The eagerly awaited upgrade from the VSL team breaks all records for size, depth and scope. Is it the be-all and end-all of orchestral sound libraries?
Back in the not-so-far-distant past, when orchestral sample supremos Miroslav Vitous and Peter Siedlaczek ruled the roost, the idea of a 90GB sound library would have seemed laughable. Even if anyone had been mad enough to record that much data, presenting it in the limited Akai ROM format would have required 176 disks — more CDs than most people have in their music collections! But the advent of hard-disk streaming samplers brought a dramatic change. With the old RAM size restrictions swept away, sound companies were free to think in Gigabytes rather than Megabytes, and to contemplate the creation of sound libraries which would indulge their users' wildest dreams.
In Spring 2002, the Vienna Symphonic Library team announced one of the wildest dreams yet, a massive orchestral library whose sample count would eventually run into millions. Despite widespread scepticism, VSL began to deliver on the hype when they turned up at trade shows with their own acoustically isolated chamber, the so-called Symphonic Booth (see next page), so that people could hear the quality of their work-in-progress library themselves. Word also leaked out that the company had constructed a custom-built acoustically treated orchestral recording facility, the Silent Stage, to record the library. Clearly, this was not an organisation to do things by halves! Finally, the company turned the hype into reality when they delivered the first edition of this grand opus on a series of 14 DVD's, reviewed in SOS May 2003. The scope and sheer size of the library was unprecedented, causing some critics to doubt whether users could ever fully understand its complexities. Undeterred, the Vienna team continued with their mission to record practically every sonic nuance of the symphony orchestra, and have now faithfully delivered the second phase of their project. If you thought the VSL First Edition's 92GB was overdoing it a bit, you'd better sit down and take a deep breath before reading the next statistic: the VSL Pro Edition upgrade is 235GB in size.
The Pro Edition (henceforth known as PE) of this already enormous library adds important instruments which were missing from the First Edition (FE). The most significant new arrivals occur in the woodwinds, but seven new brass instruments also make their debut, along with essential tuned percussion instruments, masses of brand new unpitched percussion, and for the first time, solo strings. All in all, there are around 50 additions, ranging from orchestral staples (piccolo and English horn) to exotic ear candy (Peking opera gong).
As well as filling gaps in the instrumental ranks, the VSL PE features new playing styles and adds more variations and dynamic layers to the existing instruments' repertoire. One great advance is that all the ensembles' and solo instruments' sustained notes have been looped, with the solo instruments presented in a choice of looped or non-looped versions (the solo strings are currently unlooped, though one presumes VSL will rectify that in a future edition). The labour involved in seamlessly looping thousands of stereo recordings is back-breaking, so full marks to the company for making the effort.
At long last, printed versions of VSL's excellent manuals, previously available only as PDF files, should now be available. The PE manuals, highly detailed and covering both Giga and EXS24 formats in the same document, consume a staggering amount of pages: 1090 for the combined instrument multisamples, plus 620 more for the Performance Set. These weighty tomes should provide users with the perfect reading matter to while away the hours on a long bus journey — such as the one from Watford to Irkutsk.
VSL's 235GB Pro Edition incorporates the 92GB First Edition, but in its PE incarnation, the latter's material has been significantly expanded and a few names changed where necessary. For that reason, VSL advise current FE users not to delete it from their hard drives before first checking the compatibility of the PE with their current projects. The bad news is that to follow this advice, you'll need the best part of 250GB of free disk space available to install the entire PE (see the 'Installation & Storage Requirements' box above). But the good news for the budget-minded is that the FE, originally due for deletion upon release of the PE, will continue to be sold as a separate library for the indefinite future.
The five woodwind instruments piccolo, alto flute, English horn, bass clarinet and contrabassoon are vital orchestral components, so it was a big surprise to find them missing from VSL's FE. Their provision in the PE is therefore very welcome, not to mention long overdue! A cheeky toot on the newly arrived piccolo confirms that the wait was worthwhile; recorded in VSL's specially constructed, noise-free Silent Stage, its tone is supremely clean and its notes never waver, even in the thin air of its insanely high top reaches.
For a reviewer with one eye on a deadline and the other on pub opening times, the number of performance styles in VSL is almost intimidating. A quick run-through of the piccolo's menu should give you the idea; there are (deep breath) long sustains with a choice of constant or progressive vibrato, two-second sustains, and short notes comprising staccato, 0.3-second and 0.5-second note lengths, the latter type played with or without vibrato. Most of these playing styles feature two, three or more dynamic layers (other woodwind instruments offer as many as six), and most of the shorter notes are supplied with a complete second set of alternative samples, which you can use to double-track the instrument without fear of sample duplication.
The list goes on — maintaining the FE's presentational convention, a 'special dynamics' section contains fp, fpf, sfz and sffz deliveries (these samples all have strong, emphatic initial attacks which could be useful for straight forte melodies). Also included are pfp samples which start quietly, surge in volume, then die away, as well as more straightforward crescendos and diminuendos. The latter three 'changing dynamic' performance styles come with a choice of note lengths. A nice PE innovation sees our piccolo playing trills on all chromatic intervals between a semitone and a fourth, and a new playing technique, 'flutter tongue', has been introduced. I can imagine this obscure, rather arty noise being used in a nature documentary soundtrack to accompany the amusing activity of some small animal. It's probably not what the woodwind players had in mind as they laboured through their multisamples, but that's showbiz.
