Synthesizers used to be big, expensive beasts. Picture the hulking Moog modular that Keith Emerson used to have carted on stage for tours with Emerson Lake & Palmer—ten feet tall with beefy patch cables and row after row of knobs—and you get the idea. With advances in technology shrinking electronic circuitry to a fraction of its original size, it's rare to see modern analog synths made on that same scale. One of the more recent exceptions to this rule is the MacBeth Studio Systems M5. Touting it as a modern successor to the Arp 2600, MacBeth introduced the M5 in 2005, and its gorgeous analog tones immediately won high praise.
The problem was that like its predecessor, the M5 was as rare as it was large: about 90 handmade units were put into the wild before production recently ceased. Finding one of these beasts is nearly impossible these days. There is good news for those still lusting after the sound of the M5, though. Earlier this year, musician and sound designer Rory Dow unveiled a massive MacBeth M5 sample library called the Mighty M5. It's the first product he's created under a new company he recently formed called Boxed Ear. Having been fortunate enough to play an M5 in person, I was interested to see how a sample library would stand up to the real thing.
When we went to begin the download process, we found that "Mighty" could be applied not only to the M5 but to the size of the library as well. The zip file weighs in at a cool 1.2 GB, and when unzipped the library expands to 1.5 GB. The servers utilized by Boxed Ear for file transfer are snappy enough to handle a quick download, but if you happen to be stuck on slow internet or prefer snail mail you can opt for a DVD to be mailed to you for an extra charge. Although hard drive space is cheap these days, those on laptops might cringe at the thought of eating up nearly 2 GB of disk space with sounds from a single instrument. Fortunately, the Mighty M5 is made for Native Instruments' Kontakt sampler, so the samples can be easily relocated to an external hard drive and used only when needed.
What's taking up all of that space? There are 108 Kontakt instruments included in the download, organized via file folders into six different categories—raw mono, raw poly, processed mono, processed poly, drums & effects and waveforms. Over 4000 24-bit WAV files go into the making of those 108 instruments, which goes to show that they are much more than just a handful of different sampled pitches tossed together in Kontakt. I opened up the mapping editor on quite a few of the instruments to see how Dow had structured things, and I was amazed at the amount of velocity sampling. In some instruments, he multi-sampled individual notes at 16 different velocity levels. Combine this with Kontakt's ample mapping and crossfading, and the instruments that result are some surprisingly expressive and playable.
The instruments within the Mighty M5 span a range of tasteful selections. The waveform patches are great starting points and show off the raw power of the M5's oscillators. There are plenty of instruments that highlight its softer side as well, especially in the poly categories. Square Pad Poly is one of my favorites, with a rising, slightly detuned sound that can produce some lovely evolving chords. One type of sound that doesn't see enough attention in sample or preset libraries are plucks (i.e. percussive melodic sounds), but I was pleased to see quite a few of these baked in here. Dow also deftly threw a bone to a certain popular electronic genre with the Super Wide Wobble Bass instrument, a move that should help sell a few more copies.
The only negative I could muster is the fact that the Kontakt instruments were not tagged in any way. So although you can easily open them by dragging the files from a file browser into Kontakt, they won't show up in your Kontakt library until you add and tag them yourself. It's easy enough to do, but it would have been nice to have the different categories and instrument characteristics embedded with the instrument itself. Looking past that, the M5 is certainly worth the $49. The sampling is of professional quality, and the playability of the patches combined with the tasteful tonal choices seals the deal. Having a real Macbeth M5 would be a dream, but for now I'm happy to settle for what the Mighty M5 and a computer can do.