MOTU Ethno Instrument 2 (Mac/Win) Review

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FIG. 1: Almost any tweaking you might wish to do can be accomplished quickly and intuitively in the main window without the need to dig through additional submenus.

When The Beatles added an Indian sitar to their recording of Norwegian Wood, it inspired an entire generation of musicians to be adventurous, to try something different—something besides the usual guitars, bass, and drums. Of course, The Beatles broke up well before technology caught up with their talent and innovation, but back in the 1980s, at a relatively early point in the evolution of digital sampling, someone decided to sample a Japanese shakuhachi, and the effect was much the same. Suddenly shakuhachis were everywhere, most notably in the intro to Peter Gabriel''s hit single “Sledgehammer” and Tangerine Dream''s U.S. score for Ridley Scott''s 1985 film Legend. At that point, the fuse was lit and sound designers began a feverish hunt for new instruments to sample.

By the turn of the new millennium, a number of large sample houses were releasing collections of ethnic instruments. One of these was MOTU, with its critically acclaimed Ethno Instrument released in 2006 for both Mac and Windows. The virtual instrument shipped with a whopping 8GB of instruments from around the world (including the requisite shakuhachi). Unlike some collections, Ethno wasn''t just an assortment of individual multisamples looped and strung together: It included 4GB of loops and phrases (called gestures in some cultures), as well as a bank of useful synth-style accompaniment instruments. For the modest list price of $299 (and available for less from most retailers), Ethno couldn''t be beaten, and it sold quite well.

MOTU has just released its follow-up collection, Ethno Instrument 2, and this time around it''s almost tripled in size to a whopping 21GB of multisamples, loops, and phrases. At its typical street price of $375, it works out to less than $18 per gigabyte. As someone who has personally recorded and released a plethora of world instrument samples over the years (as well as authoring the feature article “Sample the World” in the February 1997 issue of EM), I had a great interest in hearing exactly what the talented folks at MOTU had cooked up for us this time around.

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FIG. 2: By clicking on the Loops button, you can select from a phenomenal selection of ethnic instrument and percussion loops without having to close the basic UI window.

One of the most impressive things about Ethno 2 is the workspace (see Fig. 1). You couldn''t cram more useful information into less space than MOTU did with Ethno''s user interface. What''s more, it''s quite simply a thing of beauty.

Both standalone and as a plug-in in all the major formats (VST, AU, RTAS, and MAS), Ethno 2 has all the features you''d want or need, such as unlimited parts, disk streaming, multiple audio outputs, and a convolution reverb that doesn''t hog so much real estate that your system comes to a screeching halt the second you implement it (see Fig. 2).

Ethno 2 allows musicians working in different audio production platforms to effortlessly collaborate on projects. For example, if you use MOTU Digital Performer and your songwriting partner uses Apple Logic or Steinberg Cubase, it''s not a problem. Save an Ethno 2 multi (which is MOTU''s term for a preset with all of its settings) in one program and then open it up in another, and all of the settings are perfectly preserved. Ethno 2 displays all the important settings in one convenient window so you see everything without having to dig through layer after endless layer—a creativity killer of the highest order. LFO? Amplitude envelope? Filter settings? Velocity curves? Available right there for you to see at a glance. All of this is driven by MOTU''s UVI Engine XT, which is capable of delivering virtually unlimited polyphony (256 voices per preset), along with extremely low latency.

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FIG. 3: Ethno Instrument 2''s convolution reverbs are amazingly lush and highly detailed.

Don''t feel like multitracking? No problem. Each instance of Ethno 2 (and there can be more than one) offers unlimited instruments, loops, and phrases; as many as 64 MIDI channels; and 17 separate audio output pairs (see Fig. 3). That means you can have as many as 64 instruments playing simultaneously. You can easily create stacks by assigning two or more parts to the same MIDI channel. Instead of the already CPU-friendly convolution reverb, you can use one of the many digitally produced (and surprisingly clean) simple reverbs to further conserve power. But I loved using the sophisticated, lush-sounding convolution reverbs. These range from cathedrals and concert halls to caves and even forests. Great, great stuff.

Although Ethno 2 does everything you''d want without a hiccup, what probably matters more to you as a musician is the quality of the sounds. Regardless of just how powerful or user-friendly a particular user interface may be, any sample collection lives and dies by its sound quality and musical usefulness. Here''s how Ethno 2 stacks up.

