Embertone Whiskey Series Mountain Dulcimer Virtual Instrument
Sometimes you need a little whiskey with your dulcimer ...
by Chris Loeffler
It’s one of music technology’s great ironies that some of the most simple, rudimentary instruments are the hardest to sample. The complexity of brass and orchestral instruments creates enough of a sonic imprint that it can be easy to miss what isn’t captured, but an instrument as stripped down as a three-string mountain dulcimer relies on a lot of player technique with very little to hide behind. Despite this (or likely, because of this), virtual instrument sampler Embertone has kicked off its Whiskey Series, a foray into the instruments of the Appalachian mountains, with the Embertone Whiskey Series Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer virtual instrument for Kontakt 5 (in NCW format).
What You Need to Know
Rather than trying to capture on the many variations of regional variations of the dulcimer/zither, the Whiskey Series Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer focuses exclusively on capturing the sounds and nuance of a specific mountain dulcimer straight from Appalachia (hence the name). For those who don’t want to dive into the functionality and applications of the instrument with me, let me get straight to the heart of the matter; the dulcimer was extremely well recorded, thoroughly sampled, and sounds like the real deal; strumming, plucking, strings ringing, and all. Part of this is the 44.1kHz/24-bit stereo sampled resolution, but it also doesn't take shortcuts with memory - it's a 3.2 GB install.
The Embertone Whiskey Series Mountain Dulcimer features an incredibly well-designed user interface that gives first-level access to nearly every tweakable aspect of the instrument without feeling crowded or overwhelming. Especially helpful is the UI’s tool tips, which pops up a window with the description of any function if you hover over it for a couple of seconds. The explanation was deep enough that I never had to crack the manual to learn how a particular function worked.
The sampled dulcimer has a pleasant, bell-like ring to the notes, incredibly natural sustain and decay and, most impressively, the notes played on different strings sound like they are reacting to each other, as opposed to independent sound files being layered. There’s a cohesiveness to the instrument itself that is incredibly authentic. True to the mountain dulcimer, there are only three strings (D, A, and D), which are represented by plectrums in the interface. Every possible note was sampled on every string to capture the specific tonality of the notes in relation to their position on the neck, which means playing the same note on the keyboard and toggling among the three strings creates acoustically faithful tonal variations of the same note. The instrument is complemented by Reverb and Spread controls, which craft various acoustic spaces and define the instrument recording's stereo field. An EQ button activates a preset EQ setting that subtly creates a more focused, recording-ready tone for a more produced, processedtrack.
A Round Robin button selects the picking pattern of the notes as they're played. With Round Robin off, the notes default to an Up/Down pick stroke variation as notes are played. With Round Robin on, the instruments plays a sequenced strum pattern of Up/Down/Up/Down that tends to have a bit more natural resolve to it, given the expansion from two beat phrases to four. Random Round Robin removes the picking pattern and randomizes the finger approach to best fit the note's dynamic and tempo context. The differences among the three settings is subtle in a final mix when accompanied by additional instruments, but they are incredibly powerful in creating convincing performances.
The Embertone Whiskey Series Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer has three modes of instrument play: Smart Mode, Natural Mode, and Split Mode.
Smart Mode produces single notes, play chords, or even restrum notes for a manual feel, with each note independent like a standard keyboard. Smart Mode features a handful of important configurations to get the most out of a performance: String Selection, Strum Direction, Legato Notes, Pluck Style, Smart Chords, and Sustain Behavior.
String Selection intelligently selects the best string to play a given note so it best fits the passage, whereas manual ties the note to the currently selected string. Strum Direction automatically creates up/down picking patterns, whereas manual produces direction for every pick.
Legato Notes has a Single Mode, where notes in a chord are strummed only as they're played, allowing certain notes to ring out while others are played over it, like finger-style guitar or a standard piano. Chord Mode is truer to the instrument and re-plucks every held down note as new notes are added, like a full instrument strum. The speed of the strum can be assigned to the CC wheel, ranging from lightning fast to slower, lazier rakes across the string that take up to 200ms.
Pluck Style offers Picked, which is sharper and clearer due to the use of a plectrum, and Finger, which is warmer and rounder, emulating the flesh of a finger. Smart Chords uses an advanced algorithm to make note and strumming choices that are deemed truest to the way a mountain dulcimer is played. Sustain Behavior allows Key Lift Release (note releases when the key is removed), Sustain Pedal (just like a piano), and Always Sustain (pretty obvious).
Natural Mode combines chord drones with melody notes. For instance, holding an A and C in the drone section will result in those notes droning under the melody that’s played, which takes the chordal-melodic relationship beyond the physical limitations of the acoustic instrument. String Select and String Direction work the same as Smart Mode, but Legato Notes has a subtle change; Single mode will hold the same drone notes as long as the melody is being overlapped, with the drone notes only plucked when there is a pause in the melody. In Chord Mode, the drone notes are plucked every time a note is played on the melody side, creating a full strum of all depressed notes every time a new note is played.
Split Mode creates two sections with the same note/string selection to create percussive and extremely fast strumming patterns natural to the mountain dulcimer but difficult (if not impossible) to recreate on a keyboard with a single instance of each note.
Strummer is an amazingly organic and powerful arpeggiator that produces surprisingly realistic canned strummed grooves. Velocity (strength of notes), speed, direction, mute, and pitch create highly tailored patterns as true to the instrument or as EDM as you want. The All button controls all five parameters at once and makes copying them to different sections (up to four separate sections can be combined) a breeze. The Randomize button randomizes one or all parameters, while Steps and Rate select the number of beats and how fast they are played. Swing control adds a bit of swing and urgency to the rhythmic parts, and the thematically appropriate Sobriety control introduces a level of human error and variance to the strum and pluck that, even at its most exaggerated, sounds better than most players I’ve heard after having a few too many. 64 strum patterns (grooves) are included, with plenty of preset locations to create your own, and grooves can be exported and imported.
With all the focus on a single instrument, those looking to add dozens of new sounds to their DAW should look elsewhere… mountain dulcimer fans only need apply.
The Embertone Whiskey Series Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer perfectly captures the sound of a specific acoustic instrument and would fit in seamlessly in a recording with true acoustic instruments. The control and configuration settings are incredibly well thought out and truly respectful of the instrument, resulting in compositions that can’t help but reflect the sampled instrument (and are a testimony to the power of scripting within Kontakt). It will be interesting to see what’s next in the Whiskey Series.
Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.