Masterbits Vocal Sample CD
Despite the technological revolution that has changed the way almost everything else in music is produced, you still need a singer to record vocals — or do you? David Hughes looks at a sample CD that opens the door to a new way of laying down backing vocals.
If you were to ask a group of sound engineers which area of their work they found most demanding in terms of time, resources, and grey hairs; a fair percentage of them would undoubtedly reply "vocals". Vocals have always been a thorn in my side principally because, even these days, not many singers come equipped with MIDI ports! So, given the problems that finding and using vocalists can pose, wouldn't it be handy to have a decent collection of vocal samples which you could call upon at a moment's notice?
Well, the latest addition to the MasterBits sample library provides you with just that. It boasts over 650 vocal samples on a single compact disc and, with a total playing time of just over one hour, it represents pretty good value for money. The samples themselves cover a wide range of styles, although broadly speaking they fall into two groups: 'percussive' and 'sustained'. The percussive samples are essentially the kind of patterns and phrases which tend to add colour to a vocal arrangement. The sustained samples are better suited to backing vocal applications and choir-like effects.
The samples come in the form of 89 tracks, and track 1 is actually a demo song. Whilst it's not going to shake the very foundations of the techno-pop world, it is pretty good at showing off what's to follow. The final track is a 0dB sine wave test signal, a very useful feature of the CD. Having said that, track 89 isn't the best location for it, especially if, like me, your CD player doesn't have a 'jump to track X' function and you have to manually step through each of the preceding 88 tracks to reach it! If you want to check the output level, it's far easier to listen to one of the preceding tracks than plod right the way through to the end of the disc.
I was pleased to find that the levels of the samples are very consistent right across the CD. There were none of the violent changes in signal level which earlier releases in the MasterBits range occasionally suffered from. The samples have been recorded with the minimum of EQ and effects, which means that it's up to you to treat the sound as you see fit. Most of the samples are perfectly good on their own, although a touch of reverb always seems to work wonders.
As I mentioned above, the samples cover a broad range of vocal styles and techniques, and seven artists — three male and four female — have been used. Unfortunately, the documentation does not give you much of an idea of what's actually available until you play the disc — the information provided in the CD's index is rather minimal. Each entry consists of a one word description of the sample, the position of the sample within its track, and a numeric code identifying the singer. I would have preferred to see each group of samples listed under a descriptive heading, such as 'Blues', 'Techno' or 'Rock 'n' Roll'.
The principal application of this CD will be the production of backing vocals. Most of the samples are simple vowel type sounds, such as 'Mmmm', 'Ahhh', or 'Ohhh', sustained over a few seconds, although there are more complex variations on these simple phrases.
After track 1 — the demo song — the disc gets off to a good start with several 'Oohs' and 'Aaahs', 'A-Ha-As' and 'O-Ho-Os', each with a fair amount of expression and power behind them. After this comes a collection of blues/rock samples which I found to be immediately useful — full of energy and bounce, and they really help to make a track sound busy. Most of these sounds are presented as multi-samples so that you can spread them across your keyboard to produce a more realistic effect. However, due to the nature of the samples, I found it very hard to produce anything like a usable crossfade between samples, and splits are much more successful.
The percussive effects which follow consist of simple words such as 'Gush', 'Gosh', 'Yeah', and 'Zong'. These lack the well-defined pitch of the sustained sounds. Phrases such as the odd 'One, two, three' are perfect for convincing anyone within earshot that you actually have a real band in the studio, and it's not just you and that darned computer messing about! Other useful offerings include some good old rock 'n' roll classics, such as 'Shoobeedoobopbop' and 'Haphapbidubiduwapwap' [??! - Ed] delivered with appropriate energy. I was a little disappointed not to find 'Tutti-Frutti' or 'Good Golly, Miss Molly' samples — but then you can't have everything, can you?
The ad lib section is a mixed bag. 'Ad libs 2-5' (track 31) are truly excellent — very James Brown — whilst the Don Giovanni sample, sung in the manner of an Italian tenor, is most definitely not going to have Pavarotti looking to his laurels.
The final section of the CD is given over to the sustained sounds, which are best suited to producing simple backing tracks. I found this over long and too repetitive, but nevertheless it is from this section that the CD will probably earn its keep. Six of the seven contributing artists are represented, and each has recorded their own version of the same performance, so you should be able to match one of the vocalists to your preferred style. Essentially, the samples consist of standard backing vocal phrases such as 'Duhh', 'Ehhh', 'Ohhh', and 'Dahhh', each multi-sampled across a range of two octaves, and sometimes more depending on the performer.
When it came to actually sampling the sounds for my own use — with an Akai S950, which I've always found to be very simple and straightforward to use — I had little difficulty in obtaining good quality sounds. In only one instance did I have a problem with producing a musically useful loop, which I attributed to a slight vibrato in the original sample. However, I did find several samples which seemed to lack their full attack portions. This could be due to the threshold level on the master sampler (an Akai S1000) being set too high, but whatever the reason, errors of this sort shouldn't really get as far as the production version of a CD like this.
Overall, the quality of this CD is good, but it has its shortcomings. For me, it doesn't really go far enough in terms of the range of sounds available — I would have liked to have heard some decent choirs, and good operatic samples — but you have to approach this sort of disc with the right attitude. If you're looking for a collection of lead vocal sounds with the expression of Annie Lennox or the power of Bruce Dickinson, then dream on. What we have here is a library of useful sounds that will help you put together very reasonable backing vocal arrangements, without the need to spend hours in the studio slaving over a hot mixing desk. For many people, it should prove a very valuable resource.
£45 inc VAT.
Advanced Media Group, (Contact Details).
Review by David Hughes
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