MAKE IT REAL > Steinberg Virtual Bassist, like the company''s Virtual Guitarist and Groove Agent 2 plug-ins, combines gigabytes of human-played source material, component modeling and an intuitive user interface to deliver realistic-sounding performances.
During the past three years, Steinberg has been carefully assembling its own little virtual band, the members of which are all done rehearsing and finally ready to make a record together. The group's bio could be that of any band brought together through common interests. Essentially designed to work together, Groove Agent 2, Virtual Guitarist and Virtual Bassist have many design commonalities. Each is available as VST, DXi, AU and ReWire plug-ins, and Groove Agent 2 and Virtual Bassist provide additional stand-alone operation. Virtual Bassist and Groove Agent 2 also require that a Steinberg USB copy-protection key be installed for license authentication. Customers not already in possession of a Steinberg key as part of another company product (such as Cubase SX or Nuendo) must purchase one separately for about $25 before they can launch the software. A handy License Control Center application that installs with the software allows you to store and transfer multiple Steinberg licenses onto one key.
System requirements on PC and Macintosh are essentially identical for all three plug-ins, though what are stated as minimum requirements on the box won't get you very far once you factor in a host application. The test bed for this review was a Windows XP Pentium 4/3.2GHz with 2 GB of RAM, running Nuendo 3 as VST host, and a nice big storage drive for all of the sample files. The installers are kind enough to auto-locate your plug-in folder or folders as well as provide the option of choosing where you want the large sound files to go. This is certainly appreciated, as Virtual Guitarist, alone, comes with a hefty 1.6GB sample library, and I'd hate to clutter my application partition with that.
SETTING A GROOVE
Groove Agent 2 is an intelligent drum machine intended to parlay the awesome beat-programming skills of its producers into your tracks with minimal fuss and in a mind-boggling array of styles. Just like the early days of drum machines, when exotic musical styles like rumba and bossa nova were featured next to disco and rock, GA2 offers instant gratification and inspiration by cramming thousands of custom MIDI patterns into an interface whose simplicity belies its expressive potential.
Across the top is perhaps the most important asset of the entire instrument, the Style slider and timeline. This spans six decades of music, including the swing, cha-cha and fox trot of the 1950s; the deep backbeat funk sounds of the '60s; the disco and electro boogie of the '70s; the synth pop, arena rock and early techno and rap of the '80s and '90s; and the current club and ambient stylings of today — and everything perceivably in between. Some of the style names above the top slider are colored differently to indicate substyles; 27 additional styles new to GA2 have been tucked there to keep the interface small and tidy. There are more than 70 styles in all.
Every style has its own carefully crafted drum kit assigned to it, which, by default, loads with the style selection. By clicking on the Link button to the left of the slider, however, you can detach the upward-pointing style pointer from the downward-pointing kit pointer, making it possible to play, for example, a jazz beat with a techno-style drum kit. This sounds silly on paper, but more often than not, the results were pretty damn cool and invigorating. Just below this is the Complexity slider, a wonderfully implemented tool that essentially allows you to try out different beat variations within a given style simply by moving the slider back and forth. On its far left are the simpler levels of complexity — named A, B, C, D and E — which are typically bare-bones versions of the main beat and often missing critical elements such as a kick, a snare or a few beats. These, of course, are ideal for song intros, arrangement builds and so on. Move the slider farther to the right, though, and you mimic a mix engineer unmuting all sorts of additional percussion, pattern variations and flourish tracks that the drummer originally recorded. There are 25 variations for each style, and they get busier the farther you move to the right. This provides an exciting and quick way to toss things up in a song once you've found a style you like. Hitting the Fill button will trigger the default fill associated with the pattern variation you've chosen. Again, a Link button to the left of the Complexity slider allows you to break the two halves of the slider and independently move the fill-complexity pointer along the bottom half. Potentially, you can have a rather laid-back beat with a wacko-style fill or vice versa. A nice new feature in GA2 is the ability to make a track instantly sound lighter by replacing snare with sidestick, using the provided toggle switch. Controls to trigger accents, half-tempo feel, and random pattern and fill variations are also provided. You can create in-the-pocket grooves using Shuffle and Humanize, and I loved how the Ambience control knob dialed in wet variations of the kits. These sounded rich and wonderful because they were real, not processed — having been recorded for each kit and style at varying microphone distances and with overhead mics.
A large green LCD shows general playback information, including internal (stand-alone mode) or host-sync tempo, the recommended tempo range of the currently selected style, the number of the pattern or fill currently playing and more.
Groove Agent kits are divided into eight editing paths or groups — kick, snare, tom, hat, ride, crash, percussion group 1 and percussion group 2 — each of which can be muted or soloed for tweaking. By clicking on the Edit button, a whole matrix of knobs pulls up beside the LCD for controlling velocity scaling, tuning (as much as an octave up or down), decay, ambience and volume for each instrument path individually. Each group can be assigned to any of eight available stereo outputs for external processing within your host.
