The Austrian sample maestros go multitrack with four new brass ensembles.
Ten years on, and with over 1.25 million samples on the clock, VSL keep churning 'em out. Having covered most of the conceivable orchestral brass bases in their Brass I & II and Special Brass Vienna Instruments collections, our cultured European neighbours have recorded four new ensembles (four B‑flat trumpets, four French horns, four trombones and a 'low brass ensemble' consisting of two trombones, bass trombone and tuba), collectively known as Vienna Dimension Brass. The big difference between this and earlier VSL titles is that while these are true ensemble‑performance samples played in unison by four players, each instrument was individually miked and acoustically isolated, giving total separation from the other three. This enables users to arrange solo, duo, trio or quartet parts with total control over each instrument's performance, and to create surround mixes.
Unlike most VSL products, this library is not sold in 'standard' and 'full' versions: there is just one standard library containing all the 24‑bit, 44.1kHz samples — 68,000 of them, representing 19GB of data that compresses down to 12.7GB on your hard drive when installed. Vienna Dimension Brass (VDB) runs on the Vienna Instrument software that's included in the library. Buyers are also entitled to download the free Vienna Ensemble VST host, which enables multiple Vienna Instruments to be run simultaneously. For details on the latest developments in the Vienna Instrument (some of which greatly increase the flexibility of VDB), see the 'Vienna Software World' box.
A defining characteristic of VSL's samples is that they were all, with the exception of the Vienna Konzerthaus Organ, recorded in the company's custom‑built Silent Stage, a place so intimidatingly quiet that the tiny rustle of a sheet of music falling from a music stand assails the ears like a mighty wind roaring through the Siberian steppes. As well as eliminating extraneous noise, the studio‑like acoustic of the room is free of obvious reflections, so recordings made in it sound pretty dry. While this is the best way of forensically capturing the intimate, close‑up detail of an instrument, it lacks the flattering sonic 'halo' imparted by a large room acoustic or the high‑quality studio reverbs we're used to hearing. VSL users seeking a 'wet' or concert-hall sound should therefore be prepared to add their own reverb.
Though Vienna Dimension Brass is (as its title suggests) designed for flexibility of instrumentation, I imagine most people will initially want to use its full ensembles. With that in mind, I loaded the four‑trumpet ensemble and whipped through the articulations I tend to use the most: loud 'fanfare' deliveries such as sffz and 'sustained blare' sound very strong indeed (though I fear Gordon Brown, for one, will have some resistance to the idea of a continuing blare), while staccatos and fast repeated-note performances are played very tightly by the ensemble. I particularly enjoyed the trumpets' staccato 'repetition crescendos', where each repeated note or chord gets successively louder: the build from p to ff is immaculately controlled, and the ninth (loudest) reiteration blows your socks off.
As you might expect, the four 'Dimension horns' don't have quite the same impact as the cinematic 'Epic Horns' octet found in VSL's Brass II collection; their sound is more focused, less 'brassy', somewhat softer in some areas, and the tuning spread is, necessarily, less wide. That's not to say that these horns are lacking in power — on the contrary, the fine, commanding tone of their fortepiano samples (to take one example) would add instant grandeur to any score.
Did you see that film on YouTube of the Brazilian (I think) kid playing 'Flight Of The Bumble Bee' on electric guitar at increasingly high tempi? It unwittingly moves into the realms of comedy when he breaks the 400bpm barrier, but we wish him all the best for the future (which almost certainly lies with some American neo‑prog outfit). I was reminded of this clip when I heard VDB's French horn ensemble spitting out their 200bpm note repetitions — not quite in the Brazilian lad's speed league, but mighty quick all the same, and played with ferocious precision and commitment.
When it came to the trumpets and horns legatos, I was, as ever, impressed with the smoothness of the note transitions and evenness of timbre across the range. This is an area where VSL have traditionally excelled: neither section had a problem 'keeping up' with my improvising, even when I cranked up the tempo to near‑Brazilian levels, and they handled trills, fast grace notes and rapid melody lines with ease. With four separate instrument tracks and four dynamic layers, I shudder to think how many man‑hours it took to edit and program these samples — but whatever the figure, it was well worth the effort, as these have to be the most playable and responsive VSL legatos yet.
