Applied Acoustic Systems Strum Acoustic GS-1 1.0.1Review by: Jason Buchwald
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AAS has come up with an interesting solution in the Strum GS-1 product family: virtual guitar playing from a keyboard! As the name suggests, it provides guitar sounds. Strum Acoustic GS-1 (the subject of this review) features acoustic guitar sounds, and the similar Strum Electric GS-1 provides electric guitar sounds.
But this isn’t old school looped riffs nor is it just a handful of sample guitar string plucks. GS-1 is quite clever in that it actually lets a keyboard player “strum” guitar notes by means of the left hand doing the fingering and the right hand using individual keys for upstrokes and downstrokes. The end result is about as close to actual guitar playing one can get without actually playing a guitar. The sounds, with some patient tweaking, can be quite good, delivering authentic results that might just fool the guitar players you know.
GS-1 is a totally modeled virtual instrument — no guitar samples. The idea is to deliver a complete acoustic guitar solution in one package. Sampling every possible nuance of an actual guitar would be a formidable, if not impossible, task. Happily, GS-1 allows quite a bit of sound-sculpting control.
The main screen window is divided into thirds:
The top third displays various effects (dedicated equalizer, reverb, and a multi-effect selector that adds chorus, flange, vibrato, phaser, and several types of wah-wah effects).
The middle third, designed as a yellow guitar body half, is where much of the detailed tonal control happens. While there are global controls to edit all six strings simultaneously, each string can also be individually edited. This certainly adds realism, as it is doubtful in real guitar construction that each string resonates exactly the same.
When all strings are selected, there are controls for picking/fingers, tone, hammer-on, muting, and decay. When one of the individual strings is selected, the same controls are available, but there are additional controls/knobs to allow finer tuning such as harmonics, and also control over the virtual guitar body. Adjusting the air cavity, for example, can add more of a “thud” to strumming, which is a cool effect in terms of added realism.
The bottom third of the window includes other controls including choices for chord voicing. One of Strum’s strengths is in the interface: it takes your left hand notes and correctly puts them into guitar chord voicing. You can select open voicing or root voicing (i.e., chords can be played as different inversions by which note is the lowest note). There are also controls for pitch bending and vibrato. In the middle of this section is a chord map that displays and interprets what chord you are actually playing (i.e., C#min7, etc).
Not to be overlooked, there is a loop player on the bottom. These are pre-made MIDI loops in various styles that you can select via a pull-down menu. This includes jazz, rock, flamenco, pop, latin, and country choices. They can be edited to your specific needs, too! Players looking for something original shouldn’t ignore these loops; some of them sound very convincing, and can serve as a great starting point for your own progressions. One very realistic combination was the Nylon Chorus guitar with the Jazz Freely loop, but we’ll talk more about that in the Sound section.Finally, to the left of all these controls is a pull-down menu of editable presets divided into Nylon, Steel, and Effected guitars, each with various picking or fingered settings.
Installation was straightforward. Download the relatively tiny program (only 13 MB!), and enter your serial number to get your challenge/response code. That’s it! GS-1 is available in VST, RTAS, AU, and Standalone modes. The CPU requirement is also remarkably small, with minimum requirements of only 512 MB of RAM and a 1 Ghz processor! However, these requirements are for standalone usage; naturally, a host program will use far more resources when GS-1 is running as a plug in.
GS-1 does something that we feel is pretty cool — it lets you play guitar on a keyboard! In an effort to actually “play” the guitar, you use a MIDI keyboard in similar fashion. For example, on a real guitar (assuming right-handedness), you use your left hand to choose the pitch of the strings (fingerings) and the right hand is used play the notes by strumming or picking up and down. With Strum, you use a similar technique. The higher notes on the keyboard are automatically assigned to specific strumming techniques. For instance, playing the keyboard’s C5 (note 72) is a down-stroke strum, and a D5 is an upstroke. Other choices are also pre-assigned, such as palm muted strokes and muffled strokes. Different strokes for different folks!
Let’s say we wanted to strum a C major chord. We held down a C, E, and G in our left hand, and played a C5 with our right hand to get a down-stroke strum. Then, we played a D5 for the upstroke. The program automatically voices the notes as they would be played on a guitar, top to bottom or bottom to top. How we played our right hand determined the rhythm of our chord. Simple to do in theory, though the more authentic you want to sound, the more you’ll need to practice for the desired effect… which is a good lead into our next point.
While we applaud the GS-1 interface and sound design, to get the best results, you’ll need to spend a bit of time learning all the nuances of sound design and strumming technique in GS-1. If you can invest the time, you’ll love what’s possible with GS-1. While there are a number of plug-and-play, high quality sounds and setups right out of the box (using a chorused Nylon guitar with a pre-made Jazz loop sounded excellent), it takes some time to learn how to really “play” the virtual guitar.
There are a few ways to control the strumming tempo. The most obvious is manually: i.e., you play as fast or slow as you wish. By default, Strum GS-1 syncs to the tempo of your host environment when running as a plug-in. There are some strumming controls in the center of the screen for choosing velocity and speed of the strum itself (not the overall tempo). For the preset MIDI loops, these can be edited to any tempo desired.
The performance requirements were as good as claimed, and on our current generation Macintosh Pro we had no trouble running GS-1 either in stand-alone mode or as an RTAS plug-in in Pro Tools LE 7.4.2.
So can you fire your acoustic guitar player and move on without him/her? For the most part, yes.
While we want to make it clear that Strum Acoustic GS-1 is actually pretty easy to use, playing patterns that sound as good as the pre-made loops will take a little bit of time to master. With some attention to detail, though, high quality results are definitely possible. But using GS-1 is a much different experience than say, setting a tempo on a keyboard ROMpler, pressing start, and zoning out while a strum loop is played. Like a real guitar, you need to be engaged in the instrument for best results!
As mentioned, the Jazz loops with a bit of chorusing sounded quite good. Some presets sounded a little artificial, but for the most part, the sound was musical and convincing. We even played a nearly dead-on muted guitar sound used in the verses of Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me.”
While getting GS-1 to be as convincing as possible to actually replace a real guitar is one possible use (though it may take some time for tweaking for best results), another use is ideal for the laptop musician. For example, a laptop and a small MIDI keyboard (even something as small as a Korg Nano) would allow you to create basic guitar tracks in a hotel room or airplane without an actual guitar.Further, while it may be obvious, we also want to mention that single notes and arpeggios can also be played besides chords. And of course, we did play the requisite “Stairway To Heaven” with some pretty good results!
AAS’s website has a number of audio demos and even has a video of Yves Frulla (keyboard player for Celine Dion) demonstrating GS-1 song construction. There is also a Help menu, which explains things fairly well. Of particular usefulness is a pull-down diagram of the pre-assigned keyboard strumming trigger notes, so you never have to remember what triggers what. It’s all there in front of you if you need it.
AAS’s Strum GS-1 (MSRP $199) sells for just slightly less, and it’s a good deal for a guitar-based sound design plug-in. Authenticity is built into the program itself, and if the user takes some time, excellent acoustic results are achievable. Like other modeling software we have reviewed, we look forward to what future revisions will deliver!
Also note that for $299 (MSRP), you can purchase a bundle that also includes AAS’s Strum Electric GS-1 guitar.
Applied Acoustics Systems
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