Review: EastWest MIDI Guitar Instruments Series

Finally, a sound library that loves your guitar
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Finally, a sound library that loves your guitar
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A few years ago, Fishman released the TriplePlay wireless MIDI-guitar system, comprising a USB receiver with a divided pickup mounted near the guitar’s bridge, along with bundled OEM software instruments, and notation and sequencing applications. The selection of sounds available, though nicely programmed for MIDI guitar, are limited in number. The TriplePlay software offers plenty of latitude to roll your own guitar-ready patches from any available software instruments, but building them requires a good deal of expertise in effectively adapting them to MIDI guitar.

Using guitars to trigger synthesizers has become routine; less common is the ability to get synths to respond to the more nuanced aspects of guitar playing, such as independent note bending. Hammer-ons and pull-offs require proper mapping of velocity to guitar technique, as do convincing legato and monophonic performance for each note played so the notes from individual strings don’t run together or glitch. The more prepping you do, the more expressive a MIDI guitar can be and, as a result, a more viable tool in day-to-day music production.

The Patch window accesses all of the instrument’s editable parameters. Triple Play parameters are in the dark rectangular area on the left, Play Parameters in the center, and the channel strip and insert effects are on the right.

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Enter the EastWest Guitar Instrument Series, where the combination of EastWest’s sound-design expertise and Fishman’s TriplePlay system and overall guitar savvy results in a terrific series of sound libraries culled from the developer’s popular titles and programmed for expressive control and easy access. At present, the series comprises five titles— Guitar and Bass, Orchestra, Ethnic, Soundscapes, and Keys and Perc.

The EastWest Guitar Instrument Series requires the TriplePlay system: Fishman’s standalone app and plug-in need to connect with their controller in order for everything to operate. You’ll also need an iLok account (though, not an iLok key).

Once the connection is made, you can also play the plug-in (though, not the standalone version) from a keyboard or other MIDI controller. That comes in handy if you’re more comfortable triggering drums and percussion from keys or pads.

EastWest Play 5—a software sample player—hosts the library, which is, in turn, hosted by the Fishman TriplePlay application. You’ll need to update your TriplePlay software to version 1.4 and your firmware to version 1.05. This not only ensures compatibility with the EastWest library, but it presents (among other benefits) direct adjustment of the TriplePlay controller’s pitch-bend range without resorting to blind button-pushing routines of previous versions. The EastWest libraries adjust to your choice of pitch-bend ranges globally, so there’s no need to make adjustments for every patch other than to enable or disable it as needed.

Used in a DAW, the TriplePlay plug-in serves as a sub-host for virtual instrument plug-ins. Users must load the instruments from the Fishman Triple Play preset menu, not the Play browser, to enjoy the special programming for the series

EastWest Play is the core of the MIDI Guitar Instruments Series. Double-clicking on the second channel of the TriplePlay mixer exposes the custom Play engine. Despite the fact that it’s not a full-fledged sampler, its useful sound-shaping amenities include a nice convolution reverb with a host of compelling impulse responses, a modeled SSL channel strip, virtual amps, and more.

Play’s synthesis and sample-editing functions are limited. Instead, the focus is on a collection of playable instruments for MIDI guitar, rather than an invitation to go deep into programming. The plugin instantiates flawlessly in just about any DAW that supports multichannel MIDI tracks. Because MOTU Digital Performer works on a strict single-MIDI-Channel-per-track basis, a bit of extra work is required with one plug-in and six consecutive MIDI tracks. But you can save that as a Digital Performer template and enjoy the extra benefit of alternate string tunings via individually transposed tracks, which the Fishman rig does not perform natively. The software supports alternate temperaments, although this is not documented in the MIDI Guitar Instruments manual or the Play 5 documentation.

Acoustic-instrument presets—particularly in the orchestral and ethnic categories—extend through their normal playable ranges; no more, no less. Although that’s appropriate, guitarists will have to get used to playing instruments which may stop short on the second string, for example. Though the Play engine has an Advanced Instrument Properties window, I was unable to extend the range of anything below its assigned pitch.

