As shown by reviews of recent products from both East West and Zero G, custom versions of NI's Intakt and Kompakt are becoming popular choices for developers as the virtual-instrument 'front end' for their sample libraries. East West/Quantum Leap's Colossus is supplied with Kompakt as its playback engine, which is identical to the version of Kompakt included with East West's Vapor, reviewed in February's Sound On Sound (see www.soundonsound.com/sos/feb05/articles/eastwest.htm). While 'Colossus' might have a number of meanings, it's a pretty safe bet that East West are referring to size as much as sound, given that the samples arrive on a total of eight DVDs and require approximately 32GB of hard drive space for full installation!
While a fixed front-end has both pros and cons for the user, one key advantage for the developer is that it offers some degree of copy protection — the samples can only be accessed via the bundled Kompakt (or via the full versions of NI's software-sampler applications) and on-line registration is required via the NI web site, preventing more unscrupulous users from passing the library around their local recording community.
In advertising Colossus, East West make comparisons with the way a hardware keyboard workstation attempts to span all common musical styles by providing a wide range of Instrument types. The manual also suggests that Colossus might be considered a 'Swiss Army Knife' for composition, given the breadth of its coverage. In essence, with Colossus, East West seem to be trying to create a one-stop sample shop — a single library that, for some musicians, might provide the larger part of their bread-and-butter sounds. The manual also suggests that the library might appeal to live musicians. And if you are not brave enough to depend upon your laptop at gigs, then there is a hardware rackmounted version of Colossus in development, based on Muse's Receptor hardware. Having cleared out enough hard drive space for installation and laid in sufficient provisions to explore a 32GB sample library, it was time to find out whether Colossus could deliver the goods...
Colossus runs on both Macs and PCs, and has a surprisingly undemanding minimum spec for such a vast library. East West claim that it will run on Pentium III or Athlon processors faster than 700MHz, and on G4 Macs faster than 733MHz. Windows XP or Mac OS X (from version 10.2.6 onwards) are required, as is 512MB of RAM on both platforms.
As already mentioned, Colossus is supplied on eight DVDs. Installation is, however, very straightforward — if a little time-consuming, simply because of the volume of data involved. You can specify the drive/folder location of the sample files, and which formats of the Kompakt plug-in you require; a stand-alone version is available, in addition to VST (Mac and PC), RTAS (Mac and PC) and DXi (PC) formats. Colossus is supplied with a slim printed manual covering the operation of Kompakt, but all other documentation, including a full list of the sampled instruments, is supplied in electronic format. The final stage of the installation process requires authorisation of the library based upon the combination of a supplied serial number and a system-specific ID number generated by the installer. This can be completed on line within a minute or two (and worked without a hitch on my test system) but authorisation can also be completed from another computer or by post.
To briefly recap, Kompakt is a slimmed-down version of NI's flagship sampler instrument, Kontakt (for more on this application, check out the review of version 2 on page 82 of this month's issue). As you can see from the screenshots accompanying this article, East West have retained the cool blue Kompakt colour scheme seen in Vapor. The screen layout is divided into five main elements. The top portion of the interface is split into two of these; the Multi section and the Instrument section. The Multi section allows up to eight sample sets to be loaded (each termed an 'Instrument') from the library. Highlighting any one of these in the Multi list then allows its tuning, filter and amp controls to be adjusted within the Instrument section. While no Multis are provided with Colossus, users can save their own Multis for later recall once they've loaded a particular set of individual Instruments into the eight slots. This is particularly useful for groups of orchestral sounds, for example, where several different string or brass sample sets might often be used together.
Beneath the Multi/Instrument elements are the Modulation, Effects and Keyboard sections of the user interface and, again, these are Instrument-specific with the values shown for the instrument currently selected in the Multi list. The Reverb, Chorus, Delay and Master Filter in the Effects section are basic but effective, while the Modulation section provides three envelopes and four filters. These additional processing options are obviously useful to have, although they are probably going to see less action with some of the 'real' instruments available in Colossus (such as the orchestral sounds) than with the more synthetic instruments (such as the pads or synth lead/bass sounds).
