The Vienna Symphonic Library are well known for their amazingly detailed collections of orchestral sounds, and now they're providing them as virtual instruments. Will this take the VSL concept to a new audience, or is it a step too far?
It's been a long ride. Since the first sample was recorded in December 2000, it's taken the Vienna Symphonic Library team over five years to release their definitive orchestral library. The unveiling of VSL's First Edition in 2003 galvanised the orchestral sampling scene, and the gigantic 236GB Pro Edition which followed was even more stunning. Both of these enormous libraries combined exquisite musicianship with the pristine sound quality of VSL's specially constructed recording venue, the Silent Stage. Although lacking the reverberant 'glory trails' of a concert hall, this acoustic space has consistently yielded recordings with an incredibly low noise floor.
If one could always depend on VSL for quality, their release policy has been less predictable: rather than issuing a conclusive mega-edition as expected, the company began hiving off chunks of their sample database in a set of 15 themed titles called the Horizon Series. The Horizon Opus 1 compilation offered an affordable entry point into VSL's lush orchestral world, while Solo Strings, Epic Horns and Woodwind Ensembles augmented the Pro Edition 's instrumentation. But this piecemeal approach was never going to satisfy VSL power users — like the believers huddled on the mountain side in Close Encounters, they knew something bigger was coming. Now, the long wait is over. Announcing its presence with a blast on its contrabass tuba, the Symphonic Cube has landed.
Even this, however, hasn't gone quite according to expectations — it would be more accurate to say that the Cube is in the process of landing, being beamed down to us in the form of 10 themed sets, the so-called Vienna Instruments, which will together comprise the 545GB Symphonic Cube — and at the time of writing, only the first five of the 10 are available, with the other five scheduled to be released by the time you read this. But, I hear you cry, what happened to the 'final hard disk edition' trumpeted by the Viennese baton-wavers since 2002? The short answer is that the company dropped the idea (if not the baton) and decided to follow the current trend towards virtual instruments, resulting in the creation of the new Vienna Instruments Player (compatible with Windows XP and OS X for Macs, and available in stand-alone, VST and AU plug-in formats).
When questioned on the change of direction, VSL say that by integrating performance control software and sample management, their new player can operate 'with more sophistication and intelligence than any sampler currently on the market'. I suspect another factor is that virtual instruments are harder to pirate than an unprotected sample library, but VSL prefer to accentuate the positive: according to them, the Vienna Instruments have a 'zero learning curve' and can even read your mind! We'll soon see about that...
The first five Vienna Instruments (or VIs) to be released are Solo Strings, Chamber Strings, Orchestral Strings I and Orchestral Strings II, and Woodwinds I. The remaining five collections (Woodwinds II, Brass I and Brass II, Harps and Percussion) should be out by the time you read this. The Vienna Instrument Player is identical for each collection, so if you buy multiple titles you'll only have to install the Player once.
The installation procedure involves registering your collection's serial number, receiving an activation code from VSL, downloading a Syncrosoft licence, inserting a Vienna Key (a USB Syncrosoft dongle like the one used by Cubase), installing the Vienna Instruments Player and sample data and running a Directory Manager utility so the instrument can find its samples. Finally you're ready to rock, but after jumping through those hoops you'll probably feel more like a cup of cocoa and a nice lie-down!
In another break with tradition, VSL have not supplied individual printed manuals for the Vienna Instruments; each one ships with an identical slim booklet explaining the player's structure and installation procedure. However, registered owners can download PDF files containing complete patch and articulation listings for each collection from www.vsl.co.at/en-us/68/375/241.vsl. A less definitive listing for the non-registered curious amongst you can be found at www.vsl.co.at/static/vi_pop/shop_info_symphonic_cube.asp.
As well as the software instrument, each of the 10 Vienna Instruments collections includes a 'standard' and an 'extended' library — the extended one is twice the size of the standard and boasts a more elaborate set of articulations. The extended library is available to all purchasers for 30 days, but you can only gain permanent access to it by paying another fee on top of that required for the standard library (for more on the complex pricing structure of the Vienna Instruments, see the 'Pricing' box on the last page of this review).
