A massive string ensembles library with individual player control is the latest development in VSL's product line.
Building on the revolutionary format of Dimension Brass (reviewed in SOS in April 2011), VSL have released the first instalment of Vienna Dimension Strings. Work on this mammoth project started in 2008 and, when finished, it will comprise 24 string players recorded in sections of eight violins, six violas, six cellos and four double basses, using individual mics on every instrument and thereby giving unprecedented control over each player's performance. In the meantime, buyers can get their hands on the library's violin section, a 57.1GB collection containing over 298,000 samples. At this stage, the violins (hereafter referred to as Dimension Violins, or DV) are available as a download only.
No stranger to colossal undertakings, VSL promise (or should that be threaten?) that the full Dimension Strings library will contain over a million samples, bringing the company's total sample count up to somewhere around 2.3 million. This vast compendium covers every instrument and ensemble of the symphony orchestra, and many more besides, in unprecedented detail. As Neil 'Razor' Ruddock's recent statuesque appearance on TV's Celebrity Big Brother illustrated, big is not always best, but it's safe to say that the Vienna sample database offers users a fair amount of choice!
Vienna Dimension Strings is formatted exclusively for the Vienna Instruments player, which is included with the library. Buyers are also entitled to the free Vienna Ensemble mixing host, which enables them to run multiple Vienna Instruments and third-party 32-/64-bit plug-ins. Combining a comprehensive switching system with intelligent performance detection, the free player is a good starting point for newbies, but its limited number of sound slots makes it impossible to hear all eight violins simultaneously within one instance. Prospective Dimension Strings buyers are therefore advised to purchase the Vienna Instruments Pro player (€145).
When finished, Dimension Strings will comprise a Standard library containing basic articulations, and a larger, more expensive Extended library which adds many more playing styles. However, at present no such distinction applies to its violin section — you can buy its full set of articulations in one go. As an incentive for users to invest in the finished product, VSL are currently offering a substantial discount, which enables buyers to grab the violins now and receive the Cello, Viola and Double Bass sections free of charge as they become available. This offer will be discontinued when the full library is released (for which no date is set), and its price will be upped upon the release of the cellos (mooted for summer 2013).
Since Dimension Strings shares the philosophy and general structure of VSL's Dimension Brass, readers may care to cast an eye over the latter's SOS review at /sos/apr11/articles/vsl-vienna-dimension-brass.htm.
Following standard VSL protocol, the Dimension Strings samples were recorded in the company's custom-built Silent Stage, a studio environment so alarmingly free of ambient noise that once inside, you can scare yourself half to death just by thinking too loudly. This citadel of quietude lacks any noticeable reverb reflections, so if you want a big, concert-hall ambience you'll need to engage your favourite reverb plug-in (Logic's built-in Space Designer reverb, for example, will do nicely).
The Dimension series requires a slightly different approach from other orchestral libraries. Having isolated the sound of each violinist in the live section, VSL present their individual performances in patches labelled Player 1, Player 2 and so on To hear the whole section, you therefore need to load eight separate patches. VSL 'All Violins' matrices (Vienna-speak for multis) take the sweat out of that, but (as mentioned above) these particular matrices require the VI Pro player, and aren't visible in the basic Vienna Instruments' file browser.
As with Dimension Brass, all the samples in DV are mono. I asked VSL whether they considered using a stereo pair to record the ensemble's room sound as well as spot miking each violin (common practice in string recording). They replied: "Using an additional stereo pair would have resulted in phasing issues between the section and the individual instruments. It would also not then be possible to adjust the tuning settings of individual players, as the edited tuning would clash with the players' original intonation in the stereo mix.” Since the whole point of the Dimension series is individual player tweakability, I can see their point.