To devote this much attention to one little piccolo shows the depth of VSL's devotion to orchestral detail. It's not possible to describe all the variations here, but among the ones that caught my ear were the sweet, wistful vibrato sustains, the incisive, passionate attack of the 0.5-second short notes, and the sfz performances, fierce, near-overblown whistle blasts which sound like the player is close to bursting a blood vessel. Such enthusiasm and energy gives this instrument's loud notes plenty of power and penetration, but its expressive quiet samples are also very effective, ideal for carrying a subtle, intimate melody line.
VSL's alto flute's attractive, breathy mellow tone is very easy on the ear, but I found myself wishing it had more vibrato options; the strong vibrato of the two-second sustains really brings the instrument to life, making the 'no vibrato' and 'progressive vibrato' variants sound a bit emotionally flat by comparison. The alto flute's staccatos, played at four different dynamics, are very nice indeed (especially when you add a bit of reverb), and its flutter tongue samples make quite a spooky effect in the low register.
Moving from flutes to reeds, we find another new woodwind, the bass clarinet, great for mysterious, serpentine bass melodies. Played with no vibrato, it runs through a huge range of changing-dynamic performances, achieving a total of 13 different types of pfp, crescendo and diminuendo. While it's gratifying to be given all these options, I wished VSL had concentrated more on providing straight notes with faster attacks; all the bass clarinet's sustains speak fairly slowly, and even the staccatos are a bit languid for my taste! The bass clarinet is the only woodwind not to play flutter tongue samples, but I don't suppose too many users will mind that. However, a more serious problem concerns its sffz samples — these sound distorted, replicating a problem still found in the FE's clarinet and bassoon sffz performances.
Lurking in the basement we find the contrabassoon, the lowest of the low woodwind. This instrument really raised a smile — equally well suited to powerful bass lines, melodies or jocular staccato patterns, it has a very characterful, tuneful tone, and, in contrast to the bass clarinet's lazy delivery, a sharp, definite attack which can easily accommodate staccato rhythmic parts. While VSL's contrabassoon has bags of character, the star of their new woodwinds is the beautiful-sounding English horn (aka cor anglais), tastefully sampled with three-way dynamics and various attack and vibrato options. With a range extending a fourth below the oboe, its timbre is ideal for playing slow, languorous, regretful melodies over a warm bed of strings. Although rarely used in jazz, the English horn does sound something like a soprano sax, and I really enjoyed using it to play Wayne Shorter-style improvisations. Regardless of style, anyone with half an ear for sound will want to use this subtle, evocative instrument in their arrangements.
As well as filling the gaps in the woodwind department, the PE adds a second solo flute (confusingly called 'Flute 1'), allowing the programming of true four-part harmonies played by two flutes, piccolo and alto flute. Played by a new performer, the new solo flute sounds similar in timbre to the first, but its tone is slightly sweeter and fuller on its long sustained notes. All the new woodwinds contained in the PE enjoy the full range of performance styles detailed earlier, and the oboe, clarinet and new solo flute also offer a new category of 'accelerating trills', which start slowly, then speed up. This may sound slightly pointless, but it's exactly the sort of musical effect that can make a MIDI arrangement sound more organic.
Unlike other orchestral libraries, VSL's PE contains no woodwind ensembles, but with 10 lavishly sampled solo woodwinds at your disposal, each of which can be played chordally from a MIDI keyboard, you should have no trouble using the library to produce a rich, convincing orchestral woodwind ensemble sound.
For most buyers, VSL's colossal Pro Edition library will probably require an investment in new storage media before installation, simply because the library is so large. As well as making further demands on your wallet for new hard drives, the Pro Edition's sheer size also makes installation a rather time-consuming affair, although it is at least straightforward. The full library is supplied on 16 DVDs, although because the content is compressed, installing the library will take a little more time than simply copying the files over. Fortunately, if storage space is in short supply and your budget is in tatters after purchasing the library, you can elect to uncompress only the files you plan to use; you don't have to unpack the whole library to get at everything. However, the best solution is of course to invest in a couple of new hard drives on which to store the complete uncompressed library so that you only have to uncompress it once. Future, larger editions of VSL will probably ship on hard drives from the outset, so we can only hope that this is the last time users will have to undertake such a Herculean installation task.
Here are some volume sizes to consider before you ring your local hard disk supplier — fortunately, the price of external drives has plummeted to the point where you can now expect to pay £1 or less for each Gigabyte of capacity. However, note that due to a combination of annoying factors, a disk's real-world capacity is usually less than its published size. Consequently, despite the figures below, the Gigastudio review copy of VSL's Pro Edition required 256GB of disk space for a complete installation.
|VOLUME||PRO EDITION||FIRST EDITION|
|Brass & Woodwinds||57.53GB||20.71GB|
|All three (Orchestral Cube)||113.50GB||44.03GB|
The lush, expensive timbre of a string ensemble probably epitomises everything orchestral for most people, but it's impossible to successfully emulate true orchestral sound without samples of solo strings. Fresh from the benches of VSL's programmers, the PE's solo violin can handle most musical tasks: it performs sustained notes with various intensities of vibrato or no vibrato, two-second marcatos, two lengths of short note and staccatos. Two of the sustains offer alternative 'shortened attack' versions for quick melodies, and, like the woodwinds, the short notes come with a second alternative set of samples. There are six different lengths and two different strengths of crescendo and diminuendo samples (played with and without vibrato), and the usual collection of fp, sfz, sffz and pfp 'special dynamics' performances.
