There is no shortage of electric guitar sample libraries out there. Every major model and style has been addressed(though 100% realism is still reserved for, well, the real thing). We've seen libraries with tens of thousands of samples, fully modeled emulations, hybrid sample/synthesis plug-ins, and even more. It's been an obsession of many to get a definitive guitar tone in software.
Then a fairly new company comes along called Orange Tree Samples. With years of experience in sampling, this isn't really new for them. But can they offer anything new in the electric guitar sampling game?
Enter Evolution Electric Guitar- Strawberry(we'll call it "Evolution", for short). Evolution is the newest version of Orange Tree's ever-evolving Strawberry Electric Guitar, and has seen several major versions in it's quest to become Evolution. The Evolution library focuses on both lead/solo playing as well as rhythm/chord pieces, and we'll explore both in detail.
Evolution Electric Guitar- Strawberry weighs in at around 3.5GB with over 4,900 samples. Due to deep use of the Kontakt Scripting engine, you will have to own Kontakt(version 2 and higher) to use Evolution.
Jumping Into The Lead
Evolution is broken up into two separate libraries; lead and rhythm. We'll discuss the lead library first.
Evolution Electric Guitar- Strawberry offers no shortage of articulations and playing techniques, though I'll be honest, it wasn't immediately apparent. When you first open Evolution, the interface actually seems quite sparse.
But there is some pretty good depth there. I would HIGHLY recommend reading the user manual before digging in, as it will help to immediately understand how to configure Evolution. We'll discuss the depth in programming later.
Most sounds you can get out of a guitar, you can get out of Evolution. You'll find a variety of sustain articulations with varying attack intensities, from the soft, normal, to "hard" sustain or the harder strike articulation. To go along with your sustains, there are automatic(and configurable) legato transitions between all notes, as well as both hammer-ons and pull-offs.
You'll also find standard mutes, palm mutes, and half palm mutes. There are both natural and pinch harmonics, normal and aggressive squeals, and three types of trills(major and minor 2nd plus minor 3rd). Throw in some tapping, a patch full of effects such as pick scrapes and dives, along with some blues-styled mutes and string strums, and you have a fairly complete collection to get you started.
You can also create your own trills using the normal legato playing. Evolution features what I would call "sticky" keys. So while playing a note, if you start playing another note without letting up on the first, and then let go of the second note, it will automatically go back to playing the original note. So you can use this feature to create custom trill speeds and intervals, among other things.
You can bend strings using pitch bend, and you can set the range of pitch bend in both directions independently. In addition to the range, you can tell Evolution which notes to bend when playing multiple notes. You can bend only the highest or lowest note, the oldest or newest played note, or all notes.
Vibrato in Evolution is very convincing, and is based on actual vibrato playing instead of using LFOs or other "cheats". The higher you roll the mod wheel, the more intense the vibrato effect. You can actually HEAR the hand rocking on the strings when using higher levels of vibrato. Evolution gives you options to control depth and speed of the vibrato as well, so it's definitely not lacking.
For that extra bit of realism, you can control the amount of pick noise created BEFORE the note is played, something that is common when playing a real guitar. Just a very very subtle scrape of the string while the player prepares to pluck it.
But the actual note being played is only half the story. Evolution also includes several release types to really let you customize how each note and articulation will sound. From a typical release sound of the hand lifting off the string(including a hard release) to five different ways of muting the string(half mute, soft mute, slide, palm, and picked) and more, Evolution gives you plenty of options. I would have liked to see some slide-off type releases(fretting hand sliding "off" the note before releasing). While not technically releases, they would be welcome. Regardless, whether you want subtle or strong, there are enough release types here to keep you happy.
You also have some modes mapped out by default, such as controllers for turning on Strum Mode, Slide Mode, and a Whammy Bar controller, all of which you can change the controller numbers for to your liking.
Strum Mode is a subtle, but useful mode for manual strumming or arpeggios in the middle of a lead part. It enables you to play what you want while still using the built in engine to control which notes are played on which strings. This also means that if you play two notes from the same string, the first note will cut off. Strum Mode is assigned to the sustain pedal by default.
