Continuing their tradition of themed rackmount modules, Emu have unleashed a 128‑voice virtual orchestra in a box. A virtuous endeavour or virtual insanity?
Back in the early '90s, Emu's Proteus 2 orchestral module was favoured by many musicians as a quick and easy route to MIDI‑based orchestration. The Proteus 2's sounds were good quality, perfectly looped and tuned, and I fondly recall using them to program the first movement of Stravinsky's 'Dumbarton Oaks' concerto (apart from the rather violent pizzicato cello, it sounded pretty convincing!). As time passed, orchestral sample libraries grew in quality and scope, and the Proteus 2 was finally eclipsed when Roland released their popular JV1080 synth and its ubiquitous 'Orchestral' card.
The attraction of units like the Proteus 2 and JV1080 is of course that they come with their sounds ready to play, unlike a sampler, which is mute until its samples are loaded. Using a sampler to replicate a whole orchestra takes an enormous amount of work, even with a ready‑made orchestral CD‑ROM: you have to load, audition, compare, edit, retune and balance hundreds of samples, and even with 128Mb of sample RAM, squeezing everything into one machine is a headache. If you manage this Herculean task, it still remains to laboriously resave the edited programs and samples onto an external storage device, after which loading the whole shooting match back into the sampler takes five to 10 minutes, which is five to 10 minutes too long if inspiration strikes. There's also the question of expense — the best orchestral CD‑ROM libraries cost a lot of money, and that's on top of buying the sampler. Then you need a reverb unit...
Recognising that a dedicated orchestral module with internal effects continues to be an attractive option for the thousands of musicians and composers who would prefer not to spend their lives fiddling with a sampler, Emu have now unleashed the Virtuoso 2000. Despite the snooty name, this module is identical in terms of its internal architecture, effects and synthesis capabilities, to the Proteus 2000 [reviewed in SOS March 1999]. The only significant difference between the Virtuoso and Proteus 2000 (or '2K' as Emu frequently refer to them) lies in the sound ROMs that ship with the respective units. This makes any detailed explanation of the new machine's spec and synth architecture redundant — check out that March '99 review for more on that. Instead, I'm going to concentrate in this review on describing the actual sounds of the Virtuoso 2000, which strike me as the main reason why anyone would buy such a unit.
The Seattle Sessions
Californian company Emu Systems were one of the first to create their own sample library, and from the outset issued good orchestral sounds to accompany their Emulator samplers. Two years ago, the company decided to radically upgrade their orchestral library by hiring musicians from a Seattle orchestra and recording them in a concert hall. One can only speculate feverishly on the budget, but the sampling sessions were long and arduous; the players were digitally recorded at 24‑bit/96kHz onto eight hard disk tracks simultaneously, using Schoeps, B&K and AMS soundfield mics. These were carefully positioned to capture the hall's 'sweet spots', and in certain cases, the ambient sound of the hall has been incorporated into the Virtuoso's samples to give the option of quadraphonic playback (see the 'Impenetrability & Innovations' box below).
The Seattle concert hall recordings were augmented by sessions in a studio, a practice room (in the same building as the concert hall) and a cathedral. The same musicians were used throughout. The result is a huge (25Gb) library which Emu plan to issue on a series of 15 CD‑ROM's over the months, or years, to come. Wisely, the company are refusing to predict the date of the first release, but we can assume that frantic programming is already in progress.
The first fruits of the Big Recording Job can be heard in the Virtuoso 2000. The cathedral and practice room recordings are not evident, but the hall and studio samples are both featured, providing ambient and dry samples of the whole orchestra. These have been whittled down to fit into two ROM cards called Orch 1 and Orch 2, each 32Mb in size. The Virtuoso comes pre‑fitted with both of these ROMs, but they can also be bought separately as supplementary cards to fit in two of the Proteus 2000's four card expansion slots. This upgrade effectively gives you a Virtuoso 2K in your Proteus 2K. What's more, a host of new 32Mb ROM cards will shortly be available for the Proteus 2000 and Virtuoso 2000, including Protozoa (Proteus 1, 2 & 3 sounds), Siedlaczek (a compilation from the Advanced Orchestra library), Holy Grail Piano, B3 (the ROM from the Emu B3 module, with fast and slow Leslie), ZR76 (sounds from the Ensoniq workstation, including the highly rated 'Perfect Piano), Techno, World Expedition (the ROM from the forthcoming Planet Earth module), X‑Lead (the ROM from the Xtreme Lead module), and Hip Hop (from the forthcoming Mo'Phatt module).