Given the size of some of the Colossus instruments, East West recommend downloading the DFD (Direct From Disc) extension for Kompakt from NI's web site (see overleaf). This allows samples to be streamed from your hard drive rather than fully loaded into memory. Once installed, settings for the DFD function can be made via the Options menu (within the Multi section of the user interface), although during testing, I had no problems using the default values for the DFD streaming.
Before turning to the sounds themselves, three observations about the Kompakt playback engine are worthy of a reminder. First, as I observed when reviewing Vapor, it is not possible to assign hardware MIDI controllers to any of the other on-screen parameters when using this bundled version of Kompakt, aside from volume, pitch-bend, pan and modulation. Write-enabling the Kompakt automation track within Cubase SX (my plug-in host of choice) does allow real-time mouse twiddling of the on-screen controls to be transmitted to Cubase for recording, although this is obviously not quite as musician-friendly as using a proper hardware controller. Second, while the supplied version of Kompakt does offer considerable playback and processing capabilities, it is not able to import samples from outside the Colossus library. Thirdly, the sounds in Colossus, rather like those in a Reason Refill which can only be accessed from Propellerhead's software studio, can only be accessed via NI products — either the supplied version of Kompakt, or one of the full versions of NI's software samplers. Of course, you can deal with all three of these issues by purchasing a full version of NI's Kontakt, for example, but committed users of samplers such as Halion, Gigastudio or EXS24 need not apply!
As mentioned above, East West's intention with Colossus is to provide musicians and composers with a single library that can meet all their basic sampled instrument needs. As a consequence, the samples in Colossus are organised into 19 Instrument groups (listed in the box on the last page of this article), amongst which nearly 600 Kompakt instrument patches are spread — although this number of individual Instruments is both an over- and an underestimate. Some Instruments appear twice, as there is a GM-compatible group (see the 'GM Crop' box for details) that contains a collection of sounds taken from other groups. On the other hand, a good number of Instruments (particularly amongst the synth sounds) feature sample layers containing very different sounds, with mod wheel-controlled morphing between them.
Of the 32GB of sample data, some 15GB represents new 24-bit recordings made at Ocean Way Studio B, while a further 2GB is taken up by new samples of a Fazioli F308 piano recorded in a well-known European hall environment. However, given East West's wide ranging catalogue of existing sampled instruments, it would be surprising if some existing material did not also make an appearance in something as extensive as Colossus — and that is indeed the case. Some 15GB has been extracted from other Quantum Leap/East West libraries, including EW/QL's Symphonic Orchestra, East West's Steinway B Piano (apparently the full version of this Giga-format library is duplicated here) and there are contributions from the Quantum Leap titles Stormdrum, Guitar and Bass, 56 Strat, Hardcore Bass, RA (the collection of ethnic/world instruments), Brass and Voices Of The Apocalypse. All of these existing samples have apparently been reprogrammed to take the best advantage of the various features of the bundled Kompakt front end.
For the purposes of this review, it makes most sense to consider the 19 Instrument groups in a smaller number of associated types (for example, all the drums and percussion together) so, without further ado, let's dip into the sounds themselves.
Some 38 drum kits are included in Colossus, split between two groups; Acoustic Drumkits and Electric Drumkits. The Acoustic sets are pretty much what you would expect and provide a varied selection of kits suitable for everything from pop, funk, jazz and rock. In contrast, the Electric sets are based around heavily processed acoustic sounds with plenty of options for more dance-orientated sounds. For most of the kits, the sounds consist of kick, snare, rim-shot, hi-hat, toms and other cymbals, with the occasional clap, cow-bell and tambourine included. Usefully, these sounds are mapped to the keyboard in a standard GM fashion.
The Acoustic Kits are uniformly very useable. While the manual gives very little away in terms of the detailed sample structure of any of the Colossus instrument groups, these kits seems to feature a sufficient number of velocity layers to provide a performance with convincing dynamics. This is particularly true of the main snare in most of the kits, which seems to feature not only velocity-sensitive layers (with suitable extra sizzle from the snares themselves as the drum is played harder) but also automatically alternating left/right-hand samples when the snare is played repeatedly. This is great for drum rolls, as it avoids the same sample being repeated over and over again in rapid succession (the 'machine-gun' effect). The cymbals are also very good, with plenty of splash and sizzle, and the samples are long, so the tails to the crash cymbals don't feel truncated in any way — the DFD LED keeps flashing for some time after the crash cymbals are triggered. All the acoustic kits seem to have been recorded either fairly dry or with just a touch of room ambience and, for my taste at least, this is spot on — just enough 'air' to give the sounds a little life, but plenty of scope to process further with reverb or delay without the ambience of the sample getting in the way.
