Gary Garritan takes on the orchestral behemoths with a small but perfectly formed library packed with extra features.
The age of the sampled orchestral super-library is upon us, as grandly named titles like Vienna Symphonic Library's Pro Edition and East West/Quantum Leap's Symphonic Orchestra testify. While these collections are bigger and better than their predecessors, their huge sizes (235GB and 67GB respectively) demand more computer resources, more disk drives, more MIDI ports, and more hunting through lists of performances to find the right sound. For one man, this has all gone too far: US sample supremo Gary Garritan, the brain behind GigaHarp and Garritan Orchestral Strings, adopts a 'small is beautiful' philosophy with his latest title. By squeezing the entire orchestra into a 2GB package and giving users the tools to play it effectively, Garritan Personal Orchestra (or GPO) aims to combat 'sample bloat' and restore 'simplicity, sanity, and affordability'. The last claim at least is beyond dispute — the library retails in the UK for only £179.
Ironically, it was Mr Garritan himself who started the trend for large orchestral libraries — his Orchestral Strings (released in August 2001) contained 8GB of samples, a staggeringly large figure at the time. However, the US maestro still remembers his days as a struggling, impecunious musician (is there any other kind?) and has vowed to make a product within the reach of everybody, including music students and educators. As budding composers have traditionally found it almost impossible to hear their orchestrations played, this is an important development. Now, in theory, arrangements can be tested on a system that doesn't cost the earth, helping the new generation of would-be Gustav Mahlers to avoid elementary musical blunders.
Unlike Garritan's previous libraries, which supplied sample content for a sampler you would already own, like Gigastudio or EXS24, GPO has its own sample player based on Native Instruments' Kontakt Player. This is a trend that most sample developers are following these days — East West/Quantum Leap's Symphonic Orchestra uses Native Instruments' Kompakt Player, for example — as it provides a better way of copy-protecting the sample content, tying it to a specific software application that can be registered and authorised.
GPO uses the normal Native Instruments challenge-and-response-style registration tool, although this isn't too intrusive. For those users who worry about having to reinstall their systems at short notice, Garritan have provided a 'more generous than most' 30-day grace period for registration. Aside from the copy protection, though, there's also an advantage to users in supplying a sample library linked to a player in this way, since any specific requirements of the library can be accommodated by the software, and the whole package is generally more integrated.
Integration is actually quite an apt word to describe GPO, since Garritan have gone one step further than to merely provide a sample player. The GPO package also includes a MIDI + Audio sequencer, score-writing software, a reverb plug-in, and a VST plug-in host application called GPO Studio, so that as long as you have a computer with suitable MIDI or audio hardware, GPO offers everything you need to get started with computer-based orchestration straight out of the box. These 'extras' will be welcomed by composers who are just getting started in computer-based orchestration, and will surely be appreciated by schools and colleges who have limited budgets to deliver an appropriate music-technology curriculum.
The Kontakt Player supplied with GPO (above) runs as either a stand-alone application or as a plug-in supporting most major formats (see the 'System Requirements' box later in this article). Running the stand-alone version will enable you to quickly assess GPO 's sonic potential, and each instance of the player has eight sound slots — enough to accommodate a small instrumental group. However, since you can only run one instance of the stand-alone Kontakt Player at a time, the only way to use more than eight instruments simultaneously is to run multiple instances of the Kontakt Player plug-in, which is easily achieved with almost any modern MIDI + Audio sequencer (including those bundled with GPO), or the GPO Studio application. You can read about these applications and their uses in more detail later, but without further ado, let's get to the heart of the matter: the sounds!
Orchestral libraries usually provide both solo instruments and ensembles — you can choose between (say) a solo violin and a 12-violin section, or a solo flute and three flutes playing in unison. But what if a particular passage requires two unison flutes, or three violins playing the same part? Using multiple identical versions of a solo instrument won't work, as unison notes played on the same samples sound totally unrealistic.
