James Thompson and Dan Powell formed Soniccouture in 2005 and ever since have been delighting their fans with esoteric and unusual sample libraries. Known for their intuitive interfaces and innovative sounds, Soniccouture have gained a reputation as one of the most boundary-pushing developers in their field. Native Instruments spoke to James about how KONTAKT has always been at the centre of their creations.
A decade of discoveries
We’ve been creating sampled instruments for more than ten years and there are certain things that we’d consider ‘milestones’. Offering downloadable products early on was certainly a big one; we were one of the first sample developers to respond to increasing broadband speeds around 2006. Being early adopters of KSP (Kontakt’s scripting language) was also very significant. Having worked with Native Instruments on their ‘Kontakt Experience’ library all the way back in 2005, the extra material we had generated formed the basis for the very first Soniccouture product, Abstrakt Vol 1. I also remember the release of our Hang Drum instrument in 2008. That was really the library that began our reputation for developing unusual instruments that weren’t within the usual sampling remit; a philosophy that remains at the heart of the company today. When NI took the groundbreaking decision to allow custom GUIs in Kontakt (championed by OEM-Kontakt Player Godfather Dan Santucci), that was a huge turning point for us. Suddenly our ‘sample-libraries’ could truly become ‘virtual-instruments’, with more space and scope to design creative interfaces and tools.
Integrating NKS compatibility
We ‘grew up’ with Kontakt, from the first introduction of KSP. Since that time there has never been a serious competitor so we’ve always used it for programming our instruments. Once the NKS system was introduced a couple of years ago, we were keen to integrate it into our libraries. So in 2016 we prepared 20 of our products to include NKS functionality and since then we added three or four new ones. Now we have gone back and revisited many of our classic instruments and totally rebuilt them for NKS – including our free content and I’m sure they’ll be more of those freebies in the future.
Where should KONTAKT go from here?
Obviously nothing is perfect, but we can usually find a way to build what we need to, and also often find new creative directions in terms of performance and sequencing tools. Kontakt does have some limitations but never so many that you can’t find a new direction. We’d wish in general for more parameters to have direct connections to KSP and we get a lot of requests from users to have drag-and-drop user sample loading.
Handling the hardware with care
The key to successful vintage keyboard / synth sampling is to hand-off the hardware to a good technician in the first instance. Our tech guy has worked with Aphex Twin, Jean-Michel Jarre, Adrian Utley and Will Gregory so we know he’s the best! He can get the units into great shape and get them ready for sampling. We often go further by asking “what can we modify to make the sampling more flexible?” Often this means fitting separate outputs to bypass effects or filters or adding inputs to allow modelling of preamps etc. In the case of Clav, it has different switched modes on the front of the unit so we were able to bypass those and sample the sound totally clean. Then we took Impulse Responses of each preamp setting and used Kontakt’s convolution technology to model those settings within the sample instrument itself, switched just like on the original. So the user gets all the same control but with not just one sound sampled.
The sampling signal chain
Generally we try to record our samples whilst colouring the sound as little as possible. That’s the whole philosophy. We used to insist on bypassing the desk in studios and run direct into the convertors from the preamps. However, we’ve more recently been using studios with Neve desks and capturing a little of that never hurts the sound. Everything runs at 24 bit and 96kHz, which I guess is not unusual these days. As a rule we’ll put up as many sets of mics as we can, and make a choice later using a prototype Kontakt instrument. Normally we keep it clean into Pro Tools, except for Electro-Acoustic Drum Machines, where we purposely sampled different channels of vintage desks and processors. In years gone by we would give the samples a little ‘push’ before they went into Kontakt; a smidge of EQ and touch of compression perhaps. Nowadays we don’t need to as the onboard Solid EQ / Compressors in Kontakt are so good. We can leave the flexibility in the instrument for the user to play with if they want to.
We don’t tend to use much hardware any more as it’s more in the box now. We record the samples in world-class studios, of course. British Grove, State Of The Ark, Konk are some of our current favourites. From there on it’s almost always plug-ins. I’m a big fan of Native’s Vari Comp compressor plugin and also the Passive EQ. We also used plenty of Guitar Rig on the raw samples when we were putting together our Konkrete / Tremors libraries.
Our Konkrete collection is our long running series of electronic drum products that we’ve putting out since 2007. It’s an outlet for my own personal love of Musique Concrete / tape style sound creation – using a sampler to manipulate and repurpose sound. In its latest incarnation we have 2 generative sequencers, Euclidean Beats and Beat Shifter. These are all ideas that have evolved over time, often from the ‘Scriptorium’ years when Dan was developing creative avant-garde ideas in KSP. These then feed into new products in different forms.
Heaps of sounds
Our collaboration with Imogen Heap on Box Of Tricks evolved from a suggestion that we create a free instrument with her, something small. Then it somehow ballooned out of control into a large collection of different instruments, which really reflects her eclectic approach. Sampling it was fairly straightforward, although we were unable to do much recording in her Roundhouse studio as it wasn’t quite isolated enough for critical sampling. We could hear bird noise through the windows, that kind of thing. Even in famous commercial studios, extraneous noise is often a problem because generally they don’t need things as absolutely silent as we do for sampling. Imogen had a lot of input to the instrument creation and many of her ideas are right there on the front panels, such as the ‘slim’ control – an intelligent EQ which reduces the fundamental frequency of each note for a clearer, less ‘lumpy’ sound.
Inspiration and critical reception
We get inspired by instruments, processes and sounds themselves, and we ask ourselves how we can make a playable, musical instrument that captures the imagination. Sometimes we can’t, so we don’t. Or sometimes we think about certain concepts for years until we find a way to make it work with samples. Within days of release it’s fairly clear to us if a product is a hit. I guess we’ve been around long enough to know when the market is getting excited and when they’re yawning.
Finding the right ideas
I’ll give you a good example from one of our recent projects, Haunted Spaces. We were inspired by the sound of the wire fence recordings by Wired Lab. We wanted to make an instrument from different pitched fence recordings and we contacted Chris Watson who had worked with Wired Lab. It became clear to us that while the fence recordings are amazing, they didn’t have a broad enough timbre to create a whole instrument from. So we widened the concept to include different areas of Chris’ field recordings and added pitched / musical content to form extra layers. It’s always paramount that our instruments be musical. On our previous collaboration, Geosonics, Chris (and I) weren’t really clear on exactly what the final instrument would be. For Haunted Spaces we were able to push things much further so we refined the concept and based it around Kontakt’s new XY controller, which was not available when we were making Geosonics.
The state of the industry
I wonder if it’s calmed down slightly? About five years ago there seemed to be a peak of ‘cinematic’ instruments coming onto the market. It seems slightly more settled now, with the quality developers all occupying their own slightly different ground. We’re friendly with e-Instruments, Soundiron, Orange Tree and they all make great libraries. We’ve all been in the business a long time now and hope to be so for many years to come!
photo credits: Kristina Sälgvik