Format: GigaSampler | **** Score = 4/5
The Dutch company SAM was founded in August 2002 by three composers who felt the current orchestral libraries weren't up to scratch. Rather than leaping in and sampling the entire orchestra, SAM appear to be tackling the problem with more circumspection; their debut release is a Giga library of manageable proportions, dedicated to an orchestral French horn section of four players.
Many libraries offer a French horn ensemble within their menu of brass sections, but this is the first horns-only release I've come across. The samples (876MB in all) were performed by music students from The Hague and Utrecht Conservatories, playing in the latter establishment's main concert hall. In common with Dan Dean Brass Ensembles, the recordings were made simultaneously from ambient and close mic positions, giving the user the same samples in a choice of perspectives.
The four horn players' basic sustains are vibrato-free, seven seconds long and unlooped, but SAM have saved the day by providing looped versions, available (along with an inexpensive solo horn and some orchestral give-aways) as a free download from their web site. The sustains are played at three dynamics; the pp and mf samples share a very listenable, warm but unmuffled tone suitable for pads, and the timbre becomes a lot more open, trebly and penetrating when the ff performances kick in. Hand-stopped sustains make their usual alarming, disembodied but dramatic racket. All long notes are well-played and steady, with no bad wobbles or dodgy attacks.
Everyone seems to have a different take on what 'portato' means — I thought it was a type of root vegetable eaten by posh people, but in this library it describes a sustained note of about five seconds with a built-in crescendo/decrescendo. Conventional 2.5-second crescendos are also provided in a choice of straight or 'flutter tongue' varieties, the latter giving a raspy, trouser-flapping effect straight out of a Carry On film. If the fixed timing of these built-in crescendos proves to be a limitation, you can create your own custom-length volume swells by using the dynamic 'mod wheel crossfade' programs.
I found that the strong attacks of the marcato performances worked a treat when layered with the sustains. The staccato samples also attack fiercely, but some notes suffer slightly from imperfect ensemble tuning. These short notes reveal the concert hall ambience in full effect: its agreeably clean, smooth decay is clearly audible on both the 'far' and 'close' recordings. Sustains, portatos, marcatos and staccatos span a four-octave range from D2 to D5 (middle C = C4) and come in three dynamics. Release triggers are supplied for the sustains, stopped and staccato samples, though adding a separate decay trail to a staccato sample seems pointless — why not just use the sample's natural decay?
The library has a stab at providing the building blocks for simple phrases by sampling legato intervals of a major third, fifth and octave, carefully executed at around 65bpm with the upward movement occurring after one beat. A selection of performance samples follow, entertaining if not comprehensive: two types of glissandi lustfully leap an octave to their target note, but there are only four samples of each type. The semitone trills are a bit of a mess — again, there are only four samples, mapped across the keyboard without regard to their actual pitches. Effects glissandi (three types) start with some mad low burbling and lurch queasily upwards, building to a top note. The effects section concludes with eight closely voiced, predominantly atonal sustained cluster chords, and a number of 'textures', which turn out to be improvisations, mostly in a chaotic free-jazz style.
The focus on just one specific orchestral timbre might deter some buyers, but it appealed to me — most keyboards and sound modules have half-decent trumpet and trombone multisamples, but very few offer French horns of any quality. By providing a reasonably priced library that combines well recorded, versatile horn section samples, good documentation and professional programming offering all the usual Giga facilities, SAM have neatly filled a small gap in the market and win Sound On Sound's coveted 'Pat On The Back' award. Now, can someone please do the same for solo woodwinds?
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