The Vienna Symphonic Library is more than just a sample library — it's a tool that aims to help you create true-sounding orchestral performances of your own music. But are we talking Berlin Philharmonic or Portsmouth Symphonia?
About a year ago, word of a new orchestral sample library started to spread across Internet forums: a library of massive proportions and scope, recorded in a custom-designed building; a library on a scale to dwarf anything previously attempted in this field. After initial speculation that the announcement was merely a hoax, it soon became clear that the Vienna Symphonic Library (which is both the name of the company and the collective name given to its products) was very real. And ever since the official launch at last September's AES show in Los Angeles, composers have been feverishly waiting to get their hands on the library, the first parts of which began shipping at the beginning of this year.
The Vienna Symphonic Library (or VSL) currently consists of two components: the Orchestral Cube First Edition (44GB on seven DVDs), and the Performance Set First Edition (50GB on seven DVDs). The Orchestral Cube is basically a multisampled orchestra comprising Strings (10.77GB on two DVDs), Brass & Woodwinds (20.71GB on three DVDs), and Percussion volumes (12.55GB on two DVDs), and each of these three volumes can also be purchased separately. The Performance Set is where VSL really starts to break new ground, providing performance elements such as real legato — more on how this is achieved later — along with all manner of grace notes, runs and repetitions, for all of the instruments featured in the Strings and Brass & Woodwinds sections of the Orchestral Cube set.
The title First Edition implies there's more to come, of course, and this is absolutely the case — the First Edition lacks certain instruments you might need in an orchestral arrangement, although the vast majority of common orchestral elements are represented. A Pro Edition should be released later this year, which will be offered to First Edition customers for a special 'VIP' price, at which point the First Edition will be discontinued and only the more expensive Pro Edition will be available. See the 'Forthcoming Attractions' box for more information.
The First Edition of the Orchestral Cube is available for both Gigastudio and EXS24 MkII platforms, and at the time of writing the Performance Set is only available for Gigastudio, although an EXS24 version is due to be released shortly. For this review, we were sent the complete Gigastudio version.
Each instrument and ensemble is supplied as a collection of Giga files in a folder on the DVDs, so the idea is that you create a VSL folder on your computer's hard disk and copy all the folders from the DVD into it. Manual installations are sometimes a little tedious, but the approach VSL have taken is spot on since it would be a pain if, for example, you had to install the whole percussion section just to access the finger cymbal Giga file. It goes without saying, though, that such a big library is going to take a while to install, even with the fastest DVD-ROM drive, so be prepared to spend the best part of a morning getting everything ready.
Given the scope of the library, the logical organisation of the material was a pleasant surprise, and while it takes a few moments to become accustomed to the slightly cryptic naming conventions used, it didn't take long for everything to make sense. There's a folder for each instrument or ensemble, and each folder contains a 'Basic Set' Giga file offering a one-stop keyswitchable overview of the articulations available, usually with two dynamic layers. Further Giga files in each folder contain long notes, short notes, and other specialised articulations for each instrument or ensemble, with additional dynamic layers. The Basic Sets are very useful for quickly sketching out an arrangement if your computer resources are limited; you could always start replacing instruments with their more memory-hungry counterparts when it comes to a finished mix.
The library is described in precise musical and technical detail in over 500 pages of documentation, which includes orchestration tips, a list of adjectives poetically describing aspects of each instrument's sound, and a helpful diagram showing a typical orchestral setup. This is excellent, thorough and meticulous documentation, but it is unfortunately only supplied in PDF format at the time of writing. A printed manual is on the way, and promises to be more visual than the current PDF version, although VSL decided to wait until the EXS24 version was finalised before going ahead with a print run — the printed manual should be available in April, by the time you're reading this.
One of the biggest questions new users will have about VSL undoubtedly concerns the computer requirements needed to actually make use of the library. For Gigastudio users, the problem is that we've now reached a stage where the limitations of the software become apparent before the limitations of the hardware, since Gigastudio v2.5 is currently limited to 80 stereo voices and can only utilise up to a Gigabyte of the total memory installed in your computer. That's not to say you can't make use of the library if you only have one computer, though: assuming you have a Gigabyte of memory (which you absolutely will need to have), it's possible to load all the basic instruments (excluding full strings, harp and percussion) along with one timpani instrument, and this will use 70 percent of your available memory. However, if you purchase both the Orchestral Cube and Performance Set, you'll find yourself seriously limited by only having one machine, especially if you're doing complicated arrangements, so budgeting for at least two machines is an absolute must.