GUITAR FOR DUMMIES
Like Groove Agent 2, Virtual Guitarist is an intelligent instrument that combines impressively advanced chord analysis with a lightning-fast performance engine that updates playback in real time to reflect parameter control changes that can be fed to it live or with a MIDI sequencer. Technically, Virtual Guitarist is really two discrete plug-in instruments, one for acoustic and one for electric rhythm-guitar styles. Each instrument comes with a handful of playing styles, called Players, that range from (acoustic) modern pop, rudimentary blues, traditional nylon string played with fingers, rolling blues, American country, folk, mellow rhythmic pop and so on to (electric) pop, rock, ska/reggae, smooth jazz, '50s rock, punk, British rock, American alternative, super heavy and more. There are 27 Players in all (14 acoustic, 13 electric), and each has eight different Parts.
A Part is a phrasing variation (picking or strumming) that's been created by rearranging the individual beats that make up a pattern when played back. This is possible because of the way that the phrases have been sampled and edited in the first place. You see, the recordings are not of single-note samples — which would sound extremely artificial — but based on a huge library of varied real-life performances by extremely talented guitarists. The 1.6GB library holds a ridiculous number of possible combinations and permutations of strums, riffs, arpeggios, fills and more, each of which has been isolated and can be maneuvered in real time by the playback engine to fit any number of grooves and tempo.
Users have several ways of playing VG. You can either play complete chords, which VG will do its best to automatically recognize, or feed it single-note input to which the intelligent chord-recognition system applies best-suited voicings. You can vary the expression using keyboard velocity, MIDI controllers, the sustain pedal and program changes. Alternatively, you can program chords and other MIDI events directly from your sequencer. Switching between parts while you play doesn't cause any glitches, and every new strumming and picking pattern comes in right on time without missing a beat.
Again, VG benefits from a friendly GUI with quickly accessible Play and Setup pages by clicking on patch plugs atop the guitar. The interface layout for both the acoustic and electric versions is nearly identical. On the Play page are various real-time controls for Tempo (Half, Normal, x2), Shuffle (50 to 67 percent), Timing (Tight to Loose), pattern Latch (on/off), Dynamics and Decay. Turning Latch mode off was cool for adding quick licks and fills here and there, and the Decay knob sets the decay time of the individual beats, enabling the guitar track to sound more staccato or more legato.
I wasn't impressed by the sound of the Decay knob when set to shorter values, as it produced an obvious (and fake-sounding) volume-enveloped truncation of a full and long strum. For a more realistic result, I'd preferred to have seen shorter samples crossfaded in as you dial the knob. There are also several controls for shaping the tone of the guitars, including a brilliant-sounding Doubling switch (which plays back two separately recorded doubled takes), a Stereo Width knob, a Low Cut filter and an Enhancer. The electric version adds the ability to select pickup position and replaces the Low Cut and Enhancer knobs with a Presence control instead.
On the Setup page, global controls are provided along with settings for responsiveness to expression inputs such as vibrato control (aftertouch by default), fill trigger (mod wheel), fret noise and chord-change quantize value. The latter represents the position in the bar where Virtual Guitarist will make a chord change — on a whole note, half note, quarter note or off. A Velocity switch allows you to set the threshold at which you can trigger syncopations or accents in pattern playback. You can also play very long chords by holding down the sustain pedal — the stronger your keystroke, the heavier the sustained chord. Very cool.
Virtual Bassist isn't all that different in concept from Virtual Guitarist except that, instead of playing chord patterns, it plays melodic phrases. Again, tracks were recorded by living bass players in 30 different musical styles, and they have been specially edited to provide as many as 13 parts and six fills per style. There are several ways to play VB, including entering notes and MIDI events from your host, but the most typical is to play chords and notes in real time from your keyboard, where two distinct zones have been created and are used for different purposes.
The keys between C1 and B2 are declared the Remote Range, and they trigger parts, fills, single-note mode, part start and stop, and a few other useful features. When single-note mode is activated, any MIDI notes or chords played in the Pitch Range will produce a single sustained bass note. Ending notes can also be triggered anywhere from one bar in length or until you release the key. Keys between C3 and B4 represent the Pitch Range, and they control the pitch of the played parts, fills or single notes. In this range, you can play notes or chords, and Virtual Bassist will intelligently follow your playing. Hit a key hard (with velocity greater than 125) in this range, and you'll trigger an eighth-note or quarter-note accent to the bass line. Although I did say that Virtual Bassist isn't about playing chords, that's not entirely accurate. You can toggle between whether a part will play melodic bass lines or the rhythmic pattern of the part using only the root keys of the note or chord chosen in the Pitch Range.
