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fret_man

Instruments used in my folk/bluegrass ensemble

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I am not sure if this is the proper forum for this, but it is mostly a discussion on how I used VST instruments. So here is where I put it.

I have always been deeply moved by Jay Ungar's Ashokan Farewell and wanted to do a version of it with mandolin as the lead instrument. What I came up with can be heard here . I am very please with the way it came out and have received some good reviews on it, so I thought it might be instructive to go into some detail on how I used the various VST instruments, both to be instructive as well as critiqued. I am always searching to get better and welcome constructive criticism.

First, I used (Waves) IR-L full stereo  convolutional reverb with the Ryman Auditorium IR, which is appropriate for this musical style. Generally, I brought the solo instruments forward by reducing the amount of reverb (-20dB send) and the background instruments were sent back (-10dB send). I reverse panned the Sends to widen the reverb field, but I'm not convinced how effective that technique was for this.

Secondly, every track had it's own (Izotope) Neutron 3. I used the default "track enhancement" AI for a balanced style (exception: bass used the warm style) and medium intensity.

Thirdly, I used (Izotope) Ozone's AI for setting the overall loudness (Modern Modules, Medium Intensity, Streaming). If needed, I adjusted the Maximer Threshold to hit peaks of -1.0 dBFS to -0.8dBFS. I checked the output with (Izotope) Tonal Balance 2.0 (Country setting) for curiosity but it checked out fine.

  • Mandolin: some of you may remember my rather scathing review of the various VST mandolins available. For this piece I used a combination of Orange Tree's Evolution Mandolin and playing live . Even though this VSTi has some issues, I still consider it the best mandolin out there.  A mandolin uses wound strings for the bottom 2 pairs and plain strings for the top 2 pairs, so this was a natural break point between the real and VST instruments. Generally, I recorded the bottom 2 string pairs live and used the VST for the top 2 string pairs. The sound naturally changes there so the slightly different instrument sounds don't show up very much. There are times you can tell "eh, the transition from that note to this note sounds not quite right", but overall it is surprising how well this works. I don't think this would have worked with any of the other mandolin VSTs out there. I also played all the tremolos live, regardless of which string it was.

As you know from my previous review, my main issue with the OT Mandolin is its "dirty" sound - lots of fret buzz, pick noise, finger noise, etc - even when all those FX are turned off. They'd work well for old skool "in your face" percussive mandolin playing (think Bill Monroe - nothing wrong with that!), but I prefer a more modern, clean, melodic style (think Chris Thile - nothing wrong with that, either!). So I had to make a new preset which included the  following setup changes:

Economy Picking
Pick Noise Amount: 0%
Release Volume: 0%
Dynamic Morphing: enable <- probably no effect since I'm keeping the velocities so low.
Dynammic Curve: Bias soft
Resonant Amount: 0%
Resonance Release Length: 0%
Auto Fret Noise Volume: 0%

Even with all these noise sources turned off there is still plenty remaining. In addition, I had to make sure I kept the note velocities below 50% unless I needed some bite for emphasis. This required me to increase Kontakt's output volume to max (+12dB).

I used a lot of whole-step slide-in keyswitches. I made my own portamento slides since that sounded more natural to me (and is what OT also uses in all their demos, so I'm not alone in this opinion it seems). All the tremolos were recorded live. The hammer-ons and pull-offs were either recorded live or programmed manually - no built-in/scripted keyswitching.

I used a track delay of -12msec for bouncing MIDI to mono audio. Both instruments had their own track and their own (Izotope) Neutron 3 settings. Both live and VST instruments were panned center.

  • Guitar: I used Ample Sound's AGT-M (acoustic guitar Martin). I used the Stairway to Heaven preset with the finger library for both the strumming and picked solo portions. This produced the warmer tone this Olde Style folk song required. I did NOT use Ample Sound's built-in strummer or riffer, but rather manually programmed the various strumming patterns. This allowed me more flexibility in how to include the various bass runs without having to define all the fake chord structures required to otherwise implement those.

