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NI Symphony Series Brass Collection

Sample Library
Published March 2016
By Nick Magnus

The first of a new series of sample libraries from NI serves up a lot of brass for your money.

NI Symphony Series Brass Collection

Few sounds can compete with the grandeur of a large orchestral brass ensemble in full flight. And with competition hotting up in the orchestral/cinematic sample-library world, media maestros Soundiron have teamed up with Native Instruments to produce Brass Collection, their own paean to the mighty sound of labrosones, and presumably the first in a series of Symphony collections.

It comprises not one, but two Kontakt libraries: Ensemble Brass and Solo Brass. These can be purchased separately, or as a bundle with a considerable financial saving. The products are available by download only, and as they weigh in at 28GB for the Ensemble library and 18GB for the Solo, I settled down to two episodes of Wayward Pines and a couple of Big Bang Theories. And coffee. Life as a reviewer can be so gruelling.

Brass Tacks

Down to basics first: the Ensemble and Solo library GUIs share the same distinctive black/grey/gold appearance and layout, with performance controls common to both libraries. A big Dynamics knob dominates the display, with Attack, Release, Tightness and Motion performance controls beneath, the last of these replaced by Vibrato in the Solo library. An Articulation indicator occupies the lower area, together with two further performance controls that vary depending on the selected preset or articulation within a preset.

The folder/preset structure is also identical for both libraries. There are four folders, one for each brass instrument section: Trumpets, Horns, Trombones and Tubas. Also present at root level is a ‘sketchpad’ preset; in the case of the Ensemble Library it’s ‘Brass Ensemble’, whilst the equivalent for the Solo library is ‘Brass Quartet’. These present the four sections laid out consecutively across the keyboard, and are primarily (but not solely) intended for quickly roughing out of parts prior to reassigning individual lines to dedicated instrument patches. These sketchpad presets omit some features — true legato and time stretching, for example — in order to conserve CPU and RAM resources until you want to get serious with detail using the fully featured presets. The instrument ranges of the Brass Ensemble and Brass Quartet presets can be adjusted, along with their relative levels. Deactivating any instrument purges it from RAM, and adjacent instruments’ ranges fill in the space created.The instrument ranges of the Brass Ensemble and Brass Quartet presets can be adjusted, along with their relative levels. Deactivating any instrument purges it from RAM, and adjacent instruments’ ranges fill in the space created.

The four sections’ playable ranges, panning and relative levels can be easily customised via the Ensemble tab. Neighbouring instruments’ changeover points are linked, so if for example you reduce the upper range of the horns, the trumpets’ lower range is extended correspondingly to fill the gap. They can also be unlinked, allowing instruments’ ranges to overlap. Any instrument can be deactivated, removing it from RAM; if the horns or trombones are deactivated, the key ranges of adjacent instruments extend into the space created.

All Together Now

The Ensemble library boasts an impressive complement of 32 players comprising eight trumpets, eight French horns, eight trombones and an eight–piece tuba section. For a more detailed itemisation, see the ‘Instrument List’ box. Soundiron chose to record these (and the Solo library) in the sanctuary hall of St Paul’s Church in San Francisco, capturing the church’s natural reverberation in the process. According to the NI web site’s blurb there are 106 articulations distributed across all four instrument sections — I counted 179, but perhaps I failed to account for some appearing more than once.

Each section provides six types of preset: Effects, Expression, Legato, Staccato, Sustain and a general–purpose preset named after the relevant instrument. Each preset type loads with a pre–configured selection of articulations, with a maximum of eight available at once. By default these are assigned to keyswitches, but alternatively, they can be selected using MIDI CCs or velocity (see the ‘A Score To Settle’ box).

Not all articulations are contained in any one preset: the range of articulations available is appropriate to the preset type. ‘Trombones Staccato’, for example, offers only short note articulations, while ‘Trombones Sustain’ offers only the sustained (looped) ones. The general–purpose ‘Trombones’, on the other hand, offers a ‘lite’ selection of sustains, shorts and expressive articulations, albeit with the omissions mentioned earlier. In all cases, customising the articulations to your own needs couldn’t be easier. On the Articulation Edit page, all the available ones are shown in a grid with accompanying graphic icons. Simply remove those you don’t want (which are then purged from RAM) and assign the ones you do to your preferred keyswitches. One nice touch is that each keyswitch location has its own volume control, so if your staccatos are too loud compared to your sustains, you can trim their level until they match. This isn’t always so easy (or even possible) in some other virtual instruments.

