IN OUR last sound library roundup, it was clear that the next generation of libraries was emerging— resulting in new ways for songwriters, film composers, rock bands, DJs, jingle houses, and others to augment their productions with a growing universe of sounds. So before getting into the reviews, let’s consider some trends.
• It’s an online world. Companies are trending toward a download-only model. By eliminating physical duplication and shipping, even as sound libraries are getting bigger and more sophisticated, prices remain reasonable. Furthermore, much of the type of information we provided in the last roundup has become unnecessary, as most sample vendors now create online product landing pages with audio examples, reviews, and more. So, this roundup concentrates on summarizing each library’s gestalt—the crucial element that a manufacturer’s website often doesn’t include.
• Mo’ MIDI. More libraries are including MIDI files for their loops so you can substitute your own sounds.
• King Kontakt. The superb content from Native Instruments and third-party developers (coupled with a free player) have established Kontakt as the host. (Just make sure your keyboard has enough octaves—often multiple keys serve as dedicated keyswitches for controlling articulations and other triggers.)
• But it’s not the only game in town. Ueberschall’s Elastik engine provides a creative platform to play back and manipulate sound libraries like an instrument; Best Service’s Engine 2, designed by Magix, is another sophisticated playback engine.
• Quality keeps improving. Acid, REX, and Apple Loops files have to be edited carefully to stretch well over a wide range, and in the past, not all libraries made the effort to get it right. That’s changing. Also, most audio files are now 24-bit instead of 16-bit.
• Features move beyond audio examples. Best Service’s try-sound.com online test station lets you try out libraries—play a MIDI keyboard or send MIDI data, and hear the resulting audio. Latency (some is unavoidable) and sound quality depend on your Internet connection, and you need to book time for 25-minute sessions, but this free service is both helpful and clever.
Because of the volume of material received for review, I picked the particularly interesting or well-crafted libraries, and tried to keep the text concise. Go to emusician.com for links to audio examples and more: A picture may be worth a thousand words—but an audio example is worth a whole lot of sound review text.
TRADITIONAL LOOP LIBRARIES
Pop Ukulele and Island Sounds
Tempos of the 12 construction kits (totaling about 1GB of unique content—395 Acidized WAV/Apple Loop files and 356 REX loops) range from 88 to 130BPM; keys are all different except for two in C and two in D. The Acidized/ Apple Loops/REX files handle time stretching and pitch transposition very well, although you’ll need to pitch-shift the REX files manually.
The kits have somewhat of a “needle-drop music” orientation, making it easy to create variations on each kit; however, they offer some fruitful mix and match opportunities, especially with the percussion loops. You’ll also find one-shot drum hits and multitrack drum loops (e.g., separate loops for kick, snare, etc.).
When James Bond hits the bar at Journey’s End in Belize to try and snare the rogue nuclear scientist, you’ll reach for this library to put together the music the house band is playing—and the lilting, organic island sounds will make an excellent counterpoint to the rising visual tension.
DJ Puzzle: Dubstep Complete
This features six construction kits (Acidized WAV, 686MB, 200 files), along with a folder of breakdowns, build ups, and other transitions; the transitions act like oneshots but are looped and stretchable, which enhances their value. Drum loops comprise individual elements (snare, kick, hi-hat, etc.), and there are the requisite number of wobbly bass sounds. And of course, like all other Sony sound libraries, the Acidization is superb.
The overall vibe is somewhere between the original variation on Jamaican-style dub (without being drenched in echo) and the current, brighter, more commercial-sounding dubstep. Depending on your outlook, the sounds are either classic or a little dated, although that doesn’t diminish the quality of the files. I think Dubstep Complete is best approached as one large construction kit, rather than trying to build complete mixes out of individual kits; but the secret weapon is the folder of transitions—the 40 files offer some very useful sonic seasonings.
