Exotic, repurposed, and just plain twisted sample libraries for virtual instruments
The coupling of synthesizer architecture with sample playback makes any distinction between the two forms of sound creation useless. Modern samplers can re-synthesize, modulate, granulate, and warp sounds beyond recognition, producing timbres you’ve never heard before, albeit with a hint of something familiar.
This roundup covers recent libraries that represent the advanced state of sampling, encompassing a feature-rich synthesis architecture that is bolstered by powerful scripting and effects.
Big Fish Audio
You could be forgiven for thinking that most of Zodiac’s sounds derive from synthesizers. In reality, the sources for the library’s unearthly collection of pads, evolving soundscapes, melodic instruments, and percussive timbres come from found sounds, heavily processed musical instruments, recycled audio recordings, and other unusual sources. The result is an adventurous, and often breathtaking gathering of sounds ideally suited for cinematic scoring and ambient compositions.
Native Instruments’ Kontakt 5 hosts Zodiac, whose weathered, metallic, steampunk-influenced design proffers a modest but useful bunch of sliders for the amp envelope, tuning, reverb amount, delay, and bass and treble controls. A drop-down menu at the center of the user interface lets you select from 15 reverb presets of varying size and character.
Most of the action is in the samples themselves: autoharps, guitars, basses, and pedal-steel guitar are found alongside waterphones, soda cans, metal lampshades, gas cylinders, and tank drums. These are all plucked, bowed, tapped, and struck, yielding sounds that develop over time in ways that few synthesized sounds can. The patches divide into six categories: Pads and Atmospheres, Melodic Instruments, Percussive Instruments, Zodiac Kits, and Experimental-Atonal Instruments. There’s some functional overlap between pads and melodic instruments, but every instrument has its own personality, in some cases, evolving radically, over time.
With the exception of a few Velocity crossfades, the programming is relatively simple—no tempo-synced content or effects. The sounds and processing are allowed to speak for themselves, and that’s fine (although I suspect there is a bit of subtle scripting behind the scenes, as in the Water Gong melodic instrument, which has a beautiful downward pitch swoop that retains a relatively consistent rate across the keyboard map). In Bowed Acoustic Guitar, the low end sounds like arco bass, but it takes on an undulating, organ-like characteristic when played from the middle to the higher registers. And you will be surprised by the lively orchestral-ensemble qualities of the bowed and processed Dumpster Long Drone.
Big Fish Audio has done a stellar job: There is a wealth of fascinating musical and sonic territory to explore in Zodiac.
I’ll admit to being a bit suspicious when I first heard of a sample library based entirely on reversed sounds. After all, anyone with a computer and a basic set of audio tools can reverse a sample, right? As it turns out, there are many more facets to REV beyond sample reversal.
REV works with a different patch hierarchy from most Kontakt instruments. Load one of the four patches, and the main window will offer its own browser, with subdirectories of instruments immediately ready for loading. The four main categories are Instruments, Loops, Rises, and Timed Instruments. All of the Instruments and Timed Instruments folders consist of dual-layer presets, with a pull-down menu of interchangeable samples. The Main page and each layer have their own set of toggle switches, which align with triggered effects arrayed below the sample key maps. You can also assign MIDI Continuous Controllers (CC) to the switches.
Clicking on a Layer’s tab exposes a thorough complement of sound-sculpting tools: envelope generators, filter parameters, pitch-modulation parameters, and more. Clicking on a Layer’s waveform graphic mutes or enables it, so you can tweak the sound in isolation or in context. In short, it’s easy to get comfortable with the instrument simply by poking around, but if you need assistance, a click on the question-mark icon brings up an annotated image of the page you’re on, explaining most of what is visible.
The Loops section shows compatible fixed-pitch and tempo-synced, construction-kit-style loops arranged across the upper reaches of the keyboard. Two octaves of key switches in the left hand change pitch, adapting the predominantly tonal loops to chord changes. Each loop in the menu can be a different rhythm, so the potential for polyrhythms is great. At the upper right of the patch header, choose from an ample menu of effects, multiplying the versatility of any loop. Timed instruments are ideal for that reversed, sucked-backward effect, but with a twist: You can synchronize it to tempo, choosing whole, half, or quarter-note timing.
The sonic variety of the presets is impressive, with most of the patches geared toward tonal instruments and percussion, rather than special effects. The character of the sounds runs from smooth, animated, and lyrical to abrasive, startling, and attention getting. Timbres blend well and—despite plenty of sonic animation—allow room for other instruments without upstaging anything. In addition to cinematic applications, REV is an excellent collection for contemporary ambient musicians.
