Retailing at a paltry nine pounds a Gigabyte, a huge orchestral brass library from the USA appears to offer a big-screen experience at a Blockbusters price. Is there a catch?
Not exactly hot on the heels of his previous String Orchestra library comes Kirk Hunter's whole-hearted stab at orchestral brass. Back in 1999, Mr. H's orchestral strings won accolades galore, delivering lush, vibrato-laden string samples with 'Hollywood big-screen romance' written all over them. An impressive debut from the LA-based composer, but then silence — why has it taken four years to issue this follow-up? The fact that the new Orchestral Brass Ensembles Giga library is a hulking 34.44GB in size should give you a clue; no other orchestral brass library offers this much data, and the amount of time needed to record and program its samples doesn't bear thinking about.
Kirk Hunter's Orchestral Brass Ensembles (henceforth known as OBE) consists — perhaps unsurprisingly — of orchestral brass ensembles recorded in a 2500-seater concert hall, using players (uncredited, as usual) from an American symphony orchestra. Two mic positions were used, one 30 feet from the players, the second 100 feet back to capture the hall reverb (see diagram, right). This lavish use of space created a collection of big-sounding samples known as the 'symphonic' recordings. In order to offer users sonic choice, Kirk also recorded a second set of samples in the same hall, but first made some significant musical and acoustic changes; section sizes were scaled down, and huge baffles were positioned on stage and in the hall's ceiling, creating a smaller, more focused room sound (the layout for this setup is shown on page 138). The second sample set, less reverberant and more present-sounding than the first, are called the 'chamber' recordings.
Uniquely, Mr. Hunter also deliberately varied the sizes of his trumpet, trombone and French horn ensembles for different dynamic performances, using (for example) eight French horn players to play fortissimo samples, but only four players on the pianissimo notes. According to Kirk, this technique was not pre-planned, but devised during the sampling sessions in order to create a tighter, warmer, and more intimate sound on the softer notes (see the 'Instrumentation' box later, for more details).
Dance producers lusting after hot brass licks should look elsewhere for their funky soul fodder, as there are no chords, riffs or phrases here; the library basically consists of chromatically sampled single notes, supplemented by tone and semitone trills, a few swells and 'rips' (slides up to a sustained note). This is really one for players and composers.
Note that throughout this review, I've used the old Akai term 'Program' in preference to Giga's confusing 'Instrument' to describe a collection of multisamples organised into a single keyboard patch.
As you might expect, the library's 'symphonic' samples have a big, enveloping concert hall sound with no shortage of built-in ambience — in fact, these are the most ambient-sounding brass ensembles on the market. 'Wet' programs with built-in release triggers (reverb-only samples which kick in when a note is released) are used extensively throughout to show off the hall's bountiful reverb, while so-called 'dry' versions, which simply present the same samples minus their reverb trails, are available for those trying to give up drink.
The closer-sounding 'chamber' recordings also incorporate release triggers to good effect, but a large number of chamber programs take a different tack and set out to simulate reverb by using longer release times. (To give an example, the chamber trumpet ensemble programs labelled 'hall', 'room' and 'dry' employ release times of 0.5, 0.2 and 0.12 seconds respectively.) This somewhat outmoded, arguably bogus technique is rarely applied to orchestral ensembles, the obvious drawback being that long release times tend to blur all the notes together! In the right musical context (say a slow-moving single-line melody with gaps between the notes), the approach might just work. However, if I wanted to add ambience to the chamber samples, my instinct would be to select the release trigger versions, or stick with the 'dry' programs and add my own reverb.
Let's cut to the chase: when looking for an orchestral trumpet ensemble, you need robust, versatile samples which combine tight, positive attacks with a strong, steady sustain, right? If the answer is 'yes', then look no further than Kirk Hunter's symphonic 'fanfare' trumpets. These attack brightly, then sustain for between 13 and 23 seconds (with the low notes managing the longest durations), so therefore are well adapted to play both melodies and sustained chords. The fanfare trumpets have four dynamics, pianissimo, piano, forte and fortissimo. The first two dynamics share a warm but clear timbre, the forte samples are bright, full and fat-sounding, while the fortissimo performances sound thinner and more strident, introducing a dramatic metallic edge.
