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Reviewed By pethu [read all by] on 19th June 2010
Version reviewed: 4.1 on Windows
7 of 9 people found this review helpful.
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2 major version upgrades to what is arguably one of the most widely used and influential software instruments on the market, and not a review in nearly three years? I mean - come on, people!

Then again, writing an even half-way comprehensive review in the space allotted here is impossible, so I won't even try.

Quite a few people still complain about the fact that the Kontakt “sampler” still does not sample. Fair enough. However, calling it a just sample player wouldn't really be very fair either. In fact, the entire concept has evolved so far beyond a traditional sampler that I think the best comparison nowadays is rather more the “instrument design environments” like Reaktor or SynthEdit.

The Kontakt Scripting Language together with a staggering amount of internal FX and sample-mangling/processing capabilities means you can take your basic raw samples in any direction you like – striving for the utmost in real-world instrument emulations, or making sure the sound that goes out the speakers have almost nothing to do with the sound of the raw samples.

Add to this the per-instrument GUI customization (introduced in Kontakt 3 and greatly enhanced in Kontakt 4) and more than ever before, you now have a feeling that each Kontakt patch acts as a discrete, solid instrument with at least the same diversity and level of real-time control as stand-alone plugins usually offer.

On paper, the changes in Kontakt 4 might have sounded a little underwhelming compared to the huge leap forward that was Kontakt 3. However – especially with the release of 4.1 – some usability enhancements has really transformed the product, and begs the question “why wasn't these very obvious features included years ago”?

First up, Kontakt f-i-n-a-l-l-y has a half-way decent database/patch browser allowing you to categorize all your Kontakt instruments in a meaningful way (although you have to “batch resave” (convert) all your instrument files to Kontakt 4 format first). Currently, the browser has its share of performance problems, most of which I expect will be addressed in upcoming updates. (However, working with the database on a discrete sample level could remain a very sluggish business, if you read between NI's own lines...)

Secondly, Kontakt 4.1 recently introduced intelligent background sample loading which means projects containing several huge Kontakt instruments now take seconds rather than minutes to load. It may then take a while before playing such a project becomes smooth and crackle-free, but the feeling of increased responsiveness is tremendous – as is the experience when loading single instruments for live play, or quick patch-browsing.

The amount of work that has gone in to re-designing Kontakt's instrument library is quite impressive – they have really gone to town on the old content from previous versions to make use of the new GUI possibilities, and the new additions are just the things that I were sorely missing – a decent choir, some mellotron tapes, and orchestral solo strings. Having gone from a haphazard collection of odds and ends in version 2, the library now feels coherent and fairly complete. Two recently killed-off NI products are “compensated” for by the inclusion of all instruments from the Elektrik Piano library, and a decent number or Hammond organ variations (which are usable but sadly don't hold a candle to B4 II.)


An amateur/casual musician could spend a long time making amazing music without ever leaving the confines of Kontakt and its included library.
Reviewed By pethu [read all by] on 6th September 2007
Version reviewed: 2.0.15 on Windows
2 of 2 people found this review helpful.
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Jamstix 1 was developed from the idea of an "intelligent" jamming buddy, responding to the intensity of your playing in a life-like manner. In time it grew well beyond that, incorporating an arranger section enabling you to give your drummer detailed instructions of what to play, and when to play it. However, as a result of this organic growth the user interface was a bit convoluted, to say the least, and much labour was required to get the results you wanted.

Jamstix 2 has been redone from the ground up -- it's got the same basic ingredients and capabilities, but done in a completely different and much more user-friendly manner. In the transition, it has gone from being jam-centric to arranger-centric, a very good thing for me personally since I don't use the jamming features (much). Instead, I now have a number of competent session drummers I can really sit down and talk arrangements with.

THE DRUMMER(S)

Leaving the live input (jamming) capabilities aside, there are a huge number of things that affect the way a certain part (one or more consecutive bars) in the song structure is played:

- Load a style to decide the basic rhythm -- there are about 50 styles included at the time of writing. These styles are not just patterns: Each style is customizable through a set of controls that is unique to each style. Some styles offer only minor variations, others are really a package of similar styles where you need to go exploring thoroughly in order to realise the possibilities. The March style, for instance, have both foot and snare settings of "March", "Baiao", and "Gadd" -- allowing you to use it for everything from western marching band music to Brazilian Baiao to a creditable emulation of Steve Gadd's famous drumming in "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover".