Although the samples in the 10 Vienna Instruments have been reprogrammed from scratch and offer 24-bit resolution throughout, at least 50 percent of their musical material has already appeared in previously released VSL libraries. However, VSL are very open about this, explaining the provenance of the content in some detail at www.vsl.co.at/static/vi_pop/vi_overview_pop.htm. The 'Vienna Instruments' section of their web site also separates the articulations in each instrument into 'new' and 'existing' categories, and shows the contents of the standard and extended libraries.
The interface used by all 10 Vienna Instruments (shown at the head of this review) has a somewhat nautical appearance which put me in mind of a smart Adriatic cruise liner. The main action takes place around the edge of the central 'porthole', called the 'selector ring'. Patches are loaded simply by dragging them over from the right to the left-hand window. Strangely, there's no 'MIDI channel select' option: the VIs operate exclusively in MIDI omni mode, something I've not seen since 1983! This is not a problem if you plan to run the VIs as plug-ins in your sequencer, but if you want to use multiple stand-alone players to play different parts, you'll have to use a virtual-instrument host program — VSL suggest Steinberg's Vstack.
The patches in the VIs can't be changed (although they do have programmable performance settings), so it's impossible to create keyboard splits or alter playing ranges. This posed an immediate problem: for example, I found the attack of the 'Strings sus vib' patch (a four-way split of double basses, cellos, violas and violins) too slow, and although its four components each have their own fast attack option, there was no way to map them into a playable combination, which seems like a backward step to me. Another limitation is that the pitch bend is restricted to two semitones, so you can't create extreme bend effects. Not an issue for those who stick to traditional orchestral sonorities, but I don't think pop/rock producers, sound designers and keyboardists who habitually set their instruments' pitch bend to more than a tone will be be too pleased.
As each of the five currently released Vienna Instruments features a substantial amount of musical content from earlier VSL releases, you may want to read the reviews of these titles on the SOS web site.
VSL FIRST EDITION
VSL PRO EDITION
VSL SOLO STRINGS
VSL CHAMBER STRINGS
VSL FRENCH OBOE
VSL WOODWIND ENSEMBLES
Once selected, a patch occupies a 'cell' which has adustable volume, delay and envelope settings. The VIs can hold up to 144 such cells, arranged in a 12 x 12 grid which VSL call a 'matrix'. Only 18 cells can be seen on screen at one time, but the view area can be shifted. A highly flexible system allows you to swtich between articulations in horizontal and vertically-aligned cells by a variety of means: keyswitches, your keyboard's pitch wheel, a user-defined MIDI controller (mod wheel, footswitch, and so on), velocity (users can create velocity splits between two or more patches, although the patches' internal split points can't be changed) and Speed (of which more in a moment). The whole setup can be saved as a user matrix.
More complex setups are possible: a cell may contain two patches (as shown on the left) which can be layered or crossfaded, and a third 'parallel' cell can be added as a universal layer, which is a good way of adding a global attack (such as a sfz performance) to the matrix. The Vienna Instrument Player is not choosy about what type of instrument it plays (although it will not import sounds from other sampler formats), so you can switch between strings and woodwinds within a matrix, or even layer brass and percussion in a cell.
Up to 12 matrices can be assembled in a preset and selected via keyswitches. VSL gleefully point out that this system makes 1728 (12 x 12 x 12) articulations available to a single MIDI track — and while that's 1720 more than most people will ever need, it demonstrates that the VIs incorporate very powerful tools for dealing with the large number of performance styles that occur within an orchestral piece. Happily, as the VIs all contain countless factory matrices and presets, you can start to make music without having to do any programming if you prefer.