Simply listing all of the instruments included in the MOTU Ethno 2 library would use up the remainder of this story. In the Ethno 2 User Guide, it takes a whopping 51 pages just to list the instruments, loops, and phrases, along with brief explanations of each instrument''s appearance and traditional use. The sample sets range in size from a modest 160KB up to a massive 470MB. In some cases, instrument presets include an authentic tuning and a Western chromatically tuned version. Microtuning is also supported. There are so many instruments, loops, and phrases to explore that you will be busy listening for days—longer if you stop and play, as I do when I find something particularly interesting.

So how does it sound? Among the gold-standard presets are dozens of brilliantly performed, cleanly recorded, and accurately sampled instruments. I''ll start with the individual instruments because these will get the most use. The multis are grouped by geographical region: Asia, Africa, Celtic, India, and so forth. Although I don''t have the space to list them, keep in mind that each instrument typically includes several variations. Here are just some of my favorite individual multisampled instruments.

Africa: Flutes, Large Drums (spectacular), Balafon (imagine a primitive marimba), African Percussions, Kora, most of the Sanzas (Kalimba), and the Valiha (a dulcimer-like instrument).

Asia: Without a doubt the Gongs (which include dozens of sizes from 4.7 inches to a huge 26-inch Burmese gong), Koto, Pipa, Chinese Percussions, Taiko Drums (particularly the ones with reverb), Thai Drums, and Shakuhachi.

Australia: Aboriginal Percussions, Native Flute, and Oceanian Drums (though this one needs a bit of tweaking). I was greatly disappointed in the Didgeridoo and the Jaw Harps, and neither plays on the black keys.

Celtic: Fiddle, Harp, Pennywhistle, Celtic Percussion, Celtic Guitar, and Harmonicas. The collective Bagpipes left a great deal to be desired. (I could not find a single drone note anywhere, which is an important part of the overall sound.)

Eastern Europe: I liked the Balalaika Trems a lot. The other Balkan Instruments (Accordion, Double Bass, Sax, and Violins) are all highly usable, and I simply loved the Balkanish Voices, where a different traditional vocal performance is placed on each note from G0 to D7. The Cymbalum is versatile and beautifully resonant.

India: Dilruba, Electric Sitar, Harmonium, Indian Flutes, Indian Percussions and Percussions v2, Indian Violin (particularly the legato version), Santoor, Sarod, and Tambura. I was expecting more in this updated version of the Sitar, and still felt it didn''t have enough of the characteristic bite and buzziness.

Indonesia: Lamellophone and Gamelan Drums and Gong.

Middle East/Mediterranean: Arabic and Persian Voices (both quite compelling), Baglamas, Bouzouki (including electric version), Maghreb Violin (with stunning layered multi with string section), Mandolin, Middle East Percussions, Santur, Saz, and Tzouras.

Occidental (or domestic): Acoustic Bass, Concertina (with wonderful key-clicks), Dobro (resonator guitar), and Jumbo Bottleneck Guitar.

South America: Ande(s) Flute, Equatorial Drum, Latin Panpipe, Latin Percussion, Electric Bass, Tango Accordion.

Spanish/Gypsy: Flamenco Guitar and Percussions, Gypsy Jazz Guitar.

West Indies: Requinto, West Indies bass. Sadly, the Steel Drums simply do not capture the signature raucous, metallic timbre of this family of instruments. There are additional bonus synths, percussion, and voices that range from good to outstanding.

In among the genuinely wonderful, truly addictive instrument presets in the Ethno 2 library, there are also some sounds that I found completely unusable. (In fairness to MOTU, I have to point out that I auditioned version 2.0.0 of Ethno 2, and odds are the company will make some changes by the time it releases its first upgrade.) One example is the Chinese Er Hu, an instrument capable of great expression, used brilliantly in the score for last year''s blockbuster Star Trek in “Spock''s Theme.” (MOTU does call the multisampled, sustained version Er Hu Noisy Vib.) By contrast, the Er Hu phrases are performed and reproduced with a quite lovely timbre, and I found myself wishing there had been more of them. Check out Web Clips 1 and 2 and judge for yourself.

The Bottom Line You should have a sense of just how truly vast this library is. It would be impossible to even start listing all the loops and phrases that made me smile (see Web Clip 3). I have to single out the Taiko Drum loops that thunderously shook my house (see Web Clip 4). Ethno Instrument 2 is a huge leap forward for MOTU, and despite my few criticisms it is a collection that every single musician interested in world, ethnic, and exotic instruments should invest in. I''m looking forward with great anticipation to hearing what future revisions of Ethno 2 may bring.

Jim Miller is a longtime contributor to EM and a freelance sound designer whose samples have appeared in instruments and libraries from most of the biggest names in the industry.

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the Ethno Instrument 2 product page.