VDB's trombone quartet exhibits the same tight control as the four horn players; their sustained top notes (which go up to C above Middle C) are beautifully pitched, and the players maintain an even tone across the four dynamic layers. The four‑second crescendos are a great demonstration of the trombones' tonal range, starting out soft, inviting and mellow and culminating in an exhilarating blasting roar. The players' tuning never wavers through all their deliveries. I felt that their sfz performances don't quite match the uninhibited rasp of those of the three trombones in VSL's Brass I, but this ensemble combines subtlety and force in a very well‑played set of articulations.
I'd have no hesitation in dialling up the low brass ensemble for an orchestral score: the combination of two unison trombones doubled an octave lower by bass trombone and tuba is a very effective technique that works a treat for sustained pedal notes and bass lines. The thin tone sometimes heard in loud bass trombone samples is not apparent here — this is a fat sound, and a rich, bassy timbre that works surprisingly well for nifty legato lines.
I must admit that I generally find samples played in octaves frustrating, being of the view that if I want an octave I'll play one myself. However, in this case the recording separation used in VDB means you can greatly reduce the volume of the lower octave simply by muting the bass trombone and tuba. When listening to the two trombones in isolation, some trace of the lower octave remains, due to the small amount of spill, but you wouldn't notice it in a mix; by the same token, you can also hear a hint of upper octave in the tuba and bass trombone mics, but it's pretty minimal.
VSL won't say exactly how they managed to reduce spill between the four musicians' microphones to such a high degree; my guess is that it was done by a combination of acoustic screens and post‑production processing. Either that, or each musician was somehow teleported into his own personal, parallel time‑space dimension in which only the sound of his particular instrument can be heard. On reflection, the latter explanation seems the more likely.
In this collection, VSL maintain their usual consistency of articulations across the different sections, though there are a few performance styles that the low brass don't play (see the 'Instrumentation & Articulations' box). My only regret is the absence of low brass-ensemble flutter tongue samples — I find such sounds a great encouragement to bowel movements, and they would have ideally suited my current project, Now That's What I Call Flatulence, Vol. 13, which features perhaps the only recorded example of dubstep raga‑jazz duelling contrabass trombones.
If you're working with the free Vienna Instruments player, the quickest way of auditioning the ensembles is to load four instances of the Vienna Instrument into your sequencer or VST host and assign them all to the same MIDI channel (or to MIDI 'Omni' mode). Load an articulation (say, 'Trumpet 1 sustained') in the first VI, then load the same articulation for Trumpets 2, 3 and 4 in the other three. Play a note and you'll hear a four‑piece trumpet ensemble. You can then save the setup as a template for auditioning other ensembles and articulations. To create a full ensemble sound, it helps to pan the four instruments out across the stereo soundstage.
If you're prepared to shell out some extra cash, a quicker way of auditioning the full ensembles is to use Vienna Instruments Pro. Taking advantage of the Pro player's expanded facilities (in particular, the patches' eight sound slots), VSL have created useful factory matrices (collections of switchable patches): for example, the 'Trumpets all compact' matrix combines staccatos, portatos, sustains, legatos, fortepianos, sfz, two‑second and four‑second crescendo/diminuendos, flutter tongue and three kinds of repetition samples, laid out in a horizontal row of 12 keyswitches along the top of the matrix grid, and labelled, respectively, A1 to A12. Four further rows of vertical keyswitches (labelled B1‑12, C1‑12, D1‑12 and E1‑12) allow you to switch between full ensembles (i.e quartet), trio, duo A (instruments 1+2), duo B (instruments 3+4) and solo for any of the aforementioned playing styles.
