Peter Gorges talks about the making of the Virtual Bassist
DECEMBER 5TH, 2018
Peter, in a nutshell – what’s your history with virtual instruments and Virtual Bassist?
I was lucky to be involved with the very first virtual instruments ever built by Steinberg. Right after Charlie Steinberg had invented VST at the end of the last century. Between 2000 and 2005 we conceived and built several Wizoo/Steinberg titles with my first company Wizoo. Some of which were the first ever in their genre. Among those were the Virtual Guitarist series and later Steinbergs Virtual Bassist, which got discontinued 2 years after Wizoo joined Digidesign in 2005.
Virtual Bassist has been the most requested product for years. What took so long?
There were various reasons. We always had this idea of “The Virtual Band”. When we launched Virtual Guitarist, we first wanted that series to grow to some level of comprehensiveness. Then there were the Drummers, and right after that electronic versions – the Beatmakers. And like with Virtual Guitarist, there was a legacy there, so we were extra ambitious to make it right, and even better this time, so I guess we took our time.
How do you think the landscape has changed since the first Virtual Bassist?
Fourteen years ago, there wasn’t a “hard problem”. Everyone had a few sampled basses that passed for an ok bass track. However, to create a believable guitar riff or strumming was almost impossible on a MIDI keyboard. So people went with the compromise to save the money. I think that has changed – standards have gone up along with instrument quality, and so has the pain point. These days, stuff has to sound real to pass for real, and any arrangement is only as strong as the weakest link in that regard. Like, put a MIDI bass on a Foo Fighters track and it’d sound like MIDI, not Foo Fighters.
In the meantime, great virtual bass instruments like Spectrasonics Trilian or the Scarbee Basses have come out. They were really successful, so that and the steady onslaught of user requests made us change our mind and place the bet.
What were some of the key ideas behind the new Virtual Bassist?
Since we released Virtual Guitarist IRON, we have established a certain paradigm regarding realism and ease of use. That has become an expectation among our users. They can create authentic tracks and performances even if they don’t fully understand the instrument. Of course, that was the number one bullet on the whiteboard when we kicked off the project. Let’s not make it another painstakingly sampled vintage bass with so much scripting, parameters and controls that you need an octopus consulted by a real bass player to create anything with it. Let’s put our stamp on it.
In that regard, the Virtual Bassists have almost no learning curve and don’t require you to know bass guitars and amps. They will always sound real no matter what you play or how you set the user interface controls. Compared to Virtual Guitarist, we opened the whole thing a bit and introduced instrument mode, where you can manually play the bass. Because those of our users who are reasonable keyboard performers will probably want to have that level of per-note control.
But how doesn’t that sound like MIDI?
Because there’s a lot of logic and behavior modeling in a Virtual Bassist that makes sure the thing behaves like a bass. Even when you play it like a keyboard instrument.
How it changes strings and position, when and how it binds notes, the way notes end. We wanted to absolutely make sure that a Virtual Bassist feels like you’re playing a real bass with a mounted keyboard, if that makes sense – rather than triggering samples.
How did you decide on the actual product titles?
By collaboration. The question was: Across a range of musical genres, what sort of sounds and styles will a typical Virtual Bassist user need first? Now, we don’t base that on somebody’s gut feel and let them write a spec sheet – which is what I used to do 10 years ago. Our definition tool is called “Spotify playlists”.
Why? Because when it comes to developing a common understanding of musical styles and sounds across a team of product geeks, developers, sound engineers and graphic designers, most people are at a loss with words. However, we found that music examples are something everybody understands in a second, no misunderstandings. Music is a great language for specifying musical instrument emulations.
So what we did was having everybody add to collaborative Spotify playlists until we thought we had enough examples of music we wanted to cover with the first three titles. (*Editor’s note: You will find links to the playlists below the interview.)
Why Mellow, an acoustic double bass? That seems like an odd choice?
