In the past year or so, the virtual-instrument platform has finally spread its wings and is now reaching a comfortable cruising altitude. There are less of those buzz-killing plug-in hangs, compatibility issues and memory problems, and a good deal more flexibility and sonic wow, such as VST2 parameter automation and DXi 2 multiple outputs. At the same time, sample producers have been getting more adventurous, trying new formats and packing more into smaller packages. Take, for instance, Plugsound's series of sample-stocked VST, MAS and RTAS instruments recently released in Star Wars fashion: Vol. 3 Drums & Percs Elements, Vol. 4 Hip Hop & R 'n B Toolkit and Vol. 5 World of Synthesizers. Although technically they are not virtual samplers (they use samples that are encoded with Plugsound's proprietary format), Plugsound's UVI Engine — powered instruments let musicians play, edit and store their own sounds within their own sequencing applications. The limitation to Plugsound is in some ways its strength because it provides a tight and reliable interface and massive banks of original samples.
PLUG AND PLAY
Installing the Plugsound instruments is just a little more involved than your average VSTi, MAS or RTAS plug-in. That is due to the size of the files (approximately 600 MB) and the mere 10 days that you have to get the product authorized. After copying one DAT sound file and one DLL plug-in file into my VST plug-in folder, I launched my host sequencer, Emagic Logic Audio, and inserted Vol. 5 World of Synthesizers as an audio instrument. When the plug-in launches, it asks for a serial number. Once entered, Plugsound generates a challenge number needed for authorization. To authorize each Plugsound module, you can fax, e-mail or use the www.plugsound.com authorization engine. I did the latter for each of the three volumes and was only slightly annoyed to have to enter name, address, phone number, PC specs and the appropriate serial and challenge numbers. The nice touch with Plugsound, however, is that it autogenerates an instant e-mail with all pertinent serial and activation numbers (information you can never find when you need it). Also, Plugsound allows for two installations per software owner. So if you have a second computer or laptop, you have to go through the above process one more time.
With that out of the way, you can begin to explore the instruments. Plugsound has two different interfaces, or views. The small, or basic, interface is designed for live use and simple tweaks; the large interface is where you will spend most of your time setting up banks, testing samples and customizing your own sounds. And customize you can. Adjustable parameters for each Plugsound patch include the following: Polyphony (a max of 128 notes), Pitch, Cutoff, Resonance, Sensitivity (gain curve), ADSR (amplitude and filter envelopes), LFO effects (like panning and filter application). You can also choose between highpass and three lowpass filters. Although the Plugsound volumes do not share a sampler's ability to accept program changes, they ultimately are a sample player with sampler-style filtering and functions.
SURE, BUT CAN THEY PLAY?
The most remarkable thing about Plugsound's sound-stocked instruments is not that, for less than a bill, you have access to about 1,000 different synth, drum or hip-hop sounds, but that you get a simple, flexible and consistent software engine that can launch multiple times, work in a variety of sequencing host applications and help morph the factory sounds to your liking. Some of the applications guaranteed to work by the Plugsound crew include Digidesign Pro Tools, MOTU Digital Performer, Steinberg Cubase and Emagic Logic Audio. Some program versions, such as Logic 4.x, cannot save presets, but I tested all three with Image-Line Fruityloops and Cakewalk Sonar (with a VST wrapper) and had good results (though I could not change the screen's interface to the smaller one).
As long as your audio-sequencing host software is properly configured, the Plugsound plug-ins are simple to use. It's a snap to scroll though the massive batch of sounds by either going one at a time using the Preset Selection Area's arrow keys or maneuvering through the patch subcategories, such as Bass, Guitars, Keys, Jazz Kits, Techno Kits and so on. Because the Plugsound modules look exactly the same but sound totally different, following are summaries of each volume's pluses and minuses.