The First Edition features standard-sized orchestral string ensembles of 14 violins, 10 violas, eight cellos and six double basses. Thanks to the use of the Silent Stage (the custom-designed building where the entirety of the VSL was recorded — see picture above and box on page 201), the samples aren't swimming in the ambience of a large hall, but the sound is clear and detailed, with an almost tangible presence, combining a rich, bright tone with a hint of classical austerity.
Rather than divide into first- and second-violin ensembles, the violinists play all their samples in a united section, and the long notes are classy, balanced and finely executed, played with commitment, precision, and an emotional but not over-the-top vibrato. One immediately obvious characteristic is the slow bow attack, producing a tender, breathy tone unique to this library. This languorous, husky quality is most evident in the quiet low notes, becomes less pronounced in the upper register, and disappears as the volume increases.
The library contains no looped samples, but happily the 14 fiddlers' long notes (which come in three dynamics) get around the problem by sustaining for between 17 and 23 seconds — additional 'ff espressivo' performances, played with a strong vibrato, last for six seconds. In combination, the delicately bowed piano samples, sweetly singing mezzo-fortes and strong, biting fortes and espressivos give a wide, natural-sounding dynamic response.
The violas share the violins' hushed, breathy quiet attacks and strong espressivos, and make a broad, vibrant section sound that will enrich any string arrangement. Refreshingly, these viola players bear no resemblance to the reserved, timid creatures of orchestral legend — when required to bang out col legnos (the only string section in the First Edition to do so) or bow aggressively, they make a forceful, driving percussive noise with plenty of snap and pop.
Though the cellos' performances in general are exemplary, and their low range is very satisfying, the long notes on their top 'A' string are less so; the players' minimal vibrato and VSL's chamber acoustic conspire to produce a comparatively thin, almost astringent sound. Strong vibrato (espressivo) performances are more emotive, but their ff delivery is emphatic rather than tender — for a lusher, more romantic section sound, the sensitive volume swells of the cellos' pfp performances are more effective. In common with the violins, violas and basses, the cellos play fine, clear pizzicatos in tight and loose flavours (two types of each), executed with martial precision.
The double basses' long notes (played at two dynamics, f and p) drone on for 20 seconds like a bunch of low-flying Concordes, with shorter performances of two to three seconds, sampled at four dynamics, offering a wider timbral range. These big, stately, well-tuned long notes sound steady and authoritative, providing a secure foundation for the rest of the strings.
Tucked away inside each sections' 'Special Dynamics' category (see the 'Dynamic Change' box above) are sforzato and sforzatissimo performances that will blow your Lycra leggings off. Performed as if the players were harbouring murderous thoughts towards their conductor (which was probably the case after weeks of playing single notes over and over again), these fizzing, aggressively bowed marcatos carve at the strings like jungle explorers hacking away undergrowth.
While the strings' subtle, blossoming attack is an important part of their charm and character, the library also provides alternative, shortened-attack versions. The quicker attacks sound utterly natural, and their more instant response benefits faster passages, legato playing and pads. In the 'short notes' category, staccatos and detachés come in a choice of up and down bows, which can be rapidly alternated in performance via Giga's keyswitching facility or using the Alternation Tool (see the 'Tools of The Trade' box on page 138 for more information). The staccatos are good and strong, and the more gentle detachés are bowed with a lot of feeling. Useful variations, though the violins' detaché release times are too long for fast music.
And there's so much more: multi-dynamic crescendos, diminuendos and 'cresc-dims' of different lengths and intensities; forte-pianos; multi-dynamic tremolos, tone and semitone trills (the last three offered, uniquely, in a choice of sustained versions or in the three changing dynamic categories outlined above). Performed by all four string sections to the full extent of their ranges, these are expressive, dramatic samples to bring a little light into the life of the MIDI composer.
VSL's approach to full string instruments is somewhat innovative, as although no mixed-ensemble samples were recorded, the 'String Ensemble' folder offers a choice of two different programmed combinations, one using cellos and violins (split C2-B3/C4-D7), the other featuring double basses and violas (B0-B2/C3-E6). To conserve memory, these utilise only two velocity layers and whole-tone sample mapping, and the two combinations can't be layered or crossfaded, only switched via the mod wheel. If you want to play both at once, the quickest way (though it doubles the required polyphony) is to assign the violins and cellos combo to Gigastudio's Port 1, channel 1 and the violas and double basses pair to Port 2, channel 1. Reduce the second combination's level by 15 or so, link the two ports, and you'll hear the rather wonderful, rich sound of VSL's full string orchestra.