- Within the style, the playing for a bar is layered into "groove", "accent", and "fill" aspects: Each aspect has its own set of customization controls, and fills can be played in solo or in combination with the other aspects.

- As if this didn't create variety enough, now it's time to choose between the 9 available "drummers". These are models of real-life drummer behaviours that greatly affect the end results. Each drummer has his own ways to add syncopation, accents and fills to the drumming. In addition, you also have access to a totally "brainless" guy, and one who is a machine. The latter is the only one not taking human limitations into account when playing, but does things you would normally need a trained octopus for.

- Still not satisfied? Then go into the bar editor and edit drumming events individually to correct those small annoyances in an otherwise good performance. Manual edits, as well as entire bars, can be locked from further changes by Jamstix.

- Are we done yet? Not quite - you can also add groove maps to all or part of the song, and make global shuffle and general timing adjustments. In addition, there is the possibility to load your own MIDI files and have Jamstix modify those instead of using the built-in styles.

Yes, Jamstix 2 is deep - VERY deep - but in comparison to Jamstix 1, you can get the overall structure of a song together and the drumming in the ballpark much quicker. It is also really easy to move things around in the song structure without as much fear of destroying what you already have and like.

THE SOUND(S)

How does Jamstix 2 sound? The answer is, any way you like. You can use only its included drum kits, or sub-host a drum sampler of your choice within Jamstix 2, selecting drums from both sources to work together - use the percussion from Jamstix 2 together with a percussion-less kit in Battery 3, for instance. You can also go MIDI-only out from Jamstix into a drum sampler loaded separately in your host/sequencer.

The basic version of Jamstix 2 contains just one kit, but it is very, very good and "live sounding", although it will not suit all production styles. The XL version also contains all add-on kits released for Jamstix 1, including brushed kits (necessary for some jazz & swing styles) and close-miked kits. Overall, the drum sound quality is really good, competing with the best of the dedicated drum sample libraries, although naturally a bit generic in nature. You should really consider the XL version standard, and the basic version a "stripped down" one.

THE DOCUMENTATION

Ah, the old stumbling block... This product really needs a lot more readily accessible how-tos and tutorials. Besides, the sheer rate of feature add-on and improvement means it's almost impossible to keep the manual up to date. But let's face it, the Jamstix users are an enthusiast crowd, and some visits to the Rayzoon support forums should be obligatory!

There, I've run out of space already with nothing more than scratching the surface. So I'll end just by saying that Ralph Z of Rayzoon is the friendliest and most dedicated man in the entire business. There! Go Buy Jamstix!
Reviewed By pethu [read all by] on 15th August 2007
Version reviewed: 1.6 on Windows
7 of 7 people found this review helpful.
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INTERFACE

The CS-80V manages to combine a confusing user interface with being one of the most user-friendly synths out there. It should be impossible, but it does.

The blame for the unwieldy interface is squarely divided between Arturia and Yamaha. Arturia's miniscule, almost unreadable fonts makes sure you have to learn the interface by heart if you are to get up to speed programming your own sounds; That the English version of the manual is predominantly written in classic Gibberish does not help.

Yamaha brings some non-standard terminology, filter controls and performance functions to the mix, though they have an excellent excuse considering the synth really was designed before any de-facto standards had evolved. Point in case: To make an ordinary sustain pedal perform as expected, you first have to set two (2) rocker switches and one slider in their proper positions!

So, 5 out of 10 on the GUI on that score, but then you start to find your way around the performance-tweaking controls, and you suddenly have to add a few more stars to the rating: Basically, the lower part of the GUI is a sophisticated quick-tweak area (akin to, say, the easy-edit page of the FM7/FM8), where you can make RADICAL changes to presets in a very efficient and consistent manner. Add to that an unequaled "plug-and-play" support for performance controls such as expression pedals and polyphonic aftertouch, and you have a true musician's instrument, very responsive to every nuance in playing style and a joy to play live.

SOUNDS

The CS-80V manages to combine a fairly basic subtractive synthesis architecture with being one of the true Virtual Analog sonic powerhouses. This should also be impossible, but it does.