With solving this in mind, Gary Garritan devised a concept called 'Ensemble Builder' which enables users to create instrument sections to their own specifications. If you want to hear two flutes playing in unison, simply load 'Flute Ens1' and 'Flute Ens2' — these two alternative solo flutes use completely different samples, so can be layered with impunity. If you need the sound of three flutes, just add 'Flute Ens3' to the mix. The three makes of solo violin each have their own set of three alternative samples, so you could conceivably construct a virtual ensemble of nine violins. The only limitation to this uniquely flexible system is that there's no mileage in layering a main solo instrument with its associated 'Ens' versions, as the 'Ens' programs are derived from the main instrument's samples!
Thankful not to be staring into the bottomless depths of a 100GB library, I dived into the sample pool in search of pearls, starting with the strings. GPO 's string sections (12 first violins, 10 second violins, 10 violas, eight cellos and seven double basses) are culled from the vast collection of recordings made for Garritan Orchestral Strings. Unlike GOS, there are no combined 'all violins' performances, but solo strings are included.
The 12 first violins have a strong, bright sound, and perform their 'lush' long notes with fairly heavy vibrato and a hint of a volume swell, bringing to mind the undulating violins in old Hollywood film soundtracks. Muted 'lush' versions maintain the vibrato style, but produce a more subdued timbre. There are no staccatos — 'short bow' samples (lasting about a second) come closest, and 'sus+short' programs combine these with long notes in a good, all-purpose patch. The second violins have a slightly sweeter tone, and though their vibrato is equally strong, their delivery sounds more serene. Both violin sections play well-executed tremolos, tone and semitone trills and some great pizzicatos. These violins work well for expressive melody lines, and the 'lush mutes' are suitable for chord pads.
GPO 's violas sound broad, expansive and fruity — their extreme top notes have sensibly been pruned, leaving space for the violins to take over in the high register. The cellos and basses are very good indeed, the former producing a fine, dignified emotional singing tone. The lower strings duplicate the violins' performance styles, with the exception that the basses don't play trills. While these performances cover all the basic requirements for orchestral strings, it would have been nice if some fierce, emphatic marcatos had been included.
There is no 'full strings' preset, so I made one myself. Working out the note ranges took very little time, and I was able to quickly construct an eight-way Kontakt 'multi' with basses, cellos, violas and second violins sustains in slots one to four respectively (all receiving on MIDI channel one). After tweaking a couple of volume settings, I had a very classy-sounding, versatile and highly playable full orchestral string section.
The library boasts three different makes of solo violin: the first is a Gagliano, the second a Stradivari and the third a Guarneri. These instruments cost more than your house — describing their subtly different tonal characteristics is beyond me, but suffice it to say they all sound superior to any violin you can buy at Argos. Again, strong vibrato is the order of the day; the two G-guys ease into theirs, but the Stradivari gives it full throttle right from the off.
For less money than Charles Saatchi loses down the back of his sofa in one evening, you also get to play three priceless solo cellos, an expensive solo viola and an unaffordable solo double bass, all recorded fairly intimately with just the right amount of bow noise. There are only two playing styles (vibrato sustain and pizzicato), but an expressive extra touch is supplied by alternating up- and down-bows (controlled by the sustain pedal). The solo strings' also offer 'ensemble', or 'Ens' versions of their sustains — see the 'Ensemble Builder' box below for details.
Despite its modest price, this library features some of the best sampled woodwinds I have heard. Pick of the bunch is the flute, a lovely, lyrical instrument whose slightly breathy tone is sweet, clear and piping in the higher register — an absolute knockout. The flute's 'no vibrato' option provides a slightly quicker attack. A lively piccolo and a sultry bass flute match the flute's high quality; by comparison, the alto flute sounds a bit disinterested, though its bottom notes (arguably the most useful) are OK.
I guess Gary Garritan likes oboes, as his library offers a choice of four different makes. All sound very nice indeed, but my favourite is the 'classical' model, whose evocative, slightly angular timbre sounds, well, classic. A plaintive oboe d'Amore (pitched slightly lower than a regular oboe) and two English horns contribute some beautifully played samples. As well as the ubiquitous B-flat clarinet, you get the brighter tones of an E-flat instrument, both sounding confident and assertive, if a little tonally one-dimensional — the lack of soft, quiet samples means the timbre remains unnaturally bright throughout the dynamic range. A sinister, oily bass clarinet and a truly evil (I mean that as a compliment) contrabass clarinet play exquisite low notes. Inhabiting the same subterranean territory, we find two bassoons and two contrabassoons, exhibiting different tonal qualities and pitch ranges, but sharing a high standard of musicality.