Other symphonic trumpet ensemble variations include some classy straight sustains with an unaccented attack, and staccatos which come in two flavours: 'tight' (a nice incisive blast), and 'loose', which are arguably not staccatos at all, but more like one-second short notes. (The latter samples also double as marcatos.) Sforzando programs deftly combine the tight staccatos and straight sustains into long notes with a very powerful initial attack, and some subtle one-second portatos (melodic 'carrying' notes) also appear, though they arrived too late to be mentioned in the booklet. Throughout their three-octave range, the symphonic trumpets achieve a polished delivery and good intonation, with not a trace of a wobble or split note anywhere. These are clearly accomplished players.
Step into Kirk Hunter's virtual chamber and you'll notice some immediate re-sizing: the swimmy ambience diminishes, ensemble sizes shrink, but programming options multiply dramatically. On arrival, visitors are heralded by a solo trumpet, playing vibrato sustains, staccatos and some rather restrained rips. Although note lengths are shorter (between six and seven seconds), they're adequate for most purposes. The soloist controls the sustains very well, and tastefully restricts vibrato to a width which won't frighten small children. I enjoyed playing the combined sustain/staccato programs, which use the mod wheel to gradually introduce the staccato element, a great expressive device. However, when both samples played together, I did notice small tuning clashes on a couple of notes, though nothing that would stop the show. The only programming glitch is that some solo trumpet multi-dynamic staccatos fail to track keyboard pitch over a few notes in the upper register.
Chamber trumpet programs named 'Duet' suggest an exciting, Las Vegas-style meeting of musical minds, but these are merely solo trumpet samples layered to simulate a two-trumpet sound. However, the chamber recordings do feature real trumpet ensembles, which make their mark with some very nice three-dynamic sustains and staccatos, supplemented by rips and trills. At this point the nomenclature starts to get hairy, with cryptic, vowel-free abbreviations like 'TptVsP-FF/StcVsP-FF(3onAtt)' used to signify velocity-switched piano, forte and fortissimo sustains layered with piano, forte and fortissimo staccatos, the latter performed by three players and crossfadeable with the sustains via the mod wheel. While this is fairly complex programming, the resulting sound is straightforward and its musical effect excellent. If you're curious enough to want to deconstruct such programs, each individual layer is presented in a handy folder called 'Tpts Separate Layers'.
Both the symphonic and chamber recordings offer a choice of muted and straight trumpets. The addition of mutes makes the tone thinner and more pointed, an effect which becomes more pronounced with louder dynamics. But even on the most strident fortissimo notes, these mutes never reduce the trumpets' timbre to the piercing, disembodied, wasp-in-a-bottle effect favoured by Miles Davis.
- Trumpets (four on louder dynamics, two on softer dynamics).
- Trombones (six on louder dynamics, three on softer dynamics).
- Two bass trombones.
- French horns (eight on forte-fortissimo layers, six on mezzopiano-mezzoforte layers, four on pianissimo layers).
- Two tubas.
- Trumpets (three on louder dynamics, two on softer dynamics).
- Three trombones.
- Two bass trombones.
- Four French horns.
- Solo trumpet.
Although the sustained symphonic trombone samples are listed as playing at six different dynamics, I could only discern three: there's a lovely warm, lyrical pianissimo/piano (great for soft pads in reflective passages), a brassier but still warm mezzoforte/forte, and a steely, stern-sounding fortissimo/fortississimo (fff) layer. The short notes, on the other hand, do exactly what it says on the tin: a choice of 'tight' (ie. fast) and 'loose' (slightly slower) staccatos, both played at three clearly differentiated dynamics, deliver a range of fruity noises, from urgent zippy rasps to slightly more lingering mellow fruity parps. All their samples are tightly played, well in tune and wallowing in a large hall ambience — very useable indeed. These excellent staccatos are also layered with sustains in some exciting sforzando and 'staccato-sus' programs, which make a good match with the trumpet fanfares mentioned earlier.
