Brass and horns ignite the fire at the heart of the orchestra.
Having taken a detailed look at strings and woodwind over the last four articles, it’s time to turn our attention to the tremendous sonority that is orchestral brass. For casual listeners, the jet-engine roar of brass in full flight epitomises symphonic grandeur and power — given their capacity for tumultuous, high-decibel delivery, it’s no wonder that trumpet fanfares are associated with cataclysmic events like bringing down the walls of Jericho, or sounding the final trump on Judgement Day (does the MU have special rates for those gigs?). Apocalyptic duties apart, quietly played brass instruments can also sound beautifully rich, warm and expansive, making this the most dynamically versatile section of the orchestra.
The four main orchestral brass instruments are trumpet, trombone, tuba and horn. While pop and jazz so-called ‘horn sections’ usually contain a mixture of brass and wind instruments, in orchestral circles a horn invariably means a French horn, that complicated assembly of coiled tubing with a distinctive flared bell attached. For more details on how this instrument works, I recommend you watch Katy Woolley’s excellent demonstration at www.philharmonia.co.uk/explore/instruments/horn, where you can also see the rest of the orchestra’s brass team in action.
A common orchestral brass line-up would be four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and one tuba, but depending on the nature of the piece and ambitions of the composer, section sizes vary wildly. Stravinsky scored The Rite of Spring for eight horns, while Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder demanded 10. (The latter work requires a total of 150 instrumentalists and 200 singers; not the sort of thing you should attempt to stage in your local village hall.) When budgets permit, film composers also go over the top — Joel McNeely’s bombastic score for the 1998 film Soldier called for 18 horns, 12 trumpets, 12 trombones and six tubas, arranged into three separate sections so their performances could be dramatically fanned out across the stereo speakers.
Noting its enduring popularity in action movie soundtracks and trailers, sample library manufacturers have jumped on the ‘cinematic brass’ bandwagon over the last few years. One company even described a horns preset as a “good pirate program”, which baffled me until I realised it was a reference to Pirates Of The Caribbean’s brass-rich score — a bit of a disappointment, as I’d enjoyed the thought of a group of scurvy seadogs practising horn pieces below decks, cursing each other in salty language for minor irregularities of intonation. Regardless of their suitability for accompanying big-screen piratical hijinks, all the current pro-quality orchestral brass sample libraries are listed in the ‘Orchestral Brass Sample Libraries’ box.
As with the woodwinds, the principal brass instruments are augmented by a variety of models which extend each section’s pitch and timbral range. Standard trumpets (usually built in Bb, but C trumpets are increasingly common) are occasionally boosted by the bright, piping tones of a piccolo trumpet, prominently featured in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 and, 250 years later, the Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’, both of which show off the small instrument’s precision in the top register. At the other end of the scale, the rare bass trumpet plays an octave lower than the Bb instrument. The flugelhorn, a popular jazz instrument notably played by the late Kenny Wheeler, operates in the trumpet register but produces a darker, more mellow tone; some orchestral works also feature the cornet, the lead instrument in British brass bands, said to sound halfway between a trumpet and a flugelhorn.
Trombones have been an orchestral fixture since the early 19th century, though the instrument’s history stretches back into antiquity. Unlike the rest of the brass, orchestral trombones don’t have valves, but instead use an extendable slide to alter pitch — this allows precise control of tuning, and can be a great source of ribald glissandi (as amusingly heard at the front of the David Rose Orchestra’s 1962 single ‘The Stripper’).
In the orchestra and elsewhere, it’s common to find tenor trombones accompanied by a bass trombone, whose stentorian, rasping tone was highlighted by British composer John Barry in his Bond film scores. The 40-piece brass section assembled for Danny Elfman’s 2001 Planet Of The Apes music featured 10 bass trombones — to further max out the low end, six of the players doubled on contrabass trombone, a larger instrument designed to provide a solid bass register to a four-part trombone section. The higher-pitched alto trombone is little used in orchestral performances nowadays, but is still available to the resourceful sample user.
