EastWest continue their Hollywood orchestral series with a large-scale brass library. Is it another Tinseltown classic?
Launched in the summer of 2010 amidst much online ballyhoo, EastWest Quantum Leap Hollywood Strings was (and is) a titanic library in every sense, bar the unfortunate iceberg-collision one. The addition of Thomas 'King of the Mock-Ups' Bergersen and award-laden film-music recordist Shawn Murphy to its production staff helped this flagship strings collection win plaudits from users and reviewers alike. Shortly after its release, EastWest announced that the same team would record a companion volume, Hollywood Brass, to be followed in turn by similarly titled woodwind and orchestral percussion collections. And so it came to pass that after a three-week recording marathon yielding over 370,000 samples, a year of post-production and another healthy dollop of internet-fuelled anticipation, Hollywood Brass is upon us.
Like its predecessor, the Diamond Edition of Hollywood Brass (147GB) ships on hard drive, though if you opt for the budget Gold Edition you can look forward to installing from a set of DVDs. (See below for a detailed comparison of the two editions.) The hard drive is a Western Digital 500GB bare internal type, so you'll have to buy your own enclosure if you want to use it externally; EastWest say the drive is suitable for continued regular use, but recommend that you back up the data on a second drive (not necessarily a high-performance type) as a safety measure. Buyers also need an iLok Security Key, not provided with the library.
The release of HB coincides with the advent of Play version 3. This is not the Play Pro software promised many moons ago (and apparently still under construction); Play 3 is simply a free upgrade of EastWest's proprietary sample player, which improves load times, cheers up CPU performance and expands the maximum voice count without actually introducing any new musical facilities. However, Play v3.0.21 finally levels the Mac/PC playing field by implementing long-awaited Mac 64-bit compatibility, which requires an Intel Mac running OS 10.6 (Snow Leopard) or higher. Both 64-bit and 32-bit versions of Play are included with the library, and while the 64-bit player can potentially access far greater quantities of RAM, it offers no increase in sound quality or GUI functionality over the 32-bit version.
Since the concept, style and design of Hollywood Brass match those of Hollywood Strings, you might care to read the review of the latter at /sos/sep10/articles/ewql-hollywood-strings.htm.
Hollywood Brass was recorded in EastWest's Studio 1 from almost identical mic positions to those used in Hollywood Strings, ensuring a perfect blend between the two orchestral sections' aural perspectives. The five positions are 'close' (directly in front of each section but far enough away to allow the sound of the instruments to breathe), 'mid' (a central configuration at the front of the stage) and 'main' (the classic 'Decca Tree' three-microphone configuration placed in front of and high above the players), plus a switchable option of 'surround' and 'vintage' ambient room microphones, the latter being RCA44 ribbon mics similar to those used in classic Hollywood movie soundtracks.
Using multiple mic positions consumes RAM like nobody's business, so to avoid unduly taxing your computer it's good practice to stick with one position (I'd suggest the 'main' Decca Tree miking, which sounds fab to my ears) when composing and programming. Then you can dial up the other options when your mix is ready to print. Those who work in surround can set up anything from a 4.0 (quad) to a 9.1 mix by opening multiple instances of Play (one for each mic position you want to use) and assigning each instance its own pair of output channels. It's worth noting that Play always outputs a stereo signal, so summing to mono must be done either in your sequencer or mixer.
As in EWQL's other symphonic libraries, HB's samples were recorded with the instruments in their traditional stage positions, so you'll find that (for example) the French horns appear left of centre in the stereo. Panning offsets have been applied to the close mics within the Play GUI, in order to match the stereo placement of the close-miked samples to that of the more distant mic positions. This overall built-in positioning makes it easy to create a realistic orchestral soundscape, but of course you can use Play's pan controls to centralise or otherwise reposition instruments if you wish.