VSL logically groups the harp with the strings family, and the first impression on hearing the harp's tenderly stroked pianissimos was that of a totally noise-free recording; the Silent Stage lives up to its name, indeed. During this review, we both fell in love with the harp because it really is one of those sampled instruments you can't stop playing, producing a gorgeous tone that makes even wrong notes sound good. The three-dynamic straight notes behave slightly unexpectedly; the p notes have a slightly thinner (though by no means unattractive) attack, while the mf and f samples produce the classic, full, plummy harp tone we know and love. 'Près de la table' (plucked close to the soundboard) performances give a more nasal, acoustic guitar-like timbre, while the harp's harmonics fall like raindrops, evocative and supremely playable. A very pleasant set of sounds, rounded off by a delightful tremolo effect called bisbigliando, which, when played chordally, sounds like the soft, tremulous thrumming of a hundred heavenly mandolins — a beautiful timbre.
Moving on to the brass ensembles with a suitable fanfare, three trumpets play sustained notes at three dynamics, the loudest of which has a brilliant, triumphal tone fit to herald the arrival on earth of a busload of archangels. In fact, if you hold down the sustain pedal and play a loud chord on the trumpets' belting staccatos, you'll hear that the Silent Stage actually produces a nice short reverb! The trio of trombones are also terrific, sounding equally comfortable playing mellow quiet notes or roaring loud ones. Brimming with confidence, both sections maintain exquisite intonation and a precisely coordinated delivery through all their performances. The only downside is that both the trumpets' and trombones' long notes fail to live up to their name, giving up the ghost after only five or six seconds.
Composers looking for a big, cinematic sound will be well pleased by the gloriously rich-sounding ensemble of four French horns. Highlights include some magnificent long notes and marcatos, enhanced by the players' absolutely perfect tuning, and superb unisons to match those of the trumpets and trombones. The straight notes are all excellent, flutter-tongue effects in sustained and crescendo varieties make a colourful, ribald noise, and a comprehensive set of ripping glissandi travel a fifth or an octave upwards or downwards.
After enjoying the lively stereo acoustic of the brass ensembles, the solo brass sounds comparatively dry and narrow, but this helps focus attention on the instruments' sonic detail. There's not much apparent difference between the solo horn's 'light vibrato' and 'no vibrato' versions, but the different attack articulations and note lengths give the user a wealth of options. As well as subtly graded four-dynamic sustains, there are key and lip trills, straight and crescendo flutter-tongue samples, and f & ff 'schmett' (blared) notes to raise the dead. French horn is a notoriously difficult instrument, but this player stays firmly in control throughout what must have been a recording marathon.
VSL's solo trumpet (a C model, rather than the more common B flat instrument) comes with four vibrato options: light, progressive, strong and none. Dave liked 'progressive' the best, not because of its associations with mellotrons, Magma and Marillion, but because it happened to have the nicest attacks. The 'strong' option sounds a bit overwrought, but sprinkling a few of its samples into an otherwise vibrato-free passage will add feeling and increase realism. With the addition of a suitably grand reverb, it's easy to imagine this trumpet pealing out a triumphant theme on the soundtrack of some space blockbuster.
When it comes to trumpet note lengths, the user is really spoilt for choice; there are two lengths of sustained notes (the longest eight seconds), one-second medium notes, 0.5- and 0.3-second portatos with normal, hard and soft attacks, and some well-drilled staccatos. All of these variations are multi-dynamic, and not content with playing tone and semitone trills at slow and fast speeds, the trumpet player also plays accelerating trills.
In addition to being useful for scaring off Jehovah's Witnesses (a quick blast of the intro to 'The Stripper' usually does the trick), trombones can handle supporting rhythm parts, and the solo instrument's four-dynamic staccatos (also presented in a nice 'soft-attack' version) sound effective when pumping out insistent eighth notes, especially with the sustain pedal depressed to reveal the samples' full decay. All brass staccatos and portatos supply two alternate sets of samples, and keyswitching between them makes rhythmic passages sound more supple and organic.
