Hands-On Review:Steinberg Virtual Instruments

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Real is the new real

By Oscar Sommers


Recording a well-tuned, masterfully played, expertly crafted instrument which has been lovingly cared for over the years is an undeniably powerful experience. And in a good acoustic environment? Heaven. Those are precisely the sounds and vibes you want for your music but often, due to schedules and budgets, it simply isn't a possibility. So for the times when you can't capture those special musical performances yourself, Steinberg delivers them to you with The Grand 2, Groove Agent 2, Virtual Guitarist, Virtual Bassist, and others in their series of virtual instruments.


With Steinberg, the only thing virtual is the name and the delivery. Every sound is a real sound recorded with utmost care to faithfully capture the full experience with the performances played by trained and talented studio musicians. When a note decays, it's real decay. And each note is recorded at multiple (up to 16) velocities, so when you play a little softer or a little harder, you hear a natural note, not a modulated one. From those samples expansive sound libraries are built and designed to stream off your hard disk for more detailed and expressive play. Steinberg practically wrote the book on software instruments with cool interfaces. Their interfaces are designed by an award-winning team of programmers and musicians to deliver a unique and satisfying experience that's fun, powerful, and intuitive all in one sweep.


The Grand 2


The Grand 2 is real, natural, expressive . . . I could use all the adjectives in the world, but perhaps it's best just to say it sounds like a real piano - no qualifiers needed. And with this update to the celebrated sound set, Steinberg has incorporated even more reality by including those organic noises you only hear when playing a real piano: key clicks, hammer noise, and pedal sounds. Of course, there's also more of everything you loved about The Grand: slightly upgraded sounds, control over sound elements, intuitive controls, and a more powerful and efficient sound engine adapted from Halion 3. There's also an additional concert-level grand model with a warmer, softer midrange for an alternate performance flavor.


The playing experience is enhanced by the use of a nice controller. I used a Yamaha P120 as a controller through an E-MU 1820M and Yamaha's new HP50M monitors, and the combination of response, depth, and expression was amazing. I was playing The Grand 2 on a PC running XP with a 2.8GHz Pentium 4 and 1GB RAM, but thanks to a new feature called Eco Mode, you can use the Grand 2 on much slower computers. Eco Mode is also great for those times when you're using the Grand, but don't need the full experience, like when composing or practicing. There's no economy setting for the 3GB sound library that makes the Grand, though. Yes, three gigs is big for a single instrument's sound set, but it's also the reason that The Grand is capable of sending cold chills up your spine. Once installed on your hard drive, the advanced hard disk-streaming engine provides seamless and convincing play.


Groove Agent 2


Groove Agent 2 is the digital embodiment of the phrase "locked into the groove." It gives you multiple ways to build a beat, but makes it impossible to lose it. And Groove Agent never sounds mechanical, thanks to controls like Humanize, Random, Random Fill, Accent, 1/2 Tempo Feel, Fill, and selectable Snare/Sidestick hits. They give you the freedom to easily shake up the feel, vibe, and rhythm to give your beat a boost. Like any good drummer, Groove Agent plays well with others and can sit in with authority in nearly any genre or style.


I found Groove Agent's interface easy to use, with a smart layout. Starting from the top and moving down is how you build your rhythms, with fast and easy control over all the individual elements offered along the way. Each kit - of hundreds to choose from - has up to 25 complexity levels and 1/2 tempo feels for thousands of options. Steinberg keeps things from being complicated with simple, powerful controls that make it easy to get the most out of each kit. Plus many of the controls operate in real time, which always makes things more natural feeling. Using a MIDI controller, I was even able to fluidly switch between beats and initiate fills on the fly. You can also export your beats as a MIDI track to a sequencer, or simply save the output as a MIDI file to use elsewhere. Best of all, Groove Agent 2 sounds fantastic. Its brilliant Timeline of beats nails kits and styles from the dawn of music to the most cutting-edge percussion used today.


Virtual Guitarist and Bassist


If piano isn't your speed, you can get your kicks with Virtual Guitarist. It possesses an arsenal of 27 six-string virtuosos on electric and acoustic guitars - in styles that range from folk to metal - ready to rock for your productions. Organized to function in a similar fashion to a drum machine, you can choose from prerecorded phrases and customize them to your needs, all in real time. Virtual Guitarist also makes it possible to completely warp the vibe and feel of each phrase into new and fresh progressions. Virtual Guitarist's phrases are also recorded to sound right in the midst of full arrangements, so you don't have to worry about the guitar part disappearing in the mix.


Virtual Bassist was programmed and assembled by the same group responsible for Groove Agent and Virtual Guitarist. Steinberg draws Virtual Bassist, Virtual Guitarist, and Groove Agent even closer by providing prematched grooves for all three. Virtual Bassist also uses an upgraded, muscular playback engine for more efficient and expressive play. You can use cool stompbox-style effects as well as speaker and mic modeling for intensive tone-sculpting to get your great bass sounds.


If you're in search of real sounds and authentic vibes for your computer-based music productions, a Steinberg Virtual Instrument is about as close as you can get. Real sounds from real performances played by real musicians, ready to steal the stage in your songs and productions.