Two reasons, equal impact:
a) This bass was offered to us by a team that had almost completed a Kontakt library from scratch, and the prototype blew us away. That kind of pre-biased everyone in a good way.
b) Unlike the cliché of being an old school jazz and big band instrument, acoustic bass is an extremely versatile and powerful bass sound. It’s gathering popularity in genres like Hip Hop and electronic music. It adds an organic flavor to almost anything.
What are some key differences to the original Virtual Bassist?
I’d say the biggest difference is 14 years. Technology, music, virtual emulation standards – so much has changed, and naturally a new product reflects that. The recordings are way more comprehensive. We have a way better, completely modular and scripted engine to create all that modeling and behavior. We have amp and speaker simulations and customizable mixers and effects. And the user interface is much cleaner, most of the complexity went under the hood – just like in Virtual Guitarist.
And then we’re doing dedicated titles, each of which covers a certain vibe, playing style, sound, look and feel. It all adds up as a better experience and more realism when you play it.
What are the actual basses behind those titles?
ROYAL is a Fender Jazz Bass, played finger-style. ROWDY is a Fender Precision, picked. MELLOW is a rare and obscure model, handpicked by the sound designers for its sonic qualities.
Tell us about the team behind Virtual Bassist!
We’ve learned over the years that it’s always best to not do everything in-house. It’s smarter to hire experts in their respective field and act as a hub, coordinating and steering the project.
It all starts with professional bass players who know how to select an instrument and make it sound right. Next in line you have the sample production experts. They know exactly what kinds of signals you need to record as base material. In this case, we worked with sound design veterans with decades of experience who worked with all the big names from Steinberg to Yamaha. Later, our sound designers glue the recordings together and script realistic performance behavior.
Then there’s our UJAM software development and design team. They are constantly collaborating with the above during the recording process. Prototyping, finding rooms for improvement, adding and changing things, and finally building the bass model, signal flow including amps and a complex internal processing chain. Last but not least we hired a world-class style producer who has done this for ages for big workstation manufacturers. So, you need a lot of domain expertise to begin with, but the key is in the collaboration, and to constantly learn from initial mistakes in the prototypes.
Unlike other manufacturer’s products, some of which meticulously replicate the look and design of legendary gear, UJAM instruments almost hide those technical details. Why is that?
The answer to that is also the answer to the question: Who are we making these instruments for? Are we making them for bass players or sound engineers who know the difference in pickup impedance between a Fender Jazz Bass and a Precision and care deeply about those things?
Probably! But we know from experience that most of our users don’t want a Virtual Bassist to be a half-assed interactive lecture about basses and amps and recording and playing technique, and they don’t want to stumble through a jungle of sound engineering terms – they want to get a track laid down. They may not even know the difference between a Fender and a MusicMan and they may not care, and why should they – it doesn’t matter.
The knowledge comes included with the instrument – we picked it, we modified it, we recorded it, we selected the amps! It’s like in a real studio world where I as a producer or arranger want a certain sound and playing style from the bass player and what I give for how he does that is very limited.
Many users have asked for a “Virtual Band”!
Yes, we hope to have closed that gap with Virtual Bassist, at least the rhythm section is there now – drummer, bass player and guitarist. And since they all follow the same paradigm and are very compatible in terms of playing styles, it’s really easy to create convincing band backdrops in a range of styles.
Like, for heavy rock Virtual Bassist ROWDY, Virtual Guitarist IRON and Virtual Drummer HEAVY play well together. Virtual Guitarist AMBER, Virtual Bassist ROYAL and Virtual Drummer SOLID are great for songwriting. And it doesn’t have to be traditional. If you use Beatmaker DOPE and Virtual Bassist MELLOW, you can create amazing HipHop fundaments, or use Beatmaker EDEN with Virtual Guitarist SILK and Virtual Bassist ROYAL for chill electronic tracks.
Not directly Virtual Bassist related: Will there be more Virtual Guitarists?
Yeah, I know, it’s been a while, people start asking. We’re working on the next one as we speak – a more futuristic, sound-designy title, scheduled for the first half of 2019.