It's another multi-DVD orchestral library! Does it merit a thunderous introductory timp roll or a feeble tap on a vibraslap?
The goal behind the vast East West/Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra library (or EWQLSO to its friends) was to create a 24-bit orchestral sample library which could be reproduced in surround sound. This ambitious project was conceived by two American producers, Doug Rogers and Nick Phoenix (respective heads of the East West and Quantum Leap sample library empires) and brought to fruition by Grammy-winning recording engineer Professor Keith O Johnson.
Making a library of this quality is not the sort of project you undertake on a spare weekend — in fact, making EWQLSO took a year of recording, editing and programming. For the library to live up to its creators' ideals, it was imperative to find a concert hall with great acoustics, and they seem to have succeeded, although for contractual reasons, the identity of the 2500-seater hall and its resident orchestra remain a mystery. Recording started in August 2002, the orchestra giving up their Summer break to the sampling sessions, and editing the resulting multi-channel recordings lasted nearly another year. The full version of the finished symphonic extravaganza weighs in at around 67GB (second in size only to the efforts of the Vienna Symphonic Library), and in terms of size and scope alone, must be considered a leading contender for any work requiring orchestral samples. Note, however, that smaller versions of the library are also available for those on a budget (see the final page of this review for more details).
EWQLSO is divided into four volumes, Strings, Woodwinds, Brass and Percussion. Each comes in a large box covered in glossy artwork showing (for reasons of confidentiality) a different concert hall from the one used in the library! Inside are the library's 19 DVDs and an A5-sized, 126-page operation manual which covers the whole set (the manual is identical whichever volume you buy). The text is well written, and affords Professor Keith O Johnson the chance to give a spirited account of his multi-miking methodology. In short, this is as follows. The orchestra's performances were recorded from three different positions in the concert hall, referred to as 'C' (close), 'F' (full mix, derived from clusters of stage mics) and 'S' (surround, from elevated mics near the back of the hall). All the recordings were made simultaneously from these three positions, creating three stereo versions of each sample. This enables users to adjust the mix of close, stage and hall 'surround' sound to their own taste, and allows the construction of 5.1 mixes.
During the recordings, the musicians took up their normal orchestral stage positions (violins and French horns stage right, violas centre stage, double basses and trombones stage left, and so on). The library's presets preserve these placements, so users can build up a full orchestral mix with ease. For further realism, the makers have attached release trails (aka 'release triggers') to the library's presets to show off the sound of the concert hall. These reverb-only samples, which sound only when keys are released, are cleverly programmed to match the level of their corresponding samples, and you can edit their volume, decay and pan settings, or even turn them off altogether!
Professional composers chasing deadlines don't have time to wade through countless Gigabytes of material to find the sound they need, so the producers' philosophy regarding performances has been to focus on what they consider the most useful and expressive articulations, with an unashamed bias towards Hollywood film scoring. As a result, there are no sampled licks, chords, mood pieces or full-orchestra tutti effects; instead, the library concentrates on providing users with a wide and expressive range of multisamples. The manual gives a clear and logical (though sometimes cryptic) list of all the variations in playing style, but says nothing about the instruments themselves. This is forgivable in a library geared to music production rather than musical education, but it would have been nice if somewhere amidst all the technical verbiage, someone had spent a few words explaining what some of the more obscure instruments are, or given some instrument pitch ranges for the benefit of less experienced composers.
Rather than being supplied as a standard sample library, EWQLSO is supplied with its own sample player based on Native Instruments' Kompakt, which is itself based on their Kontakt software sampler. Installing the full library is a straightforward, if lengthy, process — you should allow at least a morning to copy the contents of all 19 DVDs to your computer. Simply run the provided installer for each volume of the library to install the basic application and plug-in files to your computer, and then copy the Kontakt-format NKS files to the appropriate location. Having the content files separate from the main installer is actually quite useful, since there are cases where you might want to remove these large files from your system and put them back at a later date. And in this situation, you won't have to uninstall and reinstall the actual application and plug-in.
The copy-protection scheme used is the one found in most Native Instruments software these days. This means that after installation you'll be able to use the software for a five-day grace period, during which time you need to register and authorise your product with Native Instruments using the registration tool provided. The authorisation process is of the challenge-and-response type, and you'll get two licences for each part of the library, meaning that you can install the library on two separate machines. This is great for people working on large arrangements who need to spread their orchestra across multiple machines.
Although the copy protection allows you to remove the authorisation from one computer to install on another, it's important to point out that once an authorisation is removed from a system it can never be installed on that particular system again, unless you reinstall your operating system.
NI have enjoyed great success licensing Kompakt to sample-library developers in the last year, and part of the reason for this success is to do with copy-protection, the theory being that it's easier to protect a sample library that's inseparable from the application in which it runs. However, there's an advantage for the user as well, in that it allows specific functionality to be added to the player to cater for the needs of a given library — each volume of EWQLSO, for example, is supplied with a different player to handle the different sections of the orchestra.
