East West and Quantum Leap's Symphonic Orchestra was one of the largest orchestral libraries ever released, at 19 DVDs for the full edition. However, it still wasn't enough for some people — so East West have released this 18-disc expander set...
Although impossible to pronounce and liable to antagonise your spellchecker, EWQLSO (East West/Quantum Leap's Symphonic Orchestra) has become a byword in the orchestral sampling world since its release in 2003. The result of a meeting of minds between sampling supremos Doug Rogers (East West) and Nick Phoenix of Quantum Leap, the original 67GB four-volume set (reviewed in SOS in June 2004) gained widespread praise and is now the library of choice for many US composers and music directors. One oft-cited reason for its popularity is its big, built-in concert hall sound; the instruments were recorded simultaneously from three microphone positions in a 2500-seater orchestral venue, making EWQLSO the only full orchestral library on the market with six-channel surround sound capability. That's a great achievement in anyone's book.
Two years after the sessions for the original library, the Symphonic Orchestra production team (headed as before by the Grammy-winning recording engineer Professor Keith O Johnson) returned to the original orchestral hall with the same pool of players to record a new set of samples. At that time the library lacked marimba, celeste, piccolo trumpet, solo viola and solo double bass, and the implementation of performance styles was somewhat patchy. The new sessions addressed all that, and more. By the time Professor Johnson and the 100-strong tribe of musicians and technicians emerged bleary-eyed from the concert hall one month later, the SO project had expanded considerably. Editing and programming the new recordings took a year. Once trimmed down to size, the samples weighed in at 71GB, more than doubling the size of the original library.
Potential buyers should be aware that whatever edition they buy, they must own the equivalent original edition of the Symphonic Orchestra library in order to be able to use the Professional Expansion (Pro XP) set. This is because many of the programs in Pro XP use a mixture of original and new samples. There are other restrictions: the old and new samples must both be installed in the same folder on the same hard drive, so if the drive you use for the original library doesn't have sufficient space to install the new samples, you'll have to move the old samples to a drive big enough to hold both sets. However, if you do that, projects which use the old samples won't be able to locate them! A workaround is explained in the manual, but it's tedious. If you want to use the new Pro XP samples on projects you started with the original library, you may end up having to duplicate the original samples on two hard drives (to check how much disk space the Pro XP libraries take up, see the 'Drive Planner' box over the page).
Unfortunately, that's not the end of it: the updated Kompakt player which ships with the library won't load the old programs, and the old player won't load the new programs either. D'oh! The Pro XP editions supposedly incorporate the old programs as well as providing new ones, but it turns out that although the old program names are retained, many of them have been reprogrammed to take advantage of the new samples. According to East West, the idea is to 'augment the original samples and provide more velocity layers and realism'. That's a good thing, but using old names for new programs is confusing — it would have been better if East West had renamed the new programs and included the originals in a separate folder as a courtesy to existing Symphonic Orchestra users. But it's not a show-stopper: anyone hankering after the old programs can still use the old Kompakt Player to load them, and Native Instruments' Kontakt sampler will happily load both new and old programs.
Another contentious revision sees the original keyswitch programs replaced by a new set which (at the time of writing) do not allow keyswitching between long and short notes. Moreover, there are no woodwind or brass short-note keyswitches. This has provoked wailing and gnashing of teeth among users, but help is at hand — Nick Phoenix is creating a more versatile set of keyswitches for the library which should be available in an update by the time you read this.
The Pro XP package comes in the same formats as the original library: the full 18-DVD Platinum Edition provides all three miking positions and 24-bit samples, while for the financially less well endowed, there are 16-bit, stereo-only Gold and Silver editions, the latter containing a reduced instrumentation and fewer samples per instrument (rumours that East West are planning a mono, eight-bit Tin Edition for skint musicians have been hotly denied). A version of East West's Steinway B grand piano is included in the Pro XP Platinum and Gold editions. For a complete breakdown of the three edition's contents, see www.soundsonline.com/EWQLSO_Comparison.pdf.
The 213-page operation manual included with the Pro XP Edition is a distinct improvement on the original. Crammed with useful tips (including sections on mixing in surround sound) and a detailed list of instruments, articulations and keyswitch layouts, its clear-minded, positive writing style helps throw light on the complexities of making music with such a big library. It's also compact enough to read in a dentist's waiting room — Horse & Hound magazine had better look over its shoulder.
