An awful lot of blowing went into Dan Dean's new orchestral release — but is this the wind of change, or just a great deal of hot air?
One of the first developers to jump on the Giga bandwagon was sample producer Dan Dean, who made a name for himself in 2001 with an impressive trilogy of orchestral titles: Dan Dean Solo Strings, Solo Brass and Solo Woodwinds. After a busy period of development, Dan is now ready to tackle groups of instrumentalists, and the first fruits of this collaboration can be heard on the new Dan Dean Brass Ensembles.
If you want a stirring, emotional racket, say to underscore Columbus sighting the new world or Tom Hanks single-handedly defeating the entire German army, you can't beat the rich sound of orchestral brass. Recorded in a large stone and glass building, Mr. Dean's brass ensembles produce the big concert hall sound most orchestral samplists lust after. For those who prefer a less reverberant experience, DDBE provides alternative versions of all the samples recorded simultaneously from a closer mic position. This unique twin-perspective approach effectively doubles the size of the library from 3.47 to 6.82GB.
As SOS's new fashion correspondent, I'm delighted to report that the 12-CD Giga set comes in a handy zipped, black synthetic fabric wallet, sporting a minimal French horn logo emblazoned on an attractive teal-blue background — a stylish and practical accessory for the winter season. On ripping open the zip, one finds a good-quality 36-page booklet crammed full of detailed information, and, unlike a PDF file, this neatly folded paper artefact doesn't require electricity and can be detached from the rest of the library to read on the bus. I hope it catches on.
The library's list of preset types occupies 25 pages, and on the first read had me reaching for the headache tablets; however, a closer examination reveals a meticulously organised underlying structure. On the 12-CD Giga version, each ensemble's performances span two discs, with long notes and main staccatos on Disc 1, and all other performance styles grouped together on Disc 2. Both discs are duplicated in an 'A' (ambient) and 'C' (close) version with a similar program layout, and this basic presentation is repeated for each of the three ensembles. So, if you're desperately seeking some French horn long notes to complete your virtual orchestral arrangement, copying the contents of 'French Horns A, Disc 1' onto your hard drive should do the trick. If you prefer a closer-miked sound, it's easy to find the equivalent preset on 'French Horns C, Disc 1'.
Frank Zappa once complained that on returning to a recording session after their obligatory pub break, the trumpet section of an English orchestra played so badly that it required 40 edits in a seven-minute piece of music to cover their mistakes. So much for British professionalism. Happily, Dan Dean's three trumpet players remain sober and consistently turn in high-quality performances, and apart from one isolated dodgy attack on a stratospherically high note, their delivery is spot on across the entire three-octave, E3 to F6 range (where C4 is Middle C).
The trumpets' eight-way dynamics programs are sensitively programmed, and make it easy to create natural-sounding, expressive passages. It's good to hear the players maintaining a full, even tone while progressing from a subdued ppp to a brazen fff dynamic; their quiet notes are beautifully controlled, and the louder notes are bright and commanding without getting too piercing. Even with mutes adding a metallic cutting edge, this trumpet section never sounds thin.
In addition to long sustains, DDBE offers short 'portato' notes and neither style uses vibrato — where the trumpets' sustained notes have a subtly-articulated attack, their portatos have little or none, which works better in flowing melodic passages. The trumpet staccatos are an absolute knockout: super-tight, punchy and confident. In the film music world, it's common practice to use orchestral samples to augment real players' performances, and I'm sure we'll soon be hearing these staccatos belting out on the soundtrack of Jurassic Park 4 and the like.
Moving along in a crab-like manner, we come to the instrument described affectionately by a sax player friend as 'the golden handbrake' — yes folks, it's the trombone. Like their trumpeteering colleagues, this trio of sliding tube operators are free from any taint of alcohol and contribute some top-notch performances, including cleanly articulated, unwavering multi-dynamic sustains and ballsy staccatos. Their range exceeds two and a half octaves, from E2 to C5.
DDBE's French horn ensemble samples are excellent, running the gamut from warm, intimate timbres to triumphal, brassy fortissimo blasts. Such pronounced timbral changes render the horns' eight-dynamic sustain programs a bit unpredictable, and I preferred the smoother response of the four-dynamic versions. These come in two types, one using dynamic layers ppp, p, mf & ff and the other layers pp, mp, f & fff. Because they have no samples in common, the two can be successfully layered without fear of phase cancellation. The French horns span a large range from A#1 to F5, but their hand-stopped versions are restricted to two octaves (C3 to C5). I doubt whether the outer extremes of this nasal, edgy sound will be missed much.
