Product reviews

I regularly try new audio software, plug-ins, sample libraries, etc. On this page I share some thoughts about these products.

A complete list of products reviewed on rekkerd.org is available here.

Review: Toontrack The Blues EZX

Toontrack The Blues EZX

Toontrack’s latest expansion for EZdrummer and Superior Drummer 2.0 is The Blues EZX, a sound library featuring two drum kits and MIDI grooves played by seasoned drummer Hans Lindbäck.

The Blues EZX comes with two complete kits; A 1970s Gretsch And A Calfskinned Swedish Levin set from the 1940s.

On top of that, it features contemporary Paiste and Sabian crashes, vintage Zildjan A and K series cymbals as well as extras such as a suitcase and a set of calfskinned tambourines. All instruments were handpicked and in many cases road-worn by the sampling drummer himself, a blues musician with more than half a decade worth of experience behind the kit playing the blues.

The Gretsch kit includes a nice versatile 14×20″ kick drum, a deep, fat sounding 5½x14″ Slingerland Radio King snare, and 8×12″ and 14×14″ toms. An alternative preset is available for the Gretsch kit, swapping the kick and snare with a suitcase and a 30′s 6½x14″ Premier Brass snare.

The Levin drum kit includes a deep 14×28″ kick, a 60′s Premier Wood 5½x14″ rich sounding snare, and high and low tuned 9×12″ toms. These drums all have calf skinned heads.

One hihat is included in all kits, a 14″ Zildjian New Beat/Rock Beat combo, another choice for versatility. The cymbals include vintage 60′s Zildjian A and K series rides (19″ & 20″) and crashes (10″, 12″ & 18″), as well as a 16″ Paiste crash and 16″ and 18″ Sabian hand hammered crash cymbals.

Finally, two additional Grover Tambourines round off the setup.

The Blues EZX comes with a library of MIDI grooves, 13 songs in total in shuffle, swing, straight and 12/8 categories. Song include a number of grooves with closed hihats, open hihats, cymbals, breaks, fills, intros and endings. The library spans a large variety of tempos, from 80 to 198 bpm.

Check the video below for a quick impression of the sounds and grooves.


Toontrack’s Blues EZX for EZdrummer and Superior Drummer 2.0.

So what do I think?

Product: Toontrack The Blues EZX
Format: EZdrummer / Superior Drummer 2.0
Price: 69 EUR / $89 USD
Like: Spot on drum sounds and grooves, versatile kits
Don’t like: –
Verdict: 9/10

The Blues EZX drums and cymbals have been sampled with a good variety of articulations and the included kit pieces offer sounds for a range of styles, from jazz to blues to pop/rock. Hans Lindbäck provides a great set of songs with plenty of variations, interesting fills and breaks, and most important, an authentic blues vibe.

Having played guitar in a blues band for a number of years, I really enjoyed The Blues EZX. It feels very natural and I would have loved to have the sounds of these drum kits in our band back then. While to me, blues is all about playing together, this sound library is great for rehearsing, working out ideas, or doing studio work where you would normally get a session drummer.

In short, the Blues EZX is a solid, high quality set of drum kits and grooves that are great for blues music and beyond.

More information: Toontrack / Time+Space

Review: Native Instruments MASCHINE mk2

Native Instruments Maschine

First there was the Maschine, then came Maschine Mikro, and now Native Instruments has updated both to mk2 with new software features, an improved controller, and additional hardware accessories.

For those who have never heard of Maschine before, it is basically a combination of music production software with a dedicated hardware controller. A tightly integrated system that can be used standalone – including hosting of 3rd party plugins, or as a plugin in another host. The groovebox-like hardware controller can also be used to control external hardware and software via MIDI with Maschine’s MIDI mode.

Now, I realize I am a bit late to the party with this review, and to be honest after checking some earlier reviews I found pretty much everything I would like to say has already been written at Oh Drat. So I’ll try my best not to ruminate and list everything you can already find at the Native Instruments website anyway, and instead just mention a few things I found particularly interesting when using the new Maschine.

Native Instruments Maschine mk2
Multi-colored pads and group buttons on the Maschine mk2 controller.

While the rainbow colored, toy-like appearance did not appeal to me a whole lot at first, I found myself using color coding on sounds and groups pretty much from day one. I already did the same thing in other music production software to indicate groups of instruments, sounds, effects, etc. and having the same kind of thing in Maschine is a definite workflow improvement for me.

