Flying Hand Percussion

Virtual Percussion Instrument

Review by Carlos Garza


In part three of our percussion sample library roundup, I review Flying Hand Percussion, a sample library from a California company by the same name.

As the name suggests, this sample library is all about hand played instruments with a focus on drums, small percussion and cinematic sound effects. The product, which I will refer to as “FHP,” aims for, and achieves, extreme realism through extensive variations, advanced programming and subtle details.

Features

The instruments were recorded with microphones from Neumann, Earthworks, Shure and AKG using a Demeter VTMP-2C mic pre. The 40,000+ individual samples are supplied at 24-bit, 44.1 kHz. There are up to 20 velocity layers with four alternate hits each.

Flying Hand Percussion

Flying Hand Percussion

Flying Hand uses the advanced programming features of the Kontakt sample player (sold separately). Keyboard players should note that left and right hand samples are provided in most of the MIDI mappings while electronic percussionists will be interested in the Zendrum MIDI mappings. Up to three mic positions are available. FHP also includes a set of reverb impulses and the Nitro “FHB Edition” filter bank.

So what about the sounds? Included are frame drums, djembe, conga, timbales, bongo cajon, Indian Naal, clay drum, Boomwhackers, plastic bottle, orchestral bass drum, tam tam, shakers, toys, electronic percussion and cinematic effects. Some instruments, like the ashiko allow selection of top-only or top and bottom mic positions.

Full sets with all velocity layers and alternate hits range from several hundred MB up to 1.5GB but smaller versions are available for low-memory computers or quick sketches.

In Use

This past summer I decided to try my hand at writing in various world styles. I’m also writing music for a film with scenes in India and South America. This gave me a chance to use FHP in different musical settings. I installed FHP on a G5 Quad with Kontakt 3, Logic 8 and Mac OS 10.4. I listened with Mackie HR824 and Tannoy PBM-8 monitors.

The gorgeous package — made in Nepal — is your first clue that this is no ordinary sound collection. The DVDs arrive in a hexagonal box with a lid that is fastened by a string around a button. This work of art belies the high tech product inside.

While not the broadest collection of world instruments, there is plenty to like here. The Clay drum samples range from small bright pings to larger thuds with many variations. The kanjira is an Indian drum with bells – a distant relative of the tambourine. It has a strongly ethnic flavor with a loose sounding membrane. For me it worked with Indian and Gypsy musical styles.

The djembe, mutant and “Morphosis” sets were among my favorite. The Boomwhackers and the bongo cajon were perfect for several spy chasing spy scenes that I scored over the summer.

The electronic sounds did not fit into my action score but they may work in other genres. The spooky drones are ready for prime time TV, film and electronic game scores. I loved the hand played bass drum. Why no dumbek?

The larger drums are engaging but less domineering than similar sounds in Quantum Leap’s Storm Drum 2 [reviewed in which issue?] and ProjectSAM’s True Strike Pack [reviewed in which issue?]. Because of this, it turned out that the FHP drums worked better with symphonic arrangements that were already heavy with low strings, synthesizers and massive horns.

I loaded djembe, Naal, bongos and drones and assigned Kontakt 3’s convolution reverb to an auxiliary bus. I then tried several of the impulse responses included with FHP. The large halls are spacious and detailed. It’s a good starter set but no replacement for Apple Logic’s Space Designer.

Using Native Instruments Kontakt as the sample playback host led to some important features in FHP. For example, a “dynamic resonance” control affects drumhead muting and is triggered by how long a slapped note sample is held. A relatively quick release triggers a sample of the head ringing while holding and then releasing triggers a sample of a hand leaving the drumhead.

The Legato Drumming™ uses velocity and duration to liven up the note tails. The results are not always obvious, especially in a fog of reverb with the distant mic set — and it’s not present on every program. However, this non-random addition of sounds like a hand moving on the drumhead adds a realism that I have not heard in any drum library.

Learning to play the instrument sets was easy because the mappings are very intuitive. I really like the idea of symmetrical mapping for two hands on the keyboard. In general, the sounds made from the middle of a drumhead are mirrored around middle C or D and sounds made closer to the edge of the drumhead are placed symmetrically out from there. Separate left and right hand hits with extensive alternate samples make for a very good time indeed.

Summary

The overall sound quality is as good as anything I’ve heard and then some. It’s clear that a lot of effort went into Flying Hand Percussion and the results are impressive.

I know of no other percussion library with as much articulation control. While the underlying functionality is complex, playing the sounds in a realistic way is as easy as, well, playing a drum. I also like having a choice of mic position and ambience.

Flying Hand Percussion is the one to reach for when looking for a unique sound. In a sea of imitators, Flying Hand Percussion is a rare gem.

Fast Facts

Applications: World, pop, jazz, TV, film and game score realization, composing and live performance.
Key Features: 24-bit instrument samples of hand drums, timbales, Boomwhackers, tam tam, shakers, toys, bass drum and effects; Requires Native Instruments Kontakt 2 or 3 sample player, sold separately.
Price: approximately  $259 USD
Contact:  FlyingHandPercussion.com
SONiVOX MI

Product Points

Plus
• High quality recordings
• Convincing realism and variety
• Intuitive MIDI mapping

Minus
• Long load times for large sets
• Compatible only with Kontakt (not included, note, latest version of Kontakt is a free download)

The Score

Flying Hand sets a new bar for sample realism. If I didn’t know better I’d think I was playing real drums. This is an excellent value.

(c) 2008 Carlos Garza

ProjectSAM True Strike Pack

Review by Carlos Garza


From suspenseful “heartbeats” to creepy scraping and pounding rhythms, no instrument family speaks with as much authority and dynamic range as percussion. In part two of our percussion roundup, we’ll look at a pair of products from a Dutch company known as ProjectSAM.

True Strike  and True Strike 2 — sold together as True Strike Pack — cover a variety of instruments and ensemble sizes. Together they feature orchestral, world, mallet instruments and unique effects for sound designers.

Quantum Leap’s, Storm Drum 2, is a close competitor to True Strike Pack. We’ll compare their features and see if there is a clear winner. This review is part of a percussion library round-up, which also included a look at Flying Hand Percussion. See reviews on this site.

