Sonic Implants' 12GB Symphonic Strings Collection, which was reviewed in SOS in November 2002 (see www.soundonsound.com/sos/nov02/articles/sonicimplants.asp), established the American East Coast outfit as a purveyor of high-class orchestral samples, and remains one of the best string libraries in the business. Encouraged by the success of their strings collection, the company commissioned the Symphonic Brass Collection (or SBC), a 10.9GB opus in the same mould. To maintain the excellent sonic quality of the strings and ensure musical compatibility between the two libraries, Sonic retraced their steps and hired the same engineers, the same hall (Sonic Temple Studio in Massachusetts) and players from the same orchestra to record their new brass project.
The studio's splendid appearance (seen on the documentation accompanying the library, reproduced opposite) is matched by its pleasant, natural sound. With a 60-foot wooden floor, plaster walls and a high arched ceiling, the space creates a lively hall ambience which imparts acoustic depth and excitement to instruments without smothering them in reverb. Under the direction of producer and Sonic Implants co-founder Jennifer Hruska (a former head of sound design at Kurzweil), award-winning engineers John Bono and Antonio Oliart recorded players from the Boston Pops orchestra, using the same front pair of B&K 4011 mics used on the string sessions back in 2001.
Unlike some recent orchestral libraries, SBC doesn't offer multiple mic placements resulting in a choice of listening perspectives — however, the extensive use of optional release samples (see the box towards the end of this article) does give users some control over the amount of 'hall' in the sound. The B&K mics were used as a front stereo pair throughout, supplemented by a variety of 'spot' (ie. close) microphones, for example Cole ribbon mics on the trumpets, Lawson tube mics on the trombones, and a Neumann TLM170 on the tuba (some of these mics can be seen in the picture at the end of this article). The samples were recorded at 24-bit/48kHz into Pro Tools.
Following a convention established by Miroslav Vitous in 1992, the library provides both ensembles and solo instruments. The inclusion of multiple section sizes gives flexibility for orchestration, but it should be noted that some of the larger sections have been programmed; the 'six French horns' programs, for example, don't feature recordings of six horns playing together, but were created by layering a horn duo over four horns. You can see SBC's complete instrumentation and actual section sizes listed in the box over the page.
Stylistically, the library concentrates on straight multisamples, with no played crescendos or diminuendos, grace notes, chords, licks, phrases, runs, impressionistic effects or overt sonic processing. As with the string collection, the delivery and recording style is naturalistic. The programmed ensembles (layered sections of different instruments) are a handy starting point for anyone looking for a general-purpose orchestral brass sound, while the individual ensembles and solo instruments offer a large range of detailed musical alternatives. On a technical note, congratulations to the US company for looping all the sustained notes in the library, a gargantuan task which they also undertook for their strings. It must have taken an eternity, but the peace of mind that comes from knowing that a sustained chord will go on sounding until you lift your fingers more than justifies the time and effort!
In sampling sessions, it's good practice for musicians to play each note a few times before moving on to the next pitch. The repetition is reassuring for the player and the sound engineer, and provides an opportunity for a bad sample to be immediately corrected. Good musicians tend to produce repeated notes of a consistently high standard, so rather than agonising over whether the first, second or third take constitutes the definitive sample, producers have started to include all the alternatives and leave it to users to pick their favourites! This appears to be the case with the Symphonic Brass Collection — throughout the library, the staccato and double-tongue 'ta' and 'ka' performances are presented in a choice of three takes, thus avoiding the 'same sample every time' syndrome, and also creating the opportunity for double- and triple-tracking.
SBC is manufactured on three DVDs and packaged in a capacious, 12-inch cardboard box. This gives the product the upmarket feel of a 1960s classical LP box set, but also places a strain on music room shelf space! Two booklets are included, one a general overview of the library and its playing styles, the other supplying a complete program list and some useful Gigastudio programming tips (the latter throwing much-needed light on the impenetrable mysteries of the program's instrument editor). Both booklets are highly informative, although baffling references to 'First Violins' in the second indicate that its text (obviously derived from the string library's documentation) has not been properly proof-read...
As this review was going to press in late 2004, the library was available in Gigastudio format only. Sonic Implants have recently announced that they are planning a Gigastudio 3 compatible version of the library, which has an expected shipping date of January 2005, so it may be coming out just as you read this. However, this review was conducted using the 16-bit version under Gigastudio 160. The Sonic Implants web site generously states that anyone who buys the 16-bit set after November 15th is eligible for a free upgrade to the 24-bit Gigastudio 3 version. Finally, EXS24 and Kontakt versions are also apparently under consideration, but these are unlikely to appear for quite some time.
