If you love the sound of pedal steel guitar, read about this sample library for Kontakt and Kontakt Player.
Pedal steel guitar may be one of the most difficult instruments to emulate in a sample library. The variations in tone, contrary-motion string bends, and variety of envelopes created by picking and the volume pedal add up to a formidable task for programmers and players alike.
The pedal steel is essentially a fretless relative of the electric guitar with four legs to support its body. You play it using a heavy bar, along with an array of pedals, levers, and pulleys. When you move a pedal or lever, a group of strings bend up or down in pitch, sometimes in both directions simultaneously. The “fretting” hand holds the bar on the strings. The absence of frets and the high action of the strings enables plenty of sustain and continuous-sounding slides from one position to the next without disruption. A volume pedal is also standard equipment, enabling smooth, violin-like swells and padding.
You’ve likely heard pedal steel in country and country-rock bands. The instrument has also made major inroads into jazz and pop, thanks to players like Buddy Emmons, Lloyd Green, Bobby Black, Buddy Cage, Paul Franklin, and others. The smooth-as-glass sound of pedal steel has even infiltrated ambient electronic music, as demonstrated by artists like Daniel Lanois, B.J. Cole, and Bruce Kaphan.
Great Artists Steel
Pedal steel guitars vary in the number of strings, necks, tunings, and pedal setups. Players can customize the combination of tunings and pedal setups, which comprise what they call a copedant. Different copedants suit different styles of music.
The two most common guitars are 10-string instruments featuring the E9th and C6th tunings. E9th is more popular for country music and country rock. You’re more likely to hear C6th in Western swing and jazz. Most often but not always, both copedants are built into double-neck guitars. Although sampled versions are laid out chromatically across the keyboard, the tunings matter. That’s because they determine the instrument’s chord-voicing capabilities and range.
Impact Soundworks Pedal Steel (ISPS) covers the range of the E9th tuning, chromatically from B1 to the pedal steel’s highest open string, G#3, and beyond that to A5. The actual copedant tuning exemplifies the instrument’s quirkiness, in that the highest open pitch is the third string from the top and the tuning of second and first strings are an open Eb3 and F#3, respectively.
The unusual tuning combined with the functions of the pedals and levers are arguably the first roadblock for a keyboardist to negotiate for a convincing performance. Thankfully, Impact Soundworks takes exacting measures to engage the instrument’s characteristic quirks in ways that allow keyboardists to easily sidestep some of its hurdles.
The two pages of ISPS’s user interface deal with performance and mixing, respectively. The mixing section hosts a generous amount of DSP for the direct-inject (DI) channel and two amp-modeling channels, Amp A and Amp B. The Master out, like the DI and amp channels, holds eight slots with assignable effects that you can place in any order, including cabinet simulators, reverb, delay, transient designers, EQ, and compressors.
The main page divides into quarters, with the upper-left quadrant controlling note- and chord-voicing options and articulations such as fret position and switching to harmonics. ISPS furnishes samples of the same pitch played on different strings, as well as numerous round-robin samples, to avoid repetitious playback.
Bend Steel with Your Bare Hands
Easily the most important feature in this section is the Voice Mode knob. You can choose from three modes: Harmonized Mono, Polyphonic, and Polyphonic Legato. Use Harmonized Mono in conjunction with the Harmonization section to create the pedal steel’s characteristic sliding effects for chords, with velocity controlling portamento time.
Polyphonic Legato is arguably ISPS’s key to a convincing performance. One of its most remarkable aspects is how easily you can spin out a typical single string line for a solo or fill without keyswitches or additional controls. You can execute more complex steel maneuvers with a deft hand or some light MIDI editing. You can simulate the actions of the pedals and levers to play chords with notes gliding upward, downward, or both at the same time, without a hint of retriggering. Higher velocities control the glide’s rate, humanizing the effect from note to note.
Typically, pedal steel setups allow bends of a whole step up or down, and in some instances, a minor third. Steel players often adjust their tuning to accommodate the session’s key. ISPS lets you do that, too, offering a few presets and the ability to save your own. You also can scale MIDI expression control of volume, a crucial aspect of pedal steel emulation.
It is extremely difficult for samples to emulate the pedal steel’s ability to combine slides with upward and downward pedal movement. That makes it possible to change chord voicings while smoothly sliding into a new chord inversion. ISPS does much of this easily in Harmonized Mono mode, providing keyswitches that move through harmonized scales with polyphonic portamento. The built-in piano-roll editor updates its display based on the scale you choose. You can create and save your own harmonies in the editor, too. As with Polyphonic Legato mode, MIDI velocity controls portamento speed.
Does ISPS cover all of the bases for the virtual steel player? Of course not, as anyone who has heard the great John Hughey or any of the aforementioned pickers can attest. It’s still almost impossible to get those angled bar and half-pedaled chords. The variety of real pedal steel tones is nearly as diverse as electric guitars. A wooden-bodied Sho-Bud is vastly different from an aluminum-neck Emmons model. I would love to see Impact Soundworks produce more pedal steel libraries; a fat aluminum-neck Emmons C6th-tuning steel would be a delight.
Still, this sample library achieves the sound and performance of a bona fide pedal steel guitar with Nashville tuning. Furthermore, it does it far better than any synth emulation I’ve heard. Impact Soundworks Pedal Steel is the library to beat.
Supported platforms: Native Instruments Kontakt Player or Kontakt 5.7 or newer, 6GB storage, 4GB RAM