Listeners to Nick Phoenix's video demos may have noticed that the instruments are enhanced by an attractive external reverb. The creator (that's Phoenix, not God) explains: "Brass samples get sent to two reverbs in my template — 'Cal Hall Brass Front TS' and 'ACME .8 Font B TS' from Quantum Leap Spaces (convolution reverb)... I knew that people would want this reverb, so I created a new impulse called 'Hamburg Brass' that is almost the same, but is not true stereo. This is the default reverb in HB.” While blessed with an agreeable room ambience, EastWest's Studio 1 is not highly reverberant, so if you're looking to add a longer, concert hall-style reverb to the samples, some additional processing is necessary. However, it's not necessary to rush out and buy more software for this purpose, as HB has plenty of good onboard reverb presets (including Phoenix's Hamburg hybrid) for your delectation.
Simple arithmetic decrees that if you play a triad on a three-trumpet patch you will actually hear the sound of nine trumpets. This fact has troubled a minority of purists, prompting some manufacturers (I'm thinking particularly of Gary Garritan and Audio Impressions' Chris Stone) to design ensemble-building tools that allow users to determine the precise size of their instrumental sections. Hollywood Brass tackles this issue head-on by offering a generous selection of section sizes: trumpets come in solo, duo and trio forms, there's a choice of solo or three-player section trombones (the latter featuring a solo bass trombone in the low register), and the French horns have solo, duo and six-player ensemble versions. The bass end is covered by a solo tuba, a solo cimbasso and a five-piece low brass ensemble consisting of two tenor trombones, bass trombone, cimbasso and tuba. It's hard to conceive of a more flexible instrumentation. Frankly, if you can't orchestrate a decent-sounding brass passage with this lot, you might as well give up.
The continuing filmic popularity of Bond and Bourne (aren't they a mortgage company?) and the attendant preponderance of shirt-ripping, action-scene music demand tight, forceful, rhythmically focused articulations. HB's trumpets certainly rise to that challenge: as with Hollywood Strings, staccatissimos, staccatos, short/long marcatos and marcato sustains are gathered into ready-to-play 'shorts mod speed' patches, wherein the wheel governs the type of delivery — push it all the way up for accented sustains, pull it back for short, zippy staccatos. The fact that these short notes were recorded to a click makes this trumpet patch very rhythmically precise. Fast, 16th-note chordal passages sound exceptionally well co-ordinated, bright and powerful.
If you want big, hail-to-the-king trumpet fanfares (and who doesn't?), the library's three-trumpet ensemble accented sustains do a great job, and their 'legato slur accent' patch is also excellent for declamatory single lines. If the monophonic nature of the legatos cramps your style, you can always temporarily restore polyphonic playback with a MIDI CC22 command. The in-depth, clearly-written PDF user's manual explains the technical details.
In a more interpretive vein, the library's solo trumpet effortlessly covers all musical bases, from tender, mournful, legato soft notes to stentorian fortissimo deliveries. It's the only instrument in HB that uses vibrato, available in three strengths: normal, expressive and Mexican, as demonstrated in no uncertain manner in the celebratory Mariachi-style patch. The 'expressive' option, which starts out vib-free and progressively adds it as the note progresses, can be used as a non-vibrato fast-note articulation as well as for long melody notes. There's also a dedicated solo trumpet 'no vibrato' patch, which would be my default choice for traditional orchestrations.
Despite its relatively obscure and avant-garde nature, the flutter-tongue style is implemented fairly extensively in HB. The three trumpets use Harmon mutes on their 'flutter cresc-dim' performances, creating a scary, metallic-sounding call to arms guaranteed to create apprehension in a cinema audience. This muted timbre (minus the flutter) is used to good effect in 'Insects', an improvised free-for-all of disjointed, random, atonal staccato notes. Trumpet section 'cluster bends' (cluster chords whose individual notes drift around aimlessly in pitch) are another left-field excursion; depending on your mood, they can come across as eerie or slightly annoying.
Debate rages over the ideal orchestral horn-section size, with one camp arguing that less is more (a concept that prolific autobiographical novelist Katie Price never quite grasped): French horn is one of the most difficult instruments to play, so the larger the section, the more scope there is for wayward tuning and uncoordinated deliveries. That said, Hollywood Brass's six-horn ensemble strikes an ideal balance, combining a big, epic orchestral sound with precise execution and tight, focused intonation.
