A collection of CDs which should be the sampler's delight are the stars of this month's Patchwork. If your music needs a boost from Ed Stratton, Coldcut or Pascal Gabriel, check out these disks.
Isn't it frightening how quickly we become blase about technology? Five hours ago I was playing with the sounds on this ROM, thinking something along the lines of it being another 200 well-programmed M1 sounds - ethereal, powerful, and predictable. Worrying, isn't it? This begs a question: has our attention span for new sounds become so short, our appetite for new experiences become so over-whelming, that the "mega" keyboard of three years ago has become Dullsville '91? Or can you genuinely have too much of a good thing?
Enough rhetoric. Let's look at the catchily-named B103 from Valhala. As already stated, it's well programmed, and contains many typical M1-ish sounds. It also provides some fat, punchy patches, and the usual melange of percussion, pads, and pianos. So, in the time-honoured fashion, let's pick out some Reid faves...
Amongst the programs you'll find basses, strings, sound effects, organs, and many vocal-based sounds, but the following are my pick of the crop. New-agers should try 'Relaxation', 'Belly End', 'Friday 13th' (with its world's worst B-movie vampire organ), 'Pure Warmth' and the inappropriately-named 'Slow Mallet'. For punchy brass go directly to 'Tool 4 Mix', 'Make a Point' and 'QuiteNieve'. Hammond fans, meanwhile, should dive straight in with 'Amped Organ' - definitely the biz. Also worthy of mention are the cutesy 'Delay Play', 'Don't Delay', and 'YuleTime'; and the analogue-ish 'Sweep&Hold' and 'Won Digit'. However, if I have to level a criticism at these programs (and I most certainly do), it's that there's too much reverb on most of them. Shorten the reverb time and decrease the reverb balance to make many of these sounds stand up in a mix. On the other hand, if you're not competing against a screaming lead guitar, maybe they're just fine as they are. Personally, I'm afraid I remain to be convinced.
In previous Valhala reviews I haven't even bothered to mention the Combinations because the Programs were so good. This time, unfortunately, many of the card's strongest sounds are Combinations. These are an invitation to write soundtracks for TV shows like Horizon or Life on Earth. Try 'Novatron' (which captures the spirit of the old tape-playing monster surprisingly well), the floating 'Majestik', the gorgeous fat and rich (hi mum!) 'Rising!' and 'Room of Gold', and other sure-fire AV winners, 'Beauty Bell', 'I am a D50!', 'Autumn', and 'Massive'. All these patches are winners in their own right, the only problem is that they use two or more programs in being so. The upshot of this is that the polyphony of the keyboard is often restrictively limited. My personal solution to this would be to buy two M1/Rs - they've got an overflow mode. Then again...
So where does this leave us? Reasonably impressed, but marginally disappointed I'd say. Making allowances for personal taste, this card is almost everything that the first Valhala International Gold cards (B101 and B102) were. But therein lies the rub. If you've already bought an earlier Valhala Gold card, and you're going to be asked to shell out even more of your hard-earned sponds for this one, you've got the right to expect something a little different - something more innovative than this collection. After all, it's been over a year since the earlier cards were released, and variations (no matter how well put together) of old ideas simply won't cut the ice. On the other hand, if you don't have the earlier Valhalas, this ROM is as good as any other card on the market (and rather better than most). On that basis, it is a good buy but isn't it a shame that Valhala couldn't make you want to own all three?
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Jazz Brakes Volume 1 (Ninja Tunc: Zen CD1)
Where the sample CD, as exemplified by the Datafile CDs, is a format designed purely for sampling purposes, with no musical reality of its own, the breakbeat album has always had some musical dimension to it. To begin with, it was essentially a compilation album bringing together pieces of music which contained popular breaks and samples (the Super Disco Brakes and Ultimate Breaks & Beats series of albums), then with the advent of affordable sampling it became possible to isolate the break from its original context and by repeating it, turn it into a backing track lasting several minutes (Simon Harris's Beats, Breaks and Scratches series of albums) - a hi-tech version of a DJ cutting between two copies of the same record.
