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VSL Vienna Choir

Sample Library By Dave Stewart
Published October 2010

The Viennese maestros celebrate 10 years of sample creation with a foray into the world of vocals.

VSL Vienna Choir

The announcement on the Northern Sounds forum in May 2002 took everyone by surprise: "I'm involved in a BIG sample library production based in Vienna, Austria... we are a private company, everybody here works with great enthusiasm and energy to realise our vision of a virtual orchestra... some of you find the dimensions of our work hard to believe.” Thus, with no fuss or fanfare, the Vienna Symphonic Library proclaimed its existence. According to the forum post, the project (which started in 2000) would eventually generate 1.5 million samples. Reactions ranged from sceptical to delirious; one respondent calculated that the libraries would occupy over 900 CDs, while another fumed, "Can anyone actually use a library with so many samples? You'd need 100 computers just to load them up! How much is this gonna cost anyway? A million pounds?”

Eight years later, VSL have delivered their answer. Having broken all size records and set new standards for musical detail, realism and playability with their 2003 Pro Edition, the company issued the Symphonic Cube (a 560GB 10-library collection formatted for the Vienna Instrument player) in 2006. Contrary to the frenzied forecasts of the forumites, it costs considerably less than a million pounds, ships on 29 DVDs, fits comfortably on a 1TB drive the size of a paperback and runs quite happily on one computer.

Since then, the libraries have kept on coming, and the stats continue to astound: it's sobering to reflect that the company's current catalogue of principal DVD collections and supplementary download instruments contains around 1.2 million samples, especially when you consider that the total isn't inflated by the inclusion of alternative mikings. Performed by an estimated 270 musicians and featuring over 150 solo instruments and variously sized sections, the Vienna library comprises standard and rare orchestral instruments, saxophones, esoteric tuned percussion, glass and stone instruments, two grand pianos, pipe organ, harpsichord, jazz upright bass, classical and rock guitars — and now, at long last, a choir.

Following VSL convention, the choir was recorded at the custom-built Silent Stage and is available in two versions: a standard library based on the vowel sound 'aah', and a supplementary 'Extended' version that provides exactly the same range of performance styles sung with an 'ooh' sound. (VSL describe the vowels respectively as 'aa' and 'uu'.) As with all Vienna libraries, the Extended version is not available separately.

The Sopranos, Season Two

Vienna Choir runs exclusively on VSL's Vienna Instrument, either stand-alone or as a plug-in.Vienna Choir runs exclusively on VSL's Vienna Instrument, either stand-alone or as a plug-in.

Even allowing for the lengthy development times of such large collections, this one has been a slow burner. The first taste of its contents (a download issued in 2006) was a selection of articulations sung by sopranos only, but that was enough to set VSL fans' pulses racing. After a protracted auditioning process, work on the full choir began in earnest in spring 2008, but due to the singers' busy schedules, recording wasn't completed till autumn 2009. The faithful VSL followers finally got their reward in April this year when the company unveiled the finished Vienna Choir, comprising 44 vocalists, 44GB of data (which compresses down to 29.1GB when installed) and over 31,000 samples.

This mixed choir features the classic SATB structure: female sopranos and altos, underpinned (but never undermined) by male tenors and basses. Each ensemble was separately recorded, and judging by the absence of painful high-pitched shrieks I'd guess that no eunuchs or members of the Bee Gees were involved. Somewhat confusingly, the 16 sopranos in Vienna Choir aren't the same group who recorded the aforementioned 2006 Soprano Choir library, although a few of the singers appear in both! The original Soprano Choir is still available as a 735MB download and though its samples are not included separately here, there are a few bonus 'Soprano 32' patches that layer the two ensembles; combining them adds thickness and extra pitch-chorusing to the sound, imparting a dreamy quality that reminded me of old Disney soundtracks.

The provision of an additional quiet layer has made the sopranos' looped sustains more dynamically responsive than the original ensemble; the new group's soft p delivery is intimate and sweet-sounding, while their loudest notes have strength and clarity without sounding harsh, strident or wobbly. Long notes default to a nice, natural non-vibrato, and the controlled vibrato used in the espressivo patches stops well short of sounding operatic (a good thing in my book). It's exciting to hear VSL's trademark 'performance legato' sampling applied to vocals: the fluid, moving lines they create sound perfectly smooth at any speed, so you can use them for anything from slow, mournful melodies to darting fast runs. The legatos' terrific musical potential is further expanded by the incorporation of four dynamic layers, an unprecedented move that must have been a challenge for the programmers.

