Orchestral Tools complete their symphonic series with a major brass library.
Another day, another milestone. Berlin Brass, the latest addition to German company Orchestral Tools’ much-lauded Berlin series, completes a full hand of symphonic libraries which began life in 2012 with the release of Berlin Woodwinds. In common with its strings, woodwind and percussion companion titles, Berlin Brass (hereinafter referred to as BBR) was recorded in the Teldex Scoring Stage from multiple microphone positions, and works with both the free Kontakt Player and the full version of Kontakt 5.5.1.
The largest of the Berlin collections, BBR consists of a whopping 320GB of sample data which compresses down to 184GB on your hard drive once installed. Those blessed with a fast connection can screw up their courage and download the library’s 94 compressed RAR files, but if your broadband can’t cope (or you’d like to have a physical backup), you can order it at extra cost on a 250GB SSD drive, which can be fitted inside your computer or used with any external enclosure. While this SSD drive performs well for sample streaming, it’s not large enough to house both the compressed and extracted files, so you’ll need a second drive available to make a backup of one or the other. (More details can be found on the Orchestral Tools website at www.helpdesk.orchestraltools.com/hd_backup_ssd.html.)
BBR’s main collection provides a standard orchestral line-up of four French horns, three trumpets, two tenor trombones, bass trombone and tuba. Each instrument was sampled individually as well as together in sections of four horns, three trumpets and three trombones. The articulation menu is very consistent: all instruments and ensembles play sustains in a choice of immediate, soft and accented note fronts, true legatos with up to four variants, staccato, staccatissimo, marcato, trills, note repetitions, fortepiano, crescendos and swells. The horns, trumpets and tuba also offer playable short-note legato runs, trumpets 1 and 2 contribute bonus ‘molto espressivo’ patches featuring a distinctly non-classical Mexican-style vibrato, while the trombones also turn in a welcome set of legato glissandi slides.
Prelude over, on with the show. If I needed a big, epic horn sound for my latest superhero movie theme, I wouldn’t have to look any further than the BBR horn ensemble’s ‘bells up’ patches. Performed with the horns raised from their normal playing position so the sound projects directly outwards, these blasting, triple-forte deliveries sound absolutely immense. The bells-up samples come in sustained, staccato, long marcato and short marcato flavours, along with a ‘playable runs’ short-note legato patch which works well for fast phrases and flourishes. Although they have only one dynamic (bloody loud), these styles can be combined to great effect in melody lines, and will add great dynamism to a score.
On a less histrionic note, the four solo horns’ sustains were sampled at a generous four dynamics, offering far greater opportunities for subtle expression. It’s interesting to compare the instruments’ tone: horn 1 is full and fairly bright, horn 2 sounds more muted, the third horn is nicely brassy and the fourth resembles a more mellow, less bright version of the first horn. All sound great playing solo, and when layered in unison, the four instruments sound superb. Unsurprisingly, the four-player horn ensemble sounds pretty similar to the layered solo horns, but as one might expect, the live section has broader (and very pleasant) tuning and a somewhat more vibrant tone. Speaking of tuning, my eagle ears detected a couple of spots of imperfect intonation in the first horn’s ‘immediate’ sustain patch which I hope will be remedied at some point. That said, it’s usually only me that notices such things. (Heavy sigh.)
The horns’ four-dynamic legato patches feature industry-standard, real-life legato intervals of up to an octave above and below the starting note (range limits permitting). As in other Orchestral Tools libraries, this monophonic legato mode makes held notes automatically re-sound when a superimposed note is released, a great asset for creating realistic grace notes and trills.
As explained in my Berlin Strings review, Orchestral Tools’ legato patches intelligently adapt to your playing speed in real time: slow-moving lines trigger slow legato transitions, while the ‘fast runs’ legato automatically kicks in when you play quick lines. If you prefer to take control, you can solo a particular legato style by clicking on its small ‘S’ icon. You can also choose between slurred and re-tongued legato; the first sounds more joined-up, while the second produces more pronounced note transitions. The difference can be quite subtle, so (as ever) a little experimentation is in order. The mixer page also has a legato volume knob for adjusting the volume of the transitions.
While it’s nice to have these options, the legato patches sound fabulous and are highly playable straight out of the box, so you can immediately start recording your melodies without worrying about changing settings. Once you’re happy with the part, you can play around with the slurred/re-tongued options, either by selecting them on the GUI, or by using a MIDI CC52 command to switch between them (CC52 value 0 selects slurred, CC52 value 127 selects re-tongued).
BBR features three trumpets sampled individually and in a unison section. The musicians played C trumpets (as opposed to the more common Bb model) throughout, but chose different instruments for the bonus ‘molto espressivo’ patches (more on which shortly). Long notes are played at three dynamics in a choice of no-vibrato and ‘romantic’ vibrato styles, the latter displaying admirable restraint.