First of all, the distinct "squared sawtooth" waveform makes this THE synth for stringy brass (or brassy string) sounds. For "heroic all-synthetic orchestra" film scores, look no further. Also, it cuts through a mix like not much else, fleshing out without muddying or overwhelming. You may not be able to emulate Vangelis 100%, but if you have a roughly Vangelis-shaped hole in your sonic arsenal, chances are this synth will fit admirably.

Even without delving into Arturia's add-on virtual features, the "dual synth line" architecture of the CS-80V means that it more or less expects and encourages you to use layered-type sounds, producing a fat and lush tone. If you want even more majestic sounds, switch to Arturia's "Multi mode", where you can assign a separate patch to each of the 8 voices. Slightly different versions of the same patch -- combined with some tasteful individual voice detuning -- can produce an emulation of the analog circuitry's quirkyness and tendency for sonic shifts from note to note.

SUMMARY

If you are looking for a quick "load and play" synth, you may find the price of this one a bit steep. Cheaper, more standardised alternatives may suit you better. On the other hand, if you are a "live keyboard player" willing to put some time into getting to know it, and have the hardware performance controls to tame it, it will reward you in a truly stylish manner.
Reviewed By pethu [read all by] on 21st February 2007
Version reviewed: 1.0 on Windows.
Last edited by pethu on 21st February 2007.
14 of 14 people found this review helpful.
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TruePianos is the latest offering in what might almost be called the current movement against over-large sampled instruments. If the movement really existed, its main philosophy would be something like "more is not necessarily better". 12 extra gigabytes of samples doesn't equate to a more playable instrument - rather, some developers seem to think that more samples means you can skimp on the programming, the result being more of a sample collection than a coherent instrument which really "gels" under the player's fingertips. Add to that the absurdely long installation and load times - the market is truly ready for instruments that install in a flash, load in a second, and pays attention to more that the number of bits in the samples.

TruePianos uses piano samples as the base for the sound, but then applies various PM and other techniques to produce the finished tone. Among the benefits is a small hard disk footprint (each current piano module is well under 100 MBs in size), 127 "velocities" per note (= as smooth as the MIDI standard allows), and the modelling of various characteristics of a piano not easy to get right in pure sampled pianos (sympathetic resonance, re-pedalling, change in timbre when re-striking notes.)

Points scoring for TruePianos is a bit tricky at the moment, since it is still very much an instrument in development. My current points are a reflection of the current state, and can change very shortly.

User interface: This is as much "click and go" as you can expect from a VSTi instrument. Basically, select your piano module, select a "preset" for that piano (which more often than not resembles a fixed EQ setting, but can contain other tweaks to the sound as well), and off you go. It also has an "Advanced settings" page which is basically centered around getting the instrument matched to your playing style and the keyboard's velocity response, plus some CPU-related tweaks to the sound engine.

Sound: With two completely different piano modules included at this date, and more on the way, the sound of TruePianos is whatever the future makes it.

The current Diamond module is a very "middle of the road" grand piano sound, useable in a wide variety of styles and settings. The Emerald module is a more hollow-sounding and "plonky" module.

Compared to "the other small great piano", the Modartt Pianoteq, the TruePianos sound is more reminiscent of traditionally sampled pianos. While I personally have a tendency to enjoy pure physically modelled instruments because of the extra liveliness and expression to the sound, I think quite a lot of people will feel more at home with the TruePianos slightly more conventional timbre.

Features: We need to split this one into two parts, really.

a) Pianos mechanics and FX. TruePianos does some very important things well that most sampled pianos DON'T do. Re-pedalling and modulation of note re-strikes are among them. On the other hand, it doesn't do some other things that you would almost expect from an instrument bearing the bold name of "TruePianos" (they really stuck their neck out on that one, didn't they?) Right now, these include a Sostenuto mechanism (coming soon, according to the developer), individual damper-off sympathetic resonance, half-pedalling for progressive sustain pedals, and "mechanical sounds" like hammer-ons and pedal movement. (Although those have nearly always struck me as a lame addition to sampled pianos, trying to add "realism" the easy way. It's not as if any real piano-maker ever said "hey, I'm going to design a really GOOD pedal creaky noise!")

b) Adjustability. In accordance with the "click-and-go" philosophy, there is a complete lack of sound-tweaking abilites apart from the provided presets. There is no built-in user-adjustable EQ. There is no built-in reverb. The message is clearly "We deliver a mostly dry piano sound. If you want to process it, use external processors."

