A European company's solo instruments blur the boundaries between virtual and real.
Virtual instruments' have been with us since 1993, and the phrase is now applied routinely (and rather indiscriminately) to sample collections as well as individual software instruments. While samples can produce amazingly realistic results, they have marked limitations, succinctly described by Giorgio Tommasini and Peter Siedlaczek of European company Sample Modeling thus: "Samplers, while preserving the basic timbre of the real instrument, result in a static sound, which cannot properly morph across dynamics, vibrato, portamento, and so on. This is particularly true for solo instruments. Synthesizers allow for greater expressiveness, but at the expense of the realism of sound.”
To tackle this issue, Tommasini and his colleagues developed proprietary techniques for replicating authentic instrumental timbre in real time. This led to a commercial partnership with orchestral sampling maestro Siedlaczek, and the subsequent release of a virtual instrument called 'The Trumpet' in 2008. (You can read the review at /sos/feb09/articles/samplemodellingtrumpet.htm — or I can sum it up for you in two words: stunningly realistic.) Since The Trumpet first sounded its clarion call, Sample Modeling have released a range of solo wind and brass instruments which aim to take the 'virtual' out of virtual reality. In this review, we'll cast an ear over them all.
The trombone has always been a tough nut to crack for samplists, not merely because of its ability to glide smoothly between pitches, but because its tone varies so dramatically at different dynamics. On most sampled specimens, you'll hear obvious tonal 'stepping' between the instrument's soft, quiet notes and its brassy, loud deliveries, and that can make programming a haphazard business. Happily, Sample Modeling's The Trombone virtual instrument circumvents this problem completely.
As with The Trumpet, dynamics are controlled by MIDI CC11 expression. On receiving this data, the sound opens up into the familiar warm, easy-going tone of the noble instrument amusingly described as 'a slide whistle with delusions of grandeur'. Push the pedal down, and you hear a loud, super-bright tone with an authentically 'splatty' attack; pull it back and the timbre subsides into ripe mellowness, with a correspondingly soft, tender embouchure. The fact that you can morph seamlessly between these two extremes on a sustained note in real time without a trace of 'stepping' or glitching is a testament to Tommasini's game-changing 'Harmonic Alignment' technology.
Vibrato of a truly lifelike variety may be added with the mod wheel; overdo it, and the vib turns into a leery big-band shake. Subtle portamento slides between overlapped notes occur naturally via the built-in legato and can extend with remarkable accuracy over large intervals. However, the trombone's trademark, semi-comic glissando slide (which in real life spans up to six semitones) is limited to three semitones, in order not to overload the CPU. (The processing involved in creating a realistic, tonally accurate slide, as opposed to the bogus effect of merely changing the sample's playback speed, is apparently intense.)
A gobsmacking variety of articulations can be instantly accessed by keyswitches: styles I particularly liked include a vibrato-on-release delivery (an elegant way of ending a note), velocity-controlled falls (the harder you hit the keyswitch, the faster the fall) and the iconic 'doit' (or 'upward fall') beloved of big-band jazz arrangers. In addition, there are excellent growl, flutter-tongue and wah effects and five kinds of mute, thereby covering trombone sound from the 1920s right up to the present day.
Despite its emphatically single name, The Trombone also features a second, warmer-toned tenor trombone based on the same sample set, a valve trombone of similar tone (but no slides), and — a very welcome addition — a big, fat, fruity bass trombone with a four-octave range and an insanely low bottom note of Bb-1.
Is the saxophone an intrinsically masculine instrument? Barbara Thompson, Candy Dulfer and, er, Lisa Simpson would say not, but Wikipedia's list of 432 saxophonists includes only nine female players. Perhaps for this reason, Sample Modeling have christened their trio of solo saxophones (created by Stefano Lucato in collaboration with Messrs Tommasini and Siedlaczek) Mr Sax A, Mr Sax T and Mr Sax B. The abbreviations stand for alto, tenor and baritone, three instruments which, along with the trumpet and trombone, form the backbone of most jazz big-band arrangements.
An immediately striking feature of the tenor sax is the liquid quality of its melody lines: streams of notes flow in an unbroken continuum, rather than the series of bumpy, disjointed attacks we used to have to put up with. In contrast to the smooth legatos, the sharp snap of its staccato notes exactly replicates the real-life instrument's biting delivery. Add dynamics ranging from breathy, seductive murmurings to the raspy, angry tone that has enlivened countless soul and pop records, and you have a tremendously expressive 'virtual saxophone' at your fingertips.
When it comes to sultry melody lines, the alto sax is the equal of the tenor. I loved the way you can play ultra-real-sounding trills by holding down a note and rapidly reiterating another. This technique is also great for playing grace notes and Arabic melismas. As ever, the baritone sax works superbly for booting bass lines and punchy, honking rhythm stabs, but can also handle a reflective, after-midnight tune with distinction.
As with the trombone, the degree of control is astounding: you can use a CC command to vary the volume of the note-off key-clicks (their default level can be a little obtrusive), and even assign keyboard aftertouch to alter vibrato rate on the fly. If you find yourself thinking that these fine instruments would sound even better with a dash of reverb, a 'reverb set-up' multi introduces a concert-hall ambience; the effect is inserted on a Kontakt aux bus, making it easy to adjust the reverb level.