The tuba, rounded, deep and mellifluous, is expressively played, and its middle and high registers work well for melodies, especially if one of the vibrato options is selected. For use in solemn harmonies, the non-vibrato sustains work better. As tuba is traditionally used to play the bass note of brass chords, it was a disappointment to discover that its f and ff non-vibrato sustains only last for two seconds. Why the player was so short of breath is unknown, but this is an area where a bit of judicious looping would have saved the day. The tuba staccatos and portato short notes are all supremely usable. As for the flatulent flutter-tongue samples — don't go there unless you're in full Benny Hill mode!
All four solo brass instruments play long, medium and short notes, sustained and crescendo flutter-tongue effects, and all except the trombone play tone and semitone trills. In addition, each instrument has four extensive 'progressive dynamic' categories. No mutes were used on the brass.
The VSL First Edition supplies only a basic woodwind quartet of flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon, so any serious attempt at full orchestration is out of the question. However, the current woodwind set sounds great and offers a great deal of musical choices.
If you're looking to build up some flute chords, this instrument's three-dynamic 'sustained, progressive vibrato' program has a lovely tranquil, meditative quality. For melodies requiring a faster attack, the 'no vibrato, normal attack' sustains work better, though their notes only last two seconds. In all, there are four types of sustained note of various lengths in the 'long notes' category; probably enough for most purposes. But if after searching you fail to find the 'abnormal attack, retrogressive vibrato' version your piece demands, you'll still have to concede that this flute sounds very nice. A couple of the flute's low staccato notes are fractionally slow in speaking, but in the main their timing is tight and unified. The trills are great and their attention-grabbing 'progressive dynamic' versions are also very impressive.
The oboe samples are highly playable and one program in particular hit the spot: filed under 'long notes', it's called 'vibrato, progressive attack', and although the samples are only two seconds long, it's an absolute dream for melodic playing. The 'no vibrato' version plays longer notes (seven to eight seconds), but the unwavering delivery sounds less enticing. Another highlight are the oboe's semitone trills — reminiscent of an oriental shawm, these can be played from the keyboard in snaky, insinuating, Middle Eastern styles that classical oboists never dreamed of.
The clarinet is the only instrument that could cause users significant musical limitations. VSL's instrument has only one type of long note (though it is, admittedly, sampled at six different dynamics), and one type of short note — staccato. The long notes' 'progressive attack' is not fast enough for a quick-moving melody, and the staccatos are, by their nature, too short to carry a tune. As all the usual trills and 'progressive dynamics' variations are in place, it's a mystery why this instrument's basic long notes should be so comparatively thin on the ground. Maybe the player stormed out in mid-session demanding more money?
There's another problem with the clarinet's sfz and sffz samples — their loud attacks sounded distorted, and no amount of fiddling with Giga's MIDI mixer, soundcard output settings or the review mixer's gain structure could get rid of the distortion. Let's hope an update addresses these issues, because this clarinet sounds fabulous and deserves to be heard in full, expressive musical effect.
The bassoonist plays seven-second sustains with or without vibrato, and also offers some two- to three-second 'long notes', which have a reduced upper range, as was apparent when trying to play the opening high-lying bassoon solo from Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring. The vibrato versions are very playable, and have an appealing, emotional flavour that's very effective for solo lines. Short notes are confined to staccatos with four dynamic layers, and are all nicely played, but for some reason they're recorded with a right-heavy stereo image — all the other bassoon styles sound centralised. Crescendos and diminuendos are super-tight, all 14 of them. Full marks to the player for some excellent performances, but one technical issue — as with the clarinet, there's a hint of distortion on the loud attacks (fp, sfz & sffz) in the 'Special Dynamics' category.
The four solo woodwinds play sustained, staccato and portato notes with a choice of different attack and vibrato intensities, and each instrument has three main categories of 'progressive dynamics'. All but the bassoon play tone and semitone trills in sustained, crescendo and diminuendo versions.
Auditioning the beautifully recorded sounds in VSL's Percussion First Edition, the positive acoustic qualities of the Silent Stage, which preserves timbral and dynamic detail to the tiniest degree, could easily be appreciated. The menu of sounds is enormous (over 12GB), but the library's Basic Set is a good place to start; it comprises two tam tams (oriental gongs), an orchestral bass drum, snare drum, crash cymbals (piatti) and suspended cymbals, plus tambourine and triangle.
