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Review: UJAM Virtual Bassist Mellow

Marty Cutler

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A sampled acoustic bass that plays and sounds like a real bass.

Tons of software instruments dedicated to the bass are available, but the number dwindles when you’re trying to find what you need. Precious few go beyond the snapshot nature of sampled instruments; initially they sound great, but they offer little in the way of expressive variation. For instance, a good many sampled fretless electric basses may catch your ear with that lush, singing Jaco Pastorius-like vibrato, but even Jaco didn’t play every note with vibrato. 

How should sampled basses deal with variations in tone or articulation? Some use MIDI notes below the instrument’s normal playable range to trigger alternate sets of samples, or they use a key’s velocity to switch to a different timbre, while others use an expression pedal to send a MIDI Control Change (CC) message assigned to an X/Y axis that crossfades between tones. They could deploy all of the aforementioned techniques to achieve tonal variation. I like to refer to this barely manageable surfeit of controls as the Helicopter Pilot Syndrome. I personally find those processes difficult and distracting from the task at hand: playing music. I’ll admit that I’m not a virtuoso keyboardist, but presumably one great benefit of MIDI is that you don’t have to rely on real-time super chops to express yourself musically.

They Call Me Mellow (Quite Rightly)

The Virtual Bassist series from UJAM is remarkably successful at keeping the user interface out of your muse’s way. So far, the series comprises Mellow, an upright acoustic bass; Rowdy, a raunchy, picked electric bass aimed at rock; and Royal, a Fender Jazz-type electric bass, played finger-style and more suited to pop, fusion, and funk styles.

The basic modes of operation for all three basses are similar. At the top level, you have two ways to play. In Player mode, you can choose from a menu of different musical styles and trigger tempo-synced, genre-appropriate bass lines. On Mellow’s keymap assignments, C3 to F#5 transpose the key of the pattern you’re playing, with C2 to B3 supplying a handful of variations triggered by the diatonic keys. Chromatic notes trigger momentary intro and fill phrases. C#1 to B2 engage more generic bass lines, again arrayed on the diatonic keys with intros and fills on the chromatic keys. On my Novation 61SL MKII, transposing the MIDI output down one octave granted access to everything but C# to F# in the fifth octave.

One size rarely fits all, and so UJAM provides sensible customizing and tone-shaping tools for each bass. Common to all three basses is a set of rhythmic-feel controls. Clicking on the sliders icon in the panel’s upper-right corner reveals virtual switches, the first of which doubles or halves the tempo relative to your host’s BPM. The next switch continuously adjusts your overall feel from laid-back to aggressive and pushing the beat; it’s subtle, and at its polar extremes, doesn’t sound sloppy or overly harsh. Likewise, the swing is musical, and it never reaches the point where it sounds jack-legged and silly. The timing control can slide from almost machine-tight to a very human-like loose and relaxed feel.

Latching a pattern will play it until you trigger a new pattern or fill. If the grooves and patterns aren’t quite what you have in mind, click on the software switch to move from Player to Instrument. At that point the virtual bass is in your hands, and you can play whatever you like.

Each bass has additional tone-shaping and articulation controls, and all three offer Compressor, Equalizer, Octaver, Volume, and Character rotary-switch knobs. Character selections differ between basses; for instance, Mellow’s first three selections are Soft, Deep, and Natural, whereas Rowdy offers Tame, Round, and Fat. These are fundamentally preset combinations of dynamics processors, EQ, and saturation.

Mellow is the upright bass instrument that happens to be my favorite of the three. Particular to Mellow is a continuous rotary knob varying the tone as if playing between neck and bridge positions. The variation is understated but expressive, with a more pronounced attack that becomes brighter as the controls move closer to bridge position. Attach a MIDI CC to the rotary, and you can affect the realism of the sound in subtle and musical ways. Overall, I appreciate UJAM’s avoidance of modulation overkill in virtually all their instruments. 

Clear and Present

UJAM elected to record Mellow’s upright bass using multiple mic configurations, and that versatility pays off nicely. Although they don’t document which mics or configurations they used, they add additional color to the tonal palette. I especially like the in-your-face clarity of the Present preset. You can also dial in a very sweet room sound. Mellow has no reverb presets; you simply dial in the amount of room ambience you want, and you are done. You also get an overall volume control and a switch that extends the bass’s range to D below the low E string.

I may be the last person to insist that my own productions include spot-on replicas of the real thing, but if you’re playing something that’s supposed to work like a bass, it should express itself like a bass. The bass’s timbre here is rich, with plenty of artifacts; an occasional bit of string-release noise is evident, and a rattle might show up if you hit the low notes with some force.

Above is a short, improvised sequence using UJAM’s Virtual Bassist Mellow and Virtual Drummer 2 Solid. Playing legato between a series of connected notes produces realistic slides. I’ve assigned a fader on my controller to modulate playing between the neck and the bridge, and that introduces subtle tonal variations between hollow (neck position) and bridge position (bright and woody).

Bass à la Carte

You select Instrument mode to play the bass, note-by-note. A basic set of key switches in the octave starting at C0 will engage slides, turn the legato mode on and off, and create dead notes. The slide switches are mostly used for effect, and you can achieve a more realistic and varied sliding effect simply by leaving the Legato switch on and controlling the slides with your fingertips. Although the slide appears to cover a range of only a whole step, it’s easy to smear the keys in either direction. With a little practice, you can finesse smooth and continuous slides over much wider ranges. The legato slides put Mellow over the top for me, as they are supremely easy to play in a musical and realistic fashion. 

Virtual Bassist Mellow is my new go-to sampled acoustic bass. Playing is believing, so I recommend that you download the free 30-day trial versions of all three UJAM Virtual Bassists.

Website: ujam.com

Supported platforms: Mac/Win (VST, AU, and AAX)

Price: $129 each or $269 for all three Virtual Bassists

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