Another instrument of note is the cimbasso, a tall, floor-mounted contraption with a striking ‘bent’ design. Technically part of the trombone family, cimbassos are fitted with valves rather than a slider, and their aggressive sforzando bass notes have become a favourite sonority for some film composers — however, they also work well for warm-sounding quiet supporting parts. Tuba player Doug Tornquist discusses the instrument in Cinesamples’ online Composer’s Workshop at www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwMjrmfZ63M (the cimbasso makes its entrance at 10.24mins).
The largest and lowest-pitched member of the orchestral brass family, the tuba is often used for bass parts, but is sufficiently agile to carry melodies and fast lines. Tubas are made in various sizes: the standard orchestral model is the bass tuba, and there’s also a contrabass version which shares the contrabass trombone’s ability to descend to Ab0 (just over three octaves below middle C), a stupendous low rumble which Sound On Sound’s men in white coats tell me vibrates at around 26 cycles per second.
Also found in film scores and orchestral sample libraries is the so-called Wagner tuba, conceived by the composer in the mid-19th century as a new instrument with a noble, horn-like sound geared for heroic, solemn and stately themes.
Built in tenor and bass sizes, the Wagner tuba is usually played by French horn players — you can see it demonstrated by Gabrielle Finck of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wgfqe4XHA78.
While orchestral trumpets, trombones and tubas are known as the ‘heavy brass’, horns fall into a category of their own. In the classical repertoire, horn players spend much of their time playing alongside and blending with the woodwinds, which cultivates a certain air of musical refinement; on the other hand, some composers like to exploit the instrument’s brassy side (as heard in the braying, high-pitched riff at the front of John Barry’s ‘Goldfinger’). Ultimately, though the players may regard themselves as separate from the brass section, horns are generally viewed as the bridge between the woodwinds and the brass, which corresponds to the position on the page horn parts normally occupy in an orchestral score.
Another instrument that defies exact pigeonholing is the saxophone, traditionally (and somewhat counter-intuitively) classed as woodwind, due to its sound being produced by blowing into a reed. In jazz big bands, saxes play a different role from the brass, often operating as a self-contained, smooth-sounding melodic section in contrast to the agitated brassy stabs of the trumpets and trombones. Saxophone sections began to creep into symphonic works in the late 19th century, and solo saxes remain a popular choice for some contemporary composers.
Baroque instruments such as natural trumpets and horns have begun to crop up in sample libraries, which may be of interest to media composers engaged to produce period scores. Built without valves, these early instruments have a pure, open sound which provides a nice contrast with modern orchestral brass. In the present day, brass bands and military-style marching bands have their own array of instruments that fall outside the scope of this article: suffice it to say that euphoniums, helicons and sousaphones are all types of tuba, the last resembling a boa constrictor wrapped around the player’s body, with a large flared bell positioned above the victim’s head.
Diagrams 1-5 show the broad playing ranges of the aforementioned instruments, as found in today’s sample libraries (the range limits may differ from product to product). Composers should be aware that the depicted top and bottom notes might be problematic for many players in real life — if you’re planning to hire live players, it’s advisable to check that any extremes of range that occur in the score are manageable by the musician in question. That said, if your track is destined to stay in the sampled domain, don’t be afraid to occasionally stretch an instrument’s upper and lower ranges by a few semitones if it suits your musical needs. Purists might complain, but if it sounds good, why not do it?
Simple, historic brass instruments like the Roman cornu and military bugle have no valves, finger holes or slides; pitch variations are achieved entirely by breath and lip control, which limits the instruments to notes within the harmonic series. This gives the familiar, rousing ‘bugle scale’ of C4 (middle C), G4, C5, E5 and G5, sounded in various permutations in all bugle calls. It follows that canny composers looking to stir up war-like, atavistic emotions will write trumpet fanfares incorporating these intervals. A classic example is John Williams’ Superman theme, based on C4, G4 and C5; Fanfare For The Common Man, written by Aaron Copland to help the American war effort in 1942 and later paraded in front of rock audiences by Keith Emerson and ELP, uses similar, triumphant-sounding major-chord figures.
The bugle call to end them all must surely be Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, better known as the theme music of the 1968 sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. It opens with four trumpets in C playing the first three notes of the bugle scale in ascending order, heralding a mighty ‘ta-da’ from the whole orchestra. You can see the brass parts notated in Diagram 6: note that the two loud accented chords are simply C major to C minor, played in close harmony by the trumpets and horns with wider-voiced trombone chords underneath. The bottom low C of the trombones is doubled by tuba.