The Dimension violins have a unique sound among VSL string collections. Less sumptuous than the 20-player Appassionata violin section and lacking the austere quality of the six violins in VSL's Chamber Strings, their closest match is the 14-piece Orchestral Strings violin ensemble. Heard dry, the Orchestral players' real-life stereo image sounds more blended than the eight differently panned mono instruments of the DV section. Add some reverb, and that particular distinction becomes imperceptible. Ultimately, the most significant difference is timbre: the Orchestral violins' overall tone is a little more cutting and middly, while the DV section sounds warmer, yet maintaining a vivid presence and focus not heard in the other libraries.
DV's articulations more or less stick to the categories that VSL instigated back in 2002, when GigaStudio ruled the earth and Apple Computer Inc (as it was then called) didn't. Sustains and legatos are sampled at four dynamics with three alternations, which make re-bowed notes sound very realistic. The trademark interval legatos and portamento slides are as effective as ever for delivering joined-up melody lines at all tempos, and now have no-vibrato and 'expressive' versions: the expressive option is fabulous, starting with a light, breathy bowing and gradually introducing vibrato as it subtly swells in volume, while the regular portamentos nail the 'Bollywood' strings style, as heard in the high-pitched, cat's-meow violins hook of Britney Spears' 'Toxic'.
Rather than record trills for this collection, VSL provide 'performance trill' patches for you to play your own. The new 'marcato performance trill' style accommodates trills and 'interval tremolos' of up to an octave: playing repeated fast intervals produces an exciting back-and-forth 'sawing' effect, and you can also use the articulation for ostinato figures and emphatic melody lines. Provided as an option for conventional tremolo and also for the library's chromatic set of harmonics, 'slow tremolos' offer a soothing alternative to the normal, tension-inducing tremolo style, and can sound exquisite at quiet dynamics.
The patches default to velocity control, but using the mod wheel as a dynamics controller produces dramatic, powerful crescendos capable of blowing your ears off; you just have to remember to tick the 'Vel.XF' box in the Performance tab and assign Velocity XF to CC1 in the 'Control Map' window (as we say in the trade). Alternatively, the players perform their own beautifully controlled, expressive crescendos, diminuendos and pfp swells in a choice of durations. The mod wheel can also be used to crossfade between non-vibrato and vibrato performances, always an effective expressive device.
If I had to take one DV style to a desert island with me, it would probably be the 'Sus vib + staccato' set up found in the snappily named 'All Violins L1 Art-Combi' matrix. This classic layering of a brisk, emphatic bow attack and looped long note allows you to intersperse melody lines among staccato rhythmic phrases; nothing revolutionary in that, but I found it a great inspiration for composing. Another cool use of these excellent staccatos is to alternate them with the long detaché articulation; the contrast between the short, sharp notes and the more emotive detachés is a great device for adding rhythmic interest.
Note repetitions and round-robin alternations are now fully editable on VI Pro's GUI, with available repetitions appearing as red buttons which you can turn on or off with a mouse click. I seem to remember that this was something one could do back in the days of VSL's Performance Tool, a brilliant but clunky application which sat between your MIDI interface and GigaStudio or EXS24 sampler, and which regularly drove musicians mad. It's good to see the repetition control revived 10 years later, and a relief that it's now so much simpler to operate!
DV's repetition patches are performed in legato, portato, staccato and short spiccato articulations. The last three have a satisfyingly brutal, harsh ff dynamic that media composers will welcome for moments of extreme screen terror. Crescendo versions of these styles feature nine note repetitions that get steadily louder as you repeat a note. Repetition control can be used to alter the start point, and by omitting certain repetitions (for example, numbers two, four, six and eight), you can vary the strength and speed of the crescendo.
For those who fancy adding extraneous noises such as string squeaks, finger noises and so forth to their violin concertos, VSL have prepared a special 'Shorts + Noise' matrix for every player. They warn: "You should take care not to use them for all eight players at once, and randomise their occurrence a bit to achieve best results.”
