Review – Sampled Ethnic Instruments (and More) from Impact Soundworks
Beautifully sampled and crafted non-Western instrument sample sets, and a couple of purely creative sample sets as well.
by Warren Burt, July 2017
I have a friend who is a master shakuhachi player. For about 25 years now, she’s been asking me to write a piece for her. So far, I haven’t, because I find it extremely difficult putting my head around all the kinds of ornaments and breath gestures which, it seems to me, form the very heart of the instrument. It seems to me that handling that kind of physicality of the instrument is best done by a player of an instrument in an improvisatory situation, and that my specification-oriented composing could only come off, at best, as a second-rate response to that kind of physicality (I’m perfectly willing to be proved wrong here).
I have the same kind of problem, in fact, with sample sets of non-Western instruments that base their musical essence on a wide variety of ornaments and decorative gestures. How can one encompass all those kind of gestures into a sample-set? Sometimes, the problem seems impossible to solve. Well, the good folks at Impact Soundworks have, for a number of years now, been taking on this problem, and after trying out some of their sample sets, I’m happy to say that they’ve done well in their approach. The Ventus Ethnic Winds. Vol 3: Bansuri and Vol. 4: Pan Pipes do indeed take on the problem of how to sample instruments whose very basis relies on improvised ornaments, and they do it very well.
In the early 1950s, a number of composers proposed breaking sound down into its individual components, treating pitch, duration, timbre, loudness, etc. as independent elements of music, rather than treating a musical phrase as an indivisible whole. This kind of “deconstruction” was the very basis for several kinds of 50s modernist composing, and it’s left us a legacy of very interesting, non-traditionally structured music. When approaching these non-Western wind, string and percussion instruments, the Impact people have had to do a similar kind of “deconstruction.” What are the kinds of gestures that make up the traditional music played by these instruments? How can these gestures be implemented into a sample set usually (though not always) played from a keyboard controller? They’ve done this with a combination of two things: very deep multisampling with multiple samples for each kind of articulation at each pitch, and a clever interface that allows the composer/performer to set up combinations of controls that will allow them to customize how they want to trigger off the articulations in live performance. As an example of the first, in the Bansuri set (the Bansuri is the wooden cross-blown flute of Indian music), there is an articulation called “Sustained Ornament Long.” This would be a long (2 seconds) improvised melisma before settling down onto the main pitch. For each pitch within the instrument’s range, they have sampled three or four or more ornaments of this type which then settle down onto the desired pitch. These ornaments are then programmed in a kind of “random round-robin” fashion so that it’s unpredictable which ornament you’re going to get when you trigger off the note. Further, there is an interface that allows you set up the probability of an ornament taking place or not, and then setting up the probability of a particular ornament type occurring on that note.
A look at the interface for the Bansuri will show these features. This kind of interface is duplicated in both wind instrument sample sets and in the Koron: Traditional Instruments of Iran set as well. At the left, you see an “Ornaments” wheel, in which you set the probability of any ornament being chosen or not. Then you have individual controls for each kind of either attack or release ornaments. You chose whether an ornament will be chosen or not, and you set a probability that it will be chosen. To the right of that is a waveform display window, where the waveform of the currently playing sample is displayed. Playing a repeated note, and watching the different waveforms of the different round-robin samples is very instructive and revealing. Note that this kind of ornament selection is a separate system from the TACT controls described below, so that you have two different ways of implementing ornaments – either semi-random, or under your direct and total control.
There’s a third way as well, exclusive to the wind instruments. In the Advanced settings, there is a recording feature. This records not sound, but a series of ornaments. You can save these sequences, and then play them back, even when playing a different set of pitches. In other words, you can compose a sequence of articulations, then have that sequence play back with any melody you desire. THAT’S clever sound programming in my book.
Below the waveform display are controls to adjust the ranges of Dynamics, Vibrato, and Flutter articulations. (These are exclusive to the wind instruments – they don’t exist in the plucked string Iranian instruments, for example.) Along the bottom of the panel you see the controls for the two separate sets of samples, one recorded close-miked, and the other a stereo pair of room mics. You can turn either pair off, set their volumes and their pans independently, creating the kind of ambience you want. A global ADSR envelope control, and coarse (semitones) and fine (cents) tune controls then follow. Finally there is a microtuning table, in which you can detune each key by +/-100 cents, and save these tunings for use in this or other sample sets from Impact. While this kind of tuning is not the full-keyboard microtuning I would like to see, it’s more than adequate for a wide range of tuning practices, and if you want more, you can easily control the tuning with a Kontakt script, such as the “Notes Per Octave” script available in the User menu. The Impact instruments respond to these external scripts quite well, as well as responding to the tuning table on the screen.
For the second problem, Impact has developed a common interface that is now being applied to all their new sample sets, called TACT or Total Articulation Control Technology. Here is a screenshot of the Nai (Pan Flute) version, but all of them, in all the programs, look pretty much the same. You’ll see that there is a grid in which a kind of articulation is assigned to a particular kind of triggering with some kind of MIDI gesture. Setting this up so that you have designed to best combination of controls you feel comfortable with, enables you to perform a complex task (more than just pressing keys to get a succession of pitches) in a way that is most easy for you.
These two solutions – multisampling of different versions of the same ornaments, and the ability to make a custom set of ornamentation controls – are built into all of the most recent Impact Soundworks sample sets, and that, combined with beautiful recordings and deep sample programming, makes them a joy to play. With a little bit of work, you can even get performances that approach the idiomatic traditional use of the instrument. And with a little MORE work, you can make performances that go far beyond the traditional limitations of the instrument, assembling the elements of its idiomatic performing in a way that has never been considered before.
