Review – Amplesound Ethnic Ukulele
Get your Hawaiian (or Brazilian cavaquinho) on with this elegant sampled ukulele.
by Warren Burt, Nov. 2017
Beijing-based Amplesound is a sampled instrument company whose products, so far, center around guitars and basses. The Amplesound Ethno Ukulele is a beautifully sampled instrument with all sorts of articulations, arpeggiations, etc. Based on a Kamaka HF-3 uke, made by the legendary Hawaiian Kamaka family of luthiers, the tone is gorgeous, and totally realistic (whatever that means). Where the “realism” really shines (or the correct term might be “hyper-realism”) is in the “Strummer” page, where you can set up various strum and arpeggio patterns with a huge variety of articulations, harmonies, and rhythms. I’ve been a ukulele player for nearly 60 years, and I’ve never been able to play beautifully shaped patterns like the ones I could set up in a few moments in the “Strummer” page. (Of course that might be because I’ve never practiced enough!) And those patterns can, with the right tweaks, give a convincing impression that an acoustic uke is being played by a virtuoso player on a very fine instrument. The Amplesound instruments (all of them) use their own player, so you don’t have to have Kontakt or UVI Workstation or any other sample player. At first I was a bit questioning of this, but both the stand-alone version and the VST versions of the Amplesound Player work flawlessly, so this turned out to not be any problem at all.
The sample set takes up just over 2 GB of hard-drive space – quite economical, considering some of the sample sets I’ve seen recently. There are 2 mic-positions which you can mix and adjust levels on. The “Main” page is where you set up articulations, mic selection, pan, stereo on/off, doubling, fret-sound-release and related aspects of the sound, the start-time of the string (very important to get a uke-like timbre and not end up sounding like a piano), and the capo setting, if you want one. The keyboard section tells you where key switches are, and where the playing range is. Among the articulations worth mentioning are the various kinds of legato slides, which are lovely; the hammering on articulation, and the natural harmonics, which are quite special. There are a number of performing modes – Keyboard mode, which allows a chromatic keyboard to play the entire sound set; Standard mode, which only allows notes to be played on strings if they correspond to what notes would be possible on a physical string (i.e., two notes that would exist on the same string can’t be played simultaneously in this mode), and Solo mode, which turns the instrument into a strict one-sample-at-a-time player. There are many detailed tool-tip pop-ups to explain what each key or knob does. You can also move your mouse to the fret-board graphic, and by holding down the left mouse button move your mouse around the fret-board to get a kind of ukulele playing you could never get in real life, yet with a very realistic uke timbre and articulation.
The next page is the “Strummer,” where you can set up various performance patterns. It has three main sections – basic settings on the left, then a chord selection section, then a sequence/pattern player. In the chord selection panel, you can set up 24 different chords, which consist of a fundamental, a chord type, and an inversion selector. You can also save and load these sets of chords, once you’ve defined them. The sequencer/pattern player has a sequencer grid, where you select the articulation of the currently selected chord, and its position within the rhythmic grid. You can define 8 sequences and save and load any of these. Tempo is defined within the pattern, but if you select the SYNC tab, you can then have your sequence playing at a tempo defined on the Options page. Selecting a different chord while the sequence is playing leads to an immediate change to the newly selected chord. There are many keyswitches which also select functions on this page. There’s a lot more here, especially as regards subtle adjustments with playing technique, but basically, this page is well thought out, and is very versatile and musically useful.
The next page is the “Tab” page, where you can load and save various patterns in four uke tab formats, GP3, GP4, GP5, and GPX. You can also take any of the pre-made tab examples, and convert the current tab measure to a sequence for use in the Strummer page. I’ve never learned tab, so this page is not too relevant for me, but I can see that for those who are familiar with it, this page is well thought out and useful.
The next page is the FX page. There are 3 direct effects: compressor, overdrive, and 5-band EQ; 4 send effects: chorus, phaser, delay and reverb; and a master wah pedal at the end of the chain. These all sound quite good, and I was quickly having fun turning the uke into an effect-slathered metal monster.
The next page is the “Edit” page. This is one that very much excites me. On this page, you can adjust the tuning and the gain for every single sample in the sample set (and that’s quite a lot of samples). Tuning of each sample can be set to -100 to +100 cents, and gain can be set from 0.0 to 2.0 (with 1.0 being unity gain). Once you set all these parameters, you can save this chart and reload it at any time. This might not be the most efficient way of implementing microtonality in an instrument like this, but it is a good one, and it does lend itself to all sorts of creative extensions and uses. As someone who has designed a quarter-tone baritone ukulele, and written several major pieces for it, I can see that if I were to spend a lot of time with this program, I’d be spending much of it here, creating unusual and unorthodox tuning and volume schemes, to extend the already pretty amazing hyper-realism of the sample set.
The next page is the “Settings” page. In addition to basic things like Master Tune, and Max Voices, this is also where you can load and save presets for the whole instrument. I’ve tried out a number of these presets and they are again, well designed and provide very useful starting places for your own explorations. The “Live Play (Like a Harp)” preset did indeed transform the Ukulele into a quite creditable harp. (And I’m of the opinion that you can’t ever have too many sampled harps!)
The “Options” tab, at the top of the interface, is where you set MIDI and Audio ins and outs, but also, at the bottom of the panel, you also set the Master tempo for the plugin. This is one of those designer “gotchas” that I’ve seen in other programs as well, so keeping this in mind is useful.
Finally, there is another tab at the top of the interface, “Keyboard,” where you can turn on or off a panel which allows you to use part of the computer keyboard as a musical keyboard. A useful utility if one were on the road without a regular MIDI keyboard handy.
This has been a very quick look at the possibilities of this very elegant instrument. I’m sure, if you’re at all interested in the ukulele, this sample set will well repay your attention. The samples are beautiful, the articulations are very effective and it has a lot of resources that make playing realistic and effective uke music very easy. Amplesound also has two free downloads of “lite” versions of their guitar and bass instruments. I downloaded the guitar, had the briefest of plays with it, and quickly heard the same quality of sampling and saw the same kinds of controls that made the ukulele such a joy to play. The instruments of Amplesound are well worth your attention, and the sounds and possibilities of the Ample Ethno Ukulele are gorgeous. Top marks to them for this one.
http://www.amplesound.net $119 USD
Mac OS X 10.7 or higher, Windows XP or newer. AU, VST, AAX and RTAS, Stand-alone.