A legato 'performance trill' variation also gives excellent results for tone and semitone trills, though I hesitate to call it lifelike since I doubt 16 singers could co-ordinate trills that accurately! Another highlight for me is the 'performance glissandi' style, real pitch glides that track your keyboard intervals up to an octave in either direction. Performed at two dynamics, these glides are fairly slow and languorous, so you can go to town with theremin-like swoops and slides — an amazing effect when performed by 16 unison voices.

Creeping Terror

The Vienna Ensemble host software, free to VSL owners, lets you build and save your own setups.The Vienna Ensemble host software, free to VSL owners, lets you build and save your own setups.

The warm, lyrical delivery of the sopranos' quiet sustains is a hallmark of the library. The altos' quiet notes sound equally tender, and it's nice to hear the lower male voices singing softly with feeling. At the opposite end of the dynamic spectrum, all sections contribute emphatic sforzatos, and their diminuendos also feature a good, powerful attack. The timing of the crescendo and diminuendo performances is co-ordinated with military precision across the board, but if you want to program your own, you can turn on the Vienna Instrument's 'velocity crossfade' function and use the mod wheel as the dynamics controller.

It seems to be a legal requirement that every sound library must contain some samples that no-one will ever use, and in this case that honour goes to the so-called 'creepy' performances. In my book, the word denotes something disquieting or flesh-crawling, like an undead vampire tapping on your bedroom window, or a party political broadcast featuring John Redwood. A bunch of singers intoning an octave drone with a few minor, inhibited-sounding pitch variations doesn't have quite the same psychological impact, although I guess it might provoke a rush for the exits in the straight-laced classical world. Either way, I can't see these samples getting a lot of use. If the choir had held their noses while performing it, we'd at least have a passable imitation of bagpipes.

I'll tell you what is quite creepy, though — the cluster chords (three adjacent semitones) performed by each of the four ensembles, which have the distinction of sounding splendidly discordant regardless of what combination of notes you play. I tried my luck with a 10-semitone chord, which made a racket like the eerie atonal voices in the Star Gate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Speaking of that piece (Ligeti's Requiem, I believe), I suspect its usage in one of the most widely-seen films of all time is one of the reasons why choral libraries conventionally include 'eeh' samples. Some will complain about the absence of that vowel sound in this library, but be truthful — have you ever used it in an arrangement?

Users have asked whether Vienna Choir would incorporate a word-building facility — and the short answer is no, although VSL haven't ruled it out for the future. The closest we get here is a small selection of staccato pitched consonants ('pa', 'ra', 'sa', 'ta', 'pu', 'ru', 'su' and 'tu'), enabling us to construct simple sentences such as you might hear two friends exchanging after an evening's heavy drinking in a Liverpool night club. I have to say that the old sopranos made a better job of consonants than the new crop, who have inexplicable difficulty enunciating a clear 'ta'. (They're obviously not from Liverpool.)

Each ensemble performs an identical menu of articulations across the widest possible register, creating a considerable overlap of ranges and giving maximum scope to arrangers. The four sections blend beautifully at all dynamics, a testament to very careful sampling and programming — put the faders in a straight line and the vocal balance is perfect every time. Although Vienna Choir has no samples of the entire choir performing together, some 'Full Choir' patches map the ensembles over four octaves according to range. There are no solo or children's voices, nor any runs, chords or phrases; solo voices may be added at some point, but VSL haven't specified a time frame.


All in all, this is a choir with great musical capabilities. It's worth noting that although 44 singers sounds like a large number, it doesn't measure up to the 100+ voices you might find in a performance of large-scale choral works such as Zadok The Priest or The Messiah; however, what Vienna Choir lacks in gargantuan dimensions it makes up for in intimacy, subtlety of inflection and musical choice. If it's size you're after, I found that applying a cathedral-like reverb plug-in to the samples immediately creates the sense of acoustic space and grandeur we tend to associate with choir performances.

