Review – pocketBlakus
If you have the full version of Native Instruments Kontakt and you want a solo cello sound, there’s really no excuse for waiting to download this free library. Hint: it does not sound like a freebie.
by Per Lichtman, July 2014
If you have the full version of Native Instruments Kontakt (version 4.2.4 build 5316 or newer to be exact) and you want a solo cello sound, there’s really no excuse for waiting to download this free library. If you want to do that before you read the review, then here are the links.
Blakus’ developer page
pocketBlakus – the expressive legato patch download
pocketBlakus – the Christmas spiccato patch download
Still here? Well the rest of it review is about both why the library is so useful and what it does not do. If you like this library you might be interested in the more extensively sampled (yet clearly differentiated) Blakus Cello commercial library from Embertone (reviewed next issue, alongside the Friedlander 1.5 update).
The Legato Patch
The first thing to mention is that pocketBlakus does not sound like a free library. Blakus has performed beautifully, without concern for neutrality or wide applicability, making this library one of the very few that can yield emotional results without using automation or CC data (though for the best legato results you’ll probably want to tailor the dynamics with the modwheel like usual). The well-performed vibrato is just lovely, and while it won’t lend itself to every style or compositional idea, sounds utterly natural when appropriate to the material. I found it worked best in slow to moderately paced lines and that I would end up playing half-time at faster tempos to keep things sounding natural.
Like so many other libraries, playing “legato” means that you have to overlap the end of the last note with the new one (I typically exaggerate this just so I don’t have to think about it, continuing to hold the last note until I have to move my finger to another one). If you’re playing this live, it’s easy to do. If you’re editing a part in your sequencer, just extend the end of the notes past the start of the new one to get a legato transition. If space is left between the notes, the second note starts with a sustain instead of a transition.
As one might expect from a free library, the legato version of pocketBlakus uses scripted legato as opposed to sampled intervals (one of the many differences between it and it’s big brother Embertone Blakus Cello). The “L-Legato” mode is selected by default and is to my ears the only one worth bothering with for normal use. The “B-Legato” mode feels suffocated, for lack of a better explanation, to my way of playing but may suit those looking for a less traditional sound.
The legato script works well at slower tempos, doing a good job of lingering when the line calls for it (something that often requires a lot of CC work to execute well in many other libraries). The script gives louder results with a more intense vibrato onset if you hit velocities over 90, while lower values yield mellower results. The GUI allows you to bypass or re-enable the legato script entirely, and to activate or bypass the “neighboring samples” or “TKT” approach to round-robin. With round robin engaged, it will avoid repeated notes by swapping in samples recorded at adjacent pitches and re-pitching them to play at desired pitch. This is done to emulate the results of having actually recorded multiple repetitions of the same note to start with.
The range of the legato patch is C2 (two octaves below middle C) to A4 (the A above middle C), and the top octave contains some of the most passionate performances, as one would expect.
The Spiccato Patch
The spiccato patch recorded 7 repetitions of each note at a single dynamic, and is definitely on the more forceful and biting side (a little like the loudest spiccato layer in XSample Chamber Ensemble). To put it simply, it rocks: even after playing most of the commercial solo string libraries, the sheer visceral energy of this patch gets my attention. There are no controls on the GUI – you just play.
Wheras the legato patch is slow and either delicate or passionate, the spiccato patch is positively brimming with energy and able to be used at very rapid tempos. It’s wild and bouncing but still manageable so you’ll occasionally hear some off-tuning in the round-robin repetitions and things of that nature – but if I could play a brisk spiccato half that well on my violin, I’d be a very happy camper indeed. It’s worth noting that currently this is the only library featuring Blakus’ spiccato performances since Embertone’s Blakus Cello uses staccato performances with a very different color instead, as does Embertone’s Friedlander Violin. For more energetic short notes on the violin I’d suggest taking a look at Simple Sam Samples’ Signor Paganini Solo Violin (though there are no round-robins included) or XSample Chamber Ensemble.
The spiccato patch cover a much wider range than the legato one, extending from C2 (two octaves below middle C) to C5 (an octave above middle C).
Anyway, the pocketBlakus spiccato patch is a flexible chameleon, able to be used in both up-front mixes and to be placed further back in an orchestral context. But no matter how you use it, this is a sound that can hold its own in the mix – and it’s pretty zippy to use, too.
By default, the scripting is setup for monophonic playing, so playing the next note will choke the last one, resulting in a more refined and managable sound. If you want to play double stops or just want the notes to ring out a bit more (say for instance in a piece with lots of starts and stops) then in the Kontakt GUI you can just click the wrench on the left side of the instrument, select the script editor button on the right, select the “SIPS-Legato V205” tab and click the bypass button on the left. You might want to consider saving a version of the patch with a different name after that so that you can easily get to it again later. Now you can play double or triple stops or just however many notes your computer can handle at once if you want.
Out of all the libraries I’m reviewing for the July and September issues (other than Embertone Blakus Cello, of course) the one that pocketBlakus has the closest kinship with is 8Dio’s Adagio Cellos Vol. 1. Much like the 8Dio Adagio series, the effort was made to capture a very expressive performance rather than being concerned with maximum versatility, and there’s a certain warmth to the body of the cello in each that makes them seem somewhat natural to pair, especially in the case of the legatos. But when mixed well, pocketBlakus can work with many different libraries, especially if the same reverb is applied fairly wet to both. And the spiccato has a presence that projects remarkably well (it’s one of the most energetic I’ve encountered in a sample library to date), unless it’s in a crowded bass range.
