It's not too difficult to find good acoustic guitar samples. But authentic, high-quality sounds for bluegrass and folk music are in relatively short supply.
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Sonic Reality Sonic Refills Volume 12: Acoustic Folk offers samples of acoustic string instruments tailored for use in the Propellerhead Reason NN-XT sampler.

It's not too difficult to find good acoustic guitar samples. But authentic, high-quality sounds for bluegrass and folk music are in relatively short supply. Sonic Reality Sonic Refills Volume 12: Acoustic Folk ($49.95) for Propellerhead Reason does a terrific job of filling that void. The CD-ROM holds 98 MB of 16-bit, 44.1 kHz samples for Reason's NN-XT sampler, as well as a Resources folder with 288 MB of additional files in WAV format.

To install the sounds, just drag the Refill file to the appropriate folder on your hard drive. To load the sounds into Reason, select the NN-XT sampler from the Create menu, navigate the instrument's browser to the newly installed file, and pick an instrument. Subsequent clicks on the browser present a drop-down menu of all available patches in the Refill file. The separate Resources folder holds subfolders of samples for each instrument, and the sample file names have pitch information. Other than that, there is no documentation, except for a PDF that lists credits and installation instructions.

Most of the patches are variations of the instruments and feature multiple Velocity crossfades with ancillary performance artifacts, such as finger-slide noise and fret squeaks. In a few instances (as with the mandolin patch) the set has a minimal number of samples stretched in a single layer across the keyboard.

Chop Shop

The banjo samples are nicely recorded, have a generous loop length, and originate from a high-quality instrument. Most banjo samples I have heard sound like cheap instruments with more inharmonic junk than fundamental. This batch is deep, rich, and plunky without sacrificing high end. In contrast, the banjolin samples accurately convey the brassy, more percussive, and ever-so-slightly out-of-tune quality of this comparatively obscure instrument — great for jug band and old-timey string-band arrangements.

The only fiddle patches available are either too short or the attack is too slow. A quick tweak of the NN-XT envelope generators solve the problem. An additional stroke of the bow in the sample makes this a great patch for bluegrass fiddle, because the second bowing is preceded by a nice volume swell. That allowed me to spin off rapid-fire fiddle solos with more expressiveness on sustained notes (see Web Clip 1).

In the context of a bluegrass band, the mandolin needs to “chop” a staccato chord and get out of the way with a minimum of ringing. Although the mandolin patch lingers longer than necessary, a quick tweak of the release stage makes this issue moot. The instrument sounds great, but suffers due to stretching a considerably lower sample count than most of the other instruments. I would gladly sacrifice the banjo and fiddle loops (which are mostly cliché-ridden and have no tempo information) for a more generous range of samples for mandolin.

Among the guitar patches, Acoustic Folk is a standout with nice Velocity crossfades and fret-squeak release loops. Acoustic Bass is an acoustic bass guitar — as opposed to the Upright bass patches — which features a generous samplemap. The uprights work fine within a folk music context: no fancy finger vibrato at the tail, just solid pizzicato samples for accompaniment.

Steeling Away

Although the pedal-steel guitar isn't an acoustic instrument, I welcome its inclusion. Sonic Reality does a solid job in providing a variety of articulations, including picked notes with and without slides into the target pitch and notes played with a volume pedal. The patches don't account for the steel's ability to bend groups of notes upward and downward simultaneously, but that is easily accomplished with a second instance of the patch.

The Dobro is represented by a fine set of rich, resonant, and slightly metallic-sounding samples. Here, the set of instrumental phrases works better, because most are played rubato and are therefore not tempo-dependent.

The package also has several decent drum kits, including brushed samples. The kits balance nicely with the stringed instruments, although I'd be hard-pressed to shoehorn some of the kit variants that have synthy, resonant filter settings into folk arrangements.

Folked Up

These aren't the only instruments in the collection. You also get a steam calliope, harmonicas (with a terrific bass harmonica), a mountain dulcimer, and a harmonium (with a separate batch of pump-noise samples). All of the sounds are well balanced and work nicely in ensemble arrangements.

Despite a few minor cautions, the Sonic Refills Vol. 12: Acoustic Folk collection is a terrific value. These instruments are the new go-to sounds for my bluegrass and folk tracks.

Overall EM Rating (1 through 5): 4
Sonic Reality, Inc./M-Audio (distributor)
tel.: (800) 969-6434 or (626) 633-9050