Having figured out how to use tools and weaponry (apparently encouraged by the mysterious monolith seen at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey — I never could quite work that one out), it remained for Mankind to master the ultimate skill: the ability to fly a bicycle up into the sky. Here again, we humans were given a valuable leg-up by a helpful extraterrestrial species, in this case the phone-loving alien from Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
Written to accompany the exhilarating bicycle chase near the end of the film, John Williams’ ‘Adventures On Earth’ features a triumphal brass theme, which I’ve transcribed in Diagram 7. The theme (written in C major and incorporating a bugle-scale phrase) is played by three unison trumpets, doubled in the lower octave by two trombones and bass trombone.
Later in the piece, the theme reoccurs in the new key of E major — this time the tune is pitched eight semitones lower, placing it within the comfortable playing range of the horns. Consequently, the composer wrote it as a unison (not octaves) part for three trumpets and four horns, which produces a noble, heroic sound; had the tune been in the original key, horns would need to be written an octave lower, thus creating the classic and majestic orchestral brass sonority of trumpets and horns playing together in octaves.
Earlier in this series I spoke about how rhythmic pulse can be generated in orchestral music by simple rhythm patterns known as ‘ostinatos’. This time-honoured device works with strings, woodwinds and brass, and is arguably easier on the ear than clobbering taiko drums! Diagram 8 shows some typical ostinato eighth-note rhythm patterns which sound great played by sampled brass — when executing them, use a staccato patch and play with a light ‘bouncing’ action, leaving a short gap between each note. Such patterns work well at around 140bpm but, if necessary, you can temporarily slow the tempo of your track when recording the parts. I’d advise against hard-quantising the MIDI notes (too mechanical-sounding), but a ‘soft quantise’ of 80 percent will tighten up the rhythm while retaining human feel.
Though I’ve notated the rhythms as single notes for simplicity’s sake, composers very often write such patterns as repeated three-note chords, for example (from the bottom up) C4, E4, and G4 (C major), D4, F4 and A4 (D minor), or C4, F4 and A4 (F major). Such simple triads can be spiced up by (say) alternating one bar of C4, E4, and G4 with a bar of a suspended chord like D4, F#4 and G4 — try it! The C4-A4 register works well for bright-toned chordal horn ostinatos, and you can write as low as G3 (G below middle C) for deeper, more mellow-sounding horn voicings. If you want to go lower still, use trombones, for which I’d suggest a pitch range of C3 up to F#4. You can also successfully apply this technique to trumpets up in the C4 to E5 register, though that would tend to clash with a high-pitched melody — however, it could work very well over a bass-register tune played by low strings and woodwinds!
As mentioned earlier, softly played orchestral brass can be a beautiful texture, either for supporting parts or for stating a quiet theme. Quiet sustained horn chords are particularly effective: you can hear this sonority at work in the opening measures of Thomas Newman’s ‘Voluntary Retirement’ (from the film Skyfall). Played by five horns, it features a simple, descending three-note motif supported by lower harmonies, creating a haunting and melancholy atmosphere. I’ve transcribed the horn parts in Diagram 9.
Trumpets and trombones, traditional purveyors of pomp and ceremony, also sound great playing melodic chordal movements at quieter dynamics. A nice example occurs in Gustav Holst’s ‘Saturn, The Bringer Of Old Age’, the fifth movement of the British composer’s The Planets suite. As shown in Diagram 10, a trio of trombones (two tenors and a bass) plays a stately theme in the key of B minor for two bars, then three trumpets take up the tune while a lone tenor trombone continues underneath, doubling the high trumpet part down an octave. Pizzicato cellos and double basses (not shown in the diagram) pace out a steady descending B, A, G#, E repeated quarter-note figure underneath, adding harmonic movement to the upper parts’ static B minor tonality.
