Maybe it’s my generation, but I certainly remember that when I was a kid, me and all my mates wanted to play guitar. If you were going to be a rock and roll star, guitar was where it was at. At least that is what the 5 or 6 year old version of me used to think. Not having the most musical of families, my guitar back then was an old tennis racket, suspended from my shoulders by a pair of bright red, “Rock On, Tommy” braces. At least with that, I could be John, Paul or George, depending on which one took my fancy at the time. Legend has it (that is, my mother’s recollection) that at aged 3 or 4, I could be found on the front lawn of my Dad’s restaurant, said tennis racket in hand, performing “I Love You Love Me Love” to any passing cars or pedestrians.
A few years later, an uncle of mine gave me an old acoustic guitar and I bought a tuition book, determined to crack it and become world famous. But it soon transpired that my hands and fingers and probably, more likely, my lack of patience, were set against me and it was never going to happen. However, I soon found my calling with drums, circa 1980, when Adam And The Ants broke big and that Burundi beat infected me for life. It wasn’t long after that I realised that technology could help me make music far easier than me trying to play a guitar, and so the path was set…
But still, today, I have a guitar, which occasionally gets an airing, and just as rapidly, gets put back again. So when it comes to having guitar parts in any music I write, I have resorted to technology-based alternatives. One quite successful route was to employ custom MIDI files. In the late 80s and through to the 90s, certain companies made considerable profit from selling MIDI files of performances by professionals. Nowadays, you’d be just as likely to get such performances as audio files, broken down into different keys or styles. But back when digital audio was still a pipe dream to the average home musician, MIDI files, or MIDI samples as they were also known, were the next best thing. Twiddly Bits were one such brand, releasing multiple 3.5″ floppy discs, each containing a wealth of captured performances that were then encapsulated into standard MIDI files that could be imported into any project and have their key and tempo set by the end-user. I made one such piece with a lovely 12-string guitar patch on my Roland SC-88 VL. Instantly, I had a piece that sounded really authentic and not a string was plucked by my stumpy fingers! Of course, the pattern wasn’t my original composition, but you could play around with it to make it more of your own. And because the original performance had been captured by a MIDI pickup, you also got all the nuances of a real guitar performance. If you were even more clever, and had the requisite sounds, you could even put other sounds in there, such as finger slides and fret noise.
The need for these MIDI files has grown less and less with the upsurge in quantity and quality of pre-recorded audio loops. It seems the world is full of some guitarist putting together a sample CD, ready for you to lift the stuff right off and base your composition around a phrase. Admittedly, these gave less control over the sound, but a more authentic performance, some would argue. And then, with the advent of scripted sample tools we saw the rise of sample-based instruments that could deliver the performance aspects of a guitarist but with much more control over the output. My first real experience with these kinds of libraries was with the marvellous handiwork of Tracy Collins at Indiginous. Tracy had started to make guitar libraries for the Akai S5/6000 range of samplers but it was when he started developing libraries for Kontakt that they really rose to the next level. The powerful scripting tools allowed for all manner of guitar performance aspects to be coded and then put in the hands of luddites like me. And the feeling was amazing! Authentic sounding guitar riffs, played by my own fair hand.
And so it is with this library from AcousticSamples. But the key difference here is that this library is exclusively made for the UVI format. Which is incredibly welcome as most library manufacturers who make scripted content tend to focus on Kontakt, presumably because it is the bigger market. But UVI have been on the rise, helped by their code being used in MOTU’s Mach Five 3, their own free UVI Workstation and of course, more recently, the brand new behemoth of a synth, Falcon (Review of Falcon HERE). AcousticSamples already have a respectable pedigree, providing almost all of Mach Five 3’s factory libraries, which includes a brilliant Fender Telecaster library that has since been updated to utilise the scripted features of Sunbird, which I’ll talk about later. So it is really exciting to see a good amount of 3rd party library being created for the UVI format, and AcousticSamples are one of the best so far. They’ve also worked closely with UVI on their IRCAM Prepared Piano, which I raved about when I reviewed it back in 2012.
So, let’s look at Sunbird and what it can do.