Besides having multi-color LEDs, the pads also have a much improved sensitivity. I thought the pads on the original Maschine were really good, but to me the Mk2 is an order of magnitude better still. The sensitivity is just amazing, even at really low velocities. I can now confidently tap away the night without worrying about waking up my kids in the next room.

I also enjoy the new screens a lot better, easier on the eyes and improved readability. It has helped me to do more from the hardware controller where before I would jump to the computer screen. The fact that you can now audition samples from the hardware before committing helps a lot too.

Maschine mk2 screens
The new screens on the mk2 are very good in places where you have very little light.

On the whole many of these changes are seemingly minimal improvements, but in fact they are most useful. Like the little click response on buttons, something I didn’t even know I wanted until the mk2 came along, what a lovely improvement.

On the software part I feel that Native Instruments has an extremely difficult job. Besides implementing some of the new features to go with the hardware, there are tons of feature requests from existing and potential customers. It is not likely you’re ever going to be able to please everyone with any update, much less a point update.

Time stretch/pitch shift is a much requested feature that was implemented, but… for some reason it is not a real-time process. While the results of processed audio is impressive, it kind of stumps me why can’t just have a preview and commit function?

Massive included with Maschine

The additions of the Transient Master module, some new tape and tube saturation models for the Saturator module, and a free copy of the Massive software synthesizer are nice bonus.

With MASCHINE 1.8, all MASCHINE users get the full version of the modern legend MASSIVE – the synth that gave birth to the earth-shuddering bass tones and speaker-troubling leads that have defined the bass music genre. This monster synth contains 1,300 ready-to-go sounds, all instantly browseable via the MASCHINE hardware. MASCHINE’s eight control knobs offer direct access to MASSIVE’s eight Macro controls, for perfect synergy between hardware and synthesizer, and a lightning-fast workflow.

It is my guess that over time, Native Instruments is going to be integrating more and more of its sounds & effects into the Maschine package.

There are a bunch more improvements, of which I want to mention one that may seem minor but it certainly made my day. You can now use both your hands for recording automation of parameters by pinning down the “Auto Write”. I record automation a whole lot so this little feature is a godsend to me.

What didn’t get much attention is MIDI. I work pretty much completely in the box so it’s no big deal to me, but if you use a lot of external gear and need full MIDI implementation with MIDI CC and multiple outputs, version 1.8 does not yet bring what you’re looking for. Native Instruments never said they would implement this in the update so can’t blame them really, but it would be good to see full MIDI support nonetheless. I haven’t a clue how much work it is to get it implemented, perhaps it will take version 2.0 to get it…

Lastly, I want to mention the new custom kits and stand accessories.

Custom kits and stand for Maschine mk2
The custom kits are available in a variety of colors.

Some companies were already offering custom stickers and modifications for the original Maschine, so Native Instruments cleverly pulled the market towards themselves by offering a custom kit with faceplate and knobs in various colors. Granted, the pricing of these kits is a bit steep, but I have to say they look really good. Great quality and replacing the magnetic faceplate and knobs is really easy.

The stand is also something you could probably do yourself for less money, but again, great quality piece of hardware and it looks sleek. It can be mounted on standard drum hardware with the included Mounting Adapter.

Alright, to finish I want to show the obligatory Jeremy Ellis video. It should be said that this makes me want to sit down with my Maschine all day, but realize that it is not likely you will ever get anywhere near the amazing stuff he does. At least, this is truth in my case.

Also, for a great overview of everything new in Maschine mk2 and the 1.8 software, check out this excellent video by Dubspot’s Matt Cellitti.

So what do I think?

Product: Native Instruments Maschine mk2
Format: VST/AU/RTAS/Standalone
Price: 599 EUR / $669 USD
Like: Amazing pads, great screens, many workflow improvements, fun!
Don’t like: No real-time time stretch, No full MIDI implementation
Verdict: 9/10

Improved pads, screens & workflow, new effects and the Massive synth included. No earth shaking features perhaps, but with mk2 the Maschine platform is moving along rather nicely.

At the same retail price of the first model, Native Instruments is definitely offering a superior package with Maschine mk2. For those who already have the original Maschine, the software update is free. Personally, I enjoy the pads and colored LEDs so much to justify getting the mk2, but whether the controller improvements are worth the upgrade or not is up to you.

There is still a lot of room for Maschine to grow, and I am pretty confident that Native Instruments is going to tackle some of the top feature requests in future upgrades, but as is, Maschine mk2 remains an amazing piece of gear. Native Instruments calls it fast, intuitive, powerful and flexible. I call it a joy to work with.

