From treated trombones to tweaked-out trumpets, Heavyocity's Forzo provides a 21st Century take on virtual brass.
Heavyocity's Novo Modern Strings, reviewed by Robin Bigwood in SOS November 2017, presented naturalistic, multisampled Traditional patches alongside more experimental, synthetic Evolved sounds. Follow-up Forzo uses the same engine to do for orchestral brass what Novo did for strings.
In Forzo, the Traditional synth engine is joined by two Evolved engines called Brass Designer and Brass Loop Designer. Each of these is to all intents and purposes identical to the equivalents found in Novo, barring a handful of differences appropriate to brass rather than strings. The Evolved engines, particularly the Brass Designer, are complex beasts that will be discussed in due course; it's also well worth reading Robin's Novo review, as the principles described there apply equally to Forzo.
Recorded at the famous Skywalker Sound (see what I did there?) under the aegis of composer Jason Graves and Hollywood film score engineer Satoshi Mark Noguchi, Forzo assembles an epic 26-piece brass ensemble comprising 12 horns, four trumpets, eight trombones and two tubas, totalling 14.6GB of data (28.7GB uncompressed). The library is organised as nine Kontakt NKI patches, with 250 snapshots to get you started.
The Traditional category presents each section individually as playable multisampled patches, plus a Full Ensemble patch that renders the entire 26-piece ensemble playable from the one patch. Unlike your typical Full Ensemble patch, which simply maps and layers the individual sections together, Heavyocity state that Forzo's version was recorded with all the sections playing together in the same room at the same time, giving it a natural sense of acoustic realism. (Quite how they dealt with the issue of spill is not mentioned.)
Back to the individual sections, the Horns are represented by two NKIs: one 'normal' and the other Stopped (with mutes). Trombones occupy two NKIs: Tenor and Bass/Contrabass. The sections' articulations are selected by keyswitches over a range of F6 (note 101) to C7, duplicated across C-1 (note 12) to G-1 to suit those who prefer their keyswitches at the left-hand end of the keyboard. Even so, my 76-note controller has to be transposed down by two octaves to access these, which is why I personally prefer Spitfire Audio's system whereby the keyswitches can be dragged around en masse to wherever you prefer.
Traditional patches have eight articulation slots; on loading, these are populated with a predetermined selection, but they can be customised with whatever you want from the extensive selection available (see 'Traditional Instruments & Articulations' box). These range from the usual sustains and staccatos to swells, crescendi, aleatorics and extended techniques such as clusters, cluster swells, atonal pedals, random staccato patterns and rhythmical pulses — the available choices vary depending on each instrument section. The unmuted Horns have the largest variety, with 21 possible articulations.
Whilst it would be impractical to describe them all, some stand out as particularly noteworthy: the Staccatos, for instance, feature not only a choice of two, four or six round robins, but also a superb tool for easily playing repetitions. Anything up to nine repetitions can be triggered, tempo-sync'ed to one of six different note values with variable swing amount. The icing on the cake is the Accent feature, which has a choice of six patterns to emphasise specific notes within the group of repetitions, topped off with an Amount control to adjust the intensity of the accents. The effect of this, especially when playing close triads on the trumpets, horns or tenor trombones, is astonishingly convincing.
The Waves articulations have a feeling of perpetual movement, as each player in the group randomly varies his or her timbre and volume, making them ideal for breathing life into otherwise static pads. Pulsing Beats provide another useful textural pad effect: the timbral pulses are tempo-sync'ed, albeit in fixed compound time. Film and game composers will love the various cluster effects, my favourites being the Atonal Pedals (Trombones, Tubas, Horns and Full Ensemble); their note of impending dread is reminiscent of Laurie Johnson's incidental music in the original Avengers TV series.
Dynamics for all articulations are controlled in one of two ways: either smooth crossfading between dynamic layers with the mod wheel (which controls the big central brass knob) or by key velocity. When velocity control is chosen, the brass knob becomes a volume control. Each articulation remembers its own particular dynamic control assignment, which is very sensible.
All of the above would normally be considered enough for instrument patches intended for 'traditional' playing, but Forzo takes things just a bit further, offering a taste of what's in store with the Brass Designer. Six different panel views, displayed in the lower part of the GUI, present further parameters to alter the sound. The default Mix view controls the microphone levels, with faders for close, room and hall mics plus a RAM-efficient full mix, each with the usual solo and mute buttons, output assignments and purge buttons. The Env panel reveals standard ADSR controls: some articulations, such as Long Sustain and Sforzato, include natural release samples, which can be replaced by a normal synth-style release curve if desired. As with dynamics, envelope settings are specific to each articulation.
