This is a review of Toontrack’s Latin EZX, an add-on module for the EZ Drummer and Superior 2.0 line of drum sampler products.
The Latin EZX is a collection of samples of 23 of categories of latin percussion instrument, from Congas, to Tambourines, to Guiro, to Udu. In addition is a really extensive set of MIDI files with typical patterns for these instruments in a variety of styles. Having discussed the whole pattern thing with Toontrack on their forum, it comes over that they put very little value into the MIDI files that come with their EZX’s, and I’m really not sure why. Not only are they top notch, they work so well with the samples that they become incredible time savers, especially when writing in a genre for which you’re not a percussion expert. And lets face it, if we were percussion experts, its doubtful we’d be using a product like EZ drummer – we’d use the real thing. Their web site and documentation for the EZX products is incredibly sparse in describing what to expect in terms of MIDI files and you get no sense until you’ve made a purchase, of the depth of them. In fact my Latin EZX has no documentation other than installation instructions. While they acknowledge that the deficiency exists, they seem to suggest that we must all be amateurs for wanting to know the depth of MIDI programming in their products, and indeed for wanting to use the MIDI patterns at all! This just blows my mind. The Latin EZX for example comes with in excess of 7000 MIDI patterns. If its so inconsequential, why are they putting the time in to make them? I think their attitude sucks, but their products are first class and so incredibly usable, so let’s concentrate on that.
Loading up the standard latin “kit” in Superior 2.0, I get a layout of 23 instruments – 27 if you count each conga, bongo, shaker and timbale of which there are two of each. Most of the graphics cover one type of instrument, that may have one or more variations. For instance, there are three models of conga to choose from within the conga graphic, and 11 types of tambourine to choose from within the tambourine graphic. There are two shaker graphics that cover a very wide range of shaker sizes. The instruments attached to each graphic are logical and instruments can be removed completely to save some RAM. A full list of instruments, and their groupings (what graphic they come under and therefore what instruments can be performed simultaneously in a regular set up) is here – Instrument List.
The instruments themselves are extensively sampled with a variety of techniques that suit the instruments. The congas for example have 17 hit techniques including left and right handed hits of the regular sounds (open, muted, slap, bass tone and heel) as well as a couple of extras like flams. It’s not really clear how many velocity layers Toontrack have used, but the instruments are very playable in all dynamics, so they’ve clearly put a lot of thought into how extensively to sample, while retaining something that fits into a fairly modest amount of RAM. Toontrack use their own compression to make these files really small (many hits are as small as 16kB!), but there is most definitely no sign of compromised quality here. All instruments are very well recorded.
And now onto the patterns that Toontrack put so little emphasis on. I’m using the Latin EZX within the EZ Player Pro, a kind of drum sequencer that comes shipped with Superior 2.0, as well as being for sale stand alone from their web site. The top half of the interface reminds me of the Mac column view – you get a hierarchy of folders moving progressively from left to right, and at the far right of the folder tree you get the actual files – in this EZX, they’re called variations. Variations are patterns, mostly between ½ a bar and 4 bars in length and in this product are all in 4/4 or 6/8 time. A small number of patterns go to 8 bars in length for some really ready to play stuff. Patterns can be cut up and broken down into smaller patterns or extended as required, either to fit other time signatures, or other needs. This is a function of EZ Player Pro though and this is a review of the Latin EZX, so enough of features in the EZ Player Pro! EZ Player Pro is an excellent tool, worthy of its own review, and this I hope to do soon. Before we do move on however, I want to show you the file structure (see below). Note that while the Marvin Funk samples are split between straight and swing grooves in the left column, the Emsing Funk grooves are split between straight and swing in the second. This kind of inconsistency adds a small element of overhead to the workflow and while it is fairly insignificant, it does seem to be unnecessary.
The point at which the splits are made seem to be related to the number of patterns in each – those with a large number of patterns get split at the higher level than those with fewer patterns. I can understand this to some extent, in terms of overall application file manageability, but to those not knowing what patterns they have, it can be a little confusing and frustrating not to really know where you’re going to end up.
The patterns are split between the various percussion instrument categories (eg, Conga patterns, Bongo patterns, Tambourine patterns etc.) as well as one final section dedicated to full ensemble patterns. Having individual categories split between instruments works fine for this particular EZX because you don’t have to restrict yourself to four limbs that most drummers have when creating your latin percussion tracks like you normally do when creating a drum track. It’s easily possible to hire 3 or 4 percussionists to cover the full requirements of a song so simply use the instruments you want. That said, more emphasis on ensemble grooves might help to improve overall realism by putting the right combination of the right patterns together for an authentic feel.
Some of the instruments have a huge selection of MIDI files, while others have just a few – the cowbell has only one pattern – a bar of 4 quarter notes. I can understand this for things like the chimes and vibraslap which are generally used as one off instrument hits rather than a rhythmic thing, but I would have liked to see more than one cowbell pattern. Everyone knows that there isn’t enough cowbell in the world. Here is a PDF of the patterns and the file hierarchy that went into Latin EZX. This is kind of messy, just like the the organization of the files themselves… I will clean it up, so if you do download it for your own reference, you might want to check back in a week or so and see if there’s a better version. It does have a use in its current form though I think, so if you are interested in what’s in Latin EZX, its worth the 28kB download.