The tonal distinctions I noted in the solo horns are not in evidence here; the three solo trumpets share a bright, confident and proclamatory tone, the only notable difference being that trumpet three sounds slightly less assertive in the upper register and its mid-range timbre is a little more cutting. I found the accented sustains useful for fanfare-like figures, and the three-player ensemble sounds suitably big and heroic.
As with the horns, the dynamic and tonal range is consistent across the different instruments, making it possible to mix and match solo and section trumpets to your heart’s content. The legato patches are superb, offering a nice, somewhat mournful light vibrato option — if they ever make ‘Saving Private Ryan II’, this lonely solo trumpet articulation would be ideal accompaniment for the inevitable scene where the camera pans across a field of white crosses marking the graves of the fallen.
There’s nothing subtle or mournful about trumpet 1 and 2’s molto espressivo patches, whose braying, exaggerated, passionate dance-hall vibrato recalls the heady days of Eddie Calvert’s ‘Oh Mein Papa’ (whoops, showing my age there). As the Orchestral Tools walkthrough video voiceover guy remarks through pursed lips, these so-called ‘Zampano’ performances don’t fit stylistically with the rest of library. He adds, “If you write the appropriate music for them, they might bring some joy to you.” (Note the ‘might’.) Nevertheless, I felt trumpet 2’s powerful, vibrato-free Zampano short notes could come in very useful for beefing up stabs and accents.
Though BBR’s true legato style works supremely well for played trills, its Trill Orchestrator feature provides an enjoyable alternative. Basically, you hold down a note then superimpose a semitone or tone interval, either higher or lower: the script then outputs a highly realistic, looped semitone or tone trill. The trill speed varies a little across the instruments, but taking a lucky dip and seeing what emerges is part of the fun.
Maintaining the library’s flexible instrumentation, BBR’s two tenor trombones and bass trombone were recorded separately as well as together in a three-player ensemble. The instruments’ tuning is generally excellent: when layered, the three trombones’ intonation stays accurate and tightly matched right across their range, which is always encouraging when you’re programming unison melodies. In the ensemble the bass trombone plays in the same register as the tenors; as with the rest of the library, if you want octaves, you have to play them!
These trombones have a warm, fat tone which erupts into a satisfyingly raspy, stentorian blare when played loud. Their legatos (which include the ‘romantic vibrato’ option) are as smooth as butter, and there’s a nice bonus: all solo trombones and the trombone ensemble have a three-dynamic legato glissando patch where the instrument’s slide can be heard doing its thing for all intervals up to a fourth, both up and down. Often overlooked in orchestral libraries, these pitch-slides are an essential part of the trombone’s repertoire which always raises a smile, so it’s good to see them included here.
Propping up the rest of the brass is a splendidly sturdy and rotund-sounding tuba in F, which sounds equally at home playing ultra-low, fat pedal notes, warm chord pads and tender, upper-register legato melodies. Again, a light vibrato option is available for solo and exposed passages, while the straight, no-vibrato delivery fits the bill for more traditional orchestral arrangement.
In addition to its melodic, expressive sustains and soaring legatos, BBR is bristling with energetic short notes which are ideal for creating ostinato rhythm patterns, accents and stabs. The trombone and trumpet ensembles take equal first prize with their beautifully terse, urgent staccatissimos (the classic ostinato style for your average blockbuster action-scene score), while the trumpets’ slashing loud marcatos also win brownie points.
In a far more subtle vein are BBR’s collection of crescendos, swells and fortepianos, all played at medium and loud dynamics. The first two have long and short options; all were recorded at the same tempo with metered lengths, so you can build up synchronised crescendo chords using different instruments.
The library’s note repetitions patches are well worth checking out. These come in 16th-note and triplet versions, the first consisting of eight repeated 16th-notes followed by an accented staccato final note, the second doing the same thing but substituting six ultra-fast 32nd-note triplets for the 16ths. You can choose between the original played versions (called ‘phrases’) and ‘continuous’ looped versions which dispense with the final note and repeat endlessly.
These repetitions can be sync’ed to your host tempo, or set to a specific tempo. Though they’re generally fine performances (the trombone note repetitions in particular are superbly played), I found the all-important final accented note didn’t always fall where it should (for example, trumpet 3 sometimes plays 10 or 11 16th notes instead of eight, and trumpet 1 rushes its final notes quite badly). The solution is to use the looped version and place a separate staccato final note exactly where you want it!
A tip from one of the BBR video walkthroughs: combining repetition samples with staccato and marcato samples can create very realistic fast repeated-note passages. The staccatissimo articulation works well for repeated notes, but when the tempo gets very fast it’s worth dialing up the repetition patches.
