I like to think of myself, rightly or wrongly, as a connoisseur of ethnic instruments. I am a huge fan of world music and have a number of instruments and drums from around the world in my studio. This means my sample drive is full of glorious and peculiar ethnic items from around the world. So, it is particularly cool when a new library comes out for a rare instrument that I do not already have. Such an instrument is Icebreaker Audio’s Sanjo Gayageum. The Korean gayageum is quite similar to the Japanese Koto or the Chinese guzheng, historically used in folk music and also the royal courts.
Like most Kontakt libraries, it is a cinch to install. Once installed, you have a choice of two versions, two tunings: chromatically and traditional. Naturally the chromatic tuning version allows you to slot the gayageum straight into your music that is tuned to the traditional Western standard without any trouble.
The traditional tuning (the Sanjo scale is essentially a pentatonic scale) provides you with a more natural sound and allows you to write much more authentically with the gayageum. And there’s more fun to be had via the scale presets selectable on the GUI, which offers you optionsfor Korean, Japanese and Chinese style scales. There are also further tuning options, including equal, just and pythagorean. The GUI also features controls for tuning each individual string.
The Performance window on the GUI allows you to control how you play the instrument.Nothing too complicated or overblown. The ‘left hand’ section is essentially about how you want the pitch bend to work. The options are for all voices, held notes and the last voice. I found last voice particularly effective, but all offer some nice dynamic and realistic control. You can, of course, alter the extent of the pitch bend, although the default is set to how the real strings would react. It’s also worth noting that pushing the modwheel forward adds vibrato – a very natural sounding vibrato, that is modelled rather than sampled.
The ‘right hand’ section of the Performance window is about the fingering style, allowing you to choose whether you are playing straight plucks or more nuanced flicks, or indeed combinations of the two finger styles. You can also select an auto-repeat function for tremelo style playing, which is adaptable from 1⁄4 time to 1/32, and therefore neatly tempo-matched. A standard velocity mapper is also included.
There’s a nice Mixer to play with too, so you can perfect the tone you’re looking for. Four presets are included, but it is much more fun to blend your own. Here you have control over the mic position (bridge and body), EQ (low, mid and high), transients (attack and sustain) and tape saturation (gain and tone). There’s much sculpting to be done here. You can get quite delicious deep tones, if you want to use the gayageum in a more bassy context, or tweak the transient controls to get some quite punchy, percussive effects.
Finally, there is reverb. There is a choice of very useful convolutions and the natural baked- in recording tails blend very nicely with them without any unusual clashes you might get if the samples were not recorded in a good room to begin with. There are also Echo controls for some subtle, tempo-synced, delay effects.
The sound of the gayageum is captured very nicely by Icebreaker Audio. It covers the percussive, bassy twangs as well as the crisper, resonant highs subtly and accurately. The playability and tweakability is spot on for an instrument of this size. Nothing overwhelming or excessive, just nice, well thought out, expressive controls. It immediately draws you in and has you inventing melodies quickly. The gayageum is a very lovely instrument and this sample library serves it very well.
The GUI itself is rather charming too, with a wood and paper feel. Very naturalistic and nice and clearly laid out, without anything tucked away never to be dsicovered. I cannot find any fault in what Icebreaker Audio have done. Perhaps a couple more mic options, but even that would be asking for the unnecessary. This is a truly beautifully sampled instrument, packaged in an intelligent and responsive way. I hope they plan to do more Korean instruments in the future, as there are very few around.