The Giga samples are saved in eight big, compressed files, conveniently grouped by instrument type so you don't have to install everything in one sitting; if you suddenly feel an overpowering urge to hear French horns, you can load them separately and relatively quickly. Installation is handled by a Wizard which prompts you for a serial number, postal address, your inside leg measurement, and so on.
I'd strongly advise against installing a big library like SBC in a time-sensitive situation such as a recording session; the process invariably takes longer than you think (in this case, over an hour), and it's easy to lose track of which parts you've installed (especially since the uncompressed files have bland, non-musical names like Trombones_A.exe). A further consideration is that there are way too many cryptically abbreviated performance options to get your head round immediately. Do yourself a favour — set aside some quality time, install the instruments carefully and methodically, and use the loading time constructively by reading the booklets!
Once the installation was complete, I found myself looking at five folders labelled Trumpets, Trombones, French horns, Tubas and Ensembles, each containing hundreds of programs. With so many files vying for screen space, it was hard to achieve any kind of overview, so I created individual folders for each section type ('Solo Trumpet', 'Two Trumpets', 'Three Trumpets', and so on), and sorted the instruments into their respective categories. The end result — 12 folders dedicated to individual sections and solo instruments, plus a 13th for my personal setups — was a lot easier to manage.
On to the samples, starting with the ensembles called 'three trumpets'. Their four main styles (legato and marcato sustains, staccato and double-tongue short notes) are not actually recordings of three trumpets playing together, but three-player 'virtual ensembles' constructed by layering two-trumpet samples with the library's solo trumpet. That said, these performances sound very strong and convincing, and the layering in no way distracts from their musical power and realism. The legatos and marcatos sound bright, confident and imposing, the latter given extra weight by a heavier, emphatic attack which subsides into a quieter sustain. Both styles have four dynamic layers, and sound nicely in tune throughout the trumpets' three-octave range (E3 to E6). Layering the legatos and marcatos creates a majestic fanfare sound, fit to greet the arrival of the Queen of Sheba.
The three layered trumpets' tight staccatos also comprise four dynamic levels, and their timbral nuances and precise, energetic delivery will enhance any arrangement. The staccatos' abrupt cut-off enables Sonic Temple's hall ambience to be heard clearly, its bright, natural acoustic perfectly suited to the tone of brass instruments. The same goes for the 'double-tongue' performances — a recurring feature of the library, these are very short notes with a clearly articulated attack. The sound (designated 'ta', 'ka' or 'spit') is determined by the player's tongue position. Users can play these short attacks on their own (the 'spit' variety being particularly effective), or use them as an overlay to add definition to the front of legato notes.
The remainder of the three trumpets' performance styles are performed by three unison trumpets. Their bright, raspy sforzando samples come in three flavours: 'sfz hit only' (a shortish stab), 'sfz soft hold' (the same layered over a quiet, three-second sustain), and a 'sfz mod wheel crescendo' option where the sforzando hit is combined with a long sustain, the level of which is controlled by the wheel. This programming trick enables the simulation of the dramatic 'sfz crescendo' effect beloved of brass arrangers — but sadly, the layering introduces some minor tuning issues.
Other trumpet trio styles include semitone and tone trills (the latter rather sloppily played) and some well-executed flutter tongue sustains. While I always enjoy hearing this somewhat specialised delivery, it's arguable that the time taken to record it could be better spent covering more mainstream areas. The addition of straight mutes renders the three trumpets' broad, handsome tone thinner and more pointed (though still evocative), reminding me of the brass on 1930s recordings. 'With mutes' styles comprise legato, staccato, flutter tongue and some whole-heartedly played big-band style 'falls' (one-second hits which end in a falling pitch). Jazz and pop arrangers should enjoy those.
The two components of the programmed trumpet ensembles are also presented separately, playing legato, marcato, staccato and double-tongue deliveries. Heard alone, the two-trumpet section lacks the commanding tone of the programmed trio, but that's OK; in orchestral music, not every sound needs to leap out and grab the listener's attention, and these two-player unisons are quite capable of handling supporting lines, filling in backgrounds, and generally doing the more subtle things in an arrangement.
