GOTHIC INSTRUMENTS: DRONAR MASTER EDITION!
A HUGE thank you to Jon Dennis of ZERO-G for this amazing gift! I will be writing a review for ZERO-G in a couple of weeks!
SOUND ON SOUND REVIEW
Gothic Instruments have assembled their Dronar modules into a one-stop-shop for soundscape creation.
If your musical work involves scoring to picture, sound design or ambient music, then Gothic Instruments’ Dronar may already be familiar. Dronar itself is a Kontakt-based instrument that allows the user to blend up to eight extended sample-based loops to create soundscape/pad-like sounds. Over the last 18 months or so, GI have released a series of Dronar-based ‘modules’ — there are currently nine in the series — each built on a different core sample set for the creation of different sonic textures.
SOS have given positive reviews to a number of these within the Sample Libraries column. As well as sounding very good, being easy to use, and having depth for those that do want to dig in, each individual module was also very competitively priced. Compared to some of the other (also excellent) soundscape virtual instruments currently available, this made the Dronar modules very accessible even to budding score composers. GI also offered their customer base some excellent discounts on further Dronar titles once they had purchased their first.
GI have now launched the Dronar Master Edition. This brings all the samples from the first eight of the existing Dronar titles — some 50GB in total with over 2000 presets — into a single instrument. While the price is now perhaps closer to that of some of the obvious competition, it is still competitive, and there are some substantial staged discounts on the Master Edition if you happen to own individual Dronar modules. And, of course, the other obvious advantage is that you have access to all the samples in one place, meaning you can mix and match between the sample sets from each of the original eight modules.
Instruments such as Dronar can make it incredibly easy to create evolving soundscapes. However, under the surface, there is also a lot control offered for those that want it. So, is Dronar Master Edition just what you need to master your soundscape production?
As mentioned above, the Master Edition includes all the samples from the first eight of the Dronar modules. The titles of these — Guitarscapes, Live Strings, Dark Synthesis, Cinematic Atmospheres, Vintage Synth, Brass, Metal & Glass and Hybrid — give a broad indication of the sound sources, although the sounds themselves have often been processed or manipulated.
A Dronar preset is constructed from up to eight samples (actually, eights sets of samples; velocity layers are included) with two placed into each of four layers; Lo, Mid, Hi and FX. The first three of these imply the pitch range of the sample playback while the last offers various sound effect elements. Both the two samples within a layer, and the four layers, can then be blended to taste.
As with the individual modules, the Main page of Dronar’s Kontakt interface provides the easiest way to interact with the instrument. The 2000+ presets (built using the Kontakt Snapshots system) include all the original presets from the individual modules as well as a new ‘Blends From All’ category that mixes and matches the underlying samples from across the whole collection. GI’s sound creators have done their best to give the presets meaningful names but, as ever with this kind of sound design instrument, one person’s ‘Dreamlike Drone’ might be another person’s ‘Mystery Pad’. There is, therefore, bound to be an element of personal exploration required.
Once you have found a suitable preset for your needs, the Lo, Mid, Hi and FX knobs allow you to adjust the relative volumes of the four sound layers. The Intensity dial (by default, linked to the mod wheel) controls a combination of both loudness and sonics as it crossfades you through the different velocity samples within each sound layer. The Movement dial is linked to some of the deeper elements of the Dronar engine (mainly the LFO and arpeggiator, as described below). This can therefore allow you to go from a more conventional pad-like sound (at low Movement settings) to something with a stronger rhythmic feel (at higher Movement settings).
The note triggering system used in Dronar is quite interesting. Yes, when you press a MIDI note, that note is triggered, but the engine applies a bit of magic and can, from a single note, trigger up to four octaves of that note, distributing them across the four different sound layers. If you trigger multiple notes, the Mid and Hi layers will also voice these, so you can do chords. A few notes played with one hand can therefore generate quite a dense sound, leaving your other hand free to tweak Dronar’s six main dials via a mouse or an external controller. This is all rather satisfying and, once you have found or created a preset that fits your musical needs, the Main page makes it incredibly easy to create a complete, evolving soundscape with just a couple of notes.
For more occasional users, the Main page might be all that’s required. However, if you want to fully exploit what the Dronar engine can do with this massive collection of raw sounds, then you need to dig a little deeper. The other six pages of controls — Sounds, Expert, LFO & FX, Arp, Rhythm and Master FX — allow you to do just that.
The Expert page lets you customize the envelope, filter, tone and stereo width for each of the four sound layers.The Sounds page is straightforward, allowing you to pick the combination of eight sounds that build the four layers and adjust their balance, stereo width and volume. The Thick button adds additional octaves on playback while the Smart Bass button adjusts how the engine responds to the lowest note triggered. The Randomize Samples button is fun for a little ‘press it and see’ inspiration, although it might have been even better if you could also randomize each layer individually.
