Review – Evolution Songwriter from Orange Tree Samples
Orange Tree Samples has a new acoustic guitar library. But didn’t they already have one regarded by some as the epitome of such things? We answer that question here.
by Dave Townsend, Jan. 2018
Greg Schlaepfer is arguably the reigning king of Kontakt-based guitar libraries. His company, Orange Tree Samples, currently offers eight electrics, six acoustics and a mandolin. Three new guitars were added just in 2017, including the topic of this article. Surely, there will eventually come a time when they can sit back and say “OK, I think we’ve got this covered”.
Well, as an unapologetic and somewhat compulsive sample library collector, I hope that day never comes. Sample libraries just keep getting better, so why would I want them to stop making new ones? But even I was a little perplexed by Evolution Songwriter, given that OTS already had another great acoustic guitar, the well-established and widely admired Evolution Steel Strings.
Have a listen to these two guitars side by side:
Which one did you like better? Not exactly night and day, are they? Even after listening to Steel Strings and Songwriter side by side and taking a quick look at their features, they initially struck me as being somewhat redundant. Both offer the same articulations, strum engine and user interface. Both are exquisitely sampled. Both would seem equally suitable for the same set of applications. What was Greg thinking?
So I went to the source and bluntly asked him: why would someone want to buy both of these products?
Being the great guy that he is, Greg didn’t take offence at my impertinent question, but answered in terms that even this non-guitarist could grasp:
In my opinion, Evolution Songwriter, which was recorded using a Gibson J-45, has a more neutral, balanced tone than Evolution Steel Strings. It fits in the mix really easily, and is great accompanying vocals or a lead instrument. Evolution Steel Strings has a lot more resonance in the low end, which is great for more intimate guitar tones, but might not be able to keep up with Songwriter for crisp rhythm guitar parts. Evolution Steel Strings also covers fingerstyle guitar playing, while Songwriter features picked articulations exclusively.
However, Songwriter has a little more detail in the sampling specification, with the first eight notes on each string are sampled chromatically (and then by whole steps above that), whereas Evolution Steel Strings was sampled entirely in whole steps. The legato articulations in Songwriter have 2x round-robin samples for more variation, while Steel Strings just has one. The other specifications are the same, of course–they both have three dynamics, and 2x round-robin and down/up pick directions (for a total of four variation samples, giving you essentially 4x round-robin).
So there you have it: it’s a different – and different-sounding – guitar, it’s picked, and it has more samples (twice as many). Plus there’s an extra bonus with this new guitar: tape saturation – more on that later.
I have to admit that after going back and listening to an extended A/B comparison with Greg’s comments in mind, I have to agree. Steel Strings is more delicate and a bit brighter. Not that you’d notice the difference while banging out chords in a busy rock mix, but I do think Songwriter might actually hold up better in that particular scenario, despite being a little darker in tone. By Greg’s own admission, Evolution Steel Strings might actually serve the singer-songwriter better than Evolution Songwriter.
Or maybe not. Songwriter is a Gibson J-45, a legendary instrument that’s been in production since 1942. You can just imagine how many familiar recordings it’s been used in across all those years, and how different those recordings have sounded from era to era. Some of those vintage tones have been emulated in helpfully-named presets such as “Vintage 1974”.
Of course, classic acoustical guitar tracks sound different because they were recorded to tape, and all acoustical instruments sound different on tape versus digital recordings. That’s why we have tape sims! But Greg’s collaborator William Derganc (who did the actual sampling) didn’t take the easy way and settle for a simulation. Instead, he ran the guitar through an actual tape recorder. And not to just go half way, he used a home recording staple from years gone by. Although only vaguely described in the marketing text as “a popular type of multi-track tape recorder”, I think we all know exactly which device they’re talking about.
Well, I should say those of us old enough to remember the wonderful Portastudio would know. For everybody else, the Portastudio was a four-track cassette recorder. It used standard cassette tapes but had the option of running at twice the normal cassette speed to improve high-frequency response and to lower hiss. But what that humble tape machine really did for us, and that we were largely oblivious to back in the day, was that it provided its own nonlinear compression. Those tiny magnetic stripes were so easily saturated that the device automatically leveled mixes and smoothed everything out.
With Evolution Songwriter, you have the option of recreating that effect. But this time, it’s all in your computer, and that means a luxury we didn’t have back in the day – an adjustable noise floor. All the intrinsic wow and flutter are still there, though.
The tape-processed samples are a separate layer, so you can select either clean or tape-processed samples. Unfortunately, you cannot blend the two; it’s either-or.
On the SETUP tab, you’ll see a parameter called GUITAR SIGNAL. Drag the diamond-shaped pointer all the way to the right to enable the tape-processed sample set.
As soon as you select TAPE as the guitar signal, you’ll hear quite a lot of tape hiss. Fortunately, below the signal selector there is a NOISE FLOOR VOLUME slider where you can adjust the amount of tape noise. Set it to zero if you just want the tape effects with no hiss at all.
Effects and Options
There are the usual effects you’d expect, such as reverb and delay. But there are also some you’d normally not associate with acoustic guitars: distortion, wah, tremolo. After all, there is no rule that says an acoustic guitar has to sound like an acoustic guitar all the time. Try it with distortion and flanger!
Most of the performance options are on the SETUP tab. There are too many options to list here, but I’ll highlight a few of the interesting and less-obvious ones.
Pick style: doesn’t refer to the style of the pick but rather how the pick is used. This essentially determines when the strum direction (down- versus up-strokes) reverses. The default setting, Economy, works for most things because it works the way most human guitar players work, choosing pick direction based on what note comes next.