I'd go one step further. Since there's always a troublemaker in the ranks, I'd be inclined to identify the player likely to cause the most disruption and assign all the finger noises, page turns and heavy breathing to him or her. Ideally, there would also be burping, gastric rumbling, foot shuffling, chair-banging, muttered curses and extreme flatulence effects, along with a whispered 'How long till we get a break?', all of which I hope VSL will include in an upgrade. For maximum dramatic effect (and to emulate musicians' real-life behaviour) I suggest that you throw in all these noises at the same time in the middle of a delicate quiet passage.
Taking an idea from Vienna Appassionata Strings to its logical extreme, VSL sampled the full play range of each string. Since the four strings' ranges overlap to a large degree, this created a lot of presentation options, which the producers have tackled by offering a choice of six mappings. The 'Regular' mapping has the bottom G string playing as far up as E4, the D string starting at F4, and so on. This has the advantage of avoiding the D, A and E open strings, which have a conspicuously different tone by virtue of their lack of vibrato.
'Open String' takes the opposite tack and includes all four open strings, while the remaining four mappings (Force G/D/A/E string) give you all pitches playable on the respective string as far up as an octave and a fifth, with the rest of the range filled in by other strings. All articulations except the portamentos and effects are duplicated in these six mappings. The 'Force' options (which, in an orchestral score, would be indicated as 'sul G', and so on) allow you to explore the contrast between the bright, open tone of notes played low on the neck and the darker sound of the same pitches played in a higher position.
While this system is designed to give users maximum flexibility, it's generally not necessary to worry about which mapping to use: if in doubt, just use the 'Regular' patches and everything will sound fine!
The individual player access of the Dimension series comes into its own when applied to section sizing. You can use two of the eight violins for a small ensemble sound, or split them into two groups of four for realistic two-note chord divisi. Prior to auditioning the samples, I was concerned that spill from other instruments might preclude using a single violin as a soloist; I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that spill, like Saddam Hussein's imaginary WMD stockpile, is non-existent. This means that you can use any of the eight violins in an exposed solo setting (although, being the principal violinist of the section, player number one is probably your best bet for that).
VSL have never included dedicated second violin sections in their string collections, and that remains the case here. While some users continue to demand them, others point out that the Vienna catalogue offers so many different violin section sizes and performance variations that an additional second violins ensemble would be redundant. VSL mastermind Herb Tucmandl shares the latter view and has ruled out second violins for Dimension Strings, saying that since it's so easy to create different timbres within one ensemble, recording a second violin ensemble would "definitely be a wasted effort”.
From a pragmatic point of view, the lack of second violins is no big deal: muting the first four players in the ensemble creates a smaller section which can happily function as second violins, although there remains a small possibility that phasing might be discernible on unison notes between the firsts and seconds. That can be eliminated by temporarily switching the seconds over to an alternative mapping, so that the offending note is played on a different string, or by using an articulation variation, for example, progressive vibrato rather than regular vibrato.
Several new features have been introduced in Vienna Instruments Pro which are worth mentioning in connection with DV. In terms of workflow, one of the most useful is 'Disabled Cells'. As you'd imagine, set-ups with eight patches per articulation have a significant impact on loading time and RAM consumption, so to reduce system strain, VI Pro defaults to opening matrices and presets with their cells temporarily disabled. The matrix loads instantly, you can see the patches it contains, but the cell names are greyed out and their samples are not yet loaded. To activate a cell, simply click on it and wait for the samples to load! If you find the cell disabling inconvenient, you can bypass it by ticking the 'Force Enabled Cells' box in VI Pro's General Settings window.
Disabled Cells are a huge help in quickly auditioning matrices, and a godsend for owners of systems with insufficient RAM or computing power to run large setups. Once you've decided which patches you need for your arrangement, you can re-save the matrix with those cells activated (to avoid confusion, I suggest you 'save as' with a new name) and it will load that way in future. It strikes me as a great system; the only down-side is that some buyers, unaware of the automatic cell disabling, complained that their matrices were faulty!