More information: Native Instruments / Maschine mk2

Review: Boxed Ear Sys100 for Kontakt

Boxed Ear Sys100

Boxed Ear has recently released Sys100, a sound library featuring the System 100 analog synthesizer by Roland.

Sys100 is a Kontakt library made entirely with the incredible Roland System 100 semi-modular analog synthesizer and we were very excited to get our mitts on one earlier this year. After months of patching, sampling, looping, tuning and tweaking we can finally unleash the results – a unique and modern sounding sample pack which sounds as good as the System 100 looks.

As with our Mighty M5 pack, we’ve put all our efforts into coaxing the most interesting patches and sounds from the System 100 so you get a wonderful library of expressive and playable Kontakt instruments.

The library includes no less than 4,619 wav files (24bit/44.1kHz) and 80 Kontakt instruments with up to 16 velocity layers and round robin samples. The instruments are grouped in Raw mono, Raw poly, Processed mono, Processed poly, Drums and FX, and Waveforms categories.

Boxed Ear Sys100 in Kontakt
Boxed Ear Sys100 in Native Instruments Kontakt 5.

There is a good amount of variety bass, leads, pads, strings, plucks, glitchy sequences, drum/percussion hits, sound fx and more. Check the audio demos below to get an idea of what’s included.

So what do I think?

Product: Sys100 by Boxed Ear
Format: Kontakt 4/5 (Kontakt Player NOT supported)
Price: $49 USD/39 EUR/£30 GBP
Like: Beautifully sampled, superb patches
Don’t like: –
Verdict: 9/10

Boxed Ear continues in the same high standard set by its first sample library, the Mighty M5.

The samples sound authentic, vintage, full of life. Clean when it needs to be, at times noisy, raw and pure, but always chock full of character. I can’t get over how fat the bass sounds are, and I love how some of those are looped. Reminds me of the sounds of 90′s jungle/drum’n’bass, especially with a patch like “Big Sync Lead”. Hold a note and start sliding for instant reese. Boh!

While the palette of sounds suits any type of electronic music, it took me only a good half hour before I found myself knee deep into a Board of Canada vibe. The warble/drift in patches like “Twisted Beauty” and “Canadian Sine” are just so musical, they can easily carry a tune.

In short, Boxed Ear delivers another set of beautifully crafted instruments, with heaps of unique and exciting sounds. This library is a true gem!

More information: Boxed Ear / Sys100

Review: Luftrum 9 soundset for u-he DIVA

Related: , , , Posted in reviews on Nov 13, 2012 - comment 0 comments
Luftrum 9 for u-he Diva

Ever since hearing some of his patches for Camel Audio’s Alchemy, Søren Hybel aka Luftrum has been on my radar.

With Luftrum 9, users of u-he’s virtual analog DIVA synthesizer now have a chance to get 64 sounds from the Danish sound designer, field recordist and electronic experimentalist.

Luftrum 9 contains 64 presets ranging from smooth ambients pads to gentle arpeggios, berlin school sequences and synth emulations inspired by Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Royksopp and Jean Michel Jarre.

Luftrum 9 patches:

  • 21 Ambient Pads
  • 19 Arpeggios
  • 15 Synths
  • 4 Soundscapes
  • 3 Sound Effects
  • 2 Strings

The patches make use of Diva’s onboard effects, sometimes quite heavily. Still, the CPU usage is really good on most sounds. Luftrum designed the presets in “fast quality mode”, so that’s great when using Diva on older machines. The patches includes information on what parameters are controlled by mod wheel, velocity, aftertouch, etc. The set is geared towards ambient music, and the patches generally sounds warm and dynamic.

It is interesting that the soundset includes arpeggio patches, as Diva has no arpeggiator. Of course nothing stops you from using these patches to create your own sequences, but Luftrum designed them for use with an arpeggiator. Kirnu was used in the process, so you could pick that up from Arto Vaarala.

Reaper users can also get this playlist for Kirnu, or download an archive of fxp/fxb for use in Kirnu with other DAWs.

Check the audio demos below to hear some of the sounds of Luftrum 9.

So what do I think?

Product: Luftrum 9
Format: .h2p patches for u-he Diva
Price: $19 USD
Like: Beautiful sounds, well programmed, CPU efficient
Don’t like: –
Verdict: 10/10

Did you listen to the audio demos, and you are still here? This soundset is stunning. From start to finish, each and every single one of these 64 patches is a beauty.