The kits' names reflect the style of the individual sounds and these vary from the fairly dry and clinical 'Studio' and 'Pro' kits through to the big and bold 'Stage' or 'Metal' kits. However, my particular favourites were the '60's Vintage' and 'Old School' kits, both of which featured nice tight snare sounds that would work in a variety of styles from pop through to punk. Other useful additions include two funk kits, jazz kits with both sticks and brushes and the wonderfully named 'Sushi' kit. While you could undoubtedly buy better individual sampled drum kits than this collection with Colossus, East West seem to have all the key musical options covered here in a very playable format.
The Electronic Kits group includes the '508' and '908' options, targeted very obviously at particular classic drum machines. However, the names of the majority of the other kits don't give much away but titles such as 'S&M', 'Alley-G' and 'Bush Is A Fairy' are at least intriguing enough to make you want to load them up to audition! As indicated earlier, the majority of these kits are based upon heavily processed acoustic drum sounds but there are also some more off-the-wall sounds to be found. There is plenty to suit all contemporary dance styles — but R&B and hip-hop would work particularly well with some of the kits given the sometimes quirky nature of the sounds.
Things That Make You Go 'Oooh'
Given the sheer size of the Colossus library, it would be almost unbelievable if a few gremlins were not to be found within the samples or their editing. During the review period, I have to say that these were very few and far between. However, on a very few occasions, I did stop and go 'ooohhh'...
For example, the marimba instrument from the Keyboard/Mallet group had a noticeable noise on the low/medium velocity layer for notes C3 and D3. Another instance was the harpsichord from the same group. While the sound of the instrument itself is very good, several notes contain an audible sound at the end of the sample as the note is released. This sounds like a mechanical noise related to the original recording, and while you might argue that it adds a 'realistic' element to the sound, it is somewhat distracting, and could perhaps have been addressed with some suitable editing. Some notes within the piccolo instrument also contained rather too much breath for my taste — again, this was a little distracting when heard as a solo instrument. My only other minor criticism would be with the occasional instrument where the transitions between velocity layers were a little sudden. These comments aside, from a technical perspective, East West and their programmers ought to be pretty satisfied with a job well done.
Colossus includes three Instrument groups that are dominated by plucking and strumming, helpfully titled Acoustic Guitar Family, Electric Guitar and the Electric Bass & Upright groups. Like many musicians whose weapon of choice is the guitar, while I'll occasionally turn to samples for solo guitars or basses, I almost always find it easier to record a real instrument for chord work. That said, amongst these three groups, there are both solo and chord instruments that are capable of some good results.
The Acoustic Guitar group contains 10 instruments. Three different versions of a Washburn acoustic are included — fingered, picked and strummed (which, oddly considering its name, doesn't contain any strummed chords) as well as a nice classical guitar. However, for me, the best of the bunch were the banjo, mandolin and ukelele and for fast picking parts (think bluegrass styles), these all worked particularly well. One obvious omission here is a 12-string acoustic — either picked or strummed — which is surprising given the overall size of the library. All these acoustic instruments are supplied with a number of velocity-sensitive layers. These include performance features in some instruments; for example, the 'Acoustic God' instrument includes both stopped notes and slides into notes at higher velocities. These performance features obviously take a little practice to use but can produce some very effective performances.
Of the 45 instruments within the Electric Guitar group, about one third have been taken from Quantum Leap's 56 Strat library. These provide a mixture of performance types (for example, lead, mute, 'chug' and 'power' chords) with bridge and neck pickup choices. There is also a nice 'Effects' instrument that contains all sorts of slides, hammer-ons and various plectrum noises — these could make nice embellishments to a lead line constructed from one of the associated 56 Strat instruments. From this group, 'Surf Spy' can be used to knock out a decent James Bond theme while some Hank Marvin-esque lines can be coaxed from 'Cloudwalk Lead'.
