Vital Arts Plectrum (Bonus)

Of all the great groove busters of modern-day music technology, copy protection can be the worst. Understand that I don''t endorse software piracy, but the Syncrosoft hardware dongle is to software piracy what homeland security is to terrorism
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This online bonus material supplements the review of Vital Arts Plectrum in the February 2008 issue of Electronic Musician.

Synchronicity

Of all the great groove busters of modern-day music technology, copy protection can be the worst. Understand that I don''t endorse software piracy, but the Syncrosoft hardware dongle is to software piracy what homeland security is to terrorism: it seems to intrude more on those it''s trying to protect than those it''s trying to stop.

I have few if any problems with my Syncrosoft dongles on my Mac, but the moment I need to use them on my Toshiba laptop, all hell breaks loose. When I first installed Plectrum, I couldn''t load the samples. Instead, I was greeted by a message that said the Syncrosoft License Control Center couldn''t find a license for the product—even though it was preinstalled. I tried to reseat the dongle in the hub, but I would receive the same message. I was subsequently barraged by a series of messages offering second attempts at loading the plug-in with the admonition that choosing otherwise would crash the program (and it often did), followed by several other messages asking if I wanted to report the problem to Microsoft. The end result was that I wasn''t going to be making sweet music with this baby anytime soon. After several attempts at reseating the hub, I was finally able to load Plectrum, although the problem resurfaced occasionally when I accidentally jarred the dongle or the hub.

The problem is not an issue particular to Plectrum (other than an unfortunate copy-protection choice). My Korg Legacy Edition plug-ins (also protected by Syncrosoft) routinely throw fits when I attempt to start Ableton Live or Cakewalk Sonar for Windows. If I neglect to insert the dongle, or leave it in my Mac, Windows software hosts come down like a house of cards on startup, rather than simply offering not to load the plug-in. This difficulty isn''t a Mac-versus-PC issue; it''s a Syncrosoft problem with Windows plug-ins. I have several programs that use iLok schemes, and they are robust across platforms.

Doesn''t most copy-protection hardware justify the extra (and extramusical) intrusion by enabling your application''s use on any computer with a USB slot? If copy protection is a necessary practice, companies should strive to make it transparent and allow me to do my job without frustration, and without holding my muse hostage.

An Interview with Geoffrey Gee

Plectrum is more than just the brainchild of Geoffrey Gee; he also created the sound library and voiced the instruments. I spoke with him about his sampling and voicing techniques.

EM: Could you elaborate a bit more on the sampling and voicing processes for these instruments? In my review, I commented on a patch with an inverted attack-rate response to Velocity.

GG: For the Jar Attack Piano, the piano was played normally and then a piece of glass was gently touched to the vibrating string. Of course as soon as contact happens, there''s chaos on the string, which in turn reverberates throughout the entire soundboard because the dampers are up. There''s a natural envelope to this effect, and I trimmed the samples at points closer and further from the peak, and later voiced them as a function of Velocity. Thank you for noticing this stuff!

EM: Many of the sound sources such as ceramics and metal objects must be difficult to shape into tempered scales over several octaves, and yet all of the formants and transients sound natural and not pitch-shifted.

GG: It was mainly a yield thing. I took a large number of samples and sorted and picked sets that worked together well. This took some time. There is pitch-shifting, but that''s the only synthesis going on. The samples were taken at high rates, and when they''re transposed down, some of the superhigh partials come down into the musical range, creating these imaginary but acoustic timbres. A violin would just sound wrong transposed down, but a glass vessel just sounds bigger! Glass seemed to produce the most recognizable spectra, and I got lots of different sets. Ceramics have a totally different harmonic profile, and I had a lower yield there, but they''re very pretty. With the metals, you''re right—tuning was difficult!

I began the project with a clear idea of the instruments I wanted to create, and the results really exceeded my expectations.

EM: The gorgeous sound of Plectrum''s instruments makes it more tempting for me to want to get in there and tweak envelopes and the like. Was there a conscious decision to limit user access?

GG: This [the sound quality] was the No. 1 design goal for the project. Regarding programmability, the limitations are there partly to protect the integrity of the sound, and partly to protect the player''s experience and focus it on actually playing the instruments.

The Giga engine does offer filters, envelopes, and other synthesis features, but for Plectrum very little is used. In fact, except for the occasional synth pad, there are no synth envelopes or filters of any kind. This is what makes Plectrum sound so purely acoustic—it is! I had found that adding even subtle filtering caused the acoustic magic to disappear. Like spilling water on a painting not yet dry, it had a pretty color, but the detail got lost. Usability was also an issue. The instrument layouts in Plectrum are quite complex and would require some effort in a complicated editor for the user to properly tweak things. I wanted the player''s experience to be simple and pleasant, and focused on playing.