Displaying the Articulation Edit window for the Trumpets Sustain preset. The articulation Sustain Decrescendo has just been assigned to keyswitch F#0.Displaying the Articulation Edit window for the Trumpets Sustain preset. The articulation Sustain Decrescendo has just been assigned to keyswitch F#0.

I’ve Got The Power

The root–level ‘Brass Ensemble’ preset provides an instant overview of the power and lushness of this library. All four sections are distributed evenly across the keyboard, with six pre–loaded ‘taster’ articulations. The default, Sustain, provides smooth, dynamic cross–fading from p to ff, and at maximum level, the horns and trumpets shine with as much fizz as any on–screen hero could wish for. The rousing and jaunty Staccatos also benefits from dynamic crossfading and 8x round–robin sampling. Staccato horns in particular are perfectly suited for scoring an exciting chase through Sherwood Forest — full of exuberance and sheer cheek — whilst the trombones and tubas honk with arch rudeness.

The next four articulations are culled from each instrument’s performance–based Expression presets. Crescendo, Decrescendo and Swells provide real performances of dynamic and timbral movement, ideal for convincing builds and phrase endings, whilst Sforzando is satisfyingly incisive and spiky. In this ‘sketchpad’ preset, these play at a fixed speed, but in the dedicated Expression presets, playback speed can be tailored to exactly fit your needs. It’s also worth noting that a release time of 100 percent is the common default for all presets. This works fine for sustains and short notes, as it allows the natural recorded ambience to decay fully. It also causes Expression articulations to always play to the bitter end, which is problematic if you need to cut them short. Backing off the release time to around 18 percent solves this, but the relative dryness may necessitate some additional reverb to compensate.

Coming Up Trumps

Delving into the specialist presets reveals a wealth of goodies — so many that there’s room only to highlight the ‘best bits’, beginning with the Trumpets’ true–legato preset. ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’ is always a good test of legato transitions, and these are smooth and fluid, the tone suitably noble and sonorous. The effect is altogether very convincing. No trumpet section is complete without mutes, and in this library we have three distinctly different flavours: straight, cup and Harmon, each providing that essential acerbic edge and tension. Decrescendo, crescendo, sforzando and swell versions of the straight mute are especially effective.

As an alternative to using the repetition tool (see the ‘Performance Tools’ box), the Staccato triple-tongue articulation stands out as pure gold. Play a run of parallel tonic minor triads, and you have a classic John Williams device, one that appears time and again in scores ranging from Lost In Space to Harry Potter. Marvellous. In the same vein, Sustain double-tongue (continuous 16th note triplets) would otherwise be impossible to recreate convincingly, as would semitone and whole–tone trills, horse trills (aka ‘shake’ in big–band jargon) and flutter tongue, all performed here with great verve. Film and game scorers will love the abrasive sweeps, stabs and blasts in the Effects preset, not to mention a selection of clusters that are guaranteed to startle even tough steelworkers.

When you think of Black Beauty, what comes to mind? Legato French horns, of course. The Ensemble horns’ true legato applies only to the ‘flip’ setting, but as mentioned elsewhere, the simulated legato slurs suit the horns rather well. The horns in general are evocative of all things equestrian, especially the warm and plummy sustained single–tongue articulation that begs for a good galloping workout. Sustained flutter tongue is rude and fruity, whilst the very pleasing sustained stop mute immediately suggests the theme to Star Trek: Voyager. Darkly portentous downward bends herald impending doom, countered by the stentorian Blast fff, worthy of Wagner’s most bombastic magniloquences. Three types of stepped octave swoop provide some operatic drama; unfortunately, no other intervals are provided — fourth and fifth interval swoops, also known as rips, would have been most welcome.