The remainder cover a range of clean, blues and rock-oriented sounds with a mixture of lead and chord-based instruments. Some of these more easily lend themselves to the creation of a convincing performance (as opposed to something that is supposed to sound like a sampled guitar). For example, 'PRS Chords' includes clean major, minor and seventh chords mapped across different sections of the keyboard and, used as part of a backing track, a simple chord progression can easily be created. 'Heavy Gtr Chords' also works well. This instrument features nu-metal-style damped fifth chords as a low velocity layer but with undamped fifths at higher velocities. This combination makes it fairly easy to create some crunching Metallica- or Linkin-Park-style riffing. For me, another highlight was the simple, but very effective 'Lapsteel' instrument. While it won't put Al Perkins out of work, used with a combination of a volume pedal and the Mod Wheel to control brightness, it is possible to create effective chord or lead lines.
The Electric Bass & Upright group contains various electric and acoustic basses, including both fingered and picked options and featuring two or three velocity layers to enhance the performance options. The electric sounds are solid without being overly exciting — although Kompakt's effects options can add a little more movement when required. The Upright Bass is a more inspiring. The basic 'Upright Bass' patch sounds really nice with a high velocity layer adding some fingerboard noise for interest. The other instruments add extra expression, vibrato and various effects (up and down slides) and combining these allows some very convincing acoustic bass lines to be constructed — ideal if you like to add the occasional touch of jazz to your tracks.
While the Pianos and Electric Pianos group has a number of special-effect style instruments (for example 'Creepy Piano' and 'Psychedellic Rhodes'), the highlights are the more conventional instruments. The two main acoustic pianos — the Steinway B and Fazioli F308 — both sound excellent, with very transparent transitions between the various velocity layers. The Steinway B is somewhat brighter sounding than the Fazioli and it presented fairly dry. It would quite happily suit rock & roll as well as classical styles of playing. The Fazioli is provided in two versions; a full 2GB instrument and a slightly brighter 1GB version. Both have a certain amount of ambience from the hall in which they were recorded but this is not overdone, and the result is a convincing and playable instrument which gets slightly brighter as the keys are struck harder.
Of the electric pianos, the '80s E-Piano' and 'Rhodes 88 Suitcase' are the clear standouts. Both of these get brighter at higher velocities. The former starts fairly warm but quickly changes to much brighter tones with a nice ring to them when pushed harder. The Rhodes is also warm at low velocities and, while it does brighten up a little when played harder, the sound never gets too top-heavy.
Amongst the other instruments within this group is a nice Clavinet, various other electric pianos (including several patches based upon the Yamaha GS1 — the first FM keyboard ever produced), a Honky Tonk piano and a number of 'piano + strings' sounds. Most of these are perfectly useable, although I'd rather layer my own versions of the latter within Kompakt as the decay settings on the strings seemed very abrupt in the various presets supplied.
The Vintage Organ group consists of a number of Kompakt instruments derived from sampled Hammond B3, Farfisa and Vox organs. Some 12 B3 patches are provided aimed at blues, jazz, rock and soul and each has a slightly different tone. For all these instruments, the Mod Wheel controls the speed of the Leslie Speaker and this effect works very well. While the B3 Instruments have been sampled very much 'as is', it might have been nice to have at least one instrument with a little bit of overdrive added for those Jon Lord/Deep Purple moments — although given the multiple outputs available from within Kompakt, this could always be added via a suitable plug-in in your host sequencer.
The various Farfisa organ patches are nicely done — although the sounds of this instrument are probably only going to have some niche applications — and a small number of splits are included where one sound is available to the left hand and another to the right. The Vox Combo and Continental instruments are equally well reproduced.
The Keyboard and Mallet group contains the expected assemblage of accordian, celeste, church organ, harpsichord, marimba and vibraphone instruments, amongst a few others. For me, the highlights amongst these are the church organ and the harpsichord, both of which have a very satisfying, full sound (although see the 'Things That Make You Go Oooh' box for some minor quibbles). Other goodies include the 'Tango Accordian' (which made me think of sea shanties) and the very nice vibraphone, where higher velocities produce a lovely bright, ringing tone.