I am truly inspired by the sounds and sound design of Luftrum. A first pass on the patches had me sucked in for over an hour, it’s just that good. Classic sound and modern day quality combined, what more do you want?

I love everything in this set (yes, also the R2D2 emulation), with the pads section being my favorite. These are simply gorgeous, beautifully crisp, warm, evolving, completely drawing you in.

This is my favorite Diva soundset to date, highly recommended!

More information: Luftrum / Diva soundset

Review: D16 Group LuSH-101 multi-timbral polyphonic synthesizer plugin

D16 Group’s LuSH-101 is probably one of the most anticipated synthesizer plug-in of 2012. Since the initial announcement of the synth (then named Shioiter) over three years ago, it has been a long wait with few progress updates.

LuSH-101

With such a long development stage – or rather the general public being in the know so early on – there will always be some hype and (unfounded) high expectations. And sure enough, when LuSH-101 finally arrived the reception was mixed. Some people instantly dismissed it for not emulating the SH-101 faithfully enough, having too many bells and whistles, being a CPU hog, or it just not living up to the “one synth you’ll ever need” tagline. Others have praised LuSH-101′s resemblance to the sounds of the classic Roland synthesizer, or appreciate the additional features included in the plug-in offers.

Though I must admit I have always wanted an MC-202, I am not all that interested in how precise D16 modeled the SH-101. I’ve heard some audio clips comparing the both and it can certainly sound very similar, but LuSH-101 has a lot more to offer than its hardware counterpart.

The multilayer architecture guarantees that both the sound design possibilities and number of unique situations in which LuSH-101 can be used are virtually limitless. Layered sounds can be created simply by assigning the layers to the same MIDI channel; the results can sound as massive as anything imaginable! Assigning the layers to different keyboard zones allows you to create even the most sophisticated splits. Of course, you can always assign the various layers to different MIDI channels for 8-part multitimbral usage. And, virtually any combination of splits, layers, and multitimbrality is possible with just a single instance of LuSH. With each layer working as an independent synthesizer with its own polyphony, parameters, enhanced arpeggiator, and a palette of only the finest insert effects, LuSH-101 can push your creativity to unprecedented levels!

D16 Group LuSH-101
LuSH-101 certainly looks like a vintage hardware synthesizer. Love it or hate it.

Let’s take a quick look at the specs.

LuSH-101 features

  • Multi-layer, 8 independent layers (synths) saw, square/PWM, noise oscillators, A sub osc, supersaw, hardsync, multi-mode and passive hipass filters, 2 LFO’s and envelopes, insert effects, mod matrix, and arpeggiator.
  • Mixer panel with 11 output busses (8 layers + 3 fx), compressor and EQ for each, and reverb, chorus, and tempo-syncable delay send fx.
  • Includes 1,700 presets, with 5 categories (layer, arp, reverb, delay, and global).

First off, let me say that LuSH-101 requires quite a lot of processing power. Even a single layer sound can take up a considerable amount of CPU – especially when using multiple voices – let alone multiple layer sounds. That said, with careful programming and lowering some settings you can still get decent results on older systems like my good old duo core Pentium.

d16 LuSH-101 oscillator section

The sound of LuSH-101 starts with the oscillators. These do not necessarily have an “analog” vibe to my ears, but they do have a pleasant high quality sound about them.

Mixing square (pwm), saw, sub and noise oscillators you have a limited palette, but this can actually help you get creative in a “less is more” kind of way.

The hardsync on the square and saw is achieved by using a hidden oscillator. It has its own sound, I quite like it. The saw can also be stacked to create a supersaw. Not my type of thing really, but I hear it’s pretty sweet.

d16 LuSH-101 filter section

To the right of the source mixer is the filter section, with a multi-mode (lowpass, bandpass, highpass) resonant filter and a passive highpass, which is said to have a characteristic RC analogue filter. The multi-mode filter has two modes:
- Normal: The overall peak volume of the filter output is constant across the Cutoff frequency and Resonance domain and the filter itself is softer in comparison to SH-101 variant.
- SH-101: More unstable and analogue like with faithful emulation of self-oscillations appearing in SH-101.

d16 LuSH-101 envelopes / LFOs

I have no idea how faithful this emulation is, but the SH-101 mode sounds quite different from the normal one so make sure you give it a try. Note that some filter stepping is audible, and I am not sure if this is intended but it doesn’t bother me to be honest. Two envelopes and two LFO’s are available to control various parameters, including things like pitch, pulse width, and cutoff & resonance of the multi-mode filter.