A list of the sampled instruments is shown in the 'V2K Instruments' box on page 33. How do they sound? The first impression is of a slightly austere realism, the Hall ambience creating a sense of location that no reverb unit could quite match. The next impression is that the string ensembles are very good, with perfect loops and tuning, and a strong presence and delivery which extends all the way down to the bottom octave of the basses. This is not always the case with sampled strings; often one finds good violins undermined by wavery violas, indifferent cellos and hopeless double basses, but here all the string ensembles are well performed.
Fearing that my ears were being fooled by some programmer's sorcery, I turned off the effects and stripped away any layering, leaving the raw samples exposed (I was able to do this without consulting the manual, always an encouraging sign). Having completed this ritual, I was pleased to find that the string sections all sounded strong without relying on reverb or chorus. Though the ensembles here were played at one dynamic only, the legato (ie. sustained), spiccato, pizzicato and tremolando styles and different section sizes offer a wealth of choice. I enjoyed the pizzicatos very much, and the arco samples sound classy too. In fact, these are the best string ensembles I have heard in a sound module, rivalling the quality of some of the better CD‑ROM libraries. The 16 violins and six double basses are especially strong — to hear their combined range requires six octaves, but if your keyboard has only five, the Virtuoso's handy 'Master Transpose' function will help you access the missing octave.
It came as a surprise to find that only four of the string sections ('16 Violins legato', '16 Violins pizzicato', '16 Violins tremolando' and '6 Double Basses legato') are presented in true stereo; every other instrumental multisample in the Virtuoso is mono. This is just one of the compromises programmers have to make when trying to cram a 25Gb library into 64Mb of RAM — to understand the maths involved, imagine trying to fit Anne Widdecombe inside a thimble... However, the samples are of high enough quality for this not to matter greatly, and the built‑in stereo chorus and reverb effects (which, again, are exactly the same as those in the Proteus 2000) can compensate if necessary. I found Emu's effects to be of decent quality, though not in the Lexicon or TC Electronic league.
Solo strings are almost impossible to emulate with samples, the results often ending up so grotesque that composers simply don't bother writing parts for them. Like the Proteus 2 of antiquity, the Virtuoso offers vibrato and non‑vibrato versions of the solo strings, and makes a valiant stab at turning them into something playable. I found the vibrato versions the most convincing, and actually enjoyed the viola, which is a first. The violin's attack is a little exaggerated, but that can be softened by slowing the attack rate. On the plus side, the solo violin and viola pizzicatos are very nice — writing parts for them would be no problem!
The solo brass on the Virtuoso was played at three different dynamics, with a 'Hall' version (one dynamic only) also included. Though realistic enough, the trumpet is a little disappointing: there is a slight inconsistency of attack in the high notes, and a huge jump in timbre between the medium and loud dynamics (trumpets do this in real life, but it comes over as a bit unsubtle here). The trombone and bass trombone sound pleasantly warm and work well in chords, but the latter lacks the thrilling low end rasp you would hear from time to time in a real orchestral performance — maybe a jazz player would have given it more welly. The French horn and tuba are very useable, the latter (often known as the 'fat bastard' of the orchestra) played with admirable stability as it descends into its inimitable low register.
Sadly, the Virtuoso has no real ensemble brass; all the so‑called 'sections' are digital blends of solo instruments, and that goes for the woodwind as well. Apparently, trumpet and French horn ensembles were recorded in Seattle, but lack of space on the Virtuoso's ROMs means that at the time of writing, they are still waiting in the wings.
The whole woodwind family is here, played solo without vibrato at two dynamics, with ambient 'Hall' versions also included. The high notes of the piccolo are suitably sweet yet piercing, and the alto flute's low notes are breathy and mellow. Though the flute samples are technically good, the player's tone in parts of the bottom octave leaves something to be desired. I appreciated the inclusion of the clarinet's very soft, breathy 'p' notes, which would be useful in delivering a quiet melody. The oboe is OK, but the English horn (known to English readers, paradoxically, as the cor anglais) is not totally convincing. On the other hand, I was delighted with the low woodwind instruments — bassoon, bass clarinet and contrabassoon are all good and fruity (see 'Favourite Presets' opposite). Overall, I found myself wishing for stronger attacks, which staccato performances would have provided.
Percussion & Harp
The Virtuoso has great percussion, both unpitched and tuned — the complete list is given in the 'V2K Instruments' box. All this stuff is superbly recorded, and in a couple of cases an impressively huge ambience thunders in — could this be a taste of Emu's cathedral recordings? The timps (at four pitches) come in loud, medium and sustained‑roll versions. The piatti (orchestral cymbals) include a crescendo roll, and the orchestral bass drum has real clout, for want of a better word. Though it may seem a trivial point, I really appreciated hearing items like claves, woodblocks and triangles cleanly recorded with just the right degree of ambience.