VI Pro now incorporates instrument range extension. Although the range can only be extended by a major third at either end, it's a welcome development which VSL users have requested for a long time, and which will give arrangers more flexibility. Instrument ranges can be reduced as well as expanded, an essential facility when building 'full strings' templates. Unfortunately, pitch-bend is still limited to two semitones in either direction. This may be irrelevant to orchestral purists, but for sound design and pop/rock production it would be nice to see it expanded.
Back in September 2012, VSL added an 'Auto Playback and Pattern' (aka APP) sequencer to VI Pro. Though it can't record in real time, it will import MIDI files, and its impressive 960ppqn timing resolution (equivalent to around half a millisecond at 120bpm) means that it will play back externally created sequences exactly. You can use a pen tool to write notes on screen, and edit note positions and velocities. Tempo may be set manually or sync'ed to your host; playback is initiated by hitting a designated 'root key' on your keyboard, and other pitches can be used to transpose the sequence up or down.
VSL's Herb Tucmandl has created a large phrase archive for the sequencer that includes scale runs, arpeggios, trills, ornaments, and variously accented 16th-note repetitions, which can be used to create ostinato grooves. (I must admit the arpeggios sounded so real to me that I thought they were live played phrases, a lack of acumen which probably qualifies me for the job of judge on Britain's Got Talent.) Although not intended as a replacement for your main sequencer, this is nevertheless a powerful addition to VI Pro which has many creative applications.
Two new controllers open up further musical options: 'Cell Sequence' automatically advances though a matrix's patches every time you play a note, and the ingenious 'Interval Map' controller switches between three cells in response to melodic intervals: your first note triggers cell number one, cell two is triggered when the next note is higher than the previous one, and cell three kicks in when the next note is lower. Clever stuff.
It's ironic to hear VSL, traditionally paragons of musical precision, banging the drum for human imperfection. Phrases like "stunning realism through imperfection” and "random patterns produce authenticity” may make good advertising copy, but what do they actually mean? The claims refer to VI Pro's 'Humanize' function, which can impart small timing delays and tuning variations to individual instruments. You can choose from a large menu of factory tuning curves (most of which subtly affect the start of the note), or draw your own.
Having spent a lifetime pursuing the ideal of musicians playing in tune and in time with each other, I'm a little sceptical about the idea of an automated process magically producing 'human feel'. However, I would say that if used carefully, the Humanize feature has some clear benefits: it can subtly broaden the tuning of an ensemble, thereby making it sound a little more lush; you can use it to detune one instrument against another, which produces a pleasant chorusing effect; and you can spread the pizzicatos' tight attacks to create a looser ensemble feel. So while this is no universal musical panacea, it's a good example of the countless control features that make this library so malleable.
The combination of individual player access, alternative mappings and fastidious attention to detail has generated VSL's largest library yet, and this is just the first chapter. Dimension Strings cellos will come next (hopefully in summer 2013), to be followed by violas and, finally, double basses. Although no release date is set, it's clear that completing this million-sample collection is a priority for the company. Those awaiting its arrival will be comforted by the fact that all the material has been recorded, and the Vienna programming team has been expanded in order to get the job done as soon as possible.
If your orchestral sample needs are confined to a common-or-garden violin section to sweeten an arrangement, there are plenty of other libraries to choose from. The distinguishing quality of this one is the ability to customise individual instruments' performances in unprecedented detail, enabling users to produce arrangements of great precision, depth, subtlety and musical power. Capable of intimacy and grandeur, this library promises to be the most user-configurable sampled string orchestra on the planet, and an orchestral control freak's dream.
Like Vienna Dimension Strings' violin section, 8Dio's Adagio Violins (50GB) represents the first instalment of a complete string library which will eventually also comprise violas, cellos and double basses. Adagio Violins has 11-piece and three-piece violin sections and a solo violin. Other pro-quality violin sections tend to be found in full orchestral string collections with no section size options; the notable exceptions being Kirk Hunter's Concert Strings II (approx 35GB) and Audiobro's 40GB LA Scoring Strings 2, both of which offer full, half, quarter and solo versions of their 16-violin sections.
