Like Rodney Dangerfield, the banjo gets no respect. But it’s turning up in more and more popular genres. You hear its rhythmic propulsion all over modern country, which along with folk, has been hybridizing with modern rock. Soon we’ll all be Mumford-ized. The problem with most sampled banjos is that they’re hard to play convincingly without effects like slides, mutes, and realistic patterns. Who has time to figure all that out? RealiTone did, and they offer it up for less than the price of a cheap seat at the Grand Ole Opry.
RealiBanjo is about the simplest virtual instrument I’ve used, and therein lies its power. You get three octaves of well-recorded, dual-sampled banjo notes, both soft-ish (the banjo is never really tender) and intense. This would suffice for many uses, but each note also has a slide sample—which you can trigger automatically (Auto Legato) or with a key-switch—and a muted sound, which you can also toggle with a key-switch or a GUI lever. Good old step recording will let you sound enough like a Nashville journeyman to get by in the background.
But here’s where RealiBanjo shines: Your top two octaves trigger chords that are instantly translated into one of six very idiomatic banjo patterns that sync to your DAW’s tempo. (More about this next paragraph.) You can also dial in a couple of seconds of a natural sounding room/stage reverb if you wish, and there’s a cute hillbilly-and-his-dog animation that will delight small studio visitors. [As long as he doesn’t play the “Dueling Banjos” lick unbidden. —Ed.]
Pattern Mode is just fantastic, as it lets you play the banjo—sort of. Just finger a three- or four-note chord in the top two octaves, and you’ll hear a two-bar sixteenth-note pattern that will fool a listener’s ears for about four bars. By that time you’ll be on to another chord or pattern. The six patterns—banjo players call them rolls—come in varying levels of twang and complexity and none are duds. You should be able to mix and match to support verse/chorus contrast or whatever other arranging tricks you’re after. Be advised, some non-standard chords just don’t play: diminished, augmented, or major sevenths need not apply. However, you get a full assortment of major and minor triads with dominant sevenths and sustained seconds and fourths. You can even fake a half-diminished seventh if you’re sly.
It’s very inspiring to finger those chords and see what you come up with, because the unusual passing tones that make up an authentic banjo roll are little harmonic surprises. The bottom octave of the keyboard lets you slide up and down the fretboard to take the banjo’s tone from dark to an exciting, open sound. The only tricky technique is hitting the chords precisely. If you’re a little off, the pattern stops triggering for a couple of beats.
When you skip the Pattern Mode and trust your internal banjo-on-a-keyboard player, you’ll probably want to engage Auto Legato (which intuitively inserts slides to the next note) and use the mute articulation key judiciously. Take my word for it: Soon you’ll wind up back in Pattern Mode pretending you’re Earl Scruggs.
What a joy this thing is. Beyond the obvious country and indie folk rock applications, I can’t wait to try it on over a tough urban groove, a jazz tune, or a swirling, moody pad. I’m sure it’s going to take me places I’d never thought I’d go at a price that I never thought I’d see—and at press time, it was on sale for even less: $29. A big “yee-haw”—and a Key Buy Award—to RealiTone.
Three octaves of realistic banjo samples—open strings and mute. Six authentic pattern styles. Multiple fret positions. Nearly instantaneous mastery. Charming animation.
Glitch-free pattern playing demands a precise touch. Requires full version of Native Instruments Kontakt soft sampler, not the free Kontakt Player.
An easy, impossibly affordable way to get a great-sounding banjo on your track. This gets our vote for quirky bang-for-buck buy of the year!