Our last musical extract is an outstanding example of brass harmony: Diagram 11 shows an extract from ‘Song Of Titus’ by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, a brilliant musical all-rounder who composed symphonies and operas, performed as a jazz pianist and wrote sophisticated soundtracks for films and TV, including the BBC’s mini-series adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. The latter project spawned a piece of music of rare beauty, based on a surreal poem chanted nightly by the schoolmasters of the ancient, decaying castle in a bizarre post-supper ritual.
Given the doomy Gothic setting, I imagine most composers would respond with dark, dirge-y music laden with groaning low strings and contrabassoons. Not so Richard Rodney Bennett — his arrangement starts out light and airy, sung by a boy soprano and underscored by sweeping, heartbreakingly lyrical strings. Producer Estelle Daniel described it as “music of dreamlike quality which plumbed the undercurrents of the soul”. The composer was knighted for Services to Music in 1998 — I’d have given him a knighthood on the strength of this piece alone.
As you can see, the instrumental brass break of ‘Song Of Titus’ features dense, complex harmonies, but you can grasp the music’s essence by playing the trumpet top line over the (greatly) simplified chord sequence I’ve indicated. While the mood of this passage is stately and grandiose, its regal fanfares incorporate fast 16th notes which require precise rhythmic articulation — see the ‘Masterclass Tip’ box for advice on how to best render that with samples.
As noted throughout this series, today’s sample libraries greatly benefit from the interval-based ‘true legato’ sampling introduced by Vienna Symphonic Library in 2002. This joins up melody notes in a lifelike manner, smoothing over transitions so that you hear an unbroken line rather than a series of disconnected bumps. It sounds very agreeable when applied to soaring brass melody lines and works equally well for ensembles and solo instruments, so I’d encourage users to always try a legato patch for their heroic trumpet and horn tunes.
In addition to the legato, sustain, portato, staccato and staccatissimo styles normally provided for strings and woodwind in sample collections, brass instruments have their own particular traditions and vocabulary of playing styles, which can energise a sampled arrangement. As described in last month’s article, double and triple-tongue performances work well for galloping rhythms, rapid note repetitions and hunting-horn calls. Horn rips (energetic, fast chromatic runs up to a short target note) are a great, rousing ear-catching delivery, and for maximum power, the horns’ ‘bells-up’ style (performed, as the name suggests, by tilting the bell upwards towards the audience) produces a louder, brassier and more immediate ‘blaring’ sound.
Though a great resource for humorous effects, trombone slides are not well supported in orchestral libraries. Such uninhibited non-classical deliveries are more likely to be found in a pop or jazz big-band horns collection, along with trumpet ‘doits’, falls and shakes. Some pop styles do creep into orchestral collections, though; it’s not uncommon to find over-the-top Mexican mariachi vibrato trumpet performances, and one library even includes a ‘Zampano’ molto espressivo strong vibrato style, named in honour of the brutal trumpet-playing anti-hero of Fellini’s La Strada (who would soon be shown the door if he wandered into a classical concert hall). On a more subtle note, most orchestral libraries include a light vibrato option for their brass instruments, which can help to make solo lead lines sound less formal.
On a less subtle note, some of you may be wondering how to create the big, so-called ‘Braaam’ slamming low brass racket, which has been gleefully over-used since Inception used it to scare the life out of film audiences. One critic described it as being “a massive blast of indistinguishable brass, like an alphorn next to an amplifier”. To my ears, it’s a combination of low orchestral brass samples — bass trombones, tubas, possibly a cimbasso or two — and layered, ambient big drum hits of the type now found in many ‘cinematic’ percussion libraries. The brass sounds detuned, and the percussive elements are also heavily processed. You can get a similar effect yourself by using your sample player’s ‘tune’ knob to down-tune the samples.
Apparently, this monstrous, blatting noise can now be heard ad nauseam on virtually every action movie trailer. A depressing thought, but one consolation is that it might indicate media composers are finally beginning to tire of plagiarising Thomas Newman’s cues!
A few words on musical expression: the crescendos and diminuendos that occur in some extracts (marked by ‘hairpins’ in the score) may look fussy, but are actually a vital expressive device. As mentioned in the first article of this series, most contemporary orchestral sample libraries offer users real-time control of dynamics via a nifty feature called Velocity Crossfading, whereby the timbre of instrument can be heard changing as its different dynamic layers are crossfaded. This control is commonly assigned to the keyboard’s mod wheel, and mastering the art of dynamically ‘riding’ your MIDI performances is one of the key factors in creating a lively, organic-sounding arrangement. This has become something of a mantra for UK orchestral sample company Spitfire Audio, who advise their customers, “On long notes, make sure you always use your mod wheel”.
