Review: Bardzo by Felt Instruments

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This intriguing rebel of a grand piano library really grew on me the more I explored it. Bardzo is a grand piano library that is so far left field it’s almost out of sight! This is testament to the zeitgeist sampling from the ever unique Felt Instruments. It tinkles, chimes, evolves, pulses, blurs, and often gets down and dirty.

Jump to the Videos of Bardzo by Felt Instruments

Jump to the Demos of Bardzo by Felt Instruments

 

Review: Bardzo by Felt Instruments

In just a few years the one-man band of Felt Instruments, Tomas Ślesicki, has carved out quite a niche for himself as something of a sampling maverick. Embracing unusual representations of traditional instruments and imbuing them with heaps of rare and vintage hardware has led to some beautifully nuanced strings and keys. All of their libraries even come in a bespoke plugin, with not a whiff of Kontakt in the air, which for me makes them even more special.

The long-anticipated Felt take on a grand piano is now with us in the shape of Bardzo and it stays resolutely true to their design philosophy. It should be noted from the start this is totally not a normal grand piano library, so any purists should look away now! Instead, it’s a due corde (two-stringed throughout, as opposed to three/two-stringed) piano and captured with a very intimate and non-classical approach. In addition, we get a wide variety of prepared piano samples and a small, but well-curated selection of sound-designed patches.

Bardzo normally sells for £129 +VAT from Felt Instruments

Thoughts

The default patch is Due Corde Sustains and it is about as normal as Bardzo gets. It is presented in what I regard as the most elegantly designed interface out there – textural grainy colours, clear and smoothly animated icons, and a perfectly matched typeface, all retina display optimised.

Due Corde Sustains

Across the top, we start with a simple attack and release envelope. Next along is Echo featuring three types – a quick and rolled off ping pong, a slower and brighter ping pong, and a tape-esque standard medium delay. They are not tempo-synced, to accurately preserve the original sampled delay, though this can be a useful compositional tool, so users should resort to their preferred third-party delay for precision purposes. The Reverb also has three options, from light and open through to darker and more resonant realms. As there is no manual yet I am not sure what the gear used was, but knowing Felt it will be some vintage stuff and possibly early digital units.

The Tone knob is essentially the mic control and blends from a sun symbol, reflecting a brighter tone, to a moon, showcasing a darker feel. However, it’s much more complex than that because with the first dot under Tone selected the sun/moon blends between a pair of ex-Nils Frahm owned Neumann KM54 tube mics and two huge 1940s Melodium ribbons, placed under the piano. If you select the second dot the microphones selected are a pair of custom C12 style tube mics using both NOS and modern components. This set has the most air, though it’s never what I would call bright. With this one the Tone knob moves not between mics, but between different hardware tube EQs that were split at the patch bay during recording. The sun selects two Klangfilm EQs and the moon is a chain of American and Polish boxes. Plenty of authentic hardware character then and you can add in the first German broadcast preamps from the 1940s for good measure! Should you need to tame undesirable low frequencies, a high pass filter is included for all of the mic configurations.

However, start dialing the Body in and magical things start happening.

All of the mics are pretty close to the strings. Bardzo is not about capturing room sounds, it’s more focused on a detailed and intimate sound, with just a hint of neutral short ambience picked up along the way. Indeed, there is very little soundboard resonance picked up too; this makes for a very pure and mechanical timbre with the Body knob at zero. However, start dialing the Body in and magical things start happening. This controls the level of some experimental microphones that were placed inside the piano to record the extended resonance of the body. At full tilt it’s a lovely full sound yet can be too much for chords below C4, which is where the filters and low-mid cut (150Hz-ish) below the Body knob really come into play. They enable you to thin the sound out a bit, whilst still retaining a characterful resonance.

Further controls populate the bottom of the interface. A Sub takes the Body signal but with different processing and includes a phase switch for both – this adds a nice low-end heft to notes. Rel is the level of the mechanical key-off noise and ideal for that textural neo-classical vibe and the Pedal does a similar thing. FX HP is a low cut for the effects to stop reverb and delay getting too swampy. Response has two options – Tight and Human; the former helps when playing and the latter is best for realism. Tight cuts into the sample and has a click, so dial the attack to 1 to get rid of that for smoothness. Finally, there is a Volume knob and the range text to confirm it’s a full 88 note sampling from A-1 to C7 (for most articulations – some prepared patches have a shorter range).

