Native Instruments’ Session Horns Pro combines high-quality samples with some useful arrangement tools.
Session Horns Pro is a 27.4GB sample library accessed via a series of user-friendly Kontakt interfaces. Above all, the product is designed so that composers with no specialist arrangement skills can create realistic horn parts for their songs, and this is done by providing pre-configured articulations, phrases and instrument arrangements spanning a variety of musical styles. It’s worth noting that NI also make a sibling product simply called Session Horns, which has fewer features and a smaller file size, but also costs a lot less!
In Kontakt, Session Horns Pro offers two slightly different multi-instrument interfaces, as well as ‘solo’ instrument interfaces for alto sax, baritone sax, bass trombone, flugelhorn, two types of trumpet, tenor sax, tenor trombone, tuba and a mute trumpet.
All three types of interface are dominated by a realistic-looking graphic representing the selected instrument (or instruments), and these graphics sit above a general-purpose panel that displays the controls, menus and buttons of whatever processor or production tool is selected at that particular moment.
The multi-instrument interface called Performance is the one that provides the user with the most compositional aids, enabling them to play horn sections without having to do any real programming. At its heart is the Animator function, which introduces pre-programmed phrases in the style of particular musical genres, and can be used in conjunction with an automatic chord generator called Smart Chord. Performance has four instrument slots, but if ‘Combi’ instruments are selected as opposed to ‘Single’ ones, as many as six instruments can be played simultaneously.
The other multi-instrument interface option is Keyswitch, which lets its user choose nine articulations from a menu of 16 and then assign them to specific second-octave keys where they can be triggered into action when needed. Obviously the Keyswitch interface is handy for performance work too, but it takes a little more setting up in the first place and lacks the phrase-generating Animator function.
The solo instrument interfaces are the simplest, as they only deal with one instrument and one channel at a time. They don’t include pre-programmed phrases, but share the same signal-processing and effect options as the multis (more on these tools later), and the same nine-key articulation setup as Keyswitch. First, though, let’s look at the multi-instrument features.
At its simplest, SHP asks the user to do nothing more than select one of 24 presets from a menu that includes options such as 60s Horns, Soulful, Cuban Baritone and Fat Tuba. Those users with more of an idea of what they want, however, have the option of editing the presets, or building them from scratch. This is done by clicking on one of the four instrument graphics to open up a window, from where an alternative instrument, or combinations of two instruments, can be selected for that particular slot.
The software does impose some restrictions, though, effectively making it impossible to assemble a horn section that’s likely to sound wrong! Each of the four slots cover a certain pitch range, so a tuba, for example, cannot feature in any slot other than A, whereas high-range instruments, like trumpet, appear in slots C and D only. Not only does the limitation support novice arrangers, it also ensures that the software’s scripting can function properly when it assigns instruments to specific areas of the keyboard.
There is some control over how the instrument-to-keyboard assignment is made, however, and this is provided by a feature called the Voicing Assistant. In its menu of options are Polyphonic, Smart Voice Split, Legato, Chord + Legato and, in the Performance interface, Animator. The first four are simple presets that can be demoed easily to find out which one suits the material best, although Animator has a whole set of controls all of its own.
The Animator is a customisable phrase player offering Latin, Reggae/Ska, Indie, R&B/Soul, Pop and NuJazz/Funk as style categories. Each genre has its own sub-menu of brass-lick variation, and every lick can be subjected to quite a bit of editing. The more general controls allow changes to be made to the phrase tempo, swing and dynamics, and there is also a humanise control for loosening up the timing, tuning and velocity. Deeper editing is tackled from another window, in which the starting point and the length of a phrase can be changed in 64 incremental steps. Then, to cater for jazz and R&B, there is the option of changing the normal minor sixth to a major sixth in accordance with the Dorian scale. Alternatively, when a major chord is played, it can be changed to a minor sixth note instead.
SHP also has a feature called Smart Chord, which enables one, or sometimes two, keys to be used to play four-voice chords. The general concept will be familiar to anyone who has ever owned a home keyboard: the note that is played is taken as the root note for a chord, and the software automatically adds the rest. To complicate matters, though, the black keys are not used as sharps or flats but as general voicing adaptors. C sharp, for example, is labelled Warm, and is described as adding mostly 7/9 notes to the chord. The remaining black notes are used to add characteristics labelled Colour, Crunch, Cinematic and Tension.
Having appropriated the black notes for voicing duties, Smart Chord then has to provide a menu so that flats and sharps can be assigned to the white notes according to the scale that’s being used. The options are Maj (major), Min (minor) Dom 7 (dominant seventh) and Dorian, which all works fine, but the system doesn’t seem to me the most sensible way to go about things. Couldn’t the voicings have been assigned to keyswitch notes in the vacant third octave, for example?
When used in conjunction with the Animator, Smart Chord imposes its chordal characteristics on the chosen phrases, but the scripting is sophisticated enough to sort out any discrepancies between the two, always resulting in something that is musical and convincing — impressive!