Given the potential users that East West are targeting with Colossus, this GM sound set is a very neat idea. The only minor inconvenience is that there is no simple way to load the instruments within Kompakt based upon standard program-change numbers — this process has to be done manually. This said, in testing with some commercial MIDI files using these sounds, the results were impressive and well worth the effort.
All the necessary instrument types are represented within the Orchestral group. As well as solo instruments, a small number of sections/ensembles are included for the brass and strings. The 'Brass Section' instrument has velocity layering that produces a warm, soft sound at low velocities and then launches into very effective, bright, fanfare territory at high velocities — although it has to be said that there is not much between the two. Similar velocity layers are present in the three string ensemble instruments. All of these section/ensemble instruments also feature mod wheel control, providing a further opportunity to adjust the brightness.
Of the solo strings, the cello, viola and violin all sound convincing and feature velocity layering that changes the character of the sound. These would all suit slow or medium tempo phrases quite well and, when sustained, a nice vibrato is gradually introduced (quite strong on the cello). However, the attack of each instrument is probably not suitable for faster passages, even after adjusting the Volume Envelope settings in Kompakt. The 'Tremelo Strings' instrument [sic] is capable of being suitably spooky, although it is pretty intense. The only real oddity was the 'Pizzicato Strings' sound — while the strings themselves sound fine, the samples include a large dollop of hall ambience which is almost an echo. This patch would have perhaps been more versatile if presented a little drier.
The solo English horn (with a slight vibrato that appears on sustained notes), trombone, trumpet, tuba and French horn all capture the mellow tones required at lower velocities, while springing more fully to life at higher velocities. However, as with the strings, an extra velocity layer between the two might have made the instruments a little easier to play. In the wind instruments, the solo flute has just the right amount of breathiness and I also liked the oboe and clarinet instruments.
The Orchestral group also contains a powerful 'Orchestral Hit' patch and an excellent concert harp — this latter instrument has a beautiful, very soothing quality to it. Other instruments include a timpani patch (which usefully provides two keys for each pitch to make playing rolls somewhat easier) and a nice tubular bells instrument. Somewhat surprisingly, the Orchestral group does not include a general orchestral percussion instrument for cymbals, snares, timps and gongs.
A total of 11 instruments appear in the Choir group — five male and six female. In the main, these are sustained vowel sounds based on 'ah', 'mm' 'oh' and 'ee' sounds. Usefully, most of the patches feature mod-wheel crossfading between a non-vibrato and a vibrato version. With a little reverb added, these are all very effective for choral pads.
While the overall size of the Colossus library is huge and the quality of many of the Orchestral and Choir Instruments is very good, there are probably not enough basic articulations of the various instruments for anyone attempting to construct a full orchestral arrangement. For example, there are no staccato performances of the string or brass instruments. In that context, Colossus should not really be seen as a replacement for something like East West's own Symphonic Orchestra Silver Edition or Garritan Personal Orchestra, both of which offer a considerably larger choice of performance styles to the budding orchestral composer on a budget.
In contrast to my comments above about the relatively small number of performance styles included within the Orchestral group, the Pop Brass group has an abundance of these. For example, the trumpets include falls, staccato, short sustains, vibrato and cup mutes amongst a few others. The same is true of the tenor, alto and baritone saxes — a range of performance options and special effects are provided for each, although my favourite was the 'B Sax PPanther' instrument which was suitably deep and honky.
The Trombone options are also plentiful within this group and include some excellent falls, slides and wah performances, with the latter being great for those Tom and Jerry-style cues. There is also a very respectable 'Tuba God' instrument whose beefy staccato sounds would also work well for cartoon comedy cues. Another neat inclusion is the Salsa Trumpet, with both long and short fall options for when you need to add a little Latin element to a tune. If required, one or two of the staccato instruments from within the Pop Brass group would work quite happily in an orchestral setting.
The collection of instruments in the Ethic Pitched group includes all the usual suspects; agogo bells, bagpipes, didjeridoo, duduk, fiddle, koto, pan flute and shakuhachi are all present and correct. Where appropriate, a number of these include a vibrato layer that can be added via the mod wheel. For a touch of Outback drone, the didjeridoo has plenty of flatulent bottom end and the tone can be changed via the mod wheel to produce a quite convincing movement in sustained notes. The bagpipe sounds like a Scottish set — although, as with all sampled pipes, it does give itself away a little by staying in tune! Other useful inclusions are the low Irish whistle and Uilleann pipes, which do a decent job of adding something of a Celtic vibe.