Even though a MIDI guitar library with a guitar focus may seem redundant, you’ll love the guitars culled from the EastWest Fab Four collection whose titles—including Ticket to Guitar, I Want Guitar, I’m a Blackbird Guitar—hint at their inspiration. I generally avoid distorted-guitar samples, but many of those here are juicy and convincing, especially when played with a guitar controller. In some cases, the programmers have been rather conservative in deploying pitch bend; flutes and even some ethnic string instruments have pitch bend turned off by default. However, between Triple Play’s agile MIDI response and EastWest’s generous sample mapping, sounds will respond articulately and with a minimum of that tweased stretched-sample tone.

Overall, the libraries enjoy plenty of presence and liveliness. Among guitars, keyboards, and ethnic instruments, the sounds are gritty and full of attitude rather than pristine and lifeless. The Fender Jazz Paris Vibe bass is one of the nicer fretless basses for lyrical, melodic playing.

The Orchestra library goes way beyond stock orchestral composites of brass, woodwind, and string ensembles. There’s more than enough to get you on your way, with 190 patches representing multiple performance techniques of individual orchestral instruments—marcato, portato, pizzicato, staccato and sforzando among them. The library doesn’t skimp on ensembles, either, abounding in duos, trios, 70-piece sections, and many configurations in between. You’ll also find percussion ensembles, orchestral blocks, vibraphone, marimba and chimes. It’s a generous collection with more than enough to create elaborate orchestrations.

Hopefully, EastWest will release a second volume of its Ethnic library: As interesting and useful as the presets may be, they are weighted mainly toward Asian instruments, with few sub-Saharan African instruments, a sprinkling of European instruments, and practically nothing from South America. The library opens with orchestral string ensembles, cellos, and a baritone violin, which is oddly redundant given the abundance of strings in the Orchestral library and surprising given the brilliant selection of ethnic sounds available in EastWest RA.

But despite my criticisms, the Ethnic collection offers expressive, standout patches, including a Dilruba, a resonant, bowed instrument from the Indian subcontinent. Here again, EastWest’s attention to the artifacts that bring life to sampled instruments pays off, with just enough bow noise, vibrato that comes and goes, and bowing in different directions. Erhu Sus Vib is as much fun to play as any synth lead, with its remarkably vocal-sounding vibrato, as is the Jin Hu, which is the bamboo-constructed sibling of the erhu.

The Kemenche, hailing from Turkey and Iran, has a slightly more percussive attack, followed by some sweet vibrato in the sustained portion of the sound. Some very nice banjo patches include a neck-position and bridge-position preset as well as a round-robin version alternating between the two. Because you can’t extend the ranges of the samples, however, it was impossible to tune the fourth string down a whole step to C—a common practice in folk and bluegrass styles. And though the banjo range is roughly equivalent to the top four strings of a guitar, the banjo patches are laid out an octave higher (which is easy to remedy by transposing the presets).

My favorite of the lot is the Keys & Perc volume. While it’s not a definitive collection of keyboards, you do get a very lovely Steinway grand, a Rhodes, some nice organs, and the like. Rather, the emphasis is more on processed and esoteric instruments. I noticed a couple of winners from the Steven Wilson Ghostwriter collection (including Leslie-drenched clavinets and pianos), as well as more Fab Four titles, such as the bright upright-piano tones of Madonna Piano, the buzzy and nasal Baby I’m a Clavioline, and the unmistakable Strawberry Flutes.

All of the volumes in the EastWest MIDI Guitar Instrument Series are worthy of consideration. If you have to start with just one, I recommend the free EastWest Teaser Pack, which provides a fine assortment of representative sounds. I eagerly await more collaborations between EastWest and Fishman.

STRENGTHS
Standalone and plug-in versions. Beautifully sampled, lively sounds. Ridiculously fine tracking and response. Setups allow independent note bending from guitar into DAW hosts.

LIMITATIONS
No native support for alternate string tunings. No user access to sample-map edits. Documentation lacks in some finer points.

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Marty Cutler’s book, The New Electronic Guitarist, thoroughly explains how to set up any DAW for use with MIDI guitar.