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23 February 2013


When dying on a film set, as you do, it's de rigeur to vocalise the Wilhelm scream. It's a kind of yodel-shriek that features in numerous movies, having become an in-joke among filmmakers, and illustrates a phenomenon that could be called dialog-replacement fatigue, but isn't.

The sound itself is from a series of audio takes named after the unfortunate Private Wilhelm who, in 1953 movie The Charge At Feather River, copped an arrow. Nowadays, barely a film goes by without some unfortunate having it dubbed over their demise and, of course, the knowing in the audience will eagerly listen out for it.

While all terribly hilarious, such readily recognisable sounds are a pain for those applying music to movies and other media. When one composer hits on a fabulous boink, drone or gargle, lo! Everyone else copies it, which leads to what some call patch fatigue. A reedy, swelling synth patch reeks of Vangelis, while an expansive arrangement using Spectrasonics Omnisphere is likely to Zimmer forth, despite that synth's diverse sonic capabilities.

There's the challenge for the developer - the relatively new Hybrid Two in this review - when putting together a collection of cinematic sounds: How to present film-friendly patches of such quality that everyone will want to use them, while offering sufficient diversity to avoid ubiquity.

H2's Kontakt library Project Alpha tackles the problem in a streamlined way, serving not the most monstrous sample collection (2.5GB of content is not huge in terms of film-scoring stock), but good scope for modifying what is on offer via host sampler plug-in Native Instruments Kontakt 5.1, outfitted with some trick custom scripts. (Note that Project Alpha does not work with the free Kontakt Player.) But just hold on one gol'darnit. What is a movie/videogame scoring tool doing here at MuzoBlog? I'll tell you.

In these most post-post-modern, internetworked of times, you'd be daft to overlook timbres and techniques used for musicalizing moving pictures when knocking up a standalone tune. Some study or other shows that for the past 50-odd years, as record companies have homogenised unit-shifting songs, pop music has become measurably louder and more predictable/samey/boring - ie, pop doesn't pop like it used to. That's great if you're attempting to pursue predictable profit with me-too tracks, but lousy for artists and audiences alike, both of which revel more readily in the new.

However, as the impact of the internet loosens bread-heads' stranglehold on what is served to the nation (for 'nation', read 'pubescent girls'), diverse music forms are coming to the fore, complete with tempo changes, modal shifts, dynamics and other treasures thought lost. This is argued elsewhere (cue Bob Lefsetz, et al), but diversity requires fresh audio resources. And cinematic soundtrackery remains decidedly under-plundered by modern muzos, IMO. So how can Project Alpha help us rip it up and start again? Take in a teaser to set the scene…

The above, and more, is what awaits in this first cinematic sound-design library from Hybrid Two, a sound and music production company founded in 2008 by Daniel James (pictured) and Aaron Frensley.

With Project Alpha, the idea is to offer composers a means of adding modern, cinematic sound-design tones to their works for screen. However, it's the work our intrepid duo has performed on scripting that makes Project Alpha highly suitable for appropriation by experimental musicians, in that every basic patch bundled can be thoroughly mashed.

Aaron set about coding a deep Kontakt script from scratch, instantiating such features as versatile FX control and a flexible step sequencer/gater for instant arpeggio and ostinato fun. The result is front-ended with an easy-to-use, attractive interface; a steampunky GUI facilitating a slick, timbre-flaying experience. Romping through the sound files with (the Mac-only, but indispensable) Iced Audio AudioFinder reveals a diverse core library.

From mega-drones to titanic hits, there's richness of sonic flavour (flava?) to be variously mangled, layered or tamed. Our romp also reveals that not every sample is 24-bit - there are some 16-bit WAVs in there, too. Also, some are rather quiet.

You'd expect all samples to share the same peak levels, as well as commence playback where the waveform crosses zero-amplitude. When auditioned outside of Kontakt, the occasional sample starts partway through a cycle, which could cause audible clicks further down the line.

I'd prefer to see 24-bit samples throughout, normalized to -0.3dB to avoid possible distortion from inter-sample peaks (most of Project Alpha's files are normalized to 0dB) and with tweaks at their beginnings, where necessary, to zero the amplitude. This library is something of a work in progress, with improvements and new features promised in forthcoming versions, so maybe such optimisations will be made. You'll have gathered that, because we can browse the WAVs, there's no copy protection. (Many developers lock their sample data away in Kontakt Monolith files.)

Library protection is more H2's look-out than ours. Gratifyingly for we users, it's at script level that the main effort appears to have been expended in creating synth-like controls for radical timbre-warps. We've obligatory filter, delay and a convolution reverb accessible at left alongside the means to crush bits and add dirt and punch to a sample before optionally feeding it into a step sequencer for temporal stunts. At right lie ADSR for both note and filter envelopes, plus EQ controls for further shaping prior to master volume, and that's yer lot. Sounds simple, no? Wrap your ears around this lot for an idea of Project Alpha's flexibility…

And that's how cinematic sound translates into the image-free music arena. It's oozing thrutch and, while eminently suited to multimedia production, could add vast voom to numerous musical genres. Galloping through the presets suggests such typically loud targets as dubstep, industrial, techno and synth rock, while Project Alpha's more ambient outings evoke less of the speedy; more of the ergot-centric. Country and Western it is not, which is fine by me.

Hybrid is a word that crops up frequently in soundtrack circles and our Hybrid Two have devised a launch that may well crop up in similar fashion. While randomise functions and keyswitches would be welcome (the latter is already on the cards, apparently), it's early days yet for this developer. As long as H2 can follow through with yet more sophisticated scripting, while keeping the price point at what is reasonable for a cinematic library of this size, we're onto a winner.

You can gain more insight into Project Alpha from a recent interview with Daniel James, conducted by UK/Europe distributor Time+Space. And, if you've a couple of hours spare, absorb more than necessary with an overview of the product deployed in Ableton Live. Time to send out for popcorn...