Just as brown is the new black (or is it red that's the new blue?), virtual has become the new reality for the hi-tech musician. We're currently awash in software that purports to model the characteristics of classic synths, legendary guitar amps and even famous empty spaces to give us the characteristic sound of the original object without its encumbering physicality.
French company Arturia are already well established in this brave new world with products such as ARP2600V, CS80V, Minimoog V and Moog Modular V — all 'V is for Virtual' renditions of famous-name synths. But their latest release sees them attempting to boldly go where they, and I am pretty sure no other software company, has virtually gone before — to put the expressive power of real brass instruments at the fingertips of the MIDI keyboard player. Their new program is (not unreasonably) called Brass, and it offers a trio of instruments — trumpet, saxophone and a trombone — created entirely in software. But before you go thinking maybe this is just a bunch of clever multisamples, check out Arturia's marketing material, which claims that the instruments can be played with the same control, flexibility, and expressivity that you'd expect from a professional brass player, but 'without the years of training'. I quote: 'Brass is so dynamic and easy to use that you will never go back to flat sampled riff libraries ever again.'
That's quite a statement, and before we lift the lid on the reality of Brass, I have to point out that even attempting a program like this is a very ambitious undertaking. Trumpets, saxophones and trombones are acoustically complicated anyway, but there are also the infinite variations introduced by whatever human being happens to be attached to the mouthpiece. As you can imagine, just analysing the physics in any meaningful way is quite an achievement, let alone number-crunching the results into a piece of mass-market software designed to be used by any Tom, Dick or Harriet with a computer and a MIDI lead. At this point, it's worth mentioning that the creation of Brass would have been impossible without several years of heavyweight academic research undertaken by IRCAM, the Paris-based institution which uniquely marries the science of sound with the art of music (see the box at the end of this article for more on this).
So it was with great anticipation that I listened for the postie's tread on my front path as he brought me Brass in its box. Particularly as the impressive audio demos on the Arturia web site (www.arturia.com) indicated that the company were not just blowing a load of hot air. But as you never quite know just how much earth, wind and fire goes into tweaking product demos, I was looking forward to giving these horns a blast in the comfort of my own studio.
Opening the Brass package reveals a single, cross-platform installation CD-ROM, a multi-lingual user guide which also contains background information on how the three instruments are played and the principles of arranging for brass, a USB dongle and a swanky-looking plastic card bearing a serial number. This number is not actually essential to install or run the program, but it is required to register on the Arturia web site as a proud owner of Brass. Aside from the fact you then become eligible for technical support, Arturia encourage registration with the promise that you will find further patches and other goodies to download. In fact, there was nothing extra to be found at the time of writing, though no doubt this will change as the product develops and the user base grows.
The real process of installation consists of loading the Brass software, plus a management program for the Syncrosoft dongle which in turn then enables you to activate the Brass licence. I hadn't come across Syncrosoft before now — although Arturia now use this German copy protection system for all their other software, too. If it's also new to you, then it's similar to iLok, in that you can carry licences for several different products on the one key. Note also that you'll need to have one of the dongles to run any of Arturia's demo software, including Brass.
As regards the installation, the manual (which in general suffers from being written in a severe dialect of Franglais) proves not terribly helpful, particularly as what it suggests will happen automatically often doesn't — at least not when installing on a Mac. It's also not made very clear that you need to have an Internet connection handy. This doesn't necessarily have to be the computer you're going to use Brass on, as once the licence is activated, it is good for any PC or Mac on which Brass is installed.
Like most software instruments these days, Brass runs both as a stand-alone application and as a sequencer plug-in. All the major formats are covered — VST and RTAS for Mac and PC, Audio Units for Mac and DXi for PC. Regardless of whether you're using it in stand-alone or plug-in mode, all the Brass functionality is accessible from within a single window, and it's clear right from the off that a lot of thought has been put into the interface. Not only is it very pleasing visually, but the logical grouping of the program's main performance and programming elements means it does a first-rate job of making the program's complex technology comprehensible and entirely accessible.