The tam tams stand 130cm and 100cm off the floor, and while you might occasionally see a bigger model hauled in for visual effect at a big rock show, this pair make a huge sound, especially when both are played at once! Their pp and mf dynamics give an ominous bass rumble, but the f and ff hits positively explode, making that loud, scary racket which can overpower an entire orchestra. The bass drum sounds pretty hefty too, but as well as doing its usual grumpy repertoire of loud thumps and portentous rolls, it plays some very subtle pp and p hits which are more felt than heard. Great dynamics.
Left- and right-hand hits on the snare drum, along with some tidily-executed four-second rolls, ensure great performance realism. The snare sounds very crisp, and its four dynamic layers have been nicely programmed. There are bright, splashy sustained and muted crashes played by two pairs of crash cymbals (piatti) of different sizes — with typical attention to detail, these have been sampled at six dynamic layers. A single suspended cymbal (played with soft mallets) also performs some sumptuous straight hits and tremolos.
The tambourine is not your plastic rock-style jingler brandished by big-lipped lead singers the world over, but a traditional wooden model with a skin, struck and shaken with great aplomb by an individual whose name we will never know. Finally, occupying the upper frequency (but low price) range, we find the triangle. This cunning device plays sustained and muted hits, plus a pretty tremolo roll.
Though a good introduction to the library's warehouse of percussive treasures, VSL's basic percussion set merely skims the surface. Each of the instrument's individual folders contains a wealth of alternatives, starting with six different tam tams sized from 52 to 130cm. Various types of big, booming multi-dynamic hits and metallic clangs are interspersed with ghostly, groaning crescendos produced by rubbing the gongs' surfaces with a rubber ball — ideal for teeny TV spook-outs. Alternatively, if you want to announce that dinner is served in clangorous 10-part harmony, a complete set of 44 chromatically tuned gongs, spanning three-and-a-half octaves and sampled at three dynamics, is also on hand.
Choosing between the library's nine sets of piatti could create a 'clash' of interests, so if you're in a rush, go for the largest (22-inch) pair — unsurprisingly, they sound the most grandiose. In the single cymbal department, VSL have sampled crash, ride, splash and China models, all played with drumsticks, timpani mallets, metal rods, brushes, and a violin bow, a lovely, unsettling screechy din. All variations sound healthy, though the splash cymbal brush hits sound unfeasibly big. Add to the mix multi-dynamic sustained, crescendo and diminuendo rolls played with various beaters, throw in two pairs of exquisite finger cymbals, and you're in cymbal heaven.
In the absence of a marimba, VSL's xylophone is waiting to leap into action in all manner of amusing cartoon soundtracks, and the straight notes, sampled at three dynamics, are separated into left- and right- hand hits, with the player also performing some masterly controlled tremolos. Other tuned percussion instruments include glockenspiel and a set of crotales (small tuned cymbals). The latter, normally played with metal beaters, also get the 'new music' violin-bow treatment, producing a high screaming tone which pleased my ears but set my teeth on edge — other parts of the body remained neutral. The glock is a stunner. Played with metal beaters, it produces pure, ethereal notes, while wooden beaters give a harder, 'knockier' attack.
Two different makes of tubular bells compete for the user's attention: the Deagan brand make the classic, bright, slightly nasal 'ding-dang-dung-dong!' sound we Brits know all too well from the University Challenge theme, while the Philharmonic type sound more rounded, full and solemn, with weird overtones adding an unearthly church bell flavour. Both makes are played with leather and plastic beaters, while the Deagan set also contributes tremolos played on a choice of mallets or brushes.
The tuned percussion list continues like an inventory of Aladdin's cave, comprising beautiful multisampled Japanese singing bowls, various types of bells and a superb set of 'cencerros' (tuned cowbells). VSL's pristine recording quality and attention to musical detail runs like a seam of gold throughout this set, bringing the instruments to life and supplying users with a huge armoury of expressive percussion.
The First Editions of VSL's Orchestral Cube and Performance Set are just the tip of the iceberg; 24-bit Pro Editions of both are due to arrive later this year, followed by a conclusive mega-edition called the Symphonic Cube. The latter aims to provide a lexicon of construction kit-style performances based on various articulations of scales, broken chords, larger-interval trills, changing note repetitions, more complex repetition sequences and triple grace notes.
Those who have purchased the First Edition will be able to upgrade to the Pro Edition for a 'VIP' price, and since the Pro Edition is sold as a follow-up to the First Edition, users will be able to receive their Pro Edition in another format and use both simultaneously. An important consideration for anyone thinking of buying the First Edition now is that this product will be discontinued on the release of the more expensive Pro Edition.