Clicking on the Felt Instruments name brings up the preference page. Everything is self-explanatory here, just worth noting the Streaming mode always defaults to Drive for each patch. From extensive tests it was found that streaming DFD using an SSD works great for Bardzo and the RAM option is just there if the disk does get overloaded in a big session.

Preferences

Clicking on the patch name takes you to the third and final page in the library and is where you select the sample set, all delightfully visualised with geometric symbols. The first two are normal articulations, the next six are prepared piano variants and the bottom four are sound-designed patches, all with a wealth of organic realism coming from the mostly x5 round robins and up to 4 dynamic layers, depending on the articulation. I will briefly summarise the sound of each one.

 

Patch Selector

Due Corde Sustains – a very pure note with a subdued attack and long sustain (which actually also makes it amazing for pads when you employ a lengthy attack setting). It has a hard to define hybrid tone; part una corda, part grand and with hints of pianet and wurlitzer mixed in there.

Una Corda Felt – hugely intimate and textural with plenty of mechanical noise. The mic options are more markedly different on this patch. A new take on the arguably overused felt piano sound.

Soft Mallets – the notes have a more limited range here. The higher-end captures the physical noise of the beater on the string wonderfully. The lower end is sonorous and rich.

Rubber Mallets – in contrast to the softs these are far more punchy and clearer of tone, plus they go higher in pitch. It reminds me slightly of a tack piano.

Balafonique – a buzzy and percussive patch emulating a balafon. A more variable sustain adds realism with some notes ringing out more than others. The sound stage is very wide on this one too.

Marxophone Rods – reminiscent of a hammered dulcimer with a strong metallic attack and gorgeous chime. Higher velocities trigger a tremolo articulation. With the Tone on ‘moon’ and Body at zero it creates a unique lofi timbre.

 

Marxophone Rods

Butter Fingers – here the strings are plucked by hand, creating a soft pluck. However, higher velocities trigger a sharper fingernail articulation. I liked how, due to multiple round robins, it works great pulsing on a single note with the fingernail for accents as a unique type of tuned percussion.

Ghost Bells – a far more muted sound here with a detailed woody texture. There is definitely an ethnic element to this one, but I have no idea how it was created! Worth noting, the sustain pedal has no effect.

As with many Felt libraries, Bardzo also comes with what they term Afterglow patches, inspired by the early electronic music pioneers of the 1950s. Essentially, these four patches take the original samples and heavily process them entirely out of the box, using a mixture of test equipment, amps, 1950s filters, soviet synths, spring reverbs, tape, granular mangling, early digital processors and even toy flutes. Many of this vintage outboard gear is incredibly rare and is without a doubt very colourful in how it shapes audio passing through it. They have a modern touch too. in that, all four patches work with MPE controllers and the Touché.

A Glimpse of Hope – this reveals a noisy synth organ kind of sound good for both melody and chords. The mod wheel takes it from grimey retro to far more distorted. Riding this also introduces a flickering dulcimer and breathy flute if you have them turned up.

Sine Tapes – as the name suggests this starts as a pure long sine wave-esque sound, before the mod wheel introduces distortion, a random stutter and also a layer of something high and metallic intriguingly called Wires.

Potemkin – the basic sound is a degraded, mid-range, medium-length note, but there is an option to introduce an analogue synth sawtooth wave with user-controlled amounts of pitch wobble and a filter envelope. This time the mod wheel introduces some wide panned, hollow sounded vocal chops.

Fragments – the raw sound started off with a dismantled cello bowing the strings, which was then pushed through an array of hardware goodies like an Ursa Major Space Station and a chunky filter bank famously used by Stockhausen. These evolving pads were then cut up into three grungey tape looped fragments, represented by the colours in the background of the interface. The dots at the top denote the complexity of the sequence and there is a BPM synced knob for a range of note lengths with a very handy splice smoothing control below it, to make the sequence more angular or more blurred. The latter is super useful and means you can do cool stuff like have a super-fast rate, but with the splicer at maximum smoothness, resulting in a pad with a subtle and evolving movement to it. Reversed versions of the splices can also be introduced to the mix, along with a non-sequenced gritty pad an octave down which is mapped to the mod wheel. This patch is simply incredible and presented in a truly innovative fashion, which leads you to unexpectedly exciting results. We need more of this sequenced stuff please Tomas!