The one other thing that sets the Performance and Keyswitch interfaces apart from one another is the way they deal with articulations. As mentioned earlier, Keyswitch gives the user the opportunity to select nine articulations from a menu of 16 and then assign them to specific trigger keys in the C2 to G-sharp-2 octave. Performance, however, offers a fairly minimal Articulation control panel, which asks the user to set a threshold level and then decide which single articulation will be triggered when the note velocity goes over the threshold. The articulations on offer are Rips (a glide at the beginning of a sustained note), Grace, Grace Vibrato, Porte-Piano-Crescendo (there is a two-beat option and a four-beat one, but if time-stretching is enabled the crescendos will adjust to suit the host tempo), Growl, Growl Vibrato, Marcato Long and Marcato Medium. Below the threshold the options are simply vibrato and non-vibrato and these are known as the Main articulations, although that seems a grand title for what is really just a vibrato on/off option.
As is typical of many NI Kontakt instruments, SHP has quite a sophisticated mixer, as well as some options on the way certain controls work. The Control page, accessed by clicking a tab, is where the user can alter dynamics, the behaviour of the pitch wheel and the use of samples. Here it is possible, for example, to set it so that MIDI CC11 tackles dynamics rather than velocity, and the overall velocity response can be set to be hard, linear or soft. Similarly, in its Normal mode the pitch-bend is +/- two semitones, however, it can be set so that it selects doits (doits are notes that chromatically slide up to an indefinite pitch) for the following note when pushed up, and falls for the following note when moved down. One further option selects doits and falls as before, but does so at ‘note off’ events, rather than note on.
As for the samples, it is possible to turn their release status on or off, deselect the use of round robins and enable time-stretching for the two Porte-Piano-Crescendo articulations.
When the Sound tab is clicked the interface enters mixer mode and the instrument graphics are overlain with a channel strip showing solo, mute, pan and level controls. Each instrument also has a Drop button, which instantly transposes it one octave lower.
A compressor and EQ are available for each channel, and when selected their controls appear in the general-purpose panel alongside send controls for a global delay (which can synchronise to the host’s tempo), and a reverb processor that offers 28 presets.
All the instrument channels are then sent through five master effects processors on their way to the output. Once again there is a compressor and EQ, and these tend to be active in a lot of the preset patches, but then the signal passes through a tape emulator, a speaker simulator (called Twang) and a filter offering control over cutoff and resonance.
All told, there is plenty of room for tweaking and experimentation, and with processors such as the filter, the opportunity is there to take the mix a little left field too.
As one would expect from a product taking up nearly 30GB of memory, SHP’s sounds are very convincing indeed. The tuba is rich and raspy down at the bottom end, the trumpets are pure when they need to be, but also nail the classic mute sound, and the saxophones go from mellow and sensual to jazzy and urgent. The only thing lacking, perhaps, is key-on and key-off noise. These were options I encountered when reviewing Zero-G’s Sax Supreme soprano saxophone instrument, and although that kind of detail is not necessary for an ensemble recording, it can add realism to exposed solo arrangements.
SHP is at its most convincing when the pre-defined phrases in the Animator are being used, but the instrument’s artificial nature is easily exposed if it is not played in the right way. Notes that are held too long soon start to sound fake and there is something about certain keyboard runs that just sound like, well, a keyboard!
The product’s promo notes state that it delivers the sound of a tight, modern brass section and is aimed at soul and pop producers, which is perhaps the reason why the phrases are short. It is a shame, though, that slightly more classical styles are not catered for.
The articulation switch in Performance mode is a useful tool, but still rather a blunt one, and has to be set very carefully for it to sound natural. The setting of the Voicing Assistant can also be problematic. For example, I composed a MIDI piece using the Polyphonic setting and it sounded reasonably good, but when I switched to the Smart Voice Split I found that a split fell between two alternating notes and so one of the instruments very noticeably dropped out on certain notes.
I found the best way to work was to build a simple core using an ensemble setup, and then open instances of single instruments to create specific melody and lead lines, or for particular embellishments, thereby ensuring that the right articulation settings were applied to each instrument. Inevitably a bit of MIDI tweaking in the DAW piano-roll pages is often necessary.
If, like me, you find it hard to get information to stick in your short-term memory, you might find it a bit of a chore remembering which articulations you’ve assigned to the nine notes in the Keyswitch interface, or indeed, how the Smart Chord tool will react when certain note combinations are pressed. Unfortunately there is no easy way to get around the problem; after all, using a controller keyboard to play a whole brass section is always going to be tricky.
For bread-and-butter brass licks of the kind commonly found in pop, R&B and soul, SHP is ideally suited. It has the sounds and the tools necessary for creating wider-ranging material too, but more work and care will be needed to get the best from the universally high-quality sample material.
- Very high-quality sampling.
- Ensemble and single instrument interfaces.
- Plenty of mixing and processing options.
- Scripting and intelligent chord creation tools automatically take care of many arrangement duties.
- No key on/off noise options.
- Preset styles limited to Latin, Reggae/Ska, Indie, R&B/Soul, Pop and NuJazz/Funk.
- No matter how good the samples, playing a horn section from a keyboard is limiting.
Session Horns Pro is not cheap, but it sounds fantastic and, although it has been optimised to attract soul and pop producers who want a tight, modern brass section, it is just about flexible enough to be of use in other styles of composition.
- Scan PC, Intel Core i7-4820K 3.70GHz CPU with 16GB RAM.
- Windows 7 64-bit.
- Cakewalk Sonar X3 Producer (x64).