And that's just the straight notes — the solo fiddle also performs tremolos (in sustained, shortened attack, crescendo and diminuendo flavours), plus sustained, crescendo, diminuendo and accelerating varieties of tone and semitone trills. Assemble this lot in your sampler, and you have a seriously realistic violin! All its performances are convincing; personal favourites include the marcato and 'progressive vibrato' sustains, the 0.5-second vibrato short notes and the dramatic tremolo diminuendos.
The solo cello's stylistic repertoire is much the same as the violin's, but with a slightly reduced selection of changing-dynamic notes and no 'shortened attack' sustains. Spanning four and a half octaves, the instrument has been played with feeling and commitment. I liked the player's precise, energetic staccatos and pfp volume swells, and was struck by the sffz performances — on these, the cello player really gets stuck in (if you'll pardon the football term), attacking the strings with a manic vigour. These bow attacks are aggressive enough to hold their own when layered with rock guitar power chords, and their abandonded gusto makes a nice contrast to the thoughtful, restrained performances found elsewhere in the library.
There was a rumour that VSL's solo strings lacked pizzicatos, but they're present and correct, along with col legnos (ie. when the string is hit with the back of the bow, producing what can only be described as a 'thwonk' sound). Both the solo violin and solo cello pizzicatos are full and bright, well balanced and beautifully in tune, an inspiration for composers. As well as conventional pizzicato, the violin and cello perform secco pizzicato (a dry, muted variation where the ringing note is cut short), and also whip out some percussive 'Bartok snaps', where the string is pulled up and twanged against the instrument's neck, Robin Hood-style.
While the PE's two solo strings are excellent, many users will be disappointed at the omission of solo viola and solo double bass. One hopes that VSL will remedy this in their next edition, and while they're at it, also consider the possibility of adding a second solo violin for the creation of authentic string quartets.
As well as adding solo strings, the PE also substantially updates the existing string ensembles, supplying a host of new articulations which include no-vibrato versions. There's a new sustain category called flautando, a hushed, breathy and expectant sound which resembles a quiet tremolando. The violins' menu of crescendo and diminuendo performances is enlarged, and their trills now take in minor and major third intervals and accelerating versions, the latter a very arresting effect when played on 14 violins! Muted (con sordino) and metallic-sounding sul ponticello versions of most of the main playing styles appear for the first time, along with tight and loose col legno hits and the Bartok 'snap pizzicato' noise.
The lower string ensembles — violas, cellos and double basses — are similarly expanded, and although the basses don't acquire the new con sordino category, they do get to play tone and semitone trills for the first time. VSL's strings have grown in size and scope, and now require only the addition of harmonics to be considered fully comprehensive.
Most of us are familiar with the piccolo trumpet, often found in orchestral libraries and famous for its piping solo in The Beatles' 'Penny Lane', but how about the bass trumpet? Given an important musical role in Wagner's Ring cycle, its low range goes down to a C2 (where Middle 'C' is C4), and in its bottom octave it sounds like a trombone. Throughout its register, it sounds much warmer and less shrill than an ordinary trumpet, producing a mellow, autumnal tone reminiscent of British brass band instruments. All in all, VSL's bass trumpet has 13 types of straight note and a huge menu of crescendos and diminuendos, but if none of these sound forceful enough for you, check out the sffz and sfz samples. These show the bass trumpet's tone in a new light; bold, attacking and brassy — Ian Wright rather than Ian Duncan-Smith.
The newly minted piccolo trumpet sounds fine, though you wouldn't want its bright, perky tones blasting in your ear when waking up with a hangover. The player exerts superhuman control and never cracks a note, even high up in the difficult top range. Amidst all this exquisite musicianship, I found myself perversely wishing that VSL had provided a 'piccolo trumpet bloopers' section in which the player hit some real dingers, followed by some muffled, off-mike Germanic curses. No such luck — everything is musically correct, and these lively piccolo trumpet performances border on sampled perfection.
Having used the former instrument's top 'G' to dislodge some ear wax, I was ready for some deep sub-bass action, so I dialled up VSL's contrabass trombone (this really is low-pitched — the bottom note is A#0, three-and-a-bit octaves below Middle 'C'). I was pleased to find that this complicated length of brass tubing produces an astonishingly fruity, dynamic sound which ranges from a warm, noble tone to a thin, prickly, rasping bray. In fact, its timbre changes so drastically with volume that VSL's three dynamic layers don't really do it justice. Another new PE instrument, the bass trombone, has a similarly broad tonal spectrum, and its fat-sounding quiet notes will blend well with French horns and trumpets in a brass arrangement.
Looking like a trombone emerging from a road accident, the cimbasso is a floor-standing, valved contrabass brass instrument. Its sound is generally soft and warm, and even when played sffz, the instrument lacks the violent brassy overtones of the low trombones. It will therefore work well for passages which require a more subtle, subdued brass delivery, such as quiet brass pads. The PE's new brass offerings conclude with a brace of tubas: the contrabass tuba is a fabulous bassy beat, considerably stronger, more stable and confident in its bass register than the library's existing tuba. The Wagner tuba (another instrument used in his Ring cycle) is pitched higher than the conventional instrument, and has an extra top octave which reaches G#5. Built with a horn mouthpiece for use as a doubling instrument by French horn players, its wide range and broad, rich vibrant horn-like tone provide a great basis for building harmonies.