I did not use the default CC1 for their build-in vibrato control. Since vibrato on acoustic instruments is often a subtle vertical back-forth, as opposed to the horizontal string-bending electric guitar style, I seemed to get a more realistic sound using a slight Pitch Bend. With a 0-100% range of +/-2 half-steps (which seems to usually be the default), pitch bending from 47.5% to 52.5% is what I get when I actually recorded my own vibrato. So that is what I used here. The vibrato period is anywhere from 150msec to 250msec (fast to slow vibrato). Again, this is what I measured when I recorded myself. In the piece I recorded here, the vibrato occurs only a few times during the guitar solo. It is hard to specifically hear it, which is appropriate for this genre.

I used the slide keyswitch a few times.

I turned off the built-in reverb and delay. Ample Sound says to use a track delay of -35msec when bouncing the MIDI to audio, but I found -15msec works better. I used the MS2 stereo mic setting and bounced to a stereo output.

  • Banjo: I used Ample Sound's Ethno Banjo, default preset, reverb off, neck stereo mic (to get as warm a sound as possible to emulate a clawhammer banjo). No other tweaks. The banjo is only used as background support so there were no other more detailed changes required. Editorial comment: this VSTi is difficult to use because each time the drone 5th string is hit the left hand position moves up. This is NOT what happens with real banjo playing. I keep having to move the left hand back down. They have been notified that their left-hand engine should be modified to ignore the 5th string for Banjo 2.0.

I used a few slide and forced hammer-on keyswitches (not sure why some over-lapped noted didn't give me a hammer-on so I had to force it).

This was bounced to mono and panned R88%.

  • Bass: I used Ample Sound's ABU (acoustic bass upright), default preset, reverb off, no other changes. I used the "All" microphone setting and bounced it to stereo. It does not have any reverb.

No keyswitches were used.

  • Fiddle: I used Indiginus' The Fiddle. It took me quite a while to wrangle this to a configuration that felt natural to me. I did NOT use their up front GUI configurator that lets you dial in various articulations based on note velocity. That may be great for live playing, which I don't do. I modified The Fiddle as follows:

Legato: on
Leg Vel Split: 40
Bow Change Legato Settings: Slur/BowChange Split Point = 81
These 2 settings makes note velocity determine the transitions to be
    Vel < 40: portamento
    40 < Vel < 80: slur
    Vel < 80: bow change
I found these very convenient and natural. Velocity only controls right hand bowing.

Vib Vel Split: 127 (never use note velocity to turn vibrato on/off)
Vibrato: set learn MIDI to CC1
    Set CC#1 = max to set the trip velocity to max, turning OFF vibrato.
    Set CC#1 = min to set the trip velocity to min, turning ON vibrato.
These 2 settings allow CC1 to turn vibrato on/off
Vibrato is only ON/OFF for this VSTi. It is recorded at only 1 depth level and is not adjustable - but it has a nice, subtle folksy sound, so OK for this. CC1 controls the left hand.

Key Velocity Amt = 0 (note velocity will not change expression/volume)
Expression Amt = 100, CC=11
These 2 settings allows CC11 to control expression /volume which, in turn, allows variable swells in the middle of bowing - required for a realistic sound.

Release Vol = 0 (cleans things up some)
Reverb = Hmmm, looks like I left it at default. I meant to turn that off and use the project reverb buss, but it seems to sound OK. I'll leave it.
Sustains = infinite. I've heard single bow draws last up to 4 sec. The  (unadjustable) default length is too short for that.
Grace Notes and Trills were set to scale (Bluegrass, key of D/Bm for this piece) but I didn't use either of these, manually programming my own.
I did not use any of the auto-harmonization features. These would be very useful when playing live, which this was not.

I used a single slide-in keyswitch. All the hammer-ons and pull-offs were manually programmed.

This was bounced to mono and panned L88%.

So that's it. If you made it this far then I hope you learned something. If you see something that I could have done better, please let me know. Thank you for reading.

