Vienna Special Edition (reviewed in SOS in October 2007) is a scaled-down budget version of VSL's ever-growing orchestral library, the unabridged version of which currently tips the scales at 1.5 million samples (and I've listened to most of them, folks!). If you bought the full version of SE you already own a complete working orchestra, comprising strings, brass, woodwind, saxophones, tuned and unpitched percussion, harp, celeste, piano, harpsichord, pipe organ, classical guitar and distorted rock guitar. However, for those who want to dig deeper into orchestral performance nuance, VSL have created the companion Special Edition Plus (SE Plus).
SE Plus doesn't offer any extra instruments to those in SE, but it does supply a large amount of additional performance styles for SE's strings, woodwind and brass, and these allow users to create more varied and realistic sampled orchestrations. Take the strings' spiccato repetition performances: these light, brushed bowings are less emphatic than SE's staccatos and better suited to programming the fast, mobile short-note passages you hear underscoring film action scenes. Tone and semitone trills, col legno bow hits, harmonics and sul ponticello tremolos are also the kind of atmospheric string deliveries no film or TV composer would want to be without.
If you're looking to expand the orchestra's tonal palette, hushed con sordino (muted) renditions of some of the string ensembles' sustains, staccatos and tremolos provide a dramatic timbral contrast with SE's unmuted versions. The fortepiano style played by virtually all instruments and sections is equally attention-grabbing and sounds particularly effective played by trumpets and horns. When it comes to programming ostinatos and melody lines, short detachés and portato ('carrying') samples are very useful short-note styles, and the breakneck 'fast repetitions' are essential fodder for cinematic chase scenes.
SE Plus is 30.9GB in size, but compresses down to 20.6GB on your hard drive. In common with SE, the standard version provides a relatively basic, yet comprehensive line-up of solo instruments and ensembles, while the extended version (which can't be bought as a separate entity) adds new instruments and sections, including selections from VSL's Epic Horns and Appassionata Strings, chamber strings and many extra brasses and woodwinds. You can see SE Plus' complete instrumentation and list of playing styles at http://vsl.co.at/en/211/442/982/954/959/596.htm.
Regardless of which version you buy, both are automatically installed, and buyers of the standard version get access to the extended samples for a limited period, a convenient way of auditioning the additional instruments before deciding whether or not to buy them. That decision obviously depends on what line-ups you feel are essential for your arrangements, but it's safe to say that the beautifully played performances in SE Plus maintain VSL's high musical standards, with only two caveats: first, this collection is designed as an extension to SE, and therefore lacks basic performance styles (so if you're an orchestral beginner, buy SE first!); and second, you'll need to think about adding a good reverb, as the samples are recorded in a fairly dry studio acoustic. Dave Stewart
Supplied in more formats than you can shake a stick at, Sample Magic's latest offering is Nu-Rave, a collection of loops and one-shot samples aimed at dance and electronica producers. I explored the WAV format with Acid Pro 6 and there was some 800MB of sample data (nearly 1000 files), all presented as 24-bit files, and sensibly organised into instrument-based subfolders. The majority of the loop folders are further subdivided into three groups based on the original recording tempos (120, 125 and 130 bpm).
Given that the library is most obviously intended for various dance styles, the drum and bass loops are key — and Nu Rave doesn't disappoint. The drum loops actually cover quite a lot of ground, ranging from fairly straightforward patterns (mostly, but not exclusively, based around electronic drum sounds) through to more experimental material that includes both unusual sound sources and some nice processing. The bass loops are equally diverse but there's some really good stuff amongst this lot that I'm sure would go down well in a club context, including some great lo-fi and processed riffs. Both the drums and the bass contain plenty of bleeps and bloops, and there are more of these in the tops and glitch loops folder, including hi-hats, percussion and occasional snares melded with all sorts of other weird and wonderful noises.
The synths and music loops folders provide plenty of ear candy, offering loops that are rhythmically interesting and provide lots of harmonic content, too. Most of the synth sources sound very analogue, and there's some great filter and pitch processing going on, which should be spot-on for modern dance, rave and club music. The vox and FX folders are fairly modest, but they do contain some good material, including some nice vocoded vocals. The combi loops provide a collection of two-bar pre-mixed loops, which are fine for instant gratification, but I suspect most folks would prefer to layer their own. The collection is rounded off by a useful collection of about 130 individual snare, kick, hi-hat, cymbal and 'hit' sounds. The kicks, in particular, are very good.