Features

True Strike includes 51 instruments and requires 17 GB of space. TS2 has 59 instruments and needs 14 GB. The 24-bit, 44.1 kHz products are delivered on DVD-ROM and are integrated with the free Kontakt player.

ProjectSAM True Strike

TS focuses on symphonic instruments with timpani, gran casa ensemble, toms, snares, cymbals, tams, thunder plate and brakes. The melodic instruments include marimba, xylophone, vibes, glockenspiel, celesta and a handful of ethnic crossover instruments. Samples were recorded with close range, stage and large hall ambience.

TS2 adds percussion effects, bowed cymbals and vibes, 7 Asian instruments, including taiko, Turkish, European and over 20 African instruments. Samples were created with close mics and either room or stage ambience. The Cimbalom and prepared piano are a unique bonus.

In Use

In January of 2010, the True Strike products were re-released, dropping integration with several previously supported players to focus on the free Kontakt player (screen shot below).  The move is described as a win-win.  While allowing ProjectSAM to focus their development and support efforts, the move reportedly improves round-robin alternation, navigation, streamlines ADSR control and provides better reporting of articulation features.  See also the review of Flying Hand Percussion on this site, which makes extensive use of scripting features in Kontakt.

The EXS-24 version that I tested in 2009 uses the same sample set as the re-released product. I tested under Logic Pro with Mac OS 10.5 and listened critically on Mackie HR824 and Tannoy PBM-8 monitors.

I tested both sets in an action film score I’m composing. I found the toms and bass drum ensembles blended perfectly with strings and brass from Vienna Symphonic Library. I could have chosen to place all the virtual instruments in the same ambience by using the TS close mic samples with Logic’s convolution reverb but the stage ambience of the TS samples was too good to pass up.

The bass drum is stunning. These massive “thwacks” are detailed and expressive and the softer sounds are sublime. Concert bass drums can sometimes be unwieldy in a dense mix due to overtones and long decay. Thankfully, the tasteful producers at ProjectSAM have crafted a modern sound that works exceptionally well in dramatic symphonic works.

True Strike 2 with Kontakt Player

TS has an excellent collection of snare drums, including a thin concert, a deeper drum and the field drum, which gave my action cues that “official” military sound. The swells in the snare ensemble are wide and detailed.

I had mixed feelings about the mallet instruments. The marimba with stage mics and full hall is spot-on but I wanted more tonal variety — soft and medium mallets, for example. The vibes in TS are useful but the damper sound, while realistic, is present enough to be noticeable when soloed. On the other hand, the bowed vibes in TS2 are wonderfully eerie and the effects sounds and prepared piano are great for suspense cues.

The U.S. company, Quantum Leap, set the standard for thundering ensemble samples in their original Storm Drum 1 product. Naturally, the 24-bit thundering ensembles in TS2 (and the new SD2) have a greater depth and clarity than the 16-bit SD1. ProjectSAM has their own take on the concept and these sounds are perfect for creature features, action game scores and dramatic pop productions.

ProjectSAM also did an excellent job of capturing the nuances in African and Turkish drums. In fact, there is enough variety to make a convincing performance – not always the case in world instrument samples (and never in keyboards). The mind-bending timpani effects will work in game, TV and film scores and contemporary concert works.

As with any sample library, there is a learning curve for playing the instrument. Once you get used to where the single hits, flams and rolls are, you can quickly create a great sounding track. A small gripe with True Strike is the mapping of some non-pitched sounds to a single MIDI note. This is fine for a drum pad but not so great for keyboard triggering. It would be nice, for example to have the four toms available an octave or two apart with left and right hand samples.

These minor negatives do not diminish the overall product value. Using these drums in a compositional setting really paid off for me. The sounds are very musical and composing with them is effortless.

So how does the True Strike Pack compare to Storm Drum 2? The recording quality is excellent in both products. I loved the stage ambience in the TS drums, especially the concert toms and bass drums. It’s a beautiful sound that shines in spare arrangements.

SD2 has more sound effects but there is no redundancy between the two and if you are serious about effects percussion and large ensembles you’ll want the TS Pack and SD2 in your arsenal. TS covers the contemporary symphony very well but SD2 adds royalty free MIDI tracks. TS Pack integrates with your favorite sample player software while SD2 uses the proprietary Play engine.

Summary

The detailed 24-bit recordings and spacious ambiance make these sounds come alive. I found that the recording clarity really helps in a dense mix and the snare roll crescendos made me feel like the drum was being played right in front of me (kind of scary actually). Some alternate sample mappings would help with certain playing styles but this is an inspiring world-class collection in any case.

This is also a versatile collection. The dystopian sounds and range of ethnic percussion make True Strike 2 a valuable resource for film and video game sound designers. Some of Hollywood’s top composers are using True Strike and it’s easy to see why. This is an awesome product.

Fast Facts

Applications:  TV, film and electronic game scoring, pop production, contemporary orchestral realization, arranging and music education.

Key Features:  24-bit symphonic, world and effects percussion samples. Compatible with major sample players for Windows and Mac OS.

US Prices approx.   USD $399 each or $799 for True Strike Pack

Contact: Project SAM + 31-30-2314500, www.ProjectSAM.com, info@projectsam.com; Available in the US from:  HouseofSamples.com West L.A. Music (www.westlamusic.com)

Product Points

Plus
• Great sound quality
• Beautiful hall ambience
• Compatible with major sample player apps

Minus
• Keyboard mappings could be expanded
• Greater mallet variety needed

The Score

True Strike Pack offers pristine audio quality in a reliably useful collection. The recent price drops make this a great buy.

(c) 2008 Carlos Garza

Quantum Leap Stormdrum 2

Review by Carlos Garza


Quantum Leap set the bar in 2004 with the original 16-bit Storm Drum product. If you wanted bombastic samples for action films, games or that “Peter Gabriel” drum sound, SD1 was it. Fast forward to 2008 and Stormdrum 2 brings a range of improvements, including 24-bit samples and 100 MIDI rhythm tracks.

This is the first in a series of percussion library reviews. Future reviews will look at ProjectSAM’s True Strike set, also aimed at TV/film and electronic game scoring. We will also look at FlyingHand Percussion, a set that uses the advanced programming features of the Native Instruments Kontakt player for subtle articulation control.