Virtual Bassist benefits from three distinct and cleanly laid-out screens. As with Virtual Guitarist, you set all of the general playing parameters of the instrument, load and save styles and parts and so on in the Play page. A bass-guitar graphic allows you to flip a toggle switch to select either a four-string or a five-string model to play, as well as position of the pickup and adjustment of Volume, Tone, Attack and Damp settings. A panel of quick controls beside the bass allows you to change the speed of the pattern playback (½, 1, 2); set Latch or Retrig(ger) mode; and adjust Swing, Variance (similar to Humanize) and Early/Late amounts. The large bass-selector dial provides you with the unique ability to hone the basic guitar sound from that of a Vintage Motown-style bass with flat-wound strings or classic '70s rock and pop to a Modern bass with active pickups. You can even adjust Fret Noise and Fret Buzz from comfortably occasional (Mid) to frequent but not overbearing (Full) or off completely. The Groove Match page allows you to adapt existing grooves as well as edit parts and fills in a piano-roll-style editor.
The third page, called Amp & FX, resembles a bass player's effects-board setup and houses all of the fun stuff. Across the top is a switchable solid-state/tube amp with controls for Drive, EQ and Master (gain). Beneath the amp is a collection of six stompbox-style effects pedals (including Wah, Fuzz, Stereo Compressor, Stereo Chrous/Flanger, BassTremolo and Octaver); an FX Routing display; and an output cabinet with selectable speaker configurations, microphones and mic positioning, as well as a slider to crossfade any mix of direct input and speaker signal for final output. Talk about choices! And a really nice treat is that the entire amp and effects board has been provided as a separate VST plug-in for use on its own with other tracks or instruments within your host.
Live control is a paramount consideration throughout all three instruments. Nearly every part, performance parameter, sound and tone is controllable by means of either MIDI program-change messages or MIDI notes, ensuring that they never sound mechanical or stereotypical of auto-accompaniment — style programs. GA2 proved to be a lot of fun not only as a main groove maker but also as an experimental mechanism for beat design. Pushing the Complexity slider to its farthest reaches proved fruitful in creating some crazy stylings that I eventually sampled and imported into a sampler for further editing and spot placement in my DAW. In reality, I used GA2 more as a beat-making sound-design tool than a generator of my main rhythm tracks, though it certainly excels at that, as well.
Another feature of Groove Agent that I made rigorous use of is its ability to spit out MIDI notes to Cubase or Nuendo. GA2's samples are primo across the board, but there's nothing like being able to switch out a questionable sound or two with killer ones of your own or routing the entire groove for playback on one of your favorite outboard modules. Although I did not test this with other VST hosts, the manual was skeptical about this feature working on anything other than Steinberg products, as the company claims GA2 to be the first plug-in to route MIDI in this fashion.
I was equally impressed by the realistic-sounding results obtained from Virtual Bassist and Virtual Guitarist pairing up with each other. Between the tweakable nature of Virtual Bassist's bass tones and groove editor, not to mention colorful amp and effects, there wouldn't be too many instances that I would be afraid of holding it up against a live bass player on a track. Likewise, Virtual Guitarist can range from loose strumming and open-sounding acoustic fingerpicking — ideally suited for pop, folk, country and Americana — to driving electric pop, funky wah-wah and chunky hard rock.
You can use as many instances of the plugs as your computer and RAM can tolerate. Typical loads consume 70 to 100 MB of memory per plug-in. CPU consumption per plug-in is actually quite low. All three running simultaneously on my P4/3.2 rarely added more than 10 percent to the CPU overhead.
AND I'LL PLAY KEYS
On their own or as a trio, Steinberg's virtual band members are undeniably fun to use and, somewhat surprisingly for software that at first glance looks merely like auto-accompaniment, truly represents competent songwriting and recording buddies. The technicalities of the packages are pretty much faultless, and Steinberg has done a fantastic job in making the function and form downright breathtaking. I suppose that my only reservations are that some of the Virtual Guitarist players can sound a wee bit cliché in their hooks and riffs and that the styles lean pretty heavily toward the traditional Americana. I'd love to have seen more ethnic, crossover and contemporary styles, as well as more progressive-sounding part variations. The same can be said about Virtual Bassist and Groove Agent 2, for that matter.
But thanks to their intelligent nature, these plug-ins far exceed the possibilities of any static, or even ReCycled, construction-kit-style sample libraries by being capable of working into a song's arrangement from front to end — as well as every little nuance, turnaround and solo in between.
GROOVE AGENT 2 > $299.99
VIRTUAL BASSIST > $299.99
VIRTUAL GUITARIST > $249.99
Pros: Great-sounding, well-performed source material. User-friendly interfaces. Wide variety of styles, rhythms and fills in all three.
Cons: VG styles lean toward cliché.
Mac: G4/867; 384 MB RAM; Mac OS 10.3 or higher; Core Audio — compatible hardware; VST2 or AU host; USB port; Steinberg USB license key
PC: Athlon or Pentium/800; 384 MB RAM; Windows XP; MME- or ASIO-compatible hardware; VST2 or DXi2 host; USB port; Steinberg USB license key