Pick modeling (on/off): when enabled, this lets you adjust the position of the pick relative to the neck and bridge. It’s off by default, which I assume is for the sake of CPU efficiency. But turning it on and moving the virtual pick closer to the bridge makes leads brighter, while moving toward the neck makes chording more mellow-sounding.
Dynamic morphing: also disabled by default for efficiency, this option can lend greater authenticity for solo guitar parts. What it does is crossfade velocity layers rather than simply switching between them, smoothing their transitions. Don’t bother with this if it’s a rhythm guitar on a big rock mix.
Dynamic curve: use this if you’re playing the guitar manually on a keyboard, to nudge velocities up or down. Sampled guitars often sound better at lower velocities, but playing softly does not come naturally to many keyboard players (including yours truly). I don’t normally use this feature, preferring to manually adjust velocities after I’ve recorded a part.
The Strum Engine Explained
The strum feature will be familiar to current OTS users, as it’s now included in all of the Evolution series instruments. However, it has undergone some improvements over the years and might look different to you if you haven’t seen or used OTS guitars in a while. I know it threw me for a loop the first time I saw it, so here’s a brief tutorial.
I won’t lie to you, it is a bit more complicated than your average strum sequencer.
Greg has packed a lot of functionality into this compact window. In the upper-left (A) is a preset selector. Below that (B) are six slots for strum patterns. You can select or create separate presets for each of the six key-switchable patterns.
In the screenshot above, pattern #1 is selected by playing B0, pattern #2 by C#0, etc. These are user-definable keyswitches, but there aren’t a lot of unassigned keys in this instrument, so if you plan on playing it on a keyboard I think you’ll have an easier time with a full 88-key controller. On my 73-key controller, I had to shift the whole thing up an octave in order to use all of the keyswitches.
The section (C) to the right of the pattern slots is where you select each pattern’s timing: the number of measures, beats per measure, strum note duration and tempo swing. In the screenshot above, we’ve got a single measure 4 beats long, with sixteenth-note resolution. Each of the six slots can have its own sequence length and resolution.
The rest of the window (D) is taken up by the pattern sequencer. You can have one or two measures of between one and sixteen strums per measure. Each of the individual strums can be one of 32 (!) articulations, many of which are atonal special effects, such as thumps, knocks and fret noise. Each step can be designated as an up- or down-stroke, each has its own velocity setting, and you can specify when and which strings get strummed.
That last setting – determining which strings get played – may not be immediately obvious. At least, it wasn’t for me: there are two icons that you drag up and down to specify which strings are to be activated. The string name that the pick graphic is pointing to indicates where the strum ends. The little white circle indicates which string gets hit first. Got it?
Here’s a simple example, a single downstroke that includes all six strings. The pick is at top, pointing at the high E string, and the white dot is at the bottom, indicating that the strum starts on the low E string. The vertical line between these markers dictates strum speed (position your cursor over the hollow circle in the middle and drag up and down). A straight-up line yields a fast strum, while an angled line as in the screenshot below results in a slower strum.
So far so good, but now we’ll get a bit fancier. Consider the pattern below, which cleverly uses start and stop markers to play an arpeggio.
What we’re doing here is playing four “strums” per beat but using the string limits to play just one or two strings on each one. In this case, DIVISION has been set to sixteenth notes, so each pick symbol represents a sixteenth note. (This is an included preset, thoughtfully named “Ascending 16ths Bass 1”, where “Bass 1” in the name suggests the bass note is the first string).
Now let’s break down everything that’s happening in this pattern. On the first beat we’re telling it to play the E and A strings only. The filled circle indicates the lowest string is low E, the pick position indicates we stop after the A string, and the pick arrow indicates it’s a downstroke so that means starting on the E string. The slanted vertical line means we want to hear the first two strings in a natural way, with a very short delay between them.
Whew. That’s a lot of information in a small space.
The second strum in the sequence ends on the D string. It’s also a downstroke, but the sequencer is smart enough to know that the E and A strings are still ringing out due to the SUStain articulation, so the result is that only the D string is plucked.
The third and fourth strums use the same trick to play just the G and B strings, respectively. The result is a four-note arpeggiated chord that sounds like this:
Admittedly, this isn’t click ‘n go programming. But it’s worth the effort to figure it out because the flexibility means there are lots of possibilities for natural-sounding patterns that needn’t sound obviously programmed.
Thumbnail summary: it’s a classic instrument sampled extremely well. It’ll fill just about any acoustic guitar duties in any genre, picked or strummed.
If you already own Evolution Steel Strings you will have to make the call as to whether you need Songwriter as well. The latter has a mellower tone and is sampled a bit more deeply, but otherwise they both sound pretty similar to my unsophisticated ear. If you don’t have either, Songwriter has a slight edge in overall tone but for me it really comes down to whether you prefer your strings to be finger-picked (ESS) or plectrum-picked (ESW).
Evolution Songwriter is NKS-compliant. Among other things, that means you can use a Komplete Kontrol S-Series keyboard with it. Although not necessary – and not cheap – this controller does sport some cool lights! Those lights actually do something useful, as they correspond to the keyswitch colors you see in Kontakt’s virtual keyboard. Plus you’ll have access to Songwriter’s presets directly from the keyboard, as well as transport controls for your DAW – just a suggestion.
Evolution Songwriter is only available as a download (5.53 GB) and only direct from Orange Tree Samples. It can run under either full Kontakt (version 5.8 or higher) or the free Kontakt Player (included).
Price is $179 USD.