VSL’s new hall‑recorded brass collection aims for maximum grandeur.
After you’ve spent 21 years deep‑sampling every orchestral instrument under the sun and building an archive of over six million samples, what do you do next? If you’re VSL, the answer is simple: find a new recording location and start the whole process over again. As EastWest and Spitfire Audio have done before them, the Viennese busy bees are creating a second complete symphonic collection to place alongside their previous monumental body of work. The project is well under way: following the release of Synchron Percussion and Synchron Strings, the latest addition is VSL Synchron Brass, featuring 136.8GB of instrument recordings performed by a team of first‑call players.
Comprising eight solo instruments and nine ensembles, this large library covers all the orchestral brass essentials, ranging from solo trumpet to a layered ‘giant tutti brass’ section of 28 players. Other outsize groups include 12 French horns, six trumpets and a section of nine tenor and bass trombones, with smaller ensembles and a choice of solo instruments available for less grandiose settings. While specialist items such as piccolo and bass trumpet, flugelhorn, cornet, alto trombone, euphonium and Wagner tuba aren’t included, the popular cimbasso gets a welcome airing — and should you need any of those abovementioned non‑standard instruments, all are available as individual downloads in Vienna Instruments format.
In stark contrast to the studio acoustic of VSL’s stereo‑only Vienna Instruments collections, the Synchron series is recorded from multiple microphone positions in the historic Synchron sound stage, and therefore enjoys the twin advantages of a sumptuous concert hall ambience and multi‑channel mixing. The miking setup accommodates mix formats of up to 9.1 surround and immersive audio formats such as Auro 3D and Dolby Atmos — but don’t worry if you can’t cram 10 speakers into your workspace, these samples still sound great in stereo! Like all Synchron titles, VSL Synchron Brass runs exclusively on the company’s free Synchron Player and requires a ViennaKey USB protection device, yours for the princely sum of €13.
Although most of the library is newly recorded, some ensembles are taken from the VSL Big Bang Orchestra sound packs Hercules, Izar, Jupiter, Kopernikus and Zodiac, with no additions, omissions or tweaks. Crossgrade discounts towards the Standard and Full libraries of Synchron Brass are available for registered owners of those BBO packs — stick with me, and I’ll explain the musical details as we work through the instruments.
Arguably the most traditionalist of the major orchestral sample developers, VSL have loosened their bow ties and edged away from classical formality in recent years. Coincidentally or otherwise, Synchron Brass’ lead trumpet player Marc Osterer has worked with major pop/rock artists (including a distinctly non‑classical electro‑swing act) and Grammy nominated jazz big bands, as well as occupying the principal trumpet seat in the Mexico City Philharmonic and Synchron Stage Orchestra.
Mr Osterer’s musical experience comes to bear on the accomplished set of Solo Trumpet 1 articulations. The combination of a beautiful tone and VSL’s trailblazing legato mode produces magnificent melodic results — expression is enhanced by the gentle, lilting vibrato used in the long notes, a pop‑friendly alternative to the standard straight orchestral delivery (which he also plays supremely well). A cool ‘auto‑speed’ feature automatically switches between regular and fast legato transitions according to your playing speed, resulting in stunningly realistic lead lines. I also enjoyed the laser‑beam precision of the player’s fast note repetitions, played in a choice of four tempos.
Solo Trumpet 2’s samples were performed by Peter First, another first‑class musician who contributes a tasteful, quiet and reflective expressive legato style along with excellent short staccatos which are ideal for fast rhythmic ostinatos. In a similar vein are ‘upbeats’ consisting of a single short note preceded by one, two or three fast repeated notes of the same pitch, great material for creating fanfare‑like figures. Both players also perform scorching renditions of the blasting, in‑your‑face sforzatissimo style, traditionally the most forceful and aggressive articulation in VSL’s locker.
Moving on to the ensembles, six unison trumpets display immaculate tuning on their long notes. If you layer their ‘con fortissimo’ loud sustains with the strong attack of the abovementioned sffz delivery, the result is both regal and explosive: the perfect soaring high brass timbre for a superhero movie theme. The tighter sound of four Bb trumpets (taken from BBO Kopernikus) lends itself well to staccato rhythm passages, and their marcato long notes (which utilise an overlaid staccato attack) and imperious sforzandos sound good and strong.