The solo trumpet sounds very strong, and it's easy to see why the producers chose to incorporate it in their three trumpets programs — all its performances are executed with panache, giving the ensembles a lot of their strength, character and brilliance. As a bonus, the lone trumpet player also whips out some fine 'solo melodic' samples, featuring four-dynamic legato sustains played with a very subtle vibrato. This is far preferable to the over-excited, braying wobble of a trumpet in Rio carnival mode — in an orchestral context, such overstated vibrato would stick out like a sore thumb.
Symphonic Brass Collection: Instrumentation
TROMBONES — 3.54GB
Solo bass trombone — 808MB.
Two tenor trombones — 980MB.
Three trombones* (two tenor and one bass) — 1750MB.
TUBAS — 0.69GB
Solo tuba in 'C' — 583MB.
Solo tuba in 'E' flat — 103MB.
BRASS ENSEMBLE* — 1.24GB
Trumpets, tenor and bass trombones, French horns and tuba — 1240MB.
TRUMPETS — 2.77GB
Solo trumpet (709MB).
Two trumpets (506MB).
Three trumpets (507MB).
Three trumpets* (two trumpets and a solo trumpet) — 1043MB.
FRENCH HORNS — 2.72GB
Solo horn — 260MB.
Two horns — 1110MB.
Four horns — 1080MB.
Six horns* (four horns and two horns) — 268MB.
Note: '*' = Programmed ensemble.
One problem with sampling brass instruments is that their tone can change dramatically with volume; quiet notes sound soft and enclosed, while loud ones are ear-splittingly bright and open-sounding. This can lead to disconcertingly obvious changes in timbre when moving between dynamic layers, but SBC have managed to side-step this problem with their two-trombone ensemble; their tone progresses quite smoothly from piano to forte, and even when the loudest fortissimo layer kicks in, there is no obvious tonal discontinuity. Sensibly, the producers reserved the brightest, most rasping trombone timbre for the sforzando performances. I found that these 'sfz' samples were very useful for adding a strong attack to the two trombones' legato and marcato sustains, resulting in a powerful, brilliant-sounding trombone ensemble ideally suited to underscoring triumphal Hollywood moments!
As well as trotting out the library's trademark staccatos and double tongues, the two trombones do some entertaining performance stuff: slowish, up and down tritone glissandi (perfect for salacious intros or on-screen pratfalls), lively, robust falls and rips (the latter's pitch rising a tone or so), and flutter-tongue samples which might fool you into thinking your speakers have blown. Nostalgia reigns when the trombonists fix their mutes and squeeze out that attenuated, 1940s on-the-radio tone, evoking the golden era when Stanley Matthews was the forces' sweetheart and Vera Lynn played on the wing for England [surely some mistake? — Ed]. But when the muted 'bones whip out their rips and falls (as we say in the trade), the mood changes — though no doubt played in all seriousness, these are great samples for comedy music.
Strangely, no solo tenor trombone is included, which slightly impairs the library's musical flexibility. However, there is a solo bass trombone (incorrectly named 'baritone trombone' in the documentation). Sadly, this fruity, melodic-sounding instrument suffers from the obvious jumps in timbre mentioned earlier, especially when moving to its loudest dynamic in the low register — having said that, every sampled bass trombone I've heard does the same! The instrument's bottom note is G1, but Sonic Implants have promised a 'pedal tones' program descending to a shudderingly low B flat 0 in a future upgrade. The bass trombone plays the same set of performance variations as the two tenor trombones, sounding particularly energised in its glissandi and muted rips.
Having captured a matching range of performances from a pair of unison tenor trombones and a solo bass trombone, Sonic Implants layered the two sets of samples to produce 'virtual' three-trombone sections. In these, you'll only hear three trombones playing in the C2 to E4 range; high notes from F4 up to E flat 5 are played by the tenors only, while the bottom few notes are handled by the bass trombone. Within their range of over two octaves, the three trombones' marcato sustains sound glorious, but the double-tongue performances suffer from bad tuning — the two trombones' 'ta' and 'ka' samples have been tweaked well sharp of concert pitch, and sound pretty sour when combined with the bass trombone's in-tune versions. Hopefully, this will be fixed in a forthcoming articulation file update, or the Gigastudio 3 version of the library.
The 'three trombones' programs duplicate all the performance variations played by the two trombones and bass trombone, making the trombones' performances the only ones to be fully implemented across the different sections.