After giving birth to three boys, Mrs Saxophone must have breathed a sigh of relief when baby daughter Soprano came along. Fondly christened Ms Sax S, this virtual instrument differs from its male siblings in more than one respect: she/it doesn't run on Kontakt, but on a proprietary sound engine named SWAM developed by Stefano Lucato and IT wiz Emanuele Parravicini.
My initial thought was that I needed a new sound engine like a hole in the head, but such reservations proved unjustified. Installation and online activation of SWAM and the library went without a hitch, leaving me looking at a posh new interface on which all controls are clearly labelled and largely self-explanatory. Musically, the soprano sax behaves more or less exactly like its brothers: the sound is mellow, full and clear, legato notes flow in an unbroken stream, and its lilting, lyrical vibrato and dynamic tonal changes are utterly convincing. A quick push on the expression pedal launches you into the soprano's naturally bright, loud deliveries, which are strong, soaring and penetrating without being shrill.
SWAM introduces a few technical refinements: the soprano loads with a nice, naturalistic room ambience in place, pitch-bend up and down amount can now be set independently on the GUI, and there's a cool master-tuning twin readout displaying both cents and Hz. Tweakheads will enjoy the stylish 'advanced parameters options' page, where you can do all sorts of subtle but musically effective stuff.
In the interests of completeness, Sample Modeling sent me a beta version of their new French Horn & Tuba package. Orchestral mock-up artists and media composers are going to love this: as with the other instruments, the horn's legato performances are first class, and it effortlessly tracks fast lines and 32nd-note runs. As well as being convincingly 'joined up' as a phrase, these fast notes also maintain a subtly distinct attack and sound amazingly like a real player.
Vibrato and shakes are available for using the horn in a jazz context, and its fast, smooth legato is ideal for nimble, flugelhorn-like improvising. Articulations such as sforzato attacks, short crescendo attacks, falls and doits can be triggered by keyswitches, and there's even a microtuning system for creating user-defined, non-Western scales. For more traditional orchestral work, the instrument's large dynamic range is faithfully represented, all the way from a softly-played, warm, velvety hum up to a brassy blare. My only criticism is that the tone of its ff deliveries is arguably a little thin in the uppermost, Eb4 to G4 range.
I have never tried to play a tuba, fearing that if I did the results would be catastrophic (both musically and physically). Happily, using Sample Modeling's instrument I can now perform the manically fast, staccato tuba part from the Third Movement of John Williams' Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra without danger of hospitalisation. The difficult-to-play pedal notes of the tuba are steady and strong down to the bottom C0, and you can perform graceful, languorous keyed portamento slides simply by overlapping two notes.
The French Horn & Tuba package includes five solo instruments: French horn, three alternative horns with slightly different timbres, and the above-mentioned bass tuba. A 'Unison Horns' multi loads all four horns along with a convolution reverb. Though the reverb isn't the classiest I've heard (no biggie — you can always turn it off and add your own), the four-horn unisons sound very strong indeed.
I'm glad to see that the enormous potential evident in The Trumpet four years ago has been developed and expanded by the Sample Modeling team. Their superbly realistic solo wind and brass instruments deserve to take their place in the premier league of orchestral sampling, and have closed the ever-narrowing gap between virtual and real. Perhaps the best news is that a new line of products based on the SWAM engine is planned in response to customers' requests for 'an entire Sample Modeling orchestra'. Sounds good to me, and I look forward to hearing what this technology can do when applied to orchestral solo woodwinds!
As their name suggests, Sample Modeling create their ultra-realistic wind and brass instruments with a unique, proprietary combination of sampling and adaptive sound-modelling. No other company does it the same way, but judging by the online demos, similar musical results may be obtained from Wallander Instruments' entirely modelled solo instruments. The tried-and-tested Vienna Symphonic Library's sample-based solo wind and brass download instruments are also highly playable, if a little more pricey.
With the exception of Ms Sax S, Sample Modeling's solo wind and brass instruments run on the Kontakt 4 Player (supplied with the library) and also on the full version of Kontakt 4 and upwards. Kontakt runs stand-alone and as a plug-in on PC and Mac machines. The SWAM sound engine used for the soprano sax runs as a VST or AU plug-in on PC (Windows 7 or XP, 32/64 bit) and Intel Mac (OS 10.5 or higher). It will work in Cubase, Logic, Garage Band, and so on, but a VST host is required to run it outside a sequencer. (The makers recommend the free SaviHost.) Apart from the 720MB trombone, the instruments' samples require less than 500MB of free disk space each.
The makers report good results using an IntelCore2 Quad Q9400 2.66GHz PC with 3GB RAM and a Mac Pro quad-core 3GHz machine with 8GB of RAM. More modest setups (such as a modern PC or Mac with at least 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo CPU) will also work, although you may have to increase buffer sizes and bounce to audio as you go along. A five‑octave MIDI keyboard with pitch and mod wheels, and an expression pedal (or breath controller), or a wind controller is required for real time playing.