Sunny Lax: Modern Trance Vol 1
Available in three formats: WAVE+Acidized+REX+MIDI ($49.95), Apple Loops + REX + MIDI ($29.95), or Reason Refill + MIDI files ($29.95) bigfishaudio.com
Yes, it’s trance—but with a fresh, open quality instead of melodramatic choirs and thick-as-mud pads. The ten construction kits (with over 300 loops, 47 MIDI files, over 50 one-shot files, and both unmastered and mastered demo files for each kit) divide loops into dry and wet (typically delay and/or reverb) versions, but not all are duplicates; some of the wet sounds wouldn’t work if dry, and vice-versa.
There are also one-shots, unlooped riffs (typically tails for other loops), and some corresponding MIDI sequences so you can trigger your own sounds. Tempos fall in the mid-130BPM, “locked groove”-type range. Acidization/REXing is good; for this genre, you wouldn’t stray too far from the initial tempo anyway, but solid pitch shifting gives great mix and match potential. It’s hard to do trance libraries right, but this one succeeds on multiple levels—and makes it easy to create convincing tracks in minimal time.
Maybach Ambition XXL Edition
No, The Maybach Ambition isn’t a Robert Ludlum spy novel, but a set of 35 hip-hop construction kits (actually more, as several have A and B versions). Formats are Acidized WAV, Apple Loops, REX, and MIDI (each kit’s MIDI file incorporates all parts in the kit, not just individual loops); there’s about 2.6GB of unique content and 192MB of mixed audition files. All are minor keys except for three kits in Emaj; tempos range from 74 to 167 BPM.
True to the hip-hop origins, the kits are relatively short and anchor a groove instead of evolving. However, as the editing for time/pitch-stretching is very good, these loops mix and match easily—and not just within this set. I laid down a locked groove techno bed and tried several Maybach Ambition loops against it. They not only fit, but added a unique, evocative element. Quite a few of these work well for rock, too.
I was extremely impressed with the sounds, musicality, selection, and versatility. If you can do better for hip-hop, I want to know about it!
Austerity Measures: Electronica by EVAC
Eschewing the construction kit approach, this library has folders for atmospheres (drones and loops), synth bass loops and one-shots, drums (full loops, one-shots, and loops of various elements), natural/acoustic sound effects, electronic sound effects, and synths (loops and one-shots). These aren’t genrespecific, like dubstep, techno, glitch, etc. but are more general EDM/ “experimental electronic” sounds, mostly (as you might suspect from the title) on the darker side of the spectrum. Although they remind me of clubbing in Germany back in the early 2000s, they don’t sound dated; instead, they have a sort of timeless quality that fits into a variety of productions and styles.
Although you can create entire compositions using only this library (it includes 681 Acidized and one-shot WAV files, spread over 524MB), the sounds are inventive, and generally, you won’t find them elsewhere—making Austerity Measures worth the $30 as a grab bag of useful sounds to add variety to all kinds of dance music.
Going against the tide of “unusual” guitar libraries, this refreshing collection (Acidized WAV, 853MB, 624 files) of no-nonsense, guitar/amp/judicious effects offers files with a vintage vibe and solid riffs. The loops are processed just enough to give a particular feel (e.g., tremolo for kits that cry out for it), but you can still impart your own personality with additional processing.
The library include 16 folders of construction kits, containing only guitar parts; however, this is one of Sony’s Artist Integrated Series titles, so it’s from the same sessions as other libraries (in this case, Drums from the Big Room and DNA Bass). Of course you don’t have to use these together, but the trio simplifies creating a “virtual band.” Sony also sells optional “Session Packs” for $9.95 that include additional lead and rhythm extensions for each kit, but again, these aren’t necessary to enjoy the material in the library itself. Overall, Sony has managed to pull off a warm, organic-sounding guitar library, and its somewhat higher price compared to their standard libraries is definitely fair for what you get in return.