Slide Mode lets you slide from one note into another when playing two notes in a row on the same string, with slide speed controlled by velocity. I found this mode hard to get predictable results with. The range of slides seemed to be rather short, and due to the nature of how the engine chooses strings automatically, a slide may not always be possible from two notes, even if close together.
The Whammy Bar is an articulation/playing style that is most often left out or forgotten, which of course means no dive bombs! But it's here for your mayhem-inducing pleasure. In Evolution, you can control the amount of dive by just moving your controller. The Whammy effect sounded good to my ears, and was obviously more than just a simple pitch bend. Very nice to have this.
In addition to the 'normal' whammy bar effect, you can also trigger a whammy flutter effect on the fly using a keyswitch.
Also present is a good amount of extraneous noises, such as release scrapes and string resonance. And in this reviewer's opinion, Evolution handles this better than any other library to date. This may be what sets Evolution at one of the highest standards in terms of sound. There is even the sound of the hand sliding back to the "home" position on the fretboard("home" is determined automatically or by your setting of fret position) after releasing a note. The releases are played intelligently on non-overlapping notes, and don't get in the way too much.
Though Evolution does handle these noises rather well, there is no way to trigger fret noises or scrapes manually while playing, and no controls to change the frequency of extra noises.
The string resonance of Evolution is the most realistic representation of what you would hear from an actual guitar that I've ever heard. Played strings will resonate the surrounding open strings, and open strings will even continue to ring on after you have released what you were playing. The sound is modeled very well, and changes in voicings will result in a change in resonance.
You can control the volume and dampening of these resonances, which is good because I think the default is a bit too much. But this feature is a refreshing addition, and something that to my knowledge hasn't been done before to this extent.
To help round out the sound possibilities, Evolution lets you select from bridge pickup, neck pickup, or a combination of the two. The pickup selection results in a very subtle change in sound, but does add to the versatility.
Double tracking is also possible with the click of a button, which essentially creates a duplicate part and you can adjust the width of the two parts. I found this to be extremely subtle though, regardless of settings. At times, I had to do an A/B several times just to make sure it was working.
Finally, you can tune each individual string up or down as you see fit. Evolution comes with many preset tunings, from different drop tunings to other commonly(or not so commonly) used settings.
The sounds are recorded very clean, and the quality is consistent and high across the range of articulations, which all work well together. Orange Tree Samples seems to have a large focus on strong tone and intonation, and the tone you get with Evolution is quite versatile. The sound does have more of a bite, and isn't as well suited for mellow passages. There is a definite inclination towards rock and metal styles, but it holds itself back enough to work in other genres as well.
Taming The Lead
All these articulations and sounds are great, but how do they play? That's a hard question to answer because Evolution uses a unique mapping system that lets you set everything up the way you want. In addition, there are quite a few configuration options to let you fine-tune how the engine works. We'll cover these first, and then tie it all together.
To sit down and play Evolution is a joy. Out of the box, it's pretty well set up and easy to get at least a passable sound going, even without further tweaks and articulations. The velocity response is even and consistent across the range of the instruments. The 4X round robin gives you enough flexibility to play even fast parts, without the difference in notes being distracting.
Evolution lets you set everything from how close together notes should be to trigger a legato transition, to how large of a pitch range to restrict these transitions to. So if you want legato to be triggered only on 8th notes or faster, and only within a minor 3rd or less, you can.
Hammer-ons and pull-offs are triggered automatically, and the realism here is great as the sound volume gradually drifts away as the string loses vibration when playing several notes in a row using this method(emulating tapping).
You can control the fretting position on the neck(i.e.- switch to high position for lead part, and back down for the rhythm) , to whether or not the engine should automatically choose strings while you play, or to restrict playing to a specific string, and more. You can even tell Evolution to restrict notes to the current string only, on the fly. You can set the pick direction universally or based on note duration.
The artificial intelligence inside of Evolution for choosing the right string for each note seems to work extremely well. On a guitar, most notes can be played on multiple positions and strings, and Evolution does all this work for you based on what is logical for an actual guitarist to play. While it's hard to fully confirm how accurate the engine is, nothing sounded unnatural, and Evolution seemed to "keep it real" in all my tests.
Evolution: Have It Your Way
The REAL power behind Evolution Electric Guitar: Strawberry is in the layer mapping system. Most libraries are set up for you out of the box, giving you a preset keyswitch and controller list, and you learn to use the instrument how the developer preferred to use it. Not so with Evolution.