In the years following the release of 'Say Kids What Time Is It?', Coldcut have become master sample manipulators. During the past year, they've been returning to their DIY underground roots with a succession of records on their Ninja Tune label which cater to a discerning dancefloor crowd rather than to an amorphous pop audience. Included among these is Jazz Brakes Volume 1, now available on CD together with Zen Brakes Volume 1, an appealing collection of what I'd say were Larry Heard-influenced abstract instrumental house tracks.
The sleeve instructs that Jazz Brakes should be filed under "breakbeats/jazz", yet simply calling it a breakbeat album doesn't really do it justice. Rather, it exists in some strange middle ground between the artistic and the merely functional, a collection of jazzy-flavoured funky instrumental dance tracks structured around breaks and repetition, and therefore eminently sampleable, and yet able to stand up as tracks in their own right. One track is given over to a sequential playback of some of the samples used on the album, with gaps between consecutive samples to help you pick them out for sampling - a feature which has been common on breakbeats albums since Simon Harris's series, and which of course also now forms the basis of the sample CD format. Artistic breakbeat albums? Whatever next?
Jazz Brakes is available from record retail outlets.
Pascal Gabriel's Dance Samples
The bandwagon is rolling... Yup, the "music industry" is finally waking up to the fact that - whether they approve or not - samplers are being used to more ingenious ends than simply recreating the sounds of instruments beyond the scope of synthesis. So it is that we find Roland releasing samples of their discontinued TR808 and 909 beatboxes for their latest Rhythm Composers and most manufacturers including "scratches" alongside the kicks 'n' snares of their latest digital drum machines.
Perhaps the most direct route to the samplers (people not machines) of the '90s is through sample CDs - although even here the bigger boys are being shown the way from the ground up. First there was Ed Stratton's Datafile series which was aimed fairly and squarely (and accurately) at the dance samplist. Now we have Pascal Gabriel (he of S' Express and Bomb the Bass fame) with his Dance Samples disc. Next it'll probably be George Martin's Beatles Sample Collection...
But back to the endearing, if slightly wacky, Pascal Gabriel. Released through the Advanced Media Group, his disc sets out to provide you with a direct route to the sort of breaks, hits, stabs, voxes and fx which have helped him help others up the pop charts. And with a running time of over 70 minutes, most of it in glorious stereo, it's a pretty generous helping at that. Each track is between four and 13 events, so some shuttling is usually involved in getting sounds off, but it's no real hassle.
The breakbeats come fully documented in terms of bpm, and cover some very flaky '70s grooves through to some very beefy slammers. The older stuff would readily support a range of musical styles from funk to hip hop; the more modern-sounding loops are strictly house. Track 7 in particular sounds like being house gold dust - expect to spot 'City Beat', 'Manic Beat', 'Chill Beat' or 'Syncrobeat' on a single near you soon.
Percussion loops are probably one of the least-discussed samplers' secret weapons. Using a top line or percussion loop you can turn a pedestrian (and unsampled) beatbox rhythm into something a little special. Pascal knows it and he's letting you in with some tasty congas, timbales and tambourines.
An abundance of individual drum, percussion and electronic hits follow up the loops - check 'em out. Be prepared for it to take you a while. While much the same can be said of the bass, synth, stab, vocal and fx sounds, PGDS is definitely strongest in its percussive material. That's not to say the other material is poor, more an acknowledgement that there are other sample CDs around - not to mention synths themselves - from which much of this type of material can be gleaned. As such it's not what I'd call a "complete" sample CD, more of a beat-building tool.
One area in which Pascal Gabriel's Dance Samples breaks new ground is in its use of the RSS 3D sound treatment system. For those of you only recently back from the outer planets, RSS sets out to create three-dimensional sound placements using a conventional two-speaker playback system. In terms of this sample CD, this means that the last 15 minutes or so of sounds can - in theory at least - bring 3D sound to your music.
In practice, the effectiveness of these samples depends heavily on a number of elements - the replay system, the musical setting, even the sounds themselves. It's good to have them on board - and there's no doubt they add "space" to a mix, but how 3D they sound is best judged by you. Incidentally, this section of samples isn't fresh material, it's earlier stuff that's been treated.
Another thoughtful provision of Pascal Gabriel's Dance Samples is the inclusion of a data section - five tracks of data for direct transfer to Akai S1000/1100. Thoughtful, certainly, but not that useful. AMG (decently) admitted that the data on the review disc wouldn't load.