It should come as no surprise to learn that you need decent computers to get the most out of this library. The minimum requirements to run Kompakt (as recommended by NI) are for a 500MHz Pentium III, Athlon or G3 processor with 256MB of RAM, running Windows XP, ME, 98 or Mac OS 9.2, 10.2.6 or higher. The better system, again recommended by NI, is for a 700MHz Pentium III, Athlon or G4 processor with 1GB of RAM, although my personal opinion is that most users will need substantially more RAM to run EWQLSO to its full potential. In the US, East West (in conjunction with music PC company Vision DAW) are offering full computer systems designed to run EWQLSO, and these machines feature a 2.8GHz Pentium 4 processor, 2GB of DDR433 memory, and a 36GB Raptor drive for the sample data. These type of specs are certainly more commonplace these days for dedicated digital-audio or sampling workstations, and give a better idea of the specification East West feel is appropriate for their library.
I'd also recommend at least two computers dedicated to the library to get the most out of the sounds. You could run Strings and Percussion on one, and Brass and Woodwinds on the other — a good idea given that the strings and brass are typically the most used sections in orchestral writing, especially in Hollywood! In an ideal world, though, the best performance would easily be obtained by having four computers, so you could dedicate each orchestral section to its own computer. This doesn't mean that single-computer users won't get much out of the library, it just means that you might be doing rather a lot of bouncing!
The Kompakt-based sample players are supplied in both stand-alone and plug-in versions for both Mac OS 9/X and Windows, with Audio Units, RTAS (OS X only) and VST Instrument support on the Mac, and VST and DirectX Instrument support on Windows, with RTAS support to follow. Using the Kompakt player is pretty straightforward, and anyone who's used a similar Kompakt-based product should feel at home straight away.
Instruments are chosen from a neatly organised pop-up menu and loaded into one of eight 'slots' in the instrument section of the interface. Each slot enables you to configure the MIDI channel on which the instrument responds, and the audio output that should be used, along with key-range and transpose settings. These settings make it possible to layer multiple instruments; by setting slots to respond on the same MIDI channel, you can also make use of the multiple microphone positions available in EWQLSO (alternatively, there are multi-instruments that load all three mic-position instruments in one go, but the disadvantage is that a multi-instrument always loads all eight slots, so multi-instruments are great for auditioning, but not when you have existing instruments loaded in the slots). If you set the close, stage and surround mics to different outputs within Kompakt, you can then assign these channels in your host's mixer to surround busses, and position the close mics to the front, the stage mics a little further back, and the surround mics to the rear. More than any other orchestral library, this gives you great flexibility to alter 'mic placement' in your virtual orchestra (for more on this, see the 'Behind You!' box towards the end of this article).
Since the sample data takes up just under 70GB of hard disk space, it stands to reason that you won't get too far playing these samples directly from memory. To this end, Kompakt supports disk streaming via the DFD (Direct From Disk) extension so that only the first part of each sample is loaded into memory, with the remainder being streamed from disk. There are a couple of presets for suggested DFD usage to help you get the optimum performance by balancing between memory and disk space, along with the ability to configure these settings manually with an Expert mode. There is, however, one catch: the DFD extension isn't supplied with the library, and must be downloaded separately after you register the product on Native Instruments' web site. This isn't a problem, so long as you have immediate Internet access.
One area where a sample-playback engine often falls down in comparison to loading a more conventional library into a fully fledged sampler is in the amount of editing the user can perform on the sample data. Kompakt offers a fairly flexible interface for performing the most typical modifications on instruments, such as setting the velocity curve, a glide mode, a filter and amplifier section with associated envelopes and an LFO. In addition to a note-based filter (where each note played is filtered differently, allowing for different velocities to adjust filter settings on the fly), there's also a master filter section if you want to filter the overall output of all the notes played for a given instrument, which is quite useful for taking the edge off strings and brass instruments.
On the downside, there's no way to really get into the nitty-gritty programming of the instruments in Kompakt, such as if you wanted to alter the velocity crossover points for sounds, and so on. And other more advanced elements of the programming, seen in the automatic up- and down-bow-switching, various key-switching instruments, or the modulation crossfading, are similarly hidden from your prying fingers. Most people probably won't miss not being able to delve this deep, but power-users do like to reprogram specific samples in this way on a regular basis. However, sample data can apparently be loaded into the latest version of Native Instruments fully-blown Kontakt sampler and tweaked as much as required.
The only real possible criticism of the Kompakt player is that you can only load eight instruments at a time, so you can't use all the channels on a single MIDI port. This isn't a problem if you're running the plug-in versions of the player, since you can run multiple instances, but it is annoying if you want to run the stand-alone version. Those interested in doing this would probably be better off using a simple plug-in host like Steinberg's V-Stack (now available for both Mac OS X and Windows) to run more channels with multiple instances.
So what's on those 19 DVDs? EWQLSO has a healthy complement of sampled string sections — two violin ensembles comprising 18 and 11 players, 10 violas, 10 cellos and nine double basses. Grouped together with solo violin, solo cello and harp (but alas, no solo viola or solo double bass) these make up a single volume which, for many, will provide the yardstick by which the whole library is judged.
All the string ensembles and solo strings play vibrato sustains, 'expressive' vibratos, martelé short notes and 'legato mf' samples whose initial bow attacks have been trimmed to give an instant note response, presumably with fast lines in mind. The ensembles play staccato short notes, and a large number of additional performance styles are implemented selectively. One very welcome feature is that the string sections' sustains (including tremolos and trills) are looped, enabling keyboard players to hold down notes for as long as they wish.