LuSH-101 offers various trigger modes for its envelopes and LFOs, and a special SH-101 mode can be selected from the options panel. The envelopes are also nice and fast, which is demonstrated by the lovely drum sounds this synth can produce.

d16 LuSH-101 arpeggiator

Moving a bit further to the right of the interface we find the arpeggiator. This features various modes (up, down, up/down, random, etc), a host of tempo/rates, shuffle, chords, gate and tie sequencer, and more. I tend to do everything in my host, but I have to say an arp like this is easy and fun to use.

To spice things up a bit, LuSH-101 also includes some internal insert effects: Chorus, Flanger, String Ensemble, Phaser, Vowel Filter, Distortion, Decimator, and Tremolo. These are simple, solid effects. I especially like the vowel filter and decimator, and the chorus is great for creating lush sounds. You can currently only select one effect at a time, but note that you can set a different effect for each of the 8 layers.

The mixing panel lets you mix all your layers in channel strips. Each channel comes with a compressor, equalizer, and 3 send fx controls for the global reverb, delay and chorus effects. These effects also have dedicated channel strips with an EQ.

On the one hand I like this approach of designing a sound pretty much completely within a synth, on the other hand I feel it is a bit silly to be mixing and applying compression, eq, etc. in a plug-in when you could simply do this in your host software. I’m still a bit divided on the whole thing.

d16 LuSH-101 mixer panel
LuSH-101 mixing panel with 8 layer channel strips and 3 fx channels.

All parameters of LuSH-101′s individual layers (incl. arp, insert fx, mod matrix, etc) can be stored in a timbre preset. The arpeggiator also has its own presets, and so do the reverb and delay in the mixer panel. All settings within an instance of LuSH-101 are stored within a global preset.

The presets browser feels a bit outdated to me. Preset name, author and rating are stored, yet there is no search option or tagging system available. It is basically plain old hierarchical folder browsing. That said, the presets themselves include many wonderful sounds. Lots of quality presets categorized in bass, drum, fx, mono/lead, poly, and tempo based folders.

Alright, a few more bits and bobs before I round up.

LuSH-101 features a plain and simple (boring?) modulation matrix. Source, destination, and amount in a simple panel. Some useful parameters are missing from the destinations list, but more will be added in a future update. A wider range of modulation values would be useful as well.

Talking about updates, the interface has received a good portion of critique from users who either can’t fit the whole thing on their screens, find the huge keys a waste of space, or simply can’t read a thing with those tiny text labels.

Fortunately, the developers are listening and the option to hide the keyboard – which I also though was waste of space, but would you believe I miss it when it’s hidden… – was implemented already, and additional interface sizes are planned for an upcoming update. At a later stage we should even be able to pick our favorite colors for the GUI, just like the early Shioitor teaser shots suggested.

Lastly, when first trying to automate something within your host you will find LuSH-101 doesn’t send out anything by default. As there are too many parameters to assign within the VST/AU spec of 128, you are left to do your own maps. A bit annoying to have to set up, but it’s probably something you are only going to do once and you can use your custom map as a default for subsequent sessions. And again, it has already been announced that improvements for parameter handling, automation and the modulation matrix are planned. LuSH-101 is only going to get better with time.

Check the demo tracks below to listen to the sounds of LuSH-101.

So what do I think?

Product: LuSH-101 by D16 Group
Format: AU/VST (RTAS and AAX coming)
Price: 149 EUR / $199 USD
Like: High quality, beautiful sound, great presets, layers
Don’t like: High CPU use, presets browser
Verdict: 9/10

Quality comes at a price, and I don’t mean the actual price tag. LuSH-101 requires a lot of processing power. There is no denying that this can be a deal breaker for those with “underpowered” machines.

Looking past this issue (and once again coming to terms with bouncing/freezing in your host), there is also no denying that LuSH-101 is a proper monster synthesizer that is capable of producing high quality sounds. Beyond the SH-101 comparison, LuSH-101 offers so much more than the recreation of a classic. The layering system is really nice, especially for designing dynamic pads.

I am also well impressed with D16 Group’s fast response to user requests/critique. If the first update and the list of upcoming improvements are anything to go by, it looks like LuSH-101 will only get better with time. I hope that there will also be some CPU optimization, or perhaps they could do a lite version with less options, but I will say it again: Quality comes at a price.

Hats off to the D16 team for what they have achieved.

With the version 1.0.1 update, the LuSH-101 demo now allows 30 minutes of testing (and no more annoying pop-up window) so go check it out.