Documentation: If there ever was an instrument doesn't need any, this is it...

Presets: With 9 presets for the Diamond and 7 for the Emerald, there is a fair amount to choose from. But see Features above.

Customer Support: These guys are 100% behind their product - that kind of obsession tends to put its mark in the support department, too.

Value for money: This score is likely to go up one or even two points as soon as one or more extra piano modules with a quality equal to the Diamond module gets released. (Remember, those buying the instrument now are also ensured free updates for a year.)
Reviewed By pethu [read all by] on 21st September 2006
Version reviewed: 2.1 on Windows.
Last edited by pethu on 15th August 2007.
18 of 19 people found this review helpful.
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(August, 2007: The review has now been substantially revised to be relevant to version 2 of Pianoteq.)

PIANO SOUND

First off, all those looking for the Pianoteq to jump out of the box emulating their favorite piano will be disappointed. The company clearly states that instead of trying to nail a particular make of piano, they tried to integrate a bit of the best of everything into the sound. I would say they more or less succeeded (and it probably was a smart move, too, considering the amount of flak anyone claiming to perfectly replicate a Steinway Model B in code would take!) As of version 2, there now are two "modern classical" piano models -- C1 and C2 -- with C2 being the one in active development. Each 2.x version has brought something new to Pianoteq's sonic arsenal, primarily on display through the C2 presets.

You can alter almost each and every aspect of the sound to your liking. You can change everything from the tuning to the size of the piano to the stiffness of its hammers and soundboard. In one small 10MB application, you have access to an almost infinite variety of piano-like instruments. Try that with modern day samplesets, and you wouldn't be close even after packing a couple of harddrives full of samples.

As with all physical modelling, giving the user control over every little parameter would be both overwhelming and probably not musically useful: In addition to the parameters available for tweaking through the user interface, there are also underlying, hidden parameters that define the basic characteristics of the piano (whatever they are) that can't be tweaked by the user. These are defined in "models" -- some of which are built into the main program, and some which are freely downloadable from the Modartt website. So when designing your own presets, you should take some time to choose the most suitable model to base your new sound on.

SOUND DESIGN

There is a vast difference between the sound of version 2 and the original. Whereas version 1 only sounded acoustically credible if you got your head around thinking of your monitor speakers and surroundings as part of the piano casing(!), version 2 sports an all-new soundboard model that brings the wooden box into the sound. This gives the sound a true "recorded in a room" air, making it more familiar to those used to ambience-recorded sample sets. I'd even go so far as to say they might have overdone it a bit: Depending on you personal preferences, you may just think it sounds a bit woolly now. Still, heaps better then the "ears right up against the strings in an anechoic chamber" feel of the original, and nothing a bit of proper, room-adapted EQing doesn't fix in most cases. (A multi-node graphic EQ is included in the price of admission, by the way, as is a functional, but not top notch, reverb.)

PLAYABILITY AND "SPECIAL EFFECTS"

This is where all the competition can pretty much pack up and go home. The last crop of sample players, like K2 with its scripting and convolution abilities, are only just beginning to nibble at the edges of the features already tightly integrated in the Pianoteq: The way each repeated note changes in timbre depending on its state when it is re-struck, the way you can pedal-catch notes, and half-pedal etc. (given a progressive sustain pedal and -capable controller). Not to mention that there is no such thing as velocity-dependent samples involved - everything is smoothly gradual, all the way from note velocity 1 to 127! Still no sign of slackening lead here: While you still struggle to find even a half-decent progressive sustain implementation in the competition, these guys are tweaking away at things like half-pedalling sympathetic resonance. Kudos.

The actual mechanical noises representing the piano action may not be to everyones liking, however - but all can be switched off or at least very much attenuated.

STAND-ALONE APPLICATION

While version 1 was only available as a plug-in, version 2 can run as a stand-alone application, which is very convenient for this type of solo instrument. An extra bonus is the 1-track MIDI recording/playback sequencer. (When you get tired of doing all the work yourself, just load one of the thousands of piano-roll MIDI files available on the net, sit back and enjoy!)


