Review – World Suite from UVI
Interested in the sound of instruments from around the world or in expanding your timbral palette by an amazing amount? Then this one is definitely for you!
by Warren Burt, Jan. 2017
World Suite is one amazing huge set of resources from UVI. It contains hundreds of instruments from around the world, lovingly sampled and programmed, plus thousands of recorded phrases from various instruments and cultures. The sampling is deep, and the programming is complex. Each instrument has specific controls suited to it, and the level of “realism” is superb.
A “fair-disclosure” thing at the start of this review. I make part of my living teaching a course in World Music, where we have the students listen to, and see videos of, music from as many cultures around the world as I can manage. I studied several non-Western musics as part of my training as a composer, and regard as my spiritual ancestors composers like Henry Cowell, Percy Grainger, Lou Harrison and Bela Bartok, all of whom felt that the study of (what we now call) ethnomusicology was one of the bases for a contemporary musical culture. So I know my world cultures, and have very clear views on the kind of respect that we need with which to approach music and musicians from around the world. The old (by now antique) E-Mu Proteus World sample set was one of my compositional mainstays for years. I even wrote a piece back in 2005 (18 New Fuguing Tunes for Henry Cowell) where I exclusively used these samples to pay homage to Cowell’s work in ethnomusicology. At the same time, my training has left me with a respect for the traditions and training of world musicians, so that if someone plays a MIDI keyboard to control, say, a programmed set of sitar samples, and thinks they’re doing “Indian Music,” or are even paying homage to it, I firmly feel that not only are they fooling themselves, they’re showing a vast level of disrespect to the musicians and culture that they’re using.
So when I heard that UVI was releasing “World Suite,” which promised hundreds of sampled instruments from around the world, and over 8000 pre-recorded loops and phrases, I was both extremely excited and a little bit worried. Excited, because it sounded like the “last sample set you’d ever need to own,” and a bit worried, because as someone involved with ethnomusicology, I really want the sampling of instruments from other cultures to be done with great respect, and the ways of making sound with each instrument to be built into the way they’re programmed. That is, at least the possibility of an accurate simulation of both the timbre of the instrument and the culturally specific ways it is played would be available.
Here, of course, we could have a long digression about both the reasons for sampling, and the ethics and aesthetics involved in it. The number of string players (with their years of training) displaced by high quality string sample sets would be only one aspect of this, but it might be a good place to start. Or asking what kind of a simulacra saturated musical world we are creating with our technology might be another. Coming from Paris, UVI are probably more aware of the thoughts of French philosophers Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard than I or most readers of Soundbytes would be! However, that argument is probably best saved for another time, and another context. Still, in any review of a sample set as well made and comprehensive as this one, that the argument exists at least deserves to be mentioned.
Well, for the most part, I’m really delighted with World Suite. I’ve only had it for just under two weeks (I did the download – 18GB! – a few days before Christmas – THAT was as nice a “Christmas present” as one can imagine getting!), and of course, I haven’t been able to play with all the instruments, or listen to any more than a fraction of the thousands of pre-recorded phrases that the instrument comes with, but I’ve played with enough to see, and hear, the depth and quality of the sampling and programming. Some of the programming tasks they’ve set themselves (for example, getting a completely realistic and idiomatic sitar instrument) are clearly impossible. However, in most cases, they’ve done an admirable job with attempting to get close to their models. And in some cases, the usual careful UVI programming has unlocked resources from the source instruments only implied by the originals, which make the sampled instrument not just an emulation, but a new set of sound resources in their own right.
One of these would be the balafon. This is the wooden keyed xylophone of West Africa. If you look at the faceplate for the balafon instrument, you’ll see many controls by which you can adjust the instrument’s timbre. This kind of faceplate is how UVI has presented all of their instruments. There is at least a drawing of the instrument, a map of the general area where the instrument comes from and a background photo that is supposed to suggest the instrument’s place of origin.