Storm Drum 2

Storm Drum 2

Features

Over 12GB of new samples, with the exception of the Metallica “Black” drum kit from Ministry of Rock. The drums were recorded at the new EASTWEST Studio 1 (formally United-Western). Quantum Leap reports that SD2 was recorded using vintage Neumann mics and Meitner A/D converters.

Included are toms, cymbals, kits, ethnic metals, small gongs, waterphone, spring drums, brake drums, a metal bridge and whale drum. There are ethnic drums, such as custom congas and bongos, Indonesian bongos, Malaysian djembe, Nepalese two-headed drum, Dholak, timbales, udu. There are rhythmically “glitched” drones, ambient low sounds, “Godzilla Hits,” “psychotic” effects, swooshes, stutters, clicks, clangs and “Rumpfs.”

SD2 expands on the ensemble samples that were the hallmark of SD1. Producer, Nick Phoenix explains, “SD1 had a cool patch called ‘Thunder Ensemble’. This was six musicians hitting large drums in unison in a warehouse. SD2 has the ‘Earthquake Ensemble’, which is eleven musicians hitting huge, large and sometimes smaller drums in unison in EASTWEST studio 1.”

SD2 uses the proprietary 64-bit Play engine rather than third party plug-in players. The Play interface includes convolution reverb, delay and disk streaming management. Wideness can be minimized for precise sound placement and the 64-bit architecture is compatible with 32-bit operating systems.

Play offers a stand-alone functionality and is compatible with VST, ASIO and DirectSound on Windows and VST, Audio Units and Core Audio on Mac OS. Copy protection requires an iLok security key.  Recommended configuration includes a DVD drive, Core 2 Duo, 2.5 GHz or faster, 2 to 4GB RAM and XP SP2, Vista or Mac OS 10.4 or later.

In Use

The installation was glitch-free on my Mac OS 10.5 desktop.  One thing to note is the iLok security key requirement, which makes the set a little less convenient for mobile rigs.

SD2 packs a wallop where it counts, big dramatic drums. I’m sure these sounds are going to show up in role-playing shooter games and heart pounding, escape-from-who-knows-what movies. Among the stand-outs are the “Beast” (a custom 42” Remo tom), Nagado, taikos and the Tong Zi drums.

There are also lighter sounds like the stick hits on the Chinese Kettle drum, the darbuka, dholak and some acoustic chirps called, “Ticki Ticki,” which would be right at home in a percolating action-adventure groove.

The MIDI performances focus on driving rhythms for action scoring with a smattering of neutral and exotic grooves. Each MIDI file comes with an associated multi-patch — up to 16 individual patches. You’ll find well-named beats like, “Malicious Hordes,” “Rampant Carnage,” and “Chasing the Devil” that show off the amazing power of these sounds.

The MIDI tracks reveal a strong collection of rock drum sounds, large dramatic drums and a unique collection of effects percussion. Imagine rock drums with a bleating Chinese noisemaker, “clanking ambient contortion,” Persian castanets and a set called, “radiostatic anomaly.” Cue the black helicopters — this is not a home organ beat box!

The taiko drums are beautiful, especially the ambient Dynasty set. The toms have a very clear sound – great for rock tracks and scoring but the close mic and stick sound makes them less suited for classical arrangements.

sd2_t

Storm Drum 2

If you use Play as a multitimbral plug-in, your DAW channel effects will apply to all the drums. No worries, Play includes its own filter, effects and panning controls for each MIDI channel. There are plenty of sound shaping options, including a reverb section with enough variety to cover any genre.

The built-in effects include a delay, a panning controller, volume and an ADSR for each channel. I found the filter useful for taming the stick sound in the toms and it’s mapped to the mod wheel so you can tweak it as you play or store your favorite setting in the patch.

Of course, you can load one Play instance for each sound and use your own channel strip plug-ins. I’m happy to report that SD2 plays well with others, particularly driving guitars, synths and symphonic brass. The thundering ensemble drums really “super sized” an action film score I’m working on.

The cool thing is that you don’t need a huge number of tracks to get a big sound. A simple arrangement with just a few tracks of SD2 sounds like you rented a Hollywood scoring stage and a small army of drummers. In fact, when I started working on this review I thought SD2 would be perfect for the Terminator 4 score. Apparently composer Danny Elfman felt the same way. Cue the DUH-dum-dum-duh-DUM riff.

The patch collections open up new ways to get a pro sound very quickly. Among the unique sound sets are Ambient Largeness and the Rumpfs. Are you on a tight schedule and need to punctuate the end of a scene? You need a Rumpf, my friend. It goes… “Whoosh…boom.” It’s an amazingly quick way to drop in a polished impact and they come in all shapes and sizes.

There are fresh glitch sounds (that’s a good thing) and blips in the ‘Fuzzbox” set; subtle and hip percussive sounds to keep a pulse going. The many sound design elements include swooshes and “stutter makers,” Asian percussion, such a Vietnamese wooden mallet instrument, Devil Chasers, bamboo sticks and for you Planet of the Apes fans, the angklung.

The congas and bongos are versatile but the sampled nature would be less apparent with more alternating samples, especially when soloed. The mapping works well for keyboard controllers with similar samples across five adjacent white keys. However, the three-octave jump between low and high bongos and four octaves between the congas gave me a workout. Some instruments have mappings for Zendrum but I was not able to test these.

Also reviewed on this site are True Strike Pack and Flying Hand Percussion — related products from other companies. If you have the budget, I would consider owning all three products.  There is less duplication between SD2 and TS Pack than I expected and Flying Hand Percussion is a one-of-a-kind product. TS Pack includes symphonic percussion instruments but SD2 is much stronger in the effects percussion and sound design elements.  Both sets include excellent large ensembles with SD2 offering more options in this category. Both have strong collections of world drums. See the other reviews for details.

Summary

SD2 reflects East West and Quantum Leap’s vast experience in developing professional sample libraries. It’s a thorough collection and the sound quality is flawless. If you need powerful drums, deep atmospherics and some no-nonsense grooves to get your production started, SD2 is a must. If history repeats itself, these fresh sounds are going to be with us for many years.

