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UJAM Virtual Guitarist-IRON Plug-In - With Free Loops!


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Welcome to a variation on the Pro Review: Pro Review Xpress. These are for products that don’t require as much of an in-depth review, but would still benefit from an interactive, forum-based approach where people can ask questions, provide comments, and where all are invited to participate, including manufacturers. For more information about Pro Reviews in general, please read the FAQ.


You may remember Wizoo’s Virtual Guitarist program, which was distributed by Steinberg but discontinued in 2007. Here we are nine years later, and UJAM has brought it back but with quite a few changes. In short, the object of Virtual Guitarist-IRON (VG-IRON for short) is to generate convincing rock, power-chord-oriented guitar parts when there isn’t a guitarist around to play them. VG-IRON is not alone; A|A|S makes Strum, which is now up to version 2 and has the same goal. However, Strum uses physical modeling of the guitar sounds, while VG-IRON is sample-based (3 GB worth, which you can locate on the drive of your choice).


VG-IRON is VST/AU compatible (there is no standalone option), and runs on Windows 7 or later and Mac OS X 10.9 or later. UJAM says you can run it on earlier operating systems, but there’s no support in case you have issues. I tested it on Windows 10 using the latest monthly SONAR update, and had zero problems with installation or operation. Other requirements are 4 GB of RAM, 6 GB disk space, a minimum 1280 x 768 display, and an internet connection as the product and updates are available only via an online downloadable installer. Authorization does not require a dongle, and VG-IRON is compatible with Native Instruments NKS format. The price is US$99.




Everything in VG-IRON fits on a single screen, which follows the current aesthetic of gloomy gray with color accents, and a distinct lack of clutter. There was quite a bit of thought put into the documentation, and I highly recommend supplementing this review by downloading the user guide and looking it over.


Next up, let’s look at what’s in VG-IRON’s toolbox.

Edited by Anderton
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VG-IRON has the same concept as other virtual instrument emulations: Keyswitching with your left handing, triggering sounds with your right hand. Although a five-octave keyboard is not given as a requirement, you won’t get the full benefit of VG-IRON without one. You can manage with a four octave keyboard and occasional forays into its octave transpose function, but one of those cute little one-octave keyboards you can throw into a laptop case definitely won’t cut it. However, almost all DAWs will accept input from multiple MIDI sources, so you can always do something like use a two-octave keyboard to trigger notes, and a pad controller to call up phrases.


Also, it’s worth mentioning that even if you do play guitar, VG-IRON can have value. Increasingly over the years, I’ve learned to separate the songwriting and recording/production processes. When songwriting, the emphasis is on speed of idea capture, so SONAR becomes a giant scratchpad filled with “placeholder” sounds and effects that are often replaced later on. If you’re concentrating on songwriting, being able to generate a backing guitar in seconds may be more convenient than miking your amp, tuning your guitar, and learning a part.




The master determination over what the guitarist plays is the Style, and there are 100 of them—hard rock, reggae, power strumming, muted, punk, etc. Although these styles relate somewhat to musical genres, there more about guitar playing styles, and a style can apply easily to more than one type of music.




Each Style has 11 Style-specific Phrases (yes, in true Spinal Tap fashion, the Phrases go up to 11), selected by the Style Phrases keyswitches. There’s also a Stop keyswitch to stop playback. 23 additional Common Phrases (and a Silence keyswitch—different from Stop because playback continues, but with a silent phrase) are not Style-specific and cover more generic types of guitar playing, like muted rhythms with an eighth-note accent, chord rhythms, slides, single chords, single notes, etc. Furthermore, the mod wheel shortens note decay so that’s another option for expressiveness.


All these “control” keys are below an octave above middle C. Starting at the octave above middle C, the Chord section consists of two octaves for triggering notes or chords. You can “snap” all the notes to a specific key with the Key parameter, which means you can’t play chords that don’t fit in the key. However this is also handy when triggering notes with something like a pad controller, where you don’t have a full keyboard available.


The “native” Chord section notes play a tonic and fifth, so to create major, minor, 7th, etc. you can play an interval of two notes. These notes do not respond to velocity, although we’ll cover other ways to add expressiveness once I’ve had a chance to play with them.


The remaining control options are double- and half-time of the song tempo, swing, and “feel”—this plays the off-beats slightly earlier or later, and is a welcome option for “humanizing” the sound without resorting to the usual cheating method of simply randomizing, which to me doesn’t “humanize” the playing but rather, makes it sound like the players has had too many beers J

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The control aspect is half of VG-IRON; the other half involves the guitar sounds that get triggered. We’ll cover those soon enough, but first, it’s opinion time.


