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Ethnic ROMpler Roundup

Sound Blast Ethnosphere
Sound Blast Ethnosphere
Swar Systems SwarPlug VSTi
Swar Systems SwarPlug VSTi
Swar Systems Swar Librarian
Swar Systems Swar Librarian
Dash Signature EMM Knagalis
Dash Signature EMM Knagalis

Though there have been many specialty soft synths that lock in on one specific task and do it well, musicians wishing to get their "world music" groove on have up until recently been mostly left out in the cold. Sure, all manner of pianos, organs, pseudo-guitars, and vintage keyboards have been more or less accurately emulated, but those desiring not-so-Western sounds pretty much had to fend for themselves, hire a few oud players for personal sampling sessions, and hope for the best.

Now, stepping up to the challenge are Sound Burst, Swar Systems, and Dash Signature with three fairly affordable specialty VSTi ROMplers aimed squarely at filling this void. So which one should you program your next tabla rhythm with?

Sound Burst Ethnosphere

As its name suggests, Ethnosphere comes loaded with a wide array of sampled instruments from varying ethnic sources. These are broken up into nine categories: Strings (consisting of picked and plucked instruments such as buzouki, oud, and santur); Plucked (more plucked and hammered instruments such as dulcimer and harp); Ac. Guitars (nylon and steel string acoustic guitars); Wind (bag pipes, shakuachi, and many digeridoo variants); Orchestrals (several symphonic sounds along with, er, crickets, birds, and ocean sound effects); Accordions; Tuned Perc.; (including vibes, marimbas and a large selection of mysteriously named and numbered items like Energy Chimes, TD Percussion, and Tone Cup with no further explanation); Drum/Perc (including various sets of percussion instruments as well as sound effects like Clock Tower and more mysteriously named items like Whippets); and Loops (looped percussion and instrumental phrases). However, nowhere are the BPMs of these loops explained in the documentation, and there's no time-stretching/slicing functionality for them, both of which basically render them useless.

Ethnosphere's GUI is simplicity itself: buttons and lists of available instruments from which to select; three knobs for master volume, tuning, and bend range; and a Utility button labeled CONFIG that simply allows you to choose the folder containing the sound library that ships with it. Aside from these, there are no real user-adjustable configurations: For the most part, you simply select your instrument of choice and play.

Unfortunately, it is the sounds that are the downfall of Ethnosphere. While there are certainly several instruments with rich, clear sound quality (such as the wonderfully playable Warm Buzouki), there are too many others that feature very shoddily recorded samples--possibly some of the most unprofessional sounding I've ever heard in a commercially available sample-based instrument.

For example, the Soft Dulcimer in the Plucked section has a painfully noticeable out-of-tune loop in the sustain portion of the envelope that actually bends a half-step sharp abruptly when the note is held. This is consistent across the keyboard, leading one to believe that a single sample was stretched across the full range.
Plucked's Saz 1 features an abrupt, stuttering loop when the note is held, just before fading out, which speeds up and slows down relative to the position on the keyboard, again indicating a single sample stretched full-range.
Various other samples feature noticeably loud pops/clicks at loop-points as well as distortion.

Defects such as these are completely inexcusable in a commercially available product. But worse, when I contacted Sound Burst to bring these items to its attention and ask about possible future updates that could perhaps repair them: I was told that they were already aware of all of these sample defects, admitted that "several of them are not 'perfect,'" and said that the company had no plans to update or repair these sounds, though a future "refill" would include new sounds, but at an additional cost of $49.

I also asked them about the source of several of the instruments, which to my ears sounded more like synth patches rather than sampled real-world sounds (such as "Orchestrals > Oriental Orch. 1 and 4", "Tuned Perc > TD Percussion 1 - 20", and "Drum Perc > Bali Bells 1 - 2, Big Bell, Clock Tower"). Sound Burst insisted that "no sounds come from synth patches. Everything has been sampled." Perhaps they have indeed been sampled, but to my ears, they still mostly sound like samples of MIDI-stacked synths.