The 'ensemble' programs supplied with the woodwinds work very well, but, apart from flute and piccolo flutter tongues, the woodwinds' performance menu is restricted to straight sustains. I was concerned this would limit their usability, but the samples are more versatile than they first appear — louder velocities produce sharper attacks, which work well for staccato notes. Other musical options are made possible by GPO 's 'legato mode', as explained in the 'Personal Expression' box later in this article.
GPO 's principal solo trumpet is another winner. Strong and bright, it peals out its clarion notes with bell-like clarity, sounding like an instrument destined to grace hundreds of soundtracks. The second solo trumpet has a thinner, more cutting tone, and a piccolo trumpet (played with and without vibrato, but not at the same time) soars up into those rarefied pitch zones which other instruments can't reach. The addition of a mute to the principal trumpet gives it a distinctly jazzy flavour.
When it comes to building a trumpet section sound, you're spoiled for choice — the principal trumpet has the usual ensemble-building elements, but there's also a terrific trumpet forte 'overlay' program which sounds like a real two-player ensemble. This regal-sounding timbre can be mixed with the 'Ens' programs to further strengthen their sound. The only permutation that didn't work was an attempted layering of the two main solo trumpets, as their super-tight tuning produces phase cancellation!
The trombones (one tenor, two makes of bass) are not half bad; in fact they measure around 91 percent on the SOS good-ometer. GPO 's documentation advises using the pitch wheel to bend the notes — I followed this advice, and felt much the better for it! One of the bass trombones makes that extremely raspy, buzzsaw noise which is scarcely believable coming from a bass instrument. The trombone also gets its own powerful 'overlay' program and a mournful set of muted samples. In the tuba department, dynamic variation is achieved by one soloist playing mf and the other mp, the latter producing a nice round, warm timbre. The star turn here is the contrabass tuba player, who makes a fabulously rotund sound and distinguishes each of his notes with a very pleasing attack.
Given the French horns' increasingly clichéd role in depicting cinematic scenes of drama, splendour and excitement, I imagine many film composers will instinctively reach for the horns' ff 'overlay' ensemble, which delivers the requisite blasting, brassy racket. There's also a less metallic-sounding, but still stirring forte overlay, and a set of muted samples. All the other horn programs sound fairly warm and mellow by comparison — by combining these options, users can produce a wide, dynamic range of horn timbres.
In order to install GPO, you'll need to have approximately 2GB of free hard disk space, and to get the best out of the library, Garritan recommend using Windows XP with a 1.8GHz or better Pentium 4, Athlon, or Celeron processor, or Mac OS X with at least a 733MHz G4 — the software collection is generally incompatible on earlier operating systems, such as Windows 98 or Mac OS 9. As mentioned in the main part of the review, GPO Player is supplied in both stand-alone and plug-in versions, with support for VST, Audio Units and RTAS on the Mac, and VST and DirectX on Windows.
In terms of performance, with Cubasis VST v4 on a 1.3GHz Pentium-M IBM Thinkpad, the Joplin GPO Demo Song used around 20 to 30 percent of the CPU, with three instances of GPO loading 10 instruments in total. Adding the Ambience reverb plug-in added another 20 percent of CPU usage (making 40 to 50 in total), although this could be reduced with the Quality/CPU slider. Interestingly, though, using Cubase LE to play back the same song required only 15 percent of the CPU without Ambience, and about 25 percent CPU with Ambience, proving that Steinberg definitely made some efficiency improvements to the VST engine between Cubase VST and Cubase SX-based versions.
The current version of GPO Player doesn't support Native Instrument's DFD (Direct From Disk) extension, in contrast with most other Kontakt and Kompakt-based instruments, which allows samples to be streamed from disk rather than loaded in their entirety into memory. This should be available in an update at some point, but in the meantime Garritan recommend having at least 1GB of memory in the system you're using to run GPO. This is sensible, although GPO did run quite successfully on the 768MB of memory installed in the test laptop. More RAM was needed to load larger templates, such as 'Full Orchestra + Piano', which requires 607.44MB memory in three instances of GPO.