I’ve played a lot of sampled instruments that involve keyswitching to change note articulations and inflections, with varying degrees of success. I was recently over at a friend’s house who played me a bass part from a library that had meticulously added little fret noises, squeaks, and string buzzes. While there’s no question they added realism, he probably could have learned to play bass in the time it took him to “assemble” the part.


VG-IRON doesn’t take switching to that kind of level, it simply involves choosing phrasing and chords. The good news is that if you’re into instant gratification, VG-IRON will get you there. It’s not difficult to fool around and find something that works—you might even get lucky and hit on which of the 100 styles and phrases fits the song like a glove. (There are also presets to help you get started; these combine specific Styles with related guitar sounds. You can also save your own presets.)


However to become a VG-IRON Jedi Master, there’s no getting around learning what the different Styles have to offer (be thankful there are only 100 and not 1,000!), as well as the Phrases for the Styles. As an analogy, think of the DJ with the case of vinyl records: you have to choose the right album to fit the mood, then the right track from within that album. This requires intimate familiarity with your record collection, and with VG-IRON, the key is intimate familiarity with the various options.


It’s not a trivial undertaking to learn how to get the most out of VG-IRON. Overall, I’d say that instant gratification is easy, and you can learn most of what it can do in a relatively short period of time. Printing out the chart in the manual of the Common Phrases is helpful, as is printing out the Fingering chart that shows which keys to play to obtain particular chords. Beyond that, if you want to be able to choose the exact right phrase and Style, you’ll just need to spend some quality time with VG-IRON to find out what it can do.


Of course, this also has a flip side—it’s easy to come up with “happy accidents.” You could be fooling around looking for a particular Style, and find that a different one adds a flavor you wouldn’t have thought to add otherwise. And during the learning process, make sure the instrument track containing VG-IRON is record-enabled—you never know when you’ll find some phrase that inspires you to take it further and develop it into a song.


In addition to songwriting and keyboard players, another use for VG-IRON is audio-for-video. I’ve often needed to create music beds specifically to sit in the background, and not overwhelm the narration or visuals. Under those circumstances, the listener probably won’t even know if the guitarist being heard is “real” or not, and VG-IRON is sufficiently convincing that it makes it even harder to know if the guitar playing is real.

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Time to check out the sound end of things. After all, what good is a virtual guitarist who doesn’t know about tone?


The lower half of VG-IRON is all about the sound-generating aspects.




There are four main options for your virtual guitar. Twang is Strat-like, while Bite has more of a treble pickup vibe. Soft seems like your basic neck pickup sound, and Fat sounds very much like a guitar with humbuckers, set to the middle position. In other words, these four options cover the bases.


The amp sound has five choices: Clean, Crisp, Cream, Crunch, and Metal. As you probably guessed this covers the spectrum from clean to very distorted, with the Drive control determining how “dirty” each sound is. The more you turn up Drive, the more it reduces any differences among the various guitar sounds. I like the Drive up halfway for crunchy, defined rhythm guitar sounds—and rhythm guitar is of course what this is all about.


Of the different guitars, I find Twang is best for the cleaner/less distorted sounds; it doesn’t distort all that elegantly. However, adding a notch filter after VG-IRON around 8.6 kHz smooths out the sound by removing some of the high-frequency harshness that results from distorting the high frequencies. The following screen shot shows how to tame the Twang sound when you're adding distortion.




To my ears, Fat seems the most “universal”—it’s hard to get a bad sound with it.


The Thrust control is interesting. It sounds like a sweepable filter prior to distortion, and adds some of the pick angle/harmonic jump effects associated with guitar playing. However, it doesn’t really sweep; if you hold down the E key under Common Phrases to produce a sustained sound and turn Thrust, you won’t really hear a difference. What seems to happen is when a trigger occurs that plays a chord, it “reads” the Thrust control and plays the tone that results from that setting. You can trigger Thrust from aftertouch, which is pretty cool as you can add expressiveness without trying too hard.


To use a baseball analogy, I wouldn’t consider the Thrust control a home run with the bases loaded, but I’d rate it a double that drives in two runs. It’s most effective with choppy parts, as you can get different nuances on different notes.