The PE's seven new brass instruments add considerable depth and colour to the library's brass ranks. Each one offers straight notes with a choice of different note lengths, attacks and vibrato styles, plus a wide range of changing-dynamic performances (fp, sfz, sffz, pfp, crescendo and diminuendo) of different lengths and intensities. Three of the new instruments (piccolo trumpet, bass trumpet and contrabass tuba) play tone and semitone trills, and all but one of the PE's 14 brass instrument categories (including the ensembles) now offer VSL's beloved flutter tongue performances. Only the Wagner tuba fails to flutter.
TUNED PERCUSSION (ORCHESTRAL)
TUNED PERCUSSION (MISCELLANEOUS)
DRUMS & CYMBALS
Some libraries omit the marimba on the grounds that it's not part of the traditional symphony orchestra, a pedantic argument which seems anachronistic in view of all the repertoire written for it in the latter half of the 20th century. The lack of a marimba in the FE was a minus, but VSL have now filled the vacancy, thoroughly sampling this beautiful, mellow-sounding instrument with a variety of mallet types and performances which include straight and muted hits, tremolos (including terrific crescendo and diminuendo versions), and glissandi. Most appealing to my ears were the samples played with rubber mallets, which give just the right amount of attack on the front of the marimba's sustaining woody tone.
Two further contenders, the celeste and vibraphone, complete VSL's trilogy of new orchestral tuned percussion instruments. Generously sampled with four dynamic layers, the celeste sounds wonderful, but its usability is slightly impaired by the notes' lingering dieaway after the key is released (a strange programming decision — you wouldn't present a piano that way, so why do it to a celeste?). The Vienna team have gone to town with their vibraphone, providing an extensive range of samples played with soft, medium and hard mallets with the vibrating motor set to fast, slow or off. The soft mallet hits need more than the two dynamics provided, and (as with the celeste) there's too much built-in decay for my taste, but the basic sounds are first class.
The PE supplies a snare drum ensemble of four players performing a large selection of left- and right- hand hits, normal and accelerating upbeats, tremolos (ie. rolls) of many different lengths and dynamic varieties, rim shots, rim clicks and 'snares off' samples. The drum ensemble, played variously with sticks, brushes and timp mallets, sound super-clean and cover a huge dynamic range which VSL's recording process reproduces faultlessly — however, some users may want to add reverb to create a more explosive 'concert hall' sound. A set of boo bams (chromatically tuned, one-headed tall cylindrical drums, used by John Williams to great effect in his latest Star Wars score) add a splash of percussive colour, whacking out single hits, rim hits, tremolos, rebounding rolls and upbeats across a three-octave range. VSL have also increased their collection of orchestral cymbal rolls from 417MB to 974MB, giving users a wide choice of dramatic swooshes!
VSL PE's estimated 380,000 samples should keep users occupied for a while, but the company have more in store. The Viennese expansionists are working on a hard-disk edition called the Symphonic Cube, due for release later this year. All samples will be included in both 24-bit and 16-bit resolution.
Supplying sound libraries on hard disk makes it easy to manufacture different versions, and VSL are currently considering a flexible, user-orientated system in which content and sample resolution could be defined individually by buyers. The following new instruments have been recorded for inclusion in the Symphonic Cube.
SMALL STRING ENSEMBLES
VSL's new budget Horizon series, which offers themed packages like Solo Strings, Mallets, and Glass & Stones, combines selected VSL Pro Edition material with new instruments such as tenor and soprano sax, concert acoustic guitar, glass harmonica, verrophone, musical glasses and distortion guitar. These new instruments will also be available in the Symphonic Cube release.
The percussion section of the orchestra used to be condescendingly referred to as 'the kitchen' — a tired analogy, but VSL have at least added some Asian flavours to the cooking. Included in their PE is a two-and-a-half octave set of angklung (an Indonesian tuned bamboo rattle). Used in village gamelan music, angklung are constructed of two resonant bamboo tubes tuned an octave apart, which give a very attractive little pitched clatter when shaken. Depending on your mood, this can sound innocent or sinister! The vibratone (not to be confused with vibraphone) also sounds a bit like a gamelan metallophone, but with a lovely rich natural wah-wah effect added. Strangely, VSL have not mapped out the vibratone's samples chromatically, so its range is restricted to its original two pitches of C and E.
The Asian expedition continues with the wafty chime of a 'Burma Bell', a smallish, flat piece of resonant metal cut into a two-dimensional bell shape and tied to a length of string, which is struck with a beater then whirled around to give a 'Leslie'-style chorused effect. Less melodious are the set of crashy Peking opera gongs, whose raucous bent pitches are comic at first but will soon drive you round the bend. There are larger Chinese gongs with a more sonorous and sustaining sound, and there's also the bonus of a second set of orchestral tam-tam gongs, ranging from 90 to 32cm in diameter. These are somewhat less grand-sounding than the FE's models (the largest of which is 130cm in size), but of course you get them too! I was also pleased to see that the FE's chromatic set of tuned gongs now feature tremolos, crescendos and bowed samples.
