ZERO-G Beats Working in Cuba

Every regional style has its adherents, but besides authenticity, the most important elements in a sample library of ethnic music is recording quality,
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Every regional style has its adherents, but besides authenticity, the most important elements in a sample library of ethnic music is recording quality, attitude, and a lively groove. Zero G Beats Working in Cuba ($299.95) offers all of that in spades and provides a focused set that goes well beyond mere textbook folkloric authenticity.

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Zero-G Beats Working in Cuba captures lively, authentic Cuban-style percussion performances.

Three DVD-ROMs comprise the package: two DVDs hold roughly eight and a half GB of 24-bit, 44.1 kHz loops and include the Native Instruments Intakt instrument plug-in as a playback medium. The third DVD is a short film outlining the project.

Intakt supports VST 2.0, DXi, ASIO, Audio Units, Core Audio, and RTAS. I used it as an Audio Units plug-in with Apple Logic 7.1.1 and MOTU Digital Performer 4.6, and tried it as a VST plug-in using Ableton Live 5.02. My computer was a dual-processor, 1.42 GHz Power Mac running OS X 10.3.9. Once you have completed the installation process, you invoke the registration tool, which identifies and authorizes the host computer and provides an authorization key. The process is quick and painless.

Sweet Beats

Using Intakt, the sound set gains considerably more flexibility than you'd have with a simple collection of loops to drop into tracks. Intakt lets you divide a loop into slices so you can reorder them, change the timing and dynamics, reverse samples, apply DSP, and lots more. As with a sampler, grooves are mapped to note numbers, and MIDI notes trigger the grooves. Furthermore, the plug-in provides a basic subtractive-synthesis engine with two multimode filters, envelope generators for amplitude and filters, two synchronizing LFOs, and three effects: Lo-Fi, distortion, and delay. At first, I questioned the absence of reverb, but the room ambience enveloping the percussion recordings imparts a beautiful, natural quality that makes further treatment unnecessary. If you want, you can assign loops to one of the plug-in's eight stereo outputs for additional processing, but you'll do yourself a disservice if you don't at least audition the grooves without effects.

The grooves are the most masterful examples of the styles I've yet to hear outside of live performances. As with a fine ensemble film cast, the musicians form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, with plenty of playful rhythmic interaction. These are not sterile grooves with formal, soulless note-for-note replications. Players push and pull each other within a clearly defined stylistic and rhythmic framework, providing plenty of propulsion (see Web Clip 1). According to the DVD movie, several of the players have worked together for years, and it shows.

The 18 styles represented include Bolero, Mambo, Guaracha, Pilon, Son Montuno, and Songo, each with more than 20 variations. (Think of each variation as a patch, and each style as a bank.) The samples consist of 2- to 6-bar loops carved from a full, song-form performance. Most often, the variations consist of a keyboard layout of the full mix and subsequent keys that trigger dry recordings of individual instruments comprising the groove. Each patch includes a stereo, room-ambience mic recording. Other patch variations include pitch-shifted versions of the individual groove elements and individual hits.

As authentic and beautifully natural as the grooves sound, the presence of synchronized LFOs as modulation sources invites a measure of creative abuse, and I was quickly able to route an LFO to filter cutoff. Playing this beat-synchronized, processed loop polyphonically produced a gamelan-through-a-wah-wah-pedal-type effect — strange, but not out-of-place in more contemporary, less traditional music (see Web Clip 2).

Beating Around the Bush

Despite a beautifully recorded, passionately played, creatively open collection of loops, there are a couple of fatal omissions that hobble Beats Working in a serious way: its lack of a multitimbral structure and its keyboard mapping. You can load only one patch at a time so, for example, even though you may have 20 to 30 variations for a Son Montuno groove, the only way to arrange them in order is to load multiple instances of the plug-in and create additional tracks until you have the amount of variation you need. I wracked my brain to find a more efficient workaround, but unfortunately, the Intakt manual was of little help, and the HTML-format notes, though earnest and useful, didn't address that aspect of arranging the grooves. The frustration I felt was the equivalent of a starving man staring at a deliciously prepared full-course dinner through an impenetrable plate-glass window. It seems as though Zero-G could have at least provided a full-mix patch containing all of a style's grooves mapped across a single keyboard layout. (According to the manufacturer, that feature will be added in an update that will be sent to all registered users.)

I hope that the upgrade planned by Zero-G does not force the end-user to jump through hoops just to avoid repetition. The beautifully recorded performances breathe fire and deserve room to develop. With that minor tweak, Zero-G Beats Working in Cuba should rightfully find a prominent place in every groove enthusiast's sound library.

Overall Rating (1 through 5) : 3