The trombones' sustains hold for between 10 and 17 seconds, which is reassuring for pad merchants like myself. As far as I can tell, the trombones' portatos appear to be slightly doctored, shortened versions of the sustain samples — their attacks speak a little quicker, making them more suited to fast-moving lines. The addition of mutes to the symphonic trombones produces some interesting alternative timbres; on quiet dynamics, the effect is quite subtle, but on louder samples, the mutes produce a thinner, altogether more brassy tone.
A trombone braying out glisses is always good for a cheap laugh, but sadly the instrument's slide (aka 'golden handbrake') is not used in this lubricious manner in OBE. Lurking in the chamber samples, however, are some fine trombone tone and semitone trills, programmed to spookily cross-fade with the sustain samples when one raises the trusty mod wheel. I also found some real-life played swells, along with 'sforzando swells' which attack strongly, rapidly fade down, then angrily swell up again, like a stroppy politician cross-examined on TV. The chamber trombone ensemble lacks a little of the symphonic sections' sonic opulence and dynamic subtlety, but their sound is bright, strong and engaging.
At long last, someone has sampled a pair of bass trombones playing in unison with plenty of welly in a concert hall. This fierce, low rasping racket, often heard in '60s TV and film music, has been faithfully reproduced courtesy of OBE, and can now grace your orchestral arrangements. The symphonic bass trombones' sforzando programs (layered staccatos and sustains) raise the roof, but if you want an even more penetrating timbre, try the muted versions, which in their upper reaches sound like a squadron of bass kazoos on a kamikaze mission.
The mighty bass trombone team also contribute chamber performances which match the symphonic renditions for oomph. As a bonus, sforzando-crescendo samples and 'gulps' (which sound like the snorting of a large prehistoric beast) are also included. A few more effects would have been nice, but all credit to Kirk Hunter for recording these genuinely powerful performances.
OBE 's French horns sound pretty regal, and so they should, with eight players from a top orchestra blasting out loud notes in a big concert hall! When the dynamic dwindles to pianissimo, the effect is beautifully controlled, warm and expressive, with note lengths of 10 seconds or more encouraging sumptuous, contrapuntal legato playing. ('Instant Hollywood' remarked my partner.) The loud samples are very powerful — there's even a touch of Tibetan horn about the fortissimo low notes, and the high register really shouts in the best John Barry tradition (think Goldfinger). Portato versions add melodic mobility to these fine samples.
The horns' trills are the most successful in the library, maintaining a clear distinction between their two pitches throughout the length of the note. (Sounds easy, but ensemble trills often end up a bit of a mess pitch-wise.) In the smaller chamber sections, fortississimo 'overblown' horn performances introduce a fizzing, almost distorted timbre that film composers should reserve for moments of unbridled on-screen drama — volcano erupting, asteroid hitting earth, leading lady being shown Michael Douglas' birth certificate, and so on.
Muted brass instruments often sound somewhat emasculated, but to pass over the muted French horns samples on those grounds would be a big mistake. These performances (in which the mute effect is produced by stopping the bell with the hand) sound richer, bigger and generally more dramatic than the unmuted samples, producing a gorgeous tone which ranges from a mellow, vibrant mezzopiano to a shrieking metallic fortississimo. Once you hear this noise, you'll want to use it! The menu comprise six dynamics of sustain, three angry-sounding 'hard attack' sustain layers, powerful staccatos of two different speeds, fifths rips, and some fabulous atmospheric trills which sound almost like a string section.
The chamber French horns play both straight and hand-stopped notes, covering much the same musical repertoire as their symphonic counterparts, but with a more direct and brassy ensemble sound. OBE 's programmers have gone particularly bonkers in this section of the library, offering 113 different performance options in a folder called 'French Horns with FX'.