UEBERSCHALL ELASTIK “INSPIRE” SERIES
AVAILABLE TITLES: Funk & Soul, Urban, House, Rock, and Ambient
We covered the Funk & Soul sample library from Ueberschall’s Inspire series in the October 2011 issue. But the series has now expanded to five titles, with Urban, House, Rock, and Ambient added to the collection, so let’s revisit the concept for those who missed it the first time around.
Ueberschall makes great-sounding libraries, hosted by the sophisticated Elastik 2 playback engine, which works as either a plug-in (VST, RTAS, AU; Mac/Windows; 32/64 bit) or standalone. Controllable processing includes filter, pan, volume, pitch/formant control (by zplane), slice sequencing, and more; apply these changes to individual loops or globally to selected loops. What makes Elastik more of an “instrument” is that you load loops into a virtual keyboard and click on it, play it in real time from a physical controller, or trigger the notes from a sequencer—think of Elastik as an “instrument of loops,” the way you used to play loops with samplers.
But here’s how the Inspire concept takes this further. The Elastik player’s Random option lets you load new sounds from other installed Ueberschall libraries; for example, suppose you load loops for kick, snare, a percussion mix, bass, and clavinet, then start playback. Click the Random button and selected loops will be replaced with loops from the same instrument category (e.g., a bass line gets replaced with a different bass line). Don’t like it? Try again—but you can also undo/redo, which is handy if you like what you have but want to see if you can do better.
With non-Inspire series libraries, though, the replacement loop may or may not be in the right key. You can always transpose it, but with Inspire libraries, any loop from any Inspire library will match tempo and key. So if only Inspire library soundbanks are available to the Elastik 2 player, you literally can’t go wrong. (A future update will allow you to select which soundbanks Inspire will recognize.)
Once you have the loop the way you want it, you can just keep playing or sequencing it and save it for future use, or export the loop at the current tempo as a digital audio file. In a nutshell, an Inspire library by itself is like a “loop factory” that can conjure up with a virtually endless combination of possible loops, and you don’t have to concern yourself with matching tempo or key. But when combined with other Inspire libraries, the possibilities are multiplied just that much more.
You can also use the Inspire series libraries as standard sample libraries; they’re all well-crafted and continue to uphold Ueberschall’s high sonic standards. But the Inspire concept really does work—when I found loops that were “close but not quite,” it didn’t take long before I ended up with something that worked well.
Sound interesting? Download the Elastik 2 player and a free 410MB sound library from Ueberschall’s website to find out for yourself. The player has a bit of a learning curve, but take the time to scale it—Ueberschall has added a new and very useful twist to the world of sample libraries.
BIG FISH AUDIO KONTAKT LOOP INTERFACE (KLI) SERIES
The KLI series uses the full version of Kontakt 4 or 5 as an interface for loop libraries. Instead of having separate folders for loops and different loop types, like WAV and REX, you load various instruments into Kontakt:
Kit Combos These are construction kits, with a kit’s various loops mapped across the keys. Although combos are great for auditioning loops in context, it’s also easy to “play” entire songs from the various loops. Furthermore, the combos take advantage of Kontakt’s interface for mixing, tuning, and panning various loop types—tweaks you’d normally need to do in your DAW on a pertrack basis. You can also apply, and tweak, effects that process whatever is mapped to the keyboard; opening up the effects section shows a handy reference detailing which MIDI continuous controllers affect which effect parameters. Of course, because it’s Kontakt, you can edit anything down to a minute level of detail that can make your head explode.
Single Instruments These map loops for a specific type of instrument (e.g., bass) from the various kits across your keyboard, and is fantastic for when you’re in a mix-andmatch mood.
Sliced Loops Each of these instruments takes advantage of Kontakt’s slicing capabilities so you can rearrange slices; drag slice triggers as a MIDI file to your DAW; process slices (down to the individual slice) with respect to volume, pitch, pan, attack, decay, filter cutoff, and resonance; draw curves to alter these parameters; repeat patterns; and perform the various slice tricks Kontakt brings to the party. What’s more, you can save up to 16 presets of custom sliced loop settings.
