Review – Epica by xfonic limited

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In this installment of Points of Kontakt we look at Epica, a major and impressive collection of synth sounds that are expertly crafted and superbly recorded.

 

by David Baer, Sept. 2014

 

A Grand Vision

I suspect it is impossible to write a review of the Epica library for Kontakt without using the adjective “epic” at some point.  So let’s just get it over with and just say the Epica was clearly an epic undertaking by its developer, Sam Spacey, a labor of love that has paid off in a most impressive fashion.  Now, down to business.

Epica, unlike most of the libraries we cover in this column, installs as a Kontakt library and runs without restriction on the free Kontakt player.  It costs a bit more than what we typically cover as well, but if you stick with me, I think I can make the case that it’s a good value for the money.  The list price is $150 USD, but as of the day I’m writing this, a discount price of $105 is in effect and it’s been listed even lower in recent months.  Anyone who would readily pay $105 for a high quality software synth should find no problem justifying a similar expenditure for this instrument.

Sam Spacey relates that he originally set out to produce a string and pad library aimed at soundtrack production.  But he says that once he got into it, it became clear that he was creating something suitable for a wider application in music creation.  You can find an in-depth interview with the developer here in which is talks about the development of Epica:

http://blog.timespace.com/2013/11/epica-producer-sam-spacey-on-the-making-of-zero-gs-new-virtual-synth/

 

The sounds for Epica were created from patches programmed by the developer on a variety of analog and digital synths.  In addition to Sam’s home-built modular system (pictured right), he was able to press the following into service for the project:

Analog Synths

  • Arp Odyssey MK3
  • Sequential Pro-1
  • Yamaha CS-30
  • Oberheim Future Retro
  • Oberheim Matrix 6

Digital Synths

  • Virus Ti
  • Roland D-50
  • Yamaha DX9

Acoustic Sounds

  • Sam’s sister-in-law and who knows what else?

The story continues with the recording chain employed, a string of hardware effects devices that would easily set the buyer back by more than $10K USD if purchased new (Sam is a little circumspect when discussing just how he happened to get his hands on this gear 🙂 ).  The star of the show is the Eventide H800FW, a multi-purpose effect that offers reverb and more.  He also used a Lexicon PCM96 reverb, a variety of analog guitar pedals, and a couple of Neve 1073 preamps.  Finally, a UBK Fatso (analog tape simulator) played a major role.

Recording the sounds took three years of part time work.  The collected samples ended up totaling in excess of 16,500 files.  These were then individually polished, with manual looping defined where applicable.  There seem to be no instances of skirting what it takes to get a top-quality result.  The multi-samples are often one-per-note over a wide range.  The worst case is one sample covering its root note and the semitone to either side.

There is richness and a complexity in a lot of Epica content that would be very difficult to achieve with software-based synthesis and effect processing.  It’s all 24-bit and recorded with plenty of headroom.  The sweeps (and there are quite a few) were done using the originating synths’ filters – a trick that one could only get away with by employing many discreet samples so that all notes sweep at the same rate.  The typical user is not likely to find all the sounds to their liking, but show me any synth patch or sample library where that is not the case.  There’s a lot of very diverse material here – something for anyone, I’d venture to say.

 

The Instrument

By now it should be evident that there’s much potential in the sounds assembled for Epica.  The remaining key factor to a Kontakt instrument’s success is how effectively it’s packaged.  Here too, considerable good judgment is in evidence.  The Epica instrument panel is shown below – everything is on this one panel; there are no additional tabs.


Don’t let the understated graphics fool you.  There’s ample flexibility in what we can do here.  Most of the interface will be familiar territory for anyone who’s done subtractive synth sound tweaking – there’s little on the panel that won’t be intuitive.  We have, for example, an AHDSR envelope for amplitude.  Pitch and delay each have their own ADSR envelope.  Three LFOs are dedicated to amplitude, pitch and filter cutoff, with mod wheel control easily dialed in.  The available filters are all based on Kontakt’s ladder-modeled filters, and include 12 and 24 dB versions of low-pass, high-pass and band-pass.

