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Someone with a wide-brimmed hat holding a banjo in the sunset - photo by Priscilla Du Preez

Banjo Virtual Instrument Comparison Review

Three banjos dueling. In this case, they are virtual instruments (VIs), sampled and packaged.

As you wander through this review, be sure to play the samples of each of the 3 instruments. The makers chose very different means of emulating the sound of the banjo. You get to decide which one might work for you. Whether you chose one or not, I’m curious to know what you think of these virtual instruments. (Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.)

Banjo Solo Time

Three banjo virtual instruments in a Protools recording project

Ample Sound had an initial sale on their Ethnic Banjo VI and I couldn’t resist. Previously, I had licensed Orange Tree Samples’ Evolution Bluegrass Banjo and Realitones’ RealiBanjo. Up to this point, I had only used RealiBanjo in recordings, so it was time to determine where each is best used. I thought you might enjoy coming along for the ride.

In the first 22 seconds of my sample tracks, you can hear a short improvisation/play-through on each of the three VIs. I used identical MIDI data, just a touch of reverb, and mastering limiter in all cases. (So that you hear the sound of the sample libraries, I did not use any EQ.) Notice the different character of each instrument. Just as importantly, you’ll hear that, though the playing is the same, the slurs and hammer-ons are quite different in each of the three.

Ample Sound Ethnic Banjo, part 1
Orange Tree Samples Evolution Bluegrass Banjo, part 1
RealiTone RealiBanjo, part 1
VIInitial Listen
Ample Ethnic8
OTS Evolution8
RealiBanjo8
VISoloist
Ample Ethnic8
OTS Evolution7
RealiBanjo8

Banjo Is Cool

Next, I modified this first section to test for dynamics, muting, and harmonics (if they were available). The first two banjo VIs offered these articulations, but I could find no way to perform the harmonics on the RealiBanjo. Each of these had very different styles of muted playing as you can hear at about the 6 second mark in the sample below. The Ample Sound VI produced the most musical-sounding muted playing even when I experimented with it in a mix.

By contrast, Ample and Evolution banjos had extreme dynamics that seemed very unnatural. To my ears, the shift from soft to loud does not happen in a natural way. These sound more like attenuation (think: volume knob) and less like the player changed their playing to change the loudness. On the other hand, RealiBanjo had a more natural dynamic range and crescendoed nicely from soft to loud.

Ample Sound Ethnic, part 2
Orange Tree Samples Evolution Bluegrass, part 2
RealiTone RealiBanjo, part 2
VIArticulation Features
Ample Ethnic9
OTS Evolution7
RealiBanjo5
VIDynamics
Ample Ethnic4
OTS Evolution5
RealiBanjo7

Clawhammer or Pure Pluckiness

Ample Sounds Ethnic Banjo virtual instrument

In the next segment of my test track, I attempt to demonstrate the strumming or plucking engine in each of these VIs. Again, each is very different and required familiarizing myself with each approach before I could create this. (You’ll also hear a melody playing along with the strumming.)

There were vast differences in the strumming engines. First, Ample Sound appears to be using the same engine they have in their guitar and ukulele instruments. Honestly, it does not translate well to the banjo. Next, Evolution had some traditional banjo picking, but other selections also sounded a bit too “strummy” for an authentic sound. I could find no way to make the Evolution strummer arpeggiate individual notes/strings. This means that I had to make the ending different from the other two which had this feature. (Obviously, you could use a second instance of the Evolution VI to add this arpeggio in a recording.)

Finally, RealiBanjo only has six clawhammer and modern banjo styles. However, these end up easily creating a convincing, stylistic sound.

Ample Sound Ethnic, part 3
Orange Tree Samples Evolution Bluegrass, part 3
RealiTone RealiBanjo, part 3
VIResponsiveness
Ample Ethnic5
OTS Evolution7
RealiBanjo8
VIStrum/Picking Engine
Ample Ethnic4
OTS Evolution7
RealiBanjo8

The Banjo Finish Line

RealiBanjo and Evolution Bluegrass Banjo virtual instruments in Kontakt

But Stan: how do they sound? You’ve heard them now, so you can be the judge. What we each hear is very subjective, but these are so clearly different from each other. Overall, I’d say that Orange Tree and RealiTone have done the best at capturing the banjo as an instrument and a unique sound. Evolution instruments are consistent winners when it comes to both the samples and the VI engine. However, their banjo is not quite as good as some of their other VIs in this series.