Fast Facts

Applications:  TV, film, game, rock & ethnic music arrangement; education

Key Features:  24-bit percussion samples including studio kits, ethnic drums and metals, sound design percussion, royalty free MIDI performances

US Prices: $395 list (approximately $350 on the street)

Contact: EASTWEST, www.soundsonline.com

Product Points
Plus
• High quality recordings
• Unique monster hits
• Versatile collection
• Useful rhythm patterns

Minus
• iLok security (key not included)

The Score

Stormdrum 2 is an outstanding and quite versatile collection. Well priced and an excellent value.

(c) 2008 Carlos Garza

Apple Logic Pro 8

Review by Carlos Garza
Originally Published in Pro Audio Review


I use logic for soundtrack composing and pop production. Over the past 4 years, I’ve shifted from using MIDI modules and keyboards to streaming sample players and software synths. Logic’s integrated music production environment is now the starting point for all my composing projects.

I’ve used Logic since version 5 and, as I’ve mentioned in previous PAR reviews, was eager to see Apple simplify and beautify the user interface.

logic-studio-screenshot

The consolidated Arrange window with pop-up panes for the mixer and piano roll editor and the sliding pane for the media bin and instrument/loop library are a welcome improvement. However, I still use the separate score and environment windows when I need to focus on those tasks.

The transport and status bar — centered along the bottom of the main window — worked well, even stretched across two 19” standard displays. The Mackie/Logic Control that I’ve used since Logic 6 worked fine, as did the Unitor8 MIDI interface.

The Studio Sound Library, instruments and effects plug-ins are the heart of Logic Studio for composers. The sounds and loops cover many genres including pop, world, R&B and strong support for classic and modern electronic music. The sound effects and ambiences are well suited to indie film and stage productions.

Logic Pro 8 (LP8) makes sound picking easier than pie. Select a software instrument track in the Arrange window and click in the library browser to instantly audition thousands of pre-built instrument channel strips. For example, “gated synthesizers” combine soft synths with effects locked to tempo.

The symphonic instruments won’t fool your music teacher or put the high-end sample libraries out of business but are more than adequate for pop production and symphonic sketches.

I had no trouble loading Logic 7 project files. In fact, once I started using LP8, I found almost no need to go back to 7. One exception, Vienna Horizon instruments use a VSL plug-in for EXS24 and some settings can be used, but not edited, in LP8.

I frequently use QuickTime clips for film scoring. The new small movie pane in the consolidated Arrange window is a great idea and full screen mode is just a couple of clicks away.

logic-studio

To investigate the surround features I used Logic’s surround-animated component modeling synth, Sculpture, and other instruments in surround channels. I added a Sound Designer convolution reverb with one of the new surround impulses. Next, I picked a surround setting in the new Delay Designer and added Logic’s Surround Compressor with the “Atmospheric Master” preset in the master output.

The MultiMeter adds a surround signal viewer and a goniometric display to show coherence and phase relationships between stereo pairs. All together, a powerful combination of tools for surround production. You can burn your surround mix to DVD-A format directly from Logic or bounce to PCM for Dolby Digital encoding with the Compressor utility.

In summary, LP8 packs a huge bang for the buck. Mature audio and MIDI tools along with the extensive loops, samples and software synthesizers make LP8 a must-have tool for rock, pop, urban and new age producers and a cornucopia for film, TV and game composers.

Carlos Garza composes music for films. His music has appeared on Image Entertainment DVDs, Turner Classic Movies and the National Gallery of Art. He is a regular contributor to Pro Audio Review.

(c) 2008 Carlos Garza

Vienna Instruments Special Edition

Vienna Symphonic Library

Review by Carlos Garza

Originally Published in Pro Audio Review


The arms race in sampling is all about realism and audio quality. The new standard in sample libraries for computers is 24-bit and, for musical instruments, a variety of articulations must be within easy reach.

Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL) GmbH in Vienna, Austria is a leading provider of symphonic instrument samples and has recently introduced a dedicated software player for their Vienna Instrument products that tackles these challenges. Vienna Instruments Special Edition (SE) is an all-in-one symphonic sample library and is one of the newer products using this software.

SE comprises two products, the Standard Library ($465 US) and the Extended Library ($625 US), distributed in the U.S by ILIO. In this review, we’ll see if VSL has an affordable all-in-one orchestral library with the features and sonic quality you would expect from a company that repeatedly sets the standard.

Special Edition

Features

The instruments in SE were selected from VSL’s extensive line of Vienna Instruments (VI) products and require 81 GB of drive space. The Standard Library contains 28 instruments and ensembles from the post-romantic orchestra. It includes solo and ensemble strings and brass, solo woodwinds and percussion, which includes drums, gongs, cymbals, Taiko drums, thunder sheet, metal chimes and plate bells. Rounding out the set are, Bösendorfer grand, celesta, glockenspiel, xylophone, marimba and vibes.

The Extended Library adds 35 instruments and ensembles but does not augment the articulations in the Standard Library instruments. Highlights include saxes, contrabass trombone, chamber strings (small ensembles), Appassionata strings (larger ensembles), Epic Horns, harp, classical guitar, electric guitar, Vienna Konzerthaus organ and harpsichord. For all you Beatles fans there’s even a piccolo trumpet. A complete listing of tracks can be found at vsl.co.at.

Whereas previous VSL products relied on third party sample players, such as Giga, HALion and Apple Logic’s EXS-24, the VI products use proprietary software for performance control and hard drive streaming. The cross-platform VI player serves up the 24-bit, 44.1 kHz samples as simple patches, containing a single articulation, for example, violins with short notes, and in combinations called matrices, which combine related articulations for use in a single MIDI track or switched instantly for live performance.

The multi-patch matrices reduce the number of sequencer tracks needed to create a realistic performance using multiple playing styles. For example, you can play quick short notes, longer notes and tremolo in a single matrix set-up.

The VI player runs stand-alone (for live) or as a DAW plug-in with Audio Units, RTAS and VST compatibility. RTAS support OS X was introduced in October. The minimum configuration is 1GB RAM on a G4 1 GHz under OS 10.4 or a 2GHz PC with Windows XP. Most of the work is done by a background process, which shifts the memory and CPU burden outside of the host DAW, such as Logic.