Flown in from BBO Jupiter after a brief refreshment stop at the International Space Station, a six‑piece horn section is joined by 12 horn players from BBO Zodiac’s ‘Supermassive Ensembles’. This cosmic line‑up makes a glorious collective noise: the Zodiac horns’ intonation is uncannily precise across all articulations, which include lovely warm, plush quiet sustains, stentorian fortissimos, wonderfully dramatic crescendos and maniacally loud sffz fanfare‑friendly deliveries fit to greet the entrance of Thor into Valhalla. If you want grandeur, these are the guys. The six horns’ sustains are a great asset for chord pads, and their smooth note attacks work well for melody lines, even without the added smoothing of the included legato transitions. My SOS review of these BBO Jupiter horns mentions their creamy legatos for triumphal heroic themes, brusque short notes for rhythmic ostinatos, in‑your‑face blaring sforzatissimos, luxurious soft swells and jeering flutter tongues. I also praised their terrific set of octave rips, and can now add that the 12 horns’ rips are even more uproarious, bringing to mind the bellow of an enraged bull elephant.
Synchron Brass’ two solo horns are played respectively by Péter Keserű and Viliam Vojčík. Hailing from a Hungarian city whose name I daren’t type for fear of overheating my spellchecker, the first gentleman was principal horn player with several European orchestras before taking up the post with the Synchron Stage team. His colleague also occupies a horn hot seat, this time with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra.
French horn is a difficult instrument to master, but both players achieve admirable pitch accuracy over their instrument’s C2‑F5 range and maintain it across an identical menu of articulations. Player number one turns in an exemplary set of legato long notes, while his co‑worker whips out tight, short staccato ‘agile’ performances. Both musicians perform lovely, mournful espressivo legato notes with a subtle built‑in swell and, by way of contrast, their own personal set of stirring fierce rips.
The library’s solo tenor and bass trombones are played respectively by Matthias Reindl and Bernhard Vierbach. The tenor trombone’s precise ‘agile’ staccatos and impressively accurate note repetitions work well for motoring rhythms, while the bass instrument’s loud staccatos are the classic oom‑pah sonority heard in marching band bass lines. Dynamics range from quiet sustains (a great asset for supportive chord pads in orchestral or brass band arrangements) to super‑raspy sffz notes, which can sound sinister or funny depending on the context. The icing on the cake is an excellent set of crescendos and diminuendos in a choice of two, three and four seconds durations.
Two excellent trombone ensembles add to the symphonic splendour: four tenor trombones make a pleasantly broad, noble sound, with loud, bright, expansive sffz performances, powerful crescendos (which include a subtle softer option) and some tremendous glissandos. Played at two dynamics over a choice of minor second, major second and fourth intervals, these slow, measured pitch slides end conveniently on a looped sustain. User tip: playing chords with the descending fourths version sounds pretty amazing.
If you thought trombones weren’t the most exciting of brass instruments, think again — a contingent of nine unison tenor and bass trombones (one of BBO Zodiac’s large ensembles) are superbly sonorous, generating great gusts of raw brass power over a D1‑G4 range. Their sffz, ff and four‑second crescendos are astonishingly forceful and will kick any arrangement in the proverbial backside, or you can go the other extreme and program quiet chordal passages with their excellent soft sustains, to which the enveloping hall acoustic adds warmth and size.
Cimbasso & Bass Tuba
This pair of solo instruments operates at the low end of the brass instrument pitch spectrum. Though the cimbasso’s mad cylindrical tubing and ‘bent’ shape won’t win any design prizes, the instrument is surprisingly expressive, with player Stefan Hirt’s quiet sustains providing a good option for low, brooding horn‑like pads. Alternatively, you can follow Hollywood film composers’ example and go for broke with loud, percussive and metallic sffz bass stabs. My advice: put a banging drum & bass loop over the cimbasso’s shuddering low‑register 160bpm note repetitions and you could have a surprise dancefloor hit on your hands.
With a bottom note of C1 (traditionally the lowest pitch of the orchestra), the obvious use for a bass tuba is low pedal notes propping up brass harmonies, but the instrument (played by Lukas Hanspeter) also works well for plaintive and touching legato melody lines, bringing to mind the comic waddling pathos of American actor Oliver Hardy. If you’re inclined towards more ribald comedy, a few choice blasts on the bass tuba’s sffz low notes are bound to raise a titter.