One aspect of the design of the Vienna Instruments is both innovative and musically powerful: we're used to the idea that key velocity controls volume, but in the VIs 'speed' refers not to the downward motion of the keys, but the rate at which successive notes are played. The Speed control can be adjusted so that slow playing will access (say) slow-paced legato samples, while fast playing will trigger quicker detaché notes. This unique facility produces excellent musical results, although I'd still stop short of VSL's claim that their instrument can read your mind!
Another great improvement is that the functions of VSL's Performance Tool MIDI utility are now seamlessly integrated into the player: so you can just load 'performance legato' and note-repetition patches and play without having to think about technicalities. This is a huge relief, as loading a template for each instrument was always a bit of a chore. And the performance functions now work multi-dynamically — previously, the Performance Tool could only work on one dynamic layer at a time.
When VSL announced the new Vienna Instruments and the Symphonic Cube, in common with many of my contemporaries, I phoned them up, told them to rob my bank, and left them to it. Was this wise? Well, the VSL Pro Edition had taken the film and TV market by storm; those that could afford it snapped it up, and those that couldn't tried to find a way to remortgage their grannies. What's more, there was the prospect of improvements. The Pro Edition 's stand-alone Performance Tool might have been powerful, but it always felt something of a half-baked afterthought, an awkward necessity. Thus the idea that the library would finally appear in its originally intended 24-bit format (the Pro Edition was dithered to 16-bit), with all the complex performance features handled by a new interface... it was simply too much to resist!
After the inevitable delays, the first collections (as reviewed here) arrived on my desk, and I duly ignored them. The Pro Edition had taken about a day and a half to fully install and decompress, so I was in no rush to tackle it all over again. But much to my surprise (and in contrast to Dave Stewart's experiences), when I did get around to it, I found installation to be swift and fairly painless compared to installing many other orchestral libraries. Whilst the DVD drive was chuntering away, I had enough time to load up the supplied Syncrosoft dongle with all the necessary licences. If you have the extended library installed (yes, I ended up ordering the lot...), there are two for each instrument.
Most of my first impressions are unprintable. I simply couldn't believe that a handful of people beavering away had come up with such a slick user interface that even a software dunce such as myself hardly needed to glance at the manual. What's more, the clever matrices, performance controllers and so on finally meant I could have a solo line on one track, switching articulations at will. Previously I'd ended up with several tracks for the different articulations and had to comp them down to one.
Moreover, there are so many different options for switching articulations — the speed you play at, different keyswitches, and momentary or linear controllers... Finding that virtually all are assignable is the icing on the cake. If you can't reach (or be bothered to program) your control surface, you just right-click on whatever you want to alter, to enable MIDI Learn mode, and wiggle the controller nearest to hand. Hey presto, for this instance of the instrument, that controller is mapped.
I feared that the Vienna Instruments would sorely test the resources of a single machine, especially with all the new articulations and matrices at my disposal, so I had already set up a spare PC with Steinberg's Vstack as a front end so I could load as many instances as resources would allow. However, when the VIs arrived, I was already running headfirst into a commission deadline, and I didn't have time to sort out the licensing for another computer — yes, each computer you use with the VIs requires its own Syncrosoft dongle loaded with all the necessary licences. Fortunately, VSL's ingenious new RAM-handling concept, which allows you to unload unused samples, came to the rescue. You program your track including as many articulations, dynamic layers and so on as you see fit, then put the instrument into Learn mode, play back the track, and hit the Optimise button. Every note, articulation, layer or dynamic that isn't actually used is removed from RAM forthwith. A window in the Perform page shows you the amount of RAM free and used. With the maximum possible 2GB of RAM assigned to the VIs (Mac users can apparently assign up to 4GB, for some reason...), and eight active instruments running, I had a paltry 32MB of RAM free, but running the Learn and Optimise functions immediately cleared out over a Gigabyte of data, leaving me spare capacity to load up yet more samples. It's quite astonishing.