The lack of streaming isn't actually a big deal, since you'll actually get more voices by keeping all of the sample data stored in memory. This is especially useful for laptop users, as portables usually include slower drives as standard than the ones supplied with desktop machines, and accessing memory uses less power than accessing the hard drive constantly.
You wouldn't normally expect to find a grand piano in an orchestral library, but GPO generously lays on a Steinway concert grand. This remarkably fine-sounding, 244MB piano has not been miked too closely, which allows its sound to breathe. The celeste was also recorded from some distance, a natural-sounding hall ambience giving a nice 'bloom' to its pristine chimes. Keyboardists will be delighted to find a harpsichord and a full-blown Baroque pipe organ (boasting 13 glorious stops) for those Hammer House Of Horror or church wedding (same thing?) moments.
There are two harps, made by Venus (the goddess of love) and Wurlitzer (the god of, er, electric pianos). As one might expect from the man who brought us Gigaharp, the two instruments sound absolutely superb, and practically justify the price of the package alone. There are straight notes, and luscious harmonics. If you want to sequence a heavenly harp glissando, simply sweep your fingers up and down the white keys, then use one of Garritan's 144 harp 'data packets' (a small MIDI SysEx file) to automatically edit the pitches to the requisite scale and key.
The library's percussion covers all the orchestral bases without getting too exotic. Timpani, the traditional purveyors of orchestral grandeur, are mapped chromatically over nearly two octaves, offering left and right-hand straight hits (but no rolls). The timps are clean, resonant and tuneful, and pack a reasonable amount of punch. A decent set of tubular bells sound a little distant, which gives a nice perspective and adds to their mysterious effect. The glockenspiel and crotales are delicate, bright and very pretty, and the hand bells might come in useful at Christmas.
GPO has two marimbas — the 'grand symphonic' model has a delightful, melodic, almost liquid tone, while the other has a slightly harder attack. In the jazz corner, the vibraphone has been nicely recorded — pressing the sustain pedal turns on its distinctive tremolo, a simple but authentic touch. The xylophone shares the marimbas' attractive mellow quality, and while that's preferable to a brittle, unmusical tone, some may wish it was more percussive. The only truly esoteric sound in this section is the so-called 'glass harmonica', which is neither glass, nor a harmonica — it's a synth sound which emulates the sound of a fabulous 18th-century instrument (a chromatic set of rotating glass bowls, stroked on their rims to produce an ethereal singing sound).
Danger! GPO 's orchestral bass drum has an adjustable 'fundamental' bass tone — turning it up adds a lot of extreme low-end energy, which could do nasty things to your speakers if you're not careful. Accompanying this is an excellent, explosive tam-tam gong which sounds as though it could also do a lot of damage, clean orchestral snare drum rolls and hits, piatti, crash and ride cymbals. The library also contains a useful selection of hand percussion, as detailed in the ' GPO Instrument List' box at the end of this article. Most items are rationed to one or two hits — all sound fine, although the mark tree is slightly clonky. For some reason, there's no wood block, but the maker has made space for that most essential and expressive of orchestral instruments, the wind machine. This infernal canvas and wood contraption sounds like a medieval hairdryer. It may turn out to be the most useless sample ever included in a sound library, but it's there if you need it! Incidentally, the library offers its presets in 'dry' and 'wet' versions — the same samples are used for both, but the latter adds a splash of Kontakt reverb to the sounds. However, this uses a lot of CPU power, so users are advised to reserve the wet versions for auditioning instruments.
We take it for granted that note-on velocities control volume, but in GPO, the volume of the brass, woodwinds and most of the strings is controlled by the mod wheel, with velocity determining the amount of attack. This scheme could result in a deathly silence when the library is used to play back existing MIDI arrangements, but the maker has pre-empted the problem by supplying a MIDI file translator which converts all velocity data in the file into mod-wheel information.