In Use

I installed SE on a G5 Quad with 4GB RAM, OS 10.4 and Logic Pro 7. SE requires a Syncrosoft USB security key, which must be registered online. It is sold by VSL as the Vienna Key ($39 US). Authorizing the standard and extended libraries was nearly trouble free.  The only snag I ran into was caused by having both the Vienna Key and another Syncrosoft key for HALion connected during authorization. I temporarily removed the HALion key and completed the authorization with no problems. It would have been nice if the documentation recommended removing Syncrosoft keys used for other products. However, the installation tutorial video was otherwise excellent. Great to have a visual guide for a process that some find daunting.

By the way, VSL has created some excellent learning tools, including instructional videos and tutorial demo sequences for popular DAW applications. From my experience, nobody is doing a better job of helping their users get the most out of music sampling software.

The matrix approach is where the user interface gets powerful. Matrices are built from patches, each of which contain a single articulation of an instrument. There are several ways to call up the different articulations, including key switches and MIDI controllers and they can be used in many combinations in a single matrix.

Key switches are notes outside the range of the instrument (usually at the low end). For example, hit the lowest C with your left hand and the right hand plays for staccato notes, hit the C# and you are playing détaché, D for sustained and D# for legato notes and so on.

You can also switch articulations using a continuous controller, such as the mod wheel. For example, you could play long notes and use the mod wheel to layer short notes or switch to tremolo. The VI player can accommodate up to twelve rows and twelve columns in each matrix. And if that’s not enough, you can combine matrices into keyboard-switched “presets.” Many possibilities.

While you can’t create your own patches, which include velocity and sample mapping, you can create your own matrices and make personalized versions of the ones provided. I wanted to create a performance matrix with crescendo control, such as that provided in HALion Symphonic Orchestra (HSO), which uses the mod wheel to cross fade (or switch) between samples played with different dynamics. The first step was to assign a continuous MIDI controller, such as the pitch wheel or breath controller for “velocity” X-FADE. I simply control-click the fader in the PERFORM tab of the VI window and used the breath controller to assign it.

Next, I needed to assign a controller as a switch because I don’t want velocity X-FADE always on. For example, I still like to use key velocity for short notes. I used the ribbon controller on my Yamaha Motif ES-8 keyboard as the switch. After fine-tuning the response curve in the VI window, I had a zone at the top of the ribbon that I use with my left thumb to activate velocity cross fade with the breath controller when I need it.

SE is a very flexible product and it’s easy to create your own customized performance setups. Since VI is also a standalone player, you can create key-switched presets with completely different instruments for live performance. For example, a song might need cello for the intro, trumpet for a solo and tubular bells for the ending each with its own key-switched and controller-modified articulations.

Vienna Instruments has some impressive software features. The flexibility to arrange patches within a matrix is very logical. Using custom keyboard notes outside the range of the instrument is also useful but the ability to design your own articulation performance sets is a real innovation.

VSL decided that the Extended Library should widen the instrument variety rather than add articulations for the Standard Library instruments. I think some might prefer a deeper set of articulations rather than some of the slightly redundant instruments.

On the other hand, the variety of instruments between the two sets allows for more distinctive and expressive realizations where custom ensembles of solo instruments are needed. Three cheers for including the amazing solo strings in the Standard Library. I wish the harp were there too.

Also on my wish list for VSL products are the hardingfele (or Hardanger fiddle for you “Lord of the Rings” fans), and jazz inflections of the string bass, trumpet and trombone. There are several products providing the heart pounding drums that have become common in animal documentaries and action scores. It would be nice to have additional drums recorded on VSL’s “silent stage” to blend with VSL products. Native American and European frame drums would be a nice addition.

But I’m nitpicking; this is a versatile set. The saxes and muted trumpets and trombones lend a jazz versatility while the electric guitar takes it into action score territory. These are pro sounds with plenty of useful articulations.

The Appassionata strings answer the mail for those who felt that VSL strings are too pure or precise (not that that’s a flaw). This is a lovely cinematic sound for sweeping themes. The small ensemble strings, woodwinds and classical guitar are also excellent. I loved the Epic Horns in the Horizon series and I don’t know of any other all-in-one set that has such a sound.

While these instruments do not have all of the articulations or detailed range of samples of the Vienna Instruments products they were selected from, the sound quality is the same. These are beautiful recordings that work well in many genres, including symphonic mock-ups, TV and game scoring, rock and pop production and music education.

VSL records their samples in an acoustically dry environment. The bad news is that you have to add reverb to make a symphonic piece sound like it’s in a concert hall. The good news is that you have complete control over the acoustic setting. Logic’s Space Designer convolution reverb with a scoring stage or concert hall works wonders.

I like the fact that much of the processing and memory are handled by a separate process, the vsl-server, which shifts much of the memory and CPU burden from the sequencing or DAW application. This frees up DAW resources for software synths and other sample plug-ins. The VI software includes options for optimizing RAM utilization by clearing samples not in use in a MIDI recording. This makes laptops and some older computers a viable platform.

Thirty-two bit applications, such as SE can use up to 4GB of RAM. Since SE runs outside the DAW application, an 8GB machine supports a hefty number of instruments in SE while leaving another 4GB for the DAW and other plug-ins. Theoretically if you had 12GB of RAM you could add a another sample player that runs outside of your DAW.

As this article went to press, VSL announced their Vienna Ensemble product, which they say will be a free update for Vienna Instruments users. They say that the Vienna Ensemble stand-alone player is designed to host Vienna Instruments on networked computers, and balances memory use when run on the same computer with the DAW. It also adds support for 64-bit PCs and Macs.

Summary

Wrangling a symphonic orchestra, even one as easy to use as SE, requires practice. While the skills for “conducting” a symphonic library differ slightly than the live orchestra, the goals are similar. The performance should flow smoothly and dynamically and the instruments should blend acoustically into a symphonic sound.

SE does not let you tweak every conceivable nuance of a performance but most of the tweaking that you need to do is either easy or even better, it’s automatic. The intention of SE is to quickly capture a realistic performance so you spend more time creating the music and less time sweating the details.

SE includes a huge selection of professional symphonic instruments and I don’t know of any other all-in-one set that includes solo strings and horns this expressive. If you want top grade pro sounds at an affordable price, look no further. SE is an excellent value and a serious musical tool.

Carlos Garza is currently scoring an action feature film. His work has been heard on Image Entertainment DVDs, Turner Classic Movies and the National Gallery of Art. He is a regular contributor to Pro Audio Review.

