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SwarPlug 1.0 - Review
Article: Review
AU VST X MAS RTAS TDM Effect Instrument Utility Host
Sunday 13th July 2003 11:03AM [GMT -5]
Swar Systems

Have you been feeling the call of world music and wish to expand your collection of sounds to include some Indian instruments? Well then perhaps a company in Switzerland can help with their collection called SwarPlug. SwarPlug is a CD full of VSTi plugins, SampleCell patches and a Librarian application that manages the 500 MIDI files that are also included.

SwarPlug .1.0
by Tony David Cray

Swar Systems is a Swiss company that also has an office in India, and appear to have created the definitive expose of Indian virtual instruments currently available. This collection spans around 14 different instruments, offering them in VSTi format and also as SampleCell patches so that you can load them into your own sampler and further manipulate them.

Its important to realise from the start that this product is not just another groovy collection of sounds to be pillaged for your latest remix effort. Its a thorough overview of Indian instruments and their use within the Indian musical idiom. This is obvious as the included Librarian application's prime task is to categorise and display the hundreds of MIDI files that accompany the samples and patches. As such, the samples and instruments in this collection don't compete with the multi-gigabyte beasts that are available, and i don't think that that was the intention. It seems the goal was to capture and recreate some hitherto unheard Indian instruments, and that, Swar Systems have done admirably.

The Instruments that are showcased in this collection fall into four different categories.

All the samples have been rendered at 44.1kHz/16bit and are Mono. There is no multiple velocity switching and very little, to none, action with filters or looping. Now, i know that these specs to some folks seem rather humble, and indeed compared to current libraries they are, I feel that they actually do very well with recreating the various timbres and qualities that these instruments possess.

Getting up and running with SwarPlug is very straight forward. Copy the contents of the CD to your hard drive, run an Authorising application, enter the supplied serial number and your ready to then place your choice of VSTi plugins or SampleCell patches into your chosen Audio Hosts folder.

I am running Logic Audio 6.1 and so am unable to run VSTi's. So i decided to use FXpansions's VST-AU adapter to create an AudioUnit version of the plug. I also copied across the SampleCell patches to my EXS24 folder for testing. Once in Logic, the SwarPlug plugin was loaded and the I was able to immediately select the desired patch and start playing.

The SwarPlug VSTi was apparently built by the folks at Linplug, using the technology from their CronoX 2 sample engine, so it has a good heritage. The plugin was stable and never caused me an issue during the review sessions.

In Use
Selecting a patch on the plugin automatically loads the required samples and then displays an image of the instrument. The samples have been mapped across the keyboard in a very logical manner and allow for some quite natural sounding playing very quickly. The percussion patches especially lend themselves to this approach.

Included is ample documentation, mapping out all MIDI note numbers for each patch and MIDI program change information.

Accompanying the plugin is a standalone application called the SwarLibrarian which catalogues the supplied 500+ MIDI files. This simple JAVA based app allows you to select an instrument and then chose a rhythm or melody that would be traditionally played on this instrument. You can preview the MIDI files in the Librarian then simply import the desired MIDI file to your Audio Host app.

The SwarLibrarian will be of particular interest to those studying Indian instruments as well as the rest of us who wish to fine tune our programming skills. By using the SwarPlug patches in a manner that is sympathetic to the particular instrument your final performance will be greatly improved. I found that within an afternoon of using the SwarPlug instruments and using the MIDI files for reference I was able to create some quite convincing beats that would sit very happily in a track.

As mentioned, all the samples that are used in the SwarPlug VSTi plugin are available for use in SampleCell format. I wanted to adjust some of the patches, in particular the release of some of the patches and also wanted to add some of my own filtering and panning. Importing them into the Logic EXS24 mkII was very simple and worked mostly as expected. Some of the tuned patches came in with the "Disable Pitch" flag turned on so they didn't change pitch across the keyboard. This was fixed manually.

The EXS24 versions were almost identical to the VSTi versions, a few samples sounded a little different which i imagine was due to LinPlug having built the SwarPlug plugin and then the SampleCell patches being tweaked. These differences were not an issue at all. The extra freedom that the EXS24 version allowed was wonderful and i immediately started tweaking the patches to my needs. This is where i think I would probably end up getting most use from the samples.