* VIOLIN SECTIONS
Sound library reviewing is all about close listening, so the 18 violins' close samples seemed a logical place to start. Loading their 'sustained vibrato' patch took about 50 seconds, but once in place, the samples established their quality in no time at all. The sound is smooth, polished and well balanced, with a bright, clear timbre, plenty of sheen and depth, and an expressive but not over-the-top vibrato. Quieter samples are sweet and steady, while the high velocity range introduces a more vigorous bow attack. One vibrato sustain option offers automatic alternation of up and down-bows, which sound much more realistic and lively than a series of uni-directional bow movements.
The 18 violins' 'expressive vibrato' performances start quietly and breathily, swell in volume while increasing their vibrato, then sink back to a lower level for their sustains. The effect is romantic and dramatic, but if you want less expression, there's a fast attack version which dispenses with the fade-in. The trimmed legato samples sound slightly unnatural when exposed, but would sound OK in a mix. Going against the Hollywood grain, no-vibrato sustains have an austere, slightly dispassionate atmosphere, but the muted con sordino performances produce a warm, inviting, very enjoyable timbre.
This violin section plays three types of short note: marcato (three different lengths), staccato (played with a good sharp attack) and martelé. The short marcatos are the quickest of all, delivering an urgent, emphatic bowing which is very suitable for detaché fast lines. Although fairly forceful, the martelé samples' somewhat more lingering attack is better suited to slower passages. All three styles have built-in alternating up- and down-bows, and the staccatos even have an option that selects a down-bow for every third note played!
The 18 violins bow out with controlled tremolo sustains (apparently one dynamic only, but very usable) and some fine pizzicatos — EWQLSO 's version of the latter classic orchestral timbre is as good as they come. The included 'slurs' turn out to be fast semitone slides up to a sustained note. Effects come in two flavours: a collection of extremely creepy, slowly ascending atonal slides (reminiscent of the orchestral build-up in the Beatles' 'A Day In The Life'), and a distant gassy noise which sounds as though the players are hoovering out the insides of their violins.
An 11-piece second-violin section covers a lot of the same ground as the 18 violins, but also supplies a few new performance categories. 'Expressive diminuendo' is a notable example: its samples start with a three-second crescendo, sustain for a couple of seconds, then fade down over about three seconds; a very lush effect. Short, cartoon-soundtrack-style glissandi (a semitone or minor third slide up to a short target note), well-played tone and semitone trills, and some neat spiccato short notes complete the new performance styles.
Why, you might ask, do we need two violin sections? One answer is that the two ensembles sound different, the smaller section making a purer, more transparent noise than the rich chorusing of the 18 violins. Another advantage is that orchestral repertoire written for first and second violins can be programmed without fear of sample duplication. It's worth noting that the 11 violins do not play con sordino, pizzicatos, tremolos or slurs, and that neither violin section plays harmonics.
* VIOLAS & CELLO
Early sound libraries' attempts at sampled viola sections yielded some traumatic results, but these 10 violas produce rich symphonic sustains. Some may find the players' vibrato a little fruity, but a cunning preset which allows vibrato and non-vibrato samples to be crossfaded via the mod wheel enables users to reduce the amount of apparent vibrato by pushing the wheel halfway up!
The violas replicate the violins' romantic 'expressive vibratos' and play marcato, staccato and martelé short notes, the last two featuring automated up- and down-bows. All sound very effective, and the staccato performances are very good indeed. But, in terms of basic styles, that's about it for the violas; there are no con sordinos, pizzicatos, tremolos, slurs or trills, which may prove a handicap for anyone trying to reproduce an orchestral score.
The vibrato sustains on EWQLSO 's 10 cellos sound great, and are an inspirational writing tool. The instruments have an unusually wide range (top note is C#6, two octaves above Middle C); with these soaring, singing samples spanning four full octaves, you could easily sketch out a full orchestral string arrangement. Arrangers will also be pleased with the large selection of performance styles.
The 10 cellos are strong on dynamic mobility: their 'lyrical sustain' samples don't just sustain, but quickly fade in, pull back in volume slightly, sustain for a short period, then perform a crescendo building to a note that is abruptly cut off. The eight-second crescendos are a useful asset, and there are non-vibrato and con sordino sustains, portato samples which could be used for detaché passages, and staccato short notes (the latter are tightly played, but arguably a bit on the long side). Essential styles like pizzicato, tremolo and trills are all included, the latter sounding particularly exciting. The cellos perform their own brand of slithering slide effects, and top those with an unnerving noise which gives the impression that the auditorium is filling up with bees.