Now, that doesn’t mean all this control is already used in the supplied presets.  A great many of the “raw” sample content already relies on filters, et al, supplied by the synths that were programmed and recorded.  In most cases, no Kontakt-supplied modulation is programmed into presets at all other than a release value on the amp envelope.  These controls are principally for the end-user to further refine and sculpt sounds.  I don’t want to get ahead of myself here, but the possibilities this opens up for the user is one of the most enticing aspects of Epica – but more on that later.

The one control group that needs a little explanation is the StartPoint Mod group.  With it, you can move the sample start point into the sample, specify and randomization for the start point, and apply velocity modulation to influence sample start point.  These three controls open up all kinds of possibilities.  One of the most interesting applications, demonstrated in a video at the vendor’s website (link provided below), works a follows.  The original sample is a slowly developing sweep in which the signal progressively gets brighter.  By applying velocity modulation, the faster a key is depressed, the further into the sample playback starts and brighter is the resultant sound.

There is only one effect in Epica, a delay.  I think the developer has exercised very good judgment in going this route.  A great many Kontakt libraries are delivered with presets awash in reverb, chorus and the like.  Although this might make for a favorable demo experience, I suspect the majority of folks ending up turning most of this stuff off when creating a mix in favor of using external effects.

That’s not to say that there’s no reverb in the “raw” sounds.  There is in some cases, but more on this topic shortly.

 

Presets and Multis

Finally we get to how the content is packaged into individual presets.  Well, let’s just start by observing that there’s an ocean of them.  We have single-instrument presets and a more modest, but still generous number of multis.  The single presets are organized into the categories:

  • Pads
  • Bright
  • Soft
  • Bass
  • Mono
  • Plucked
  • Sci FX
  • Effected
  • Sequence

There are so many presets (just under 500) that auditioning them is not something anyone is going to do in a single day.  And here we get to my only gripe about Epica.  The delay in enabled in nearly all the presets.  To audition properly, I would prefer to have it off.  It gets a bit tedious to click it off as one goes through preset after preset (did I make it clear that there is an ocean of presets to begin with?).  Of course, the user can always disable the delay and save the preset – it will come up disabled in future invocations.

One might expect the Sequence category to contain, well, sequences.  This is so with some of the presets, but the majority are simply short sounds (often randomly different) suitable to use in a sequence or arpeggiator scenario.  In other words, it’s mostly roll-your-own content.

Multis are present as well.  In some cases, these simply illustrate great ways to stack individual sounds/presets for impressive results.  However, a number of the individual sounds were captured without and then with reverb.  For these, we have parallel/duplicate presets with and without, the “with” versions being found under the Effected heading.  The user can adjust the levels between the “dry” and “wet” sound according to taste in the multi.

Even if doing so superficially, working your way through all the preset/multi content is going to be a lengthy undertaking (and it just got lengthier, since I just received a free bonus collection of presets and multis two days ago).  So, it’s a big job, even with quick listens to each.

But quickly listening and moving on is missing the point of Epica.  The individual sounds, or a great many of them at least, are tantalizingly complex.  They should not just be considered based on their own merit, but the user should try to discover what else might be done with them with further programming using the envelopes, filters and LFOs.  For instance, one can easily transform some of the brighter sounds into a pluck-type sound opener in one layer of a multi and then fade in a different sound to constitute the steady-state in a second.  The number of possibilities for user-created multis is staggering.  Many of the individual sounds in Epica have appealing potential, but it will be up to the user to take the time to find where all the treasures are buried.

 

Is Epica for You?

If you love synth sounds that are deep and complex beyond what you’re capable of producing with a typical software synth, then you may very well find Epica to your liking.  Fortunately, there are some comprehensive demos and videos available at the website of the vendor, Zero-G to help you judge if that will be so.  The Epica product page is:

http://www.zero-g.co.uk/store/epica-p515.php

In my opinion, the list price of $150 USD is not exorbitant for such an abundance of high-quality content.  For $105 or less, it’s very attractive.  The user who never strays beyond presets will have plenty of content to keep them occupied.  But it’s the more adventurous user who likes a bit of audio exploration and experimentation who will be the real winner.  Dig in, get your hands dirty and see what wondrous sounds you can conjure up.  They are in there – all you need to do is to find and release them.

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