The cover blurb describes Nu Rave as 'the underground sound of Parisien house and indie-tinged electronica' and, while Paris clubland is not something of which I have first-hand experience, the broad musical sentiment seems to be pretty accurate. These loops could easily work in anything from cutting-edge dance productions through to Nine Inch Nails-inspired rocktronica. In the majority of the folders there are some paired loops included that have similar names but slightly different performances. However, there are probably not enough related loops to build a complete arrangement without resorting to some beat-slicing — the only real down side of an otherwise excellent library. John Walden
Straight Outta NYC is a single DVD from Big Fish Audio, containing 22 hip-hop construction kits. The 1.6GB of content is supplied in WAV, REX, Apple Loops and RMX formats, and (like Street Beatz, opposite) has a distinctly East Coast style. All the kits are well put together, providing a nice selection of elements and some tasty riffs and loops. Everything's well recorded, with a pleasing range of instrumentation that stops things from sounding too 'samey'.
Tempos range from 76bpm to 101bpm, and each kit folder contains a full mix plus all the component tracks. In addition to the single drum hits, Big Fish have included all of the individual tracks used in the finished drum mix. Called 'Drum Trax', these elements allow for custom mixes of the beat to be made, or elements of a beat to be mixed and matched between kits — although this works better with the REX files, because only a few of the kits share the same tempo.
Of the 22 kits, almost every one hits the right buttons style-wise, but a handful are really on the money and sound like urban chart material. For me, the kit entitled Castle Hill (each kit is named after an area of New York) is the cream of the crop, using catchy vocals, a great flute hook and plenty of space in the mix. In fact, only four of the kits have any vocal content at all. This is a shame, as small snatches of call-and-response or rapped phrases can help to add that all-important authentic feel.
On the flip side, some of the kits are a touch on the bland side and a bit over-produced for my liking, and they don't have that edge that really forces you to sit up and take notice. Surprisingly, this criticism also applies to some of the beats, which lack the necessary bite and weight, sounding too smoothed out to really get your head nodding.
I'm not sure if sample users are just plain spoilt by the flood of libraries available, but 22 kits does seem a touch stingy to me, even for the modest price — and although the Drum Trax folders are a neat and flexible way to (re)mix the rhythm loops, I'd have welcomed a good chunk of additional kits and loops in their place.
The construction-kit format tends to split the opinion of sample-library users pretty much down the middle, either for or against. If the convenience of construction kits is what you're after, then Straight Outta NYC is a solid collection of high-quality hip-hop kits that will provide a speedy resource to any producer looking for some instant East Coast flavour. Oli Bell
Street Beatz (not the most original name) is an East Coast hip-hop-flavoured slice of Zero-G's SoundSense series of libraries, featuring just over 900MB of 24-bit WAV content on a single DVD, all repeated in AIFF format, and just the loops as REX 2 files.
Kicking things off are the 15 construction kits that come in standard format, with an extended example mix and each element provided separately, including the drum hits. The multiple loops (in some cases, up to 15 separate mixes) of the main beat form a nice addition to this well-worn format, with elements added or dropped, as well as fills or variations.
Kit tempos range from 93bpm to 100bpm, and all the individual samples have chord info included with the name, where relevant, which is a simple detail that other libraries sometimes ignore. Style-wise, the kits are in keeping with present urban tastes, characterised by a heavily synthetic sound. They're also well put together, with an underlying mean and moody city attitude that works well.
The kits are augmented with folders of loops and riffs featuring extra beats, keyboard sounds, percussion loops and orchestral riffs. Each of these sections, although small in size (around 25-50 loops), is well produced and on the whole very authentic. Each musical phrase has relevant key info and the orchestral riffs in particular, although synthetic/sample based in origin, really hit the spot.
Rounding things off is a collection of additional drum hits and the wonderfully titled 'Musical Bits', a collection of one-shot audio 'sweeteners' that are good for dropping into a track. The individual drum hits are also tasty, with plenty of punch and snap, although there are under 100 hits split into kicks, snares, hats, cymbals and percussion, which seems less than generous.
On the down side, I can't help but be disappointed with the bass content on offer here, both in the construction kits — where it's just a touch too polite and unobtrusive — and the folder of 50 one-shots: although these are nice and punchy, it seems a bit on the lazy side, and some extra loops and riffs would have been nice.
Another puzzling inclusion is the guitar riffs folder, which actually contains loops obviously played on a keyboard. This, in itself, is fine for the genre, but the overall choice of workstation-like sounds is poor, and calling them 'guitar riffs' is rather misleading.
Overall, though, Street Beatz contains some nicely made kits and loops that sound chunky and authentic. At just a whisker under 30 quid for 700 good-quality samples, this collection is pretty good value for money, but it did leave me wishing for a little more of the same. Even so, Street Beatz remains an inexpensive way to get some tough New York attitude into your beats. Oli Bell