More information: D16 Group / LuSH-101

Review: Waveformless Soundware DIVA Prima

Waveformless DIVA Prima

Waveformless Soundware’s latest offering is DIVA Prima, a collection of sounds for u-he’s virtual analog DIVA software synthesizer for Windows and Mac.

DIVA Prima is a testiment to the flexibilty of u-he’s creation. Chunky Minimoog basses, Kraftwerkian synth percussion and drums, raspy mono-leads, lush Solina-like synth strings, massive, Jupiter-esque pads, delicate, glassy plucks, and even digital, FM-type sounds.

On top of that, we’ve included some sound-alike patches. Need the resonant synth sound from Yaz’s “Only You”? We’ve got it here. Need the famous Yamaha TX81Z “Latelybass” preset? We’ve got a pretty convincing version of that, too. Gary Numan-esque strings? Gotcha covered.

But we don’t stop there. Amidst all of the beautiful sounds are their ugly cousins, using crossmod, filter FM, and other unusual techniques to give you startlingly original and edgy sounds sure to stand out in a mix.

The soundset includes 128 patches (plus an Init to create your own). Unfortunately they aren’t categorized or tagged as such, which is a shame because I do like my patches neatly ordered when possible. With this amount of patches it’s alright though, also since many patches have good descriptions.

Waveformless DIVA Prima
Part of the patch list of Diva Prima, with a lovely OSCar like lead patch selected, that is similar to the type of leads Ultravox often used.

Many patches have useful modulation mappings, allowing for more expressive playing. Diva’s patch information panel is used to describe the patches and show which controls are mapped.

When you audition your new patches, be sure to check out what the mod wheel or aftertouch does. It might be something subtle like opening the filter or adding vibrato, or it might be something much more striking via crossmod or filter FM, but almost every patch has some sort of modulation assigned to it for more expressive sounds.

Have a listen to the demo tracks below to get a good idea of what’s included. These are all DIVA only (with just minimal mastering processing).

So what do I think?

Product: DIVA Prima by Waveformless
Format: .h2p patches for u-he DIVA
Price: $9.99 USD
Like: Well programmed, good variety, cheap
Don’t like: –
Verdict: 8/10

With DIVA Prima, Tom Shear delivers a solid set of sounds for u-he’s virtual analog synthesizer.

Tom’s industrial/EBM background shows, but I am always pleasantly surprised by the versatility of his sounds. As with previous Waveformless soundsets, this collection includes a well balanced amount of bread & butter patches, as well as more unusual sounds.

Diva truly is a superb synthesizer – I reckon one of the best virtual analog’s at this moment – and the sounds of DIVA Prima do shine on this beast. Also, the $9.99 price tag is not likely to be a deal-breaker. Check out this great value for money soundset at the Wavefromless website, and make sure to pick up the free demo pack with 10 patches.

More information: Waveformless Soundware / DIVA Prima

Review: u-he The Dark Zebra soundset by Hans Zimmer & Howard Scarr

u-he The Dark Zebra

Users of Zebra have no shortage in sounds for this virtual modular synthesizer. Thousands of patches are available in both free and commercial soundsets. U-he’s latest offering – The Dark Zebra, is a little more than just a collection of patches.

A bank of over 400 presets, a collaboration between Hans Zimmer and Howard Scarr. Practically all Zebra sounds in the The Dark Knight as well as The Dark Knight Rises soundtracks are included, plus several more that didn’t quite fit into the scores.

The pack also includes Hans’ custom built update from a licensed Zebra2.x to the version you can see in this video, ZebraHZ. Many of the more recent patches make use of the extra features available in ZebraHZ.


Demonstration of The Dark Zebra with its custom ZebraHZ synthesizer plugin.

So not only does this soundset for Zebra 2.5 include hundreds of sounds straight from the brilliant minds of Hans Zimmer and Howard Scarr, it also comes with a custom Zebra version that was made specifically for Hans’ scoring of the Dark Knight movies.

Additional features of ZebraHZ include:

  • analog filter models such as the ones found in Diva,
  • polyphonic compressors,
  • 2 additional modulation mappers,
  • and a Polymoog-like resonator effect module.
ZebraHZ Diva filters

The new filters are available from the DIVA VCF tab in the bottom bar of the GUI.

You get 4 highpass filters and 4 lowpass/multimode filters. The HP filters include two models – Pre and Bite, and the 2 pairs of lowpass filters have Ladder, Cascade, Multimode and Bite models. Controls for cutoff, resonance and key follow are available, and three unlabelled knobs can be used to set modulation depths for assigned sources (two for cutoff, one for resonance) for each filter.

