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Abbey Road Keyboards And Vital Drums: Two New Tools For The Home Recordist

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Two new DVD-ROM packages, one a "refill" of samples for Propellerhead’s Reason 3.0 music creation software, and the other loops for Sony’s Acid music program (and Acid-compatible programs) demonstrate how far PC-based home recording has come.

Propellerhead’s Abbey Road Keyboards samples seven instruments that have been in use in the world’s most famous recording studio since the days of the Beatles. Andy Babiuk’s extremely well-researched book titled Beatles Gear documents the drums, guitars and keyboards that John, Paul, George and Ringo personally owned. But Propellerhead’s Abbey Road Keyboards is a reminder that the Fab Four also had access to a variety of additional unique instruments as well, just by the nature of where they recorded.

The instruments included in the Propellerhead set include a Steinway Upright, which the discs' accompanying 40-page booklet, written by vintage keyboard expert Mark Vail, says is called "The Mrs. Mills Piano" because of a popular 1950s British recording artist who used this instrument extensively. But the following decade, so did the Beatles: play a few staccato major chords on it, and you’ll immediately recall the opening to "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da". Mrs. Mills’ namesake piano was apparently also used on "Lady Madonna", and anytime the Beatles wanted a jangly honky tonk tack-hammer upright piano sound.

Propellerhead’s set also includes samples of Abbey Road’s Challen Studio Piano, a warmer, darker sounding upright. And the Mannborg Harmonium, the original of which uses pedal-driven air pumps to generate sound. Also in the set is the Hammond RT-3; used in Abbey Road since the mid-1960s, it’s the classic Hammond B-3 organ’s big brother. If there’s a fog upon L.A., this is the instrument that’s generating it…

For The Beatles Anthology, Paul McCartney recreated the opening notes he played on the Mellotron, on 1967’s "Strawberry Fields Forever".

Those are the more traditional keyboards on the DVD. Things get a bit more exotic, beginning with the Mellotron M400, which powered some of the Beatles’ most iconic tunes from their classic Sgt. Pepper era, including "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", and "Strawberry Fields Forever", which many (including your humble narrator) feel is one of the Beatles’ crowning achievements as musicians and songwriters.

The Abbey Road Keyboard collection also includes two instruments that rather stretch the definition of "keyboard", but are still fun nonetheless. There’s a Schiedmayer Celeste, one of the oldest instruments in Abbey Road, and a set of Tubular Bells, sampled from the same set that gave Mike Oldfield’s iconic 1970s album its name. They were also used on the Beatles’ "When I’m 64" and "You Never Give Me Your Money".

Billed as "Abbey Road In A Box" (say, that phrase rings a tubular bell somewhere …), in a nutshell, these are all beautiful recorded instruments, which Propellerhead wisely includes in both 24 and 16-bit samples. The instructions included with the two DVD set suggest using the more traditional 16-bit samples for laying down tracks, and then switch to the larger, more detailed 24-bit versions for the final mixdown. That’s a wise plan, as these 24-bit samples can load slowly and clog the RAM of even a fast PC. But boy, do they sound good.

Vital Drums: Musical Building Blocks

Propellerhead’s Abbey Road Keyboards will obviously appeal to those who wish to add a touch of the Fab Four to their recordings, and to add the final gloss to their productions with a variety of beautiful, and occasionally exotic traditional keyboards. In contrast, the loops contained within Sony’s new Vital Drums: The Vitale Collection are the building blocks of rock music.

Traditionally, drums have been amongst the most important instruments in all forms of modern pop music, and simultaneously have long been the weak link of home recording. Most songwriters play guitar or keyboards-or both-so one way or another, they can also play bass, whether it’s a Fender electric bass or synthesized on a keyboard. But drumming requires its own skills — it takes years of practice to serviceably coordinate all four limbs in time. And while guitarists and keyboardists can record their instruments quietly with headphones and practice amps, recording a full drum kit at three or four in the morning rarely makes your neighbors happy!

Beginning in the early 1980s, drum machines proved to be one solution. But the first drum machines were thin and pathetic sounding compared to a traditional acoustic kit. Used deliberately as an effect, as Phil Collins famously did at the start of "In The Air Tonight", they could be extremely effective, especially in contrast to well-recorded real drums. And while drum machines have made remarkable strides, it’s still tough to avoid a mechanical-sounding rhythm track.

While Sonic Foundry’s Acid Loops, a brand now owned by Sony, have recorded collections containing just about every key rock, pop and jazz instrument, some of their best collections have focused on drums and percussion.

To record these CD-ROMs (and lately, DVD-ROMs), a professional drummer is brought into the recording studio, and perform a variety of patterns and styles. His recordings are then cut into one or two bar patterns as Acid loops, the tempos of which will sync perfectly to any recording program compatible with Acid loops.

Previous collections of drums and percussion for Acid loops have featured such noticeable drummers such as Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac; Steve Ferrone, who’s played with Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Duran Duran, and a host of other superstar bands; and Tony Brock, who has backed Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, and Roy Orbison.

It’s a nice bit of synchronicity that Sony’s new Vital Drums collection of patterns comes on two DVDs, each jammed with loops recorded in 24-bit stereo. Because it’s the work of two drummers: Joe Vitale, and his son Joe, Jr.

The senior Vitale has played with numerous superstar artists, including The Eagles, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and John Lennon. His drumming has also given Joe Walsh’s "Rocky Mountain Way" its languid shuffle, and the disc includes eight loops of various lengths filed under "Rocky Mountain Grooves", and a variety of other non-explicitly-named shuffles, amongst the mostly rock-oriented drumming found here.

The Rocky Mountain Grooves are labeled as being recorded at 80 beats per minute, which is an indication that while they can always be used in faster-tempo songs, they may perform strangely at slower tempos. Which is why most of kits in the loop collection were recorded playing loops in tempos of 80, 90, 100 and 120 BPM.

His son has also drummed with Walsh, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and played with Stephen Stills on his solo tours. As they told an interviewer, they each recorded many of the same patterns, then picked who played his track better for the collection.

The drums on the Vitale collection (which also includes a fun making-of video) are recorded fairly dry, which is a good thing, as it’s much easier to add more reverb than it is to remove it. And different songs call for different reverbs. There are plenty of one-shot hits of each drum element to customize the included patterns and fills, and build your own.

Drums For The Singer-Songwriter

In the booklet that accompanies the discs, Joe Vitale, Sr. tells his interviewer, "There are artists out there who need the Bill Bruford and Simon Phillips and fusion drummer sounds, but with most singer-songwriters, it’s pretty basic and fundamental." If that sounds like you, this is a terrific collection of loops played and recorded with remarkable tightness and clarity to add to your sonic palette.

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