Wilf Smarties gives a new batch of CDs a spin.
Wilson Laurencin is the drummer on the first of two related Canadian offerings. The opening tracks feature a series of loops, each centred around a specific tempo and style. There are around 10 or so 2-bar loops per track; tempos are given to two decimal places. As you would expect, there are beats, variations and fills. Between tracks, Wilson regales you with his beginners' guide to drum loop techniques.
The drum kit throughout is a crisp, bright snare over a clicky, rubbery, somewhat characterless kick, topped by state of the art hi-hats, cymbals, and quite open toms. The side-stick snare, when employed, has its level boosted relative to that for a natural drum kit. (This is an effect often aimed for when miking a live kit, normally achieved by compressing the snare). Separation between voices is excellent. I think the toms are gated, because I can hear the room coming in and out sometimes, but the gates close gently and no beats are missed or clipped.
Laurencin's styles revolve around rock/funk and everything is extremely tidy — nothing drastic or silly is attempted (unfortunately), but then again, there's nothing here to upset a die-hard muso. Only when at track 15 do we get a scene change, when a dry little 3-inch piccolo snare is introduced. Track 16 is heavier, with dry, ambient and non-linear reverberated drums. Track 17 is a similar juxtaposition of dry and ambient takes. Thus far, tempos have ranged from 60 to 132bpm, though no beats have got me onto the edge of my seat. However, all are superbly played, stereo is realistic and audio fidelity impeccable.
Track 18 is like the previous two tonally, though as the bpm ducks below 100 the drummer is getting funkier. From track 17 through to the last track, 42, the loop count tends to average over 15 per track. Track 24 heralds another new texture, digital reverb. Big deal. Track 25 has a more open, boomy bass drum. The beat is a lazy circa 90bpm effort, as are the succeeding tracks. Each trackload of beat blocks has been edited from a single long take.
Track 29 might be a good place to start sampling: an up-front brushed snare was quite arresting. I wish there were more of these. Track 34 has variously an in-time slapback stereo echo and/or a resonant (possibly static flanged) non-linear reverb applied to kick and snare. Same with 35. And 36, 'Really Funky', has had all the funk knocked out of it by the OTT use of effects. Track 37 utilises a variety of effects, including 'React To Rhythm' style swept-flanged hi-hats. On track 38, the clicky but deep kick was educational: the on-beats were dug in hard with the foot pedal, therefore damped quickly as the beater hugged the bass drum skin. The off-beats were open, therefore boomier. Accenting offbeats in this way is the inverse of what a programmer would tend to do. Interesting.
Track 40 exposes a ringing snare. There are no surprises on 41 and 42.
What more can I say about these loops? The 600 or so on board cover a fairly narrow style and sound spectrum: real '80s Stateside session drummer stuff. The upside is that if you can use these beats (and they have a wide application due to their undemanding nature), you'll have a much wider choice of complementary fills, variations, and so on, than is usual. I will definitely be trying out some of these loops.
A set of one or two floppies accompanies this product, containing groove templates for Cubase users. Before you fork out an additional fiver for them, I suggest you read the section of the next review which deals with the floppies.
Conclusion: there's not a lot wrong with this collection of beat blocks. Don't expect a tune to jump out of a loop, though — these are definitely in the supporting cast bracket. If you want crisp, perfectly recorded session drumming to replace your drum programs, or want to build a song using real drums but can't afford MU session rates and studio fees, these samples are for you. If you like a beat, you'll find plenty of variation around the theme to help you build a completely natural sounding performance.
I have two criticisms. Firstly, why no single hits, particularly of the kit used on most of the loops? And secondly, why change the sonic environment midway though a track (as happens often)? Surely the whole idea is to provide self-consistent beat block sets?
£54.95 inc VAT.
Time & Space, (Contact Details).
When the creator of the most-sampled drum loop ever comes out of hiding to produce a CD full of new drum loops, it's a major event in sampling history. Clyde Stubblefield spent the '60s in the JBs, and a better grounding in funk is hard to imagine. It's now the '90s: has some of the fire gone out? Read on.