Since these filters can consume quite a bit of CPU, it’s good to have some quality parameters so you can work in draft mode and render with high audio quality. You can also get some random cutoff values on the filters with an additional “CutoffSlop” control.

ZebraHZ polyphonic compressor modules

ZebraHZ comes with an individual polyphonic compressor for each one of the 4 lanes. Polyphonic means that these will apply compression for each single note! You can imagine this takes some processing power so you can deactivate them to save some CPU.

The lane compressor modules are particularly useful for doing percussion/drum type sounds where transients matter.

With two additional modmappers in ZebraHZ (also included in the latest regular Zebra plugin) you now have a total of 4 flexible modulation map modules to add even more modulation to your sound.

The new Resonator module (Res1) is available from the effects grid on the Global/FX tab. This emulates the 3-band peaking filter found on Moog Music’s Polymoog analog synthesizer.

One of the very first polyphonic synthesizers ever included a 3-band peaking filter that could be used to dramatically shape the overall sound.

ZebraHZ Resonator module
The resonator module in ZebraHZ.

ZebraHZ takes this concept and extends it with an extra full range band (60Hz-7.5kHz). The Resonator has various filter color modes, and the filter mode includes lowpass, bandpass, a bandpass variation with inverted second pole, and highpass.

Interestingly enough, many of the patches in The Dark Zebra don’t use any of these new features. Regardless, the additions are great to have.

As for the sounds, The Dark Zebra has a total of 400 patches which are categorized as follows:

  • Basses and Drones (33)
  • Bells and Metallurgy (26)
  • Drums and Clocks (64)
  • Effects and Chaos (38)
  • HighArps and Chords (72)
  • Lead and Horns (47)
  • LowArps and Stomps (50)
  • Pads and Keys (46)
  • Xtras (24)

As you would expect with sounds that were used in the soundtracks for The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, many of them have a dark and cinematic feel to them.

Howard programmed most of the sounds to be performed with mod wheel, pitchbend, pressure and breath control, making them very dynamic. The patches come with information on the sound, how to use it and which controls are assigned to which parameters so you get an idea of how they were intended to be played.

Check Jarkko Hietanen’s amazing demo below to hear some of the sounds of The Dark Zebra in action. Only Zebra was used for this track!

So what do I think?

Product: The Dark Zebra by u-he
Format: .h2p patches + ZebraHZ VST/AU plug-in
Price: $99 USD incl. VAT (EU)
Like: Brilliant sounds, excellent for studying Zebra sound design
Don’t like: Costly for new Zebra users (since Zebra 2.x is required)
Verdict: 9/10

It is a real testimony to u-he’s Zebra, that a famed composer like Hans Zimmer chooses to use this particular synthesizer for his soundtrack scoring. Browsing the sounds of The Dark Zebra it is clear that see why this flexible, high quality instrument was used. But a good synth only gets you so far.

I reckon a decent sound designer can make a bad synth look pretty good. How much more can a brilliant sound designer do with a fantastic synth? Howard Scarr is a true master of synthesizer programming, and in this collaboration with Hans Zimmer his skill, knowledge and dedication bears much fruit.

The sonic range of The Dark Zebra offers small and beautifully intricate to gripping, fast-paced and chaotic. Highly cinematic, but not limited to film scoring, this soundset is both an archive of hundreds of beautifully designed sounds ready for use in your own productions, as well as a peek into top notch sound design with Zebra. It is well worth studying the patches to learn how particular sounds were achieved.

Though the soundset didn’t actually end up using the new features in a whole lot of its patches, it’s still great to have the Diva filters, resonator, and lane compressors in ZebraHZ for your own sound design.

The only downside is perhaps the price tag. Even though ZebraHZ comes as its own plugin, you do need a license of Zebra 2.x to use ZebraHZ and the soundset. I personally think that The Dark Zebra is well worth the price, but new users will have to pay a considerable sum to get the whole package. That said, Zebra *is* a most excellent synthesizer, so it’s not a bad thing to pick it up anyway.

More information: u-he / The Dark Zebra

Review: June Miller Dark Complex Drum & Bass sample pack

I’ve been following Bart van Dijk and Mark McCann on SoundCloud for a while now. Collaborating under the alias “June Miller”, the two have been steadily gaining momentum in the drum and bass and dubstep scene ever since moving from their hardcore/punk roots to the electronic music scene.