Getting down to the real bottom end, we find a musical duo whose mastery of the low frequencies rivals that of the legendary Bassy duo, Count and Shirley. A pair of tubas have been recorded playing in unison, contributing some magnificent performances which, if subjected to the dreaded 'star rating', would get the maximum amount from me, and then a couple more for good measure. Their samples are brilliant — though the sustained notes' timbre doesn't change much over the three dynamics provided, the effect is lyrical, sad, funny, fat, strong, warm, tender, melodic... all the things that tubas should be. The staccatos (two types) are equally appealing but more timbrally varied, and the combined staccato-sustain programs are an absolute treat. Ten stars. No, 11.
Finding a pair of tubas working together is a first — these loveable, oversized orchestral creatures are usually fiercely independent, so capturing two in the wild is a considerable achievement. In defiance of the old joke about the poor intonation of some bass instruments — 'What do get when you write a unison note for two double bass players? A semitone.' — these tubists (tubasts? tubateers?) play beautifully in tune with each other, so close that it's sometimes hard to believe you're not hearing a solo player.
For compositional purposes, it's often useful to group together instruments of the same family — for example, a combination of double basses, cellos, violas and violins, united and playable on one MIDI channel, makes a very handy keyboard patch. The down side is that creating such combinations usually involves a lot of programming, along with tough decision-making about ranges, overlaps and balance. Such work would tax the patience of most musicians, but happily, Kirk Hunter has spared us the effort in OBE by creating a series of very playable and flexible brass combinations.
There are three types of layout:
- Bass trombones/French horns/Trumpets (three-way split).
- Bass trombones/Tenor trombones/Trumpets (three-way split).
- Bass trombones/Tenor trombones/French horns/Trumpets (four sections overlapped).
The first type is a classic, rich orchestral brass sound, available with the French horn/trumpet split set low or high, giving a choice of (respectively) trumpets or French horns in the E4-B4 register. By omitting the horns, the second layout (which also features a choice of two split points) produces a slightly plainer, drier timbre. The third option produces the fullest, most symphonic sound, as it uses the full range of each section, thereby creating overlapping layers of samples. In all three layouts, bass notes are handled by the bass trombones; the altogether more subtle tubas do not appear!
These layouts are supplied with four playing styles: sustained, staccato, layered 'staccato-sus' and a version of the latter with dynamically variable attacks. Each style offers a choice of pianissimo-fortississimo or pianissimo-forte dynamics and comes in 'wet' and 'dry' versions. I found them inspiring, and with a full orchestral brass line-up at my disposal, soon found myself writing music (once that happens, you really know you've found some useful samples!). As well as being very enjoyable to play, these brass combinations struck me as a good educational aid — by experimenting with the different layouts, musicians can begin to recognise the timbral nuances that occur when orchestral brass instruments are combined in different ways.
Like the portato samples, the brass combinations were added to the library after the information booklet was printed, but text files on the discs give you the necessary details.
Kirk Hunter's Virtuoso Series Orchestral Brass Ensembles (to give it its full title) comes in a 10-DVD set, each disc containing around three or four GB of samples. If your hard disk space is limited, there's no need to copy all 34GB at once — the discs are sensibly themed so you can install only the sounds you need. The DVDs' contents are listed below.
- Disc 1 (4.06GB): Trumpets (straight).
- Disc 2 (3.80GB): Trumpets (muted), Brass combinations (straight).
- Disc 3 (3.58GB): French horns (straight).
- Disc 4 (3.78GB): French horns (muted).
- Disc 5 (3.42GB): Trombones (straight).
- Disc 6 (2.95GB): Trombones (muted).
- Disc 7 (3.45GB): Bass trombones (straight/muted), Tubas (straight).
- Disc 8 (4.17GB): Trumpets (straight/muted), Solo trumpet (straight).
- Disc 9 (2.55GB): French horns (straight/muted).
- Disc 10 (2.68GB): Trombones (straight/muted), Bass trombones (straight/muted).