PRO EDITION PREVIEW
The instruments in the Pro Edition will include:
* Solo violin*.
* Solo cello*.
* Sordino (muted) variations for sustains, detachés, tremolos and dynamics on all sections.
* Ponticello and non-vibrato variations.
WOODWIND & BRASS
* Alto Flute*.
* Bass clarinet*.
* Bass trumpet*.
* Contrabass trombone*.
* Contrabass tuba*.
* English horn*.
* Piccolo trumpet*.
* Tenor tuba in B flat*.
* Altar-boy bells.
* Bell tree.
* Boo bams.
* Brake disks and springs.
* Bull roarer.
* Burmese bells.
* Chinese gongs.
* Finger bells.
* Glass harmonica.
* Lion's roar.
* Log drum.
* Ocean drum.
* Peking opera gongs.
* Rock bells.
* Ship's bell.
* Sleigh bells.
* Tambourine jingle.
* Temple blocks.
* Waldteufel (friction drum).
* = also included in the Performance Set Pro Edition.
When you add up all their playing variations, it's little wonder that VSL's timpani consume 3.5GB of disk space, enough for a stand-alone library. Single hits were played with medium, hard, medium-hard, wooden and felt mallets, and also with fingers; and three of the mallet types also perform sustained, multi-dynamic tremolo rolls and a selection of mysterious 'upbeats'. These turn out to be accented single hits preceded by single, double, triple or quadruple grace notes, a nice way of adding dramatic emphasis to a timpani hit.
Using medium mallets, the player performs further variations like 'secco' (short notes, muted after about a second) and 'coperto' (covered with a cloth) single hits, crescendo and diminuendo rolls of different lengths and intensities, up and down single-hit glissandi (using a pedal to bend the pitch) and tremolo glissandi (ditto). As if that wasn't enough, all single hits come in two variations that are conveniently grouped into two separate keyboard zones for left- and right-hand playing to avoid the 'same sample every time' syndrome, with some instruments featuring as many as six dynamic layers.
These big tuned drums sound clean, powerful and resonant, though to get the full, walloping Also Sprach Zarathustra effect you'll have to add some reverb.
There are two schools of thought when recording samples: you either place the players on the stage of a big hall and record the instruments from the perspective of the conductor or audience, taking advantage of the hall's natural acoustics; or else, you record the instruments as accurately as possible in a controlled acoustic space, and allow users to add their own ambience. While both approaches have pros and cons, VSL have taken the latter route, and at the very core of everything that's been recorded is the Silent Stage, a specially constructed acoustic space that claims to offer a staggering sound insulation of 90dB from the outside world.
To test the isolation between the interior of the Silent Stage and the outside world, VSL did something truly representative of their 'no-corners-cut' approach: they hired a helicopter and directed it to hover barely metres above the roof of the Silent Stage. Inside the space, so the story goes, no-one heard a thing, and the engineers' noise meters did not even flicker. That's pretty silent!
Despite the excellent acoustic properties of the Silent Stage, it should be noted that, like most sample libraries, VSL apply a noise-reduction algorithm to all their samples, acting on the principle that if a sample should contain even a trace of noise, the amount would obviously be multiplied for every note played. However, the noise-reduction process used for the VSL is very much like the Colonel's KFC secret recipe: nobody would tell us anything about it, other than that it's incredibly new and expensive technology.
The big debate concerning orchestral samples runs like this: samples are essentially fixed, one-off recordings, and are therefore limited in their ability to mimic the many subtle, mobile, organic nuances of a real performance. Should composers ignore these limitations and compose as if for real instruments, or instead pragmatically adapt their style and 'write for the samples'? VSL's Performance Set First Edition rejects the latter notion, displaying a steely determination to make its samples conform to the will of the composer. To this end, it covers four main areas in great depth: legato performances, note repetitions, grace notes and octave runs.
To understand the thinking behind VSL's performance legatos, we have to understand what happens when an instrument or ensemble plays in legato style (literally, 'tied-together'). The first note of a legato melody line has a built-in initial attack, easy to reproduce in a sample, but subsequent notes have little or none, appearing instead to be part of an unbroken flow of sound. This presents a problem: how to introduce new samples of different pitches while maintaining this smooth, flowing effect.