The Trombones boast an impressive span, covering the full range from contrabass to alto (those extremes being artificially extended to A0 and G5 in some presets). I could have done with a bit more bite in the upper registers of the sustains, but there’s no lack of it down below, and the contrabass and bass ‘bones are brimming with juggernaut menace. Staccatos include both double and triple tonguings, upward and downward bends, and straight mute. The trombones’ aleatoric effects are amongst the most eccentric in this library, from chaotic slidings, falls and sweeps to ‘comic shock’ dramatic runs befitting an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon.

Contrabass and bass tubas team up with euphoniums in the wide–spanning Tubas section, playable from A0 to E5 in most cases. The sustains are simply gorgeous, with a strong and confident low end, transforming to a rich, horn–like duvet of sumptuousness in the euphoniums’ register. It’s remembering those we’ve lost along the way, it’s heads bowed down in respect. This could make grown men cry. Aww, truly he was the son of... you get the picture. Lightening up a little, the Expression preset’s Strong fff articulation does a more than passable rendition of the Close Encounters mothership’s response to the earthlings’ ARP synth, whilst Leviathan–like upward and downward bends keep things firmly in John Williams territory.

All By Myself

The Brass Solo library takes a similarly detailed approach, the obvious difference being that individual players were left to beaver away doing multiple takes while everyone else went home for some shut–eye. Solo instruments also differ from their Ensemble counterparts in having no dynamic crossfading, the reasons for which are discussed in the ‘Smooth Operator’ box. The smaller articulation count (quoted as 94) covers all the essentials and some of the same expressions and effects as the Ensemble library, so any apparent brevity in my description is purely to avoid repetition. Nevertheless, certain features are worthy of mention. The trumpet’s true legato preset invites unhurried, thoughtful melodies and restrained descants, its upper range showing off the legato to good effect. The sustain’s ff articulation, in contrast, excels at bright, nippy obbligato parts and Baroque–style melodies. Those excellent triple–tongued staccatos make a welcome appearance too, in both regular and muted flavours. A grab–bag of ‘warm–up’ effects contains a large collection of runs and phrases you might hear coming from the orchestra pit prior to a show, including some instantly recognisable tunes. Gimmicky perhaps, but possibly useful.

Two different horn players provide their expertise, horn 2 being the warmer and fatter of the two. Horn 2 also enjoys some extended expression articulations: blasts, trills, stopped downward bend, and the eccentric Trill Spin, a mildly demented major triad arpeggio. I especially enjoyed the trombone’s true legato, which is very expressive when the legato response time is slowed right down, and I do recommend applying the mod wheel/filter tweak described elsewhere if you have the full Kontakt version.

The trombone’s effects, however, are a curious ragbag, lacking consistency and occasionally at odds with their description. Long and short bends, for example, are a motley bunch comprising mostly interval jumps (useful) on a one–per–key basis, at pitches unrelated to the keyboard. Helpfully, the slow and fast falls are chromatic and instantly usable. Trills are pleasingly chaotic, if not a little ragged (the whole–tone trills tend toward thirds rather than tones), whilst the intriguing didgeridoo drones are evocative of Tuvan throat singers. ‘Tubby The Tuba’ will live again (for those of a certain age) in the soulful legato preset, whilst the sustain f articulation delivers a strong, solid low end and a laudably consistent tone across the range. Staccato double–tongue and tongue stop provide confident punctuation, whilst amongst the effects’ blips and swoops, some characteristic pitch overshoots from the sweep–up–hold articulation add a nice touch of authenticity.

The Mixer tab controls the selection, levels and panning of Close, Mid, Far and Stereo pre–mix microphones. The mic mix, along with EQ, reverb, compressor and filter settings, can be copied and pasted to other presets using the Transfer Settings feature, seen at top right.The Mixer tab controls the selection, levels and panning of Close, Mid, Far and Stereo pre–mix microphones. The mic mix, along with EQ, reverb, compressor and filter settings, can be copied and pasted to other presets using the Transfer Settings feature, seen at top right.

