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
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.
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.
Clawhammer or Pure Pluckiness
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.
The Banjo Finish Line
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.