The first thing to get your head around is that Brass works in two main modes: Live and Riff. As the name might suggest, Live mode is mainly about playing one of the three instruments in real time via MIDI instruments. Typically, this would be a keyboard — either a real one, or the virtual keyboard you can see at the bottom of the screens — although Brass can be set up to respond to knobs, footpedals, joysticks, ribbon controllers, and most importantly, breath controllers.
Riff mode puts you in control of the software's built-in phrase sequencer which in turn is capable of playing up to four individual Brass instruments. The phrase sequencer is prepopulated with 500 or so preset riffs which are intended to work with specific styles of music — pop, blues, reggae, Motown and so on (see the top screenshot overleaf). A set of editing tools enables you to tweak the preset riffs to create new variants, or build your own from scratch: something we'll return to later in this review.
In Live mode, you can only play one instrument at a time: three main types are offered in the left-hand menu, and a natty spinning graphic of the currently selected one appears in the main window. With each of these instruments you get a number of presets to choose from. The trumpet, for example, comes in 30 flavours and with names like 'Classical section', 'Classical soloist', 'Jazz soloist', 'Latin lead' and so on, you get the idea of the kind of general sound each of them is intended to represent. Running through the presets is also a good way of getting a sense of the range that Brass is capable of. My initial impressions were that the trumpets are uncannily realistic and that the trombones were pretty good, and though less 'realistic', were certainly interesting as virtual instruments in their own right. By comparison, the saxophones seemed to be lacking in credibility and in sheer brassy presence. Even so, they are still a cut above your usual lifeless synth or sample-based brass patches.
Programming individual sounds begins with calling up the Configuration panel, which allows you to modify the basic physical attributes of each instrument. For example, for the trumpet and trombones you can choose to use one of the five types of mute, or for the saxophone you can swap reeds between Standard, Classic and Wood. More tonal variation can be achieved through the Material settings. 'Material' is a double entendre in this context, as the list includes musical styles (such as Classic, which gives you a clear sound that becomes increasingly brassy at higher dynamics) as well as physical materials, namely Glass and Wood. This also allows you to create instruments that don't really exist, like the wooden trumpet example shown on the previous page.
Brass also offers you a choice of four attack patterns per instrument, again designed to tailor the sound to different situations. Breathy attacks are more suited to legato, jazzy styles of playing, while direct attacks are better used for pop music when you want crisp, staccato notes. And for good measure you can decide how much humanisation to apply with a sliding scale that goes from 'Beginner' through to 'Computer'. The more 'computerised' your setting, the more consistency you'll get from note to note.
You can also create an ensemble effect by selecting up to four voices per instrument. This is not the equivalent of a multitimbral mode — even with four voices you are essentially still playing monophonic lines. However, the Brass programmers have clearly applied some clever maths to the ensemble algorithms. It's not just a case of doubling up on numbers; there are subtle variations of tone and timbre per voice which give a real sense that several human beings are performing as a group.
This sense of realism is heightened by what in Brass's Eurospeak terminology is known as spacialisation. This window allows you to place an instrument in a virtual space simply by dragging its icon backwards and forwards and from side to side within a 3D representation of a room. You can then play with the Cold/Warm characteristics of the room and add a touch of ambient reverb as necessary. It's an intuitive way of working, and it's also highly impressive because it actually works. The ability to virtually move your players around the stage really comes into its own when you use ensembles of instruments in Riff mode. So you can literally bring your sax player front middle for their solo and then retire them rear stage left to cluster with the rest of the horn section for the remainder of the show.
So far what we've looked at could be described as the static programmable elements of Brass. But where the program really shines is in the extensive real-time control it offers over the three models. And here, it's not just that you get various performance parameters to play with, it's the fact that Arturia have implemented a very user-friendly way of controlling them — be that directly through the interface, or via external MIDI controllers.
