Vital Arts Plectrum presents a very simple user interface. You load sounds from the categories on the left, and you adjust volume and tuning (the only user parameters) on the right.
The secret of sampling's longevity is not just how realistically it can reproduce instruments such as drums and piano, but also that any sound you can record is fair game for musical application. Sampling technology has given us wonderful instruments created from found objects like plastic tubing and resonant pieces of metal culled from scrap heaps. We've also seen terrific sound libraries developed from traditional instruments played using unorthodox techniques. We don't often hear such collections, because some techniques are difficult to perform in real time, and most require voicing and tuning to conform to conventional tunings.
Vital Arts Plectrum ($299) focuses on beautiful-sounding instruments with origins in found sources such as glass, ceramics, and metal, as well as guitar and piano strings, played using a variety of techniques: strumming, striking with mallets, flicking with the back of the fingernail, and even making objects collide with other objects. The resulting sounds have a familiar overall acoustic timbre, albeit with unusual overtones and attacks or a touch of chaotic resonance.
Plectrum is powered by Tascam's GVI sample-playback engine (a pared-down spin-off of GigaStudio). At the time of my review, Plectrum was available as a standalone, VSTi, and RTAS instrument for Windows XP (SP2) only, although a Mac OS X version should be available by the time you read this. The instrument comes with a preauthorized copy-protection dongle from Syncrosoft. Installation was easy; however, I was constantly flummoxed by the copy protection (for details, see the online bonus material at www.emusician.com).
Simple Player, Supple Samples
Plectrum's interface could hardly be simpler. A vertical array of panels on the interface's left-hand side groups instrument categories in banks by materials and how they're played: ceramics, glass, metal, strummed or struck piano or guitar strings, and others. Clicking on any panel's triangular button opens its bank of instrument patches. Once you load a patch from a bank, you can quickly access any instrument in its category by using up and down arrows to the right of the currently loaded patch's name. On the right side of the window are sliders for volume and tuning, Plectrum's only editable parameters.
The instruments are well programmed, and Plectrum behaves remarkably like an acoustic instrument, belying its electronic source. Meticulous round-robin programming and Velocity switching can take any single note through plenty of realistic variations that are often difficult to predict — not only timbral changes, but also pitch-shifts, often with pronounced but natural-sounding differences in overtone content (see Web Clip 1).
One of my favorite instruments was Jar Attack Piano, in which the strings in a piano harp are struck with and vibrate against a glass jar, providing an unusual, vaguely glassy front end to a beating, barrelhouse piano sound (see Web Clip 2). Using a sustain pedal lets the ambience of the samples bloom beautifully (Plectrum has no built-in reverb or any other effects). There are several variant patches, including one bolstered by a synth pad, and others that appear to have the attack rate subtly inverted with higher Velocities.
Equally beautiful are the ceramic instruments, with an appealing, mildly out-of-tune sound and a decidedly nondiatonic batch of found objects, scrapes, collisions, and stretched and bowed strings. Taps, Metals, GenPad is a gorgeous percussive combination of piano strings struck by a metallic object, along with a subtly blooming pad.
Plunk in A
Some of the sounds seemed like perfect candidates for playing with the Starr Z7s guitar controller, whose fret buttons can serve as drum-trigger pads. The controller's preset was programmed to transmit over MIDI channel 10, but I could find no way to set Plectrum's receiving MIDI channel — only the port from which it would receive data. This was a problem only when Plectrum was in standalone mode, but it is one that should be remedied.
I wish the manual provided more information on the instrument sampling and voicing. There is tremendous musicality behind the sound design, but the instrument shell is completely opaque. Fortunately, you can read about some of developer Geoffrey Gee's sampling and voicing techniques at www.emusician.com (see the online bonus material).
Anyone inspired to alter or edit the samples from such compelling sources as those offered by Plectrum will be frustrated. Many sample libraries paired with players offer access to envelope generators, resonant filters, and other processing. I hope that future updates will provide more user access. Even so, Plectrum is brilliant in concept and execution, and I recommend it to anyone who needs to be reminded of the truly wonderful things you can do with samplers.
Value (1 through 5): 3
Vital Arts/Ilio (distributor)