The new version of Arturia's Brass instrument attempts to create realistic‑sounding trombones, trumpets and saxophones, so just how successful is it?
The French company Arturia are well known — and deservedly so — for their range of outstanding virtual synths. But tucked away in their product range is a different kind of virtual instrument, one that uses physical and acoustic modelling techniques to generate a range of trumpet, trombone and saxophone sounds that span the stylistic spectrum. Brass 2.0 was developed in conjunction with boffins at the IRCAM institute in Paris, and claims all sorts of benefits over its sample‑based competitors. These include potentially greater levels of expressivity, especially for soloing, and a freedom from the arguably limiting, inflexible nature of lick- or phrase‑based sound libraries. Additionally, Brass 2.0 promises to be a friend to all laptop owners: its installation footprint is comparatively small, and there's absolutely no reliance on streaming samples. Modelling acoustic instruments is a tricky business, though, so how have Arturia got on with this latest attempt?
According to Arturia, to run Brass 2.0 you need a PC with Windows 2000, XP or Vista, or a Mac with OS 10.4 or higher. It's a universal binary, so both PowerPC and Intel users are supported. For both platforms, 512MB RAM and a 2GHz dual‑core processor are minimum requirements. Arturia use Syncrosoft copy protection, which means you can get your licence on a Syncrosoft USB dongle if you wish, or use a straightforward disk‑based method. The authorisation process looks a little convoluted, but is actually really easy and well described in the manual, and a further advantage of the Syncrosoft approach is that you can swap a disk‑based authorisation onto a dongle — or vice‑versa — any time you choose.
Brass is also available as part of Arturia's 'One' package, which consists of a DVD costing 229 Euros$249 and containing eight of their software instruments, with a license for 15 days use. The idea is that at the end of the 15 days you choose your favourite instrument and assign the single permanent license to it.
Brass 2.0 runs as a stand‑alone application on Mac and Windows, and as a VST, RTAS and Audio Units plug‑in. There's no essential difference between the stand‑alone and plug‑in versions, so for the purposes of this review I'll concentrate on the plug‑in.
The user interface appears in a 900 x 640‑pixel window (beneath whatever title‑bar paraphernalia your particular host sequencer displays), and with several alternative modes and configuration displays on offer, it takes a few moments of clicking around to uncover exactly how the is configured. Essentially, Brass 2.0 offers up to four instrument 'slots', which can be occupied by any combination of trumpet, trombone and sax. In Live mode, you get to play your modelled instruments as you would any other synth or sampler, although there's built‑in harmonisation available for quick and easy 'section' recreations. In Riff mode, a built‑in sequencer is revealed, and now MIDI inputs trigger sequenced phrases, of which around 150 are supplied, categorised by style, and fully editable. Although Riffs can be triggered perfectly well by a single MIDI keypress, Riff mode will also respond to chordal input, analysing what you play and 'bending' the Riff's scale accordingly.
Before we get bogged down in too much detail, let's look at Brass 2.0 in use. With no sample-loading time, it's ready to go as soon as you instantiate it, and it defaults to Live mode, ready to be played in real time. Basic operation is then quite intuitive. You can choose descriptively named instrument presets for the four slots from pop‑up menus on the left of the window, and tweak them in the instrument slots. The parameters that appear there differ slightly between saxophone and trumpet/trombone models, as the main screenshot shows. This being a modelling‑based instrument, you're not going to be finding Filter Cutoff and Resonance amongst those parameters, so here's a run‑down of what's available:
ATT (Attack): Controls the speed and quality with which a note 'speaks'.
PRS (Pressure): Essentially how hard the virtual instrument is blown. As with a real instrument, low pressures can cause a note to be out of tune, or to not speak at all.
PTCH (Pitch): Introduces limited pitch variation as a musician would, by adjusting embouchure at the mouthpiece. Brass 2.0 very convincingly mimics real‑world behaviour, radically changing timbre at the same time, allowing only limited pitch shifts that are often not smooth, and possibly 'choking' sounding notes.
NOIS (Noise): Adds breath or reed noise.
VIBR (Vibrato): Controls vibrato depth. As with the Pitch parameter, vibrato is applied in an authentic way, so large amounts on trumpet, say, will cause notes to 'split' to adjacent harmonics.
V.FRQ (Vibrato Frequency): Controls the frequency of the vibrato.
GRWL (Growl): Only for sax, this gives the sound a vocal grunting/humming texture, adding a raucous quality and interacting in a complex way across the pitch range.
MUTE (Mute): For trumpet/trombone only, this controls the position of the two dynamic mute types available (see the 'Instrument Configuration' box).
The values for these parameters are shown by little faders, and you can click, or click and drag with your mouse, to adjust them. But you quickly discover that, for most presets, the values not only change the next time you play a note, but often change from note to note — so in fact these sliders act more like indicators than conventional controls. The question is, then, what's controlling them? The short answer to that is: MIDI and automation. Huh? Here's the long answer...