The six horns' legato performances have fabulous dynamics, ranging from lush, warm, soft, quiet notes to loud, brassy fortissimos with a nice hint of rasp. Using the mod wheel to crossfade from one to the other is a highly expressive technique that adds great dynamic movement to a part. As an alternative to such user-generated swells, the producers also recorded real-life crescendos (but not diminuendos) at three different speeds. These are conveniently grouped together in 'crescendo mod speed' patches that allow you to instantly switch between slow, medium and fast crescendi using the mod wheel. The crescendi were played to a click, and so tempo-sync accurately from instrument to instrument.
Supplied for all instruments except the cimbasso, the 'legato slur accent' style can be used to intersperse staccato notes and accents in long-note melodies, an approach that works extremely well with HB's horn ensembles. Considering that there are six instruments playing, the horns' 'playable runs' are remarkably united and handle very fast chromatic lines with aplomb, though (as in HS) this particular style provides legato transitions only for consecutive semitone and tone intervals — but of course, those intervals are sufficient for all but the more esoteric types of scale.
If you temporarily tire of the six horns' heroic sweep, you'll find HB's 'two horns' provision a good resource for intimate, chamber-style settings. That's not to say they lack power: their staccatissimo short notes are muscular, and the double-tonguing used in their marcato and staccato repeats enhances the clean rhythmic delivery. For slower, repeated-note passages, EastWest recorded 'legato repetitions' with four round-robins. In these, re-tongued repeated notes are connected via true legato transitions, so you don't hear an awkward gap between the repeats.
An elderly man with long white hair, a white beard and a white robe stands on a castle keep, wearing a troubled expression as he surveys the dark landscape... such cinematic moments scream for a solo French horn, preferably of the well-played variety rather than an amateur struggling to produce a note from the instrument. Happily, HB's solo horn is more than capable of underscoring such a scene without unwittingly provoking mirth: its quiet dynamics are lyrical and inviting, its long portato notes serious and sonorous, and its dramatic, hand-stopped 'sus accent' patch perfect for announcing the arrival of some demonic army determined to give the old guy in the white robe a hard time.
These horns occupy classic John Williams sonic territory, spanning all moods from reflective to grandiose and martial. The only problem you might have is deciding which version to use. The articulation menu is very similar for the six horns, two horns and solo instrument, so you can easily waste an enjoyable hour or two comparing their effect!
In the early days of orchestral libraries, I'd occasionally encounter trombones that sounded fine through most of their dynamic range but became very thin-sounding when played louder. That doesn't happen here: though capable of a cutting edge and a hard attack, the trombone section maintain a good, fat tone on their ff deliveries, which (like the horns) have a nice controlled rasp. The bass trombone underpinning the two tenor instruments within the section is a great, noble-sounding beast, and the transition from tenor to bass range is seamless.
The trombones have a splendid legato slide patch that demonstrates the potential of the instrument (fondly known as 'the golden handbrake' in jazz circles) for lewdly gliding between pitches — their flutter tongues are pretty rude (in a good way) too. The solo trombone is beautifully played, and the section's muted 'sus accent' patch's attenuated tone works well as a rhythmic resource. Overall, the trombones are highly dynamic and match the trumpets and horns for subtlety, power and expression.
In pitch terms, from here the only way is down, into the realm of the solo tuba, which (metaphorically speaking) carries the weight of the brass orchestra on its shoulders. You can play HB's tuba melodically using its legato samples, which hold steady and strong right down to the lowest bass notes. With its more assertive attack, the 'legato slur accent' patch is well suited to driving bass lines and would also be a good choice for melody lines that need some extra emphasis. The 'slur runs' patch permits extraordinarily fast playing, though there's something a little hysterical about hearing a tuba played at speed. Maybe that's because it reminds me of Victor Lewis-Smith's hoax phone call to the TV show That's Life, pretending to be a bass trombone player in a wheelchair who has a stroke while trying to play 'The Sailor's Hornpipe' at extreme speed down the phone.