VSL's solution is both brave and slightly mad; in their own words, they've "sampled every interval from a minor second to an octave, upwards and downwards from each note in the instrument's range" and trimmed the front of each sample so that only a few milliseconds of the starting note remain. By retaining a trace of the previous note, these 'real legato' samples (played by all instruments except the harp) preserve the smooth transitions between one pitch and the next. But how do you select the appropriate sample for each successive pitch, while making their transitions sound natural? The short answer is that you don't, because VSL provide a clever application called the Performance Tool that does the job for you — see the 'Tools of the Trade' box back on page 198 for more information.
There are some limitations and caveats: as you might expect, the legato mode works monophonically, and currently operates on only one dynamic layer at a time because of limitations in Gigastudio v2.5. Although many of the performance legatos were sampled at multiple dynamics, their dynamic layers are presented in separate programs. The legato instruments are also very memory-intensive: with each chromatically sampled note having 24 variants (12 different intervals, up and down from the base pitch), loading seven or eight such instruments gobbles up nearly half a Gigabyte of memory. As a result, users wishing to build lots of 'real legato' performances into arrangements may have to bounce, or invest in additional Giga systems.
But to hell with these technicalities! Musically, the 'real legato' effect is an unmitigated success, giving particularly stunning results on solo trumpet and flute. Thanks to VSL's masterly programming, melodies really do sound 'joined up', and even big jumps of a sixth or seventh sound totally natural. On the solo instruments, fiddly performances like fast grace notes, ornaments and even trills sound fluid and extremely convincing.
The strings' 'legato portamentos' are a fabulous bonus, giving samplists the means to emulate (or at least, allude to) the fantastic, atmospheric slides performed by strings in Indian pop music. All in all, this is a very rewarding, expressive and innovative section of the library. Though the idea of 'true legatos' has been around for some time, VSL's brilliant realisation of the concept represents a genuine advance in sampling technology.
Musical notes are like snowflakes: no two are identical. And even in a passage of repeated notes, each reiteration will sound subtly different from its predecessor; so if you want to accurately reproduce the effect of reiterated notes, repeating the same sample over and over again is unsatisfactory. VSL strikes a blow for enhanced realism in this field by providing many types of 'repetition performances'. Played in a choice of legato, staccato and portato styles (all featuring straight, crescendo and diminuendo versions), with as many as nine note repetitions and three dynamic layers, these samples go a long way towards ensuring that your samples will never again become repetitious when repeating themselves!
The note repetitions are divided into quarter-, eighth- and 16th-note categories, performed in a selection of different tempos. There's a wealth of options: taking the 14 violins as an example, you can choose quarter notes at 130 to 140bpm or eighth and 16th notes at 115 to 120bpm, featuring between five and nine repetitions. Slow, quarter-note single repetitions of between 54 and 64bpm are also provided. Surprisingly, there appears to be no overall coordinated tempo plan; the loud dynamic of the violins' legato quarter notes is listed at 140bpm, while the quiet version lags behind at 130bpm. The equivalent viola samples, on the other hand, were sampled at 115bpm.
As with the legato instruments, the repetition instruments rely on the Performance Tool, and the idea is that you can program single notes in your sequencer (at the same tempo the repeated notes were recorded at — or faster) and the playback will automatically reconstruct the recording of the repeated notes to give you a more natural sound. Again, like the legato instruments, every note (other than the first) contains a small part of the previous note. Although repetition can sometimes be fiddly to program, since you might have to calculate note lengths and tempos yourself in order to select the correct instrument in Gigastudio, there's no doubt that the results are realistic.
Many string libraries feature string-section runs, but VSL have taken the idea further than other sound companies. Violins, violas and cellos all play fast, legato, major and minor up-and-down octave runs, starting on every scale step over a two-octave range in all 12 keys, and sampled at f and p dynamics. The double basses perform the same set of sprints over a slightly reduced range, playing at only one dynamic. Alternative versions of these runs with their starting note removed are available at the push of a keyswitch, and in certain combination programs, a quick twirl of the mod wheel converts ascending runs into their downwardly mobile counterparts.
The minor scale selected for the library is the 'harmonic-minor' type, which in the key of A minor uses the notes A, B, C, D, E, F and G#. If you prefer the folksier minor scale of A, B, C, D, E, F# and G, loading the G-major runs and playing the note of 'A' will give you those exact pitches. The higher strings also perform whole-tone and chromatic scales, as well as spiccato versions of the major scales.