Fragments

I am a big fan of how Felt have focussed on quality over quantity with these Afterglow patches. All too often it can be daunting and somewhat uncreative flicking through a hundred presets. Personally, I am increasingly drawn to more curated collections like these that are eminently playable and easy to tweak.

My only issue with them is I would have preferred a method of assigning MIDI CC to control the extra layers independently of CC1 on distortion, to give more variance of sound. As it is, although there are pre-mapped MIDI CCs for the layers, they only work if the mod wheel is also up. The net result is that you cannot introduce the layers without also having the saturation. It is worth noting, however, that if you use the Touché from Expressive E, or an MPE controller, this expanded control is indeed possible when you select those options from the bottom menu. Additionally worth mentioning is that a by-product of such experimental and free-flowing sound mangling is quite a bit of resonance at certain settings, so a good EQ or multi-band compressor after the fact will really help if you are requiring a smoother timbre.

A couple of other things which I would have liked to have seen are firstly, a sequencer option for the more tuned percussive patches so you can more quickly create rhythmic patterns, or simply single note pulses. Secondly, it lacks any long prepared bowed piano patches (although there is bowing in some of the Afterglow section). What is there is excellent, but they are all predominantly short and percussive in nature. Maybe something that could be added in the future perhaps? The only additional room for improvement would be an option to freeze the settings when changing patches, as currently if you change patch all the dial positions reset to default.

This intriguing rebel of a grand piano library really grew on me the more I explored it. Over the course of a few days playing with Bardzo, I found that what is especially well executed is the ability to achieve a huge range of sound for each articulation merely by changing two parameters – Tone and Body. Of course, should you want more detailed control all controls are also pre-mapped to MIDI CC and can be automated. Coupled with a well-curated range of extended playing techniques this makes Bardzo supremely versatile; you can create anything from a crusty music box to echoing bass pulses and from intimate, mechanical felt textures to washed out, evolving pads. The addition of the inspiring Afterglow patches is the icing on the cake, especially Fragments.

Whether Bardzo is for you will depend a great deal on what genres you work in and individual tastes. It is never going to give you a polished and pristine sound and is certainly not a traditional grand piano. Nor is it designed for trailer music or pop music for example. Instead, it’s focus lies in the more left field side of scoring, with a sound that is at once vintage and throughly cutting edge. It will also be high on the radar for recording artists for creating unusual and unique sonics. This was demonstrated recently by the beautifully poignant demo track created by Erased Tapes artist, Ben Lukas Boysen. Checkout the website to hear that and for more examples of Bardzo is action. It also features some lovely photography of some of the rare hardware in the chain (but strangely no picture of the actual piano, bar some string close ups!).

Felt Instruments remain a celebrated outlier of the sample library world, eschewing Kontakt and embracing doing everything differently to anyone else. This has, in my opinion, led Tomas to the high point of his sampling artistry in Bardzo. We’re not even halfway through the year, but I can guarantee that come the end of December this will certainly be on my ‘Best of 2022′ list.

Facts

Bardzo is 26GB in size and requires 8GB of RAM and at least an i5 CPU. It comes with its own plugin in VST3, AU and AAX formats. Mac users need to be on 10.11 or newer and it works with the new M1 chips. Downloads via Pulse and is watermarked. Any future updates are free.

Bardzo normally sells for £129 +VAT from Felt Instruments

 

Demos of Bardzo by Felt Instruments

Videos of Bardzo by Felt Instruments

Contributor Sam Burt reviews Bardzo by Felt Instruments
“Bardzo is a grand piano library that is so far left field it’s almost out of sight! This is testament to the zeitgeist sampling from the ever unique Felt Instruments. It tinkles, chimes, evolves, pulses, blurs, and often gets down and dirty.”