* DOUBLE BASSES & ENSEMBLES
The nine-piece double-bass section sound really committed and energised, turning in some fine bass notes which will really flap your woofers. A deep, powerful preset called 'big sustain' packs an aggressive bow attack — play this in octaves at 100 Watts, and your neighbours will soon be seeking alternative accommodation. The basses' vibrato sustains have a more lyrical style, but maintain a strong bottom end. There are also some 'expressive' double-bass performances containing two successive volume surges, which is a nice idea, but the fixed timing of the swells means that composers will have to write their music around the samples. The basses are the only string section to contribute fierce, confrontational forte piano and sfz (sforzando) samples, and overall they rack up an impressive tally of performance styles, including three-second portatos, staccato up- and down-bows, pizzicatos, tremolos and long crescendos. In the effects department, the basses perform some frightening, groaning upward slides and unpitched col legno bow slaps. Perhaps hoping for a guest spot on the soundtrack of Jurassic Park 4, they also produce one amazing, guttural racket which resembles the growling of an enraged Tyrannosaurus.
The EWQLSO team have supplied programmed combinations of their double basses, cellos, violas and violins. Billed with refreshing honesty as 'Fake Ensembles', these are mapped sensibly according to range and offer sustained, 'expressive' and pizzicato styles. The combined ensembles sound excellent, providing inspiring orchestral string patches for composers and keyboard players alike.
* SOLO STRINGS
As mentioned earlier, the EWQLSO strings library has no solo viola or solo double bass, but does contain a solo violin and a solo cello, both offering a decent (though not over-large) array of performance styles. The violin's 'sustained vibrato hard' preset has a biting attack and an intense, passionate vibrato. A 'smooth' version of this style offers some respite by introducing the vibrato gradually. There are some 'no vibrato' sustains, but the vibrato tends to be either off, or full on — a few samples featuring a more subtle vibrato would have been welcome.
The violin's three-second crescendos are sensitively played, and one ambitious piece of programming sees the crescendo samples tacked on to the end of sustains in the form of release triggers — unpredictable to play, but quite entertaining! The martelé up- and down-bows sound good and precise, but the marcatos' heavy vibrato is a bit overdone. 'Slurs' are back on the menu, but unfortunately there are no staccatos or pizzicatos.
The solo cello more or less duplicates the solo violin's styles, but substitutes a double volume swell for straight crescendos. 'Expressive' samples also offer separate up- or down-bows, but to program a straightforward melody line, it's probably best to start with the vibrato sustains or trimmed legatos. This is a nice-sounding cello, and its short notes and slurs are played with conviction, sounding full, musical and engaging. No staccatos are supplied, but a preset called 'sustain accent' does a reasonable imitation if played in staccato style.
The basic performance styles listed above provide the building blocks for useful musical combinations. Some presets combine different bowings, such as staccato up- and down-bows which switch to short marcatos at top velocities. Others group together different, key-switchable performances — one 18-violin preset offers a choice of 10 different sustain styles, while another lets you switch instantly between legato, tremolo, staccato, marcato and martelé bowings. Sometimes velocity is used to control attack speed, but the most expressive, dynamic patches use the mod wheel to control the amount of attack accent, or crossfade between different performance styles (vibrato/non-vibrato, sustain/tremolo). As mentioned earlier, you can't create velocity/key-switches or mod-wheel crossfades within Kompakt, but EWQLSO gives you plenty of choices — the 18 violins, for example, have 55 presets.
* CONCERT HALL PERSPECTIVES
It's interesting to compare the string ensembles' close, stage and surround versions; the differences can appear fairly subtle on speakers, but careful listening on headphones reveals that the stage recordings have a wider stereo image and sound slightly more mellow, deep and spacious than their somewhat brighter close-miked counterparts. The surround samples are slightly delayed and have a more diffused attack than the other two sample sets, but although generally sounding more distant, they're less ambient and washy than you might expect.
The Kompakt instrument doesn't display individual samples on screen, so it's hard to be sure how many dynamic performances are incorporated into a program. However, close listening to the 18 violins' vibrato sustains and pizzicatos revealed at least three distinct dynamic layers. The string ensembles' tuning sounds absolutely perfect, probably the result of some diligent post-production tweaking.
Favourite instrument of the deranged, curly-haired Marx brother with the goggling eyes and cunningly concealed car horn, the harp adds a unique and indispensable colour to the orchestra's palette. This harp's basic plucked samples sound wonderful — six-and-a-half octaves of musical bliss, presented with short, medium and long release times. Supremely playable. The close-miked version sounds pristine and very detailed, while the 'full' stage mics add a lovely concert hall 'bloom'.
The absence of harp glissandi, chords and arpeggios is partially compensated by the inclusion of harp harmonics, a beautiful, delicate timbre which spans two-and-a-half octaves rising from Middle C. Some special, lightly-played samples designed for playing arpeggios have been thoughtfully included, but they don't sound totally convincing when used for the quick sweep of a harp glissando.
- 18 violins.
- 11 violins.
- Ten violas.
- Ten cellos.
- Nine double basses.
- Solo violin.
- Solo cello.
- Three flutes.
- Three clarinets.
- Three oboes.
- Alto flute.
- English horn.
- Bass clarinet.
- Four trumpets.
- Four tenor & bass trombones.
- Six French horns.
- Three Wagner tubas.
- Trombone & bass trombone.
- French horn.
DRUMS & CYMBALS
- Bass drum.
- Snare drum.
- Snare drum ensemble.
- Field drum.
- Field drum ensemble.
- Tenor drum.
- Funeral drum.
- Crash cymbals (piatti).
