Bob Clearmountain Sample CDs
On a clear day you can usually tell the difference between sampled and real drums. But if the quality of the samples is high enough, will there come a time when you can't tell which is which? David Mellor listens to two new sample cds.
I know that I'm never likely to feel that I have enough samples in my library, but how to catalogue the vast number that are now commercially available? That's becoming a question of some importance. New CDs are always welcome but we are well beyond the stage when well recorded samples are a novelty, and any new release has to have something special to recommend it. These two discs, Bob Clearmountain Sampling CDs Volumes 1 and 2 from East West Communications, come with the brand name of a producer of some repute (Simple Minds, Bryan Adams, INXS, Rolling Stones) and he isn't backward at coming forward when it comes to promoting his wares. The story, so it goes, is that Mr. Clearmountain — is that his real name? — had been in the habit of producing well recorded drum tracks and samples for his own use, and he was persuaded that it might be in his interest to sell samples rather than wait for people to, inevitably, pinch them from his records. Well, whatever the truth of it, the Bob Clearmountain name helps these sample CDs stand out from the crowd, and makes you want to have a listen to see how good they really are.
One thing in particular that I like to see in the notes enclosed with a sample CD is a detailed description of how the sounds were recorded, and the Clearmountain CDs do give a reasonable amount of information. The first CD in the set, prosaically entitle 'Drum Samples' was recorded direct to DAT in Bearsville Studio and A&M Studios B and D. Maybe we aren't all familiar with these particular studios, but the information is there for pros who are and will appreciate being told. Neve and SSL consoles were used to give the production a certain amount of class, and Pultec valve EQ was used on a few of the snare samples. So, let's dive into the disc and see what it has to offer and how the sounds shape up.
I can't describe all 259 of the samples in detail, so I'll look at just a few sets of samples. Track 29 (isn't that where you board the Chattanooga Choo Choo?) is a prime example of one drum providing a variety of sounds — 17 to be precise. And this is actually 17 times four because each sample is played four times (not just repeated four times, but four different performances). These can profitably be used to make a drum track sound more natural than when the same sample pounds away over and over again. The drum in question is a Gretsch 18" x 24" maple bass drum which belongs to a certain Paul Jamieson (I imagine the owner is credited so producers know who to call if they want the same sound, but played live).
The first index point of track 29 (I wish more CD players could use them) is the drum itself, recorded with a combination of AKG D12 (the classic bass drum mic) and Sennheiser MD421. Played with a plastic beater, the drum is as sharp and aggressive as you would like; ripe for use as it is or ready for further processing. But you don't have to add digital reverb to this sample because there are further versions which add room ambience in varying amounts. The next index adds a distant Neumann U87 to provide a small amount of mono 'atmosphere'. The third uses a stereo AKG C24 instead. More room is added until we get to index 7, described as "the works", which uses the D12, MD 421, C24 and two U87s to give a fuller bass drum sound than anyone has proved that there's actually a market for — yet.
Next, the plastic beater is exchanged for a soft felt beater to give a rich thud. As before, ambience mics are added, progressing towards a very roomy sound. Three extra versions use Lexicon 480L and AMS RMX16 reverb units to give alternative useful sounds.
The star snare of the collection is Bob Clearmountain's own 6 1/2" Ludwig Black Beauty, with no less then 29 index points in track 11. The first thing you will notice about this drum is that it sounds like a real instrument and makes you realise just how sanitised drum machine samples and other examples from sample libraries are in comparison. The funny thing is that when you record a real drum, there's a temptation to try and eliminate some of its less desirable characteristics, and if you are recording for sampling purposes then you almost bound to go for a state of 'perfection' which usually means flat and uninteresting. OK, it may sock you between the eyes but it isn't really a true drum sound anymore. The first eight of the indices on this track use Bob Clearmountain's tuning with little or no damping, which gives the drum a good deal of ring. I was surprised at first, but then I tried to imagine it in context, and I do believe that it will improve sampled drum tracks, if your aim is to go for a naturalistic feel. As with the bass drum there are a variety of mikings, some close, some more distant — in fact some are so distant that they are practically in the next room. I think I'll give those a miss. Later versions uses a higher tuning which gives a snappier sound.
I would like to go on to say how punchy the tom toms are, and how clear and bright the cymbals sound, but if I do that I'll have no space left for the next CD, which is...
The Percussion And Bass CD has an extra attraction in the form of a new recording system called QSound. If you were lucky enough to witness the demonstration on Tomorrow's World/Radio 1 on March 21st of Roland's RSS system, which can create sound images well outside the width of the speakers, then you will have an idea of what QSound can do, since it would appear to be trying to do pretty much the same thing. All the samples here are presented in both stereo and QSound, so you can take you pick. But let's examine the straight stereo samples first and then consider what QSound can do for them.
As with all sample CDs of percussion instruments, there are some new ones I hadn't heard of before. I think that people must be scavenging scrapyards and then giving their sonically useful finds esoteric names. Well, it doesn't matter, provided they sound good, but I do wonder how a 'street guiro' is supposed to differ from an everyday one — it actually sounds like an old bedframe with rattling springs. I'm also curious about the 'nut shell pod tree shakers'! The one thing I can say that applies to all the conventionally recorded samples is that they do seem very vivid. I wish that some information had been included on miking techniques to see how they achieved this. There is a lot of recording data, but this aspect is missing for some reason.
Unlike on the drum CD, we are only treated to one rendition of each sound, which is a pity. Especially with some of the more complex sounds, the ear can quickly pick up on exact repetitions and it would have been good to have some variety. I can't pick out just a few tracks of particular interest on this CD since they are all good; so listen from track 1 and see what you think. Certainly, if you haven't got a percussion sampling CD then you won't go wrong with this one, both in range of instruments (four different size triangles!) and in quality. And by the way, the bass guitars on this disc are also excellent.
But what about QSound? Is it going to bring about a revolution in sampling technology as we know it? Well, I would guess that with both QSound and RSS on the market, we are going to hear lots of sounds coming from strange parts of our listening rooms, since they both give strong out-of-the-speaker images. The snag is that the QSound hardware isn't for sale, and whilst RSS is, it costs not a small fortune but a fairly large one. However, you and I can still have access to this new technology by using QSound or RSS encoded samples, and I believe that thus is the first sampling CD to feature either of these systems. When the booklet describes QSound samples as being at 3 o'clock or 9 o'clock, it means what it says — the instrument is right at your side. For some instruments the image is incredibly solid and realistic. For others it merely broadens the sound stage, but it's still worth having.
I can warmly recommend both of these CDs. The sound and overall production quality is high, so their price is fully justified. The addition of QSound adds an extra dimension to sampling since a) it's another new sound in the armoury anyway, and b) it will provide a way to incorporate this new technology into our recordings at a low cost (I do think that in, say, a year's time, that normal stereo will be starting to sound just a little old fashioned). There's just one more thing I'd like to say about having the opportunity to experience such a variety of sounds and excellent quality of recording — thanks Bob!
£69 inc VAT per volume, or both for £125 inc VAT.
Advanced Media Group, (Contact Details).
Review by David Mellor
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