The mapping system in Evolution lets you decide how you want to play based on layers. Essentially, you set up any number of layers, and each layer is triggered by a certain set of conditions. For instance, you can set up your own velocity layers by having a muted articulation play when velocity is between 0-40, a sustain articulation play when the velocity is between 41 and 120, with some pinch harmonics playing at the highest velocities.
You could, essentially, create as many velocity layers as you want(up to 128), each triggering a different articulation. Want to set up all three mute types in order of openness, followed by soft sustain, then normal sustain, then hard sustain, then some trills, with an aggressive squeal on top, and all based on how hard you play? You can do it. Got the desire to set a different release type based on the velocity of your playing, all while keeping sustain the same? Very easy.
You can also set Evolution layers to respond to MIDI control numbers, or specific RANGES of controllers. You can set up the same scenario listed above to mod wheel values instead of velocity ranges. So as you turn the mod wheel, you switch between various articulations. This goes for any MIDI controller, including the pitch wheel.
If you want, you can set certain pitch ranges to trigger certain layers. You can set normal sustains to the lower end of the guitar's range, while automatically switching to the tapping playing style when you reach a certain note.
If you prefer the keyswitch approach, you can use keyswitches to switch between layers/articulations. Set any MIDI note number to switch to any layer.
To go deeper, Evolution can trigger articulations based on how FAST you are playing. This was a cool one for me, as it lets you do things such as triggering muted articulations when you are doing fast runs, while switching back to more sustained sounds as you slow down. And this can be gradual as well, so the slower you play, the more open the mutes are as you eventually wind down into a simple sustain.
If you want, you can even set a layer to play at random based on a probability setting you give to Evolution. Experimental types should like this one.
What makes this even cooler is that you can mix and match conditions. You can have an articulation play ONLY when the velocity is between 80 and 120 AND the mod wheel is turned all the way up. Or set your fast mutes to play only when playing fast and at a low velocity level. Also, higher numbered layers take priority over lower numbered layers, just in case two layers' conditions are met at the same time.
Also, most of the engine parameter settings discussed above, such as the pitch bend range and legato settings, can be different from layer to layer. This really helps you fine-tune each articulation's reaction to your playing. The sky really is the limit, and in the end, you can have an instrument that responds to how you prefer to play.
If I had one complaint about the mapping system, it's that you almost HAVE to use it to really get the most out of Evolution. Orange Tree Samples have included a good number of presets for different situations from lead guitar to jazz playing, but these won't suit everyone. So you will have to invest some time in getting your mapping just right. There are no all-inclusive patches to play if you just want to pick it up and have access to everything.
This doesn't, and shouldn't take away from the power and flexibility of Evolution by any means. The positive possibilities in the Evolution mapping system far outweigh the slight inconvenience of having to set it up.
Rockin' To The Rhythm
The newest, and probably most anticipated part of Evolution Electric Guitar: Strawberry, is the Rhythm component. These are completely different presets and samples, and are NOT available within the main interface of the lead component. So you need to load them separately.
The Rhythm Guitar instruments work using a pattern sequencer, giving you up to 12 patterns you can switch between on the fly. You can have either 8 or 16 steps in which you assign sound to each step. Available to you are three different intensities of normal strum(soft, media, hard), three mute intensities(soft, medium, hard), palm mute, and a "normal" release sound. Any of these can be assigned to any step in the pattern sequencer, or you can leave a step empty with a rest.
In addition to each of the above, you can adjust the strum speed for each and every step, as well as setting how many strings will be used in each step. You can choose 6 strings, 1 string, strings 2 through 5, or whatever else is needed for your strum. This lets you have partial strums, which adds to the realism because guitarists generally don't hit every string on every stroke. Using this string selection, you can also essentially create arpeggios or bass/chord combos. You can also set an overall swing amount. So there is plenty of flexibility in the types of patterns you create.
The chords are not prerecorded chords, but instead created dynamically from single note recordings specifically designed for chord strums and mutes, etc.
The way it works is you hold down one of the pattern keys while triggering chords in the three octave chord recognition area. You can change chords at any point in a pattern while you keep holding down the pattern. You can change patterns on the fly as well.