Both patches were recorded in Blakus’ bedroom, in mono with a Rode NT2A multi-pattern large diaphragm condenser mic. The NT2A is a very present sounding microphone with low self-noise for a multi-pattern and the recordings are rather close-miked. Thus, the results are far more usable than “bedroom recording” would suggest, but this is definitely one where you’ll want to use convolution reverb of a real space to give it a more desirable venue. In my own testing, I sometimes used EQ to compensate for the skewed frequency balance of the extremely close-miking as compared to an orchestral setup, especially in the lowest frequencies.
Getting the Most Out of Legato Playing – From a String Player Perspective
For any readers that are coming into using pocketBlakus from the background of having played a real string instrument, here are a few thoughts to make the transition easier, collected from my earlier conversations with other performers.
You know the slight anticipation you have to do in changing bow direction, especially when crossing strings in real life? In real life you automatically rely on your muscle memory to help create a strong transition and the dynamics flow naturally from where you were to where you are going next.
Part of getting the best programming out of a given set of samples is analyzing the way they work ahead of time so you know what you need to add or change in the way you perform, especially in regards to handling those transitions.
For the legato patch here, one of the biggest assets is that there is a fair amount of dynamic variation and an evocative vibrato already recorded into the samples, often with a relatively slow and smooth entrance. This makes it a lot easier to avoid sounding overly synthetic but also means that you have to think ahead even more if you want to take it in a different direction than with a more neutral performance.
1) The most important parts of controlling pocketBlakus are timing and modwheel use. Practice playing the same transition repeatedly with legato turned on to get a sense for how long it takes to transition from one note to the other, then compare this to how long a note entrance takes if you just come in fresh from a rest instead of from another note. You may notice that you start entering on each note a little sooner than you would with non-legato instruments, often ahead of the beat. This becomes important in just a second.
2) If you can make your whole piece follow the timing of your cello performance, then things get a lot easier. By starting each phrase a little early with the modwheel all the way down, you can sweep in more dramatically (or reign in the dynamics). Keep in mind that anytime you want tamer dynamics, you won’t be keeping the modwheel static – you’ll be listening to the dynamics changing in the recording and moving the modwheel the opposite way. Whenever you want to increase the intensity, you’ll want the modwheel to go the same way as the dynamic changes in the recording to exaggerate it.
3) You know the sound you get if you bow an upbow lightly starting punta d’arco and then dig in harder as you continue all the way to the frog? For soloistic writing that emulates this (especially in a post-romantic style) the modwheel should start at minimum and reach maximum by the time the sample dynamic climaxes.
4) You know how in real life the instrument sounds really different if your ear is right up against the C-string or A-string as opposed to a little bit further back? And how that in turn is quite different to what you hear when you’re in the crowd? The further away you are (up to a certain), the more the “melodic” qualities of the vibrato carry through but the less body the instrument has. Of course, the more reverberant the space is, the more forgiving the cutoffs are as well. My point is that if you load up pocketBlakus by default, the close-miking gives you tons of the body of the instrument (almost like your head is real close to that C-string), so you want to cut a little bit of the lower frequencies in the EQ to open the sound up a bit and get more of the experience the audience will have. Then you want to make sure that your reverb has an open character to let the line soar.
If you configure the EQ and verb well before you ever start programming or playing, it becomes much easier to be expressive.
So What Are the Downsides?
So you may be wondering what you can’t do with such an excellent free library and where the limitations lie. Let’s start with the overall approach.
Of course, this is library uses a single mic position (which is fairly common) and is mono not stereo and is pretty close-miked. So you can’t rely on the reverb tails from the original recordings like you might with certain other libraries recorded in larger venues.
The spiccato has some wild notes here and there and only one dynamic layer. It’s great at adding energy but may be too much in more restrained compositions, unless you reign it in a bit with volume, EQ and other such adjustments.
The legato patch has speed limitations (as mentioned earlier) and doesn’t use sampled intervals. There’s no vibrato control (save for velocity switching between two samples for a more and less intense sound) and the upper range limit is very conservative compared to its big brother, Embertone Blakus Cello. Its emotional and expressive style also makes it less well-suited to more neutral and precise arrangements. There is also an annoying bug if you hit certain keys outside the range of the instrument that stops the instrument from producing sound – something I normally workaround by just closing the patch inside Kontakt and loading it up again.
Script Workaround for Power Users
There may be a way to fix the bug if you are comfortable saving and loading Kontakt scripts, but I haven’t had a chance to test its effectiveness yet. I present the method “as is” with no promises that it will work or liability if it does not – always save the results to a new patch!
You open the legato patch, click on the wrench on the and left, select the script editor and then “move all the other scripts one slot over to the right.” To do that, you just save each one and then load it at the next slot.
After that, all have to do is use the “Limit Key Range” script as your first script the slot all the way to the left and specify C1 as the minimum. Now save the patch.
The pocketBlakus patches are some truly wonderful patches that I continue to find useful even as my library of solo strings expands. They are unrestrained and expressive and can be used alongside your other samples when you need a different style of performance (or when you want an additional cellist in your arrangement). And once again, they are completely free to use for any owners of Kontakt 4 or later. You can’t ask for much better than that.