SwarPlug VSTi/AU: Hindusthani & Carnatic

Let me start straight and tell you, I know nothing about making Indian (as in from India) music. By referring to it as Indian music I betray myself (“I know how to make American music”?). Anyway, I have a healthy appreciation for musical styles originating from the Indian subcontinent and surrounding regions and the possibility of including a little of that, ahem, flavor to my work is exciting. Not just dumping some samples of a tabla on a track, but actually having some reference and guidelines to work with; someone who actually knew how to play these things giving me pointers on how they could be used. Yes, now that’s an idea; an idea had by the fine folks at SwarSystems.
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SwarPlug is an integrated VST/AU sample based instrument. The full version ships with 49 instruments (or slightly less depending on whether you count multiple versions of the same instrument . . . I don’t) which cover the percussive, the melodic, and the drone-ical, as well as vocal samples for emphasis. SwarPlug also ships with (and here’s the key selling point for me) SwarLibrarian, a Java Runtime loop-browser/player, which is used to sift through the over 1,000 MIDI loops (organized by instrument, style, and time signature) that round out the SwarPlug package and really set it apart from its sample CD rivals.


The fact that I am creating a heading for Installation should alert you to the fact that there are problems here. I’m running a Mac G4 laptop, 10.4.2, and have a copy of the software that was packaged for review that is missing some of the documentation. You may not have the same issues on your PC or your retail copy of the software, but I had loads of problems. Starting with having a hard time copying the files over from the disc and uncompressing their installer (10 minutes to unstuff a 217MB file, weird). Also, once it was installed, I tried to use it as a plug-in in Live, and it couldn’t find the files it needed. I figured out that SwarPlug wanted some of its files to live in both the application’s folder and somewhere in the system folder. Instead of copying all these files into the system I ended up creating a UNIX symbolic link to point to them . . . so no, not an easy installation by any means.


I was really excited to get started with these samples, so I fired up the SwarLibrarian to hear what was on offer. The first thing I noticed was that the interface was a little confounding and the performance was buggy and quite slow, on my Mac anyway . . . Windows users? However, the nail in the proverbial SwarLibrarian coffin is twofold: Firstly MIDI speed is not constant (the speed of the loops varies greatly as the loop plays . . . maybe by 25%+/- . . . severe stuff) and, secondly, you cannot change the default MIDI tempo, making it hard to tell what some of these sequences are supposed to sound like because they’re playing at half-speed. I tried to improve the performance of the app by quitting all other applications and killing all unnecessary background processes, including all file sharing and Dashboard, to no avail. I checked the SwarSystems website (swarsystems.com/) and found there is a different set of MIDI files depending on what version of the Java Runtime Environment you are running. . . . The new files improved performance somewhat but I lost the visual representation of the MIDI loop data, which made it slightly more confusing to figure out how a sequence was constructed and generally made the app less appealing to my aesthetic tastes (um, yea) . . . but I’ll take the speed bump. Sigh.


. . .And so into the fray. Using Ableton Live as a host, I instantiated the AU version and, after some problems finding the necessary files (see above), I got started. Not surprisingly, Live proved far more effective as a MIDI file browser than SwarLibrarian, though I sorely missed the functionality of just being able to click on a loop and getting to hear it play with the correct sample right away. I selected the Nagra sample set in SwarPlug, dragged out a Nagra MIDI loop from the browser, started Live running and . . . Oof! WHY, WHY, WHY, WHY? Ok, two things.

1) Nagra MIDI clips are set to load MIDI preset 7, the chimta sample set, instead of 29, the actual location of the Nagra preset in SwarPlug. This issue is repeated throughout the MIDI library, with no obvious pattern that I can discern.

2) Loops from this library have a half note pause at the beginning of each loop, meaning that before I can start a loop playing, I have to edit its start point or it’s out of time with the rest of a session. Taken together, these problems ensure I will NEVER be able to just throw a Swar loop into Live while playing, ah, live and start working with it . . . I suppose that I can edit all the loops I might want to use to call the correct MIDI preset and set their loop points a half note in, but that’s something fairly unlikely to happen.

Despite my complaints though, I love SwarPlug. The reason: It really does sound excellent and the loops, while requiring some wrangling, are a great resource in figuring out just how to use all these great sounds. Maybe it’s a good thing that the loops aren’t so easy to use, music being 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, right?

The Instruments of SwarPlug (in non-preferential alphabetical order):

Banjo, Bansuri, Chende, Chimta, Dhol, Dholak, Dimdi, Dollu, Duff, Duggis, Ghat Singhari, Ghatam, Guitar, Gunghroo, Harmonium, Israj, Kanjeera, Kappi Mridangam, Konnakol, Manjeera, Morsing, Mridangam, Naal, Nadaswaram, Nagara, Pakhawaj, Santoor, Sarangi, Sargam, Sarod, Shehnai, Sitar, Tabla, Tabla Bols, Tam-bourines, Tamte, Tanpura, Tavil, Tudd, Tumbak, Tumbi, Udukke, Veena