Regular VSL users will appreciate the provision of VDB 'universal' Pro presets for the library: in VSL‑speak, a preset is a switchable collection of matrices, and a universal preset gathers together all the matrices you might conceivably need under one roof. Thus, the 'Trumpets All Universal Pro' preset contains 11,653 samples and uses 364MB of RAM (not too heavy considering the sample count), and covers a vast range of musical requirements. With switching facilities as extensive as these, running out of options isn't likely to be a problem, but keeping track of what each keyswitch does almost certainly is! The matrices and presets created for the Pro player have the suffix 'Pro' and don't show up in the regular player's matrix and preset lists.
The Pro player sees an important VSL breakthrough: legatos, formerly strictly monophonic, may now also be played polyphonically, enabling you to slip a chord into the middle of a legato melody line. The legato Pro patches default to polyphonic mode, but can be changed to monophonic if you prefer (which does have advantages when performing trills and ornaments). Another advantage is the inclusion of reverb, which most will consider essential for VSL samples.
Auto‑divisi is something of a buzzword at the moment: it refers to the ability to automatically allocate played notes to single or multiple members of an ensemble, hopefully in a musically intelligent way (historically this function was handled by a humanoid sub‑species called 'the arranger', now sadly extinct). The Pro player can automatically split voices between players: play one note, and you'll hear four players in unison. Two simultaneous notes will divide the ensemble into two sections of two players, and so on. Because the interval detection algorithm used in the legato instruments is so complex, auto‑divisi is not implemented for legato performances.
For more advanced users and programmers, a whole host of tweaking facilities lie in wait: a highly programmable 'humanise' function lets you spoil the players' perfect intonation and rhythmic accuracy by introduce annoying tuning and timing discrepancies. Sorry, I'll re‑phrase that: the 'humanise' function offers complete control over the tuning and placement of each note, and can be used to create some interesting cluster effects. Those who work with non‑Western scales and tunings will be delighted to see that VSL have finally got round to implementing custom tunings for instruments, so expect to hear some Viennese brass ensembles playing in Arabic, Tuareg and Indonesian gamelan tunings any day now.
Time‑stretching, another useful new function in the Pro player, enables the adjustment of VDB's note-repetition tempi and will also be useful for owners of other VSL libraries that feature articulations such as runs, arpeggios, glissandi and portamento slides. I'd strongly advise anyone interested in this brass library to seriously consider investing in the Vienna Instruments Pro player, as, apart from anything else, it's ideally suited to handling VDB's four‑channel capabilities.
It's worth noting that in this VSL library all the samples are mono. (Although that's often the case with solo instruments, ensembles are usually recorded in stereo). In this case, presenting each instrument in stereo would have raised left‑right balance and stereo‑width issues when it comes to determining panning positions within an ensemble, so I understand why the makers opted for mono. It does, however, make for a less‑than‑flattering sound when you first audition an instrument in solo. Better get those reverbs ready, folks.
If you came across this title in a catalogue, you'd be forgiven for thinking, 'Oh bloody hell, not another orchestral brass library.' However, this one really is different. How many collections are there featuring unison ensembles where each player was individually miked and his/her performance separated from the others? I can't think of any, but have a feeling that other manufacturers might jump on the bandwagon before long, as they have with other VSL innovations in the past.
Even if you don't need the luxury of the four‑way presentation, the ensembles on Vienna Dimension Brass are of uniformly fine musical quality, and will stand you in good stead whenever the rich, vibrant and stirring sound of orchestral brass is required. VSL aficionados will not be disappointed, and anyone looking to add a full complement of brass ensembles to their sample library would be well advised to check out this collection.
All the major orchestral libraries — EastWest Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra, Vienna Symphonic Library, Kirk Hunter's Emerald, Sonivox (formerly Sonic Implants), Miroslav Vitous — feature trumpet, trombone and French horn sections, generally of three to four players. Orchestral brass specialists Project SAM's Symphobia series contains mixed‑instrument brass ensembles akin to Vienna Dimension Brass's 'low brass ensemble'. However, as far as I'm aware, VDB is the only brass ensemble library in which the instruments are separately recorded.