Shortly after the original release of VSL's First Edition for Gigastudio, a second version of the library was released for users of Emagic's EXS24 MkII, the optional software sampler that's built into Logic v5.5 and above. This revised version of EXS24 (as covered in SOS February 2003's Logic Notes) added support for features like modulation-wheel-controlled crossfading through velocity layers, thanks to the implementation of a more advanced modulation matrix. And it also included release triggers and key-switches, which were two of the main programming techniques required for VSL to port the First Edition library to Emagic's sampler platform. Although the Pro Edition for EXS24 had just been released as we were finishing this review, the comments in this box are based on the First Edition and will be equally valid for the Pro Edition, except for any changes in the installation of the sample data.
In terms of the core multisampled instrument library contained in the Strings, Brass and Woodwinds, and Percussion volumes, the instruments included are just like any other EXS24 sample library you would purchase, and are also the same content and layout as the Gigastudio version. Installation is a simple matter of dragging the appropriate sample data to your drive, and copying the EXS24 instrument files into Logic 's 'Sampler Instruments' folder. Once this is done, the instruments can be loaded just like any other by selecting from the hierarchical pop-up menu.
In order to bring the Performance Set to EXS24 (including the Alternation Tool for non-Performance Set users), VSL worked with Emagic to integrate the Performance Tool directly into the EXS24 environment, rather than requiring an additional utility to run alongside the sampler, as with the Gigastudio version. To achieve this level of integration, the requirements for running the EXS24 version of the Performance Tool are rather specific: you need to be running either Mac OS 9.2.2 and Logic v6.1.1 (or higher), or Mac OS 10.2 (or later) with at least Logic v6.3.1. It's also worth pointing out that the Performance Tool only works in Logic Platinum.
The Performance Tool software itself isn't supplied with the library, so you'll have to download the latest version from VSL's web site. This is to ensure users always start with the most current release of the Performance Tool, of course, and while it will annoy some people, particularly those who might not have Internet access, at least it gives you something to do while installing the rest of the library! As with most optional extras for Logic, the Performance Tool functionality is copy-protected by Emagic's XSKey. Once you've registered on VSL's web site, a temporary registration code will be emailed to you and Emagic will prepare a permanent code tailored to your XSKey, which you should receive, again by email, a couple of days later. I really wonder about the need to copy-protect the Performance Tool, but I guess it's a sign of the direction software companies are being forced into taking, and I had no problem in obtaining and authorising suitable codes.
The EXS24 version of the Performance Set (First Edition) is supplied on three DVDs, although I was quite amused to find that the data is stored within self-extracting Windows-format EXE executable files, given that the EXS24 Performance set is only useful to Mac users. However, these can easily be unpacked via Stuffit Expander, and there are plenty of Mac utilities available to handle the RAR data-compression format that's been used to fit the library onto its DVDs. You should allow up to an hour per disc for installation.
Despite all of the minor intricacies of installing the EXS24 version of the Performance Set, it's absolutely worthwhile once everything is up and running, because the level of integration between Logic, EXS24 and the Performance Tool makes using the Performance Set so much easier than the Gigastudio version. For example, when you load a legato patch, both the sound data and the instructions for the Performance Tool are also loaded, so the instrument is basically ready to go — just like choosing any other EXS24 instrument. The Performance Tool is actually incorporated into EXS24 's Instrument Editor window with the addition of a VSL menu, where either the Legato, Alternation or Repetition modes are available. The correct mode is always set for you, and you can either edit the parameters by choosing the 'Edit' option under the VSL menu, or bypass the Performance Tool by selecting the 'Thru' option under the same menu.
Having used the EXS24 version of VSL on a variety of Macs, including a dual-2GHz G5 and a 17-inch Powerbook, I have to say that these tools make for a great self-contained writing facility, especially when you add Emagic's Space Designer convolution-based reverb into the equation. Using a multiple-computer Gigastudio setup gave me far more voices, of course, but it's also a more complex configuration to manage, and there's definitely something to be said for a stand-alone workstation, even if it isn't quite as powerful. Incidentally, it's worth mentioning that Logic 's Freeze function isn't, sadly, much help in this department, since the function doesn't allow the memory used by an instrument to be unloaded when a Track is 'frozen' (for more on G5-based EXS24 performance, see this month's Apple Notes). However, if Emagic make this possible, the combination of Logic, EXS24 and VSL will be hard to beat for serious composers and orchestrators. Mark Wherry
Unpitched percussion accounts for over half of VSL Pro Edition's 50 new additions. You can see each new item marked in bold in the instrument list a few pages back — space doesn't permit appraisal of all of them, but I particularly liked the deep, rolling woody tones of the log drum and the comprehensive set of 18 temple blocks, the latter played with a variety of beaters and a choice of performance styles which include multiple grace notes, entertaining glissandi and tremolo crescendos and diminuendos. Here we also find 'jingle bells' (sleigh bells — reindeer not included) and a 'jingle ring' (a skinless tambourine), along with a lovely bell tree and some pretty glass, metal and bamboo wind chimes. In this particular area, the library still lacks a mark tree (twin or single rows of small metal chimes suspended on short strings from a long wooden frame, very popular with pop percussionists).