Honestly, you won’t go wrong with any of these three banjo instruments. Once you get to know a particular engine like these, you’ll be able to add nuances and flare from any of these VIs that will bring the fun sound of the banjo to your tracks.

The final differentiator is the price. Because the RealiBanjo is almost half the cost of each of the other two, I’d recommend that you check it out first. It also has a good sound and very user friendly engine. It is missing or less authentic on a few articulations and the picking styles are limited, though convincing. But if you can live with these, you’ll get a great virtual banjo instrument.

VISamples/Sound
Ample Ethnic6
OTS Evolution8
RealiBanjo7
VIValue
Ample Ethnic6
OTS Evolution6
RealiBanjo9
Ample Sound Ethnic Banjo
Orange Tree Samples’ Evolution Bluegrass Banjo
RealiTone RealiBanjo

4 thoughts on “Banjo Virtual Instrument Comparison Review”

    1. Same here. The interesting thing to me is noticing how banjo is showing up in so many (non-bluegrass) music genres these days.

  1. Thank you, Stan, for a well designed and truly useful comparison. The audio tracks are really, really helpful. I was ready to purchase the OT Evolution banjo, but stumbled upon your excellent post in the course of my “one last look around” before pulling the trigger. Now the matter is entirely up in the air (thanks a lot, ha!). Per your comparison, the OT banjo sounds “kinda ragged” to me now, and I appreciate your pointing out the inability to arpeggiate the Evolution strumming, as well as the course, unnatural dynamic variations. If I understand correctly, the OT involves only 3 dynamic levels, which shouldn’t be a problem since most banjos (or banjo players, ha) have only two levels: Loud and REALLY Loud.

    I’m not so sure now about the OT banjo. A quick first look at RealiBanjo suggests it’s basically just a pattern player. I think there’s probably more to it than that, but will have to devote additional research. RealiBanjo sounds better (to me) than OT Evolution in several respects, and the price is certainly good.

    I studied carefully a YouTube review of the Orange Tree Evolution banjo by Zach Heyde yesterday. He seems to love it. Say’s it’s his favorite. But based on your comparison, I discovered that Zache Heyde also reviewed the Ample Sound Ethno banjo. He seems to like it, but didn’t express the same enthusiasm as for the OT. Both were posted “2 years ago” so no way of knowing which review happened first. He refers to the Orange Tree banjo as his “FAVORITE” but the timing/chronology of the two reviews might have altered that opinion… His remarks at the beginning of the Ample Sound review seem to confuse the two companies, so who knows. Ultimately I think he did the Orange Tree video first (which he really liked, despite some of the limitations you mention), and later did the Ample Sound video wherein he seemed to express polite, complementary impressions…but not excitement. If you’re still interested in these VIs, you might want to check out those two reviews.

    I would like to know where YOU stand on these three options. At the time of writing you owned all three, though your experience with one or two was somewhat limited. It’s been a while now, so I’m wondering what you think TODAY. Or did you give up and buy a banjo? =D

    Again, thanks for the excellent comparison,
    Tom

    1. Tom,
      Thanks for your response and for your added comments and queries.
      Yes, I have licensed all 3 of these virtual banjos. I’ve also used all three in a variety of projects (including two private commissions). In this track, you’ll hear both Orange Tree and Ample Sound enter at about 22 seconds:
      https://youtu.be/-Tsnbhc-yFk
      Here’s one that features Realitone: https://youtu.be/_lrygb4snno
      Though I prefer using OT or AS for “solo” and melodic styles, RealiBanjo can take on those duties if you just want to choose one.
      Meanwhile, I’ve learned more about the Ample strummer, so you may hear it featured in some upcoming projects of mine. (It’s also on sale right now.)
      The sampling by Orange Tree is top notch and if you become a customer, they have great discounts for their other libraries.
      I may have muddied the waters for you, but these continue to be awesome VIs. I’m glad I have all 3.
      Good luck with your choice!
      Stan

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