Review: Shan Bawu by Embertone

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Shān Bawu, or “Mountain Flute” is a virtuosic solo instrument developed in collaboration with performer William Arnold. The Bawu hails from southern China and sounds much more similar to a clarinet crossed with a bagpipe (if you were to play just the chanter and not the drones) than other true flutes. Ancient and mysterious, the Shān Bawu is a distinctive and virtuosic solo instrument

Jump to the Videos of Shan Bawu by Embertone

Jump to the Demos of Shan Bawu by Embertone

Review: Shan Bawu by Embertone

Shan Bawu sells for $30 from Embertone

Thoughts

Shān Bawu, or “Mountain Flute” is a virtuosic solo instrument developed in collaboration with performer William Arnold. The Bawu hails from southern China and sounds much more similar to a clarinet crossed with a bagpipe (if you were to play just the chanter and not the drones) than other true flutes (the Bawu actually is a reed instrument). Bawu is made from a tube of bamboo, has a single reed and open holes. Its characteristic performance style includes highly ornamented solo lines, complete with turns, trills and pitch bends. Embertone has taken great care to capture the authentic playing style of this instrument.

The UI has two windows, the first is the Performance window which shows the controls for articulations, round robin, dynamics, vibrato, reverb, polyphonic, and legato micro phrases. The Configure window includes parameters for legato, portamento, assignable MIDI CC and key switches, and assignable velocity ranges.

Beginning at the left of the keyboard are the key switches for the legato micro phrases. These are short ornamental transitions between pitches to mimic the authentic playing style of the instrument. There are 4 micro phrases available (also shown in the UI). Micro phrases are triggered at high velocities. There are different types of legato transitions depending on the velocity input. At low velocity you will get a portamento, a slur above that, ornaments at higher velocity and then the legato micro phrases. You can change the thresholds for these different transitions in the Configure window. This is a bit tricky to get the hang of in live performance, but you’ll quickly find that the effort is well worth the reward.

Next are the key switches for the articulations. Long is for sustain and legato, and short is for staccato soft and staccato loud. Staccato loud sounds to me very uncharacteristic for this instrument, but may nonetheless be a useful inclusion for certain performance contexts. When Auto is selected as the articulation, the engine will automatically follow your playing to change the articulation between long and short and add the legato transitions. I find it a little tricky to play in this mode because there is a slight lag, but it saves you from constant key switching, so some will prefer this mode. Personally, I’ve found I’m not doing a lot of key switching during performance on this instrument; the portamento and legato scripting is pretty expressive on its own.

Behind the scenes in the Configure Window there are even more controls, including controls for the legato and portamento speed. You can set the legato speed on the dial or turn on Auto Legato Speed. With Auto Legato Speed activated, the legato adapts to your playing speed. This enables a more expressive, refined performance without doing anything other than pressing keys (no riding the mod wheel for instance). You can reassign MIDI CC and keyswitches in this window as well.

Another thing that contributes to the expressivity is the control of vibrato. I love being able to control vibrato speed and depth, which are displayed in the main Performance window but are also assignable in the Configure window under MIDI CC.

Back in the Performance window is a button for Polyphonic mode. When this button is colored, polyphonic mode is on, creating a polyphonic pad. This is useful in certain contexts, but note that if this mode is on, then all the legato transitions are disabled. Using the button labeled RR, you can also turn on/off round robin mode if you choose. There is a simple control for the wet/dry mix of the built-in reverb, and an assignable slider to control dynamics (volume).

In the Configure window is an option to run the instrument in Lo-Ram mode. This mode lowers the total RAM footprint. Note that legato speed and portamento speed dials become locked when this mode is active.

Overall I found this library to be a lot of fun and easy to navigate. Shān Bawu is detailed and captures the traditional playing style of its live counterpart, making it quite suitable for featured solos. The detail in the instrument makes it a bit tricky to play well, but once you get a feel for it the sound is quite authentic and expressive. The distinctive sound of this instrument is well suited to feature in many settings, but quite evocative of the mountains of China.

Facts

Downloads at 500 MB and requires the full version of Kontakt.

Shan Bawu sells for $30 from Embertone

 

Demos of Shan Bawu by Embertone

 

Videos of Shan Bawu by Embertone