As an alternative to the tuba, HB supplies the rare cimbasso, a low brass instrument that looks like a trombone that has been in a traffic accident. Its samples are (as ever) highly dynamic, the timbre stays warm and rich across its range, and its staccatos have a nice sonority for jocular ostinato patterns.
Moving on, the big sound of the low brass section stems partly from some of its articulations being played in octaves. I would have preferred unisons throughout, taking my usual line that if I want octaves, I'll play them. In mitigation, since bass instruments tend not to play chords and are often voiced in octaves in real life scores, these built-in octaves are less objectionable. In addition to their 'serious' orchestral deliveries, the low brass guys play a number of entertaining effects: great, doomy 'blast clusters'; crescendos whose notes slowly drift a tone apart; creepy, alienated cluster chords reminiscent of the soundtrack of Repulsion; elephant calls; fruity, flutter-tongue crescendi fit to herald a grand entrance by Donald Trump; and so on.
It's good to hear the various instruments in HB performing big-band jazz articulations, especially since such articulations are often omitted from orchestral brass libraries: 'rip trills' is a fresh one, combining a quick, red-blooded leap up the scale with a sustained trill on the high target note. The three trumpets' 'run trill' patch is also something of an innovation, offering true legato deliveries culminating in a semitone trill. Other jazz highlights include the two trumpets' vigorous short falls (which have a nicely exaggerated 'lemmings off a cliff' descending travel), some fabulously meaty six-horn rips, and funny 'rip shakes' from the horn duo. By far the largest menu of jazzy articulations is provided by the solo trombone player, who goes berserk with a plunger mute in a frenzied series of splutters and growls. Quick nurse, the screens...
On a more general note, I was amused to hear the producers refer to 'old-school, playable velocity-dependent patches', an indication that nowadays most orchestral libraries delegate volume control to the mod wheel (or MIDI CC11) rather than player touch. Post-mature readers will recall an even more distant time wherein electric keyboards had no touch sensitivity at all. To borrow the words of Larry Sanders' unctuous sidekick Hank Kingsley, that was "the school they tore down to build the old school”.
Velocity is used in Hollywood Brass in a more specialised way — for example, to control the loudness of the attack in accented articulations, or to open the cutoff frequency of the low-pass filter used in some patches. However, a few articulations remain in which speed of touch governs overall volume, as in the 'good old days': a notable example is the long-note portato style, whose sonorous, rather sombre delivery and touch sensitivity are ideally suited to melancholic brass-band chordal playing. Shed a quiet tear as you use the trombone section portatos to play the 'Hovis ad' music (apologies to Dvorak) while mourning the passing of the velocity era. Back in the present, the advantage of assigning volume control to a continuous controller such as the mod wheel is that it makes it easy to perform authentic and expressive volume swells in real time. The down side is that it renders two-handed playing impossible, but I guess you can't have everything.
More general observations: the instrument ranges in HB are not unduly curtailed, so you can enjoy playing trumpets and horns in their extreme high register (good news for fans of the John Barry horns sound). I appreciated the fact that the CC numerical range for each articulation used in the crescendo and shorts 'mod speed' patches is shown on screen, a courteous touch which saves you the trouble of having to work out the CC ranges by trial and error.
Returning to the old chestnut of system resources, buyers should be aware that, due to an idiosyncrasy in Play's design, multiple dynamic layers in sustain and legato patches are always active even though only one or two of them are audible at any one time. In some layered patches, as many as eight concurrent voices will open in response to a single key press. This obviously increases the voice count dramatically and is a significant factor in the EWQL Hollywood series' high demand on computer processors. To reduce the strain, the makers provide 'lite' versions of all instruments' main sustain patches, which halve the sample count by using only two dynamic layers.
Hollywood Brass is the natural companion volume to Hollywood Strings and shares many of its attributes. To put it simply, if you liked HS, you're bound to like HB too. Like the strings collection, HB is a play-it-yourself affair containing no chords, phrases or processed soundscapes, but its inclusion of solo instruments, real-life mutes, musical effects and unrestrained jazz styles such as rips, shakes and falls give it a slight edge, in performance terms, over HS. That made me wonder whether there might be scope for a Hollywood Strings II — The Sequel? Just a thought...