In a nutshell, the VIs take VSL's trademark crisp sound to a new level. However, to my mind (and as strange as it may sound), with these instruments the beautiful sounds are almost secondary to the interface itself. Rarely have I encountered such a complex, powerful tool that's so instantly accessible, transparent and quick to use. Where previously you would forever be loading up yet another articulation (or would simply fake it if you were pressed for time), everything is now available at the prod of a controller. For once, an instrument interface feels like something that wasn't designed by a committee, but by a group of like-minded musicians and composers who understand what we want. Here, they've given us exactly that, with few compromises in the design or functionality.
This latest commission was the first time I let the VIs loose. Amusingly, the completed cue also featured VSL's Pro Edition (for parts as yet unavailable as VIs, like brass instruments) and East West/Quantum Leap's Symphonic Orchestra Platinum. In one fell swoop, VSL have managed to make their own Pro Edition feel clunky and unmanageable, and Kontakt Player-based libraries just a little, well... tame. I cannot remember when I was almost begging for new software or a library, but after using VSL VIs, I resent having to go back to the Pro Edition for my remaining palette. The rest of the collection simply cannot come soon enough. Hilgrove Kenrick
On to the musical content. The Orchestral Strings I instrument (33.9GB) contains the 14-violin and 10-viola ensembles from VSL's Pro Edition, while the 27.6GB Orchestral Strings II features the accompanying eight cellos and six double basses. As well as updating the Pro Edition patches, both VIs include a substantial set of new articulations. Played by all four ensembles, the new 'short staccato' notes are considerably more brisk and businesslike than the longer staccatos from the Pro Edition, and impart a nice urgent 'zing' to rhythmic passages. VSL previously supplied staccatos in separate 'down bow' and 'up bow' versions, but the VIs ' staccato, detaché, pizzicato and col legno articulations are programmed 'round-robin' style with four different samples per note. There are also new eight-way pizzicato repetition programs.
A new 'performance trills' style allows users to play their own trills, using intervals from a minor second to a fourth. Although reasonably lifelike, this style doesn't sound quite as fluid as a real-life trill, and unsurprisingly, it can't come close to reproducing the blurring effect of a string ensemble performing their trills at different rates. However, it's good to gain control over the speed and volume of a trill.
The violas' and cellos' '300bpm furioso runs' are quick, frenzied chromatic octave scales, fierce and bristling with bow noise, which will instantly energise arrangements, and the string-ensemble 'upbeats', which were previously only available for brass, are repeated fast notes tacked onto the front of a short note. The fast double upbeats sound like the galloping strings in the opening of the William Tell Overture, yet another useful and exciting rhythmic effect.
As mentioned earlier, VSL provide a set of basic 'strings orchestra' articulations which combine all four string ensembles (the patches are on Orchestral Strings I, but to hear the cello and bass samples you'll have to buy Orchestral Strings II). Since users can't create their own patches, it would be nice if VSL provided some more of these useful keyboard-split combinations — fast attack sustains and short staccatos are top of my wish list.
The Planets Suite is a popular work which requires an unusually large orchestra. Composer Andrew Blaney explains how he used VSL's massive library to create a sequenced version of Jupiter — The Bringer Of Jollity from Gustav Holst's classic score:
"My setup is a dual 2.5GHz Mac G5, two Mac G4s and two Pentium 4 PCs. Each computer runs Native Instruments Kontakt and the PCs also run Gigastudio. I like to have all instruments running in real time, which explains the need for five machines. I have the VSL Pro Edition complete package in Gigastudio format, plus VSL's Horizon Series orchestral titles.
"I copied and pasted zones from VSL Gigastudio patches into one big Kontakt patch per instrument/ensemble. I created large patches with up to 29 keyswitch groups for strings, woodwinds and brass (broken down into ensemble and solo instruments) so I could change articulations on the fly as I was recording. So during a take I was able to try out different combinations within a phrase."
The arrangement uses 102 MIDI tracks, many of which show numerous keyswitched changes of articulation — for example, one piccolo part switches between staccato, sfz and vibrato short notes within the space of a few bars. It's clear that the extensive switching facilities of the Vienna Instruments could substantially reduce the number of separate tracks required for such a big score.
