OK, I'll be straight from the outset, I'm not a fan of guitar VIs. I've tried a lot of samplers, sound libraries and virtual instruments but few have convinced me that they'll ever find any place in one of my songs.
However when my friends at UJAM, a company I did a brief stint of marketing work with when they emerged several years ago, told me that they were making Virtual Guitarist then I decided to take interest. For a number of reasons, Peter Gorges was the father of some of my favourite VIs, Axel Henson at UJAM doesn't mess around with anything unless it's really going to work and my old buddy Wolfram (Chewbacca) was working with them too - it seemed that they had in the words of the Blues Brothers 'got the band back together.'
There has been a trend in recent years for brands to reach back into their product vaults and bring out products using the same name, some have been more successful than others and some more true to the original product. I have to say I take the whole thing with a pinch of salt and think that only someone truly silly is going to look at a synth now retailing at £300 and try and compare it with something that cost £3000 in the 1980s just because it has the same name, I don't think even the brands are thinking it's a like-for-like when they embark on the exercise, it's where marketeers and pedants crash into one another.
So with that said, is this another attempt to take a product with a lot of historical goodwill and use that to sell something far less than the name it aspires to?
I decided to give the new Virtual Guitarist IRON From UJAM a try, bearing in mind I'm not a fan of guitar VIs. In my view they often take longer to use in a production than doing it with a guitar, the sounds are narrow and the automated playback is so machine gun and rigid you can spot them a mile off. Now those who used the original Virtual Guitarist said that it was one of the few that could pass this test, even the Sound on Sound review said "I don't think many people would twig that Virtual Guitarist wasn't a conventional recording of a real player" back in 2002.
So I downloaded Virtual Guitarist IRON and decided to take it for a spin. I'm told that this is one of a number of instruments in the works, but rather than make a Strat played though a Fender Twin or a Les Paul played through a Marshall stack UJAM have gone for a new approach of thinking of each one as a certain player with his own style and gear. Virtual Guitarist IRON is the first such of these.
The concept is simple you pick a style and then choose the kind of guitar playing, sound, amount and other tweaks until you get what you want. And this is where I found that Virtual Guitarist IRON differs over other similar efforts to emulate a guitar player in your tracks, it took me a matter of minutes, in fact it may have been seconds to get a really cool guitar riff playing in my track. That is far from my experience of trying to do this in the past with similar instruments or loop libraries.
However the real magic comes when you start to use performance tricks with Virtual Guitarist IRON such as the mod wheel to change the strum sound or assigning another MIDI CC to modify the 'Thrust' setting, a setting that changes the harmonic content of the sound. You don't need to use these to get a decent guitar track but when you do then I'd defy anyone to tell this from a real guitarist in the track.
Other nice features are the ability to have one instance and get stereo guitars playing (a width control would be nice) but you could do that on the channel itself. There's also an option to have Drop D tuning. You also get swing and timing push/pull options to take it from super tight and to ahead or behind the beat.
Finally there's a whole section of effects offering delay, chorus and reverb, all with very basic controls which in most cases are more or less. They do what they say on the tin and again UJAM have avoided trying to make an emulation of iconic stomp boxes.
UJAM's decision to avoid the whole 'it's a Strat playing through a Treadplate' pays off in my opinion, it may not help those who thrive on forum discussions about how realistic things sound, but it will benefit mere mortals who want to simply make great music and have realistic guitar riffs at their fingertips. The simple options of going from clean through to dirty, twang through to soft are going to be more than enough for those wanting a great variety of guitar sounds on their tracks. The built in riffs are really well played and have enough variety to perhaps never be repeated twice in the average year of recording. After I started tweaking I was surprised how much variety there actually is to the sound and styles.
One thing to point out for Pro Tools users is that right now it only ships as AU and VST so you'll need to host it in one of the many plugins available rather than run it natively in Pro Tools, that's not going to be an issue for most people.
A couple of minor things for UJAM to consider; the first is it would be good to have a randomise slider with intensity that could add even more realism. I understand that part of the design philosophy was to make it simple, it is, but that would still keep things simple and add extra humanisation. Secondly the built in effects are good but I think that the ability to grunge up the delay would be nice too and have it less clean when required. That said there is nothing to stop you using your favourite plugin effects in the mixer chain of your DAW.
I'm excited by the thought that this is one of a number of Virtual Guitarists all with their own distinct personality, as they say 'watch this space.'
Virtual Guitarist IRON requires Windows 7 or later, Mac OS X 10.9 or later. Plugin formats are VST and AU and the delivery format is a downloadable installer. Minimum requirements are 4 GB of RAM, 6 GB of disk space, 1280x768 px display, of course you'll also need an internet connection. Authorization is a simple case of enter email and password within the plug-in. UJAM also support the Native Instruments NKS standard.
At $99 it's a steal, you can even download a fully working version of Virtual Guitarist IRON to try for 30 days. If like me you have been unconvinced by this kind of Virtual Instrument in the past then download the demo and be prepared to have you mind changed. I love it!
It's nice to have the team who created some of our favourite instruments back in the game, even nicer knowing they haven't squandered their heritage by simply using an old product name - Virtual Guitarist IRON is a winner.
My guess is you'll be hearing Virtual Guitarist on a lot of tracks in the future - the only thing is that you won't know it!