Demo Patch This maps what would normally be the mixed files within typical Big Fish construction kits to the keyboard for easy auditioning.
All this may seem obvious on paper, but when you’re using a KLI library, it’s like being able to “open up” a standard loop library and work with it in a far more detailed, and flexible, fashion. The only downside is you can’t use the free Kontakt player, but all the KLI titles are also available as standard loop libraries, too.
In any event, this is a brilliant addition to the loop library concept that parallels the functionality of the Ueberschall Elastik player, and opens up multiple ways to adapt libraries to your own needs—as well as do serious warping if that’s your thing.
Let’s look at two specific KLI libraries.
If only I had this when I was doing the music beds for last year’s Summer NAMM show videos: Drive successfully translates several country idioms to the sample library format, ranging from traditional elements to a more modern flavor.
It includes 15 construction kits; instrument loops include acoustic guitar, banjo, bass, drums, electric guitar, fiddle, percussion, and vocal background snippets. The traditional material is fine, but I was particularly attracted to the more modern-sounding, driving construction kits—when I found a kit I liked, I really liked it. I was even tempted to put a four-on-the-floor kick against some of these loops, and invent “country ’n techno” . . . no rules, right?
Hard Rock: Decade of Distortion
BIG FISH AUDIO/LACAVA PRODUCTIONS
Hard Rock is a bit of a misnomer; some of these 29 construction kits also venture into nu metal and even some punk elements. But labels aside, this is a great collection of pounding drums, buzzsaw guitars, solid bass, and synth guest appearances. The playing is solid and assertive; the sounds are wellproduced, and the parts are pretty much ready to go without needing further processing or tweaking. Four of the kit combos are multitracked drums with multiple loop options, allowing for significant customization if needed.
Sure, this has applications for scoring and audio-for-video—but if you lift some of these riffs as the backbone of your next song, I won’t tell. This is an eminently usable library that captures the power of modern rock music.
Native Instruments’ Kontakt has become the “gold standard” for hosting not only their own libraries, but those from 3rd party developers. These libraries work with the free Kontakt 5 Player host, or the full Kontakt 5 version.
Albion II Loegria
£329 (about $535)
This is the only cinematic-oriented library I’ve reviewed where if you need to score a medieval science-fiction romantic horror time-travel comedy-drama, you’re covered. There is no “theme,” other than providing a wide variety of possibilities. The highlight is a set of gorgeous, lush strings, recorded to 2" analog tape with four-way control over miking, and multiple articulations selected by keyswitches. (And the Ostinatum option is great for creating rhythmic articulations.) Although I haven’t reviewed the original Albion set, it apparently had bigger, more “epic” strings, which this smaller, more intimate ensemble is intended to complement. Regardless, the strings stand on their own and are versatile enough to work in musical as well as scoring contexts.
There’s not a lot of brass, but the material that’s included (a bank with two euphoniums and two French horns playing in unison, and a bank with a wonderful sackbut choir) is both evocative and emotional; the library also includes recorders, and some presets include Kontakt’s Time Machine to allow for interesting warping.
But then flip over to the loops (which stretch to the host tempo), and you’ll find some bits that could work under a comedy, sitcom, or period piece from the ’60s in which the women wear go-go boots and the men have ridiculous facial hair. There are also chase-scene friendly, huge toms (Peter Gabriel might want to check these out), “what was that?” distorted and warped sounds, atmospherics and pads that range from ethereal to scary, and even reversals that are intended to smooth over transitions but also work well for dance mixes and ambient music. It’s quite a lot, especially given around 50GB of uncompressed source data. And we haven’t even touched on the control options, which are considerable . . .
Loegria is a different kind of library; it’s more about performance than samples, and about having something you can use, easily, no matter what you’re called on to do. It’s very British, sometimes quirky, and creative. While I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it initially, Loegria has really grown on me for its unique— and truly inventive—qualities.