Fast Facts

Applications: TV/film music, symphonic realization, education and live.

Key Features: 24-bit samples, plug-in for VST, RTAS and Audio Units, stand-alone player for live performance, resource management, PC and Mac.

US Prices: Standard Library, $465; Extended Library, $625; both require Vienna Key, $39

Sales and product information in the U.S. from ILIO at ILIO.com (818-707-7222)

Product Points

Plus

• Astounding sound quality

• Innovative controls for efficient operation

• Automatic realism

• Computing friendly

Minus

• Harp missing from standard library

• Limited articulations for non-mainstream compositions

The Score

This friendly-priced, all-in-one symphonic library from one of the leading innovators of realism and quality is an outstanding value.

(c) 2007 Carlos Garza

Apple Logic Pro 7

Apple Digital Audio Workstation Software

Review by Carlos Garza
Originally Published in Pro Audio Review


Apple’s professional digital audio and MIDI production environment has been updated with new sounds and a new look.  As with other Apple offerings, it is available in both Pro and Express editions.

Both versions of the program integrate digital audio and MIDI recording with software synthesis, sample playback and notation.  With version 7, the improvements include user interface, workflow enhancements, new instruments and effects and, with 7 Pro, distributed processing for networked Macs.

Both products retain their previous list prices of US $999 for Logic Pro and $299 for Logic Express.  Upgrades from previous versions are available and a $19.95 upgrade from Logic Pro 7.0 to 7.1 was recently released.  This review will focus on the features of Logic Pro. 7.0

Logic Pro 7

Logic Pro 7

Features

The core of Logic’s flexible environment is the Arrange window, where recorded regions are visualized and where most editing takes place. MIDI and audio can be edited side-by-side in the Arrange window or in dedicated editing windows. Logic has extensive formatting features for notation printing. Logic incorporates synchronized playback of QuickTime video formats including playback to FireWire devices.

Logic Pro 7 includes four new software instruments. Pro 7.1 adds an additional pair of hybrid synth instruments. Sculpture, a component-modeling synthesizer, simulates the physical properties of acoustic instruments. Models starting with strings or woodwinds are modified by selecting materials, such as steel, nylon, wood or glass. Software “Exciters” are added to the model to modify the sound based on how a sound is actuated — picking, blowing or bowing, for example.

Ultrabeat is designed after the drum machines that were popular in the 1980’s. Sounds are generated through sample playback, virtual analog synthesis and FM for bass sounds. Ultrabeat is capable of 25 voices and incorporates filtering and distortion effects along with swing and human factors quantization. The 7.1 upgrade adds the ability to export patterns from the drum machine to the Arrange window.

Both products include EFM1, a software based FM synthesizer, and a set of instruments from GarageBand. Some of the Apple Loops provided with GarageBand incorporate the original MIDI note information in addition to the segmented sound data. Dropping this type of loop onto a MIDI track allows substitution of the loop segments with new sounds. GarageBand songs can be imported into Logic.

There are several new audio processing plug-ins, including Guitar Amp Pro, a plug-in incorporating tube amplifier and speaker emulations for electric guitar. Pro 7.1 adds a Bass Amp plug-in.  Ringshifter combines a ring modulator circuit with a frequency shifter. The Vocal Transformer separates fundamental frequency from its overtones allowing male-to-female and female-to-male voice changes.

The Pitch Correction plug-in takes a monophonic sound source and enforces pitch conformance to a musical scale with adjustable tuning.  Using an extremely fast setting creates something akin to Cher’s “Believe” effect.

The 7.1 upgrade includes plug-in delay compensation for native plug-ins, support for nine additional control surfaces and a number of performance and workflow enhancements.

The Distributed Audio Processing capability now lets users supplement the CPU resources of a G4 workstation or a PowerBook with the resources of additional networked G4 and G5 machines.  The user picks a lower powered machine as the workstation and then enables distributed processing for plug-ins on selected tracks.  Audio is routed through the Gigabit Ethernet port to the node machines for plug-in processing and routed back to the workstation host for mixing.

Among the workflow improvements is the ability to import audio from Final Cut Pro with XML metadata describing placement of audio clips on the time line.  Logic 7 can detect movie cuts to place markers in the global tracks, import QuickTime movie soundtracks and insert soundtracks in existing QuickTime files.

Interoperability with other DAW applications is expanded through support for Advanced Authoring Format (AAF), which includes information on the placement of audio files in the project.  Bouncing to AAC is now supported along with enhanced ID3 tag editing for bounced MP3 files.

The Arrange window has been enhanced with several new editing modes.  Control of the shuffle and snap modes is available at the top of the Arrange window.  A new cross fade mode automatically fades between regions that overlap on the same track.  A track solo feature is now available in the Arrange window.  While previous versions had a single Autoload (template) song, users can now pick from a set of templates predefined for various project types.

Logic Express 7 has the same visual workspace as Logic 7 Pro and includes 26 software instruments and more than 40 effects plug-ins.  The software instruments include the EXSP24 sample playback engine with a modest sample library, a variety of software synths including analog and FM emulations.  Effects include a preset version of the Multipressor multi-band compression, Guitar Amp, pitch and time effects, reverbs and supports audio resolution up to 24-bit/96kHz and QuickTime synchronization.  Logic Pro 7 supports audio resolutions up to 24-bit/192Khz.

In Use

I tested Logic 7 Pro on a G4 dual 1 GHz under OS X v10.3.7.  The audio interface was a Digidesign 96 I/O going into a Pro Tools HD|1 card.  I monitored through a pair of Mackie HR824s.

I found that Logic pro offers a number of improvements in both the “getting started” stage of a project and the polishing stage.  GarageBand instruments make a nice starting point for sketching out arrangements.  Rather than spending valuable time sifting through hundreds of sounds or hundreds of parameter settings, with the GarageBand instruments you just pick the instrument family and perhaps tweak a few basic settings and you’re making music.  And yes, they sound nice.

The new filmstrip in the Global Tracks is far easier than the older thumbnail tracks.  The improved ability to edit tempo changes graphically against the bar lines and filmstrip was a huge timesaver for me in matching hits to video events.  A lot of my film music uses odd meters to help me line up cues and hits.  Seeing the meter in the Global Track along with the filmstrip was very handy.