The various ensembles featured in this library share a lot of positive qualities — sustained notes of generous length, ranges which encompass extreme high and low notes, well-balanced and co-ordinated section playing, tight ensemble tuning, and so on. None of the sections use vibrato (not a problem), and no samples are looped. Many people think the latter is a good thing, though I still appreciate the provision of looped sustains. The only consistently disappointing performances are the trumpet and horn rips, which cover too small a range for my liking, and are too polite and restrained. This is probably because orchestral players don't like to play anything which smacks of vulgarity — jazz musicians, more extrovert and less fearful of getting sacked, are generally better at uncouth displays of musical bravado.
Though we all like the idea of instruments being carefully sampled at several different dynamic levels, working within a reduced dynamic range can produce a more controllable sound. Kirk Hunter knows this, and has thoughtfully created tons of 'reduced dynamic' programs for his users' convenience, offering pianissimo-mezzopiano, pianissimo-forte and pianissimo-fortissimo versions throughout. The library also takes pains to present each of the instruments' dynamic layers separately, so you can (for example) select French horns which won't play louder than mezzopiano, however hard you lean on your keyboard.
In many programs (labelled 'Dyn'), the speed of the attack can be separately modulated with velocity, enabling players to produce a sharper, brighter front to the note by playing harder. Velocity crossfading (as opposed to the more conventional velocity-switching) is also used creatively on some programs, giving a bigger sound and richer tuning when the samples overlap. 'Mod wheel swell' programs offer totally controllable (albeit synthetic) crescendos and diminuendos, and the wheel is also used as a controller to cross-fade sustains and staccatos, sustains and trills, as well as close recordings and reverb-only samples.
As you've probably realised, OBE 's programming philosophy is to give users massive choice, whether they want it or not! It seems that very few programming options have been left unexplored — in fact, if you have an idea for combining samples in a particular way, the chances are that Kirk has already done it. All told, there are over 1500 programs, ranging from the simple ('FHnSusFF' — sustained fortissimo French horns) to the highly involved ('FrHnSus-StcVsP-FF/VsRipSusP-FF' — don't ask). Such complexity is potentially confusing, but you can always ignore the programs with the scary names and stick to the obvious ones till you find your bearings.
Choosing between the symphonic and chamber ensembles shouldn't be too difficult — their musical menu is broadly similar, and it only takes a minute or two to compare (say) the staccato performances from each acoustic and decide which type you prefer. Having made that initial choice, you'll probably find that the program in question is available in a choice of either 'wet' and 'dry', or perhaps 'hall', 'room' and 'dry' versions. Again, it doesn't take long to load the different options and pick the one that best suits your arrangement. This wealth of options, incidentally, helps explain why OBE is so large, as the same samples reappear many times in different programs, thus consuming acres of disk space! If you find that you consistently prefer the wet programs over the dry ones, you could delete the dry guys from your hard disk and regain a Gigabyte or three.
Charting a way through all these options is a complex task which demands a clear, logical and incisive presentation. The booklet sleeve notes try hard to provide a comprehensive map, but ultimately collapse under the weight of their own verbiage. Indiscriminate use of cut and pasting sees the same phrases appearing over and over again, with one particularly long-winded description cropping up 125 times! Such obsessive repetition reminded me of Jack Nicholson's attempts at novel writing in The Shining. Because of the failure to abbreviate, the instrument listings have ended up consuming 48 pages, presented in a tiny, monotonous script with few line breaks. Instant headache.
One saving grace — sort of — is that the booklet's instrument listing is also presented on disc as a text file, which could be edited into a more manageable document. I doubt whether many users will have the time or patience to do this, but if you're desperate...
Contrary to the assurances of dozens of unsolicited emails I receive every day, size isn't everything. Experienced samplists know the frustration of shelling out hundreds of quid for a sample library, then finding that only 11 of its quintillion sounds have any practical musical application. Fortunately, quantity and usability are not always mutually exclusive, and with this library you get both. Once you've hacked through the bewildering number of programming options and found the performances you need, OBE's brass samples are sure to add depth, nobility and a classy sheen to your orchestral arrangements. 'Instant Hollywood' indeed!