Like many contemporary sound libraries, the Symphonic Brass Collection offers users the option of programs with built-in release samples. In case you're not familiar with the term, 'release samples' are basically samples of reverb trails. When recording in an ambient room or concert hall, the reverb (ie. the room ambience) can be heard dying away when a note stops sounding; during the editing stage, the initial note is trimmed off, and its reverb is turned into a separate sample. Sample players like Gigastudio and Kontakt permit these auxiliary, reverb-only samples to be triggered at the point when a key is released, thus coining the name 'release triggers'. As you might expect, the release samples are usually appended to the note from which they were derived, thus ensuring continuity of sound and avoiding tuning mismatches!
The big advantage of using release samples is that they cause a real-life room ambience to occur when a sample stops sounding, irrespective of note length. This is particularly useful for looped sustains, as without the help of a release trigger, a looped sample (which, being looped, never reaches its natural end point) can sound unnaturally dry and abrupt on note-off.
Where memory conservation is an issue, 'no release' programs use fewer samples and so consume less RAM, but once you've heard release samples in action, no-release versions can sound flat and uninspiring by comparison. However, users who want to add their own reverb may prefer their dryer, more neutral effect.
Buyers of SBC should get a lot of mileage from the French horn ensembles — they're very classy, and some performances sound quite magnificent. The four horns' five-layer legato sustains are among the most playable and versatile samples in the library — their lower four dynamics range from a tender piano up to a strong (but still fairly mellow) fortissimo, with smooth, practically undetectable timbral transitions. When the fifth, fff layer takes over, the horns' timbre flares into that unmistakable, thrilling orchestral brass sound which combines breadth of tone with a fierce cutting edge. In cinematic terms, this is the kind of exultant din required for the scene when the ship's lookout sights land, the chariot enters the gladiatorial arena, or the herd of dinosaurs trample the bad guys.
According to the documentation, the horns' fabulous fifth layer is created by a delivery called 'bells up' (I've never come across this term before, though I do have considerable experience of the performance style we English call the 'balls up'). As the booklet explains, the French horn's bell is held 'up in the air facing the audience instead of against the body facing away'. Fair enough — it certainly makes a great, exciting racket, far preferable to the noise produced when the bell is thrust into a vat of lentil soup. For anyone who wants to cut straight to the chase, there are 'bells up only' programs, stirring marcato sustains and sforzandos with powerful, dominant attacks.
After some time playing the velocity-switched sustains, I found myself wishing I could program a realistic-sounding crescendo. This proved easy — the horns' long notes include 'mod wheel crossfade' programs which use the wheel to move smoothly between the dynamic layers. Hearing the horns' tone grow steadily brighter as the volume increases is very realistic, and feels very much like turning a knob to open or close a synth's filter. The great advantage of this method over real-life crescendo and diminuendo performances is that users can control the timing of the swell!
The four horns distinguish themselves further with some fine glissandi, the two-octave ascending variety giving a satisfying, rowdy whoop and the descending type sounding more like a jazz/pop fall. Played with mutes, the horns lose their warm, mellow quality and sound more martial and trumpet-like, while hand-stopped performances utterly transform the horns' timbre into that intense, buzzy sound traditionally used in arrangements as a musical wake-up call.
Like a tribute band lacking a couple of members, a duo of two French horns copy everything the four horns do, with the exception of glissandi. The duo performs creditable (if less spectacular) versions of each performance style, their more subtle sound suitable to supporting roles and/or more intimate music. By combining this horn duo with the four horns, the library's programmers created a virtual six-horn ensemble offering staccatos, sforzandos and 'bells up' legatos, each sounding very strong. Almost as an afterthought, a solo French horn makes an appearance, offering only two deliveries: restrained, subtle legatos and perky staccatos, both essential for arrangements. If the solo horn's contribution appears slender, it's worth remembering that its 260MB of sample data would have filled over half of an Akai-format CD-ROM!
The tuba often plays the bass note in brass chords, performing the vital role given to the bass guitar in rock music. As owners of car stereos across South London will testify, bass notes need a strong sound, good attack and a steady pitch, and that's exactly what this tuba player brings to the table. The large contraption's four-dynamic legatos sound satisfyingly big and rounded, their stately tones given a boost by Sonic Temple's felicitous acoustics. As with the horns and tenor trombones, moving up through the dynamic layers causes no crude jumps in timbre, merely (in this case) a slight change in the intensity of the attack. As well as being a good source of strong, stable root notes, SBC's tuba sounds convincing and eloquent playing melody lines throughout its three-octave, C1 to E4 range.