Conventional Latin percussion is represented by claves, castanets, and a shaker performing some versatile samples, and the caxixi (a woven basket rattle from Ghana) provides an earthier and more gritty shaker sound. A guiro does its scraping, slithering Latin thing, and VSL have also thoughtfully laid on guttural frog-like noises courtesy of a 'Waldteufel', a type of scraped instrument used by tree-worshipping German Satanists [Surely shome mistake? — Ed]. The cryptically-named 'rockbell' turns out to be a very useable set of five cowbells of the type used by rock drummers and percussionists, played with an array of beaters, bowed and, er, rubbed (rubbed?). There's the obligatory cuica (high on the list of 'Sounds That No-One Ever Uses', along with 'berimbau' and 'rubbed cowbell'), doing its usual annoying repertoire of groans, moans and squeals and successfully emulating the atmosphere of a Stevenage wine bar at closing time.
The 'FX Percussion' folder contains still more exotic instruments: the 'lion roar' sounds a bit like a slowed down cuica, with a passing resemblance to the king of the beasts' throaty growl, but a closer affinity to the noises uttered by Ozzy Osbourne when awakening from a deep sleep. The truly frightening 'bullroarer' whirled instrument, designed to scare off evil spirits, really put the wind up me — it starts off with a low-pitched thrumming like a distant helicopter, then grows into a frenetic whirring racket that makes you want to take cover. After that, I appreciated the calming tones of the ocean drum, a large shallow drum containing small pieces of gravel which brush across the skin and simulate the sound of rushing water when the drum is tilted. The PE's percussion concludes with the unsettling, eerie tones of the waterphone, a wonderfully atmospheric, multi-faceted sound begging to be used in horror-film soundtracks.
Though Beethoven might not have recognised these exotic and highly varied instruments, enterprising samplists and composers will be glad to add them to their sound palettes. Unfortunately, the PE's Percussion manual fails to describe or explain the background of the non-orchestral percussion items, the one notable omission in an otherwise hugely comprehensive document.
Moving on, we come to the Pro Edition of VSL's Performance Set, a trifling 122GB in size. In the old money, that would have required 239 Akai-format CD-ROMs, but by compressing the sample data, VSL have kept the disk count down to a mere eight DVDs! Where the Orchestral Cube (VSL's name for their bundled strings, brass, woodwind and percussion set) focuses on mainly single-note multisamples, the Performance Set (PS for short) is dedicated to more complex, multiple-note events such as note repetitions, grace notes, upbeats (a short note preceded by one, two or three 16th notes), octave runs, glissandi and 'performance legatos', all played in a range of tempos. The last category is the most innovative; when used in tandem with VSL's ingenious Performance Tool, melodic lines are magically transformed from a succession of disparate samples into an flowing stream of notes, a fabulously realistic musical effect made possible by a breakthrough in sampling technology. For more on how the Performance Tool works, see that original VSL review in SOS May 2003.
As with the Orchestral Cube, the Performance Set Pro Edition contains an upgraded version of the Performance Set First Edition. VSL's new woodwind, brass and solo string instruments are all extensively represented, and many of the PS FE's instruments' performances have been expanded. There are 42 instrumental categories in all, comprising both solo instruments and ensembles.
The violin ensemble gets the lion's share of new performances, the most striking of which are octave glissandi. 'Performance glissandi' are also supplied for each of the violin's four strings — apply the VSL Performance Tool 's legato mode, and you can perform real, unison 'virtual glides' up and down the violins' necks, starting on your desired note on the string in question. The effect is very much like playing glides on an old analogue synth, an impression strengthened by the fact that the Legato Tool only works monophonically! Executed fairly slowly by the players, these dramatic slides have a much more pronounced and spooky effect than the 'performance portamentos' found in the Performance Set First Edition.
The four string ensembles each get a new category of repeated 60bpm quarter notes, and all but the basses get a new set of fast repetitions (16th notes at 150-190bpm), which include crescendo and diminuendo versions. New performances for the violin and viola sections include 120bpm note repetitions played with vibrato, 'performance tremolos' (much the same as normal tremolos, but benefiting from the Legato Tool's smoothing effect), grace notes in a choice of tone or semitone intervals, and 'performance legato grace notes' in which the tool automatically selects an up or down grace note of a semitone, tone or minor third interval, depending on the previous note played (note: on this particular patch, intervals wider than a minor third played with legato fingering result in no sound at all!).
The violins', violas' and cellos' performance legatos expand to include a new set of forte intervals played across different strings, giving a cleaner, slightly more articulated legato effect. In the FE, all the string ensemble performance legato intervals are played on one string only. The aforementioned ensembles also gain a comprehensive set of con sordino (muted) performances, comprising performance legatos and note repetitions. Although the Performance Set upgrade gives few new performance categories to the double bass ensemble, the basses' upper range has been extended in places, and chromatic and whole-tone scales have been added to their repertoire of octave runs.
Although VSL originally promised that the First Edition would be their only 16-bit release, and that the Pro Edition was to be available in a 24-bit format, both the Gigastudio and EXS24 versions of the Pro Edition are again comprised of 16-bit sample data. While EXS24 has always supported 24-bit samples, Gigastudio won't have 24-bit support until version 3 is released later this year.