The EQ panel hints at the level of detailed sound sculpting possible in Forzo. Not only are EQ settings made on a per-articulation basis, but on a per-mic basis too, so if you want to pair super-bright close mics with warm, mid-rangey hall mics, it's possible. If you want the same EQ across all mics, just hit the Link button, and changes made to any one mic are copied across to all. The Filter panel provides all the essential cutoff, resonance, envelope, velocity and key-follow parameters with a choice of eight filter types — again, all on a per-mic and per-articulation basis.
The Perf panel strays into sound-design territory, with tempo-sync'ed dynamic curve shaping and gating tools. Dynamic curves, which are in effect step sequences, can be selected from a number of preset shapes or hand-drawn, with a resolution of between one and 64 steps; their rate can be set anywhere between quarter and 64th notes, either in straight or triplet time. The modulation generated can be rhythmical and non-linear, creating movement that would be impossible to perform using the mod wheel. Gating (volume) sequences are created the same way, with the addition of a smoothing amount to adjust the effect from abrupt on/off to smoothly undulating. Combining these features with the filters and envelopes generates some pretty exotic results, especially when you bear in mind that almost every knob and button on the GUI is MIDI controllable, including the dynamic curve and gate parameters.
Finally, the Space panel gives each channel its own tempo-sync'ed stereo delay and convolution reverb. At this point many sample libraries would consider themselves complete. Forzo is just getting started.
At its basic level, the Brass Designer engine combines three different sound sources or channels — think of them as oscillators — that can be individually mapped across the keyboard to form any combination of splits and layers. Each channel key zone's upper and lower limits can also be faded in and out, allowing for smooth positional crossfading from one sound into another. Sound sources are selected from a browser, containing all the articulations from the Traditional instruments, and also a selection of the pre-recorded audio loops and phrases found in the Loop Designer. The only method of dynamic control here is key velocity; the brass knob now acts as a Macro control to modulate various parameters of the synth engine. To the right and left of the knob are faders that control the maximum and minimum depth of effect the knob will have on the Envelope, EQ, Filter, Drive (distortion), Gate and Space. The knob can of course be controlled manually with the mod wheel, but the most creative use is to put it under Macro Sequencer control. The Macro Sequencer is similar to the dynamic curve feature in the Traditional patches, again with the benefit of all the above parameters being modulated in rhythmical and non-linear ways.
Cycle mode gets even wackier, combining step-sequencer modulation of sample start time, velocity and pan, along with an optional arpeggiator. The step sequencer offers up to eight customisable pattern slots; you can either select one of these patterns and stick with it, or have several of them chained together to play in order. Whilst Cycle can create particularly chaotic results when used with the audio loop content, Traditional sustained articulations tend to produce more 'musical' textures. Modulating sample start times yields results not unlike granular synthesis; this can be done randomly for a more 'organic' sound, or by creating rhythmical patterns using the step sequencer, or both.
Since each of the three channels works independently of the others, with their own Macro Sequencers, Gates, Cycles and parameters, it's possible to create textures whose sonic character constantly evolves, unlikely to repeat itself for a very long time. The Master FX are common to both Evolved engines, providing global filtering, distortion, chorus, delay and reverb, plus Heavyocity's signature Punish compression/saturation and Twist modulated EQ effects.
Based around a library of 432 pre-recorded rhythmic, textural and melodic loops, Loop Designer once again uses three independent sound sources, named Banks. Each Bank is assigned its own octave on the keyboard, and each note within an octave triggers a different but stylistically related loop. The Banks are categorised by type, such as Low Ambient, Mid Motif or High Rhythmic, with straight, triplet and reversed variants, which can be mixed and matched to make a unique set. Each octave's notes can be triggered individually and layered together, allowing on-the-fly changes; there's also a lower octave that triggers all three octave Banks with single keystrokes, and another that transposes the loops' root key into any other key on the fly. Finally, Forzo adds all the same sound-mangling Macro modulation tricks to the Envelopes, Filter, EQ, Drive, Gate and Space as Brass Designer, on a per-Bank basis.