These background photos, as pretty as they are, need to be taken with a fairly large grain of salt. For example, the “Middle Eastern” category has instruments from Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Greece, and even Italy (really! – the mandolin), as well as North Africa, and the background photo for all of these is the same Saharan village! Still, at least it’s an attempt to give an idea of the kind of place the instruments come from. On the right hand side of this photo is a selector, with its function doubled by key-switches, which selects from a number of different variations on the sound. In the case of the balafon, there are nine different variations to choose from. Usually, they all sound significantly different from each other. For the balafon, this is indeed the case. For each instrument in the World Suite that has this feature, the variations of sound are based on the acoustic and physical realities of the instrument in question. I only heard one or two examples of a key-switch timbre difference, out of the hundreds I’ve listened to in the past couple of weeks, that sounded like it wasn’t a “natural” difference between two kinds of the same instrument.
In the bottom half of the faceplate are a series of controls. From left to right, these are called “Sound,” “Expression,” “Envelope,” “Equalizer,” and “Reverb.” The “Sound” controls, for the balafon, allow control of the level of the sample of the initial attack of the sound, and the level of the “body” or the sustaining part of the sound. But they also allow control of the octave these parts of the sound will be played in. This gives you an amazing level of flexibility in making the kind of balafon sound you might be interested in. There’s also a “Timbre” control. All the manual says is that it will “adjust the timbre/pitch” of the sound. To my ear is sounds like some kind of spectral modification, or equalization is happening. And the sonic results of this control are different for every instrument in which this control is found. Your best bet with this control is to try it out for each instrument, and see if you like the results for that particular instrument.
Next comes an “Alternate” control. This controls the alternation of the sound between stereo channels, from very wide to centred mono. Below that is a Velocity Curve control, which can adjust the curve to match the input of your controller. Next is an ADSR envelope generator, and then an Equalizer module with three bands. The frequency of the mid-range band is sweepable with the control above it. Finally there is a convolution reverb module. This, like the Equalizer, can be switched on or off. The Reverb offers ten different kinds of reverb chamber impulses, a “Size” control (which basically controls the length of decay of the particular chamber), and a Dry and Wet level control. The interesting thing about all these controls is that they are all able to be controlled with an external MIDI or DAW-automation control signal.
I set up a patch with seven of these parameters under MIDI control, with MusicWonk providing seven different gliding random control signals, and a simple random pitch, rhythm, and velocity patch to make a test melody. The results were immediately interesting. We were still in the “sound world” of an “African marimba or xylophone,” but the continuous changes in timbre had placed us in a far more interesting compositional world than any “emulation” or “culturally referent” use the samples might exist in. The kind of timbral subtlety these UVI samples are capable of, to me at least, implies a new kind of composition; one which can make use of this and imply, for the listener, a new kind of listening with which one can appreciate the subtle (and not so subtle) timbral differences now available. To my ear, at least, this kind of composing would be far beyond the emulative uses for which most commercial musics use samplers (and coincidentally, places us far beyond the concerns of a Debord or Baudrillard about “simulation.”) That is to say, because of the richness of the programming that UVI have put into this sample set, one really can seriously think about the possibility of composing truly NEW music with it. To my mind, THAT is the most exciting thing about this sample set. And the fact that it is oriented towards “the music of the whole earth” (to use David Reck’s phrase) makes it even more exciting.
By the way, since these are MIDI controlled samples, those who are interested in alternative MIDI controllers should have a field day here. Although the usual use of these samples is with a MIDI keyboard, users of say, Guitar MIDI or Wind MIDI controllers would find that many of these samples would benefit from the different kinds of physicality available with alternative controllers.
My request for the makers for the balafon (and the other instruments in the set) would be for more information. Which balafons were recorded? Where were they from? (“Africa” is not sufficiently detailed enough for me.) And were they recorded on site, or in a studio? And for the prerecorded phrases and loops, who recorded them? Were they a “native” user of the instrument, or an outsider trying to emulate the sound of the culture (or an outsider who has learned the culture well enough to sound like an insider?) Seeing as how UVI has recorded all these instruments, surely they have the answers to these questions, and I’m sure I’m not the only user of this set who would like a lot more information as to sources etc.