Camel Audio | Alchemy
Dream Voices and Water
Camel Audio’s Alchemy is a virtual instrument whose focus practically defines the theme of this roundup. Its factory soundset merges virtual analog synthesis with an assortment of instruments ranging from the conventional to a variety of bangs and scrapes. You can re-synthesize samples and play with the harmonic content, apply granular effects, and lots more, all through a ridiculously ample modulation matrix. Add your own samples or choose from a growing library of sounds and patches created by a roster of well-known sound designers. It was difficult to pick a single library, so I chose two—Dream Voices ($59) and Water ($59).
If you are expecting choirs and various permutations thereof, Dream Voices won’t disappoint. But there is far more here—unusual and exotic phrases; loops consisting of tempo-synced vowels; percussion derived from vocals; improvised utterances. These are worked into arpeggiators, pads, polysynths, and percussion kits—sometimes, several processes at once—thanks to the instrument’s four-oscillator architecture, and then woven into a single patch.
The overall scope of Dream Voices (and most of Alchemy’s libraries) runs from meat-and-potatoes patches to eerie soundscapes. One-Note Chord was one of my favorites: By moving through the remix pads (a matrix of eight squares with different modulation settings that you can mouse through), I morphed from tempo-synced quarter-note arpeggiations to a beautiful lead-synth tone, then into a Weather Report-style vocalese effect, reminiscent of the one used in “Badia.”
Water blends synthesizer waveforms with samples from frozen lakes, bathtubs, tidal pools, deep-sea recordings, and hydrophones. In many cases, the samples are edited to create attack transients for tonal patches, often providing an ethereal and sensual quality to the patch. At other times, the sounds loop and sustain, providing the high-end sparkle you’d find in classic digital synths such as the Korg M1, or endowing the patches with atonal, low-frequency atmospherics. Such is the case with the patch DeepCurrents23, which blends a smooth, hollow pad with two water sources and something that sounds like whale songs. Create eerie sweeps with this patch using the mod-wheel-activated comb filter.
Every Alchemy sound library has wonderful examples of audio that is repurposed and stretched beyond its limits. If you own Alchemy or the Alchemy Player, you owe yourself a visit to Camel Audio’s website, where you can download a nice representative collection of their libraries.
Complete Toy Museum
It doesn’t have any arpeggiators, processing, or one-finger wonders. Instead, with Complete Toy Museum, what you hear is what you get: faithfully reproduced toys in all of their cheesy finery. What you do with them, of course, is up to you.
The complete collection comprises two sets: Acoustic Toy Museum and Electric Toy Museum. The libraries are compatible with MOTU MachFive3 and BPM, and of course UVI’s own workstation.
Acoustic Toys includes folders of toy pianos and keys, tuned percussion, an assortment of toy guitars, music boxes, and assorted gadgets, blown instruments, wind-up and mechanical devices, toy drum kits, and a variety of baby toys, including rattles, bellows-driven animal boxes, and other novelties. Instrument subfolders subdivide into folders from different makes and models—each with several variants. For example, the Toy Guitar folder includes an instrument called Children’s Guitar, with Hard, Stereo, and Full versions. The Ancient Automates folder has mechanical bears and monkeys and subfolders of loop menus and special effects. I was pleasantly surprised by the overall sound of the drum kits and some very well-played loops, which are available in REX-file format and can be dragged into MIDI tracks. The Mini Drum Kit patch with a bit of reverb and small-room ambience sounded tremendously funky.
The Electric Toy Museum follows pretty much the same folder/subfolder hierarchy as its Acoustic companion. It is populated with Stylophones, cheap toy keyboards and samplers such as the Casio SK1, and a small handful of speaking devices, which were fun and hilarious. As realistic as they may be, I was disappointed by some of the toy synths, whose tones I could approximate on almost any synth.
By far, my favorites among the Electric Folder were from the Speech group, which offered phrases, animal sounds, numbers, words, and effects, alongside synthetic drum kits and loops. Add the processing capabilities of the UVI Workstation or MachFive 3, and there’s no telling how far you can take these unusual sounds.
It’s a little hard to believe that a sample collection of this depth and dimension was created by focusing on a single type of material, but Native Instruments did just that for this Kontakt 5 library. And, they fronted it with one of their most innovative and best-looking interfaces.
Kinetic Metal seamlessly and continuously convolves various types of metal—played and recorded in a variety of ways—with synthetic waveforms. Among many other things, metallic sources derive from a drawbridge, Korean drums, calligraphy equipment, rotary phones, running water in a metal drain, clockworks, typewriters, garbage cans, and current traveling through wire.
Kinetic Metal’s design invokes a steampunk-flavored alternate world, with its weathered, wood-and-metal skin peppered with virtual switches, illuminated buttons, and animated gears and levers. This is way more than eye candy, however; the user interface encourages experimentation. The large buttons let you shift between three programming pages—Forge, Motion, and FX.