Sampled harps are enjoying a renaissance at the moment, with one or two contemporary sound libraries offering excellent specimens. The Virtuoso's harp has a lovely character of its own, combining strength, delicacy and lyricism in a very playable patch. There are no arpeggios, but I'm sure you know how to sweep your finger up a keyboard... The marimba is reasonable, though I wish some quieter samples, possibly played with softer mallets, had also been included.
By enabling the 'Non‑Transpose' function in the edit menu, it's possible to hear how many multisamples have been used in an instrument. Most of the Virtuoso's melodic instruments seem to have been sampled at minor third intervals, which is a good average for a sound module struggling to perform the obscene Anne Widdecombe operation mentioned above. However, some corners have definitely been cut in the tuned percussion department. The xylophone uses only four samples, which renders it a bit brittle — too much tap and not enough note — and the poor celeste has to struggle by with a measly two samples. It still sounds like an attractive cross between a music box and a vibraphone, but some of the character of this wonderful keyboard instrument has been lost.
I put it to Emu that as the Virtuoso 2000 is basically a Proteus 2000 shipped with two orchestral cards, why bother issuing it as a separate unit? The answer seemed to boil down to that great word 'marketing' (an activity which has taken the place of religion in the Western world). A composer looking to try out MIDI arrangements might be unaware of the Proteus 2000's orchestral capabilities, but the 'Virtuoso' tag might lure him into a purchase. Seems a bit elaborate to me, but what's important is that whatever name Emu have put on the front panel, these units can receive 32 MIDI channels and play back up to 128Mb of RAM with 128‑note polyphony. They have four ROM card slots, so you can mix and match your own menu. With the Flash ROM option, you can even add your own samples if you have access to one of the Emu Ultra range of samplers.
With the above‑mentioned range of ROM cards now available and others coming soon (including perhaps Orchs 3, 4 and 5, with more goodies from the Seattle sessions), the Virtuoso 2000 and Proteus 2000 should be with us for a while to come. I shouldn't think I'll be around to review the Proteus 3000, but I wish Emu the best of luck in marketing it to the intelligent composer‑ants of Alpha Centauri, or whichever life form has taken over the galaxy by then.
Virtuoso 2000 Instruments
ORC1 ROM (32Mb)
- 16 Violins: (sus, piz, trem).
- 5 Violins: (sus, spc, piz, trem).
- 15 Violas: (sus, piz).
- 5 Violas: (sus, spc, piz).
- 10 Cellos: (sus, spc, piz, trem).
- 5 Cellos: (sus, spc, piz).
- 6 Double Basses: (sus).
- 3 Double Basses: (sus, spc, piz).
- 5 Violas: (sus, spc, trem).
- 10 Cellos: (sus, spc).
- 4 Double basses: (trem).
- 3 Double basses: (piz).
- Solo violin effects: ('no pitch' bow noise, scrape , knock).
- String sections: (sus , spc , piz )•.
- (Plus 25 synth waveforms).
ORC2 ROM (32Mb)
- Violin, Viola, Cello, Double Bass: (all sus, sus vb, piz).
- Trumpet, Trombone, Tuba, French horn: (all sus ff, mf & p)
- Bass trombone: (sus mf & p).
- Brass sections: •.
- Trumpet, Trombone, Bass trombone, Tuba, French horn (all sus).
- Brass sections: •.
- Piccolo, Flute, Alto flute, Clarinet, Bass clarinet, Oboe, English horn, Bassoon, Contrabassoon: (all sus mf & p).
- Woodwind sections: •.
- Piccolo, Flute, Alto flute, Clarinet, Bass clarinet, Oboe, English horn, Bassoon, Contrabassoon: (all sus).
- Woodwind sections •.
- (Also included are breaths, 'air' and key clicks from the trumpet, trombone, piccolo, alto flute, bass clarinet, English horn, bassoon and contrabassoon).
- Glockenspiel, Marimba, Timpani , Tubular bells, Tuned cowbells , Xylophone.
- Anvil, Orchestral bass drum, Bell tree, Bongos, Cabasa, Castanets, Claves, Cowbells , Cymbals, Finger cymbals, Gong, Guiro, Hi‑hat, Maracas, Ratchet, Orchestral snare drum, Slap stick, Tambourine, Temple blocks , Thunder sheet, Triangle, Tom toms , Woodblock.