  • Thanks 3

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Hi Fleer, That's a really nice acoustic sound you have there. It seems we both have a liking for the acoustic folky stuff!  I've played this tune in our band a few times.  Also thanks for the details of the instruments. 

The banjo is mixed really low, over on the right hand side I think, but just enough to add that texture.  I have the Indiginus Fiddle and I'm still exploring the settings on there, so I have a few guides to try now - thanks again! The guitar and mandolin are nicely done - beautiful tones and nicely balanced and produced.  Lovely sound!

For my own stuff I normally try to do the mandolins, guitars and banjo. I'm still learning the fiddle, and I don't think I'll be troubling the sesion boys in that department!

Cheers

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Amazing!  I'm listening as I read your post.  If you had not said so, I would have been 100% convinced this was done mostly on real instruments. And I'm hard to fool. I have a long history of playing and recording acoustic music. Great job on the recording and the arrangement too.

Thanks for the detailed explanation of your process. This is wonderful information for anyone who is planning on using VST instruments in acoustic, folk music. 

As my arthritis gets worse I have been slowly "cheating" and using more and more VST instruments. I am a big fan of Ample's collection and always waiting for a sale that never happens. Now you have given me a bad case of VST GAS. 

Edited by John Vere
  • Great Idea 1

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4 hours ago, jerrydf said:

<snip>

The banjo is mixed really low, over on the right hand side I think, but just enough to add that texture.  I have the Indiginus Fiddle and I'm still exploring the settings on there, so I have a few guides to try now - thanks again! The guitar and mandolin are nicely done - beautiful tones and nicely balanced and produced.  Lovely sound!

<snip>

Cheers

Thank you so much for listening and commenting! I went back/forth on the banjo level. I agree with you. I'm not sure I got it right yet. It could be louder, maybe.

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47 minutes ago, John Vere said:

Amazing!  I'm listening as I read your post.  If you had not said so, I would have been 100% convinced this was done mostly on real instruments. And I'm hard to fool.

<snip>

 

Thank you so much! I worked real hard at getting (what I consider) a realistic sound. I had to touch every. single. note. on. every. single. instrument. Tedious but worth it in the end. I now assume this is what it takes.  No more short cuts. Do the work. Take the time.  Don't be lazy. And keep a REAL instrument nearby because this causes you to  stop and really pay attention to how you play. How long are the gaps when you play notes on the same string? How long are the gaps when you switch strings? Things like that.

When I close my eyes to audition the various VST contenders, it always comes down to Orange Tree and Ample Sound. The only reason I used Ample Sound here is because that is what I learned first. And the only reason I learned them first is because I needed an acoustic flat top bass, which they have (the ONLY ones to have that as far as I can tell). I could probably have done this piece using Orange Tree VSTs, but I will never know.

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For the banjo,  play around with the level,  but I'd say it's probably OK as it is. I'm intrigued with instruments which are almost inaudible but do actually make a subtle difference, and you can tell the difference when they're taken away.

For the izotope stuff,  I'm really keen on Ozone for the final stages,  but I just can't get into Neutron. 

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I have to give +1 to both Ample Sound and Indiginus for their virtual acoustic instruments!

I have the Ample Upright Bass. Best acoustic bass sound that I have heard in a VST! It goes on sale once or twice a year. I got it on sale for $119 at Best Service last August. https://www.bestservice.com/ample_sound.html

I also went out to Indiginus to pick up The Resonator, and ended up getting The Fiddle and The Steel too! Tracy at Indiginus sells them cheap enough as full Kontakt instruments only, so if you have full Kontakt, his instruments are a no brainer! :)

Hopefully my next one from Indiginus will be the Renegade Acoustic, $69 (full Kontakt). https://www.indiginus.com/renegade-acoustic-guitar

 

Edited by abacab

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@fret_man

Sounds amazing! 👍 It sound so much like real instruments. 

Thank you for sharing the end result and the details of how you achieved it.  

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