June Miller Dark Complex Drum & Bass

In 2007, inspired by Black Sun Empire’s Blackout gigs in Utrecht and Breakage’s This Too Shall Pass album – an all-time favorite of myself – they decided to focus on producing drum and bass. And not without success.

With the Dark Complex Drum & Bass sample pack, the sounds of June Miller are now available to use in your own productions.

Dark and Complex Drum & Bass includes 803Mb of Crisp Cutting Beats, Deep Atmospheric Soundscapes, Dark Menacing Basses, Emotive Melodies, Huge Impacts and Dramatic SFX.

If you like Drum and Bass Hard and Dirty with dramatic emotional backdrops then June Miller is guaranteed to take your productions to the next level. Taking inspiration from Artists such as Breakage, Spirit, Photek, Ed Rush & Optical, Sabre, Burial and Shackleton the guys have produced one killer pack so check out the demo and sample June Miller TODAY!

Here’s a short breakdown of what’s included in the pack:

  • 30 athmos loops.
  • 30 bass loops.
  • 35 drum construction kit loops.
  • 9 top loops.
  • 15 atmos one-shots.
  • 22 bass one-shots.
  • 49 drum one-shots.
  • 27 risers and fx one-shots.
  • 25 sound design one-shots.
  • 34 sampler patches for Kontakt, EXS24, HALion, NN-XT, sfz + 4 Kong kits.

Starting off with the atmos loops, what I hear immediately gets me excited about this pack. Lots of reverb drained soundscape type atmospheric beauties. The material is highly musical, with quite a few loops including a variety of sounds and instruments, and well worked out movements/progressions (up to 1 minute long even). Listening to these individually, many of them sound not as dark as I had expected, but rather uplifting really.

In the bass section we find some great gnarly, filtered bass lines. More futuristic, aggressive, and quite nasty sounding actually. In a good way of course. The sounds and melodies are well programmed.

The drum loops include 10 construction kits with the full loops and individual elements, the majority being 16 or 32 bars long. Normally I’d say just give me the full loop and drum hits so I can construct my own variations and elements, but in this case these hard hitting loops actually sound so good I don’t mind the construction kit approach. It’s also a great way to learn how full sounding drums are done. I just wish there were more of them.

The last loops folder has a bunch of top loops, including some shakers, hihat loops and a drum kick roll. Nothing earthshaking, but useful nonetheless.

Everything is tagged with bpm (all are 172bpm) and key info where applicable, and REX versions are included as well.

In the single shot sample folders it’s more of the same high quality sounds. Interestingly enough, the atmos and drones do sound quite a bit darker and creepier than their looped counterpart. There’s a good variety of themes in these original sounds. The two soundscapes (1.11 and 1.51 minutes long) are just stunning.

The bass samples seem to be taken from the sequences that created the loops. So basically shorter versions of the loops, equally nasty, filtered, modulated bass hits.

To complement the drum loops, June Miller has also included the kicks and snares from said loops, alongside some additional one-shots. Hihats (incl. cymbals and rides) and percussion samples sound great.

Another highlight is the sound fx folder, full of well-designed samples. I don’t know all the technical terms for the types of effects included, but it’s all high quality material. Very useful to beef up your tunes with for sure.

A collection of 25 sound design samples round up this pack. These are somewhere between the atmos and the sound fx. Lovely cinematic sounds, including cavern type water drips, wailing synth, lots of glitchy hits and more, all drowned in reverb.

The included sampler patches map the samples of each category across the keys for ease of use, and the drum single-shots have 5 kits patches included as well.

Have a listen to the official demo track of Dark Complex Drum & Bass below to hear what all these loops and samples sound like.

So what do I think?

Product: June Miller Dark Complex Drum & Bass
Format: 24bit Wav, REX + sampler patches (other formats also available)
Price: £29.95 GBP
Like: Outstanding production, inspiring sounds
Don’t like: Leaves me wanting more…
Verdict: 9/10

With Dark Complex Drum & Bass, June Miller delivers a fantastic collection of loops and samples. It has the genuine feel of their style and sound, and it shows great technical skill and musicality throughout the whole library. The loops and samples have a consistent quality.

While there’s certainly a dark and complex feel to the pack as a whole, I was pleasantly surprised by the positive vibe of many samples when used individually.

The only bad thing about June Miller’s debut sample library is that it tastes like more, so I’m already looking forward to volume 2!

More information: Loopmasters / June Miller Dark Complex Drum & Bass