I look forward to regaling you with more musical suggestions in Part 7, when our journey through the sampled orchestra continues with an examination of percussion, harp and keyboards.
When programming fanfares and fast-paced melodies, it’s important to have samples that ‘speak’ quickly. First-time users of orchestral libraries often complain that the slow, measured attack of sustained notes doesn’t cut the mustard for action-scene music, where a more urgent delivery is required. One solution is to use short-note samples played with a fast attack, but that approach comes unstuck when you play a long note: the short note having expired, you’re left holding down a key with nothing but glorious silence emitting from your speakers.
Fortunately, there are ways around the problem. Your first port of call should be to delve into the instrument folders of your brass library and check out the marcato, sforzato (sfz) or sforzatissimo (sffz) articulations, all of which are characterised by a strong attack. The ‘fortepiano’ loud-soft style can also work OK, providing notes don’t sustain for too long.
If these articulations don’t sound right, a time-honoured trick is to layer a staccato articulation over a sustains patch. This adds a nice attack to the front of notes; the staccato note dies away quickly to reveal the long note sustaining underneath, thus allowing you to hold notes for as long as you like. The technique was pioneered back in the day by US samplemeister Denny Jaeger in his groundbreaking Master Violin Library collection. It works very well with brass and strings, and is also worth considering for woodwinds, though it might sound a little unnatural with an exposed solo woodwind instrument.
When layering in this fashion, the secret is to achieve a good balance between the two patches. As a rule of thumb, start out with them at equal volume, then fade the staccato patch up and down till you find the ‘sweet spot’!
Mutes radically alter the sound of brass instruments. The most obviously transformative is the Harmon mute, which creates a very thin, metallic tone when inserted into the bell of a trumpet, cornet or trombone. By removing its detachable stem, players can emulate the muted trumpet sound heard on many of Miles Davis’ classic recordings. If comedy’s your thing, both the Harmon and the hand-held plunger mute (which looks like something you’d use to unblock a sink) can create excellent ‘wah-wah’ effects.
Although Igor Stravinsky made extensive use of both Harmon and plunger mutes in his admirably deranged Ebony Concerto, in the orchestral world you’re more likely to find the straight mute — this metal implement removes body from the sound while leaving high frequencies relatively untouched, thus creating an edgy, cutting tone, which is particularly piercing at loud volumes. Made in a variety of sizes, the straight mute can be used with all the instruments listed in this article, from piccolo trumpet down to the large contrabass tubas and trombones.
When it comes to muted passages, horn players can choose between fitting a straight mute, or simply inserting their right hand in the bell (known as ‘stopping’). The latter method allows for varying degrees of ‘mutedness’ and also permits the pitch to be subtly varied via small hand movements. Strangely, when the hand is pushed inside to the limit, the instrument’s sound suddenly becomes brighter, creating that characteristic loud, biting and slightly buzzy French horns timbre often heard in blockbuster movie scores.
Composers looking to buy high-quality orchestral brass samples will find an abundance of riches. Published in SOS November 2015, Orchestral Brass Sample Libraries: A Buyer's Guide, gives a detailed overview of over 60 brass collections — you can read it at www.soundonsound.com/reviews/brass-instruments. Reflecting the new products released in the interim, I’ve compiled the updated list shown here.
As with the previous listings in this series, I’ve concentrated on post-2002 products that benefit from legato intervals and other modern techniques. The list is divided into two categories — brass-only, and full orchestral collections that include brass. Included are stand-alone saxophone libraries that work in an orchestral context, and convincingly realistic modelled/resynthesized instruments by Samplemodeling, Wallander Instruments and Synful. I’ve omitted phrase and loop libraries, hybrid electronic titles, specialized brass effects (which will be covered later in this series) and pop/jazz horn collections (for an overview of those, see my Pop Brass Sample Libraries Buyer's Guide at www.soundonsound.com/reviews/pop-brass-sample-libraries-buyers-guide).