Mixer Tab

Close, Mid and Far microphones were recorded for both libraries. A RAM–friendly stereo pre–mix of all three is also provided, and is loaded by default in the factory presets. Each microphone channel can be adjusted for level and pan, with three–band EQ, convolution reverb, compressor and filter providing the final polish. The reverb offers a generous 100 patches, with the default ‘Cathedral Close A’ impulse matching the original St. Paul’s Church ambience very closely, making it a handy substitute for the missing ambience in presets where the release time is set particularly short. The filter is a straightforward two–pole low–pass type with resonance. When multiple presets are loaded — which is fairly likely — the thoughtful Transfer Settings feature makes short work of copying mixer and effects settings from one preset to the others. This temporarily saves the source mixer settings to a clipboard, from which they can then be pasted into the other presets’ mixers. However, although the mixer and effects of the Ensemble and Solo libraries are identical, you can’t paste the Ensemble’s mixer settings to the Solo library, or vice versa, which is rather odd.

Conclusion

The Ensemble library is undoubtedly the star of this particular show, but that’s not to slight the Solo library and its excellent content. Dynamic crossfading would have been a plus on the solo instruments, but even so, they offer plenty of ammunition to create exciting and detailed brass arrangements, and paired with the Ensemble, they make a fine set. Sure, there’s the occasional note that’s a wee bit pitchy or tonally at odds with the rest, but I’ve yet to come across a library that was perfect in that regard. And no, it doesn’t have every articulation you could ever need — but there are libraries out there that would have you buy multiple volumes to get much of what Brass Collection provides, and at a considerably higher cost. Now, back to those big bass tuba slides, horn blasts and triple-tongued trumpets — there’s a cosmic storm approaching... Danger, Will Robinson!

Alternatives

Choices abound according to budget and the depth of detail required. Massive detail is available at a price from Spitfire Audio and VSL, both of whom offer multiple volumes covering a dizzying range of articulations for both solo instruments and different section sizes. Like Brass Collection, Cinesamples have taken a two–volume approach; CineBrass Core covers the essentials for solo and ensemble sections, whilst the CineBrass Pro extension adds further articulations. Polyphonic legato is a particularly noteworthy feature of these libraries. EastWest’s highly regarded Hollywood Brass takes the single–volume approach, with Diamond, Gold and Silver versions to suit various budgets. Project SAM Orchestral Brass is also a single–volume library of ensemble and solo instruments covering similar ground to Brass Collection; it includes a solo tuba, but no tuba section. Finally, Embertone’s deceptively simple but thoroughly charming Chapman Trumpet, with true legato, offers an alternative solo trumpet at a pocket–money price, but far from pocket–money quality.

Performance Tools

The performance tools available in the lower part of the GUI vary, depending on the preset type and selected articulation. They include Legato, Playback speed controls, a graphic displaying playback progress, a Round Robin indicator, and Repetition. True legato (with real recorded note transitions) is reserved for presets with ‘legato’ in their title; elsewhere, it is simulated. Legato transition speed is adjustable, with flip (near instant) and slur (loose) options. The simulated slur is achieved by scripting, inserting a few very fast grace notes preceding the target note. It’s a distinctly different effect to the ‘true’ slur, and musically useful in its own right, sounding especially triumphant with the horns. There’s also a choice of solo or duet modes; the latter allows two simultaneous legato lines to be played on the one instrument, as long as they are six semitones or more apart. I’d like to see a future option to adjust the minimum interval to as little as two or three semitones, but for now, legato parts in thirds will necessitate using separate presets.

Most time–based articulations, such as those found in Expression presets, offer three playback options: natural (as recorded), tempo sync and varispeed. Tempo sync is the best option for crescendos, sforzandos and similar phrase–based performances that need to fit precisely to musical time. Any other specific speed requirements have to be done using varispeed, and setting the speed by ear. Aleatoric effects (clusters, drones and so on) that are not tempo–specific offer only the natural and varispeed options.

Note repetitions can be tricky to simulate realistically, and often well–nigh impossible to play quickly as chords. The Repetition tool makes light work of the problem; it’s available to a number of articulations, and particularly effective when applied to the Staccatos, which benefit from between two and eight round–robin samples, depending on the instrument. There’s a choice of two, three or four repetitions, plus ‘run’ (continuous). Tempo-sync options cover eighth notes, eighth triplets, 16th and 16th triplets, with an optional accent on the first or last note of the repeats. Caution is required, though: if overburdened, the repetition scripting sometimes drops notes if the release time is too long and you’re playing chords, especially when using the three–layered Staccato articulation, which uses three times the number of voices as the simpler p, mf and f versions. Stick to single notes for the layered staccatos, chords for the p, mf or f, knock back the release time, and things should go smoothly.