Sunbird is a scripted sample library based on a 1962 Gibson Hummingbird acoustic guitar. The Hummingbird dates back to 1960 and was, by all accounts, the first square-shouldered dreadnought. Versatility was at its core, designed as it was to work in every genre, from Rock to Country and beyond, whether it was accompanied by a voice or not. According to AcousticSamples, they “recorded it with a pair of DPA microphones to get a detailed stereo perspective, with a U87 to capture the bass and a precise mono perspective and using a contact pickup in case you want to put the library through an amp simulation plug-in“. Now that’s what I call forward thinking!
To say they sampled it extensively would be an understatement. There are 4207 keygroups to this thing, and when you read about how the sampled it, it is clear why this number is so high…
“We sampled it very deeply, all frets of all strings with upstrokes, downstrokes, round robins, releases, staccatos, mutes, palm mutes, hand blocks, slides, hammer ons, pull offs, retriggers, fretnoises, percussions other articulations.”
That is dedication to your art. right there!
And why such extensive sampling? Well, the more detail you capture, the more flexible and realistic the thing should sound. And on that score, it certainly hits top marks. Sunbird contains four modes, Solo, Chord, Patterns & MIDI Guitar. These modes can easily be switched between using keyswitches. For the uninformed, keyswitching is the practice of assigning program control data to actual notes on a keyboard, the idea being that they typically occupy keys that are outside of the natural range of the instrument and allow a keyboard player to quickly switch between modes to suit their performance, without taking their hands away from the keyboard. Sunbird’s mode keyswitches are at G5 to C6. Each mode has a unique function that is pretty much described by its name.
Solo mode is for playing melodies. to the left of the playable area are a bunch of keyswitches to aid the performance. One performs a palm mute and is unlatched, that is, it is only effective when the key is pressed and held down. Another key allows you to play the harmonics of each string. In between these are keyswitches to enable the different legato modes (Hammer, Slide and Legato) which can have the legato distance and slide speed set on the front panel. There are also six percussive sounds that can be triggered down at this end. To the right of the playable area is a latching palm mute keyswitch, followed by the four main mode keyswitches. And for the ultimate detail, the script even ensures that when you are playing a melody on the piano keyboard, the instrument is always choosing the most appropriate string to play the note as a real guitarist would. This can be disabled, if you wish. You can even set the hand position so that it is even more accurate.
Next up is the Chord Mode. This works slightly differently and is a dream to use. From C-1 to B4, you hold down the notes for the chord you wish to play. Then, by pressing C4 or D4 you get a down and up stroke respectively. C4# and D4# give you dampened strums in the same direction. This strumming can be further controlled by settings on the main panel, such as accent, strum speed, strum centre and chord glide, to name a few. You can also set a capo position here too. The real beauty of this setting is that the script can automatically choose the correct finger positioning on the fret board for the most natural inversion of the chord. However, you can manually override this and the script contains all possible permutations of the chord inversion to allow you to specify which one you want to use. Should you wish, you can force the script to follow traditional piano chord inversions, based on the keys you press. On top of this, should you want to pick the chord as opposed to strumming it, E4 to C5 replicate the notes as they would appear when the chord is held down, so the more adept player can hold a chord down with the left hand and pick away with their right. Beyond this, there are percussive sounds and that palm mute toggle switch again.
Moving on, we come to the Patterns mode, which is brilliant for instantly getting some authentic guitar sounds down with minimal fuss and even less musical prowess! When Pattern mode is selected, the main panel displays an octave of piano keys, to each of which is assigned one of 67 preset patterns. If 67 isn’t enough, or you want to specify your own, you can do so in the editor, which is essentially a 6 track, 150 step sequencer with numerous options for you to create your own patterns. You can define strum directions for each note, note velocity, mute per note, strum speed, link strings and much more besides. You can even create new patterns based on the existing ones. Find a preset you like but want to change part of the performance? Copy it, edit it and save it as a new pattern. Job done!
Finally, we have MIDI guitar mode. As I don’t have a guitar with a MIDI pickup, I can’t properly test this out. However, it seems pretty simple. There are a couple of settings to ensure your MIDI pickup is mapped correctly to Sunbird, and away you go.
