.
India. India ($99) serves up a choice set of beautifully recorded melodic and percussion instruments organized into 16 NKI presets (see Figure 6). These are uniformly excellent in their programming and playability. As with the other titles, there are solo and ensemble combinations, but India goes a step further than its counterparts by making use of “snapshots” to provide many more performance variations per instrument. In addition, a number of idiomatic scales, called ragas, can be mapped to your MIDI keyboard to achieve convincing microtonal performances. Very cool.
It seems NI also went the extra mile with the pattern player: There’s a wealth of inspiring and authentic sounding rhythms, drones, and melodies to be mined here. With no fewer than 954 MIDI files grouped into 159 pattern sets (six MIDI files per set), you have access to more phrases and grooves than you can shake a sitar at. Overall, India provides stunningly realistic sounds from South Asia.
Fig. 7. Balinese Gamelan includes descriptions of how the various instruments fit together in a traditional context.
Balinese Gamelan. Moving on to Indonesia, Balinese Gamelan ($99) captures the hypnotic sounds of a traditional gamelan ensemble, which typically comprises metallophones and gongs. This particular collection features 12 instruments organized into three categories that represent the main structural elements in gamelan music (see Figure 7).
The Core instruments include gong, Jegog, Calung, and Penyacah, the last three of which are doubled in detuned pairs to create the characteristic tonal beating of Balinese gamelan. If you’re not familiar with these names, don’t worry; the included documentation does a good job of explaining the relationship among all the instruments and how they’re played. This was helpful to inform how I approached writing with these sounds, but because they have a certain ethereal and unidentifiable quality, I found they could be used in many different musical contexts. Gamelan chameleon, anyone?
The other two categories, Gangsa and Kettle Gongs, include a small selection of instruments that are often used for melodic decoration or to add intricate interlocking parts. Rather than try to describe these sounds, I’ll simply refer you to the audio examples online. You’ll like what you hear.
Compared to the other libraries, Gamelan doesn’t have quite the instant gratification factor. There’s no mixer or pattern sequencer: Because Balinese Gamelan doesn’t include a MIDI player, you’ll need to rely on your own programming skills to achieve believable ensemble performances.
However, each instrument has a “synth” variation that incorporates a custom arpeggiator, called a Jammer, that can produce interesting and creative results. Fun stuff that would sound right at home in a down-tempo or hip-hop track.
UVI: WORLD SUITE
Designed to run inside UVI Workstation or Falcon, World Suite ($299; uvi.net) is a jam-packed collection of instruments sourced from every major continent and ethnic tradition. Given its sheer volume, variety, and price, World Suite offers, arguably, the best value in this roundup.
Content King. Weighing in at more than 28 GB, World Suite is chock-full of multisampled instruments, loops, and phrases organized into 12 groups according to region or style. You’ll find an impressive representation from each of the following categories: Africa, Asia, Australia, Celtic, Eastern Europe, India, Indonesia, Middle East, Occidental, South America, Spanish Gypsy, and West Indies.
Fig. 8. World Suite’s interface changes based on the selected preset to show instrument-specific controls. For example, with this Armenian duduk you can enable and adjust legato and portamento under the Performance section. Choose a keyboard sound, and the Performance section changes to show Timbre controls.
Most of the focus is on traditional sounds from each musical culture. (Think “travel documentary” rather than “epic and cinematic.”) For example, the Celtic category includes bagpipes and bodhran hits, the Middle East category offers oud, bazouki, duduk—you get the idea (see Figure 8).
However, there are a few surprises that venture into modern territory, such as highlife and soukous, two hybrid styles that characterize modern African pop dating back to the ’60s. I haven’t heard anything like this from other similarly themed libraries; kudos to UVI for exceeding expectations.
A fair amount of material has been repurposed from UVI’s discontinued World Traditions, several Precisionsound titles, and MOTU’s Ethno Instrument 2. I don’t fault UVI for recycling raw sample data from other products, but it’s something to be aware of if you already own these older instruments. And in fact, much of what I wrote in my Ethno Instrument 2 review still holds true for World Suite: “Whether you’re in the mood for saucy Spanish flamenco flavors, tranquil Asian soundscapes, or driving African drums,” World Suite delivers the goods.
That said, it also improves on its predecessors in several key ways. For starters, it’s $100 less than Ethno Instrument 2, plus it contains more source instruments and loops. You can’t argue with more for less!