Smooth Operator

Soundiron’s decision to forego dynamic crossfading for the Solo instruments may well have sound reasoning. Since there are subtle differences in tuning between the three (p, mf and f) dynamic levels, there would be audible phasing as one layer crossfaded to the next. This is not a problem with the wide, lush Ensemble instruments, but it would be a conspicuous and unrealistic distraction heard on a single sound. The following moderately simple tweaks can help to redress the balance — but they require the full version of Kontakt 5 (if you don’t have it, why not?) in order to make edits to the presets.

Load any preset (for example, Trumpet Legato.nki). Click on the wrench icon to enter Edit mode. In the Insert Effects section, add the low–pass filter ‘SV LP4’ to an empty slot. In the Browser/Auto/MIDI Automation tab, drag CC1 to the filter’s cutoff frequency knob. This should now respond to the Mod wheel. At the bottom left of the Auto pane, select the parameter Cutoff and adjust its range as follows: From % = 50, To % = 100. Now right–click on the big Dynamics knob on the GUI and select Remove MIDI Automation to disassociate it from the Mod wheel. Leave that knob at its maximum position. Moving the mod wheel should now produce smooth and reasonably naturalistic timbral and volume variations; it’s at its most effective using the ‘mf’ and ‘f’ sustain articulations (if available). It’s not a perfect solution, but it does help to breathe extra life into the proceedings. Oh, and save the preset under a new name for future use!

A Score To Settle

Keyswitchable articulations work well enough, but they also present problems for anyone who needs to produce a score of their work. Keyswitches appear in the score as seemingly nonsensical random notes, usually with dozens of ledger lines, and have to be deleted — which means making a separate, score–friendly version of the project. Using MIDI Continuous Controller messages to select articulations avoids this issue, as controller data needn’t show up in scores. Unlike keyswitches, they also have the added benefit of being ‘chased’ by the sequencer, so wherever in the piece you start playback, the correct articulation comes up immediately. Brass Collection not only provides this option, but can also divide the 0–127 range of the relevant controller evenly between the number of articulations you have loaded. Naturally, the more articulations you use, the narrower the controller range available to select each one. A third selection method is to use velocity–based switching. This is achieved by setting all articulations to a single common keyswitch, and choosing the ‘Distribute velocity’ option from the articulation Edit window; the 0–127 velocity range is divided evenly between the number of loaded articulations.

Articulations

The list of articulations for both Ensemble and Solo Libraries is nothing if not comprehensive; the devil is, as always, in the detail. Variations inevitably occur depending on the instruments, and needless to say, listing them all would make for a somewhat tedious and repetitive read. Nevertheless, a précis rundown of just the Ensemble Trumpets’ articulations gives a good idea of the levels of detail to be found across the board: true legato in ‘flip’ and ‘slur variations; sustains, double–tongue run, flutter–tongue, semitone, whole–tone and horse trills, decrescendo, crescendo, dramatic runs up and down, staccatos, triple–tongue, sforzando, swell, fff blast, straight mute including sustains, staccato, sforzando, swell, crescendo and decrescendo; Harmon mute sustain and staccato, cup mute sustain and staccato, clusters, shakes, staccato blasts, blast sweeps up and down, sweep holds, miscellaneous sweeps, tuning cacophony, valve clears, warm–ups. Short notes have two, three, four or eight round robins, depending on type. The Trombone, Horn and Tuba sections are equally well served, with additional or alternative articulations befitting their characters.

Instrument List

Ensemble Library

Trumpet section:

  • 8x Bb trumpets, with additional straight mute, Harmon mute and cup mute articulations.

Horn section:

  • 8x F/Bb double horns, with additional stop mute articulations.

Trombone section:

  • 1x contrabass trombone.
  • 1x bass trombone.
  • 2x tenor trombones with F attachment.
  • 1x tenor trombone.
  • 1x alto trombone.

Tuba section:

  • 1x contrabass tuba.
  • 3x bass tubas.
  • 4x tenor tubas (euphoniums).

Solo Library

  • Trumpet, trombone, 1st horn, 2nd horn, tuba.
Published March 2016