The main thing that distinguishes Logic Pro 7 from other professional tools is the sheer number of musically useful instrument sounds that are incorporated.  Anyone looking to Logic 7 for sound design features will be in audio heaven.

The first stop for sound designers is Sculpture.  The random tremolos and otherworldly breath effects make these sounds come alive.  The accelerating and decelerating tremolos are very tempting.  Imagine a plucked string instrument with the attack of a coin rolling on the table or a bouncing ball.  The edgier sounds based on breath models are well suited to film score and alternative music.

I set out to explore the different ways of using Logic as a composition tool.  For example, what if I want to approach writing songs like I did in the 80’s, using a drum machine and a keyboard?  Logic gives you a number of drum and keyboards options that would work in rock, pop, hip hop or electronica.  Ultrabeat has a variety of acoustic and electronic kits.  A word of warning, the ultra low kick drum sounds in the electronic kits will seriously rattle your speakers.

Support for Apple Loops has been expanded to allow more flexibility in importing GarageBand songs into Logic.  However, you can just as easily start in Logic.  I found a jazz/rock drumbeat that worked well with a reggae bass line loop.  But it needed some electric guitar.  So, I turned to Guitar Amp Pro.

Most of the preconfigured settings work fine but you will want to tweak things to work with your guitar and playing style.  The crunchy Woodstock setting put some meat on my Strat copy and enough bite to cut through the swirling electric piano part I had going on the EVP88.

Next, I ramped up an instance of the EVB3 organ emulation.  The “Whiter Shade of Pale” sound would have been perfect in the right setting.  In my case, a grittier sound was needed and EVB3 came through with some excellent sounds.

The Apple Loops drum beat that I picked worked well with the GarageBand fretless bass.  The gritty EVB3 organ and the edge from Guitar Amp Pro made the mix more authentic and much less “MIDI band”-like.  And all of this without waking the kids.

Summary

There are enough sound making and shaping tools in Logic 7 Pro to keep an army of sound designers employed for years to come.  The Space Designer convolution reverb and the EVOC vocoder continue to amaze me.

The workflow enhancements from Garageband song file imports to environment templates make this the user-friendliest version of Logic yet.  The new Arrange Window settings for region placement and crossfading of audio regions make for more efficient editing.

I realize that some may find the price tag of Logic 7 Pro a bit on the high side but I can’t say it’s over priced.  It’s actually a bargain when you consider the extensive features for sequencing, high-resolution audio recording, notation and video synchronization.  I had no trouble on a G4 Mac but if you like to use a lot of plug-ins and a lot of tracks you should consider a G5.

Logic has matured into a very productive and versatile environment.  Logic 7 Pro offers a wealth of features that will be useful to composers, musicians and arrangers.  Both products are a great way to awaken your music and sound design creativity.

Carlos Garza is a film composer who produces and engineers film scores for broadcast and DVD and is a regular contributor to Pro Audio Review.

(c) 2007 Carlos Garza

HALion Symphonic Orchestra

By Carlos Garza


Capturing the nuances of a symphony orchestra in a sample library is no easy task but several products are aiming to do just that. Manufacturers such as Vienna Symphonic Library, Garritan, East West, Miroslav Vitous and Steinberg are a few of the companies working on the challenge.

The most compelling products offer multiple performance variations and controls. HALion Symphonic Orchestra (HSO) is a new product from Steinberg Media Technologies GmbH, a subsidiary of Yamaha Corporation that offers real-time performance features found in some of the most expensive libraries at a price well under $1,000.

HALion Symphonic Orchestra

HALion Symphonic Orchestra

Features

The 15,000 individual samples supplied on DVD-ROM require 27GB of disk space for both 16-bit and 24-bit versions. The stand-alone player is used for live performance and playback from ReWire applications. HSO also runs as a VST, Dxi and Audio Units plug-in. A Steinberg Key device (not included) is required to use the library. A single device can be used for multiple Steinberg products.

As the name implies, HSO includes strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. The 1250 programs include solo instruments, ensembles and tutti sections all performed, according to Steinberg, by a leading European orchestra.

The strings include solo and ensemble violin, viola, cello and bass. Articulations include legato, spiccato, pizzicato, tremolo, portamento, espressivo and trills. The brass section includes solo and tutti trumpets, trombones, horns and solo tuba.

Woodwinds include solo flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, piccolo and English horn. The percussion family includes timpani, bass, snare, tambourine, tubular bells woodblocks, temple block, finger cymbals, vibraslap, triangle, sleigh bells, cymbals and gongs.

As with many sample players, the HSO software keeps a short bit of each sample in memory and streams the rest from disk. RAM and CPU use can be managed through the number and size of voice buffers and the minimum sample memory settings. The RAMSave™ feature frees memory by monitoring the notes played in sequenced MIDI tracks and dropping unused samples.

Users can selectively reduce the anti-aliasing quality in order to get more voices, for example, during recording, and then switch to a higher quality setting when bouncing or mixing tracks. “Economy” programs, which use fewer samples, are available for some instruments.

The “Q Controls,” seen in previous HALion products, are a set of eight MIDI-assignable controls that vary by program. Examples include, attack velocity, bow sound, “body” and “air.” Room ambience was recorded with the samples but can be controlled separately in level and duration.

In Use

I tested HSO with Logic Pro on a G5 Quad with 4GB RAM and Pro Tools on a G4 Dual 1GHz with 1.5 GB RAM. I monitored through Mackie HR-824 speakers. A Yamaha Motif ES-8 and a 2-octave Oxygen 8 were used as MIDI controllers.

My project was a short film score calling for both emotion and dynamics. I focused on strings since they are so important in film music. HSO offers alternating up and down bowing programs, a feature that overcomes the “machine gun” sound you hear from keyboard strings. I played the alternating spiccato string programs in the solo violin and viola and was amazed at the realism and ease of use.

HALion Symphonic Orchestra

HALion Symphonic Orchestra

The combination, or “Combi” programs, available in all instrument groups, are effective but require a little practice to get realistic performance variations. The string “Combis,” for example, include short notes, long notes, tremolo and trills. Articulations are selected by holding a switch key outside the instrument range.

I found a small annoyance in the half-step trill of the solo viola xSwitch Combi, which was noticeably louder than the other articulations. The other Combis, including the corresponding violin are well matched though. This can easily be fixed in the mix or avoided by recording trills separately.