First of all, successful use of Brass 2.0 depends a lot on MIDI control. Click on the MIDI Preset label at the bottom right of the window and you bring up a configuration screen that offers what are essentially modulation routings. The modulation sources are MIDI messages — key velocity, aftertouch, mod wheel, pitch‑bend, breath control and other continuous controllers — and the available destinations are the parameters we just looked at. For each you can adjust a 'connection amount' (ie. how strongly the parameter responds to the incoming data) and select from a series of curves to choose various linear or non‑linear relationships. Each of the four instrument slots in Brass 2.0 gets its own set of MIDI control routings, so it's easy, for example, to have one instrument respond strongly to aftertouch, while another one doesn't at all. To choose the value range over which incoming MIDI modulation will take effect, you go back to the main screen and adjust the little triangle handles next to each parameter.
I also mentioned automation. Now, this isn't your DAW's automation (though Brass 2.0 will respond to that perfectly well) but a built‑in system. Click one of the little 'A' buttons above an instrument parameter and you'll open a dedicated editing screen, a graph‑type display showing relative parameter value on one axis and time on the other. It's a simple matter of using the drawing tools on offer and configuring a few other options, like whether your shape will loop, to introduce a dynamic element for a parameter's values. It's probably worth noting, too, that value changes happen in addition to any MIDI modulation, or static value of the parameter.
Beyond this, there's only the fine operational detail of Brass 2.0 to cover. Loading instruments is, as I mentioned, achieved via pop‑up menus in the left‑hand column of the plug‑in window, and a range of presets is provided, organised by instrument type. In Live mode, there's a pop‑up menu for recalling one of about 25 harmonisation presets, which only make sense when you're using multiple instruments. However, Brass 2.0 also offers a pop‑up menu for 'Kits' — essentially whole‑plug‑in snapshots that recall multiple instruments and harmonisation settings in one fell swoop. Despite appearances, Kits don't seem to just recall pre‑existing presets (with all the potential confusion that can entail as soon as you begin to modify individual presets) but actually store all parameter settings independently. However, the relationship between Kits and instruments gets a bit confusing at times, particularly when you see your recently saved instrument appearing in the Kit pop‑up menu. It makes sense in practice... I think... Otherwise, preset management is pretty straightforward, with dedicated buttons for all the functions you commonly need, and options to export (or import) individual Kit, instrument and harmonisation files. Managing Riffs is similarly easy, and what's cool is that you can import and export them as MIDI files.
Just about wrapping up the nuts and bolts of Brass 2.0, all instruments can use an optional spatialisation feature, essentially an ambience reverb, which places them left or right, front or back, in an acoustic environment. The interface is quite basic, but spatialisation helps to set up convincing sound‑staging, especially for instrument sections, and is particularly handy since Brass 2.0 lacks multiple virtual outputs, which you might otherwise use to treat different instruments separately.
When it comes to breadth of musical expressivity, the Saxophone is right up there with the likes of electric guitar and violin. There are a staggering number of ways a good player can control the attack, timbre, pitch and volume of a single note, to say nothing of an entire musical phrase. Trumpet or trombone aren't far behind, and this, argue Arturia, is why sample‑based solutions are fundamentally deficient. If they're tied into essentially static recordings of single notes or entire phrases, composers and arrangers will only ever be able to achieve a compromise.
There's no question that Brass 2.0 offers lots of flexibility — all those real‑time control options are testament to that — but can it deliver, and is it any more believable, in a working production environment? The concise answer to that is: yes, but only sometimes, in some ways, and with unexpected difficulties and frustrations along the way.
Looking on the bright side first, a few preset Riffs that are chock-full of bends, growls and wild vibratos are impressive. In the right mix, you might be hard‑pushed to tell they weren't being played on real instruments. And, of course, the acoustic modelling approach allows all that real‑time stuff to be tweaked at any time, to adjust the musical result subtly or drastically. No crude articulation-switching here.
Live mode, too, is often rewarding, with some usable sounds straight out of the bag. Any number of the trumpet presets demonstrate the benefits of the acoustic modelling approach, especially in the believable sound of joins between notes. Throw in a smattering of modulation wheel and pitch‑bend and, at least for for entire phrases rather than individual notes, you can quickly create parts that have plenty of life. There are one or two promising saxes: 'Studio Sax' is a raucous and saucy affair, while 'Silky Sax' is full‑bodied and very playable. Amongst the trombones, 'Mellowbone' is a good one, nicely varied across the pitch range.
However, Brass 2.0 has major down sides. Some presets seem to me just awful, sounding thin, spitty and utterly unsophisticated, and I'm not really sure why they're there. If I was feeling very cruel I'd say they sound like a cheap bassoon being played by a 10-year-old, recorded on a mono cassette deck. Maybe they're supposed to work 'in context' — but heaven knows what that would be. In addition, some are very quiet, while others are much louder than the rest, and there's no rhyme or reason to it. The chorus effect is far too pronounced, sounding literally out of tune rather than adding thickness. And while we're on the subject, there are a few issues caused by Brass 2.0 applying its acoustic models with unyielding accuracy. It's possible to experience out-of-tune notes near instruments' pitch extremes, for example, or if they're played with low pressure. And if you should want a simple, synth‑style pitch‑bend, forget it. Trombones will do slides, as you'd expect, but they're hard to control, and you'll struggle to get close to a really big trumpet fall‑off effect. It's at moments like these, when you just need a specific musical effect that is outside Brass 2.0's repertoire, that you'll wish you'd gone down the sampled route.