Using the wheel for dynamic expression immediately makes one aware of the importance of swells and fades in imparting a 'singing' style to melodies, and it doesn't take long to develop an expressive mod-wheel technique. However, one downside is that when you first load a sound, it's virtually inaudible till you push the mod wheel up! There are other potential pitfalls: instead of the traditional pitch-bend and mod wheels, some keyboards use an all-in-one joystick, which springs back to a default 'zero' position after use. If your keyboard has one of these, you may have to use a sequencer to send GPO a 'mod wheel full up' message (ie. MIDI continuous controller 1, with a value of 127) on all MIDI channels when auditioning its sounds. This will also be necessary whenever you play with both hands!
GPO has a very effective legato playing mode, which basically works by cutting off the samples' initial attacks. This simple technique makes consecutive notes sound more 'joined up', giving melody lines a convincingly mellifluous, flowing character. In the interests of realism, the solo wind instruments' presets are monophonic — this prevents notes from overlapping, and thus makes fast runs and even trills sound authentic. Legato mode is selected simply by holding down the sustain pedal while playing, but it's easy to switch the pedal back to its conventional purpose if necessary. Similarly, the solo wind instruments can be made polyphonic by a simple parameter adjustment.
Altogether, GPO supplies a total of 60 types of instrument and ensemble, which rises to 76 when you factor in the alternative makes of solo instrument. How can such a comprehensive set of sounds fit into 2GB? The answer lies in the way the instruments have been sampled. There are relatively few performance styles per instrument, and no staccatos, marcatos, grace notes, crescendos, diminuendos, glissandi, slides, col legnos, brass rips or falls, effects, runs, arpeggios, phrases or chords. All the sustained notes are looped, which is musically convenient, and also conserves sample memory. The biggest savings have been made in the area of dynamics: it's now common to find orchestral instruments with three or more dynamic layers, but GPO seems to consist mainly of one-dynamic performances. Users must therefore seize the initiative themselves, and use a combination of mod wheel and keyboard velocity to breathe dynamic life into the samples.
The straightforward design of the GPO Kontakt Player should encourage users to create their own 'multis'. A set of clearly labelled rotary controls govern portamento (glide), volume, pan, reverb and tuning; a couple of additional controls (Var 1 and Var 2) can introduce random variations of intonation and timbre, in an attempt to ward off the dreaded 'machine-gun' effect of repeated samples. Newcomers to Kontakt will find it simple to use, while anyone who already owns the full version of the player will be able to load GPO 's samples with full editing facilities. Another nice touch is that the player provides eight stereo outputs, so it's possible to route each instrument in an instance of the player to an individual channel on the mixer of your host application, or hardware output if you're running the stand-alone version.
If Garritan had stopped here, with GPO no more than a well-rounded orchestral library built into the Kontakt Player engine, it would still have proved to be a successful product. However, as mentioned in the first part of this review, the GPO package consists of a suite of applications to help you make the most out of the library, covering everything from sequencing to creating notation. There's even a bundled reverb plug-in, a version of Smartelectronix' Ambience (http://magnus.smartelectronix.com), a competent reverb algorithm that includes presets specifically designed for GPO 's instruments.
GPO was initially supplied with an OEM version of Steinberg's Cubasis VST v4, a popular cut-down consumer and education-oriented version of Cubase VST 5 with the ability to record and edit MIDI and audio Parts, and utilities like a fully-functional VST Mixer with VST Instruments and effects. A further nice touch was the inclusion by Garritan of a collection of template Cubase Songs such as 'Full Orchestra + Piano' and 'String Quartet', which are empty songs with preloaded instances of the GPO Player plug-in with the Ambience reverb plug-in. Unfortunately, the Cubasis VST 4 application was only available for Windows users, which meant Mac users were a little left out; but as we were finishing this review, Garritan were changing the GPO package to include Cubase LE instead.
Cubase LE runs on both Windows and Mac OS X and is very similar to the first version of Cubase SL, a fully featured MIDI + Audio sequencer offering a large percentage of the functionality described in the SOS review of Cubase SX. GPO users will probably be pretty surprised at just how powerful this sequencer is, with its support for video, eight VST Instruments, four send effects, two insert effects per audio channel, Key and List editors and a basic score editor, making Cubase LE easily worth a good part of the asking price of GPO on its own. Some of the more advanced features which are not present include the Logical Editor (presets are included, though), the Drum editor, MIDI plug-ins, the advanced score layout editor, and macros.
