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17 October 2011


Upon a time, a man named Doug saw a huge, gaping hole. Peering into its murky depths, he neither saw nor heard a thing. Not a peep, ping or wobble-bass. Then and there, he avowed to fill this hole with sound. But not with the pristine timbres of real-world instruments - he wanted something more edgy and with a dollop of bedlam. So began his journey towards The Dark Side - a product addressing a hole in a market crying out for banged-up, distorted, ouchy-sounding sonics. Says our protagonist Doug Rogers, founder of specialist sample-production powerhouse EastWest: “The Dark Side idea came to me when I was mentoring a young alternative group about some demos they sent me. To my ears, the tracks didn’t sound tough enough for their intended market, so I told them they needed to toughen up their sound.” Trawling the sample library market, including EastWest’s considerable catalogue, he couldn’t find the “mass aural destruction” required to finesse the band’s ditties. So, partnering with Grammy-winning producer and famed doyen of distortion devotees everywhere Dave Fridmann, he set about trashing the timbres of traditional instruments in order to achieve full-on sonic mayhem in a neatly organised EastWest instrument.

Multiple processing chains, including distortion, brick-wall limiting and esoteric tube-driven gizmos, were brought to bear in pursuing the dark, the eerie and out-there. The result is a ~40GB collection of processed percussion, bass, guitar, keyboard, strings, ethnic instruments and more, all front-ended by a hollow-eyed, flesh-eating, space-alien, respirator-masked visage that gives you the spooks just looking at it. From the product title and Stygian packaging, you’d imagine deeply dour cinematic hits and sweeps to sally forth - like an ill-tempered Heavyocity or Zero-G library might produce. Well, they do, but there’s something else afoot. The best word with which to describe a fair proportion of the sounds on offer is ‘creepy’.
Perhaps it’s this subtle diversion that won The Dark Side a MIPA Award at this year’s Frankfurt Musikmesse. Before we get onto the sounds and examine how an entire track can be built from a single instance of this Windows and OS X-compatible, 32/64-bit standalone or VST/AU/RTAS plugin instrument, let’s look at the underlying architecture.

As with a number of EastWest offerings, at the core lies PLAY, a software engine that draws upon themed sample libraries and presents them for manipulation via whichever interface is appropriate to the library you've bought. The Dark Side sits alongside such titles as Fab Four, another MIPA Award-winning product, plus Quantum Leap’s Goliath, Gypsy, Ministry of Rock and Voices of Passion. When you buy one of the above, typically from the US and Europe-based internet retailer SoundsOnline, it’s bundled with a license for the PLAY engine that drives them all, and a whacking great load of samples upon which each interface draws. Incidentally, if you’re wondering, Quantum Leap is a division of EastWest set up by Doug in partnership with composer/producer Nick Phoenix and appears to lean more towards high-end sample libraries and the kind of virtual instruments used to score such blockbusters as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean. Quality movie-soundtrack stuff, then, and this is reflected in each product's price, although it seems like every week a special offer arrives in MuzoBlog’s emailbox promising huge discounts on wedges of EW/QL’s product lines. There are also discounts to be had when buying additional licences for products you already own and wish to run simultaneously on additional computers.

An iLok 2, yesterday - say g'bye to a USB port
Want some money-saving advice? Sign up to SoundsOnline’s email newsletter for notification of special offers. In fact, as I write, EW/QL has a triple-title money-off deal lasting the whole of Rocktober. For further details, Europeans click here and citizens of the USA and the rest of the world click your way here, even if your culture's calendar doesn't have Rocktober nestled between Synthtember and Groovember. Talking about money, there’s not just the product price to consider. Each library has a licence that’s hosted on an iLok USB dongle, version 2 of which handles 500 licenses, but costs about £35 a throw and you’ll need an iLok for each machine if you’re planning on syncing multiple instruments. On the plus side, if you've already bought a copy of The Dark Side, an additional licence costs only €83.24 - a special offer with no closing date quoted as yet on the SoundsOnline website. You may also need to budget for a high-performance external hard drive. The System drive is no place for The Dark Side’s vast sample library and neither is an external drive with power-saving functionality. So, for example, Western Digital Caviar Green drives are out. MuzoBlog’s shiny new test facility deployed the software on a dual-core Intel MacBook Pro toting 4GB RAM and hooked up the library via eSATA to a Western Digital Caviar Black drive using the laptop’s Expresscard 34 slot. Multiple patches loaded into the standalone configuration didn’t trouble the system, nor did opening multiple PLAY plugins in Logic Pro (in fact, the developer suggests it’s more efficient to do this latter). When budget allows, perhaps a Thunderbolt-connected, 10,000rpm VelociRaptor-equipped RAID 0 should be given a shot, just to see if an insane number of PLAY instances can be pummelled into a sulk. So if any potential sponsors are reading this, be assured that MuzoBlog aims to spend your contributions wildly. Sorry, I meant wisely.

Anyway, enough with the techie stuff. What about these ‘ere sounds? As mentioned, ‘creepy’ applies to a good many patches and some have you scratching your head wondering how in the name of Jehovah they’d fit into anything. Well, there are some handy sound-sculpting tools in Player mode, but let us first pop round the back to view the Browser and see the degree of alacrity with which a sound can be found. PLAY-driven libraries are listed at bottom left and it’s possible to create custom collections drawn from multiple EastWest titles using the Favorites (sic) function. Above is a dialog showing which patches are loaded and on which MIDI channels they’re addressed, while The Dark Side’s seven categories of instruments are listed in a column to the right. Click on an entry to see .ewi files and subfolders containing yet more files and a bit of a missed trick. Interrogating the libraries of such products as Native Instruments Kore, or Absynth, or Massive, as well as Apple Logic Pro’s Apple Loops, is made all the easier thanks to the facility to zone in on a tone type using keywords. For example, selecting Soundscapes > Heavenly > Synthetic in Kore Player will whittle down a gazillion-patch database to a short list of presets appropriate to the adjectives chosen. In The Dark Side, as with other EastWest titles, some of the .ewi filenames are fairly sensible: Fuzz Bass, Backwards Distorted Guitar and Verb Kit Verb 1 give a reasonable indication of what you’re likely to hear. But Chameleon Morpher, Psycho and Dark Dirt, as labelled in TDS’s instrumentation lists (click Instrumentation on this page for a gander at the gamut), makes finding the right sound something of a guessing game on occasion.