The instrument with the largest number of patterns is the Conga. At the top level, they are split by rhythm type. There is tumbao, bolero, martillo, rumba and samba as well as two sections of funk grooves, entitled Emsing Funk and Marvin Funk. Emsing Funk I assume is named after the guy who played the grooves that were turned into MIDI files – Mikael Emsing. I have no idea who Marvin is, but that’s probably just me showing my ignorance! There’s a wide discrepancy between the number of patterns in each rhythm type, but this is probably pretty typical of just the number of variations you tend to get in that musical song form. For example, in Tumbao Straight (that is straight tumbao grooves), you get split between 1 conga 8th note grooves and 16th note grooves and 2 conga 8th note and 16th note grooves. Each of these sections is next split based on the slap rhythm – 1-5 slap grooves each. Each of these subgroups has between 1 and 5 grooves each, and each groove has 3-4 variations or patterns. I think this works out to give a total of around 220 individual patterns just for straight tumbao. At the other end of the scale is the rumba section that has just 7 patterns in total.
Next up is the Cajon. This is split into five top level groups – pop/rock, funk slap, funk soft, trainbeat and a fill section. Pop/rock and funk sections have both straight and swing grooves and the notable difference between the Cajon and the Conga is the number of grooves and variations – Within the funk slap section for example is a bunch of grooves under the heading straight marvin. Fourteen grooves to be precise, each with 24 variations or patterns for a total of 336 patterns in this small section alone. It’s already starting to become clear why making the patterns consistent was such a challenge for Toontrack. There’s little crossover between the song types in the Cajon section and the Conga section. What does that mean? Who knows? I’m not a latin rhythm expert, so whether it means they rarely cross paths, I’m not sure. Maybe Toontrack will tell us when they finish their documentation (I wish I had smilies!). I must admit, I’ve never even heard of the Cajon before, even though its sound is just slightly familiar to me. I’m not sure whether I have a use for these patterns or not… certainly talking in the sense of authentic rhythms. If I do, I know I’m well covered here. There are stacks of patterns, split into grooves, that make a lot of sense – at least from my uninformed perspective.
The next section is for Bongos. Here we return to many (though a slightly smaller number) of the broad categories seen in the Conga section. There is a correspondence between the number of bongo and conga rhythms in each category. Hmmm. Now its becoming clear what they’ve done. Simply remapped the pitches. The Conga and Bongo rhythms are identical. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and documentation might help to clear up how best to approach the use of these instruments together so that they compliment each other rather than stepping on each others toes.
Udu is the same. It follows many of the same rhythms as congas and bongos exactly though the nature of the instrument means that they play in a slightly different way to congas and bongos.
Well, that’s pretty much it for extensively programmed rhythms. The next section of instruments provides a more utilitarian collection of rhythms. Again, this shouldn’t be considered a deficiency. Simply the nature of the instruments and their function in latin (and pop) music.
The following instruments have a similar line up of patterns – Shakers (and a wide variety at that – including maracas, afuche and caxixi), Guiro, Tambourine, Triangle and Woodblock. This line up essentially covers one groove providing each of the following -
- 8th note on beat
- 8th note backbeat
- 8th note on beat shuffle
- 8th note backbeat shuffle
- 16th note on beat
- 16th note backbeat
- 16th note on beat shuffle
- 16th note backbeat shuffle
- crescendo up
- crescendo down
There are some slight variations to this list depending on instrument, and some triplet patterns also but they follow the same basic functionality. The shekere is one of the shaker instruments that plays a different role and has shekere grooves and martillo grooves with 52 variations or patterns in total. The tambourine includes an extensive “additional” section. That’s how its labeled… no more information than that.
Timbales are handled in a way of their own, providing a small number of variations or patterns in cascara, salsa and swing types. A larger section of fills are also included. Once again, this shouldn’t be considered a deficiency.
I’ve already mentioned the sadly lacking cowbell section. A single pattern of 4 quarter notes is all you get here. Some of the rhythms for other instruments could be remapped in your sequencer and effectively used with the cowbell to bring it upto complement.
The remaining instruments are included in an FX/Cymbals section, and are grouped by the fact that they tend to be used for single hits rather than rhythms. I’m not sure they need to be there at all, but I guess its probably the only way to allow users to build their rhythms in the EZ Player (or EZ Drummer) drum sequencer.
A fairly small section of Percussion Ensemble patterns completes the package. Here we hear 6/8 time (yeah, real descriptive) 6/8 malangos, guaganco, latino, Marvin funk, mozambique, princess of persia, samba and schoolband gone wild (love it!) with between 6 and 20 variations for each. These are extremely useful, and how I would have expected the whole wad of MIDI files to be presented. Grooves can be mixed and matched at will, and this is made incredibly easy in the EZ Player Pro. But for that truly authentic rhythm, a more extensive Percussion Ensemble would have been useful.
Latin EZX is my first EZX purchase. I have my eyes on a couple of others, but the lack of information available on Toontrack’s web site is holding me back, at least until the money I have becomes disposable.
I would love for Toontrack to hire a percussion expert to write some good documentation for this product, not only listing what they have included, but how to make the best of it, what patterns are most authentically mixed and maybe some background on who this Marvin guy is. EDIT: (Toontracks tech support tell me that Marvin is Marvin Gaye, and these patterns are typical of a What’s Going On kind of groove).
Without a doubt, Latin EZX gets my vote for an extremely good value product. The lack of documentation is annoying for me personally, but certainly won’t stop me (or you) from getting a lot of use, and amazing quality results.