In terms of controlling just how your sounds evolve over time, the Expert and LFO & FX pages are key. In the Expert page, each layer has a separate set of controls for attack and release times, a filter section with frequency and resonance controls, and options for modulating the filter via the attack/release envelope or mod wheel. There’s also a basic LFO that can be used to modulate pan, filter or pitch settings for each layer. LFO intensity can also be linked to the mod wheel here while the Desync control unlinks the LFO response of each layer for more complex end results. Distortion and Chorus effects can add further sonic complexity.
Dronar’s arpeggiator functions are quite novel, allowing you to blend an arpeggiator pattern with the sustained element of your sound.If you want Dronar to do more than drone (!), then the Arp and Rhythm pages are what make that possible. Each layer has its own arpeggiator control set and, while the actual note arpeggiation options are quite simple — up/down/cycle/random/off — you also get step pattern-based control over Intensity and Filter. More novel are the Amount and Smooth controls for all three of these elements. For example, for the Pitch section, the Amount control allows you to gradually move from playing all currently triggered notes (essentially no arpeggiator effect) through to the separate notes (full arpeggiator effect), while the Smooth control applies a cross-fade between the notes.
Some of the Master Edition samples have rhythmic elements that can be manipulated via the Rhythm page.Amongst the (very!) many pad/drone/sustained core samples, the Master Edition also includes some Hi, Mid and Lo sounds that are rhythmic in nature. If you include one or more of these via the Sounds page, then the Rhythm page comes into play. Here, a user-defined grid can be used to independently fine-tune any rhythmic elements of the Hi, Mid and Lo sounds. This requires a little experimentation but, alongside the Arp controls, it does mean you can add a rhythmic texture to your sounds.
The Master FX section rounds out the control set.Finally, the Master FX page provides a suite of fairly conventional global effects including EQ, compression (with a nice Drive control for adding some grit), delay, reverb and a gate. All of these work well and the tempo-controlled Gate has a very useful Amount (mix) control so it can also be used to add an extra rhythmic element to your sound.
While this array of control options within the sound engine allows you to squeeze maximum mileage out of Dronar’s core samples, Master Edition’s bang for buck clearly depends upon just how good those core samples are. Having used a number of the individual modules previously, I’d always been impressed by what was on offer. With the sample content from eight of those modules available here, you are certainly not short of sonic ammunition.
While Dronar can do sounds suitable for playing melodic phrases, it is designed primarily for the creation of evolving sound textures. In that musical context, most composers would be trying to find a sound that set a musical ‘mood’. So, as a source of moods — uplifting, spiritual, happy, sad, tense, urgent, scary, etc — how does Dronar Master Edition fare?
Well, when it comes to the darker, edge-of-your-seat moods, Master Edition most certainly has it covered. There are plenty of presets to be found in almost all the modules that will create a mood of tension, drama, suspense, foreboding or downright terror. Pick the right preset, hit a couple of notes, tweak the Main page controls and — hey presto — your cue could be pretty much written. At the other, more positive, end of the mood scale, you perhaps do have to spend a little more time auditioning potential candidates to find what you might be looking for. That’s not because there isn’t plenty of choice — there is — but simply that the classification of the presets into mood-based categories is perhaps a little inconsistent between the different modules.
For example, the Metal & Glass module has some very useful preset category labels — Danger, Dark, Dreamlike, Horror, etc — making it easy to narrow your search. However, some categories used in one or two of the other modules are perhaps a little more ambiguous (for example, Pads Nordic Gold within the Brass module or Benthos Pads within the Cinematic Atmospheres module). Usefully, the Blends From All presets created specifically for the Master Edition are organised into a series of very helpful top-level categories — Alien, Atmospherics, Chaos, Horror, Inspirational, Pulsing, etc — and this makes browsing much easier.
Indeed, this ability to quickly find a preset that suits your required mood is perhaps my only really negative comment about Dronar Master Edition. The content is vast, the engine flexible (and not too intimidating), and the underlying samples are excellent. However, with so much content, some sort of keyword-based search system for both presets and individual sounds would be a beneficial addition at some stage. In all other respects, this is powerful stuff.
While the individual Dronar modules provide a very accessible entry into the world of soundscape creation, the Master Edition requires a more serious financial commitment. However, given both the quality and quantity of the content, it undoubtedly represents good value for money. Yes, at this price, working composers have some very able alternatives aimed at the same kind of sonic target, but Master Edition is more than capable of holding its own. Whether as a first ‘serious’ soundscape design tool, or simply as a fresh source of inspiration alongside other such instruments, Dronar Master Edition is most certainly a very worthy contender and comes highly recommended.