That said, a good many synth developers devise the most curious names for their patches (to what, for example, do Cardiac Truth, Spiritual Bugs and SadButTrue refer in CamelAudio Alchemy’s Factory Pads listing?). Whatever, once you’ve hit on something promising in TDS - ClockworkO.ewi, perhaps, or Mandamadness.ewi - there are some neat tools in the Player interface that will warp your selection beyond the warped imaginings of Rogers and Fridmann having a warpy day in trans-warp drive. Stereo Double, Delay and a Resonance and Frequency-adjustable Filter reside at left.
At right we can see if the chosen instrument has key-switchable articulations (they’re also highlighted in blue on the interface’s virtual keyboard), mess with the Envelope settings (AHDSR, in this case), switch in automatic double-tracking, complete with a Speed knob for chorus effects, and engage a lush-sounding, if resource-hogging, convolution reverb featuring an enormous array of presets.

Now then, words can only say so much about an audio tool, so it’s time to listen most carefully to what a talented troupe of composers can do with The Dark Side’s raw sounds and deformation devices. Co-producer Doug suggests that the sounds on tap are well-suited to adding extra oomph to parts of a track, implying that you'd not want to base an entire arrangement on TDS's instruments. With that thought firmly in mind, the writers of the works below have based their arrangements entirely on TDS instruments. Hurrah! Zennor Alexander’s The Wizard of Darkness features by far the most instrumentation, but I’ll point out his Ex Vita Morte (clever bit of Latin wordplay for you Oxbridgians there) because we’re taking it to the movies later...

Timothy Eilers & Terry Michael Huud: The Other Side

Robert Abernethy: Dark Days

Zennor Alexander: Mechanica Industrialis

Zennor Alexander: It’s Hell in Heaven

Zennor Alexander: The Wizard of Darkness

Zennor Alexander: Ex Vita Morte

That little lot gives you some idea of what happens when expert muzos turn to The Dark Side. In places hard as nails, in others subtle as you like; the works above demonstrate the instrument’s versatility in a musical context, albeit that EastWest was also keeping soundtrack composers and videogame developers high on its hit list when screwing up the original sound sources. Some processed patches do appear overcooked, especially the odd percussion hit, prompting me to check the clipping indicators on the mixer, and that a disgruntled former girlfriend hadn’t taken a razor blade to my monitors’ cones. And that my bunny rabbit hadn’t found its way into a pan on the cooker’s hob. However, one clever feature is that the velocity sensitivity of some of the presets doesn’t merely govern how loud a note will sound. Certain devices actually change timbre depending on how rapidly you hit the key, and those whose labels are appended with ‘mod’ actually mix between timbres as you manipulate the modulation wheel.

With many of the other sounds available, ModWheel is assigned to a filter sweep, which is rather more adventurous than merely inducing vibrato. And this leads me to a bit of a gripe. The manual is thin on coverage of MIDI implementation. Yes, it tells you which continuous controllers alter modulation, expression, volume and the like, but what if I want to, for example, tweak just the Resonance knob, or engage ADT by remote from a MIDI controller or sequencer? I haven’t figured this out yet and if I’m to post further articles on PLAY-based titles (Ministry of Rock 2 is up for the MuzoBlog treatment very soon, y’know), then EastWest’s tech support and I really ought to be having words. Meantime, let’s actually see how the final demo track, Ex Vita Morte, was put together for insight into the interface’s operability. All the best trilogies come in threes and EastWest’s video demo is no exception. So microwave some popcorn, sit back and ogle..

Neat, if unnerving with those soulless eyes staring at you. And soul is maybe a genre with which The Dark Side is not on side. The same could be said of swing, C&W, reggae, folk, blues and other more laid-back stylings. But for the laid-forward, there’s plenty to be had. Doug Rogers puts forward toughening up a pop song’s hook or dabbling in ‘alternative’ (alternative to what, though?) as ideal fodder for casting into darkness. Industrial, metal, progressive, jungle, neo-classical, synth-phonic and more also spring to mind. Just bear in mind that you’ll have to exercise patience, not only in installing it (six dual-layer DVDs for the PLAY engine and content, for Heaven’s sake), but in extracting the max from certain of the less instantly gratifying raw presets. In this case, percipient use of the The Dark Side’s sound shapers in Player view pays dividends. It could be, and has been, argued that you could extract similarly insane sounds from a number of soft synths and FX plugins. But when working on a commercial TV or movie soundtrack, adding audio to a videogame, or when creative juices are gushing forth impatiently, time is not on your side. Hence rapid access to a wealth of audio wreckage becomes a must, and this is where The Dark Side scores when you're scoring to a deadline or attempting to keep up with musical machinations gone manic. The instruments load good and quick and, if you've a decent number of cores to your computer's processor, PLAY doesn't make too much of a hit on system resources. EastWest may be better known for accurate renderings of trad timbres, but this step toward the merciless mauling of sound shows that the company is not afraid to embrace its Darth side.

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