From here on we'll concentrate on highlighting Pro XP 's new instruments and articulations, starting with the strings: one significant step forward is that the new solo viola and double bass make it possible to program string quartet pieces. This viola is not just here to make up the numbers — it has been extensively sampled and makes a very strong, committed contribution. The player uses a fairly strong vibrato on most styles, including fine swelling 'expressive' samples and a fast octave slide up with terrific comedy potential. Marcato and spiccato bowings deliver some excellent, ultra-short, fiercely bowed staccato short notes programmed in 'round-robin' style, which avoids obvious sample repetition by cycling through alternative takes. Also equipped with nice lyrical volume swells, the solo double bass weighs in with its own stirring marcatos. Neither solo instrument's long notes are looped, but the double bass player elongates certain long notes by means of a distinct, almost exaggerated change of bow direction after four seconds — this could be seen as an expressive performance artefact, but the timing of the very obvious note reiteration it produces is likely to be at odds with the tempo of your music!
New, smaller string groups of four violins and three cellos facilitate the programming of chamber orchestra music. Although less opulent than the library's big string sections, their sound remains lush, and their vibrato sustains (which appear at first glance to be the only style provided) are looped. The chamber strings use two velocity layers; both of these have a fairly bright timbre, and I found myself wishing for a third, pp layer for soft sustains (I tried adjusting the filter cutoff to simulate this, but it didn't sound very convincing). However, the soft-toned, more reflective delivery of the 'chamber ensemble flautando' samples I discovered hiding in the 'large string ensembles' folder came close to fitting the bill, even though they are played with no vibrato.
Pro XP 's new string playing styles breathe life into SO 's orchestra. The 11 violins get the most extensive makeover, acquiring stately, confident 'grand detaché' four-second notes, sul ponticello tremolos, gorgeous breathy, ethereal harmonics, fast up/down fifth-interval slides, grace note glissandi, Psycho-style 'eeks' (you know what I mean) and quick, tense, chromatic short-note mini-phrases which pay homage to the same film. If the latter don't scare you enough, there's a good selection of spooky violin section sound effects, including some truly ghastly, siren-like slow motion random semitone trills. Most of the string sections perform spiccato/staccatos, pizzicatos, col legno hits and Bartok pizzicato snaps, all given the 'round-robin' treatment. The 11 violins and 10 violas also have new 'repetitions' programs consisting of seven or eight-way 'round-robin' accented short notes, highly effective for rhythm passages. The violins' and cellos' mysteriously-named 'run simulator' programs turned out to be a layering of tremolo attacks and vibrato sustain samples. This creates a strong sound which carries a tune well, but the built-in vibrato renders it unrealistic for fast runs.
Anyone planning to buy the Symphonic Orchestra library should think first about the hard disk space required by its samples. Here's a table of the different volume and edition sizes:
LIBRARIES SIZE IN GIGABYTES
- Vol 1: Strings 27.9
- Vol 2: Woodwinds 16.5
- Vol 3: Brass 17.4
- Vol 4: Percussion 5.4
- Original Full Platinum Edition 67.2
- Original Full Gold Edition 15.0
- Original Full Silver Edition 2.4
PRO XP EDITIONS
- Pro XP Strings 29.6
- Pro XP Woodwinds 10.1
- Pro XP Brass 24.9
- Pro XP Percussion 6.5
- Pro XP Platinum Edition 71.1
- Pro XP Gold Edition 21.0
- Pro XP Silver Edition 3.0
FULL LIBRARIES (ORIGINAL PLUS PRO XP EDITIONS)
- Full Platinum Edition 138.3
- Full Gold Edition 36.0
- Full Silver Edition 5.4
Note: the four sections of the Professional Expansion are not available as separate volumes.
Many of the instruments in Pro XP have 'QLegato' programs, another good non-word to get your spellchecker going. East West claim that QLegato is a new technology which 'creates unprecedentedly smooth connected lines' by using 'sustained notes extracted from real performances'. I loaded the solo violin's close-miked 'QLeg' option to investigate. Here's my report: the program gives a reasonably good legato simulation in which series of notes run together smoothly with no disruptive bow noises or 'attack bumps'. The smoothing effect (which is more apparent when the release trails are turned off) held up well on very fast, Stephane Grapelli-like jazz runs — however, I must say that although musically acceptable, the overall effect was nowhere near as realistic as that produced by the Vienna Symphonic Library Performance Tool, a sophisticated MIDI utility which tracks your performance and selects the appropriate sample for each note from a huge bank of interval-specific performances.
