The mbira (aka kalimba aka thumb piano) has a peculiar sound all of its own. I think they tend to sound pretty cool, with a distinctive tone that is reminiscent of some other types of instruments but not quite exactly like anything else.
But what’s this? The Array Mbira? It has four octaves, you say? Including multiple copies of the notes? Well, then. That’s sure nifty.
Madeleine Bloom, whose Ableton Live Tutorials i wholeheartedly recommend, has sampled one such Array Mbira and assembled the results into a series of 34 Instrument Racks for Ableton Live. There are only a small handful of Ableton Live instrument craftors whose work i’ve encountered that put in the depth of care that i consider the level of the adept, and Sonic Bloom is one such. I’ve had the grateful opportunity to give the instruments a deep look and am here to report on my findings.
The installation process was an absolute breeze, with the pack installing automatically and devices organized into category folders (see this for more on Live categories), so there is no need to worry about file management, which is always nice.
The lesson file shows some groovy pics of the Array Mbira interspersed within a concise text explanation of the pack contents, which is much appreciated. Giving it a once-over placed my brain on stable ground for exploring the contents with a clear idea of what to expect.
THE PACK CONTENTS
There are two main folders, “Acoustic” with the pure instruments, and “FX” with a bunch of crazy modifications for fun sound design. There are 7 acoustic instruments and 27 sound design instruments.
THE ACOUSTIC INSTRUMENTS
I started my adventure by delving into the Acoustic instruments, immediately digging the chimey, mallet-like sound of the pure tones, with a bright, crisp attack and yet a warm, soft sustain.
I happen to love random-robin sample playback, as it makes things feel so much more organic than repeating the same samples does. I was at first slightly perturbed that for a few of the notes, some of the samples are a bit off-tune; however, i became quickly used to and fond of it, as this is true to real life instruments and these imperfections can add to the charm of an instrument’s individual personality… so i’m glad they were left as-is and weren’t manually micro-tuned for “perfection”.
A couple of my favorite patches are the Octave Strum Pure and the FW_BW Round Robin Pure. Hauntingly beautiful, ghostly delicate tones.
THE SOUND DESIGN INSTRUMENTS
Perusing the instrument racks of the FX folder, subcategorized into sound types, was like a breath of fresh air to me. Weird, multicolored air that makes you hallucinate a bit. But really fresh air. It’s pretty wild how many different types of quite varied sound textures are contained therein.
Some of my favorites after messing around with them for a while:
Swung Chords: i used this to unexpectedly create a swanky dark 12-bar blues pattern over a jazz beat. Super cool.
Octavbira: i used this to create a mystical ascending arpeggio melody thing that sounded like discovering a secret fearie fountain the woods. Or something.
ShroomMbira: speaking of woods, i think i got lost in the woods here. I can’t tell though, because the trees keep bending.
DistoBass Mbira: This one is like a wild beast, barely under control. Brzzzzlloubbblzsghzg.
Post Rock Mbira: Get your shoegaze on.
Silver Fuzz: Lo-Fi frozen reverb resonance noise fun.
USING THE RACKS AS TEMPLATES
The way the racks are set up, it’s easy to drop different instruments inside, replacing the Mbira, and still be able to use the macro controls to manipulate the effects. You could feasibly put any instrument there. This is a super cool idea and really adds to the value of the pack, if you take the time to experiment and try things out. I messed around a bit dropping some instrument racks i’m working on into some of the FX instrument racks to replace the existing Mbira sampler, then played with the macro controls, and it was a lot of fun.
In this pack, Madeleine has done more than simply offer an authentic presentation of the Mbira in a usable fashion; it is indeed that, but more: by crafting so many instruments that sound unique from one another using the source samples, she has showcased how you can really push the capabilities of Ableton Live to the extreme, adding many layers of dimension with applied creativity. Having an array of presets to drop in and start making sounds with can help greatly to inspire creativity without having to spend a million hours tweaking technical details trying to make usable patches, in the lofty interest of actually making music and getting songs complete. Of course, if you are of the tinkering mindset, you can modify these racks to whatever degree you like and save your own versions. Live is cool like that.
It’s apparent that careful attention has been paid to the macro mapping control ranges to keep parameters sensible. In the process of checking these out there was always plenty of headroom and never any untoward bursts of loudness, so gain-staging has been wisely factored in which i definitely appreciate, because otherwise i would neurotically feel compelled to do it myself and re-save the racks in my library which uses up extra time that i could instead be using to do something more important like writing this long-winded sentence.
The sound design racks are very much distortion and saturator heavy, many of them featuring obliterated, shredded sounds, but each in their own distinct, gnarly way. Overall, like with Brian Funk’s instruments, there’s quite a lot of delays, reverbs, and arpeggiators going on, giving things a spacious, lush atmosphere and a pulsating, living aura.
•Organic, tastefully recorded, high-quality raw source samples (48/24).
•Auto-installs in Live Library, well-organized prests.
•Round-Robin and Random-Robin sample playback.
•Mimic the physical instrument’s tine arrangement with Octave Strums Instrument + MIDI Effect.
•Includes a wild pack of feral sound design instruments which can also be used as template racks.
Always remember, it’s good karma to support independent developers!
That’s my opinion anyways.
That’s all. Good day! And don’t forget to…