If you've read the previous review, you'll have a fair idea of what's on offer. The format is 10 or so 2-bar beat blocks per 46 tracks, and the kit sounds less produced than Wilson's, with no gating obviously in evidence. There is still the characteristic DNA babble between tracks, but this time it's a history lesson rather than a BBC2 drum workshop.
The ambience of a smallish room is detected on the opening tracks. Diving right into track 17, here is the closest approximation we've had so far to a dry miking technique. Clyde's drumming (and yours truly) have been begging for this treatment since the onset of this CD. In the room he sounds just like any other good drummer. Dry him up, and the old school tie starts to show.
It's hard to discern if the excitement of those old James Brown drum tracks persists. Much water has passed under the bridge that James Brown used to take it to — plus here there is no band pushing him along. Nevertheless, the beats are still intact, and there is a loose feel and attitude about his playing. For a closer approximation to the sound of a rare groove, try compressing the loops and trim off some top end.
A wide range of funky styles are covered. Some are pretty routine, though imbued with the character of Clyde. Particularly appealing (for the dance samplist) are the busy snare + hi-hat patterns which start from track 27. These would sit beautifully on top of a simple programmed 909 kick. There are some more glorious examples on track 31, and track 32 contains some tricky snare/drop snare/side-stick snare work, miked both ambient and close. Track 33 sounds almost military. Track 34 has more busy snares, plus a couple of kick accents, and 35 has a nice 6/8 feel. Track 36 is the closest thing to 'Funky Drummer' thus far.
Track 43 has some luscious beats including a distinctive side-stick pattern. Clyde has definitely warmed up by now — the second half of this CD is where you should start sampling from.
Tempos range from just over 70 to just under 150bpm, and the copious sleeve notes include a tempo distribution map, as well as useful advice, hints and tips and examples of how to use the drum loops and their Cubase groove templates. Unlike the previous CD, the 2-bar loops are not offered with that all-important extra beat, so looping via sequencer or sampler will be a little less precise and/or more time consuming. Although bpms are again given to two decimal places, if you want to retune 120.6 to 120, for example, you'll need to get the calculator out to be absolutely sure. It's interesting to note that Clyde takes liberties with the tempo that have been drummed out of Wilson at the New York Drummers' Collective. Clyde will quite happily serve up a 5% variation in speed within a single track. (Remember, each track is distilled from a single longer take.) I love him for it.
A few words on the two floppies with the CD. These are jammed with groove quantise templates for Cubase. Way too many, in fact. For every loop, far less track, there are two sets of 16 sub-grooves, corresponding to Pulse Motion and Beat Motion. The trouble starts when you try to load these in. In order to do so, you must enter EDIT QUANTIZE, then LOAD. Only one set of sub-grooves can be loaded at a time.
Let's say you were using all 12 or so loops within a single CD track in your song (not unreasonable, since each trackload of samples comes from the same take). Next you construct a bassline for the entire song. You now want to quantise your playing so that it matches the feel of the drums. For each of the 12 drum parts, you would have to load in a new set of groove templates, and this would be the case every time you recorded a new instrument part requiring time correcting. This procedure seems ergonomically disastrous. A better bet would have been to have the root template for all loops within a track simultaneously loadable. If the user then wanted to shift beats or pulses, he or she could do it manually. Of course, there is another way to make Cubase swing, by using the 'Q' tool for quantise mapping. Under this regime, you forget all about groove templates as such. Instead, you make up patterns containing groove-matched, sixteenths of a bar notes. Not only can the timing then be mapped to any other part, but also the note dynamics. All you have to do when arranging a song is to make up a corresponding Quantise Mapping patterns track. Then, when you play in a new piano part, you just drag down vertically from that track the quantising relevant to that section.
I tested out one of the DNA groove template sets, and the quantise match was not absolutely perfect on any of the variants (though much better than any standard Cubase quantising template). [STOP PRESS: Since the writing of this review, WC Music Research, the company behind the DNA disks, have announced the creation of MIDI files which match the exact playing of the loops on the CDs. This means that the kind of 'match quantising' mentioned above can be quickly and easily undertaken with sequencers that allow it. These MIDI files will be available soon and will be included in the price of the Groove Template disks.]
