Detlef Blanke – The Man Behind Virtual Guitarists musicality and realism
Detlef has a background of over 20 years as a live performer (bass) and producer. Since 2004, he has been musical director and content producer of Virtual Guitarists from Virtual Guitarist 2 (Steinberg/Wizoo) to Virtual Guitarist SILK (UJAM).
Detlef was very involved with how Virtual Guitarists play and behave, the choice and modification of guitars and recording setup, and the selection and creation of musical styles and phrases. In this Behind The Scenes article he shares what he cares about, how he works, and what his relationship with Virtual Guitarist looks like.
Detlef about his history with Virtual Guitarist
When Steinberg presented the very first Virtual Guitarist at Frankfurt Musikmesse in 2002, I was instantly hooked. Also, I had tons of ideas for the instrument series, so I went to talk to Peter Gorges, owner of Wizoo, the company behind Virtual Guitarist.
Peter invited me to the office, introduced me to the team and sent me home with a box full of software. All he asked was “would I maybe create a demo”? Just a few months later he called me again and invited me to participate in the development of Steinbergs Virtual Bassist, which I ended up co-developing the concept and recording the content for.
Naturally, when Wizoo set out to develop Virtual Guitarist 2, I kind of took over the musical director role – I hired seven guitarists, developed the styles and edited their recordings to become the Virtual Guitarist 2 content. Sadly, due to Wizoo getting acquired Digidesign, Virtual Guitarist concept got hibernated for ten years. It was a happy moment for all when Peters new company UJAM finally decided to give it another go and re-invent the legendary concept.
Resurrecting Virtual Guitarist
The original Virtual Guitarists covered multiple guitar styles – acoustic and electric, rock and blues, clean and distorted. But each of which was very limited in terms of flexibility. Each individual guitar was too limited to be used over and over, and became too recognizable too quickly. The new Virtual Guitarists focus on one single instrument and max out its stylistic range. So you know exactly that when you say buy AMBER, there’s a crazy amount of what you can create in terms of rhythmic strummed steel string accompaniment.
The new concept also allowed us to create phrases without new recordings, so we can update the style content. Goes without saying that each individual guitar offers more musical flexibility than a legacy Virtual Guitarist!
Thinking up a Virtual Guitarist
At the beginning of a new Virtual Guitarist, the UJAM team and I convened to pick the type of instrument and style, and we usually built a Spotify playlist to get a mutual understanding of what we want to achieve musically.
Once the guitar was decided, I would hunt for the right instrument and also think hard about what I need to record to cover all important aspects of that playing style – obviously, there is a world between strumming steel string and picked nylon.
With the concept tried and tested, I’d start recording – let’s call it – “a collection of snippets” that allowed me to recreate pretty much every useful noise that guitar produces. It’s always been a process not very different to breaking up a complex picture into exactly the right puzzle pieces so you can recreate parts and variations of that picture in realtime.
With every product, I built on the experience from the earlier ones, and learning for the next. Creating Virtual Guitarist content has been taking more and more effort, because we had to set and meet very high standards and expectations of sound quality, realism, musical integrity and flexibility.
All the way during the recording and editing process, I used to work in a close loop with the UJAM team – I would build test content very early so they could integrate it into Gorilla Engine (UJAMs instrument building toolkit) for a proof of concept, and we’d iterate from there. We’d do this in almost weekly intervals along the way, finding mistakes and possible improvements very early and almost naturally.
Top innovations characterizing the new Virtual Guitarists
I think the biggest innovation was going “one guitar, all the way”, instead of a mixed bag of stuff. There’s a lot of hidden and not-so-hidden algorithms and recordings that support even more realism and flexibility. You can re-use one Virtual Guitarist over and over for a long time because it can cover its genre in various ways.
Also, while the legacy guitarists got recorded post-amp, the new guitarists have built-in amplifier and speaker emulation, so now you can adjust the sound to your mix at any time. It also sounds more real, because slicing and transposing audio with complex distortion did produce artifacts.
Choosing Styles and Techniques
I am an active music producer, and I use Virtual Guitarists all the time. So I have a lot of experience with creating and using Virtual Guitarist, and I have the background to know what typical guitar styles or techniques are used all the time in real life, because it’s what I do. And that’s a helpful framework – at the end of the day, Virtual Guitarists are workhorses in the best sense, they’re designed to get you there, not to dance in front of you, and professional guitarists know that there’s a common set of stuff you’re asked for in sessions all the time, no matter what style or context.
Months of Work
Actually, the first project was what finally became AMBER, because we stealth-launched the series as Rack Extensions with Propellerhead under “A-List Guitarist”.
Here, the recordings alone took about 50 to 60 hours in the studio, and I used a professional guitarist. The other ones I recorded alone to have more flexibility, and that’s taking even longer, because I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and without the constraint of a session player fee I change or add stuff much longer until I’m happy.
Often the biggest problems aren’t that obvious. SILK for example was a real challenge because the Nylon Guitar produces a very low output, so you have to crank up the microphones like crazy and the most subtle noises ruin your recording – which is particularly unfortunate if it’s 25 seconds into a long note. I had to trash 90% of the original material because I’m a human – who breathes, produces stomach noises and has fingers going deaf.
Detlefs Main Contribution
If I have to think about strengths, I think I’m good at feeling “musicality”. I’m trained to hear an idea and take it two levels higher. I’m good at coordinating and musicality-coaching session musicians. I’m also usually a calm person – I can keep calm on the outside and can still work productively in a team, even if I’m boiling inside. I have a hard time letting anything leave my studio that I cannot sign my name on. That’s what the team trusts me with.
Virtual Guitarist has to be a gift that keeps giving, not a one-trick pony. For me, it has to be a great-sounding guitar that gets the producer to the track they have in their head, fast and painlessly. That’s what I aim for.
Although I’m a solo act in a way, I’ve always enjoyed working with the UJAM team – these are talented and nice people, and it feels empowering to me to collaborate with them. There’s also a few absolute geniuses on the technical end who elevate any idea by a level or two. I like a close exchange of ideas during the development and creation process – we have a way of making the most of the diverse experience and talent.
The good, the bad, …
Although it’s a common prejudice, we’re not trying to replace guitarists. As Peter Gorges once put it in a forum answer “We’re trying to replace no guitarist”.
A Virtual Guitarist is great whenever you don’t have access to a skilled session guitarist, or even if you are one but don’t want to bother with setting up and recording everything yourself.
A Virtual Guitarist does only one thing – rhythm guitar. It doesn’t do solo guitar, and probably never will. Our mantra has always been: It does very little, very well.
If you’re interested to learn more about Detlef, or if you’d like to contact him, you can find him here: www.detlef-blanke.de