Guest article by Jeremy Cubert about imitating real instruments
Imitating “real” instruments has been the holy grail of synthesis and sampling for decades. The plethora of keyboard presets with names like guitar, violin, piano, sax, flute etc. hinted at the desire of many players to access these instruments through synthesis.
However, the desire to imitate presented at least two problems:
- the sounds were not all that close to the “real” thing, and
- expressiveness on standard controllers were limited.
Improvements in computer, sampling, and modeling technology have largely addressed the first problem – the sounds are indeed very, very close. However, the second problem persists and is the Achilles heel of making convincing virtual recordings and performances.
Enter the multi-dimensional controller! With LinnStrument, Roli Seaboard, Haken Continuum, the Eigenharp and others, the musician can readily add natural sounding vibrato, pitch bends, and changes in timbre through micron level movements of fingers.
So, the pieces of the puzzle may finally be in place. Now what?
In this Getting Real series of articles, I am exploring the use of the LinnStrument with sound generators designed to imitate real instruments and how to approach playing them in a realistic way. Let’s consider LinnStrument as a controller, take a look at sound generators, and discuss techniques for achieving realistic performances.
As a Chapman Stick player, I was immediately drawn to LinnStrument because the fourths tuning of LinnStrument’s “strings” is identical to the melody side of the Chapman Stick. The combination of pressure sensitivity and the ability to slide between notes make LinnStrument an excellent choice for exploring more nuanced expression.
You can set LinnStrument to light up particular scales to guide you along its 8 rows and 200 keys. I was a little unsure of this feature at first, but it is tremendously helpful – especially when reaching for intervals (e.g., octaves, fourths, and fifths). The ability to play more than one note on a “string” has opened up new possibilities for polyphonic sound sources. Importantly, chord shapes and scales are identical anywhere on the “fretboard.”
The ability to play realistically on LinnStrument depends a great deal on the choice of sound, and setting both the LinnStrument and the sound source to work together. The Logic Pro X file provided on the LinnStrument website is an excellent starting point. However, I soon found myself wishing for more realistic sound generators to try. The LinnStrument website also provides links to sound generators and lists the sound generator’s features that are available to LinnStrument players. Using these resources and my own searches, I came up with the folllowing list of sound generators:
- Sample Modeling Saxophones and The Trumpet
- Impact Soundworks Turkish Oud
- Orange Tree Samples Iconic Bass Jaco
- Applied Acoustic Systems (AAS) String Studio 2 and Strum GS2
The first three on the list required a certain leap of faith because there were no demos available – either they would work well or I had made a fairly expensive mistake. AAS provided demos for me to try before buying.
As a general rule, the products that utilize sampling technology require suitable disc space, a robust hard drive, and a good quality audio interface to get the best performance. The AAS products are modeled and require little disc space, however depending on what you are doing you may need to keep on eye on your CPU meter. In my case, I did not have any technical issues with performance using LinnStrument, my MacBook and these sound generators.
I am fundamentally a piano player – I think and visualize in piano despite playing several other instruments (with varying degrees of skill). The challenge with imitating a “real” instrument is to try to impose a bit of the mindset of the instrument you are imitating in your thought process. The first instrument I attempted to imitate was drums. My brother (my best critic) would often give me feedback like “listen to real drummers – they could never do what you’re doing.” After a lot of trial and error (and use of another alternate controller, the Zendrum) my virtual drumming improved a great deal. Here are some suggested steps for approaching reality:
Step One: Think Like A “Fill-In-The-Blank” Player
Step One has both practical and abstract parts. On the practical side, understand the range of the instrument and what can be done with it. For example, some instruments are monophonic so do not play chords. For stringed instruments, it is not possible to play more than one note on a string (although possible to play the notes on different strings). Listen to players carefully to understand their phrasing, how they get from one note to the next, how they articulate notes, how they tune of the instrument, whether they play melodies or chords, and whether they play fast or slow.
Some of the sound generators make this step very easy. For example, many of the sampled instruments only bother sampling notes that are in the range of the instrument. In addition, many include the ability to add articulations either by key switching or automatically (e.g., playing legato will result in a slur or hammer on). Modeled instruments tend to give the musician more options which can lead to very interesting and musical results, but not if you are attempting to imitate the real instrument.
Step Two: Adjust The Controller To Match Your Playing To The Sound Generator
For some sound generators, I needed to adjust the velocity sensitivity on the LinnStrument to the lowest setting because the minimum amount of pressure resulted in maximum velocity and some undesirable results (squeaks, and unwanted vibrato). For other instruments, I adjusted the sensitivity on the sound generator instead. This is a trial and error process that will depend on your playing style. Importantly, the pitch bend will need to be adjusted for each instrument. For a violin, being able to slide a full octave is a wonderful feature. However, most guitar strings would break if you attempted to bend the pitch an entire octave! Imitating a slide guitar may require playing around with the pitch bend settings to obtain realistic results.
Step Three: Be Patient and Get Feedback
Trial and error is the name of the game with this process. You may be able to play some lines using these sound generators that would take twenty years to master on the real thing. On the other hand, the phrasing and transitions may be way off. Be patient with yourself as you adapt to the controller and the sound generator and do not be afraid to experiment. Get feedback from real players.
Step Four: Listen, Listen, Listen
Spend time listening to a variety of players – paying close attention to note transitions and phrasing. Try playing along with songs – preferably solo performances. For several of these instruments, I already have favorite players that I have listened to for many years (e.g., Miles Davis, Michael Brecker, and Jaco Pastorious). Having these masters as points of reference is very, very helpful. In other cases, I actually have played the instrument being imitated (e.g., trumpet, and Oud-like instrument). The modern sound generators are really quite good at getting the sound right. The trick in playing these sound generators is to provide everything else – phrasing, articulation, transitions, realistic harmonies, etc.
The sound generators I explored have not quite caught up to LinnStrument’s capabilities. For example, none of the products discussed below permit each voice to receive on a separate MIDI channel, necessary for polyphonic pitch bends and polyphonic Y-axis control.
However, that does not mean LinnStrument is not suited for playing these sounds. The combination of velocity and pressure sensitivity with the ability to bend pitch by sliding your finger provides all that is needed for realistic performances. Do not be shy about contacting plug-in developers to request new features and let them know about LinnStrument.
Future articles in this series will feature various sound generators. For a preview, here is an improvised trio piece using the Sample Modeled Saxophone, bass, and drums all improvised on the LinnStrument.
Meanwhile, happy playing!
Jeremy Cubert is a solo artist and member of the jazz fusion band Apothecary (www.apothecaryband.com) and international progressive rock band Formativ (www.soundcloud.com/formativ). He has recorded with Jon Anderson and Billy Sherwood of Yes and the bands Quest, Zapotec, History of Ties, and the Archaic Revival.
While primarily a piano and keyboard player, Jeremy has studied and played instruments including the Chapman Stick, LinnStrument, Zendrum, Eigenharp, guitar, Godin MultiOud, and trumpet.