Returning to the potted history of VSL, it's now clear that some of the initial 'election promises' made in 2002 were not kept; libraries never shipped on hard drive, and the switch from sample-library formats to the exclusive Vienna Instrument, though it can be seen with hindsight as part of an industry-wide move towards proprietary players, left some users feeling high and dry at the time. On one manifesto item, however, the company have held firm: to provide the resources required to build authentic orchestral arrangements with every musical detail faithfully preserved. In this, they have succeeded admirably and, in my view, congratulations are due to this industrious team as they mark their 10-year anniversary.

One parting thought: if anyone out there is still doubtful about using samples to create orchestral scores, check out Jay Bacal's 'synthestration' of Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring using the Vienna Symphonic Library at, but take care when listening — I still have a bruise on my chin where it hit the floor.  


Though relatively small and limited in comparison to today's multi-gigabyte sound libraries, Peter Siedlaczek's Classical Choir (originally released in 1993) and Miroslav Vitous Classical Choirs (2003) are still available in revamped formats. Spectrasonics' five-CD Akai library Symphony Of Voices features liturgical multisamples performed by mixed-voice choirs, boys and soloists, along with some pop-style oohs and aahs. The much larger Symphonic Choirs (Play Edition) from EastWest/Quantum Leap features a broadly similar line-up (minus the pop vocals), alternative mic positions and an innovative 'word building' facility originally introduced in the now discontinued Voices Of The Apocalypse. This autumn, new products from Tonehammer (Requiem, 19.4GB) and Cinesamples (Voxos: Epic Virtual Choir, 30+GB) look set to match the musical and technical standards of their forerunners.

If you don't need low-pitched, manly vocals in your sampled choir, VSL's inexpensive Soprano Choir has the advantage of true legatos, while the pure and moving sound of childrens' voices is explored in Bela D Media's double-DVD The Giovani Edition: Voices Of The Young.

Vital Statistics


  • 16 Sopranos (Bb3* to C6).
  • 10 Altos (E3 to F#5).
  • 10 Tenors (B2 to C5).
  • Eight Basses (C2 to E4).

(Total 44 singers.)


  • 16+16 Sopranos** (Bb3 to C6).


  • Sustained (v/nv).
  • Legato sustain (v/nv).
  • Legato 'performance trill' (v/nv).
  • Legato glissandi.
  • Staccato (open vowel / four consonants).
  • Sforzato.
  • Crescendo & diminuendo (two, three and four seconds).
  • Clusters (sustained/legato).***
  • 'Creepy' sustain.
  • Breathing noises.

*C4 is Middle C.

**Layer of old and new sopranos.

***'Aah' only.

V/nv = vibrato/no vibrato.

System Requirements

  • PC: Intel/AMD with Windows Vista/7 (Core 2 Duo/Xeon recommended).
  • Mac: G5 or Intel Core 2 Duo/Xeon processor with OS 10.5 or higher.
  • Both platforms: 1GB RAM (2GB or more recommended), fast separate hard drive with 30GB free space.
  • The Vienna Instrument player software supplied with the library works stand‑alone and as a VST, AU or RTAS (Mac) plug-in. It requires the Vienna Key, a hardware USB security device that must be purchased separately.


  • A beautifully blended, subtle, dynamic and musically precise choir.
  • Incorporates a comprehensive range of performance styles.
  • Fabulous legato sustains and glissandi slides track your keyboard intervals


  • Vowel sounds are limited to 'ooh' and 'aah'.
  • No solo voices.


As ever with VSL, this library is strong on musical detail. It doesn't give you a massive 'Hallelujah Chorus' effect straight out of the box, but its warm, close-up sound, beautiful tuning and spot‑on deliveries will add a graceful and realistic choral presence to arrangements.


Vienna Choir Standard Library £375; Extended Library £375; Full (Standard + Extended) Library £750. Prices include VAT.

Best Service + 49 89 345 026.

Vienna Choir Standard Library $550, Extended Library $550, Full (i.e Standard + Extended) Library $1100.

ILIO Entertainments +1 800 747 4546.