FINAL CONCLUSION

To sum up, let's put it this way: I may well use sampled piano sounds in final studio productions in the future (although the need is radically less than it was with version 1) but I can hardly see me going back to samples when practising piano playing, or even when recording piano parts. And that's from someone who is perhaps an experienced, but not even a good piano player. Only good enough to feel the difference between a living, breathing instrument and something just trying to be.
Reviewed By pethu [read all by] on 29th January 2006
Version reviewed: 1.01 on Windows
11 of 12 people found this review helpful.
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This is the synth that brings good-sounding and easy-to-use additive synthesis to the masses. Or, at least to those parts of the masses with some $$$ to spare.

The single worst thing about Spectra is really the way it risks being overlooked in today's "louder and more-complex-than-thou" market. At its heart, it's a synth for the traditional composer/musician, rather than those who'd like to build entire pieces around a single complex, endlessly evolving, infinitely modulated synth patch.

Sure, Spectra can do complex: The oscillator section can morph seamlessly between different harmonies (waveforms) 99 times in the same patch if you need it to. And with two LFOs plus looping envelopes for pitch, amplitude and filter, you won't run out of options in a hurry.

It's just that when someone asks "Well, what can Spectra do that others can't?", the answer doesn't lie in a number of features that almost never get used but look good on a spec sheet: Instead, it's all about sound quality, CPU efficiency, versatility, and ease of use.

Every basic element in here is top-notch: The sound generation, the filter section, the effects (what else would you expect from a Kjaerhus product?), and not least the two-bank patch management system.

Since there is no limit to the waveforms Spectra's oscillators can produce (given the right input), and the number of "analog-style" filters included, Spectra can serve up anything from fat analog sounds to FM-like timbres -- although sticking with the internal harmonics editing tools, you're far more likely to initially end up in Yamaha DX territory than in Moogland. No worries, just use the wave analysis/import function, direct it at some fat waveforms, and voilà!

By the nature of additive synthesis, the one thing truly lacking from the sound palette is very breathy/windy/noisy types of sound -- despite the included noise generator. As of now, you can only change the noise colour and set the overall noise mix level for the patch. I would very much like to see some added noise shaping tools in coming versions.

Anyway, it's not much use going on and on about how it looks, sounds and works: Just download the demo and try it out. Once you get your head around the concept of additive oscillators, and discover the workings of the wave analysis/import tool, you'll surely be amazed at how fast you'll be making your own, great-sounding patches!
Reviewed By pethu [read all by] on 28th November 2005
Version reviewed: 1.1.8.3 on Windows
6 of 6 people found this review helpful.
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This is my favourite solo piano, period. It has a lush, "classical" tone that sounds much more like a true live recording than most competitors. And this is accomplished without using any "state-of-the-art" gimmicks and techniques like convolution verbs, extra release samples etc. Just careful recording, programming, and lots of samples for each key.

This piano is not a jack-of-all-trades: Although it comes with lots of presets mimicking various "recording styles" by varying EQ etc., I would say at its base level, it is very much focussed on preserving the ambience of one very good-sounding piano recorded in one very good-sounding space. There are no close-miked or dry samples here: There are "dry" programs, but they are, in fact, the same samples with the reverb tails cut short, which isn't exactly the same thing.

That said, if you have to pick one single basic piano sound, it is hard to think of a more useful one than this for most classical, jazz, and ballad pieces. When it comes to contemporary and rock piano backing, you might want to look at alternatives. (I use Vintaudio's Bright and more in-your-face Yamaha C7 for this.)

The Virtual Grand Piano comes with its own player program, which works in both stand-alone and plug-in mode. Like so many these days, it is a version of the Kontakt 1.5 engine. There are hundreds of different presets to choose from, though many are due to the fact that each program is duplicated for a number of different keyboard sensitivity settings - once you find the bank that responds best to your keyboard controller and playing style, you should probably stay within that all the time. 8 controller knobs in the interface and MIDI CC mapping of all important parameters means further tweaks are very easy. Then again, it's a piano -- I have to admit I use the basic Medium velocity, Classical, Wet program 95% of the time!


My only real complaint regarding the player is that just like other Kontakt 1.5 creations, pedal-down note stealing doesn't work properly. Not that it matters often in real-life, but I like to be able to keep the pedal pressed to the floor while playing broken chords 'til the cows come home! I've tried loading the samples into Kontakt 2 and they work, but Hans' fantastic programming gets lost in the process, so I urge everyone to stick with the player.

Being a Kontakt instrument, this also means it uses the Native Instruments challenge-response registration process for copy protection. I have no problems with this, and prefer it over most systems, but I do know some people hate it.