Regardless, the skimpy documentation makes no explanation of any of Ethnosphere's samples, even though many of them are either cryptically named, or in desperate need of additional information.

In light of all this, I'm afraid there's absolutely no way I could ever recommend Sound Burst's Ethnosphere. Sound Burst appears to have no problem with shipping glaringly defective samples with its instrument and with no intention of repairing them--but would like you to pay them more money for additional sounds on top of those, that may or may not be of any better quality.

Swar Systems SwarPlug & Swar Librarian
$195 boxed, $170 download

Like Ethnosphere, SwarPlus features a very simple GUI (preset list, gain, pan, and pitch-bend range), but thankfully the similarities end there. SwarPlug specializes in Indian instruments specifically, and while the variety of samples may not initially appear as wide as Ethnosphere's, the superior sound quality of the samples put it head and shoulders above Sound Blast's offering.

SwarPlug features samples of 21 Indian instruments, including string (sitar, tanpura, santoor, sarangi and sarod), percussion (dholak, manjeera, nagara, pakhawaj and tabla), wind (shehnai, bansuri), harmonium, and even vocal samples broken up into phonetics. The samples have a warm, rich quality, and several offer variations on a theme (such as low, mid, and hi tanpura). In contrast to Ethnosphere, the samples are cleanly recorded with no audible loop artifacts or distortion.

There's no learning curve at all with SwarPlug: simply select the instrument and play. A small image of the selected instrument is also displayed.

But, of course, if you try to play "Louie Louie" with one of these excellent-sounding instruments, you're going to look like an idiot--and that's where Swar Librarian comes to your rescue. The Librarian is a standalone Java-based application that allows you to audition the various instruments using a collection of over 1,000 MIDI loops based on scales and phrases from Indian classical and folkloric sources. Once you find something to your liking, you can then easily paste the loops right into your sequencer of choice. Obviously this will go a long way towards adding some authentic flavor to whatever track you plan to use SwarPlug in.

So with high-quality samples, very easy-to-use interface, and a wide selection of useful MIDI-based phrases for authenticity, SwarPlug definitely gets a serious thumbs-up. For those times when you simply want to get your hands on a solid variety of Indian sounds to play in a traditional manner, or as a raw sound source that you can perhaps process further with a selection of your own favorite tools and effects, it's hard to beat.

Dash Signature EMM Knagalis

While both Ethnosphere and SwarPlug offer zero learning curves due to their simple launch-and-play GUIs, Knagalis instead gives the user a wide array of controls to let you get in there and really work those sounds. Knagalis comes complete with a manual, and trust me, you'll want to take a good look at it so as to get the most out of the instrument.

Unfortunately, while the manual certainly will go a long way towards helping you get a grip on this instrument, you have to first work your way through a lot of typos and grammatical errors that are so bad it's almost funny. (Example: "Moreover this layer is also used which different functions is some EMM SoundSets."). It's not quite as bad as the Arturia Moog Modular V's manual, but I'm sure Dash could find someone out there with a solid grasp of English to help it out with documentation.

The samples themselves sound great and include a wide range of sitars, ouds, mbiras, bag pipes, santurs, and more. Interestingly, Knagalis also strives to maintain authenticity by keeping monophonic instruments truly monophonic, while allowing for polyphonic sympathetic tones, drones, and resonance to run in tandem.

But on top of that, you also have some serious control available to you. For example, not only can you control how various drones are triggered, you can also control their root tunings as well. You also have a wide variety of microtonal scale tunings available, from equal-tempered to numerous Asian, Middle Eastern, and Indian scales.

Knagalis also features several non-traditional effects such as flanger, reverb, and portamento. To my ears, the presets making use of these tend to stick out in a overly synth-sounding way and seem to distract from the level of authenticity. Of course, those of you desiring the ability to alter the sounds into something less traditional and experimental may well find these tools useful.

Overall, Knagalis features great-sounding samples combined with a serious amount of available controls to tweak to your heart's content. If your needs call for the ability to fine-tune the playability of such instruments, it's definitely worth checking out.

-- Har

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