On the subject of VSL samples, Andrew says: "It was the sheer number of options available that made a lot of the Jupiter arrangement possible. It's written for a large orchestra, including two harps — unusually, the Vienna library has two — and I used just about everything VSL had to offer. That's the beauty of the VSL libraries — choice. Every time I hit a difficult passage that felt impossible to pull off with samples, a bit of digging around amongst the articulations nearly always delivered the goods. The demo took about 18 to 20 days."
Andrew's excellent arrangement can be heard at www.vsl.co.at/en-us/67/3920/4697.vsl.
VSL's admirable Horizon Series title Solo Strings duplicated the Pro Edition 's solo violin and solo cello samples and added solo viola and double bass. The new 82GB Vienna Instrument of the same name adds a fresh set of articulations to this material. I used the Solo Strings violin to put the Vienna Instrument through its paces, and its 'performance legatos' (now featuring two dynamic layers) sounded as smooth and convincing as ever. A new 'performance legato fast' style injects more zip into legato deliveries — using the Speed control to automatically switch between the regular and fast-bowed legatos in response to my rate of playing created an even more lifelike violin legato performance.
New 'Zigane' (gipsy) legatos feature built-in slides between vibrato notes. When used on their own, these beautifully played samples produce a plaintive, singing vibrato style evocative of the Chinese erhu fiddle. I used the mod wheel to throw in these slides occasionally over the regular and fast performance legatos; the result was a very organic-sounding and enjoyable violin patch which could handle Irish jigs and reels as well as orchestral pieces. The same was true of the solo viola and cello.
Zigane-style grace notes are also provided, ranging from one to four semitones — these pitch-slide gracings are more slow and deliberate than the nippy conventional grace notes. All grace notes, scale runs and octave-glissandi patches have a built-in 'A/B' keyswitch to select 'up' or 'down' versions.
Like Solo Strings, the Chamber Strings VI (42GB) borrows its name from a VSL Horizon Series title, reworks its samples and adds new content. VSL orchestral titles are not known for their rock & roll attitude, but the chamber strings' 'harsh' note repetitions introduced here could change that — their attack is so vicious that you can almost see the horsehair flying off the bow. The only drawback is that the heavy, drawn-out bow attacks tend to make the samples sound a bit late, so you'll have to slide their MIDI notes back in your sequencer to make them play in time.
The six violins portamento (pitch-slide) legatos now have an extra quiet layer, which transforms an already emotive effect into something absolutely lovely. Once again, the pitch slides reminded me of an Asian stringed instrument, in this case the fabulous Indian sarangi. To see whether the VIs could cope with multiple layers, I layered the chamber violins, violas and cellos portamentos. They came up trumps: I ended up with three chamber string ensembles gloriously sliding between their notes in unison!
If you're looking for an astringent, hair-shirt type of delivery, all the chamber string sections now have non-vibrato sustains. By way of contrast, the 'espressivo vibratos' let it all hang out — the violins' and violas' vibrato is completely over the top, but the cellos show more restraint. Once again, I found the attack of VSL's four-way 'chamber strings sus vib' patch too slow for comfort, but the wide range and elegant, dignified delivery of the cellos' vibrato sustains makes them a good writing tool.
Many of the new articulations mentioned above are implemented in all four VI strings titles. A new, monophonic 'fast attack auto' option has been added to many sustained note styles; this allows separately articulated notes (including initial notes) to keep their original full attack, but legato playing triggers samples with shorter, fast attacks. The solo, chamber and orchestral strings now all boast a full contingent of natural and artificial harmonics (played on open and stopped strings respectively), the latter making a lovely gaseous, slightly wheezy atmospheric sound.