- 18 violins.
- 11 violins.
- 4 violins.
- 10 violas.
- 10 cellos.
- 3 cellos.
- 9 double basses.
- Solo violin.
- Solo viola.
- Solo cello.
- Solo double bass.
- 3 flutes.
- 3 clarinets.
- 3 oboes.
- Alto flute.
- English horn.
- English horn 2.
- Bass clarinet.
- 4 trumpets.
- 2 trumpets.
- 4 tenor & bass trombones.
- 6 French horns.
- 3 Wagner tubas.
- Piccolo trumpet.
- Trumpet 2.
- Trombone & bass trombone.
- French horn.
DRUMS & CYMBALS
- Bass drum.
- Snare drum.
- Snare drum ensemble.
- Field drum.
- Field drum ensemble.
- Tenor drum.
- Funeral drum.
- Tom toms.
- Taiko drums.
- Crash cymbals (piatti).
- Suspended cymbals.
- Tubular bells.
- Tam tams.
- Metal rail.
- Bell tree.
- Mark tree.
- Wood block.
- Slap stick.
- Puilli sticks.
- Slide whistle.
- Sleigh bells.
- Artillery shells.
- Steel plates.
- Wind machine.
In an attempt to find out what makes QLegato tick, I loaded the solo violin 'QLeg' program into Kontakt and opened the sample edit window. As you can see from the screenshot below, which shows the waveform of one note (a mezzopiano B# above Middle 'C'), the raw sample consists of two notes played in succession with no intervening gap. The two notes are identically pitched: the sample start point (represented by the vertical green line with the 'S' flag) occurs after the player has stopped bowing the first note, but the continued ringing of the undamped vibrating string means that the second note doesn't start completely 'cold'. Notice that the second note's start point has been placed slightly after its initial attack — this removes the initial bow noise (or, in the case of a wind instrument, the breathy attack portion), causing the sample to speak more quickly and deliver an instant full-bodied tone. This 'attack removal' approach is also used to good effect in Garritan Personal Orchestra and other sound libraries. Extracting single notes from a passage and trimming their attack is not a revolutionary new technique, but it certainly helps the legato effect. The bottom line is that QLegato's note-smoothing capability is useful and helps make Symphonic Orchestra more versatile and expressive.
The only new woodwind instrument in Symphonic Orchestra Pro XP is a second English horn (or cor anglais as Europeans call it). The new arrival is lyrical and expressive, with a generally more reflective, romantic tone than the original English horn. In the sustained program, the instrument's natural expression is enhanced by velocity-switching between subtle volume swells and long, looped vibrato notes which kick in on louder notes. The combination of the built-in slight crescendo, tasteful incremental vibrato and lush concert hall acoustic is very enticing, creating an attractive sound for solo passages.
If ever there was an instrument you want to be able to play in legato style, it's the clarinet. In orchestral libraries its ability to deliver quicksilver runs is often compromised by slow attacks, but QLegato puts paid to that in by lopping off the front of the samples. I loaded the close-miked clarinet 'QLeg' patch, turned off the release trails and played some fast legato lines. As with the solo violin, this produced a decent legato effect which was musically acceptable without being entirely realistic. I also tried the old trick of making the instrument monophonic — after all, a clarinet can only play one note at a time — and that further improved the effect. Unlike the original clarinet sustain samples (which dwindle in volume after five seconds), the 'QLeg' versions are looped. The new bass clarinet sustains are also an improvement over the originals.
Pro XP 's solo woodwind trills fill a hole in the original library, and sound particularly beautiful on the clarinet and bassoon. Other welcome additions are upward semitone grace notes played by flute, clarinet and the new English horn — the timing of these perky staccato ornaments is very precise and matches the delivery of the existing oboe grace notes. There are some fabulous fast chromatic octave runs from some solo woodwinds — though not tempo-specific, they are internally well coordinated, and if you play the runs chordally they finish at exactly the same time (a Quantum Leap trademark). The piccolo also delivers some idiomatic upward rips, generally well played though a little inconsistent in the bat-squeaky top register. These lively, mobile woodwind performances add instant orchestral colour and bring a welcome extra dimension to Symphonic Orchestra.
The inclusion of new flute, piccolo and oboe quiet notes gives the solo woodwinds greater potential for intimacy than before, although the omnipresent release trails tend to counteract this — fortunately, it's not difficult to reduce their volume in Kompakt. New 'round-robin' staccato programs have been created for the three-player flute, clarinet and oboe ensembles. I thought these sounded great, particularly the clarinets and oboes. The original library's excellent programmed woodwind ensembles were not included in the review copy of Pro XP, but Nick Phoenix has promised to reinstate them in an update.