While most MIDI + Audio sequencers support virtual instrument plug-ins, most score-writing packages you would want to use with GPO don't offer this functionality. One way around this would be to use a MIDI loopback utility with the stand-alone GPO Player, but, as mentioned earlier, this would limit you to playing back only eight instruments simultaneously. So for those people who want to use GPO with a score-writer, or those who want more than eight instruments with the stand-alone version, Garritan have thoughtfully provided a dedicated host application called GPO Studio for both Windows and Mac OS X users.
Based on technology from Plogue's Bidule (www.plogue.com/bidule), GPO Studio provides access to eight instances of GPO Player (64 simultaneous instruments) and a single instance of the Ambience reverb plug-in, and adds MIDI ports to your system so you can choose GPO Studio as your MIDI output in applications such as Sibelius or Finale. There's also a further utility you can run to route MIDI data from your computer's MIDI input ports into GPO Studio, which makes it possible to run GPO on a separate, dedicated computer, if you should need to do this.
Even if you don't have the budget for Sibelius or Finale, that still doesn't mean you won't be able to use a score-writing package with GPO, as the package includes Geniesoft's Overture SE (www.geniesoft.com). Overture is reasonably intuitive to operate, and can handle anything from a single stave of music to a full orchestral score, with a full range of symbols and layout facilities, including the ability to hide or extract certain parts. Scores created in Overture SE will play GPO 's samples via the GPO Studio application, as previously described, and there's even a GPO menu in Overture SE, enabling you to name the sounds used in each instance of GPO Player in GPO Studio, with preset Soundsets included for the Multi-programs and other templates included with GPO.
Note: numbers in brackets indicate different makes of instrument. Instruments marked with an asterisk include three extra sets of samples, designed for building 'virtual ensembles'.
KEYBOARDS & HARPS
DRUMS & CYMBALS
TUNED (PITCHED) PERCUSSION
Packed with demos, templates, MP3s, PDF documents and MIDI files, GPO is quite an elaborate affair, but its 60-page booklet throws light on its technicalities. Pitch ranges, performance techniques and stage positions are also explained, reminding us there's a musical mind behind all the science. And the library's music-first stance and commitment to education has already led to a close collaboration with Berklee College of Music, resulting in a GPO 'Berklee Edition'.
While GPO has an obvious market for beginners, it also offers a degree of professional appeal for anyone looking to sketch out orchestral arrangements with a single computer. It's becoming a little bit of a cliché to talk about laptops these days, but GPO will definitely have value to mobile musicians, since the player and small samples make it an efficient solution for undertaking reasonably large-scale work without the library consuming your laptop in terms of hard disk space or battery power and processor usage. GPO is also a good alternative for Sibelius users considering the Gold version of the Kontakt player for Sibelius 3, as some of the instruments are of a slightly better quality. The only caveat is that using GPO with Sibelius requires a little more care in setting up with GPO Studio (this is described in the GPO manual) and in creating instrument definitions for Sibelius ' more advanced performance abilities.
As a package, GPO is pretty unique, but East West/Quantum Leap's Symphonic Orchestra Silver Edition is another product worth considering if you're looking for the ultimate condensed orchestra, although it costs slightly more at around £199. This is a stripped-down version of the full Symphonic Orchestra package, is also based around Native Instruments' Kontakt Player, and offers a similar selection of instruments (including some choir samples), although it doesn't include any of the extras that make GPO appealing. Silver Edition users have an upgrade path to the other members of the Symphonic Orchestra family, although Garritan have also worked out a deal so that GPO users have an upgrade path to products from the Vienna Symphonic Library. Decisions, decisions!
In the commercial world, Goliath usually tramples David, but this intelligent orchestral package may well buck that trend; its affordable price, comprehensive nature and user-friendly attitude are sure to attract many musicians. Although some orchestral sample users will miss the subtly differentiated performance options of larger libraries, others will be glad to work with a simpler set of sounds that do the job quickly and efficiently. For composers and arrangers chasing deadlines, and musicians who like to get fast results, GPO could be the perfect solution. Gary Garritan may not yet have cured the world of 'sample bloat', but by instigating a brave new anti-expansionist policy and keeping the price low, he has struck a blow for all those scorewriters who don't yet have a collection of gold discs in their lavatories.