- Suspended cymbals.
- Tubular bells.
- Metal rail.
- Bell tree.
- Mark tree.
- Wood block.
- Slide whistle.
INDIVIDUAL VOLUME SIZES
- Strings: 27.9GB.
- Woodwinds: 16.5GB.
- Brass: 17.4GB.
- Percussion: 5.41GB.
- Entire library: 67.21GB.
Maintaining a convention established by Miroslav Vitous in 1992, the EWQLSO producers recorded woodwind ensembles of three players, providing unison samples of three flutes, three clarinets and three oboes. Solo woodwinds consist of the standard orchestral fare: piccolo, flute, alto flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon and contrabassoon. There are no exotic extras, but more crucially, no important instruments are missing.
All the ensemble and solo woodwinds play sustained notes (most with a choice of vibrato or no vibrato), staccatos and trimmed legato samples like those supplied for the strings, and most have an 'expressive' sustain option. Long notes are generally looped, the only exceptions being the solo clarinet and contrabassoon. Beyond that, a variety of extra performance styles appear sporadically, among them tone and semitone trills, upward semitone grace notes, glissandi (the term here used to indicate an upward run of two or three semitones leading to a short note) and 'falls' (descending octave runs, some chromatic). These auxiliary performances are implemented differently (and rather unpredictably) from one instrument to the next.
* WOODWIND ENSEMBLES
The three unison flutes have a lovely breathy texture, and impart a great soothing atmosphere (use for your next new age Healing Moods album — do not use in kung fu film fight scenes). The straight sustains and legato samples work very well for pads, the latter producing a lovely mellow tone. The players' vibrato is quite subtle, but you certainly notice its absence in the 'no vib' preset. Cartoon soundtrack composers will be pleased with the perky grace notes, slurs and looped trills.
Unison notes on three clarinets can sound unpleasantly synth-like, but these samples are very easy on the ear, their success stemming from good ensemble tuning, fine timbral control and Professor Johnson's canny miking strategies. Although they play in only three basic styles, each one sounds great! Composers may prefer to avoid writing chords for the library's three oboes, but their naturally angular, slightly piercing timbre sounds very evocative in tandem with the subtle dynamic motion of the 'expressive vibrato' performances. Semitone grace notes played by the three oboes are also a colourful sound source.
* THE FLUTE FAMILY
The piccolo may be the smallest of the orchestral woodwinds, but its piercing falsetto shriek can cut through the densest orchestral chords. The instrument's bright, incisive quality is shown off well by glissandi and trills; its vibrato sustains are pretty cutting too, but the breathy, occasionally wispy delivery of the staccatos reveal the piccolo's fragile side.
The library's flute scores well, with a pure, lyrical singing quality which is particularly enjoyable in its middle and high register. The natural beauty of its vibrato sustains is somewhat obscured by the added release and reverb, but reducing those parameters restores the instrument's appeal. There's a nice little selection of handy performance styles: cartoony grace notes, 'falls', and flutter-tongue sustains. But this flute's strength lies in its evocative long notes — select the surround version of its 'slow expressive' performances, play a few sultry phrases, and it truly sounds like the Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
Completing the family is a very nice alto flute, sounding comfortable and assured on its sustained and 'expressive' long notes and maintaining the same sumptuous, full tone in its staccato performances. The alto flute performs trills, and has one further trick up its sleeve — it plays up and down octave runs, the only instrument in the library to do so! The tempo and scale of the runs is undocumented, which probably means they were conceived primarily as an effect.
* ORCHESTRAL REEDS
EWQLSO 's oboe sounds bright and piping, and its slow-growing, subtle vibrato underlines the credibility gap between fake 'mod-wheel' vibrato and the real thing. The instrument's straight sustains and legatos cope well with loud, assertive melodies, but for quieter passages, users of a delicate disposition may prefer the expressive sustains' more sensitive, evolving approach. The oboe clocks up the most performance variations of all the woodwinds, playing grace notes, falls, trills and glissandi (here sounding more like short, ascending chromatic phrases). It also serves up two fresh styles: some good, attacking sforzando crescendos, and a category called 'slide' in which, perplexingly, no slide is audible!
The oboe's big brother, the English horn, shows solidarity by also playing non-slides (actually unlooped, four-second vibrato sustains). The English horn's vibrato is very restrained and develops slowly, and while that's preferable to an overstated 'pub singer' wobble, some might prefer a stronger vibrato. Putting such quibbles aside, the instrument's delightful, clear timbre and lovely breathy attack have an immediate emotional effect. Its grace notes are very appealing, and its falls and so-called glissando phrases have a nice languid flavour.
Using the classical 'no-vibrato' delivery, the orchestra's clarinet player has very good sound and control, but the instrument suffers from a paucity of playing styles. The player's unlooped sustains dwindle in volume after five seconds and stop after eight, an unwelcome note length restriction. Fast melody lines pose a slight problem; the trimmed legato samples can actually handle them quite well, but you have to reduce their release setting first to stop the notes blurring together. There are two good crescendo options, loud portatos and excellent staccatos, but fancy stuff like trills and grace notes are off the menu.
