QUANTUM LEAP

When I first saw Ra, I thought “How will they be able to sell something at this price?” But after working with it for awhile, that turned to, “I wonder if they can make any money at this price?”
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I think Ra must mean “very expensive project” in Egyptian. There are 69 well-recorded instrument groups (organized by geography — Africa, Europe, Americas & Australia, Far East, India, and Mideast). The emphasis is on melodic instruments; QL recommends their Stormdrum package for percussion. I did assume some instruments were never-to-be-used throwaways (“Alpenhorn? Gimme a break!”). But surprise: That Alpenhorn made a great drone behind a drum ’n’ bass piece.

Compared to the recording, though, I’d bet at least an equal effort went into the mapping/multisampling. The key to Ra’s expressiveness is three program types. “Keyswitch” programs use particular keys to call up variation programs, so you can switch articulations rapidly. “Live” programs are designed for idiomatic, real-time playing — different velocities bring in trills, bends, effects, and the like. (The Koto, with four velocity-switched samples, is an outstanding example.) Finally, “Elements” contain the basic instrument programs and effects, divorced from keyswitching. Also note that there are recordings of ensembles, too. Expressiveness is somewhat limited by having only four MIDI controllers (volume, filter, pan, and expression); however, the files are compatible with Kontakt, a more sophisticated playback instrument that can do MIDI “learn” for almost all its parameters.

While everything is tuned for our even-tempered world, some instruments are available in their “native” tuning. And, Ra takes advantage of Kompakt’s ability to create microtuning presets. Nice.

So who’s the target audience? I’d say scoring. Any movie with locale shifts (e.g., James Bond) is a natural. In this context, Ra would easily pay for itself. For adding exotic elements to envelope-pushing music, Ra again scores big; it’s a sonic adventure. But be aware you need to play the instruments, and you can’t separate the sound from the context. For example, the tambura samples are always going to trigger “India” in your brain. Granted, if you need “impressionistic” rather than “literal,” Kompakt offers significant signal-warping options. But make no mistake: This library is designed to fulfill a very specific function — provide authentic-sounding ethnic instruments.

And as it turns out, that’s exactly what it does. From the sounds themselves to the documentation, Ra indeed offers exceptional quality. I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few people will have no trouble justifying the admission price.