Well, that covers the modes, but there is more!
For starters, there is a Song Builder function. This feature allows you to compose songs rapidly by assigning a chord to a specific key on the keyboard. I guess you could compare it to the one-chord features of early home keyboards by the likes of Yamaha or Casio. This is great if, like me, your keyboard playing skills are lacking somewhat. Simply assign the chords you want to the keys that make the most sense to you and away you go. Again, Sunbird is equipped with a bunch of presets, some categorised by style, others by modes and scales. When used in conjunction with the pattern mode, you’re essentially playing a full-on song!
Then we have the Microphone function. In here we can set mic volume as well as turning them on or off. As mentioned at the start, there are three main positions. One facing the body, a pair of overheads and one at the pickup. By default, the overheads are loaded up at start up, and the other two can be added as and when you need them, but be prepared for a few seconds spent on loading the extra samples up. It might be worth pointing out at this point that the loading speeds are incredibly quick for something so detailed and comprehensive. This is mainly down to UVI employing file compression in their library format so Sunbird uses high quality, lossless FLAC audio files which deliver identical performance to their WAV equivalents, but in a much smaller footprint, resulting in better load times and zero compromise in quality.
And finally, we have the Preferences function where more general settings can be tweaked, such as dynamics, velocity curves, MIDI sensitivity, release volume, palm length, room size, fret noise volume, as well as a 3 band EQ and the option to define whether a finger or a plectrum is used for Solo, Strumming, Picking and Patterns.
Sunbird is, if nothing else, comprehensive and fully featured.
What I’d love to be able to do is sit down with a real, human guitarist and compare this instrument to their playing. But sadly, all the guitarists I know are too busy massaging their egos! I KID, I KID!! 😉 Seriously though, I do intend trying it one day and I’m pretty sure the pair of us will be astounded at Sunbird’s proficiency.
Quite simply, if you are in the market for a scripted acoustic guitar sample library for your UVI powered instrument, you have no need to look any further. I imagine most people who will buy this are, like me, unable to play guitar properly. But I can confirm that this instrument is good enough to fool anyone into thinking otherwise. If you are a complete, ham-fisted, fat-fingered neanderthal, this instrument will have people thinking you have the finger-picking prowess of a guitar legend. It can babysit you as much or as little as you want, but the end result is always an exceptional sounding piece of guitar playing. I’ve had incredible fun getting to grips with this and even though I have barely scratched the surface, I was playing all manner of styles and riffs within seconds of first loading it up.
The interface is clear and intuitive and the feature set is amazingly extensive. There truly is something for everyone here. This instrument is absolutely essential for laying down authentic, professionally sounding guitar tracks. Look no further.
And how much does all this cost? You’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d be looking at a few hundred dollars or Euro, such is the depth and ability of this thing. So when I tell you that it costs a mere €129/$149 USD I fully expect you to fall out of your chair. This instrument is worth twice that, if not more. Given the strength of the GBP at the moment, that rocks in at less than £100!!! When you then consider that the real thing, a modern day Gibson Hummingbird, will cost you north of $3000 USD, you would have to be insane to think that Sunbird was anything other than the bargain of the century!
One of my biggest beefs with the huge number of Kontakt scripted libraries is the fact that virtually all of them are not compatible with the free Kontakt Player. This means that you also need to have invested £300-400 in the full version to get to use these libraries. This is NOT the case with UVI. All UVI libraries are compatible with the free and superbly featured UVI Workstation, which means your €129 investment in Sunbird plays for you right out of the box. This, for me, is a massive feather in the cap of UVI libraries, and particularly for libraries of such quality as this.
Lastly, Sunbird is copy protected via the iLok system, whether you choose to use the free software licence manager or the hardware dongle.
In conclusion, this library is both immense and intuitive, equally deep as it is simple to use and represents incredible value for money. I guarantee that you will enjoy this immensely and that you will almost certainly be checking out other libraries from AcousticSamples very soon indeed!
Sunbird by AcousticSamples can be purchased direct from AcousticSamples. Prices correct at time of publication.
Check out the audio samples and video tutorials here…