Off the bottom edge of this picture are the tabs for selecting the Instrument, the TACT Articulation selector, and the FX. There are four effects available: an Equalizer, a Compressor, a Delay and a Convolution Reverb.
Each instrument also has a wide variety of sampled phrases, some idiomatic and some experimental. For example, the Pan Flutes instrument has a wide variety of phrases made by playing the wooden panpipes percussively. In addition to the breathy wind sounds of the panpipes, these are quite wonderful in the variety of their textures. And these phrases, for each set, can also be used in other programs. I had a bit of fun taking some of these phrases, and making a Kontakt instrument with just one of these samples, detuned, transposed and played with about twenty different pitches at once. Lovely textures were indeed easily obtained with these. There are two versions, usually, of these sample player programs, one with just the straight samples, and one with the Time Machine Pro tempo stretching available, to speed up or slow down the tempo of the sample between 50% and 200%.
For this review, I examined 3 of the Impact Soundworks non-Western sample sets: Ventus Ethnic Winds Vol 3: Bansuri; Ventus Ethnic Winds Vol 4: Pan Flutes; and Koron: Traditional Instruments of Iran. The Bansuri set has many different articulations of the Bansuri, is very deeply sampled, and sounds gorgeous. With a little work, I was getting credible sounding Bansuri-like music, with a nice variety of straight and ornamented tones weaving around my microtonal melody. There are both sample programs and phrase-samples programs here. There’s also a Tambura patch available for setting up a drone for the Bansuri to play along with. The Pan Flutes set has two instruments: Nai (the familiar Romanian treble panpipe), and the Toyo (a very breathy South American bass panpipe). Again, both of these have both sample (keyboard oriented) and phrase-sample programs.
The Koron set is very big – it has five Iranian stringed instruments and five Iranian percussion instruments. The string instruments are the Kamanche (ancestor of the violin); the Santoor (a kind of dulcimer); the Setar (a long necked four-stringed lute); the Tanbour (another long necked lute with only three strings, two of which are tuned in unison); and the Tar (a six-stringed lute with an animal skin resonator, which gives it a very bright sound). The five percussion instruments are the Bendir and the Daf (frame drums), the Kuzeh (a ceramic instrument with resonator holes that can be opened or closed, similar to the African Udu drum); and two goblet drums, the Tombak and the Zarbe Zoorkhaneh. All of these instruments are very deeply sampled, with two mic positions available, many articulations for each of the string instruments, and literally dozens of playing techniques available for each of the percussion instruments. In addition to that, there are hundreds of sampled phrases which can be accessed as well. If you want to explore the timbral world of one of the world’s most ancient and elaborate musical cultures, you’ll want Koron – it’s one of the best non-Western sample set resources I’ve seen. Each instrument in Koron also has an information page in which explains a little bit about the instrument. For example, here’s the information page for the Percussion.
And here is an example of the phrase-playing page for one of the stringed instruments, in this case the Kamanche.
The controls here are similar to the wind-instrument phrases. You see mic position set controls, the waveform display, with a “Tempo Sync” control – turning this off enables access to the Time Machine controls, etc. At the lower left are selection switches for which set of samples, playing at what tempo in what rhythm, you will be using. This next screen shot shows the sample performance screen of the Santoor. The controls are very similar to the wind instrument controls, with access to the different articulations and ornaments made available through a group of key switches.
These three sample sets are all wonderful sounding, all very versatile, all would enable relatively faithful idiomatic realizations of traditional music styles upon them; and all can lead you into exploring all kinds of musical idioms which go beyond the limits of the traditions. I highly recommend all of them – if exploring the sounds and tunings of unusual instruments is at all of interest to you, you’ll find these sample sets to be essential.
Before we go, I’d just like to briefly mention two other sample sets from Impact, both of which are very cheap ($25 and $20 respectively) and both of which allow very interesting sound explorations. Sonic Forest and Sonic Ocean each have about 24 unusual samples as their source sounds, as well as enabling you to use your own samples. Sonic Forest samples a custom built resonant string/percussion instrument, and Sonic Ocean has a wide variety of “watery” samples with which to work. These samples are then applied to a wide variety of granular treatments, which are accessed with a very clever kind of circular interface. Adjusting the controls brings in and out various kinds of modifications. These programs are a lot of fun, and are best explored to find out what they can do. And at those prices, how can you resist? So to sum up, if you’re interested in high quality and cleverly programmed sample sets of instruments off the beaten track of the usual orchestra or guitar-bass-drums, you’d do well to have a look at the wonderful work from Impact Soundworks (who also do guitar-bass-drums and conventional orchestra sounds, as well). You won’t be disappointed, if high quality timbres and interesting sound performance techniques are of interest to you.
Ventus Ethnic Winds, Vol. 3: Bansuri $99 USD – requires Kontakt Full Version; Mac or PC
Ventus Ethnic Winds, Vol. 4: Pan Flutes $99 USD – requires Kontakt Full Version; Mac or PC
Koron: Traditional Instruments of Iran $199 USD – requires Kontakt Full Version; Mac or PC
Sonic Forest $20 USD – requires Kontakt Full Version; Mac or PC
Sonic Ocean $25 USD – requires Kontakt Full Version; Mac or PC