The pattern is played in sync with the Kontakt tempo in standalone, and the host tempo in plug-in mode. There is a slight unfortunate result in how Evolution handles this, as the pattern doesn't necessarily start right when you hit the pattern key. It starts on the next beat after the trigger is hit. This can hamper live playing a bit.
NOTE from Developer: That's because the strum is played across the beats as a real guitarist plays, not starting on the beats. It takes a little while to get used to, but you just have to anticipate the strumming keys.
There are dozens of pre-made chords included for everything from major and minor to augmented and suspended chords. You can also change every chord to your own custom voicing, or create new ones from scratch. There are presets with different chords and voicings already pre-created for you, including a power chords preset. There are a limited amount of presets, but enough to give you an idea of how to work.
In addition to the pattern sequencer, there are a couple more abilities to consider. You can use either the preset MIDI key or the sustain pedal to instantly change whatever is playing to a palm muted sound on the fly, while going back to normal when letting go. You can also trigger a release as well as a palm mute stop manually that will affect whatever chord or note is currently playing. So you aren't fully restricted to the pattern being played.
There are also MIDI notes assigned to play individual strings for the detected chord. This is used for creating manual, non-sequenced arpeggios, and is a more than welcome feature. You COULD even use these keys for manual strums if you feel the need.
There is no ability to just trigger a manual chord strum at the moment, though rumor has it that this may come in an update soon. This is important, because at the moment, you can't just sit down and start messing around with chord combinations and patterns without programming the sequencer. So manual strums would help during those brainstorming and live sessions.
The rhythm guitar component is helped along with the same 4X round robin sampling found in the lead component, with multiple velocity layers as well. So every strum doesn't sound identical.
The Rhythm component also contains pickup selection, timing humanization, double tracking, and more options to help you tweak your sound.
The chords themselves are played right. The right amount of speed-up as the hand strums the chord is there, and even played without the mask of an amp simulator, it's evident that the dev knows what a strum should sound like. The specially recorded samples definitely lack the different attack stage that normal guitar samples include, and instead favor individually 'strummed' notes. So once you get the pattern and specific chords down, the results will be highly realistic.
As mentioned above, the Rhythm guitar instruments are not a part of the Lead instruments, and this is unfortunate. I believe the reasoning behind this is because Orange Tree Samples wants to keep compatibility with Kontakt 2 and it's users, but Kontakt 2 has lower limits on how many samples can be used in an instrument. It would have been great to see a combined instrument for those who have upgraded. Not a deal breaker by any means, but a gripe nonetheless.
NOTE: If you need a tool to help with this situation, you can look at Mind Control, which is also an Orange Tree Samples product(we won't be covering it here today).
Overall, the Rhythm guitar section of the Evolution library is fun to use, despite a few little niggles. I do think the Rhythm component has the largest room for growth in the library, and since Orange Tree Samples seems to update their products regularly, I'm guessing that we'll see some improvements. At the moment, the results you can get are very good, despite the down sides.
We've seen a lot of electric guitar libraries over the years. And while Evolution Electric Guitar: Strawberry may not be the largest library out there, it certainly stands high as one of the most convincing and configurable electric guitar libraries available.
There are a few issues, mostly with the Rhythm library, that could use some improving on. But it should be clear that the results you can get from BOTH the Lead and Rhythm library are realistic enough to convince most every listener. The sound is versatile enough for most uses, and the instrument is easy to play. There is a slight learning curve and some definite time needed to get the most out of Evolution, but the result is worth the work. And for the price, you get a lot of bang for the buck. Evolution Electric Guitar: Strawberry is a tremendous value in the world of guitar samples, and will likely find it's way to the top of many buying lists.
Price: $159 intro, $199 regular
Test System(s): Custom built Intel i5 Quad Core, 8GB Corsair DDR3 RAM, 750GB Seagate Barracuda SATA System drive, 1.5TB Seagate Barracuda SATA Samples drive, Focusrite Saffire Pro 24, Keystation Pro 88, Edirol PCR-M50
HP Pavilion Laptop- 1.83gHz Core2Duo, 3GB DDR2 RAM, Windows Vista 32-bit Home Premium
Sonar 8PE, Reaper3, Studio One 1.5