- Four trumpets in Bb.
- Four French horns.
- Four trombones.
- Low brass ensemble (tuba, bass trombone, two trombones).
- Sustained 'blare'.*
- Cresc./dim (various lengths).
- Flutter tongue.*
Interval Performances & Repetitions
- Legato sustained.*
- Performance trills.
- Repetitions (legato*/portato/staccato, normal and cresc.*)
- Fast repetitions (various tempi).*
* All except Low Brass Ensemble.
Vienna Dimension Brass runs on the Vienna Instrument player, supplied free with the library. The samples (12.7GB when installed) require 2GB of RAM (4GB or more is recommended) and a fast, separate hard drive — VSL recommend having 20GB free space on your hard drive to avoid excessive search times. A Vienna Key USB protection device is also needed, available from VSL at reasonable cost, or you can buy a similar gizmo from eLicenser/Steinberg. The eLicenser software (required for downloading licenses) is included on the library's software DVD.
The machine specs are: (PC) Intel Core or Xeon processor/AMD Athlon 64 and later with Windows XP 32‑bit, Windows 7/Vista 32‑bit and 64‑bit versions; (Mac) Intel Core 2 Duo/Xeon with Mac OS 10.5 or higher.
The Vienna Instrument runs stand‑alone and as a VST/AU/RTAS plug‑in. The Pro version of the player (not provided) has the same specs; RTAS versions require Pro Tools 7.3 or higher.
For those unfamiliar with the Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL), here's a brief overview...
The company began issuing GigaStudio and EXS24 orchestral sound libraries in 2002. In 2006, they abandoned third-party sampler formats in favour of their own proprietary Vienna Instruments player, a smart piece of software with extensive, on‑the‑fly switching abilities, which can analyse your performance and select the appropriate articulation in real time: for example, it can detect the elapsed time between notes and output samples with fast attacks for quick passages, automatically switching to slow‑attack samples when you play slower lines.
The original VSL sound libraries have now been re‑formatted as Vienna Instrument collections; these cannot be imported into any other player, and the Vienna Instrument will not play third‑party or user samples. Somewhat idiosyncratically, the VI is 'MIDI mono‑timbral' (although it can layer up to four patches), which means it plays all incoming notes regardless of their MIDI channel: multitimbrality can be achieved by opening multiple instances of the VI as plug‑ins within your sequencer or VST host. Alternatively, you can use VSL's Vienna Ensemble host software to assemble multiple VI's and assign them (if necessary) to different MIDI channels. The Vienna Ensemble also has good mixing and panning facilities (including a 'stereo width' control) and is ideally suited to creating orchestral templates for full arrangements.
Vienna Instruments and Vienna Ensemble software is free to registered VSL users. Both now have Pro versions; some of the features of VI Pro are explained in this article, while Mark Wherry's SOS review of Vienna Ensemble Pro (which has the considerable advantage of being able to host third-party instruments) can be read at /sos/feb10/articles/vslviennaensemblepro.htm.
- Four top-quality brass ensembles covering a large range of articulations.
- Individual miking and recording isolation techniques allow separation of each instrument, if you need it!
- Four‑way recording supports surround mixes of the ensembles.
- The factory matrices and presets provide instant access to all the playing styles.
- No mutes, jazz or big‑band deliveries (shakes, 'doits', etc).
- No glissandi, portamentos or musical effects.
- Some advanced options may be a little intimidating for beginners.
Vienna Dimension Brass' motto should really be 'access all areas' — you can individually alter each instrument's mix and performance parameters, switch between full ensemble, trio, duo and solo performances and configure surround mixes. As ever with VSL, the deliveries are spot‑on, the recording quality is exemplary and the company's trademark legatos are smooth, responsive and easy on the ear. Not an ideal choice for a beginner, but a great tool for serious samplists, composers and 'mock‑up artists' who require high‑quality orchestral brass ensembles.
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