The performance parameters themselves consist of Attack, Pressure, Pitch, Tone, Noise, Vibrato and Vibrato Frequency (the trumpet and trombone models also have a Mute parameter which is only activated when you choose a virtual mute from the configuration panel). The settings for each of the parameters is indicated via a bar graph at the bottom of the main screen, and applying values is a simple matter of dragging the bar graph up and down with the mouse. Changes in the values of all the parameters apart from Attack can also be controlled through a separate Automation screen which allows you to draw modulation curves directly on to a parameter. Facilities like delay, sync and loop allow you to have precise control over how that modulation might be applied during the lifetime of a particular note, enabling you to give the sounds a very human expression.
MIDI controllers are easily assigned to the different performance parameters through an elegant patchbay system (shown on the previous page) which involves dragging virtual cords to connect any controller to any destination. You can bring up to nine controllers into play for each patch and as you can see from the example screen, you can use these in any combination to control a Brass instrument's parameters. The first five controllers are preset to Velocity, Aftertouch, Modulation Wheel, Pitch bend and Breath Controller, but the other four are completely programmable. There's even a handy Detect mode, which enables you to quickly map to a controller even if you don't happen to know which continuous controller number is being output.
Another neat element of the interface is the ability to apply a response curve to each mapping at the click of a button. The Brass interface also offers a very quick and easy method of setting the range within which the controllers will operate. At the side of each of the bar-graph meters which indicate the values of the performance parameters, there are small arrows, which you simply drag up and down to determine the top and bottom of the controller range.
All About IRCAM
Crucial to the creation of Brass was a series of research projects carried out at IRCAM, or to give it its full French name, the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique. Founded in 1969 and based at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, IRCAM can truly claim to be a unique institution, a place where musicians and scientists work alongside each other to investigate sound, acoustics and music.
Even for the idly curious, the IRCAM web site (pictured left), which is in both English and French, is worth a visit (www.ircam.fr). If you happen to be in Paris around the Pompidou Centre, you can also book a guided tour around the performance spaces, research labs and studios for a reasonable fee. One of these spaces includes an experimental concert hall-cum-recording studio with moveable ceilings and rotating prisms that enable the natural reverb time to be precisely set anywhere between 0.4 and 4.0 seconds. Try a Studio SOS on that!
As any composer appreciates, the perceived authenticity of any synthesized 'real' instrument is largely dependent on phrasing and also the range of notes used. As I said earlier, Riff mode gives you access to more than 500 preset patterns intended to represent typical phrases used in a very broad range of musical styles. Each of them uses up to four separate instruments and this might involve any combination of the three types of instrument.
Choosing a riff is a simple matter of selecting it from the lists in the 'Riffs Explorer' window (shown at the top of the previous page), which forms the bottom half of the screen when Riff mode is activated. The top section is taken up with the program's piano-roll style phrase sequencer. You can trigger riffs from a button within the sequencer, or you can drag and drop them to the virtual keyboard at the bottom of the screen. Doing this also means you'll be able to trigger the riffs from the corresponding note on any MIDI controller keyboard.
Riffs can be set up to be single-shot or looped. The MIDI Configuration page enables you to determine whether the phrase is retriggered every time you press down a key, or whether it plays right through to the end regardless of how long you hold down a key. Using the Chord functionality, you can also get clever with transpose so that a riff can change key as it plays through.
Editing or creating phrases is dead easy — very much like the visual-style editing that you'd find on any standard sequencer. In fact, as the phrases themselves can be anything up to several thousand bars long, you could in theory create entire compositions within the Brass environment. To edit or create, you draw the notes on the grid with the pencil tool, move them around with the arrow and delete them with the eraser. A range of quantising options enables you to quickly snap notes to the grid. There's also a set of tools so you can manipulate the various performance parameters of each instrument as part of the riff. Tempo is set internally or you can slave Brass to the host sequencer if you are using the program as a plug-in.
A Riff is not just about the notes being played: it also covers the setup of your virtual horn section. As I mentioned above, you can have up to four instruments per riff and as each instrument can have up to four voices, then you can create bands of up to 16 virtual players. Here, it's worth just drawing your attention back to that spacialisation tool which gives you the ability to individually place all the instances of the instruments in your virtual space. The result can be a very convincing impression of a horn ensemble in full swing.