For this reason, it made sense for VSL to release the Pro Edition with 16-bit sample data (indeed, this was the only option for the Gigastudio version). The other advantage to keeping the library in a 16-bit format for the time being is to keep the computer requirements down, since a 24-bit version of the library will add at least a third to the amount of storage and processing power required. The next version of VSL should, however, be supplied in a fully 24-bit format. Mark Wherry
Hearing the string ensembles run through their new performances was a lot of fun, but playing the solo violin was a revelation. Taking the 'performance legatos' idea one stage further, VSL have provided detaché and spiccato performance samples which, in conjunction with the Legato Tool, make melody lines and runs sound ultra-realistic (if 'legato detachés' sounds like a contradiction in terms, read the box on the previous page). Actual legato performances (including fabulous portamento slides) are provided too, along with glissandi, grace notes, octave runs and many different lengths of note repetition. The resulting 7.1GB bumper crop of samples, when combined in a musical way and programmed sensitively, resemble a real violin player so closely that even experienced musicians and producers will struggle to hear the difference.
The solo cello contributes fewer performance variations than the violin (no performance detachés/spiccatos, glissandi or tremolos), but still clocks in at over 6GB. My partner, a lapsed cellist, was impressed by the instrument's beautiful rich tone, and had to admit after playing its legato samples that they sound superbly realistic and expressive. Inspired by these, I thought I'd try some of the solo cello's note repetitions to recreate the single-note marcato cello triplets on The Beach Boys' 'Good Vibrations'. I dialled up the 'staccato 16th notes, 130bpm' option, but this turned out to be too fast; however, by using VSL's Repetition Tool, I was able to reduce the speed of the phrases to 108bpm and get the effect I wanted. Dropping the tempo further proved impossible — the Repetition Tool doesn't have a time-stretching function, so if the tempo is slowed to the point where gaps appear between the repeated notes, the repetitions pile up and dissolve into chaos. Increasing the tempo poses fewer problems!
If music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, then a few notes on VSL's gorgeous harp would surely be enough to transform Saddam Hussein into Julian Clary. This heavenly appliance strokes out a new collection of glissandi, expanding the PS First Edition's limited menu of major and minor scales to include dominant seventh chords in the keys of B, C sharp, E, F sharp and G sharp, minor sixth chords in F, A flat, B flat and D flat, major pentatonic scales in B, C and C sharp, and diminished chords in C, C sharp and D. In true classical style, VSL are a bit hazy about chord names, failing to identify the dominant seventh and minor sixth chords as such and casually throwing a set of E-flat major pentatonic performances in with the minor sixths. In contrast with the full musical implementation of the major and minor scales in the PS First Edition, the limited range of keys of the new performances may be a handicap to some — however, the range of glissandi styles (upwards, downwards, sideways, fast, medium, slow, you name it) is as comprehensive as before.
As explained in the original May 2003 SOS VSL review, the monophonic Legato Tool works by analysing the notes you play and selecting the appropriate sample for each subsequent note movement. Creating the material for this involved sampling every interval from a minor second to an octave, both upwards and downwards, from every note in the instrument's range, then trimming the front of each sample so that only a few milliseconds of the starting note remain. Obviously VSL had to record a lot of samples to achieve this, but that's one thing you couldn't accuse them of shying away from!
How can separate, detaché samples possibly benefit from this legato effect? If you play them in correct detaché style, lifting your fingers up between notes, they don't — it's when you play overlapping notes that the fun begins. When the legato tool 'sees' a new incoming note, it automatically creates a note-off for the outgoing one, and at the same time intelligently selects a sample which contains traces of the tail end of the note you've just played before the new note. The two samples are then crossfaded, creating a convincing note overlap, with one note giving way to the next, much as it would in a real performance.
Having vowed for the last 20 years never to take a computer on stage, after 30 seconds of playing the new solo flute's performance legatos I found myself fantasising about setting up a live Gigastudio rig so I could use its sound for solos. These eloquent, lyrical samples, beautifully performed with an expressive vibrato in a choice of forte or piano dynamics, are simply a joy to play. The piccolo, bass clarinet, contrabassoon and English horn performance legatos are also supremely usable, although the straight, no vibrato 'Viennese' delivery of the latter robs it of some expressive power.
All of the 10 woodwind instruments play performance legatos, and most of them play note repetitions in a choice of legato, portato, staccato and slow deliveries. All but the bass clarinet play grace notes; the new concert flute matches the original's large existing repertoire of performance variations, but the piccolo and alto flute have a reduced menu which omits the octave runs. The contrabassoon doesn't play runs either, but that's hardly surprising in view of its profoundly deep pitch!
The clarinet from the First Edition gets a substantial makeover, gaining a couple of entirely new woodwind performance styles. Fast and slow glissandi cover all chromatic intervals from a semitone to an octave, both upwards and downwards (the slow octave slide up evoking the opening of Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue). Faster-speaking 'performance glissandi', like those of the violin ensemble and solo violin, work in conjunction with the legato tool to produce very realistic glides from note to note (although these glissandi do not cover the clarinet's whole range, and what sounds like some rather unsubtle sample-stretching has been used to fill the gaps). 'Super runs' — the name obviously coined by some bright spark in marketing — turn out to be yet another bunch of octave runs up and down the major scale, starting on every note of the instrument's range. Their high speed (200bpm) sets them apart from the library's other octave runs; tightly played with forte and piano dynamics, they can be used as quick, colourful flourishes, regardless of a piece's tempo. The clarinet performance legatos also get a new, delicately played set of pianissimo samples whose musical effect is far from cosmetic.
