A number of large 'all-in-one' sample library products are now available. Is Vir2's VI One the one to buy?
Two trends continue apace in the world of sample libraries; first, increasing use of a dedicated front-end and, second, increasing size. Vir2's VI One fits in with both of these trends. It uses NI's Kontakt Player as the front-end and has 21GB of sample content, representing over 1000 instruments. These instruments cover a broad musical palette and the library is intended very much as a 'one stop sample shop' for the computer-based musician. In this context, it is up against two other obvious competitors; the 32GB EWQL Colossus (reviewed in the July 2005 issue of SOS) and USB's 8GB Plug Sound Pro (reviewed in June 2007). PSP is identically priced to VI One, while Colossus can now be bought for under half its original selling price of £650. So for those needing a complete sample library in a single box, is VI One the one to buy?
NI's various sample and loop playback engines have proved popular front-end choices for many sample library producers. While the Kontakt Player 2 included here lacks much of the detailed editing control available within the full version of Kontakt 2 (reviewed in the July 2005 issue of SOS), it is a well-organised working environment. The sampled instruments are organised into 19 categories — various basses, drums (including some loops), guitars, pianos, keyboards, orchestral and synth categories are all present and correct. Whatever musical genre you work in, there will be something within the VI One sound palette that will be in the right basic ballpark.
VI One is supplied on three DVDs, accompanied by a short printed manual. The first DVD includes the PC/Mac installers for Kontakt Player 2 in a stand-alone format, as well as VST, AU, RTAS and DXi plug-in versions for the appropriate OS platform. The installation process is straightforward, although it is probably worth making a cup of tea before you start! Providing your computer has an Internet connection, registering Kontakt Player via the NI web site is also easily done.
The Kontakt Player interface is split into two parts. On the left is a Browser window, where Instruments or Multis (groups of instruments) can be selected. On the right is the Instrument Rack, where each Instrument appears, along with associated settings for its output channels, MIDI channels and so on. If your host supports 64 virtual MIDI channels to the same device, up to 64 Instruments can be held within the Rack and these are tabbed in banks of 16 — otherwise you'll need to run multiple instances of Kontakt Player if you want simultaneous access to more than 16 Instruments.
The strip above the Instrument Rack provides access to the master tempo and tuning functions, and above this are buttons which access other functions (for example, the Browser button, to toggle the Browser display on or off — more on these buttons later). Useful displays indicate the number of notes currently playing, RAM usage, and current CPU and disk loadings. The user can also toggle to a small display footprint via a button at the top right of the window.
The control set for each instrument is fairly streamlined, with an upper strip providing settings for the audio output, MIDI channel and maximum polyphony, as well as mute, solo, tuning, pan and volume controls. Clicking on the Vir2 button on the extreme left of the Instrument opens a lower panel containing reverb, envelope and EQ settings. This control layout is identical for the majority of instruments. However, one or two other parameters do occasionally appear. These include a filter knob for some of the synths and basses, and knobs for blending overhead and room mics for a number of the acoustic drum kits.
- Mac: OS 10.4 or higher, 512MB RAM, G4 1.4GHz processor or better, 21GB hard disk space, DVD-ROM drive.
- PC: Windows XP SP2, 512MB RAM (1.5GB recommended), Pentium 1.4GHz processor or better, 21GB hard disk space, DVD-ROM drive.
Given that this library contains over 1000 Instruments, even auditioning the contents of VI One is a pretty significant undertaking. While these Instruments are split into 19 categories, there are some related groups (all the orchestral sounds, for example) and, for the purposes of this review, I'll deal with those larger groups.
The Drums and Drum Loops categories contain most of the contemporary drum materials (other drum and percussive sounds can be found in the Ethnic & World and Orchestral Percussion categories). Literally hundreds of different drum kits are provided and, while some of these are duplicates with different processing applied, the selection is huge. The drum kits are subdivided by type and each kit contains all the basic elements needed to create a full drum performance — kick, snare, rim-shot, various toms, hi-hats and a number of cymbals. Usefully, the layout follows GM conventions and all the samples are also mapped in a second section of the keyboard, so that fast rolls and so on can be more easily created. The larger (in sample terms) acoustic kits feature plenty of velocity layers. As well as having access to the close-miked dry sounds, you can achieve more ambient effects via knobs that blend in overhead and room mics, and adjust the degree of ambience very easily. The acoustic kits are excellent, but there are also some very good electronic kits and these include samples of a number of iconic drum machines. The percussion group also contains some good instruments, including a very nice gong. While I'm sure there are drum libraries available that provide more detailed sampling, as a single resource for a range of drum sounds and styles VI One does an excellent job.