* LOW REEDS
Bass clarinet, bassoon and contrabassoon provide a sound foundation to EWQLSO 's higher-pitched woodwinds. Like the clarinet, the bass clarinet turns in steady, controlled performances, playing no-vibrato looped sustains in soft and hard varieties. There's a big jump in timbre between the soft and hard samples — a 'medium' option employs some crafty sample layering in an attempt to bridge the gap, but this introduces a few subtle chorusing artefacts you wouldn't expect to hear from a solo instrument! The bass clarinet's highlights are its liquid glissandi phrases and jocular staccatos.
The basic requirements of a sampled bassoon are simple: it should have sustains capable of carrying a tune, and staccatos tight and energetic enough to handle quick rhythm patterns, like the little dancing arpeggios in Smokie Robinson's 'Tears Of A Clown'. Happily, this bassoon meets these specifications and more, offering sustains with and without vibrato (the former well-suited to melodic work), emphatic portatos, long and short crescendos, and glissandi phrases. All very jolly.
Contrabassoon — now there's a good Scrabble word. The contrabassoon's samples also bag a good points score, showing off the instrument's wide timbral range. Its vibrato sustains sound quite controlled and melodic, the 'expressive' volume swells introduce a menacing rasp, and the loud portatos make a big, bassy, buzzy racket like the glass-shattering two-note trump let off by the alien spacecraft in Close Encounters. The staccatos have a good dynamic response, and are a lot of fun to compose with.
* FAKE WOODWIND ENSEMBLES
Some bright spark of a programmer has lashed the individual woodwinds together to create a couple of virtual woodwind ensembles, which sound fabulous! Woodwind ensemble number one consists of (from the bottom up) contrabassoon, bassoon, three oboes, three flutes and piccolo. Number two is made up of bass clarinet, three clarinets, English horn and piccolo. Keyboard players will appreciate the exotically blended timbre and eight-octave span of the first; the second has a rounder, softer, more 'flutey' and supportive tone, with the English horn adding a delightful breathy attack.
Overall, the library's woodwinds provide a wide range of timbres. There's no shortage of expressive performances, and, as with the strings, a great many presets feature key-switching and mod-wheel crossfades, giving users even more expressive power. Occasionally, the omnipresent release trails can make solo instruments seem a little lacking in intimacy — if that's a problem, the trails can easily be reduced in volume or turned off, effectively placing the instrument closer to the listener. But if it's a concert hall sound you want, these woodwinds have it!
The producers recommend that users make their EWQLSO-based projects future-proof by using the 'C', 'F' and 'S' versions of the samples to create close, stage and ambient stereo mixes respectively. The idea is that these separate stereo files can later be combined to create six-channel surround mixes (a further use would be to do quick stereo remixes with different amounts of hall ambience in the sound).
The diagram on the right shows the suggested speaker assignments for creating a 5.1-compatible mix. In this setup, the full (F) and surround (S) stereo mixes are sent to the front and rear speakers respectively, while one side of the close (C) mix (left or right, but not a sum of both) is sent to the centre speaker. The sub speaker carries a mono mix consisting of sub-bass frequencies derived from all the channels.
There is something innately noble and impressive about orchestral brass letting rip in a big hall — EWQLSO aims to recreate the auditory thrill by supplying sampled brass ensembles of four trumpets, four tenor and bass trombones, six French horns and three Wagner tubas, supplemented by solo trumpet, solo trombone and bass trombone, French horn and tuba. All the ensembles perform looped sustains, and most instruments play staccatos, sforzando crescendos and accented, one-second portato notes. The ensembles (and solo trumpet) also perform a number of additional styles, as detailed below.
* TENOR & BASS TROMBONES
The bass trombone's powerful, raunchy bass notes have been popular with composers and arrangers since the '60s. With this in mind, EWQLSO tacked a low octave of bass trombone ensemble samples on to the bottom of the tenor trombone ensemble's range, effectively extending the section's bottom note down to E1 (same pitch as a bass guitar's low E string). The composite super-ensemble of four tenor and four bass trombones makes a very flexible keyboard patch, giving players the best part of four octaves to compose with!
The trombone ensemble has a very handy 'sus accent' preset which layers tight, ultra-powerful staccato attacks over rich, sonorous looped sustains. The mod wheel controls the amount of staccato, creating a versatile program which can switch instantly from short, punchy phrases to supportive pads. Weighty portatos and attention-grabbing fp samples sound suitably portentous, while very dynamic, one, two and three-second crescendos pile on the big screen drama. The players must have struggled to keep a straight face when playing their flutter-tongue samples (the only ones in the brass library) — depending on how cynical you're feeling, these convey a chilling sense of post-nuclear desolation, or sound like a family of hippos farting underwater. But whatever the performance style, this trombone ensemble sounds tremendous.
A solo tenor/bass trombone combination stretches four octaves from E1 to E5, offering only three basic categories — no-vibrato sustain, staccato and sforzando crescendo, the latter confined to the bottom octave. Though the combined instrument delivers these performances with aplomb and also features a powerful 'sus accent' preset, the lack of more expressive, dynamic samples and the complete absence of trombone slides may occasionally be a restriction for users.