The figures in square brackets [ ] indicate each library’s number of microphone positions excluding any mixes or expansion packs, while the GB figure shows its total size once installed on your hard drive. Bear in mind that multiple mic positions automatically increase the number of samples without adding extra performance content, so a large GB size doesn’t necessarily indicate a large articulation menu.
Vienna Symphonic Library www.vsl.co.at
- VSL Brass I *  56.8GB
- VSL Brass II *  39.1GB
- VSL Special Brass *  15GB
- VSL Trumpet (Bb)  7GB
- VSL Trumpet (Bb, muted)  9GB
- VSL Flugelhorn  6GB
- Vienna Dimension Brass I  12.7GB
- Vienna Dimension Brass II  18.3GB
- VSL Saxophones  25GB
EastWest / Quantum Leap www.soundsonline.com
- EWQL Hollywood Brass  147GB
Spitfire Audio www.spitfireaudio.com
- Spitfire Symphonic Brass  60.2GB
- (Replaces Spitfire BML Brass series.)
Orchestral Tools www.orchestraltools.com
- Berlin Brass Main Library  184GB
- Berlin Brass EXP A (Additional instruments)  22.6GB
- Berlin Brass EXP B (Muted Brass)  44.7GB
- Berlin Brass EXP C (French Horn SFX)  4.9GB
- Cinesamples Cinebrass Core  11GB
- Cinesamples Cinebrass Pro  22GB
- Cinesamples Descant Horn  5.1GB
- Century Ensemble Brass BETA  161GB
- Century Solo Brass BETA  60GB
Kirk Hunter www.kirkhunterstudios.com
- Kirk Hunter Concert Brass 2  22GB
Chris Hein www.chrishein.net
- Orchestral Brass Complete  11.6GB
Impact Soundworks www.impactsoundworks.com
- Bravura Scoring Brass *  22GB
Native Instruments / Soundiron www.native-instruments.com
- Symphony Series — Brass Ensemble  46GB
- Symphony Series — Brass Solo  31GB
Strezov Sampling www.strezov-sampling.com
- Strezov Orchestra French Horns  8.4GB
- Strezov Orchestra Trombones  2.8GB
- Chapman Trumpet  0.96GB
Musical Sampling www.musicalsampling.com
- Adventure Brass  6.3GB
- Trailer Brass  2.23GB
- Master Brass  28GB
- The Trumpet 3  0.25GB
- The Trombone 3  0.74GB
- French Horn & Tuba 3  0.27GB
- The Saxophones  0.94GB
Wallander Instruments www.wallanderinstruments.com
- Orchestral & Band Brass  0.35GB
MIXED ORCHESTRAL INSTRUMENTS:
Vienna Symphonic Library www.vsl.co.at
- Special Edition (Six volumes)  37.3GB
EastWest / Quantum Leap www.soundsonline.com
- EWQLSO Play Edition  194GB
Spitfire Audio www.spitfireaudio.com
- Albion One po  50GB
- Albion II — Loegria po  27.3GB
- Albion III — Iceni po  11GB
- Albion V — Tundra po  44.4GB
- Bernard Herrmann Composer Toolkit po  146.6GB
Orchestral Tools www.orchestraltools.com
- Metropolis Ark 1  70GB
- Metropolis Ark 2  54GB
- Da Capo po  7.9GB
- Majestica po  23.7GB
Kirk Hunter www.kirkhunterstudios.com
- Diamond  65GB
- Virtuoso Ensembles  2.55GB
Project SAM www.projectsam.com
- Symphobia po  17.4GB
- Symphobia 2 po  18.2GB
- Symphobia Colours: Orchestrator ^  4.9GB
- Orchestral Essentials 1 po  16GB
- Orchestral Essentials 2 po  10.6GB
- The Orchestra  7GB
- Synful Orchestra 2.5  0.20GB
- Garritan Personal Orchestra 5  11.6GB
- (The complete orchestral instrumentation of this budget collection is an excellent educational resource for beginners.)
* = Includes instruments that may be purchased separately.
po = Pre-orchestrated — instruments are blended into single patches, individual sections and instruments not provided.
^ = Includes different instrument families playing together.