Next, at the risk of rubbing salt into the wound, Brass 2.0 can be a massive CPU hog. Whilst testing in Presonus Studio One, which is a very efficient instrument host, my 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo Mac couldn't cope with some Brass 2.0 presets that used four instruments, even using a 512 sample buffer. Saxes are particularly CPU hungry. I experienced a fair bit of instability too, with Brass 2.0 causing a number of unexpected quits. The stand‑alone application was worst in this respect, often giving up when going in and out of various configuration screens. I also noticed that the audio output would frequently and inexplicably go dead after 15 or 20 minutes of use.
All in all, Brass 2.0 is quite easy to sum up. Like some other acoustic modelling instruments, it loses out to sample libraries when you assess the realism of single notes, and is a maddening mix of really impressive capabilities and frustrating limitations. Whether it could be regarded as being in any way 'better' than its sample‑based brethren depends largely, I think, on how sympathetic you are towards the basic concept of acoustic modelling. Personally, I'd say it's still a work in progress, and I suspect that more believable results could be achieved more quickly from even quite modest sample libraries, especially for band‑ or section‑scale parts. But it's horses for courses: attempt a solo on even the best sampled sax, and you'll spot it as a poor fake within seconds, so nothing's perfect. Brass 2.0, at least, is another option in the sonic arsenal, and if you have a well specified Mac or PC, and you're prepared to spend some time learning how to extract the very best sounds from it, it could prove uniquely capable.
There aren't so many dedicated Brass sound libraries, and no others I'm aware of that use acoustic modelling, though trumpet, trombone and sax will often be covered in general-purpose orchestral libraries. Coming closest to Brass 2.0's remit are the likes of Chris Hein Horns Vol 1.5 (£249$351) and Garritan Jazz & Big Band (£99$149), both full‑blown multi‑gigabyte libraries.
An instrument's parameter sliders aren't the only way to influence its sound in Brass 2.0. Just as important, though somewhat hidden away in the Configuration section, is a whole extra range of options. For trumpet and trombone, this is where you access one of five different mutes: Dry, Bowl, Harmon (strangely labelled 'Harmony'), Plunger and Wah‑wah. For the sax model, there's a choice of jazz and 'classic' mouthpieces. Other options here are really important too. The Type pop‑up menu calls up instrument model variations that are sometimes radically different from one another. Attack controls breath/tonguing characteristics, while the unhelpfully labelled 'Number' is actually a chorus control, instantly doubling, tripling or quadrupling your sonic arsenal, still within the one overall instrument slot. A Humanisation slider varies the amount of randomness applied to parameter values from note to note, and some extra Expert parameters for the sax determine the likelihood of squeals, sound release time, and whether you get a synth‑type or 'real‑world' embouchure‑driven change in pitch when you use your controller keyboard's mod wheel. In short, there's plenty to fiddle with.
Pitch ranges for the instruments in Brass 2.0 are preset. Trumpet goes down generously low, to a tenor 'E', and up to an eye‑watering 'G' over three octaves above. The sax model covers alto and tenor ranges, but sadly doesn't go down into the baritone regions that are so useful for film scoring. Trombone spans three octaves from tenor 'C', and that's a bit restricted compared to a real tenor trombone, which can generally go at least a sixth lower.
One thing revealed in the MIDI Preset pane is that there are dedicated control modes for MIDI keyboards, keyboards with a breath-control input, and for the Akai EWI wind controller. That's great, but it's a little concerning that if you don't have any kind of breath input you seem to have to fight Brass 2.0 to achieve a full range of expressive control. For example, if you try to create very gradual note attacks and releases by assigning attack, pressure and volume parameters to knobs on your controller keyboard, and removing key velocity as a modulation source, Brass 2.0 never quite plays ball. Velocity is still involved somehow. It's the same problem if you try to achieve those typical 'attack‑release‑surge' articulations that are such a crucial part of the jazz/funk horn section style. Switching to Expert level in the MIDI preset window (an undocumented feature) helps somewhat, but without knowing exactly what this is doing, it's hard to guess how to proceed.
- Has the potential to sound believable and authentic.
- Overcomes some expressive limitations of multisampled libraries.
- Good balance between immediacy and programming depth.
- Harmonisation and Riff mode make it quick to program a 'section' sound.
- Too often sounds terrible!
- The modelling approach is CPU hungry.
- It's often hard, or impossible, to achieve some common articulations and playing techniques.
- A few features poorly implemented or undocumented.
A brave departure from the sampled norm, Brass 2.0 has fascinating potential, but often sounds drab and under‑cooked. Getting the best from it requires a fast computer and a willingness to learn the subtleties of its acoustic modelling approach.
- Arturia Brass 2.0.5.
- Apple MacBook 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM, OS 10.6.4.
- Presonus Studio One v1.5.2.