- Eight Violins (available now)
- Six Violas (release date TBC)
- Six Cellos (release date TBC)
- Four Double Basses (release date TBC)
- Sustained (vibrato/no vibrato*/prog vibrato*)
- Long detaché*
- Short detaché
- Tremolo (normal/slow)*
- Harmonics (sustained/staccato/tremolo normal/tremolo slow)*
- Snap pizzicato*
- Col legno*
- Legato (vibrato /no vibrato*/esp*)
- Portamento (vibrato/no vibrato*/esp*)
- Performance trill (legato)*
- Performance trill (marcato)*
Dynamics, Repetition & Effects
- Crescendo/diminuendo (2/3/4 secs)*
- Pfp (2/4/6 secs)*
- Rep. legato/portato/spiccatocato
- Rep. staccato*
- Rep-cresc. legato/portato/staccato/spiccato*
- Fast repeated staccato 16th-note phrases (140/150/160/170/180/200 bpm)*
- Effects (finger noises, breathing, page turn, and so on)
(* Extended library; esp = espressivo; prog = progressive; rep. = note repetitions;
rep-cresc. = crescendo note repetitions).
All articulations except portamentos and effects are duplicated in six mappings: Regular, Open String and Force G/D/A/E String.
The phrase 'Auto-divisi' was something of an industry buzzword a few years ago. The idea is that when you play a chord, an automated process magically assigns its notes to the correct instruments; for example, distributing a triad between (from top down) first violins, second violins and violas. The result is instant orchestration, with no user effort.
Automated voice allocation is implemented in VI Pro, but not quite in the way described above. The user-customisable Auto Voicing feature automatically splits chord voices so that (for example) the individual pitches of a four-note chord are distributed across four patches, while a single note triggers a single patch. The distribution is determined by the order in which you play the notes, based on microscopic timing variations that occur even in the most precisely-played chord: the first note past the post is allocated to patch number one, and so on.
Being time-based rather than pitch-based, Auto Voicing can't determine that your lowest note should be assigned to (say) a bassoon rather than a piccolo, and therefore it can't produce classic orchestrations in real time. However, it's an effective tool for automatically switching between a solo instrument and instrument groups of various sizes. Auto Voicing is not designed to work with legato patches, as the overlapping notes required to trigger legato transitions are interpreted as new voices.
Making such a system pitch-responsive would inevitably introduce latency. According to VSL's Herb Tucmandl, the notes of a keyboard chord tend to spread over a 25-50 millisecond period, after which the player engine needs time to analyse the pitches and decide how to allocate them. In the company's opinion, this delay makes auto-arranging a live keyboard part impractical. In addition, the complexities of strings voice-leading and the need to avoid wrong legato connections are obstacles that led to the decision not to include any Auto Voicing factory matrices or presets in Dimension Strings.
Dimension Strings runs exclusively on VSL's Vienna Instruments player, supplied free with the library. First-time VSL buyers need to purchase a USB Vienna Key made by eLicenser (formerly Syncrosoft), available from VSL's site. Other makes of eLicenser protection device (such as Steinberg and Arturia) can also store VSL licenses, but iLok keys are not compatible.
The library requires around 90GB of disk space for installation: 33.5GB is for the download of 26 compressed .CAB files, which decompress to a 57.1GB set of 118 .DAT files on your hard drive. The .CAB files can safely be deleted once installation is complete.
DV requires Windows 7 (latest Service Pack, 32-/64-bit) or Mac OS 10.6 (latest update); the RTAS version requires Pro Tools 7.3 or higher. VSL recommend an Intel i5/i7/Xeon PC or an Intel Core 2 Duo Mac and 8GB of RAM, but 4GB of RAM will suffice for smaller instrument templates. For more details, see www.vsl.co.at/en/211/442/344/2512/2514/2162.htm.