- Celeste, Harp (single notes), Synth/noise waveforms .
KEY TO ABBREVIATIONS
sus — sustained.
spc — spiccato.
piz — pizzicato.
trem — tremolando.
vb — plus vibrato.
ff — very loud.
f — loud.
mf — fairly loud.
mp — fairly quiet.
p — quiet.
pp — very quiet.
- — Not real samples of ensembles playing, but layers created by the programmers.
When you load orchestral samples from CD‑ROM nowadays, chances are that someone has restricted their playing ranges to something resembling the real‑life range of the instruments. This has not been done in the Virtuoso 2000; all multisamples play over the full MIDI range, which can produce some very odd noises indeed when, for example, the double basses stray up into the high violin range, or the piccolo falls into contrabassoon territory. If orchestral realism is your goal, be sure to play the instruments in their actual ranges — if in doubt, consult a book on orchestration, or refer to the ranges shown in Part 1 of the series on using orchestral samples, in SOS December 1999.
As well as providing quiet, medium, loud and 'Hall' samples of the solo instruments, the Emu programmers have provided many additional samples which blend these elements — for example, at raw multisample level, we get Oboe (p), Oboe (mf), Oboe (hall), then Oboe (p/mf/'Hall'), a blend of all three. The result is a more complex, interesting waveform — which is not necessarily more realistic. If you want a orchestral sound which is truer to the real thing, you may want to edit some of the presets to use less processed versions of certain instruments.
The same thinking applies to layering; given half a chance, programmers will always throw in in a extra layer of sound (it justifies their salary, I suppose), often duplicating the same samples in slightly detuned or delayed versions. Stripping away these layers can sometimes produce a stronger, more focused sound.
- ORC1, Bank 1, #16, 'Unison Orch'
A very powerful layering of spiccato and sustained strings with timpani doubling in the low octave, which helps my weak left hand! Good for dramatic film music.
- ORC1, Bank 1, #20, 'Bassoon Hall'
Sampled bassoon rarely works well for rhythmic lines, but this one speaks quickly and emphatically when played staccato. It also sounds quite lyrical when played legato.
- ORC1, Bank 1, #27, 'Studio Leg'
"Dear Sir, please allow David to miss games this week as he is suffering from Studio Leg..." Joking apart, this is a classic, well‑blended stereo string section sound.
- ORC1, Bank 1, #62 'Marimba & Pizz'
The Virtuoso's pizzicato string ensembles are very nice, but the added marimba tips them over into cartoon territory. Great for the bit where the dinosaur tiptoes up behind the lemur...
- ORC1, Bank 1, #82, 'Hall Trems'
Another preset whose name sounds like an ailment, but whose tremolando strings are nicely menacing.
- ORC2, Bank 0 ,#80 'Bass Clarinet'
A pleasure to hear this sumptuous instrument doing its serpentine thing in the bottom octave. Moody.
- ORC2, Bank 0, #80, 'Contrabassoon Hall'
The lowest of the orchestra's winds rattling the windows with its bottom C. Profound.
Impenetrability & Innovation
The Virtuoso 2000 has enormous programming potential, but some of the language used to describe it is impenetrable. To give you an example, here's a quote from the manual: "Lag0sum and Lag1sum are modulation sources which equal the sum of PatchCords connected to the Lag in destination." AAAAARGH!! While this will put a smile on the faces of hardened knob‑twiddlers, it scares the life out of me — and I've programmed a Yamaha DX7.
After reading this kind of thing, I was initially tempted to view '13th Row Sampling' as yet another annoying piece of technical jargon. Thankfully, it is no such thing, and in fact means exactly what it says — the concert hall recordings from which the Virtuoso's samples derive were made with an auxiliary pair of mics positioned in the 13th row of the hall! The signal from these mics has been incorporated in some presets and routed to the Sub 1 outputs, which makes the Virtuoso 2000 (as far as I know) the world's first sound module to offer true quadraphonic playback. No doubt this sort of thing will become more common as DVDs and surround sound gain prominence, but hats off to Emu for doing it first.
- Great sound quality.
- Classy string ensembles, harp and percussion.
- Good low woodwinds and tuba.
- Expandable to 128Mb.
- No real brass sections.
- Some solo instruments' attacks could be stronger.
A very handy unit for composers and players, which will also double as a useful live module. Whatever your taste, one of the expander ROM cards will probably tickle your fancy.
Virtuoso 2000 (fitted with Orch 1 and Orch 2 ROMs, 64Mb in total) £899; additional ROM cards £249 each; Flash RAM option (32Mb) £349. All prices include VAT.