A second solo trumpet swells the ranks of Pro XP 's brass. Although its QLeg no-vibrato option sounds pretty strong, the instrument's tuning is a little sour in places (particularly in the high register of its Qleg vibrato samples) and its tone is less commanding than the original library's trumpet. Nevertheless, it plays some handy crescendos (including one dramatic slow swell which mutates into a rude flutter-tongue raspberry halfway through) and its 10-way 'round-robin' staccatos sound very realistic. I was more impressed with the new 'two trumpets' section, which delivers strong sustains and very good, ultra-short 'repetition' staccatos. The muted samples, cutting and energising with a bright metallic sheen, are a real call to arms. The newly minted piccolo trumpet also sounds bright and amazingly steady — one can only admire the player's total control of the instrument, immaculate and wobble-free all the way up to the unfeasibly high 'G' top note.
Symphonic Orchestra 's six French horns, prized by the company for their ability to deliver exciting Pirates Of The Caribbean-style adventure music, have been given a completely new set of musical effects. In these styles, the horns sound as though they'd be more at home in Nosferatu's lair than on the high seas accompanying piratical high jinks — their three-semitone cluster chords are classic horror film fare, and the 'cluster bend' program (in which half the section quietly sustains a note while the other half slowly drifts down a semitone) has a wonderful, disturbingly dreamy effect. By way of contrast, the bottom notes of 'cluster gliss up' sound more like a slightly naff recording of a distant speedway race!
The six horns tread more traditional musical ground with trills, staccato 'repetitions' as described earlier (well played but lacking in dynamic layers) and some expansive Hollywood-esque crescendos. I feared that the so-called 'FX Hell' would be a return to nightmare territory, but it isn't what you'd expect: one of the horns plays a ploddy series of staccato eighth notes using unpredictable (yet somehow, all too familiar) atonal pitches while one or two other players throw in occasional supplementary random notes. Unless you've had a sheltered upbringing, it's not frightening or particularly funny; the only hellish thing about it would be having to notate it.
Tuned percussion gets a boost in Pro XP with the advent of marimba and celeste. Sampled at three velocities, the former is a great-sounding instrument, combining warmth and brightness in a nicely programmed, four-and-a-half octave patch which is enormous fun to play. The celeste is also very agreeable and really shows off the multi-miking — the far-miked 'surround' samples seem to be coming from another planet! Other new metal attractions include an octave of bowed crotales whose high-pitched screeching will set your teeth on edge, sleigh bells given the 'round-robin' treatment for the easy creation of rhythm patterns, bell-like noises from artillery shell cases (presumably the explosives were removed beforehand) steel plates making Vic & Bob-style dull metal impacts and, topping the bill, Hugh Janville and his collection of comedy clanks!
The original library's excellent tom toms are augmented by Pro XP 's set of rototoms — I must admit they sounded more like boo bams to me, but either way these boingy tuned drums are an unusual and colourful sound source, especially ear-catching in the top octave. A pair of Japanese taiko drums also provides some agreeable low-end, vaguely ritualistic thumps and shell hits. New suspended cymbal rolls and tam tam effects help to fill out the orchestral percussion section, and traditionalists will be comforted by the inclusion of the seemingly obligatory, but entirely useless wind machine.
However, in Pro XP 's percussion volume the best noises of all arguably come from a non-orchestral instrument — the waterphone, whose large menu of delightfully eerie, ethereal sounds will be welcomed with open arms by composers working on horror film projects!
No orchestral library would be complete without harp glissandi. Pro XP 's set sound extremely pleasant — chromatically sampled, they cover the major 6th, dominant 7th/9th, whole tone and straight major scales (the last of which can of course double as a minor scale with the application of a little music theory). All glissandi are played up, down and up-and-down in a choice of two speeds. The execution is classic and unhurried, delivering the expensive-sounding majestic 'swoosh' we all enjoy.
As mentioned earlier, East West's Steinway B concert grand piano is included in the Pro XP Edition, though it's easy to overlook — it's hidden away in the percussion set (under 'Wood') and appears only in the 'F' (stage mics) list. Although it appears to be limited to three dynamic layers, and therefore won't really cut the mustard for very expressive, subtle solo work, I found the piano to be a playable, fine-toned, well-recorded instrument with plenty of presence, which will more than hold its own in an orchestral arrangement. The harpsichord is another desirable bonus: it uses a single, simple stop with no octave doubling, giving a somewhat delicate, zither-like sound. While it lacks the grandiose, crashy bottom end you get from an octave-coupled harpsichord stop, it will still add a nice steely Baroque texture to an arrangement.