The Instruments
The Instruments that Swar Systems have chosen for the this collection cover a broad range of styles and families.

The tabla instruments are split into two separate instruments, High and Low, both offering an authentic and diverse array of hits. All samples are mapped out across the keyboard in a fashion that feels immediately intuitive. This patch is perhaps the prime motivation for using SwarPlug, its certainly the most musically correct and extensive collection of Tabla hits I have seen.

Pakhawaj & Dholak
These two barrel drums originate from northern India and usually are part of a larger ensemble of instruments. They have two heads, with the rear often coated in clay to lower its pitch and give the drum a more defined tone or note. They are sampled here with all the traditional beats and hits. Once assembled into a traditional rhythmic pattern these samples begin to show their character.

The Nagara, or Nagada, is essentially a kettle drum, and its use is usually to accompany another instrument, most often a reeded wind instrument. Here there are seven samples that each represent a particular style of hit.

The Manjeera or Manjira, also known as Tala, are a small pair of cymbals that are played with the hands. There are only three samples in this patch two open and one closed, but these three samples sit very well in a mix.

The Bansuri is a bamboo traverse flute, similar in its design to a modern concert flute. There are three separate patches of the same instrument here, Normal, Sharp and High, representing different playing styles. All three patches work well and are capable of creating a convincing flute sound.

The Harmonium is a hand pumped reed organ which of course is a recent import to Indian music. Its impact on most Indian music styles has been great, turning up in many genres. The samples here have captured the weezie quality of the harmonium faithfully. Its worth remembering when programming that anything played on this instrument would be done with one hand, as the other would be frantically pumping the bellows.

The Shehnai is a quadruple reed instrument similar to a classical oboe. It has quite a stringent tone and is often played with a few other Shehnai's for a truly potent effect. The patch here is quite simple, yet effective.

The ubiquitous Sitar is perhaps the best known Indian instrument, and quite a complex one to attempt to capture for sampler playback. There are usually 17 strings on a sitar, some of which are fretted and plucked, others are not touched, but instead vibrate in sympathy with the others. The patch for this instrument only attempts to capture the plucked strings. The samples sound wonderful and evoke the sound of a sitar, you can hear that resonator honking away as the notes evolve and decay. With some careful programming a very realistic sitar could be created, although for a true authentic sitar, you would have to have multiple instances of the plugin running so the pitch bend for certain notes wouldn't effect other sustaining notes.

The Sarod has to be one of the most bizarre Indian instruments i have seen and heard. Its essentially a mix between a lute, a sitar and a dobro! I had the pleasure of mixing one of the worlds most respected Sarod Players, Amjad ali Khan, when he was in Sydney recently, and it was clear that the Sarod is a unique beast. It has a metal fingerboard with no frets and a resonator with drone strings. This patch is one of the largest patches in the collection and i feel it still needs some work. Though i don't really know how you could create a sample based Sarod as its playing style is very free. Notes are slid wildly over octaves and mad pluckfests occur with rapid-fire melodies, all with the sympathetic strings and resonator adding to the experience. This patch would be ok for the more sedate pieces though. Again multiple instances and a resonating reverb would add to the quality of the final result.

The Sarangi is an Indian fiddle roughly the size of a viola that is played sitting down like a cello. It has a unique sound due to the way the strings are stopped with the fingernail, and not by being pressed against a fingerboard. The patch here captures the harmonically rich quality of the Sarangi very well and would add a very rustic character to any arrangement.

The Santoor is an Indian hammered dulcimer. This patch shines, capturing the colour of the Santoor faithfully as creating a very playable instrument.

The Tanpura is a drone stringed instrument, similar in sound to a Sitar being played without fretting any notes. They usually have only a few strings and are played throughout a work as a pedal note or chord. There are three patches here, High, Mid and Low, all of which easily create a workable virtual Tanpura. I would have liked to have seen some looped patches to allow for the recreation of the increasingly popular Digital tanpura. This bizarre device is simply a small box that has a loop of a Tanpura drone playing. The pitch is able to be changed to suit the piece or raga being played.