Much as I enjoy playing the party pooper by incessantly pointing out minor flaws, glitches, boo-boos, bugs, gaffes, lapses and weaknesses, it's hard to find fault with this library; the playing is top notch, the engineering is superb (let's hear it again for Shawn Murphy), and the presentation of the samples meets the expectations of pro users. If this is what comes from owning your own world-famous studio, I'm going to get on the phone and make a bid for Abbey Road right now — can anyone reading this lend me 30 million quid? Joking apart, Hollywood Brass is a star turn. Its style, dynamism and screen-friendly presence are compelling reasons for dedicated samplists to buy it, and will surely see it established as a leading orchestral brass library.
Only a handful of the pro-quality orchestral brass libraries currently on sale come anywhere near Hollywood Brass' specs, and none rival its size. A new entry in the field is Cinesamples Cinebrass (an 8.6GB library boasting three mic positions and true legatos), while Project SAM's 9GB Orchestral Brass Classic (recorded in a concert hall from two mic positions) is a well-established and strong contender. Both feature a similar instrumentation to HB (minus the section size variants) but contain fewer performance styles. Further up the price scale, the massive Vienna Symphonic Library Brass I library (78.5GB) features every articulation under the sun (including true legatos) but has no bass trombone or cimbasso. The Sonivox (formerly Sonic Implants) 11GB Symphonic Brass Collection, now available in Kontakt format, is also worthy of consideration: recorded in a concert hall, it offers flexible section sizes and a good range of basic playing styles.
ARTICULATIONS (condensed list)
Short notes (all instruments except the low brass section have 'shorts mod speed' patches)
Legatos (except cimbasso and low brass section)
MUTES (except cimbasso)
In addition to the styles listed above, the solo trombone performs a large menu of jazzy effects. Articulations differ from instrument to instrument. For a full implementation list, download the Hollywood Brass manual from www.soundsonline-forums.com/docs/EWQL-Hollywood-Brass-Manual.pdf.
EWQL Hollywood Brass is available in two forms: the full Diamond Edition and a reduced Gold version aimed at those with less capable computer systems and/or shallower pockets. The table below shows the differences between the two editions.
|Diamond Edition||Gold Edition|
|All instruments and articulations||All instruments and articulations (identical to Diamond)|
|24-bit samples||16-bit samples|
|Five mic positions||One mic position ('main' Decca Tree)|
|Ships on hard drive||Ships on DVDs|
|Requires 150GB drive space||Requires 20GB drive space|
Hollywood Brass runs stand-alone and as a plug-in on Mac (Intel machines only, OS 10.5 or later) and PC (Windows XP SP2*, Vista or Windows 7). The library's minimum system requirements are Mac Intel Core 2 Duo Processor 2.1GHz or higher and PC Intel Core 2 Duo, or AMD Dual Core 2.1GHz or higher. Both Mac and PC users will need 4GB RAM, a 720rpm hard drive and an iLok security key (not supplied with the library).
The high sample count of some patches can place a strain on system resources. For details of recommended systems for the Gold and Diamond editions, plus a full list of supported hosts and sequencers, go to www.soundsonline.com/Hollywood-Brass and click on 'Specifications'.
EastWest have promised to implement a global keyswitch system that will enable instant changes between sustain, accented sustain, marcato, legato repetition, staccatissimo, semitone trill, tone trill and 'crescendo mod speed' patches: as far as possible, the keyswitches will be the same for each instrument, to facilitate ease of use. These keyswitch patches will be available in a forthcoming free instrument update. Users should check for the arrival of the update on EastWest's Support page at www.soundsonline.com/Support, which also contains the latest updates to Play 3's software.
* A hard drive formatting error in the review copy caused installation problems under Windows XP 32-bit. The issue is limited to XP 32-bit and is now fixed. Any buyers affected by it should contact EastWest support.