Costing the Vienna Instruments is a tricky affair; they're available separately, and when the remaining five are released shortly, they'll also be available separately, or in a package of all 10 VIs together as the colossal Symphonic Cube. To complicate matters further, the cost of buying the instruments depends on what VSL products (if any) you already own; as you might expect, given that much of the sonic content of the new Vienna Instruments has been released before, existing VSL customers who've supported the Library's efforts in the past are being rewarded with discounts. However, the cost of buying the standard VIs is the same for everyone, which has left some formerly staunch VSL supporters gnashing and wailing; the discounts only come into play if you purchase the extended versions of the libraries.
Fortunately, if you have access to the Internet, you can work out just how much your libraries and any extended versions you buy will cost you personally, including any discounts you may be due, with VSL's neat on-line Discount Calculator (see www.vsl.co.at/en-us/211/297/167.vsl). Here, it will have to suffice to give you an idea of the maximum these libraries could cost you; below are the basic prices for the standard versions of the individual Vienna Instruments, the basic (undiscounted) prices for the extended versions, and the undiscounted price of the entire Symphonic Cube. All prices include UK VAT.
|LIBRARY NAME||STANDARD LIBRARY||EXTENDED LIBRARY||FULL LIBRARY|
|Orchestral Strings I||£330||£397||£727|
|Orchestral Strings II||£297||£364||£661|
Woodwinds I contains all the main ingredients for a woodwind arrangement: three of its four solo instruments (flute, clarinet and bassoon) starred in the Pro Edition and the fourth ('French oboe') has a Horizon Series title named after it. Each solo instrument has a corresponding three-player section, all of which appear on the Horizon title Woodwind Ensembles.
The gimmick which won the French oboe its solo album deal is simple: unlike the Pro Edition 's Viennese oboe, this little fellow plays with vibrato. In this collection, the oboe shows its less endearing side with some raucous flutter-tongue samples reminiscent of an oboe played through a fuzz box with a flat battery. However, the oboe's new fast interval legatos are a great asset, allowing the creation of beautifully smooth, quicksilver reedy runs.
All instruments and ensembles in this 59GB collection have been fitted with the new 'performance trills' style. These looped deliveries are very versatile: using the Speed control to switch between performance legatos and the faster-speaking performance trills created a fluid-sounding solo flute patch which was great fun to play. The same approach also worked well for the bassoon and clarinet, though as I remarked when reviewing VSL's First Edition, some of the loud clarinet samples sound clipped to me.
Of all the VIs ' new performance styles, I enjoyed the arpeggios (four-note broken chords played by solo flute and clarinet) the most. As well as demonstrating VSL's manic attention to detail (they're played in a choice of two speeds, up and down across the instruments' full range in all keys, legato and staccato, in major, minor and diminished scales!), these superbly played arpeggios have an irresistibly attractive, lively quality — once you hear them, you'll be hooked. The same is true of the solo flute's 'mordents', a wonderfully adaptable set of double grace notes.
Woodwinds I is an unmissable experience, but for the more luxurious shadings of alto flute, English horn, bass clarinet and the piercing tones of the piccolo, you'll also have to buy the sequel, Woodwinds II.
It took me a while to get used to the switching capabilities of the VIs, so to say they have a 'zero learning curve' is a bit disingenuous. Having said that, the thinking behind their design is smart and logical, and the superbly nuanced, flowing performances they can produce are worth a little head-scratching. In terms of sheer volume of musical choice, the five Vienna Instruments released so far form a landmark collection by which all future orchestral products will be judged. I'll have to reserve judgement on the content of the remaining five Vienna Instruments, which I'll be reviewing individually over the coming months, but all the indications are good.
Newcomers to the field might find the VIs ' performance options overwhelming, and the undiscounted prices of the full libraries are likely to strike fear into the bravest of hearts. But if you're committed to working with samples to reproduce the infinitely varied and subtle timbres, textures, performance styles and dynamics of a symphony orchestra, and you have time to plumb their depths, these instruments will yield fantastic musical results. Congratulations to Herb Tucmandl and the Vienna team — by sticking to their task so assiduously, they have created a wonderful musical resource.