Modern R&B Music Construction Kits
A set of three sound libraries to help you create your own hip-hop and R&B-oriented soundtracks.
By Chris and Trish Meyer | June 13, 2010
One side effect of the maturation of desktop tools has been that our clients and employers expect us to do more - for example, an editor is often expected to also do some motion graphics and sound editing; a motion graphics artist may be expected to come up with the soundtrack as well. Fortunately, several desktop-based sound tools - such as Apple's GarageBand and Soundtrack Pro, Adobe's Audition and Soundbooth, Propellerhead's Recycle and Reason, Ableton's Live (my weapon of choice), and Sony's ACID Pro (the pioneer of them all) - make it easier for a doodler with a good ear to create a soundtrack out of a box full of sound snippets. These snippets usually consist of musical phrases that may be repeated (looped) or strung end-to-end (here's a short primer how).
These applications tend to ship with their own box of snippets; third parties also offer literally dozens of "music construction kit" sound libraries that contain collections of coordinated snippets which make it easier to create songs in specific styles. I rely on these myself, either using a construction kit to create a soundtrack in a style a client has requested, or mixing and matching between sets to create original compositions. For those who are new to this world, I'm going to share some reviews of construction kits I've encountered in hopes of helping you make informed decisions as to what might inspire your inner musical muse.
First up is a collection of "R&B" libraries provided to me for review by Big Fish Audio. Trying to pigeonhole what "hip hop" sounds like is akin to lumping all of "rock" into the same bucket. Although the surlier side of rap gets all the press, in reality a substantial slice of hip-hop is a modern interpretation of rhythm and blues. Therefore, it's not surprising that so many hip hop/R&B sample libraries have appeared, where you're more likely to hear string sections, electric pianos, and clean electric guitars rather than rapping, gunshots and turntable scratching.
As all three collections are from the same vendor, they share several characteristics. One is Big Fish's standard song construction kit template of providing folders identified by song name, key, and tempo, each containing a demo arrangement of the song, the loops that make up the song, and a subfolder of matching one-shot "hits" (cymbal crashes and the such). Even though this genre doesn't exactly cry out for extreme fidelity, these collections all come with 24 bit 44.1 kHz samples, replicated in WAV (Acid & Audition), AIFF (Apple Loops), and REX2 (Recycle & Reason) formats. (The details below are for the AIFF versions of each collection; the one-shot sound snippets are not reproduced in the loop-focused REX format.) All share the same license where they may be used in your own "derivative" live performances or recorded compositions, but not in a music or sample library (which makes sense - of course you can't buy a library for the sake of making and selling a library).
This collection is a good idea generator, providing 55 song construction kits plus an additional drum hits folder adding up to 1.77 gigs of material for a list price of $99.95. Each kit contains anywhere from 3 to 37 component loops (6-8 loops per kit being typical) that are 2 to 8 bars in length (including some 1-bar intros, solos, and fills), plus the aforementioned demo arrangement and folder of matching hits. Tempos range from 82 to 104 bpm; most of the songs are in the moodier minor key. In addition to the expected drums, bass, guitars, and keys, there are numerous orchestral elements present as well. The core drum loops tend to have a slamming core of programmed kick, snare/handclap, and hi-hats, usually overlaid with doses of vinyl-crackly live drums plus percussion. Each kit typically has only one drum loop (and there's no folder of drum track breakdowns, so you can't create your own variations), but the melodic instruments often have "A" and "B" parts to create some variety and progression.
With a name like "Notorious" you can be forgiven for expecting a collection that skewed closer to gangsta rap - but that's nowhere close to the full story here. Instead, this collection (produced by Marcus Siskind and Rich Mendelson) shows many more experimental touches plus dark pop, European club and even lounge influences. The recording quality is about average: It has the requisite lo-fidelity elements to properly represent the genre, but manages to stay away from the over-compressed, slightly claustrophobic sound that is also all too common to the genre. Combine with arrangements leaning toward the open side, and the result has a cleaner taste than you might expect. Overall, this collection will give you a good head start toward creating songs that contain a veneer of urban roughness, but that won't scare away too many listeners (or clients).
This library has the lightest weight of the three collections reviewed here - both in size (682 Meg for the AIFF version) and feel. But as the saying goes, size isn't everything; combined with its low list price (a modest $49.95), it's quite a bargain.
Loopalicious includes 18 song construction kits. All but one are in minor keys, with tempos ranging from 69 to 134 bpm (the majority being in the 72 to 98 bpm range). Each construction kit includes 7 to 17 component loops, a demo arrangement, and a folder of 4 to 11 related hits. Most loops are 4 bars or longer (longer is better, as the result is usually less repetitive); many are presented with at least two variations. The songwriting is notable in that it has more chord changes and key progressions than most loop libraries, which often try to keep everything in a given song in the same musical key (staying in the same key makes it easier to mix and match components, but can be less interesting to listen to). Although a few more drum loop variations wouldn't have gone amiss, the overall result is that you're getting more useful material to create interesting songs with than you might expect given the raw numbers.
The instrumentation tends toward drum machine, bass, guitar, keys, and strings, with lots of Rhodes electric piano and some clavinet. Although many of the bass lines are synthetic, the timbre is more muted or round than squelchy. Indeed, the overall recording quality is above average for the genre, tending to be more clean than over-compressed. The songs tend toward the smooth lounge end of the R&B spectrum, with a jazzy feel plus the occasional ethnic or orchestral touches. A few of the kits have a slight sense of urgency, but nothing that would scare children and small animals - instead, this is music for cruising late at night.
Although it is the most expensive library reviewed here ($129.95 list), for sheer value for money this collection is a winner right of the gate: Its 2 DVDs provide over 5 gigs of samples (AIFF version), divided into 40 construction kits plus extra folders with 75 Bonus Drum Loops and 140 additional drum hits. The construction kits range from 68 to 128 bpm (mostly in the 90-100 range) in both major and minor keys, with anywhere from 6 to 42 individual loops per kit. In addition to the expected demo song and hits folder, each kit also comes with a folder that breaks down the drum tracks into their component loops. Most of the loops are in the 4 to 8 bar range; two or more variations are also provided for many of the parts. These touches make it much easier for you to create different arrangements and mixes of the construction kits to keep things interesting.
The arrangements are varied, tending toward the more relaxed, poppier side of R&B with various ethnic, orchestral, and lo-fidelity touches thrown in. The core drum track usually consists of compressed, lo-fidelity drum machine programming, with numerous percussive elements ranging from the expected bongos and congas to bell trees, vibraslaps, flextones, and even water drops added on top. The melodic instruments are even more varied, including several flavors of guitars, organ, electric piano, strings, squelchy synths, and odd FX. The live instruments have a loosey-goosey feel on top of the programmed drums. The end result is either intoxicating or a bit messy, depending on your tastes - but since so many sub-loops are provided, you can certainly strip down the arrangements yourself. Although Anthony Myers produced both Loopalicious and this collection, I'm personally torn on the songwriting here - one day I really like it; the next...not so much. But again, this collection is worth checking out just for the sheer bulk of raw material and variations it provides.
In the end, these three collections display the classic quality versus quantity argument: Although I normally prefer collections that provide me the maximum number of variations so I can construct songs that evolve, it was the smallest collection of the three - Loopalicious - that really caught my ears. But keep in mind that there's no guarantee my tastes are the same as yours: Make sure you check out the demo files online at www.bigfishaudio.com (you can also click on the headers above to be take directly to the Big Fish page for each product), and remember that since each library provides the component loops, you're free to pull out single loops to mix and match with other pieces you're working on.
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