Some 380 drum loops are also provided, organised by style and spanning breakbeats, dance, funk, hip-hop, jazz, R&B, rock and FX. When loaded, each loop is tempo-matched to the project and also mapped in a beat-sliced format from C3 upwards, making it easy to construct your own loop variations. There is nothing too radical in terms of content, but the material is very useable and seems well played and recorded.
The breadth is maintained within the Piano and Keyboard & EP categories. Various grand pianos are provided, each with a slightly different sound, and in each case there is a dry version plus a number of 'ambient' versions (labelled 'chapel', 'cathedral', 'hallway' and so on, to indicate the different characters). The 'Big Grand' is perhaps the highlight: a side-by-side comparison with the PSP and Colossus pianos suggested that VI One's can certainly hold its own in this category. The Keyboard & EP group offers the usual Rhodes, harpsichord and Wurlitzer instruments (plus some variations), as well as some generic electric pianos. For me, the highlights here were the Rhodes and Wurlitzer, which are warm at low velocities and getting brighter and a little more aggressive at higher velocities — all very playable. For those with a taste for the unusual, VI One also has a category called Prepared Pianos. A prepared piano is a piano that has been 'modified' in some fashion to make it sound, well, less like a piano. This usually involves placing objects on the strings or dampers, and was a tactic made popular by John Cage, who attempted to make the piano sound more percussive by attaching metal objects or rubber dampers to the piano mechanism — and, yes, VI One includes an instrument titled 'John Cage Prepared'; it sounds as odd as you might expect!
The Bass category is split into acoustic, electric and both monosynth and polysynth types. All the usual suspects are presented here, forming a solid and dependable collection, whether you need low end for acoustic jazz or full-on techno. The Organ category is almost totally dominated by a range of B3-based patches. These are good but perhaps a little polite — even the 'B3 Rockin' patch required some additional overdrive to get things really cooking. In all these patches, the mod wheel switches the Leslie speaker effect from slow to fast. However, perhaps the big surprise in this category was the omission of a church organ — although, as described below, there is one within the GM category.
Guitars are covered in two categories: acoustic and electric. While these are well sampled, they suffer exactly the same problems as any sampled guitar instrument (unless you are using something like Music Lab's Real Guitar) and it takes some real dedication in terms of MIDI programming to disguise the sampled nature of the sound source. That said, the banjo, mandolin and nylon acoustic instruments are very capable of creating some nice single-note lines.
The orchestral instruments are split into the obvious brass, strings, woodwind and percussion categories. While I wouldn't be tempted to retire my dedicated orchestral sample libraries on the basis of what is here, Vir2 have done a creditable job of giving the budding orchestral composer the basic tools of the trade. For example, the strings include a range of articulations covering all the major playing styles and, usefully, there are also some very useable key-switch programs, both for sections and solo instruments (although I did find myself lengthening the release on some of the string patches, to create smoother legato lines). The woodwind and brass categories are also generally well covered, while the percussion category includes, amongst others, a nice harp and some suitably robust timpani. The sampling is perhaps not as detailed as a dedicated library, but at this price point that is only to be expected.
Of the remaining categories, I could have managed without the Pop Horns & Brass but the others — FX, General MIDI, Ethnic & World and Synths (Modern and Vintage) all have something useful to offer. For example, the Ethnic & World category includes Australian, Celtic, Indian, Middle Eastern, Pacific and South American instruments. The coverage is variable but there are a few goodies (for example, the Celtic harp and the bodhran hits). The two Synths categories both have an abundance of instruments. The Vintage set includes sampled sounds from classic ARP, Korg, Moog, Oberheim and Roland synths amongst others, while the Modern group covers a large selection of lead, bass, pad and rhythmic-style sounds. You are clearly limited by the Kontakt Player interface in terms of sound editing, but there is still plenty to get your teeth into. Finally, the GM category (like the equivalent instrument groups in both PSP and Colossus) provides a GM-compatible sound set. Vir2 have kept the sample sizes down here, so while the instruments will probably out-perform the average soundcard, they certainly will not hog too much RAM. Oh, and this is the only place I could find a church organ — which sounds fine!