Newly created or modified riffs can be saved as Brass riff presets (at which point they will be added to the list in the Riffs Explorer) or you can export them as MIDI files for use in other programs. For that matter, you can import MIDI files that you might have created elsewhere to form the basis of new Brass riffs.
While everything in the garden might seem lovely and brassy, I need to sound the first of several sour notes and highlight just how very processor intensive all this activity is. The minimum spec for running Brass on a Mac is quoted as a 1.5GHz G4 (for a PC, a 1.5GHz chip is also quoted as the minimum). But right from the off, the program left my 1.8GHz G5 iMac huffing and puffing. Even when running Brass as a stand-alone application, it wasn't long before the cooling fans were running at Warp Factor 5, a sure sign that the processor is under heavy continuous load. Indeed, Brass's built-in CPU meter never seemed to drop much below 40 percent when playing one instrument at a time, and averaged around 60 percent when using ensembles in Riff mode. This manifested itself in the rather too frequent glitching of audio, and there was a very noticeable time lag between the clicking of buttons and the required function happening.
Inevitably, this hunger for power has serious consequences when running Brass as a plugin, particularly if you are running any other virtual instruments alongside it. I first tried Brass in Pro Tools LE (v6.9) and experienced plenty of grumbling from the sequencer as soon as I tried to run my horn section to the accompaniment of M Audio's iDrum (which I usually use for rhythm tracks). My attempts to add some horn stabs to a previously recorded track, which had about eight audio tracks and used around six effects plug-ins, came to nothing. Because under Pro Tools v6.9 the implementation of the RTAS protocol is not as optimal as it could be, I switched to Cubase SL to see what running the VST version of Brass might yield. Again, it was a similar story. While the computer chugged along quite happily with Brass plus the LM7 drum machine plug-in, it completely blew a gasket when I attempted to open a second instance of Brass.
The manual does warn you about this in its slightly obscure way, advising that it's better to run Brass in Riff mode if you want to employ an ensemble of brass instruments, rather than trying to run several instances of Brass in Live mode. This rather goes against what I think would be many people's preferred way of working, which would be to run one instance of Brass for each instrument required and then do all the programming from within the host sequencer. Instead, you have to work primarily with Brass's riff sequencer and then use the sequencer's MIDI or instrument tracks to trigger the riffs at appropriate points in the song.
Love them or loathe them, there's no getting away from the fact that brass instruments crop up in just about every form of music you can think of, ancient and modern. In fact, since Brass came in for review, I've become aware of just how often you hear brass instruments used just in, say, film and TV themes and incidental music. So there's no doubt that this program is going to be of interest to a lot of musicians and composers, particularly as synthesized or sampled brass always sounds so thin and lifeless when compared to the real thing — that is, the typical members of an orchestral brass section, who in my experience are usually fat and full of life!
By anyone's standards, Brass is an impressive piece of technology, and you really feel it does represent a breakthrough in software renditions of real instruments. The trumpet model in particular is quite brilliant, both in terms of its sound and the way you can interact with it via a MIDI keyboard. It's also uncannily human in its response. So along with the virtuoso Miles Davis impressions, I'm sure I was hearing the occasional fluffed notes and even got the feeling at times that my virtual player was running out of puff.
What I particularly liked about the program is its interface, which allows you to get to grips with the various levels of programming and also understand how best to react with the instruments. Ultimately, though, I have to say that to really get the most out of Brass, you probably need to have quite an in-depth knowledge of how these instruments should be played and orchestrated.
Of course, your interest in reading this review is likely to be entirely proportionate to your love of brass instruments and your desire or need to use them in your music. Even if you're not a fan, the great thing about Brass is that it does inspire you to find an excuse to use the sounds of these instruments where perhaps you wouldn't have done before.
It's not all perfect. Arturia may feel it's their mission to bring these three instruments to the masses, but the fact that the program is so processor-intensive will limit its real-life application for anyone who doesn't have a top-spec computer. But I guess — as the old joke goes about the 10 trumpet players at the bottom of the ocean — it's a promising start. This technology really does offer something quite different, and the exciting thing is that it won't be long before we're seeing the fruits of these virtual labours applied to all instruments of the orchestra. Fanfare, please!