For those looking for a big, cinematic orchestral sound, Symphonic Orchestra always had the wow factor. With its new full instrumentation, additional 'chamber' sections and a more comprehensive menu of performance styles, the library is now capable of doing justice to old classical repertoire and new scores alike. Unashamedly designed with Hollywood in mind, the original library's showy exterior may have seemed a little brash to some, but now the precocious three-year-old child star is showing every sign of maturing into a durable class act. With the release of Pro XP, the Symphonic Orchestra has come of age.
To avoid the RAM and CPU ravages brought about by using thousands of 24-bit samples to emulate an 80-piece orchestra, serious Symphonic Orchestra users run the library on multiple computers. According to Doug Rogers, a dream system would consist of eight computers, two for each module of the full Platinum Edition. Quantum Leap's Nick Phoenix owns such a rig, but apparently even that is insufficient to run his mixes live in six-channel surround!
US composer David Newman, creator of over 100 film scores including those for The War Of The Roses, Heathers, Throw Momma From The Train, Galaxy Quest, The Nutty Professor and Serenity, also runs Symphonic Orchestra on several computers. Here are the details of his setup, in the words of his technical assistant Marty Frasu.
"David uses these instruments to make demos for movie directors and producers — they are ultimately replaced by a real orchestra. This is different from our friend Joel Goldsmith, who uses SO Pro XP for the music for Stargate SG1 and Stargate Atlantis: his sampled orchestra does end up in the final product.
"The library is installed on six PCs, using two 80GB drives. Two PCs are for strings, one for brass, one for woodwinds, one for piano and percussion, and one for a mixture of sounds. David uses Logic 7 on a dual 2GHz Power Mac. He has 137 orchestra tracks in his Logic Autoload template alone, about 50 of which are dedicated to strings. Unlike other big-name composers, he plays everything himself, and doesn't farm anything out to orchestrators. David tends not to use the keyswitched instruments a lot — he prefers to keep different articulations (for example, legato and staccato strings) on different tracks. This is because his sequences go to a copyist who prints out parts for the orchestral musicians. If you use keyswitches, you end up with notes way down in the C0-C#0 range that you have to delete!
"We use Kontakt 2 rather than the Kompakt Player that Symphonic Orchestra ships with. We made some minor modifications to some instruments — in some cases David wanted to extend the key range of some of the sounds. Things like that are just not possible with the Kompakt Player.
"For strings, David uses the library's programmed 50 and 70-piece string sections — the 70-piece 'Q Legato' and 'Butter legato' strings sound really nice. He uses layered combinations of the close, full and surround samples, so if he needs more definition on a string line he can increase the level of the close mics. This is exactly how it works when we mix the real orchestra — if you need a string line to 'speak' a little more, you turn up the close mic."
Of course, such lavish setups are beyond the reach of most aspiring composers, but if you're involved in film production and need to keep a large MIDI orchestra running live to accommodate last-minute edits, using multiple computers is probably the only way to go. Symphonic Orchestra 's manual claims optimistically that 'very soon, performance issues will disappear as computers get faster'. Well, it's a nice thought...
- Pro XP's new instruments and articulations plug important gaps in the original library.
- Using the same hall, players and mic positions has ensured total compatibility between the old and new samples.
- The musical performances are intelligently chosen and well played.
- The sound quality is uniformly excellent.
- The entire library can be reproduced in six-channel surround sound.
- Having to install the new samples on the same drive as the original library will cause a few headaches, though hard drive manufacturers won't be complaining.
- The mutual incompatibility of program data between the old and new Kompakt players is a pain.
Symphonic Orchestra's Professional Expansion doubles the size of the library, maintains its excellent quality and greatly enhances its musical depth. Its Platinum Edition costs a few bob, but then it would be silly to expect a work of this magnitude and quality to come cheap. Committed SO users will be delighted with the new samples, and for the undecided, the Silver Edition's original-plus-XP bundle is an affordable way of testing the water.
Symphonic Orchestra Professional Expansion Platinum Edition, £1999.99; Gold Edition, £649.99; Silver Edition, £199.99. Prices include VAT.