The instruments section of the sample set is organized in two ways, by Region, and by Type. Under regions, the samples are grouped by loose geographical regions. By type, the categories are “Bell, Metal and Gong,” “Fretted String,” “Key,” “Percussion,” “Stringed,” and “Woodwind.” You might notice the absence of Brass instruments there. No trombones, alphorns, or Tibetan Rag Dung are to be found in this set. In fact, the only buzz-lipped instrument in the set is the Australian didjeridu, which is represented by an awesome collection of over 700 pre-recorded phrases. To my ear, these sound like they are either played by a native player, or by a non-native player who is very familiar with the culture. The virtuosity of some of these samples is pretty impressive.
As mentioned above, the main way the instruments are grouped is by Region. For some of these, the regions are an accurate reflection of where the instruments come from. For others, especially the Australian collection (and I AM an Australian citizen, and have lived here for over 40 years), I must demur. A lot of the instruments in the Australian collection are just not Australian. Take the category of “Aboriginal Drums” for example. Last time I looked, the only Australian Aboriginal drums that I knew of were the ones that Australian Aboriginal country and rock bands used in their performances, and those are just Western drum kits. On looking at the listing of the “Aboriginal Drums,” we find ‘Kanak Drum,” “New Guinean Drum,” “Oceanian Drum,” and “Polynesian Drum.” All of these sound great, are beautifully recorded, and have a wonderful range of controls to play with. But, unless the region is called “Australia and Oceania,” the name is just plain inaccurate. Last time I looked, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, and the many countries of Oceania and Polynesia were all independent nations, none of which (except Papua New Guinea, which became independent of Australia in 1975) are politically part of Australia. Furthermore, there are categories of Aboriginal Flutes, Aboriginal Percussion, and Jaw Harp, none of which, to my knowledge, are used by the Australian Aboriginal people in any of their traditional musics. In this part of the world, the three great flute traditions are the Maori putorino, from New Zealand, the Indonesian suling, and the pensol, the nose flute of the Orang Asli people of Malaysia. So what IS this “Aboriginal Flute,” who is playing it, and where does it come from? Similarly, there is, to my knowledge, no jaw harp tradition among Australian Aboriginal musicians (although there is a rich jaw harp tradition among Anglo-Australian folk musicians). However, there are a number of amazing jaw harps, with a very virtuosic repertoire, in Papua New Guinea. So is this “jaw harp” a “Western” one, or is it one of the many Papuan jaw harps? Inquiring minds need to know. Or, as my wife says, “If you’re going to have an ethnographic collection, you at least should be accurate about it.” That having been said, once again, I must say that all these instruments are lovingly sampled, with a great range of controls, and sonically, I wouldn’t hesitate to use any of them in a piece.
Finally, in terms of the instruments, I have to say that you really have to try them out – and try all the presets, especially the ones labelled “FX.” These contain a wealth of interesting sounds made with the instruments in unorthodox ways, such as scrapings along the strings, percussive riffs, wonderfully strange overtones, etc. The Celtic Harp Meaghan Harp FX, for example, had some wonderful scraping along the strings sounds that were reminiscent of Henry Cowell’s “The Banshee.” Written in 1925 in California, Cowell’s piece was for use in a play by the Irish playwright John Varian, and was performed on the inside of a grand piano with the hands scraping across the strings, so to have those kinds of sounds now available in an Irish Harp sample set is quite wonderful.
Each instrument takes a few seconds to load, by the way. With something like 800 samples, or even 1400+ samples in a particular instrument set, these instruments will naturally take a bit of time to load. Another hint – I found, with only 4GB of RAM, that after I had loaded about eight or nine instruments in a row, the loading got a bit sluggish. But quickly going to the Falcon’s master control and loading “New Program” fixed that problem quite quickly, and then sample loading was quite speedy again.