* TRUMPETS/SOLO TRUMPET
EWQLSO 's ensemble of four trumpets is likely to prove a hit with samplists. Their fp and sfz crescendo samples are packed with power — both feature a fast, brilliant attack followed by a sudden dip in volume, but while the fp samples settle into a quiet, looped sustain, the sfz samples quickly flare up into a big, blasting volume swell which will have cinema audiences regurgitating their popcorn. The trumpet ensemble's three-second crescendos are excellent, but their 'slurs' are a let-down; instead of the quick semitone slides performed by the strings, you get a weird, unnatural attack containing a trace of the lower octave — a pretty useless delivery, which the manual doesn't explain. But that's the only negative — the 'surround' samples are superb, making the trumpet ensemble's mighty sustains and staccatos sound absolutely regal.
Nick Phoenix did a great job sampling solo trumpet in Quantum Leap Brass, and he and his colleagues have come up trumps (as it were) here too. The solo trumpet is the library's only brass instrument to play vibrato and non-vibrato sustains, both benefiting from high-quality note production. The vibrato is subtle but telling, and though unlooped, the sustains are long enough for melodic purposes. One unique preset provides staccatos with built-in alternating tongue attacks, giving the same advantages as the strings' up- and down-bows. Additional styles include a couple of the library's trademark 'expressive' volume swells, one subtle, the other histrionic! Dynamic and highly responsive, EWQLSO 's solo trumpet is among the most playable and expressive instruments in the library.
* FRENCH HORNS/SOLO FRENCH HORN
The programmers have gone to town with their French-horn presets. The biggest, incorporating five dynamic layers, is a great showpiece, demonstrating the ensembles' wide timbral range from soft and soothing to bright, bold and blaring. Other presets focus on a particular timbral area by employing fewer dynamic layers. The horns' tight, fat staccatos are also very responsive to dynamic nuances and make a great symphonic keyboard patch, while the portato performances sound unhurried, stately and rich. Unlooped, hand-stopped long notes provide a marked tonal contrast, making a thin, metallic, attenuated section sound which evokes cinema's darker 'noir' side.
The horn players let it all hang out with lusty octave rips and energetic 'shakes' (short, tremulous elephantine brays). Only one complaint — the so-called 'slides' are not slides at all, but the same kind of baffling racket as the trumpets' 'slurs'. Clearly perceived by the makers as one of the jewels in their crown, the French horns are the most lavishly sampled by far of all the library's brass instruments, offering a grand total of 39 presets, and an impressive collection of big-sounding samples.
There's not a duff moment amongst the solo French horn samples, either; the sustains and staccatos are spot on, all the way up to the improbably high A5 top note. One can overlook the limited selection of playing styles — this is a fine French horn that can really carry a melody, a worthy companion for the library's solo trumpet.
* WAGNER TUBAS/SOLO TUBA
A trio of Wagner tubas, noble-sounding, horn-like instruments, contribute some stirring sustains and octave rips, but for some unfathomable reason their samples are all played in octaves. Although this creates a very powerful and impressive brass sound, the built-in octave doubling (of which this is the only instance in the entire library) tends to muddy chord voicings, thereby reducing the instruments' flexibility.
The solo tuba (the conventional instrument, rather than the higher-pitched Wagner contraption) sounds big and almost mournful in the empty hall, but its deep, round warm tones are equally comfortable playing a low bass line or a lyrical melody. The sfz crescendos reveal the tuba's fiercer side, and though the selection of playing styles is modest, the player puts in a big-hearted performance and delivers some high-quality samples. EWQLSO 's brass has one more treat in store: a 'fake' brass ensemble made up of the four bass and tenor trombones, six French horns and four trumpets. The horns tend to dominate, but the overall sound has an epic, gargantuan quality — film composers will be on to it in a flash.
The full version of EWQLSO (reviewed here) is known as the Platinum Edition. Two scaled-down packages, both fully upward-compatible with the Platinum Edition, are available at reduced prices. Both reduced editions can be imported into the Kontakt sampler (v1.5 and up), enabling users to build their own programs.
GOLD EDITION (15GB)
This includes the vast majority of instruments and articulations from the Platinum Edition in 16-bit stereo, but only has the output from the stage mics, plus release trails.
SILVER EDITION (2.4GB)
The most basic version of the library omits Wagner tubas and some percussion instruments, includes only basic articulations, and features fewer samples per preset. It's also only 16-bit stereo, and features the recordings from just the stage mics, with no release trails. However, there are some bonus sounds: an East West Steinway B grand piano, Post Musical Instruments pipe organ, and Quantum Leap Voices of the Apocalypse male and female choirs.
Platinum Edition (19-DVD set) £1999.99.
Gold Edition £649.99.
Silver Edition £199.99.
Strings volume (seven-DVD set) £649.99.
Woodwinds volume (five-DVD set) £649.99.
Brass volume (five-DVD set) £649.99.
Percussion volume (two-DVD set) £329.99.
All prices include VAT.
At 5.41GB, EWQLSO 's percussion is the smallest of its four volumes. According to Doug Rogers, power-users who run the library on multiple computers generally find they can install the percussion on the same system as their audio sequencer. This volume contains both tuned and unpitched percussion, covering all the main orchestral bases.
