NORTH CANTON, Ohio. The brainchild of composer Alex Davis and Jonathan Churchill, Embertone is one of the most fascinating and ambitious of today’s emerging virtual instrument companies. Embertone’s stated mission is to offer deeply sampled virtual instruments to composers at the lowest possible price. In their most recent release, the company somehow convinced the legendary and internationally honored violin demi-god Joshua Bell to digitize himself. The results of their new Kontakt instrument, Joshua Bell Violin, range from solid to stunning.
Embertone’s Joshua Bell Violin virtual instrument features the great soloist performing on his 1713 “Huberman” Stradivarius.* Grammy Award-winning sound artist Richard King recorded the sessions. The effort resulted in an instrument nearly 20,000 samples deep.
From the outset, the instrument plays equally well in notation, digital audio workstation (DAW), and live performance situations. As a result, it needs only a few simple tweaks to bring it into line with the chosen creative medium. The instrument’s sound quality is very high, enabling composers to move from grainy pianissimos to soaring operatic highs with convincingly sampled dynamic levels en route.
Also important to many potential users: the full version of Kontakt is not required to use this instrument.
Testing the Joshua Bell Violin
We tested Joshua Bell Violin on a Macbook Pro laptop with 16GB of RAM. The main portion of our test drive involved integrating the instrument into an existing sketch-score in Dorico. The Joshua Bell Violin took the solo line, accompanying a string orchestra linked to already resource-heavy ensemble string samples.
Note that 16GB would be the suggested minimum RAM requirement, as the instrument requires a hefty 1.5GB of system resources. That said, we never encountered drops or other errors with the previously described setup.
The Embertone approach to keyswitches
When exploring or using this instrument, the first thing the user must notice is Embertone’s approach to key switches. For example, red keyswitches indicate a global, ongoing traditional change. Yellow keyswitches remain active only so long as the user depresses the key – appropriate for live and DAW settings, or a second keyswitch- dedicated stave in notation software. The green keys offer a variation on the previous concept with an “instant” keyswitch option.
The useful “intuition” page allows users to toggle between performance AI-type decisions and full human control. In Figure 1 below, slur/bow variance is turned off. This allows user control via key overlap, set in Dorico in this case, while the instrument handles various pitch and vibrato issues. Toggling the multi-stop switch allows the instrument to remain in its optimum mono state while still reading and playing multiple stops with fairly accurate success.
The level of control this instrument offers is truly standard setting. It enables users to choose everything from an effective “best guess” intuitive control to fully- defined parameters for the entire capability of the instrument.
For users craving that “type A” control experience, the “Master Modwheel” section offers fully customizable MIDI control. We found that a good initial approach in notation software involved taking an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. In other words, to notate the music, see what plays well/naturally, and adjust that which does not.
After about an hour of work, we had our violin doing most of what we wanted it to do. For live performance or DAW recording, it is simply a matter of adjusting Master settings based on your individual controller and playing style. The results here were fantastic.
Figure 2 below shows just a portion of the long scrolling full control screen. In this setting we assigned the intuitive variations on regular bowing to keyswitch C-0, portamentoto D-0, and multi-stops to E-0. This allows the addition of keyswitches to our score in Dorico to specify exact performance techniques.
The result: we were able to customize playback within the score to a satisfying level with easy-to-remember keyswitch keys. Naturally, it takes a bit of time to get the settings just right for your particular use. But for many composers, the aesthetic payback will be well worth the time spent.
Tone and space control
Users can gain final tonal control via the “character” window, which allows them to assign custom reverb spaces and levels, as in Figure 3. The “tone” section of this window applies EQ to achieve the desired timbre, achieving results that are both subtle and effective.
Video: The Joshua Bell Violin in use
Below is a video showing the Joshua Bell Violin being used as part of a larger orchestration. The music consists of concept sketches done in Ableton towards a new piece for the University of Memphis Orchestra with Marcin Arendt (violin) and Kimberly Patterson (cello).
Here we used a custom setting where both instrument dynamic and reverb intensity were controlled by the mod wheel. Despite being quite a system load, the orchestration ran just fine on our Mac laptop with 16GB of RAM, even with other high-end virtual instruments loaded.
The second clip has a few barely audible pops towards the end. But this only occurred with the added system load of creating a screen recording.
Needless to say, readily having such a gorgeous violin sound at one’s disposal is certainly inspiring. Composers almost feel as if they are giving away a secret weapon by sharing such a nice tool with the world – though we are sure the folks at Embertone don’t mind.
In the final analysis, Embertone’s instrument may not really put the actual Joshua Bell into your studio. But it will get you as close as possible to the real thing.
We give the Joshua Bell Violin our five star rating, placing it in the forefront of solo violin packages for its beautiful tone, its marvelous musicality, and its deeply- considered control options. The Joshua Bell Violin is an instrument that you can mold to your specific musical and technological preferences, yielding an inspirational sound for both creative inspiration and final product.
Rating: ***** (Highly recommended.)
Embertone’s Joshua Bell Violin virtual instrument retails for $199, and is currently available through Embertone.
Headline Image: Violinist Joshua Bell. Image via Wikipedia entry on the artist, CC 3.0 license.
* Note: This instrument is also known as the “Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius” of 1713.
(Review Note: A copy of Joshua Bell Violin was provided to the author to facilitate this review. All opinions herein are entirely those of the author.)