As I said earlier, I haven’t had time to listen to every instrument in the set. However, of those I have played, some of my favorites are the Balafon, Mbira, Bamboo Sax, and Kora/Valiha from Africa; the Asian Gongs – a very rich collection of timbres; Shakuhachi, Taiko, Celtic Concertina and Harp; Ukrainian Bandura; Indian Swarmandal and Jaladarangam; Turkish Lyra; all three pianos in the Occidental selection; the Parisian Accordion; the South American Pan Pipes; and the Sun Drum from the West Indies. All of these have beautiful timbres and very detailed programming which allows you to control them in many interesting ways.
With the Flamenco Guitar/Flamenco Rhythms patch, I had thought I had found a snag – a confusion of keyswitches and playing keys. On further consulting with the manual, however (in tiny type on the right hand side of the page), there were instructions that said that you had to play chords on the bottom keys, then select one of the playing keys at the top of the keyboard to get chords played in flamenco rhythms. This turned out to be true, but to my disappointment the chords were only major and minor, and selected with a root note and a 3rd above them. Some combinations of
notes, like a major 7th or a minor 2nd, produce no sound. Your best bet with this patch is to experiment with all the combinations of 2 notes, and see which give you major and which minor chords. Similarly with the Victorini Accordion (a wonderful sounding patch), the “green keys” in the middle of the keyboard will select chords, but again, these are only major and minor chords, not the full range of major, minor, diminished and dominant 7th chords that are found on the buttons of any Stradella system accordion. This is not yet documented in the manual, but UVI assures me
that they are working on an update for this. The harmonic limitations of these two patches are apparently the result of the very complex scripting required for these patches, and you can get other chords, of course, by playing them with the “normal” keys. Still, I was hoping for more here. My initial excitement at the possibilities of these patches was dulled somewhat with the disappointment of the harmonic limitations – still, these are both wonderful sounding patches, and both very versatile. And every other patch I tried has functioned flawlessly.
I haven’t mentioned microtonality yet, which is surprising for me, as most SoundBytes readers will know. If you are in Falcon, you can go to “Edit” and at the “Program” level, insert a Microtuner module. You can then load a microtuning of your choice into this. For very many of the instruments, this will flawlessly produce the microtonal tuning of your choice with the given instrument. However, due to the intricacies of the programming involved in some of the instruments, for some instruments, the microtuning will not work, but will instead produce some unexpected misfirings of some layers of the samples. This is especially the case with all of the many wonderful accordions sampled in the set. I think I can see a pleasant afternoon long project for myself where I deconstruct one of the accordion patches in the set and program my own accordion patch with the UVI samples which will take microtuning properly. (I built a physical microtonal accordion in 1985 – retuned all the reeds by hand – so I do have the patience to do this sort of thing.) For the most part, however, I found that the vast majority of the instrumental patches that could potentially be played microtonally, did so with no fuss whatever. And since many of these instruments originally were not played in Western twelve-note tuning, the possibility of putting them back into something like their original tuning is quite attractive.
That’s the “Instruments” part of the sample set. The other half of the set is the collection of over 8000 pre-recorded phrases and loops. These cover all of the same geographical regions as the instruments, but with some differences. These samples can be loaded into sample slots and played with any way you please. In addition to the instrumental sounds, there are many vocal loops from all around the world. There is also a set of “Ambient Voice” loops, which sound like they’ve all been recorded by the same woman, singing in a variety of styles. More authentic are the “By Region” vocal samples, which have both male and female voices singing loops in a variety of styles and authentic tunings. Whenever I want to open up a class’s mind to “strange and interesting” timbres, I simply play them a selection of vocal music from around the world, pointing out to them that these examples are all from folk traditions – there is not an avant-garde Westerner in the bunch – and that if all these worldwide folk musicians can explore worlds of different timbres, then so can they. Thankfully, many of those interesting sounds are included in these vocal loops.
For those who enjoy the Ableton Live kind of combining of pre-existing loops, World Suite provides a set of seven “Travelers,” which combine six loops from each region, beat and tuning matched.