As Robin said in his Novo review, these pre-composed loops are not that dissimilar to Sonokinetic's phrase-based libraries, the concept of which either appeals or repels depending on your view on such matters. Nevertheless, the rhythmic and ambient loops serve as very useful mood-builders that can save time (and sound very realistic, being real performances) when you're on a deadline or just need a bit of inspiration. Be prepared to enter a rabbit hole when you explore this engine: Loop Designer is highly absorbing and great fun to play with.
Forzo's makers cite John Williams and Hans Zimmer as the inspirations for its big, high-energy sound, and that certainly comes across. In a traditional brass orchestration context, the chordal 'sample bloating' of player numbers in instrument sections should, quite correctly, be avoided; Forzo cocks a snook at the rule book, and seems to actively encourage you to bloat to the max. This is epic brass, after all — just don't expect the budget to run to 48 trombone players if you later record your score with a real orchestra. A small ensemble of real players dubbed on top of Forzo would, however, work wonders.
The range of articulations covers most needs, and some things you didn't know you needed. As mentioned in the box, there are no legato samples for the long articulations, and I did miss some techniques many would consider essential to epic brass, such as horn rips and trills, but the line inevitably has to be drawn somewhere. Besides, its inherently 'big' nature makes Forzo an unlikely choice as your sole brass library; assuming you have others, you can turn to them to source what Forzo doesn't have. Traditional brass is just the tip of the iceberg here, and the two Evolved engines are a sound-design treasure trove, capable of transforming brass into rhythmic, pulsating, almost alien textures whose sources defy identification. As Spock would say: "Fascinating, Captain."
Sample Logic's Fanfare is perhaps the closest comparable product in concept to Forzo, featuring the sound of a US drum corps brass ensemble as its core library, and taking a similar approach to the Novo engine's Macro Sequencer with its 'core effects sequencer'. Fanfare's instruments are subdivided into sections and playable in a 'normal' fashion, although with no keyswitchable articulations. Sonuscore's The Orchestra also goes down a similar 'macro sequencing' route; its brass forms just part of the core library. If playable epic, thematic brass is your thing but without any additional bells and whistles, Performance Samples' Caspian gets the job done quickly, and with panache. In a similar 'traditional' vein are NI's Symphony Series Brass Ensemble, Cinesamples' CineBrass, ProjectSAM Orchestral Brass Classic and Chris Hein Orchestral Brass.
When switching between Traditional instruments' articulations, it's not unusual to find inconsistencies in relative volume, whereby you find yourself wishing certain articulations had just that bit more (or less) oomph compared to others. Happily, if you have the full version of Kontakt that's easy to rectify, as the Edit tool is unlocked to allow access to Forzo's inner workings. Under the Expert tab, the various groups are laid out very neatly, enabling easy identification of the elements that need adjustment. Unfortunately for those using the Kontakt Player, this luxury is unavailable, so it would be helpful to have access to individual articulation volume controls on the GUI, much like on NI's Symphonic Series instruments. A future Novo engine update, perhaps?
Eyebrows may raise in disapproval on discovering there are no legato articulations for the Traditional instruments' long articulations. In Forzo's defence, one should consider the general nature of 'epic' brass. Whilst Forzo's Traditional instruments do cover a wide dynamic range from pp to fff, it's more likely that they will be called upon to create music at the 'epic' end of the scale. In that scenario, it's unusual to hear parts played in a legato style: more often than not, notes are individually tongued. Loud notes require a lot of breath (especially with contrabass trombones and tuba), so long fff legato lines would be difficult to play without running out of puff. Of course that's a generalisation, but the lack of legato shouldn't be considered a deal breaker — and when applying the core sounds to the Brass Designer engine, it becomes to all intents and purposes irrelevant anyway.
- Quality, high-energy recordings of multi-section brass in epic cinematic style.
- The Novo Evolved engines offer seemingly infinite scope for sound design.
- Includes aleatoric effects and extended techniques as well as standard articulations.
- Patches load really, really quickly.
- No legato for long articulations, but it's not a deal-breaker.
- No GUI control for articulation volumes.
A superb epic brass library: beautifully recorded, brimming with detail and energy, with a huge sound, a wide dynamic range, with plenty of articulations, effects and extended techniques ideal for traditional orchestral, movie and games scoring. The Brass Designer and Brass Loop Designer then take all that labrosonic goodness into an entirely different world, warping and twisting it all beyond recognition. Absolutely wonderful.