Overall PGDS has to be worth checking out. The only way you're going to be wasting your time and money is if you still think a sampler should sound like an orchestra or you're seriously expecting the next Genesis Lp to get you on your feet.
More from The Advanced Media Group, (Contact Details).
Zero-G Datafile Two
The second in a projected set of three Datafile sample CDs produced by Ed Stratton, this new CD continues in the same vein as Datafile One (reviewed MT, August '91), being again aimed at dance producers, DJs, programmers and musicians. As with Datafile One, you get upwards of 1000 mono samples spread across 99 tracks and offering a mix of breakbeats, drum and percussion samples, bass sounds, vocals, speech, and sci-fi/ambient fx.
In most cases, each sample has been recorded only once, with around one second of silence between samples; however, short percussion sounds are repeated once for convenience. Talking of convenience, the sample list in the accompanying booklet identifies each sample by category and description, and allows you to see at a glance which track on the CD a sample is located within. However, samples are indexed per track in the booklet but not on the CD itself, so, with anything from seven to 24 samples per track (the average is around the 11 mark), "zeroing in" on a particular sample isn't quite as easy as it could have been; you can help yourself out here, though, by noting down the time locations of samples as you use them. Incidentally, if you've yet to invest in a CD player but are thinking of doing so in order to take advantage of the burgeoning sample CD market, do try to get a machine which has an A-B Repeat facility, as it's a real boon for sampling (not to mention for transcribing music, but that's another story).
Like Datafile One, the new CD starts off with a collection of programmed and sampled breakbeats (only this time 100 of them, compared to 60 on the first CD). They're either one or two bars long, provide you with various tempos and styles to work with, and include plenty of very credible (and familiar) breaks. Although Stratton is best known as a house/techno musician through his work under the names Jack 'n' Chill and Man Machine, there's a strong hip hop influence in his approach to sampling on the Datafile CDs, as well as in his choice of material - which is perhaps not surprising when you realise that back in the mid-'80s he was engineering on Mike Allen's twice-weekly hip hop show on Capital Radio and putting together the show's jingles using an Ensoniq Mirage.
Where Datafile One provided samples of the TR808, TR909 and TR727, Datafile Two turns the spotlight on a more recent Roland drum machine, the R8, and Alesis' HR16B. Also in the drum and percussion department are 35 sounds in the category of Miscellaneous House Percussion (including go-go bell, snap-clap, various snares, 808 bass drum boom and several bell trees), 14 in the category Kraftwerk-style Electro Percussion (bass drum and various snares, blips and zaps) and 12 Human Beatbox vocal samples.
Basses include various deep and funky sounds programmed by Stratton on his Juno 106 and SH101 synths and a selection of miscellaneous bass sounds including synthbasses, acid bass, woody bass, funk bass and DX bass. Many of the synthesised bass sounds are around three seconds long, so for most applications you can get away without looping them if you've got the memory to spare.
Perhaps inevitably, there's a multisampled Italo-house piano - plinky, bright and percussive - which is well suited to the characteristic staccato chording of the style; the ten samples aren't meant to be looped. Guitars come to the Datafile world in the form of several funky guitar breaks which naturally migrate towards the breakbeats, together with various electric guitar "stabs", string bends, riffs and sustained notes. Also new to Datafile Two is a sample category going by the, er, upfront name of Sex Vocals, offering various sampled groans and gasps of the female kind. Sung vocals are divided into ad-libs (mostly wordless phrases of the "Eee-ee-yeah", "Oh-aar-oh" and "Woo-oo-yeahhh" variety) and hooks (such as "I'm gonna get you!", "Squeeze me baby" and "Give it all you got!"), some male but mainly female.
Sci-fi & Rim Atmospherics is a category which is not greatly explored on Datafile Two, and one which could perhaps be developed on the third Datafile CD. Where Datafile Two is particularly strong, however, is on speech samples (human, robot, cartoon and sci-fi, including many phrases which are well-known and popular within dance music) and fx samples (sci-fi techno, industrial, ambient, automotive and miscellaneous house/techno) which exhibit various degrees of "off-the-wall"-ness.
Datafile Two, then, is basically more of the same but different, with the same combination of rawness, cheekiness and honesty which made Datafile One so appealing. In fact, it complements Datafile One very effectively, and as such should appeal to the crowd who have been buying Stratton's first CD.
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