As you can see in this picture, you can load different loops into each slot. These are sorted by region and instrument type. The exception to this is the “Vocal Traveler,” There are 2 additional Travelers – Vocal Ambience and Vocal Traveler. The first combines a drone with up to four of the Ambient Vocal loops mentioned earlier. The second, Vocal Traveler allows you to have any of the vocal loops from any region in any of the four vocal slots. I put four low Mongolian chanting voices in the four slots and had a wonderful texture of vocal gravel that I don’t know how I would have gotten otherwise. So the Travelers do have other uses than simply to make loop based groove textures. And again, any of the controls on the faceplate of the Traveler can be externally controlled by MIDI continuous controllers, so you can get a wide variety of changing sound complexes from these small instruments.
In 1966, German electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen travelled to the NHK Studios in Tokyo and realized his piece “Telemusik” using their large library of recordings of music from around the world. His usual way of treating the sounds was to have one sound modulating another, with the result then modulated by a third sound. This produced a large vocabulary of what he called “Intermodulation” sounds, where sounds of different cultures were not just combined with each other, as in a collage, but which actively changed aspects of each other. Today, with the collection of loops available in the UVI World Suite, you would no longer need to travel to Tokyo (or your local university library) to get an amazing collection of sounds to begin such a work with. They are right here, available for you to begin the next stage of a kind of meta-world music, one that Stockhausen, in the 60s, could only dream of.
However, although there is an astounding variety of resources in the World Suite, it is by no means a complete collection of all the music of the world. Such a collection would clearly be impossible, or at least beyond the means of any one company to produce. Still, one can have desires, and here are the instruments I most missed in the collection – the Launeddas from Sardinia, the PIri from Korea, the Khene from Laos, the Hichiriki from Japan, and the Kapa Gaida from Bulgaria. In terms of loops, loops of Indonesian Gamelan and Sumatran Tube Zithers, and more varied Asian vocals (some P’ansori from Korea, and traditional Beijing Opera would be nice.) And while we’re at it, how about some Native American content? That would be most welcome in a collection such as this. In other words, as wonderful as this collection is, don’t sell your Ocora, Barenreiter, Folkways, Canyon, or Nonesuch “Music of the World” LPs and CDs quite yet.
If I have some small doubts about this set, which I’ve set out in this review, I don’t want them to take away from the fact that this is, without doubt, the most diverse, deeply sampled, and loving collection of world-wide timbres I’ve ever seen. The quality of the sounds is amazing, and as stated earlier, the depth of the programming is such that whole new areas of musical exploration are implied. While testing out timbre after timbre in this set, I kept finding absolutely beautiful sounds, sounds that went far beyond the ethnic origin of any individual instrument. This set is a truly amazing resource. No matter what your musical tastes, you’ll find lots to like here. And at only $299 USD, the price, for what you get, is actually ridiculously cheap. In short, and like their Attack EP88 Electric Piano I reviewed a couple of issues ago, UVI has, in creating deeply sampled and complexly programmed instruments, created new timbral resources for composers which have the potential to take us far beyond our usual musical habits. And with this set, they give you (mostly) the whole world as well. I think we’re now ready to go beyond those trite categories of “World Music” or “Crossover Music,” and with resources like this, really begin to make a music which derives from the traditions of the whole Earth, while remaining true to the visions of each one of us, from our own particular cultures. Buy this set. You won’t regret it.
Mac or PC compatible: Mac OSX 10.7 or higher; Windows 7 or higher (32 and 64-bit)
Runs in UVI Workstation version 2.6.8+ and Falcon version 1.2.0+
Requires iLok account, 30 GB of disk space, 4GB RAM
Recommended: Hard drive 7,200 rpm or Solid State Drive; 8GB+ RAM recommended.
Download size: 18GB. (So you better have a good internet connection and some good downloader software!)
Tested out on Falcon, running in Plogue Bidule (64 bit), on an ASUS i5 PC Windows 8.1 laptop with 4GB of RAM