The smart, emphatic delivery of the tuba's staccatos mean that you can program passages of short fast notes with no fear of the samples sounding indistinct. For a heavier, more brassy delivery, there are one-dynamic marcato sustains, which could be used to add a fifth, 'fff' layer to the legatos. However, the most impressive samples are the tasty 'sfz' performances, which show this tuba at its most assertive, stately and sonorous. In its small but enjoyable effects section, the tuba's upward 'rips' put me in mind of a surprised elephant, and the mad 'extended rips' contain a couple of samples which seem to end with the player suppressing a giggle. I had the same reaction.
The aforementioned samples were all played on a 'C' tuba, but for the muted performance styles, the player switched to a smaller, E-flat instrument. Once again, the mute radically alters the instrument's tone, giving the marcatos a real cutting edge, and transforming the sforzando low notes into a collection of magnificent, flatulent trumps. Overall, the tuba performances are delivered in some style, and their weighty, musically poised samples will add depth and stability to orchestral brass arrangements.
A Whiff Of Corruption?
In the Gigastudio review copy of the Symphonic Brass Collection, a fault in the GIG file '4 Horns Mute Staccato' on the first DVD of the set consistently caused my copy of Gigastudio 160 to crash, the host PC to freeze and the reviewer to utter a string of unprintable curses. Sonic Implants have promised to send an update disk directly to any users who should experience the same problem.
Orchestral libraries very rarely feature mixed ensembles (violas and cellos playing at the same time, unison trombones and French horns, and so on), and SBC's ensembles are no exception — they were created by layering and mapping the library's individual instruments and sections. Not true multi-instrument brass ensembles, then — but close your eyes and you'll never know you're not hearing the real thing.
Mapping the orchestra's brass instruments across over five octaves is not a straightforward job. Sonic Implants' programmers approached the task scientifically, dividing the wide compass into six zones and allocating the instruments thus: Tuba (C1-A1), tuba and bass trombone (A#1-D#2), bass trombone and two tenor trombones (E2-A#2), two tenor trombones and four French horns (B2-A#3), four French horns and two trumpets (B3-F4), two trumpets and a solo trumpet (F#4-E6).
This formula is repeated more or less identically in six performance styles (legato, marcato, staccato, sforzando, muted legato and muted staccato). Though realistic, fairly powerful and musically logical, the ensembles' overall effect is not as spectacular as I would have hoped, and there are some discontinuities of tone at the low end (this is especially noticeable in the sforzandos, where the 'trombones only' zone sounds thin and unsupported). Layering the largest ensembles (three trumpets, three trombones and six horns) might yield more exciting results (albeit within a more limited pitch range), but this is where users need to get their hands dirty and experiment — Sonic Implants have provided the individual ensembles, and all you have to do is combine them!
SBC's producers put a lot of effort into providing programs which facilitate dynamic expression, while managing to avoid swamping users with too many options. Their programming scheme focuses on practical choices — as described earlier, there are 'mod wheel crossfade' and 'mod wheel swell' options for the creation of realistic crescendos and diminuendos, programs which use keyswitching or the mod wheel to quickly switch between two dynamic layers, and also programs containing switchable alternate takes. For musical situations requiring a more limited dynamic response, users can select a program containing fewer dynamic layers, and there are also single-dynamic programs for passages marked piano, or forte. Implemented throughout the library, such features make it easier to play the samples in a musically expressive way.
Since entering the sampling world in 1986, Sonic Implants have produced an interesting catalogue of titles comprising ethnic drums and percussion, Middle Eastern instruments, drum kits, multisampled guitars, basses and organs, and more. Orchestral libraries are a relatively new departure for the company, but on the strength of this collection and the excellent string library that preceded it, you'd have to say that it's something they do well. The playing, recording and programming are all of a high standard, resulting in a set of samples which sound polished, powerful and assured.
I have only one gripe — the title. Is it just me, or are the names of orchestral sample libraries beginning to converge? It's all Symphonic this, Orchestral that or Classical the other, to the point where it's getting hard to tell them apart. Can someone please show some initiative and call their library Phineas Foghorn's Brazen Brass Blasters or Musicians In Dickie Bows Making A Big Pompous Noise? Joking apart, the title is the only dull thing about Sonic Implants' latest orchestral offering — scratch the surface of their brass collection, and you'll find gold shining through.