Points of Kontakt — The Mandolin from Indiginus
Yet another inexpensive and easy-to-use instrument from Indiginus. This time it’s a mandolin. Spoiler alert for the impatient reader: it’s good, and fun to play.
by Dave Townsend, Nov. 2017
My grandfather played mandolin in a bluegrass band and I’ve loved the sound of the instrument since childhood. Unfortunately, my own attempts to learn to play one were thwarted by physics: even as a child, those frets were closer together than the width of my fingers! I had to reluctantly conclude that I would probably never play the mandolin. At least, not well.
Then again, I can’t play a bouzouki or a sitar, either. That’s why I’m a fan and collector of sampled instruments. But strangely, the hunt for a believable mandolin has been long and frustrating. I suspect it may be a harder instrument to sample than one might think.
But when I found out that Indiginus proprietor Tracy Collins was releasing a mandolin library, I was cautiously optimistic. Tracy has a lot of experience sampling and scripting virtual stringed instruments, such as his Mountain Dulcimer and my favorite, Delta Blues Acoustic Slide Guitar. Well, I am happy to report that at long last I’ve found a virtual mandolin that I truly like, one that’s easy to use and sounds convincing in a mix.
Oh, and it’s also cheap, so that’s a bonus.
Velocity Mapped Articulations
If you’ve used other Indiginus instruments, you’ll find The Mandolin’s UI very familiar. As always, articulations can be velocity-sensitive, key-switched or controlled via CCs, and all three modes are user-configurable. And as with other Indiginus instruments, velocity-sensitive articulations make this instrument instantly fun and intuitive to play in real time, especially for those of us who never got the hang of using keyswitches during live performance.
When you load The Mandolin, it’s immediately ready to play: press lightly on your keyboard controller for mutes, hit it hard for slides. But what I really was anxious to hear was that signature mandolin articulation, tremolo.
Tremolo isn’t velocity-mapped out of the box, but it’s easy enough to do so. Just click on the tremolo icon (highlighted in the image at left). Now, instead of slides at high velocities, you get tremolo.
Other articulations include up and down trills, mutes, hammer-on and pull-off, up and down slides, two bends and auto-harmony. Separate volume controls for fret noise and release samples and body resonance let you decide how much realism you want. There’s vibrato, too, which is appropriately subtle by default but can be exaggerated if you like.
Tremolo is the Key
Tremolo, meaning that really fast picking that mandolin players do, is a performance parameter that’s absolutely critical to credible mandolin parts. You have to get it right or you won’t have a truly useful mandolin. Fortunately, to my admittedly non-expert ear The Mandolin does seem to get it right.
Tremolo can be tempo-synced or freewheeling.
This made me wonder: do expert mandolin players actually time their fast-picking to precise note durations, e.g. 32 per measure? Answer: nope, although the best ones can if they want to. But often a little randomness works wonders, so in this sampled mandolin, synced or not, it throws in a little randomness. So we have a nice touch that enhances believability.
Normally, round-robins aren’t that big a deal with acoustical instruments – just my opinion. I have an electric bass instrument that does eight round-robins per note, and every one of them sounds exactly the same to me. But then, mortals normally don’t play 64th notes on a bass. But they do on mandolin! So, on this instrument each stroke of tremolo picking alternates between up-stroke and down-stroke round-robin samples. In fact, it does this for all notes, not just during a tremolo frenzy – another reason why this instrument sounds believable.
Chord mode, as you might guess, lets you play chords with a single keypress.
You’ll appreciate the intuitive way the keys are laid out in The Mandolin. In some instruments, you’ll find separate octaves mapped to major-chord upstrokes, major downstrokes, minor upstrokes and minor downstrokes. That works OK, but you end up with some goofy-looking sequences in your PRV, with notes scattered over a 4-octave range.
The Mandolin takes a more intuitive approach and gives the chord mappings a little intelligence. It knows, for example, that if you’re in the key of C and you play an adjacent D note, that you probably wanted D-minor. If that’s not what you wanted, no problem. You can define each key to any of 15 standard chord variations, or make up your own chords if you like. (Just remember that a mandolin can play only four notes at a time, so some of your favorite finger-twisting jazz chords may not be possible.)
Keyswitches can also be used to toggle between major and minor chords or add the 7th, so you can switch up the chording on the fly. You can also change the song key via keyswitches.
A simple arpeggiator is provided for tempo-synced picking. Just don’t expect any fancy sequences, as it’s just a four-note up or down arp pattern. Though simple, it’s still surprisingly useful. (Try it with vibrato turned on and let the chord ring out after the arp – sounds neat.)
There’s even a “power chord” mode labeled “Chop”, with a choice of two or three-note chords. Strum speed is adjustable, as is the relationship between velocity and strum speed. All in all, you’ll be surprised at how effortlessly authentic it sounds, even if you have limited keyboard skills.
The only thing missing here is a strum pattern sequencer. That would have been a nice, but admittedly non-essential, feature.
There isn’t much in the way of built-in effects, but then a mandolin doesn’t exactly lend itself to extensive effects processing. There’s a compressor (very simple with just a lone “Amount” adjustment), reverb, and a (surprisingly applicable) flanger.
These are in addition to the instrument controls: resonance and tremolo.
“Resonance” convolves an impulse response file made from the actual instrument, adding body resonance for a more woody tone. If you turn this all the way up you’ll hear string resonance, too, from the interactions between strings. It’s a subtle effect that will only be noticeable when the instrument is soloed. For placement within a large mix, I preferred to turn resonance down or off.
What’s missing from this section, in my humble opinion, is a delay. No big deal, of course. We’ve all got suitable delays in our toolboxes. I found myself using external delays with this instrument to good effect, to simulate fast strumming and faked double-tracking.
There’s a little button on the main page that you might miss at first glance, labeled “More Settings”. Click on that to get deeper into articulation customization. Here you can tweak the duration and pitch of hammer-on and trill aticulations, and the speed of bends.
You’ll also find a mixer that sets levels for each articulation. Hammer-on, pull-off and mute aticulations can get lost in a mix, which is fine if you’re after realism. But where’s the fun in that? I like to turn these quieter articulations up, especially mutes, and let the mandolin become part of the rhythm section.
This is not a complicated instrument. You won’t need to study the manual to get into it, and my advice is to plug in your keyboard controller and immediately start playing. Then, after you’ve had some fun, dive in and explore some of the many tweaks that are provided. Try the arpeggiator, the auto-harmony, and the excellent vibrato (crank the depth up and challenge any real mandolin player to play like that!).
And don’t forget the flanger (don’t laugh, it fits). Try it along with extreme vibrato. There’s no rule that says it needs to always sound like a mandolin.
The Mandolin is only available as a download (1.2 GB), and only from the Indiginus website. It costs $59 USD and requires full Kontakt, version 5.5 or higher.