I know a thing or two about sampled keyboard libraries. After more than a decade as Editor of Keyboard Magazine, I've sampled (no pun intended) just about every virtual instrument out there; from stately concert grands to gritty tonewheel organs, and all points in between. So when I heard about the new Hammers + Waves keyboard suite from Skybox Audio, I thought to myself, “Does the world really need another sample library?” However, the buzz on this new keyboard collection had already begun to build even before its release, from famed artists like James Poyser (The Roots), David Bryan (Bon Jovi), and Matt Rollings (Lyle Lovett, Alison Krauss). Then there was talk of the robots employed in the sampling process. Was I impressed? Are robots taking over the world? Read on and find out!

To understand what makes Hammers + Waves unique, you need to start with the team that created it at Skybox Audio. Dana Nielsen is a Grammy-nominated mixer, engineer, and multi-instrumentalist known for his work with Adele, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and countless others. Danny Dunlap is an award-winning composer who spent two decades plus writing music for film and TV and has worked with artists like Sting and LeAnn Rimes. Azrul Saleh is an audio and music programmer known for his custom Kontakt instruments. Beyond their individual accomplishments, the founders of Skybox Audio developed Hammers + Waves to solve a particular problem. “We had a lot of keyboard libraries, but we didn’t have many that we really liked,” Dunlap told me. “It seemed we were always working really hard to get them to respond or sit in a mix the way we wanted them to. So we decided to make a library that sounded good to us!”

Sounding good is the sonic DNA of Hammers + Waves. Included in the collection are ten sampled recreations of electric, acoustic, and idiosyncratic keyboard instruments. From staples like grand and upright pianos to Wurlitzer and Rhodes electric pianos. Plus, there are toy and muted pianos, celeste, and more. The samples are gorgeous and inspiring to play, responding with the realism and immediacy of their living counterparts. I was particularly impressed with the electric pianos and as someone who has owned roughly a dozen vintage models over the years, I’m no pushover! What’s the secret to Skybox Audio’s sampling success? In a word; robots. “By using robots and automating the sampling process, we’re left with a stunningly honest sonic snapshot of the original instrument,” Dunlap explains. “The integrity of the response curve of every note is maintained. That leaves the interpretation up to the player just as it is when you sit down at the actual instrument.” Robots or not, the instruments are a joy to play.

Realistic keyboard recreations are just the beginning with Hammers + Waves. Besides the accuracy of their sampling engine, the real fun starts when you dive into the myriad of available tone-shaping options − from classic effects, amp models, and modulation controls, to a host of secondary sound engines that make samples truly spring to life. Fractals add a pulsating, arpeggiator-like rhythmic component to the mix. Swarm employs what Skybox calls its Granular Synthesis Engine to create immersive pads and textures. Also, Space lets the user create ambient soundscapes with reverb and delay. These additional sonic layers impart a dreamlike quality to the sample set, unlike anything I've ever heard before. In no time at all, I transformed a realistic piano patch into an undulating wave of sound. The possibilities are truly endless.

There’s no shortage of sampled keyboard libraries on the market, but Hammers + Waves is in a league all its own. The instruments are inspiring, the effects are astounding, and the end result is electrifying. Did I mention the robots?

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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