The world is awash in sample libraries of modern instruments;violins, flutes, and trombones are practically a dime a dozen. Butwhere do you go when you suddenly have a craving for a crumhorn ora pandourion? No, those aren't traditional holiday pastries;they're among the many unusual and colorful instruments inNorthstar's unique Ancient Worlds collection ($249) for E-mu E4 andESI samplers.
Ancient Worlds covers a lot of territory with a single disc. Its56 banks, ranging from 4 to 32 MB, provide important (and somelesser-known) instruments from ancient Greece and the Middle East,as well as Europe from the Middle Ages to the early Baroque. Manyof the instruments used in the recordings are genuinely old; otherinstruments are historically accurate reproductions. All are playedby early music experts and recorded at whole or half-stepintervals.
The resulting samples are consistently well miked and clean,with each bank offering an assortment of creative variations andcontroller setups. Some patches, for example, use Velocityswitching to change between different timbres or alternate from astraight to a scooped attack. Other patches use Aftertouch to raisethe pitch a bit before you release the key. Most patches alsoinclude a musical phrase appropriate to the particular instrument,so you can hear how the notes sound in context and get a betterfeel for the proper performance techniques. The banks with melodicinstruments include patches with just-intonation tuning in C majorand C minor to give a more accurate sense of how the instrumentswould have sounded before equal-temperament tuning becamewidespread.
Ancient Worlds organizes its banks by instrument type, beginningwith plucked stringed instruments, and the first bank is a gem. Themedieval 9-string, quill-plucked cittern gives a metallic, harplikesound that could work quite well in a number of ethnic and earlymusic settings. The first patch, with its clean, hard attack, isthe best. Solo Mandolin and Tremolo Mandolin banks add a variety ofother metallic, plucked sounds, including some interesting layers,an ethereal echo effect, some cool sforzando attacks, and anunusual Slide Mandolin patch that sounds like a strange bowedinstrument. The lighter-sounding Hammered Dulcimer bank alsoincorporates some nice echo effects.
Ancient Greece is well represented by separate banks dedicatedto the softer, mellower, plucked sounds of the kithara, pandourion,and lyre.
The Bowed Stringed Instruments category offers only a singlebank, but it's a knockout. The 5-string medieval vielle is nicelyrecorded, with patches that provide legato and spiccato bowingtechniques as well as with various Velocity-switched attacks. Thevielle is an important predecessor to the modern violin and violaand was prominent throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It'san essential instrument for properly rendering the sound of earlymusic.
Brass and Reeds
The Brass Instruments category consists of only bass and tenorsackbut. The sackbut was the forerunner of the modern trombone andproduces a subtly different, less powerful sound that blendsappropriately in Renaissance ensembles.
The Reed Instruments category contributes some of the best andrarest samples in the collection. Complete consorts of beautifullysampled Renaissance crumhorns and rackets from the late Renaissanceare provided in eight solo instrument banks ranging from soprano tolow bass. The buzzy, double-reed sounds of crumhorns and racketsare highly characteristic of Renaissance ensemble music and vitalfor properly capturing the sound of that period.
Other double-reed instruments include an excellent bass curtal(a forerunner of the modern bassoon) — with its mellow, reedysound — and the schreierpfeif, with a sound similar to acrumhorn. Ancient Greece is represented with three banks of aulossamples; these sound similar to the buzzy Renaissance double reedsbut with a slightly more Eastern quality.
Celtic-music fans will love the two Uilleann Pipe banks. Thefirst bank provides individual notes and characteristic playingtechniques such as cuts, crans, rolls, and glisses. The second bankpresents several long phrases performed by Tom Kreegan.
Other wind instruments include a complete collection ofrecorders. The six banks offer excellent solo samples that rangefrom sopranino recorder to great bass recorder. The instrumentswere uniformly and carefully recorded to blend well in ensemblesand deliver a lovely, characteristically woody sound. The remaininginstruments in the category include an ancient Greek bamboo flute,three types of whistles, and several banks of Persian neysamples.
To complete the collection, Ancient Worlds offers severalpercussion instruments, including three banks of Irish bodhran hitsand rhythms, medieval drums and tambourines, and ancient Greekshakers.
Ancient Worlds is an exceptional collection of rarely sampledhistorical instruments. The cittern, vielle, sackbut, racket, andcrumhorn alone are well worth the price of the CD. Providing manyof the wind instruments in complete consorts makes this discespecially valuable for re-creating the sound of Renaissanceensembles. The uilleann pipes and ancient Greek instruments make awonderful bonus of sounds not commonly found in othercollections.