The supplied manual describes the basics of the user interface but, aside from some brief information about how the drum loops in the library are sliced and mapped across the keyboard, and a list of MIDI Continuous Controller numbers used for the reverb, envelope and EQ controls, it lacks any real technical information. On page nine there's a statement that says users should 'consult the Kontakt Player 2 manual for more details on some of the other features'. Despite searching the DVDs and both the Vir2 and NI web sites, I couldn't find a copy of this, and there are quite a number of settings that are simply not covered in the documentation. In particular, what's hidden behind the Outputs and Options buttons, and the purpose of the Engine and Auto tabs within the Browser, really ought to be explained.
The Outputs button provides some considerable extra creative possibilities: not only does it allow the output channels to be specified, it also provides access to both Insert and Send-Return effects. The effects include a compressor, limiter, chorus, phase, lo-fi, distortion, delay, various filters, and even a convolution-based reverb. These are basic but perfectly serviceable. That they are not even mentioned in the documentation is, frankly, a bit of a mystery.
Some of the settings under the Options button are of the 'set and forget' variety. However, there are some useful things here, such as the option to customise the size of the Kontakt Player window, and a number of others (particularly those under the DFD tab that concern how samples are streamed from disk) that new users could find very confusing without some detailed documentation. Equally, the Auto tab of the Browser window needs some explanation, as this is where on-screen controls for an Instrument can be assigned to specific MIDI CC numbers, so that they can be linked to knobs or sliders on a hardware control surface. This actually works very well: a CC number can be dragged from the list and dropped onto an on-screen control to create the link.
Irritating though the omission of the correct technical documentation is, I'm sure there must be a PDF of the Kontakt Player 2 manual available somewhere. Vir2 ought, therefore, to be able to address this issue via their web site without too much trouble.
There's not too much to say about VI One in use, as it operates pretty much as advertised, and my testing using the VST plug-in within Cubase 4 proceeded without incident. The option to resize the VI One window and toggle the Browser on or off means that, once Instruments have been selected, the plug-in can be made very compact. As with a number of NI instruments, I did find myself needing to squint occasionally — the text size is pretty small. My only other minor gripe is that, for some of the bigger sample sets, several seconds can elapse between making a selection in the Browser and the progress dialogue appearing to show that the samples are loading. I was often left wondering whether I'd actually completed the selection process correctly. I'm not sure what is going on in those few seconds, but it is a minor irritation rather than any major functional problem.
Like Colossus and Plug Sound Pro, VI One is most obviously going to appeal to those at the early stages of establishing a sample library. It provides the same sort of approach, covering a broad spectrum of musical needs. There are differences between the three products, however; both Colossus (at 32GB) and VI One (at 21GB) are more substantial in terms of content, and this is probably reflected in the detailed sampling within some of the instruments (for example, more velocity layers). However, PSP, while having a smaller library (at 8GB), offers more features for working with loops and probably has an edge in terms of the number of sound-processing options provided.
VI One is certainly up to the competition offered by the likes of Colossus and PSP. Given that the pricing of all three is not radically different (with Colossus being the most expensive), potential purchasers in need of a complete sample library in a single box now have an additional — and very credible — candidate to add to their list for consideration. VI One is most certainly worthy of an audition.
- Kontakt Player 2 front-end is easy to use.
- Sample library provides coverage for almost any musical genre.
- Represents very good value for money.
- Like its competitors, will probably only appeal to those looking for a complete sample library collection in a single box.
- Technical documentation on Kontakt Player needs improving.
VI One provides a very credible single-box solution for those looking to establish a library of sampled instruments from scratch. Well worth auditioning alongside the competition.
£225 including VAT.
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