If you aren't a synth buff, this plug-in proves to be an awesome way to access hundreds — okay, 1,000 — hip and practical synth sounds for a mere $99. If you are a synth buff, it looks like you will be adding these to your collection, too, like every other synth you feel compelled to own. Vol. 5 World of Synthesizers is my personal favorite and not just because of its sounds. The VST engine that Plugsound has developed works particularly well with two different types of sounds: one-shot drum samples and synths. Plugsound jibes with synths because of Plugsound's high-quality filters. When you are adding synth after synth to your tracks, the muddiness is often difficult to control. Having the filtering built in at the sound-source level makes it easy to carve up your favorite synth. Plugsound also lets you store those settings in a Cubase Settings folder (which you don't need Cubase for), so all your tweaks and tweezes — including volume, panning, ADSR and pitch corrections — will be ready for recall.
Sonically, the synths sound like FM with a touch of analog. Although Native Instruments FM7 sounds a good deal richer and more complex, it is also more expensive and less versatile in terms of the types of sounds available. Here are just a few of the samples available in Vol. 5, though none of them are listed as such: Clavia Nord Lead; Ensoniq VFX; Korg T1, M1; Minimoog; Novation Nova; Roland D-50, JD800, JP8000; Waldorf PPG Wave, Q; Yamaha AN1x, CS-80, DX7.
LAND OF A THOUSAND DRUMS
My next best Plugsound VST Instrument is Vol. 3, which has drums appropriately in its title. From the default Jazz Kit to the D-Station (electro) and Vinyl Kits, the quality remains high, the programmability is simple and the quantity of sounds is mind-boggling. With the Plugsound engine's Zone editing feature on, each individual hit can retain its own unique settings. Great for personalizing your kit, this feature can lead to some more dynamic (aka realistic) programming. Although it does take some time to peruse the more than 100 kits made up of an astounding 5,000 samples, and even more time to make your own kits from the supplied individual drums banks, you will be rewarded if you do the work. If you're less motivated, the preconfigured kits are quite good and can be altered and saved like any other Plugsound patch. Stylistically, you will find several of the following kit types: Dance, Electro, Groove, House, Techno, Disco, Jungle, Trash, Lo-Fi, New York, Vinyl, World Percussion and others. Most of the kits are acoustic with dynamic velocity settings for added realism, though a few bonus electronic drum sounds are present. Each Plugsound kit consumes between 3 and 8 MB of memory, but if that pushes your RAM threshold, there are several lite kits that only grab a meg or two.
Vol. 4 Hip-Hop R 'n B Toolkit is just what the name implies. On this volume, you will find plenty of vinyl effects, drum, bass, Rhodes, Clavinet and other cool sounds. Plugsound has provided several loops, but many sound a bit generic. I was also annoyed that I couldn't get loops to repeat by holding down their respective keys; in other words, they wouldn't “loop.” Of course, you could easily program them to loop correctly in a step sequencer or simply trigger each on the 1 of each bar, but it would be far simpler and a good deal more fun to be able to rock it in real time. Aside from that minor point, the flexibility of Plugsound's controller is, again, the key to shaping your sounds and adding DJ-style filtering effects.
Other volumes that will soon be released by Plugsound include Vol. 1 Keyboards, Vol. 2 Fretted Instruments and Vol. 6 Global Instruments. If you've recently thought, “Gee, with all the great software on the market, I wonder if there is a way to access a ridiculous number of sounds for about $100?” The short answer is yes, you can.
MAC: G4; Mac OS 9.1 or higher (no OS X support); 256+ MB RAM; 650 MB free hard-disk space per volume; MAS-, RTAS- or VST 2.0 — compliant host; low-latency audio card, 11 ms or better, ASIO driver; CD-ROM drive
PC: Pentium or Athlon/1 GHz+; Windows 98/2000/ ME/NT/XP; 256+ MB RAM; 650 MB free hard-disk space per volume; VST 2.0 — compliant host; low-latency audio card, 11 ms or better, ASIO driver; CD-ROM drive
Pros: Simple, reliable, fun method for sample playback. Minimal processor strain. Inexpensive. High-quality sample material. VST-, MAS-, RTAS-, DirectX- (with a wrapper) compatible.
Cons: Requires particular host-sequencer software. Must install all 600 MB to use.
Overall Rating: 4