As a guitar player I’m pretty picky about my tone, and even pickier if someone makes the choices for me. But credit where credit is due: VG-IRON is convincing and credible. If it’s powering a track, anyone who’s not a guitar player will probably think it is a guitar (assuming the person playing it does so with at least some degree of skill), while a guitarist will probably do a double-take, and realize only after listening to it for a while that the sound is perhaps a little bit too consistent. It’s a big ask to expect VG-IRON to sound like a flesh-and-blood guitarist, but it is to “real” guitar as CGI is to film—quite impressive, and you have to wonder what’s real and what’s not. You’ll hear what I mean when you listen to the audio demos on the http://www.virtualguitarist.com site.


The lower quarter of the plug-in is about processing. The manual notes that the processors are more for getting a sound quickly, and that you’ll probably want to use your “go-to” processors. I agree; the effects have few adjustable parameters, so you can’t (for example) dial in the desired amount of delay feedback or feedback path attenuation, reverb decay, etc. However, I also agree that they’re useful for getting sounds quickly.


Drop D isn’t a true drop D; it drops the sound down an octave when you play a D note, but also produces subtle effects with other notes that tend to "tighten" the sound. The main use I’ve found is if you’re in the key of E then play a D to get a flatted 7th; instead of the D being higher than the E, it’s lower. It’s a specialized trick, but it comes in handy. Hopefully someone from UJAM can stop by and explain exactly what this button does.


Doubling does...doubling. But, note that the inherent VG-IRON output is mono, like a guitar. Doubling also adds stereo imaging to the output, because the doubled parts are weighted toward the right and left channels.


Delay is what you’d expect. It’s ping-pong mode (alternates left and right), with six tempo-synched delays (quarter note, dotted eighth, eighth, dotted sixteenth, sixteenth, and thirty-second note). The delay control is most about increasing the feedback, so the delays repeat longer.


Chorus and Reverb are single-knob controls for their respective effects, and Volume—well, I probably don’t need to tell you what that does.


So, we’ve now described pretty much all you need to know about the sound- and pattern-generating capabilities, but we still need to touch on one very important element: what the playing experience is like. Can you just push keys and have fun, or do you have to get out a calculator and plot out all your moves in advance? That’s what we’ll investigate next.

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Now that we’ve covered the basics and there haven’t been any questions, let’s talk about what it’s actually like to use VG-IRON. First, I have two recommendations...

  • Although I’ve advised using a five-octave keyboard to do playing and keyswitching, thanks to the miracle of USB controllers you can also hook up two keyboards that span a smaller range. Use one for selecting phrases, and the other for triggering them (this assumes the keyboards have buttons for choosing octaves). With keyboards like CME’s Xkey, you can even situate one behind the other and slightly to the side. Or, use an MPC-style pad for triggering notes or phrases...you get the idea.
  • It really helps to have a drum track going in the background, even if it’s just a loop you’ll later discard and replace with something better. It’s important to hear how the VG-IRON rhythms fit against other instruments, although of course, you can also start with VG-IRON if you come up with something cool, and make everything else play along with it.

Note that if you’re connected to the net, you’ll be notified in case there are any updates. I realize some people don’t like to connect computers to networks either for security or performance reasons, but it does make sense to connect periodically to see if updates exist for your fave programs.


This brief audio/video demo shows the five different amp sounds. The lowest MIDI note toward the left of the screen is choosing a particular phrase, while the higher notes trigger the phrase at their respective notes. Although it’s expected that you’ll hold the key playing the note and let the phrase play, you can also re-trigger a phrase to add variety—that’s what’s happening with the short notes.




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Now let’s turn our attention to the guitar sounds. The following audio/video demo uses the same riff as the previous post, but this time changes up the guitar sounds, all of which feed the Clean amp. In the next video to be posted, we'll listen to some of the various phrases.




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Free Loops! Cool!!


UJAM has given permission to post some loops of VG-IRON in action. There are 11 loops (about 28 MB, so it's not a big download) in Acidized format and yes, I put a lot of effort into editing the Acidization markers so the loops stretch well over a wide range.


Aside from posting these for your enjoyment and so you can hear some more of the VG-IRON sounds, they'll make a point when I do some conclusions in the next post about using VG-IRON. While the loops are fine as is, you wouldn't necessarily want them to repeat over and over and over and over and...you get the point. One of the cool features of VG-IRON is that the Style Phrases typically include variations on a theme that become more complex as you move up the keyboard to trigger the sounds. This gives a considerable degree of control over creating a part that doesn't sound mechanical, which of course is the whole point of VG-IRON.


The loops are available for download from Hightail.com for the next 7 days (or a certain number of downloads, whichever comes first)...grab them while you can. If needed, I'll re-upload but will also look for a permanent place to park them.

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