Early pressings of VSL's Pro Edition suffered from glitches caused by a defective RAM chip. Apparently, the chip threw a wobbler during the last save process after all the final quality checks had taken place, so the fault initially escaped detection. According to Herb Tucmandl, VSL's founder, less than one percent of the samples were affected, and the glitches can be quite hard to hear. However, certain corrupted files (such as the review copy's angklung percussion instrument) actually cause computers to crash, which is a bit harder to overlook.
The company's excellent solution was to manufacture a complete new set of DVDs. Anyone who bought the faulty version of the Pro Edition will receive a free replacement set of disks, along with printed manuals. This fault affects all copies of the VSL Pro Edition bought before November 2003 — if in doubt, contact your dealer.
Assigning fast repeated notes to brass instruments is a good way to build rhythmic excitement, but the delivery needs to be energetic and precise — I loaded the piccolo trumpet's fast staccato repetitions, and they are bang on the money. The staccatos in question consist of nine 16th notes played at a choice of 100 or 120bpm, both options offering crescendo, diminuendo, forte and piano versions. If you want to increase the speed, the Repetition Tool works up to around 140bpm, at which point you can turn to a different menu of piccolo trumpet fast repeated notes and choose between 140, 150, 160, 170, 180 or 200bpm versions. If that still doesn't give the musical effect you want, hire your own piccolo trumpet player!
If you need further proof of how thorough this Vienna lot are, try this: the bass trumpet plays 'upbeats' (one, two or three 16th notes leading to a short note) at 12 different tempos, in 10bpm increments from 80bpm to 190bpm. Each tempo offers a choice of single, double or triple upbeats (did I say thorough? Make that mad). All seven of the new solo brass instruments play upbeats, as well as performance legatos and note repetitions (the latter mainly with portato and staccato deliveries), and all but the Wagner tuba and contrabass trombone play grace notes.
I always look forward to hearing trombone glissandi, envisaging the player swinging his slide about in an uncontrolled manner, knocking over microphone stands, injuring other musicians and generally causing havoc. It was, therefore, a terrible disappointment to discover that the bass trombone neglects to perform even one solitary glissando — maybe the player left his slide attachment on the bus? The contrabass trombone compensates by playing some fruity up and down slides, but these travel no further than a fourth interval (five semitones) in pitch.
When it comes to brass ensembles, VSL's Pro Edition adds comparatively little to the performances supplied in the PS FE. The three-trumpet, three-trombone and four-French horn ensembles all get some extra note repetition categories and the horns get an extra mf velocity level for their note repetitions, but the only truly notable change is that the trombone ensemble now joins the four horns in playing glissandi and performance glissandi, covering six semitones in range. No new categories are provided for the PS FE solo brass instruments.
For the first time, VSL's Performance Set features percussion. The timpani in the Percussion FE were very elaborately multisampled, and at 3.5GB, easily big enough to form a stand-alone library. The PS PE adds still more timp madness, offering real-life repeated notes which avoid the dreaded 'machine gun' effect of the same sample being quickly reiterated. Only one tempo was used — 80bpm — but there's a choice of eighth- and sixteenth-note values and a large range of dynamics, including different strengths of crescendo and diminuendo repetitions. Other orchestral drums — a snare drum, snare drum ensemble, a piccolo drum, field drum (a low-pitched snare drum) and bass drum all play repeated notes, adding to their performance realism.
A small selection of unpitched percussion (castanets, shakers, caxixi, guiro and three types of 'jingle ring' skinless tambourine) also gets the note-repetition treatment. Some of you may feel that creating realistic percussion performances is best left to more specialised, groove-based libraries and tools like Recycle and Acid, but the inclusion of these carefully sampled, exquisitely recorded loops once again proves VSL's commitment to giving their users as many musical options as possible!
The Vienna Symphonic Library continues to go where others fear to tread, covering (in sampling terms) a lot of hitherto unexplored territory. While this is great for users, will it put real orchestras out of business? Probably not. The lines are already drawn, carved out (as always) by financial considerations, and as a general rule, producers and companies who have the budget will continue to hire real players, while those with limited funds will continue to use samples instead. The VSL library can be of use to both camps, enabling the creation of accurate demos for the former and superior masters for the latter.
If the orchestra as we know it were to disappear from the face of the earth, one suspects that few would mourn its passing more than the Vienna team. The company's high regard and respect for the venerable musical institution is evidenced in their web site's 'Instruments Online' pages, a fabulous educational resource full of colour pictures, descriptions of the instruments' sounds, playing styles, backgrounds, notation, and so on. Clearly a labour of love, this underlines the company's commitment to the instruments they have so carefully recorded, and should be the first port of call for anyone considering buying a VSL product.
- VSL ORCHESTRAL CUBE PRO EDITION (GIGASTUDIO/EXS24)
Eight-DVD set, £2127.
- STRINGS (INDIVIDUAL VOLUME)
Two-DVD set, £927.
- BRASS & WOODWINDS (INDIVIDUAL VOLUME)
Four-DVD set, £860.
- PERCUSSION (INDIVIDUAL VOLUME)
Two-DVD set, £530.
- VSL PERFORMANCE SET PRO EDITION (GIGASTUDIO/EXS24)
Eight-DVD set, £1727.
- VSL PRO EDITION COMPLETE PACKAGE (GIGASTUDIO/EXS24)
16-DVD set, £3660.
All prices include VAT. VSL's First Edition (FE) is still for sale, and registered FE users can upgrade to the Pro Edition versions simply by paying the difference in price between the two editions.