All three ensembles offer 'forte-piano crescendo' samples featuring a loud attack followed by a quiet sustain, which then swells in volume and abruptly cuts off. This somewhat melodramatic effect (perfect for accompanying a film clip of a short event like Sebastian Coe sprinting off the cliff at Beachy Head, or Ulrika Jonsson's latest relationship) offers a choice of short, medium and long crescendos. Straight 'fp' sustains with no crescendo are also provided, and although there are no stand-alone crescendos, the 'fp crescendo' samples can be adapted to do the job by fading down their initial attack.
Crescendos and decrescendos can also be simulated by using the 'dynamic crossfade' programs; these offer various menus of four velocity layers that can be crossfaded with the modulation wheel. An innovative variant on this idea uses the modulation wheel to layer (rather than crossfade) all four dynamic layers, thereby creating a kind of super-ensemble. I expected this to produce extremely rich chorusing, but due to the samples' carefully corrected tuning, the effect is more of timbral enrichment.
Most of the programs have the option of release triggers, which add a luxurious real-life decay to the outgoing sample, but gobble up polyphony. The library does not supply grace notes, trills, glisses, runs, rips, falls and so on, but a future upgrade is planned to remedy this (see the 'Pilot Of The Future' box later). The good news for hardware sampler owners (and I remain one) is that DDBE is also available in the Akai S1000 format as an eight-CD set, with release triggers omitted and dynamic layers split into individual banks to get round the Akai's 32MB limit.
While it offers a huge number of presets, DDBE is based on a relatively simple set of performance styles:
3 trumpets, 3 trombones
sustains * (8). muted sustains * (4). portato * (8). staccato * (8). staccato alternative takes * (8). fp (forte piano) (loud attack followed by quiet sustain). fp + short crescendo. fp + medium crescendo. fp + long crescendo.
4 French horns
Same as trumpets and trombones, but substitute stopped sustains * (3). stopped staccato * (3) for Muted sustains.
(number in brackets = dynamic variations)
(* = release triggers available)
The library's vast numbers of presets give the user maximum control and flexibility. An intelligent, comprehensive programming scheme sees the modulation wheel, sustain pedal, MIDI Controller #16 and even breath control, variously mapped to control overall level, attack time and low-pass filter frequency, and to switch, crossfade or layer the individual dynamic layers and different performance styles. For example, you can use the sustain pedal to rapidly switch between sustain and staccato, leaving both hands free to pound out massive brass chords, and GigaStudio's keyswitching facility and numerous keyboard splits are also used extensively as performance aids. However, for the memory-conscious, many programs have 'light' versions, which have been reduced in size by 40 percent simply by omitting the 'black note' samples — the white note samples are suitably stretched to cover the gaps.
One of DDBE's strengths is its accurate ensemble tuning, which remains steady through the entire length of the sustains. This should make them relatively easy to loop, but once again, a decision has been made to dispense with this time-consuming process. Note duration varies according to range and dynamic: although some mid-range trumpet notes persist for up to 15 seconds, most of the trombone and French horn sustains last between seven and nine seconds, and a few low horn notes expire after only five. A memory-saving compression technique applied to the samples prevents users from making their own loops (or indeed, performing any kind of edit to the raw samples), so we're stuck with these regrettable limitations.
Aside from the lack of loops, DDBE performs extremely well within its relatively narrow stylistic confines. The straight, no-vibrato delivery and lack of performance samples make these ensembles less suited to some pop genres, but for the purposes of orchestral music, they're superb. Benefiting from top players hand-picked from a US symphony orchestra and a first-class classical/film-music recording facility, DDBE conforms to samplists' fantasies of how orchestral brass should sound, and deserves to become a leader in its field.
GigaStudio 12-CD set $699, Akai S1000 eight-CD set $599.
Dan Dean Productions +1 206 232 6191.
Work is about to begin on the next phase of Dan Dean Brass Ensembles, which is described as a 'performance-oriented upgrade'. This will include performances such as glisses, phrases and rips, and be recorded with the same players in the same recording facility, using the same recording techniques as DDBE.
Fans of Dan's earlier libraries will be interested to hear that Ernest Cholakis from Numerical Sound in Toronto is developing "a new proprietary ambience technology that will 'place' the instruments on Dan Dean Solo Woodwinds and Solo Brass into the same ambient 'acoustic space' as the brass ensembles." This will be released soon, available as an upgrade for registered users.