Action Strings is a sound library-meets-instrument (yes, you need to learn how to play it, although it’s not that difficult) that takes an inventive approach to string scoring. It’s basically a phrase player with real strings playing those
phrases, which greatly increases authenticity compared to trying to build phrases from individual elements; the reason it sounds like an orchestra playing phrases because it is an orchestra playing phrases.
There’s only one Kontakt instrument, but it offers 82 “themes” containing presets with five related phrases, and a total of 154 phrases. You pick a theme, then use ten keyswitches (with consistent placement from theme to theme) to call up various phrases on the fly. Although each theme loads five preset phrases, you can replace any of these, as well
as fill up five “user” slots, with any phrase from any category. In addition, all phrases were recorded with both near and far miking, and processing includes EQ, reverb, and on/off dynamics.
Another crucial element is mod wheel control, which adds expressiveness. Shifting your keyboard so the keyswitches are close to the mod wheel allows manipulating both, but I found it more effective to tie the mod wheel to a footpedal. The mod wheel’s importance increases because key velocity controls not traditional dynamics, but whether the phrase is major, minor, or plays a staccato note.
Action Strings is a special-purpose instrument that’s deliberately designed to focus on a single task—but does so extremely well, which greatly simplifies the process of creating a convincing string score.
Cinematic Guitars 2
This is a grand, inventive, stylish, and flexible library. Yes, it’s almost $400, but even at that price, I wonder if they’ll make back what must have gone into making a library with this level of quality and innovation.
Although based on guitar sounds, this is not a “guitar” library but rather an exploration of what can be coaxed from abused, caressed, and processed guitars. If you’re familiar with the AdrenaLinn Guitars sample library and Electronic Guitars Rapture expansion pack I did, just imagine them taken to an extreme (and quite possibly extra-terrestrial) degree, and you’ll have a rough idea of what’s going on.
Aside from the sounds themselves, which are brilliant, two features stand out. One is the set of Multis, which I consider “cat patches”: Even a cat walking across a keyboard will create useful results. The second, and more significant, feature is the extent to which Cinematic Guitars2 takes advantage of Kontakt’s processing and scripting options to allow for vast numbers of variations on a theme, including excellent exploitations of step sequencing—you can even step-sequence the Bypass function for strings of effects. It also includes tons of effects, clever use of tempo sync, and more.
This library is clearly not designed for keyboard players to add guitar parts to pop tunes, but for serious levels of both musical and atmospheric sound design—the term “cinematic” applies equally well to the intended usage as to the sounds. Cinematic Guitars2 is a pro-level tour de force; while it’s not priced as an impulse item, I think anyone who takes advantage of everything this epic library offers will find it provides an excellent return on investment.
ENGINE 2 LIBRARY
My previous library roundup covered some collections from Best Service, a company that distributes libraries as well as creates its own. The company’s custom playback engine, Engine 2, was designed by Magix (the company behind Samplitude) and works with AU/RTAS/VST, standalone, 32/64-bit. Engine currently includes several of its own effects, however the ability to host VST plug-ins and instruments is slated for a future update.
This isn’t Best Service’s latest library, but it’s unique: If you ever need to score something for the Discovery Channel, a travelogue to the rainforest, or similar scenes in any kind of video project—or you’re into ambient or chill music—this is a fantastic resource. Also, some of the ethnic percussion and melodic instruments can add exotic textures to many different kinds of music.
Its nearly 7GB library includes 200 patches and thousands of samples of ethnic instruments, but avoids the “Zamfir pan pipes” clichés and also includes a generous helping of nature sounds. The 19 audio examples online are very representative of what you can do with this library, so there’s no need to go into too much detail, other than to say make sure you read the documentation to find out which keyswitches are used for various instruments— they’re essential for obtaining extremely expressive sounds. This is a classy, useful library that’s unlike anything else in my collection.