The five Instruments in the Ethnic Percussion group include useful tablas and taiko drum instruments. The other three Kompakt patches are collections of percussion instruments, with each sound mapped to a different key. The best of this bunch is 'Ethnic Drums 88Key' which does pretty much what it says on the tin. There is also a 'GM Percussion' patch that contains all the percussion sounds typical of a GM drum collection but minus the standard drum kit sounds such as snare, kick, and hi-hat. Given these three collections of percussion sounds, the omission of an orchestral percussion set mentioned earlier is a little puzzling.
The New Age Ensemble group provides a series of layered sounds, combining one of the ethnic pitched instruments with a string or synth pad sound of some sort. Some of these are more effective than others but the titles (for example, 'Chi and Chang', 'Sri Lanka' and 'Weeping Dragon') give an impression of what is on offer. As with the 'Piano + Strings' Instruments in the Piano group, it is actually relatively easy to construct these types of sounds for yourself by layering two of the individual instruments from elsewhere within the library.
The Synth Bass and Synth Lead groups contain about 25 instruments between them. However, in the majority of cases, the mod wheel crossfades between two different sounds. There are some nice analogue-style sounds amongst this collection and for most types of synth-based pop or dance styles, there is plenty to get started. It is in this section of the library that Kompakt's additional processing options come to the fore and can be used to radically transform any of these preset sounds.
A somewhat larger collection of instruments is included in the Synth Pads section but, on the whole, these are a rather conservative bunch, although the 'Collossus Pad' [sic] is quite stirring. Thankfully, things get a little more interesting — and a little more abstract — within the Stormdrone group. These sounds are based on ethnic, orchestral and sound-effects samples and are intended more for creating atmosphere or sound design rather than music. The majority of them feature four-way crossfades using the mod wheel. The Instruments are split into three sub-categories; high morphs, low morphs and high-low morphs. A small number of drum loops are also thrown in for good measure. These would be just the thing for anyone who composes for the occasional horror film or who is in need of a suitably dark atmosphere. Patches such as 'Butcher's Blade', 'Apollo' and 'Preying Machine' are typical — wonderfully scary and not to be played to small children in a dark room!
Phew! There is no doubt that Colossus is aptly named — simply browsing through the presets is a major undertaking. As indicated earlier, East West are marketing Colossus as the software equivalent of a keyboard workstation, containing sounds that cover all musical genres and, on the whole, I think they have achieved this aim. It is also true, that with a very few exceptions, the quality of the sounds, both from an audio perspective and the technical details of the sample programming, is very good.
So, that's a tick in the 'Jack of All Trades' box then — but is Colossus a 'master' of any? There are certainly some extremely good groups of instruments. For me, the highlights include the range of acoustic and electronic drum kits and there is enough variety here to meet almost any musical need. The other exceptional group is the pianos — Colossus features two excellent acoustic pianos and a couple of electric pianos that just ooze class. However, there are also groups that are less strong. For example, while there is nothing to criticise in the quality of the majority of the orchestral instruments, for anyone interested in serious orchestral composition, Colossus simply does not feature enough different performance articulations. Of the other groups, the guitars and the synth pads, while containing some good individual instruments, are perhaps not the strongest suits in the Colossus pack.
Given these comments, to whom might Colossus appeal? Well, it would certainly be an efficient option for anyone establishing a software-based sampled instrument collection from scratch, perhaps as an alternative to a traditional hardware keyboard workstation — whether in a studio or via a laptop for live use. To have the majority of your sound sources available through a single user interface — the very functional Kompakt — would keep things simple and efficient. I'm less convinced that Colossus would be as appealing to those who already have an existing library of sampled instruments; buying it would probably result in some duplication, although the 'keep it simple' argument, where all sounds are available via Kompakt, still has some attractions. The library's size is certainly impressive, justifying its name. However, as with so many things in life, size is not everything and whether Colossus is the right tool for you may depend upon the existing contents of your sample toolbox.