* TUNED PERCUSSION
The concert hall acoustic adds a fair bit of wallop to EWQLSO 's timpani — if you're looking for a classic big orchestral sound, the stage mics produce impressively grand, powerful, clean-sounding hits, while the close mics add more definition if required. The drums are mapped chromatically over the best part of two octaves, with the same samples duplicated in two separate keyboard zones so players can use both hands to play fast repeated notes. Performances comprise single hits with hard and soft mallets, crescendo rolls in a choice of two and five-second lengths, and mp sustained rolls (conveniently looped, with release triggers adding a very nice, subtle final hit on note-off).
Moving to the other end of the frequency scale, the library has a very pretty glockenspiel. The close-miked incarnation of the instrument sounds pure and bright, but adding the 'surround' samples produces a halo of almost supernatural high-end energy. There's also a less high-octane variant called 'mellow glockenspiel' which sounds like the same glock played with softer beaters. Operating in the same rarefied pitch register are a two-octave chromatic set of crotales (small tuned cymbals).
At the risk of sounding like a shampoo ad, sampled xylophones often suffer from dry, brittle tone, but this one maintains an appealingly round timbre through its whole range. The stage mics add a very attractive ambience, enhancing the xylophone's sweet, friendly sound. Once again, we mourn the absence of a marimba, but its jazzy pal, the vibraphone, does get a look-in. However, these vibes are not an unmitigated success: the vibrato mechanism was disabled during recording, the quiet samples sound slightly dull and the preset contains too much release. A little editing might be needed here before use.
Orchestral chimes (or tubular bells, as we Brits know them) peal out their portentous, churchy clangs over two full octaves from G3 to G5. As with the glockenspiel, the stage mics add a fabulous extra dimension, transforming an attractive set of close-miked samples into a spectacular sonic event.
* ORCHESTRAL DRUMS & CYMBALS
As well as lending three of his custom-built tubas to the orchestra, Wagner kindly donated his gigantic bass drum. What a guy! The manual doesn't give dimensions for Wagner's drum, but judging from the selection of booming crescendo rolls, straight hits and one thunderous, almost sub-sonic sustained roll which rattled the floorboards, you'd have trouble fitting it into a Mini. A smaller-sounding concert bass drum performs a similar menu of rolls and hits — all these performances are fine, but a little more dynamic variation in the straight hits wouldn't have gone amiss.
EWQLSO recorded three different orchestral snare drums, playing left- and right-hand single hits, sustained rolls and crescendo rolls. They also supply two excellent snare drum ensemble programs, the larger one sounding slightly deeper than the smaller. Both ensembles have a small menu of very well-chosen samples which sound totally convincing when combined in performance. The library's field drum gives a lower-pitched, ominous snare sound, while a funeral drum and tenor drum darken the mood further with some agreeably doomy, resonant hits. Orchestral libraries usually make a dog's dinner of recording tom-toms, but the set of five included here are an unexpected treat, sounding nicely tuned, pure, melodic, dynamic, resonant and sustaining.
The library offers six pairs of piatti (crash cymbals), ranging in size from 12 to 20 inches. Though the samples lack the explosive quality necessary to jolt the audience into full cardiac arrest, the recordings are super-clean and the hall ambience adds some weight and sheen. If you prefer the more subtle sound of a single cymbal played with mallets, there are four suspended cymbals of different sizes, playing a selection of single hits and lovely crescendo rolls.
* UNPITCHED PERCUSSION
The library's gongs are not tuned, but big, unpitched 'tam-tam' orchestral gongs that go 'BWOAARGH!!' There are four, ranging in size from 23 to 60 inches, performing straight hits, rim scrapes and a choice of short and long crescendo rolls. The latter performances really live up to their name, taking so long to, er, crescend that you begin to doubt whether the key has a sample assigned to it. The five-foot tam-tam turns in a couple of absolutely massive loud hits which megalomaniac producers will love. According to the manual, four anvils and some 'railroad tracks' were also used to create a bank of resounding metal clanks — hopefully someone remembered to put the rails back afterwards.
EWQLSO 's percussion volume concludes with two miscellaneous categories: 'various metals', containing tasty samples of bell tree, mark tree swishes and triangles, all beautifully recorded. Concealed under the heading 'various perc' are castanets, wood blocks, claves, ratchet, whistle, slide whistle, vibraslap and tambourine, plus a couple of unidentified percussion hits, which is a shame — busy composers would surely prefer to see an itemised list.
Having spent some quality time with EWQLSO, it's clear that its pre-release hype was based on solid achievement rather than exaggerated claims. The library passes all technical and sonic tests with flying colours, leaving its musical stance the only area open for debate. Geographical, cultural and commercial connections with the West Coast film industry resulted (in Nick Phoenix's words) in 'a conscious decision to make a library aimed at Hollywood film scoring'. While many European composers will be delighted with that, some may be unhappy with the decision to omit certain performance styles (flute and clarinet trills, for example) on the grounds that they are not essential to Hollywood composers. But this is a minor concern compared to what's on offer here — a big, bountiful, powerful, expressive, sonically superior collection of top-quality orchestral sounds, recorded in a first-class concert hall, played, recorded and programmed by expert practitioners, waiting to burst into life in your compositions.