Quick Pick: MusicLab RealStrat 1.0 (Mac/Win)

Most guitar sample libraries are multiple-instrument collections, and by virtue of their broad-scope nature, they rarely mine the wealth of tonal variety
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MusicLab RealStrat focuses on a host of sample-playback features to bring life to a virtual Fender Stratocaster.

Most guitar sample libraries are multiple-instrument collections, and by virtue of their broad-scope nature, they rarely mine the wealth of tonal variety inherent in any one instrument. Because there are arguably more ways to get timbral variation from an electric guitar than from acoustic instruments, MusicLab's RealStrat ($249) fixes its sights on the Fender Stratocaster, providing even more sonic options than the company's acoustic counterpart to RealStrat, RealGuitar (see the review in the August 2006 issue, available at emusician.com).

Register the instrument, and MusicLab emails you an authorization key file. You can install your choice of sound banks at sampling rates from 44.1 kHz up to 192 kHz. It's a simple matter to add banks if you need them. I tested RealStrat as a standalone instrument on both platforms, as an AU plug-in in MOTU Digital Performer 5.13, and as a VSTi in Cakewalk Sonar 6 and Ableton Live 6.03. RealStrat also offers a DXi version. In addition to a MIDI keyboard, I used a guitar controller.

REALITY SHOW

The instrument is recorded dry, but it possesses subtly overdriven warmth and very understated ambience. MusicLab includes IK Multimedia AmpliTube 2 Duo, a lite version of AmpliTube. Naturally, RealStrat requires clever programming and a good deal of keyswitching to realistically duplicate some of the unique sounds an able guitarist can coax from the instrument. However, even basic funk-style rhythm-guitar parts played from my MIDI guitar were startlingly realistic without resorting to the keyswitching features. More forceful playing brings out a bit of string buzz, adding to the realism, and you can dial in the level for this and other guitaristic artifacts.

Round-Robin programming and samples for every playable fret of every string create amazingly convincing performances. My MIDI guitar provided a great way to test the chromatic sampling on every string. As with an actual guitar, the same pitch played on another string sounds different, and RealStrat can map its playback of notes based on realistic guitar fingerings and chord voicings if you use a keyboard.

RealStrat offers a number of ways to play the instrument. Solo presents the guitar in a relatively straightforward fashion, with notes mapped from low to high across the keyboard. As its name suggests, this setup is best for guitar solos. Notes played outside of the instrument's sample map trigger repetitions of the last played in-range notes: the white keys play normal versions and the black keys play muted versions that are great for reproducing telegraph-style unison guitar riffs.

Chords mode captures strums based on keyboard input within one zone of the virtual guitar, and you can trigger consecutive strums on adjacent keys, with muted tones on the black keys — all converted into authentic guitar-chord voicings. Bass and Chords delivers bass notes in one zone, with chords on the higher keys. With Alter Bass selected, subsequent bass notes will play alternating roots and fifths.

Keyswitch goodies include violining (volume-knob swells), feedback, pinched and natural harmonics, bridge mutes and slaps, string scrapes, and wah-wah-pedal effects. Ironically, because you trigger the keyswitches above and below the typical range of an electric guitar, a keyboard controller may be better suited than a MIDI guitar to get the most from the plug-in. RealStrat can also dole out some of the keyswitching control sources to Aftertouch, Modulation, and Sustain messages, so you needn't feel overwhelmed with memorizing key assignments.

By far, the most fun (and useful) playback feature is the Pattern Manager, which gathers a generous batch of previously prepared MIDI files and maps the chords you hold to guitar positions, playing them back in rhythmic picking or strumming patterns. Patterns sync to the host's tempo, but dragging different patterns into a MIDI track yielded plenty of themes and variations, adding an even more lifelike, interactive dimension to the playback (see Web Clip 1). You can add your own patterns to the user library.

One of the plug-in's most interesting features is the ability to simulate different picking positions in real time between the bridge and the neck. It worked well, and although pick position can be used to enhance the differences in sound between the Strat's pickups, I wish there were access to a discrete pickup switch.

KEEP IT REAL

A great deal of thought went into making RealStrat a deeply musical and accurate replication of its hardware namesake. Even so, it's remarkably easy to learn the myriad keyboard techniques that bring the plug-in to life. Thorough documentation outlines every feature and control.

Your choice of guitars may be a matter of taste, but anyone who can appreciate the Strat's glassy quack and funk embodied in a software instrument needs to take RealStrat for a spin.

Value (1 through 5): 4
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