Conclusion: can I criticise this CD? Of course I can, nobody's perfect. Once again, there are no single hits, and for my conservative taste, there is not enough dry material in this beat bunker. As I've said before, you can put reverb on, but you can't take it off. Also, I'd have focussed even more on the aspects of Clyde's playing everyone knows and loves: the fiercely funky drumming. Still, you'd have to have feet of lead and a heart of stone not to feel the urge to pay this man respect. Fork out now, for any number of reasons. I must knock off a half star for those totally wardrobe groove templates, which really should have been an option. (They will be on future releases, I'm told.)
£59.95 inc VAT and 2 floppy disks for Cubase users.
Time & Space, (Contact Details).
An electric piano holds down a two-chord backdrop over a lazy hip hop beat; brushed snare and splash cymbal ornaments help to extend the tune's life. A bass murmurs low in the mix. Over the top, a soulful saxophone fuses away. 'Sub Track' is composed and played by Uwe Kinast, and gives a fair idea of the style and sound of the 399 saxophone licks and 189 notes that follow.
The samples proper start as usual on track 2. A baritone sax riffs leisurely but surely in C-Blues, C-major and F-major. BPMs are given (95/79, 68 and 54 respectively). The average length is around a couple of seconds, and the figures are probably best used in their entirety rather than cropped to one or two notes: the sound is too mellow for excruciatingly useful hits to be extracted. On the other hand, over an ambient backing and with plenty of repeat echo, these would sound excellent, exuding quality performance and tone. Tracks average around 5-6 licks each, and this section has 12 associated with it.
Much the same description applies to the tenor sax section, tracks 14-31. Keys include B-Mixolydisch (whatever that is), C-major and F-major, and tempos are a none-too rapid 81, 61 and 54/108. As in the last case, any slow tempo may be inserted onto a backbeat travelling at twice the speed. Then there is pitch-shifting and time stretching to help you fit samples to your bill.
From track 32 the alto sax licks are decidedly livelier, with an overriding tendency towards busy jazz. Track 45 is the first to appear in free tempo, and with its mellow, breathy content contrasts starkly with the brash licks on the tracks preceding it. Keys and tempos include D-minor (60/120), A-major (56/112), C- Blues (100), A-major (96), C-Blues (95), D#-minor (80), C-Blues (76) and C#-major (free time).
The soprano sax licks on tracks 50-75 are not a million miles removed from those of the preceding section, though more varied in speed. Some wicked sustains and a couple of viable trills lurk around tracks 59/60/61. Again, tone and playing are superb. This time we find riffs in and at D-minor (135), C#-Blues (124), C-Blues (114), G#-minor/dorian (104), C-major (84), B-Mixolydisch (81) and C-Blues (79).
The rest of the sample section of this CD is given over to single notes for the few samplists who can be bothered multisampling. Perhaps you'll want to use some of these to customise the raw riffs that precede them.
Track 76 offers 1/4 octave samples of layered sustained notes (11); 77 has similar, but basso profundo. Track 78 is an 11-note series of short hard attack clusters.
The Baritone is offered in four tracks: normal sustained, vibrato sustained, attack only and 'sub' sets. I loved the latter, where sub-harmonics coupled with much breathing produced a well-known, variously spelt aboriginal instrument substitute. (Didgeridu being my favourite so far). The Tenor, Alto and Soprano 4-track sets are presented in exactly the same formats as the above.
And so to the Akai data section, which offers most of the multisamples ready to play, plus a few choice licks.
Conclusion: this is a pretty much faultless set from Masterbits. Fidelity is as good as I've heard, and samples are taken in mono in a dry environment. It would be churlish to complain that there wasn't enough really wild material on the CD, which is more tasteful than tasty. If you're looking for some fresh background sax licks, or high quality clean multisampled sax sets, shop here. It does carry a premium price tag, though.
£59 inc VAT.
AMG, (Contact Details).
Review by Wilf Smarties
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!