I was surprised to see this patch as part of the collection. Obviously its been included for completeness as there are many Indian ensembles that make use of the guitar. The patch is quite even and matches the style of the rest of the collection but it may not be what the western rock muso is looking for.

The Bols and Sargam patches are essentially both vocalisations of rhythm and melody. Sargam is the title given to the collection of notes, similar in use to our word Alphabet. And Bols is what is know as a Rhythmic Mnemonic. Indian music is a rich rhythmic language and the Bol is used as a method of describing this rhythm. These patches are perfect for anyone studying Indian music or for reference when programming some of the other instruments.

It has taken me a number of years to appreciate the very special approach to their work that many Indian musicians possess. While in the west we approach our music with a large focus on the technological, they approach music with a deeply spiritual basis. I have seen this in action many times when recording or mixing a live Indian ensemble. The fact that their digital Tanpura has a power supply that is buzzing louder than the Tanpura itself isn't an issue! Its the performance that is important. This quality of performance over technology has certainly been captured in this collection. The samples in the collection sound alive and real, certainly not sterile, they ooze character.

Swar Systems have done us all a service in creating SwarPlug, i hope that they continue to develop and expand this wonderful collection of rare instruments.

SwarPlug costs $195 USD for the package version or $170 USD if you order and download it. Both versions can be ordered on their site here.

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13 Jul 2003 SwarPlug 1.0 - Review
23 Feb 2003 SwarPlug VSTi X
Readers Comments
re: SwarPlug 1.0 - Review
From: [IP Logged] 13/07/03 12:40PM GMT -5
see yr other email address ;-)

re: SwarPlug 1.0 - Review
From: Ned Bouhalassa [IP Logged] 13/07/03 1:16PM GMT -5
Thanks for the review, Tony. As an owner of the excellent Quantum Leap Rare collection, I would suggest that in comparison, this collection is about 100 dollars too high in price.

re: SwarPlug 1.0 - Review
From: Ned Bouhalassa [IP Logged] 13/07/03 1:19PM GMT -5
[I'm continuing here, because I can't edit my first post!]

I mean, there's only 107 megs of material, after all.

re: SwarPlug 1.0 - Review
From: Audiomiditweaker [IP Logged] 13/07/03 7:06PM GMT -5
Yeah! Switzerland rulez! ;-) (see my location)
I'll give them a call and complain about the lak of an AU version! ;-)

re: SwarPlug 1.0 - Review
From: tdc [IP Logged] 13/07/03 10:04PM GMT -5
Heya Ned, Yes, I have the QL Rare set and they are indeed beautifully recorded. The Swar Set is a different beast, its certainly a different approach. The Educative material alone is invaluable for students.

re: SwarPlug 1.0 - Review
From: Swar Systens [IP Logged] 15/07/03 12:44AM GMT -5
Thanks, Tony. The review is very accurate. I just wanted to add that both sitar and sarod patches are divided into 3 sections for accomodating the different strings parts: sympathetics, main strings and chikari. This gives you full control over all strings of these instruments.

Regarding Tanpura, the samples are not looped because we are including the MIDI files that trigger the sounds accordingly to produce a perfect drone. In that way, you can just shift the MIDI file to the right pitch and set it to the right tempo to achieve the exact drone you require.

Regarding pricing, I must say we have had very different feedback from various people. Many told us that this product was too cheap also. In fact, you should not only judge this product by the amount of samples it has, but also by the quantity of MIDI files it includes (over 1000). These MIDI files allow you to reproduce intricate Indian rhythms and melodies, while taking up very little space and allowing full customization (tempo, pitch, etc...).

Regarding the AU version, we do accept the blame;-) However, as explained in the review, the FXpansion VST-AU wrapper works perfectly with our plugins.


Mariano Etchepareborda
Swar Systems

re: SwarPlug 1.0 - Review
From: jeffmr [IP Logged] 17/07/03 10:21PM GMT -5
Cooool : ) Yo, Thanks Swar.

re: SwarPlug 1.0 - Review
From: mohansimham@hotmail.com [IP Logged] 15/09/03 5:11AM GMT -5
Exceptionally good software. A definite value add to the music Industry. keep it up guys.

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