Most of the activities you’ll perform with are on the Forge window. A pair of gears flank the Link and Motion switches, which engage the gears. The left-hand gear indicates modulation between the layers in the patch. On the right, the gear sweeps through effects parameters. With the Motion switch off, drag the Forge gear’s position to create a desired timbre, whereas a similar move with the FX gear will provide a fixed effects setting. With the motion switch on, the gears will sweep on their own, animating tones in exciting and often unpredictable ways. With the Link button engaged, the FX gear will follow the lead of the Forge.
The default instrument folder relies on the innate animation of the samples, but the real action lies within the Motion Enabled folder, where the presets animate the gears by virtue of LFOs and recorded motion. The metals scrape, swirl, and sing with harmonics and artifacts. Programming your own motions is a breeze, and the FX window avoids technical terms, instead providing levers to adjust such characteristics as Space, Mix, Spectrals, Modify, and Circulate. Just grab a lever and adjust the effect—it’s hard to come up with anything boring. The brilliant design and intriguing sounds make Kinetic Metal a must-have.
In Geosonics, Sonic Couture combines its sound-design skills with the work of renowned field recordist Chris Watson to create something altogether different. Imagine Australian outback ambiences that were recorded using contact mics attached to long stretches of vibrating wire, rather than miked in the normal way. Such sounds blend with synth waveforms in a robust and deep editing architecture using NI Kontakt.
Top-level folders are based mostly on environmental categories: Wire (recorded as previously described), Ice and Water, Swamps, Wind, and Original Recording Presets—which are single-oscillator instruments derived solely from the recordings. The latter provides a good starting point for building your own patches, or you can use the full-blown three-oscillator patches for inspiration.
With the exception of the Original Recordings folder, patches comprise a combination of an environmental recording and synthesized sources. Depending on the mode (focused or non-focused, activated by a central Focus button), the environmental samples follow the keyboard to sound more congruent to the pitched samples. Not all of the synthetic samples are static waveforms, either; many of them are endowed with graceful and subtle timbral and melodic motion. With Focus off, the pitched samples are muted and the environmental sounds are sliced and mapped across the keyboard, available for individual or group editing, including envelopes, effects, filter settings, and pitch. The parameters are accessible in either mode.
From the Options window, select the Jammer, which provides a sophisticated arpeggiator/step-sequencer hybrid. Choose from preset scales and patterns or record your own. Try it on patches with moderately slow envelopes to create amazing swirling textures. You can further edit the effects, including chorus, delay phase shifter, compression, saturation, and Spaces, which is a generous batch of reverb and environmental impulse responses, many of them taken from the field recordings.
It’s almost impossible for me to select my favorite patches among a collection where just about everything is breathtaking in one way or another. Imbued with imaginative sound design and virtually endless creative possibilities, Geosonics is a stunning palette for the ambient musician, film-score composer, or anyone in search of truly unique, unheard sonic territory.
The unusual instruments and sound sources in Morphestra Generations meld with conventional orchestral instruments, bringing a generous supply of creative and flexible user control to the party. Symphonic instruments mix it up with world percussion, voices, guitars, waterphones, animals, warehouses, tools, and machinery. Native Instruments’ Kontakt houses the original Morphestra library alongside the completely new Morphestra Generations library of samples and instruments. However, it offers a new playback engine with plenty of new material, and the original version is a welcome inclusion.
The new Multis alone are almost worth the price of admission; if you like patches with lots of motion, you’ve come to the right place. Multis break down into three folders: Construction Beds, Instrument Stacks, and One-Note Glory. As you can glean from the patch names, Morphestra’s scope is primarily cinematic. Eerie Flute Collective evokes a creepy Lovecraftian cavern, complete with fluttering, bat-like sounds and mournful, swooping pitches bathed in a cavernous reverb. Instrument Stacks are all about patch layering, and here, Morphestra takes good advantage of its built-in sequencers and its arpeggiator, which combines traditional arpeggiation with polyphonic, rhythmic gating. For example, Molding The Future builds delightful polyrhythmic patterns and adds dancing, tempo-synced sounds that evolve over synchronized rhythms and drones. Be sure to check out Crystal Treasures, which offers eleventh-chord pad and sequenced bellchime motifs that elicit a powerful atmosphere of wonder.
There’s lots of room to get creative from patch to Multi, with step sequencers that can play note or modulation choices, a generous assortment of triggered effects, deep editing, and a nicely designed user interface that doesn’t get in the way. Morphestra Generations is a powerful and inspiring instrument.
Marty Cutler’s music draws from decades of experience as a bluegrass banjo player and electronic musician. He has worked with everyone from Tex Logan and Peter Rowan to Twyla Tharp and Saturday Night Live.