This Olympian running-fest spills over into the wind department, with flute, oboe, clarinet and three trumpets each offering the same musical permutations as the strings. In addition, the bassoon and solo trumpet whip out bi-directional octave runs in the major scale. It's impossible to have anything but praise for the musical effect of these darting lines, which are lively, well played and outstandingly comprehensive. However, their tempo listings are misleading in places: violin and viola section runs labelled '200bpm' turn out to be played at 240 and 180bpm respectively, while the double-bass runs advertised as 180bpm play at between 112 and 132bpm. It's best to ignore the names and use your ears.
The brass ensembles and solo brass in VSL's Performance Set have their own comprehensive categories of 'upbeats', similar to those played by the timpani in the main library's Percussion DVD set. The difference is that these brass upbeats are tempo-graded. Each instrument plays a short note preceded by one, two or three 16th notes on every chromatic step of its range. The solo trumpet does this trick at 11 different tempos ranging from 90 to 190bpm, with every performance played at three dynamics; other instruments' upbeats are no less lavish in scope. Though the recording must have been quite a chore, the result is a huge set of brass articulations which, if the programmer has the time and skill to use them sensitively, will add a good deal of realism to arrangements.
VSL's grace notes are performed by woodwinds and solo brass only, and, as with the 'real legato' samples, up and down grace notes of all chromatic intervals up to an octave were recorded on each chromatic step of the instruments' ranges. These sets of samples are presented in 24 separate programs, but an alternative set of quicker-speaking 'performance legato grace notes' with trimmed fronts combine all 24 options in one super-program. To select the required interval, multiple keyswitches are provided, with a low C#1 key selecting a set of minor-second intervals, a D1 selecting major-second intervals, and so on, all the way up to C0 for octave intervals. Up and down versions are presented on a split keyboard, giving instant access to both styles, and the effect is highly expressive. The solo brass grace notes follow the same format as the woodwinds, but are restricted to a choice of minor-second and major-second intervals.
The four French horns' rousing glissandi from VSL's Brass & Woodwinds set appear again in the Performance Set, but with extended capabilities — the glisses now offer every interval between a fourth and an octave, with up and down versions switchable via the mod wheel. The solo horn joins in the fun with its own glissando set, multi-dynamic and performed at two speeds, and at long last, the trombone finally gets to use its slide in the way nature intended, performing a measured series of glisses in a choice of lubricious or raspy timbres.
The horns' glissandi dwell on a root note for a short beat before launching into the slide itself. Mindful that users might want a more instant effect, VSL have presented us with an alternative set of 'performance glissandi' samples that dispense with this initial starting note. A complete set of solo trombone performance glissandi also cut straight to the slide.
While it's possible to fake harp glissandi by subjecting single-note samples to a quick sweep up or down the keyboard, samples of the real thing are a lot nicer. VSL's harp is a lovely-sounding instrument, and its glissandi (totalling 3.7GB) are an asset for any orchestral samplist and offer a great number of choices. There are slow, medium and fast glissandos spanning one, three and five octaves, single and multiple cross-glissandi, and fast ff one-octave strums. Upward and downward versions may be alternated via the mod wheel; the vast majority of the programs use two velocity layers, and, needless to say, this bountiful collection is supplied in all 12 keys.
The whole shooting match is duplicated in major-and minor-scale versions, the latter using the poignant 'harmonic-minor' scale described earlier. All in all, there are definitely enough glissandi to shake a stick at, and the recording quality, tuning and playing is absolutely beautiful. It would have been nice to also hear the corny but comforting sound of pentatonic and major-seventh chord glissandi, along with some more atonal variants, but the harp's kaleidoscopic sonic and timbral variations make up for its limited harmonic menu.
It may be a cliché to say so, but a sound library can only be counted as truly successful when its samples inspire the user to play and write music. This happened on countless occasions during the course of the review, proving that the Vienna Symphonic Library's value lies beyond its commercial price tag. In the mad clamour of the technological marketplace, many of today's musical products become obsolete almost overnight, but this library is surely destined to be around for years to come. During that time, its musical depths and subtleties should give pleasure to anyone who hears it, as well as providing valuable educational insights into the workings of a real orchestra.
The best compliment that can be paid to VSL came from one of the user forums where the rumours first appeared about the library's existence. Someone there remarked that when listening to music created with VSL, you were no longer listening to see if the results were realistic, but instead listening to whether or not the music itself was any good. And that is the ultimate goal achieved by the Vienna Symphonic Library: to make the samples serve the music, rather than the other way around.
Thanks to Martin Tichy and Herb Tucmandl of VSL for their help during the production of this review.