As mentioned earlier, a major selling point of this library is its sheer consistency. Wherever practical, articulations are played by all the instruments and sections with identical dynamics, making it easy to experiment with different instrumentation. For example, you may find you prefer the sound of three layered horns to the four-player horn ensemble, or that adding a single solo trumpet to the trumpet ensemble helps to increase definition. The articulation menu’s logical structure makes such experimentation easy. This is a refreshing change from discovering that instrument number 2 lacks half the playing styles of instrument number 1, and in my view such rigorous consistency is one of the hallmarks of a professional sound library. It may be a cliché to speak of Teutonic efficiency, but in this regard it’s very welcome indeed.
Users have praised the flexibility of the library, with one forum poster saying: “I can imagine sketching with just one solo horn, then breaking that out into four parts by copy-and-pasting regions.” I tried this myself, and sure enough, it works very well. However, when I took the trouble to play in each part separately rather than copying and pasting, it sounded even better; even though the parts were ostensibly the same, the small variations of dynamics and timing introduced by a human hand helped to impart a subtly more organic and lifelike feel.
Once you’ve finished programming your arrangement, there’s no need to worry about adding external reverb to these brass instruments; the natural built-in ambience of the Teldex hall creates a pleasing, panoramic sonic aura around the instruments and provides a natural, unifying concert-hall ambience for the whole Berlin orchestra. That said, if you prefer you can always load the close-miked samples and apply your favourite concert-hall reverb.
Like all contemporary Orchestral Tools libraries, BBR is powered by the Capsule ‘Control and Performance Symphonic Utility Engine’, which integrates unobtrusively into Kontakt and operates as an articulation management system. (If that sounds frightening, don’t worry — in practice you won’t notice it’s there.) A useful Capsule innovation is the concept of the multi-articulation patch: not to be confused with Kontakt ‘multis’, these are single patches containing multiple articulations which enable you to switch, layer and crossfade between different playing styles.
Each style within a multi-articulation patch has its own dedicated keyswitch, and for more advanced users, a simple ‘polyphonic keyswitching’ system allows you to stack up to four articulations, either as a layered mix or a four-way velocity split. Users can also create their own custom keyswitches. Another cool feature is the ability to apply true legato transitions to any articulation of your choice simply by activating a small ‘legato button’ on the GUI — a bit of a showstopper.
A useful new Capsule feature in BBR is the ability to adjust the ranges of the patches. (‘At last!’, I hear you cry.) By using a small control in the bottom left of the screen, you now expand or narrow the range to taste, with the expansion shown as yellow keys at each end of the normal playing range (which is marked in blue). In this scenario the outermost samples are tuned up or down to fill the new range, which can lead to what Orchestral Tools call “less aesthetically pleasing results”. Some orchestral purists may find the whole idea objectionable, but personally I think it’s a great, flexible feature which makes it a lot easier to build user multis.
Before wrapping this up, a few words to clear up any confusion: in 2014 Orchestral Tools released a library called ‘Berlin Brass Expansion C’, consisting of four solo French horns and a four-player horn section playing musical effects along with some basic sustains and staccatos. This features different players and completely separate sample content from the Berlin Brass main collection reviewed here. Released as a taster, it will now be joined by additional expansion libraries featuring more exotic brass instruments such as piccolo trumpet and contrabass trombone, a full set of muted performances, etc.
By adding brass to their strings, woodwinds and percussion collections, Orchestral Tools have joined an elite club of brave (aka slightly mad) companies who have somehow found the time, energy, patience and money to sample an entire orchestra. It’s taken a while — Berlin Woodwinds was announced over four years ago — but it was worth the wait. Berlin Brass is the long-awaited final brick in the wall of a monumental project, and orchestral sample users will be licking their lips at the prospect of adding its fine brass textures to their arrangements.
Professional brass libraries of a similar ilk to Berlin Brass include EastWest / Quantum Leap Hollywood Brass, Spitfire Audio Symphonic Brass, Soundiron Symphony Series Brass Collection, Cinesamples Cinebrass and Bravura Scoring Brass, all recorded from multiple mic positions. Vienna Dimension Brass and Kirk Hunter Concert Brass 2 are also contenders: though miked from a single position only, they share Berlin Brass’s advantage of combining sections with multiple soloists.
BBR replicates the fixed Decca Tree, A/B and Surround mic positions used in other Berlin libraries, ensuring an identical sound picture across the whole orchestra. A new ORTF stereo miking (which takes its name from the French broadcaster Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française) is also supplied in this library, positioned centrally in front of the instruments a little way back from the close mics and providing a dryer signal than the reverberant distance mics.
When it came to the close mic positions, the producers used a stereo pair for every section rather than individually miking every instrument. The players can thus be heard in their natural seating positions, with (for example) horn 1 on the right, horn 4 on the left and the other two players respectively slightly left and right of centre. Each mic position has its own pan control, so you can you can easily pan individual players to any position you like.
Two close mikings are provided for every instrument; the horns have a stereo pair in front and a second pair behind facing the instruments’ bells, while the trumpets, trombones and tuba have two makes of spot mic offering a subtly different choice of tonal colour.