Nearly every sound category has been expanded with new multisampled instruments. To my ears, these have been sampled in greater detail, with the resulting patches providing a high degree of playability and expressiveness. For instance, two types of taiko drums are now onboard, both of which offer many lower-velocity samples and a wider range of dynamics. Likewise for the udu, which is presented with a variety of articulations mapped across 4 ½ octaves on the keyboard, making it easy to improvise percussion parts using two hands.
In total, World Suite comprises 375 source instruments, 320 instrument presets and over 8,000 loops and phrases. With such a massive soundset, it’s impossible to cover everything, of course. Instead, I’ll highlight a couple of my favorites and refer you to the 286-page PDF manual for further info. Also check out the accompanying audio examples online.
One of my favorites in the keyboard category is the Naeshult Table Piano. This is a delicate-sounding miniature piano sampled with multiple variations, which are available via key-switches. A mix between cymbalum and Pianet, its sound reminds me of the stylized piano sounds of Imogen Heap; perfect for interlocking ostinato parts in the upper registers.
Also from the Nordic region, the Psalmodikon features six key-switched articulations including “bowed 2,” which is absolutely horrible sounding, in a good way; just the right texture to add tension and terror to your next cue. I also like the bite and intensity of “Staccato 2,” which sounds almost like an overblown woodwind instrument. Here’s a tip: Layer this with drums to make accented hits more dramatic.
Global Organization. World Suite encompasses a staggering variety of sounds. But despite its size, I found the library very intuitive to work with, thanks to a number of clever design touches throughout. For example, its patch browser is organized into five different top-level directories that let you access the sounds in several ways. You can search based on the aforementioned Region categories, or you can drill down into the loops by starting with the Loops and Phrases directory. Alternatively, if you have a certain sound in mind, but you’re not sure if it’s Asian or Middle Eastern, go to the Types directory, which further lets you search by instrument type, such as Woodwind, Bell/Metal/Gong, Percussion, and so on.
Equally brilliant, the main Instrument interface shows only the most relevant and musically useful parameters, thereby keeping the look clean and inviting. As an example, reverb controls are kept to a minimum: You get impulse response type, size, and wet/dry mix.
World Suite also handles construction kits in a smart way with its Traveler presets. These are 6-part multis that combine loops and phrases of related material (grooves, melodic phrases, and harmonic accompaniment), making it easy to create authentic musical passages from constituent parts. The Traveler format makes quick work out of locating and auditioning complementary musical elements. It’s a huge time-saver for busy media composers.
Globetrotter. World Suite is an ambitious and diverse library that would make an excellent all-rounder for anyone looking to expand their palette beyond the stock sounds in their DAW. Yes, a lot of the raw material has appeared previously. Even so, UVI has improved on any other format by taking advantage of the powerful feature set in their UVI Workstation engine. The result is a virtual instrument that sounds great, has a ton of functionality and faithfully represents more musical cultures than you’re likely to get from any other library.
The production team of EastWest and Quantum Leap is legendary. Together they’ve turned out hit after hit, often bringing innovations to market that change the game. In fact, you could argue that EWQL single-handedly redefined the category of world-cinematic soundware over a decade ago with their original Stormdrum and Ra libraries.
While EWQL hasn’t released an ethnic-oriented sample instrument lately, the company’s products have stood the test of time, so it is only fitting that they get a mention here. Their catalog has steadily grown over the years, and more recently, with the release of ComposerCloud (soundsonline.com), you get access to every EWQL collection for a low monthly subscription fee. Here’s just some of what’s included.
Stormdrum 1, 2, and 3. Powerful, inspiring and epic only begins to describe these drum and percussion libraries. You’ve heard them on countless soundtracks and move trailers, and for good reason.
Ra. Billed as “the definitive rare and ethnic virtual instrument,” Ra is loaded with evocative phrases and eminently playable multisamples of instruments from the four corners of the Earth, with special attention paid to sounds from the Middle East.
Silk. Quantum Leap revisited the concept for Ra, this time focusing on the sounds of the Silk Road from China, Persia, and India. Woodwinds and stringed instruments from these regions were sampled in great detail to produce some of the finest multisampled ethnic instruments available. Simply gorgeous.
Gypsy. Inspired by styles found in Spain and Eastern Europe, Gypsy runs the gamut from foot stomps and Flamenco guitar flourishes to sultry solo violin.