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24 May 2013

8DIO MANDOLIN | $139

REVIEW
How might an Australian greet Captain Antonio Corelli? "GDAE, mate!" And that's how you remember the tuning of a mandolin, the same as for a violin. But a mando is so much easier to play, especially if you're a a dab-hand on guitar.

You'll notice that a mandolin's four string courses, typically in pairs, are tuned in fifths, which gives an idea of the instrument's antiquity - chanting monks, and all that. The instrument is descended from the lute, which is rarely seen in ensembles not fronted by Sting these days.

You're most likely to hear a mando being played alongside violin, flute and/or pipes in traditional celtic folk bands, or strummed when a rock group gets folky (Tull, Zep, REM, to name notables). And let's not forget the rapid, tremolo-picking of mandorchestras (made-up word, there) with ensembles going for that 'theme from The Godfather' groove.

It's known that guitar emulation is tricky to get right in software, so how has 8Dio coped in devising its latest sample-based instrument, the aptly named Mandolin?



The challenge is not only in digitizing the distinctive, double-stringed timbre, but in implementing realistic strumming and traditional tremolo picking. In times long past, one might end up with machine-gun stuttering when emulating tremolo, but here we've modern round-robin techniques deployed in overcoming robotic repetition.

At least this 3.4GB library, losslessly compressed to 1.5GB, for Native Instruments Kontakt 4.2+ (full version) isn't obliged to deal with pitchbend. High string tension makes finger vibrato and note bends none too practical on the physical instrument.

8Dio has certainly not skimped on tone palette, amassing 1,640 samples recorded from the standard instrument, its tenor relation (or mandola, with the CGDA of the viola), as well as the piccolo, or sopranino. This latter is tuned an octave above the mandola, a fourth above the mandolin, and is beloved of those with matchsticks for fingers.

In addition, there's quite a selection of non-mandie instruments morphed into many of the 21 patches, making for intriguing timbres indeed. Let's treat our occipital wetware to 8Dio's Troels Folmann giving an account of Mandolin's layout and potential...



If listening on decent monitors, you'll appreciate the rich texture of Mandolin's patches and realise there's much more to this $139 package than a diminutive 8-string. Numerous other instruments have been brought to bear, including bulbul tarang, steel acoustic guitar and piano.

It all adds up to traditional folk and classical timbres from the standard mandolin family, reminiscences of medieval lute, plus Middle Eastern spice and oriental excursions marinaded in soy sauce.

What Troels glosses over is the realism on offer when aiming for accurate rendition of a real mandolin performance. He plays Mandolin from a keyboard and so it sounds like a keyboard or harp-type instrument, the sustained notes and glissandi being impossible to reproduce on the real thing. Notes just don't ring out with such sustain, thanks to the instrument's relatively short scale length.

It's time to compare and contrast by whipping out the MuzoBlog mandolin, a Crafter electro-acoustic, as pictured, freshly strung and ready for some British rock and reel. It is, with a spot of smart sequencing, possible to create a passable performance using Mandolin in place of a mandolin. The 8Dio offering falls well within the parameters of authenticity available from high-quality, sample-based guitar products.

Admittedly, the Crafter has a glass-fibre bowl back, but neither it, nor Mandolin, sound overly synthetic. You'll have seen from the video how Fret and Release Control assist in emulating the noise clutter of a real player's physical interaction with the hardware. And let's not forget the performance-enhancing velocity-curve section lurking behind the Tremolo controls at bottom-right.

Not only do we have patches from standard, through exotic to off-planet (well, Japanese-sounding), there appears to be a tab marked Effects. Click it to discover that we're really heading through the looking glass now, Alice. An FX rack appears, loaded with devices more reminiscent of the boxes you'd find populating an electric guitarist's pedalboard.

While barely touched on in the video, there's serious tone-mangling to be had here. An overdrive named Screamer sits with a fuzzbox (called Fuzz, y'know) and Lo-Fi, a bit-cruncher. If this necessitates calling the ambiance, there are three appliances in attendance: Deelay, Verb and Space, the latter pair loaded with numerous presets that you might otherwise arrange with plug-ins. However, when using Kontakt in standalone mode, say for live performance, it's handy to have FX on board.

We're missing the guitarist's favourite modulators - chorus, flanging and phasing - but are somewhat peculiarly treated to a Leslie rotary-cab effect named Rotator. At this point, it has to be done: Call up a Tenor mandola patch, switch on Fuzz and Sreamer, crank up echo and reverb, then kick in Rotator.

As suspected, the result sounds like the mutant offspring of Jimi Hendrix and Keith Emerson. And that is a sentence you were likely not expecting to see in a review of a sample-based mandolin library. Anyway, enough of words. Let's have that nice Prof Folmann back to fly us through a SoundCloud of audio examples...



OK, we get it that Troels is a keyboard wizard (he is an Academy Award-winning muzo, after all), hence much of the above sounds nothing like that which you'd expect from a package named Mandolin - it's way more adventurous than the title suggests.

It is worth highlighting that straight mandolin tone is available, and very effective it is too. While the FX can be activated and deactivated via keyswitches, it would be good to have additional switches for chordal strums and sudden bursts of tremolo common in Irish folk. But in the studio, you can arrange simulation of such techniques in a sequencer.

As for playing live, don't expect to please the local folk club by sitting at a MIDI controller plugged into a laptop. Trying to strum a keyboard makes you look daft, and hardcore folkies will likely throw bottles of real ale at you, as Bob Dylan found when he started touring with what became The Band.

The majority of this product's potential lies in its detours from plain mandolin, hence it'll likely set the usual suspects (sound designers and videogame/filmscore composers) a-jig while bringing organic juice to electronica and relief of ague to new-age.

At the price, it's bang-on value for money and tech specs of 44.1kHz sample rate at 24-bit stereo are up to the technical mark. 8Dio has a growing reputation for authoring high-quality Kontakt instruments, some of which are from pretty obscure sources. Glass Marimba, anyone? Or maybe the Kokiriko. The mandolin may be more familiar to Western ears, but Mandolin represents it in styles both familiar and unheard-of.