The performance and tone controls offer plenty of tonal variety. For example, in the vibraphone program, the “Body” Q-control adjusts weight while “Presence” controls the mallet attack, simulating soft or hard mallets.

Percussive instruments derive their volume and tone from the initial hit and change little as the note decays. Strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion rolls, on the other hand, are capable of complex note dynamics. MIDI note velocity therefore controls percussion dynamics well but is less effective for other instruments.

Steinberg developed the Crescendo Control as a solution. Crescendo can be mapped to modulation wheel, breath, foot or expression controllers. The Xfade programs use Crescendo for continuous crossfade of samples, while the Xswitch programs switch between samples (requiring less memory).

The Crescendo Control can be used to create very natural sounding performances, especially in the strings and brass. By cross-fading actual samples played at different volumes, HSO has captured realism that can’t be simulated with volume and filter controls. Mastering Crescendo Control is a piece of cake. Combining it with key switch control is another thing, but it’s much easier than learning the violin, oboe, trombone, etc.

Most of the instruments sound very convincing to my ears. The solo strings are very expressive and the string sections are closer in quality to a more expensive library than they are to other libraries I’ve heard for under $1000.

The range of instruments and articulations cover the needs of basic symphonic mock-ups for education, film composing and pop music accompaniment. You won’t find esoteric articulations used in advanced orchestration, which is no surprise given the price. My wish list for a product update includes harp, celesta and muted brass.

While the stand-alone player and ReWire are required to use HSO with Pro Tools, ReWire can be useful even with DAW programs such as Logic Pro that support the Audio Units plug-in. Using ReWire I was able to keep my favorite HSO instruments in memory while switching Logic “songs.” This approach can also be used to optimize memory and CPU use under certain conditions.

HSO worked flawlessly on the G5. Memory limits on the G4 restricted the number of instruments that I could use at once but it worked fine with planning and occasional bouncing. HSO ran without problems as a Logic plug-in on the Quad and it seemed to run even smoother as a ReWire application.

Summary

This is an excellent sounding set that strikes the right balance between ease of use and flexibility. The inclusion of both 16 and 24-bit samples combined with advanced features make HSO a valuable tool for live performance and professional recording. Many composers will appreciate the inclusion of both first and second violin sections, something that even higher priced libraries occasionally skip. Others will miss the harp and muted brass.

With a little practice, the Crescendo Control can create very believable performances and the results are impressive. The Combi programs take more effort to master but the effort pays off and the price, sound quality and advanced features make HSO an excellent value.

Fast Facts

Applications: Symphonic, pop and TV/film orchestral realizations, music education and live performance.

Key Features: 16 and 24-bit symphonic instrument samples. Includes a stand-alone player and plug-ins for VST, Dxi and Audio Units. Crescendo controls and alternation features add realism.

Price: MSRP: $499, education discounts available; Steinberg Key: MSRP: $29.00

Contact: USA Online Shop 877-253-3900,  On-line:  Steinberg

Product Points

Plus

• Choice of high quality 16 or 24-bit samples

• Crescendo Control enhances realism

• Automatic alternation of repeated note samples

• Excellent control of resource utilization

Minus

• No harp, celesta or muted brass

• USB key not included

The Score

An excellent value in high quality 24-bit symphonic samples with advanced controls for performance realism.


(c) 2006 Carlos Garza

Vienna Symphonic Library Glass and Stones

Review by Carlos Garza

Originally published in Pro Audio Review


Provided on one DVD-ROM with 4.4 GB of samples at 16-bit/44.1 kHz. Glass and Stones includes glass harmonica, musical glasses, verrophone and lithophone. The EXS24 versions were tested with Logic 7 and HR824 monitors.

VSL Horizon Glass and Stones

VSL Horizon Glass and Stones

The glass harmonica includes portamento, sustained and half-step trill articulations played with fingers and short notes glissandos played with mallets. The articulations for musical glasses include staccato, sustained, tremolo and a half-step trill.

The verrophone is a set of glass tubes of different lengths mounted in a wooden stand. The tubes resonate at specific pitches, eliminating the need for water tuning. Verrophone samples are finger played with staccato and portato, sustained notes, tremolos and half-step trills. It’s also played with mallets in several variations including trills and glissandos.

A lithophone is a natural or man-made instrument made of stone. VSL recorded a lithophone constructed with marimba-like bars and resonators. The VSL lithophone program offers a variety of playing techniques, including soft, medium and hard mallets, fingers, fingernails, stones and a bow. There are single notes, mutes and tremolos.

The fingered verrophone has an almost vibes-like quality, especially the tremolo version. The lowest notes seemed very thick until I softened the throbbing fundamental and exposed the high frequency shimmer with an equalizer. The mallet glissandos on the verrophone have a mysterious quality that comes from both the whole tone-like scale and the sound, while the chromatic trills come across as a more metallic take on the angklung (see FX Percussion).

Most of the lithophone articulations remind me of a marimba but are different enough to be distinctive. The low end is very warm and comforting. I lengthened the attack of a soft mallet instrument and, when the lowest notes were played with a slow pitch bend, it sounded like a large sea animal. There are plenty of unexpected sounds in the lithophone effects but my favorite is the bowed low-end sound.

The forte samples of the glass harmonica have an edgy quality. The standard versions are designed to use less RAM but are suitable for general use. I found the versions with separate release triggered samples the most captivating and least “synth like.” For completely “out of this world,” try volume-fading chords or note clusters on the half-step trill sounds. Then throw in a pitch bend. Spooky stuff.

Although the focus of this review is sound design, I have to add that the Glass and Stones set has many musical possibilities. The sustained glass harmonica can serve as an organic cousin of the Theremin. Less electronic but just as haunting. Designing a sound for friendly aliens or the spirit world? You might want to check out these sounds.

(2) 2006 Carlos Garza

Vienna Symphonic Library FX Percussion

Sound Design Tools for Effects and Music
By Carlos Garza


At one time, nearly all composers used pencil and paper while sound designers worked with a mic, tape recorder and splicing block. While that approach clearly still works, today you are just as likely to see both at a computer — trading the pencil and razor blade for a MIDI keyboard and mouse.

This review examines three sound libraries designed for postproduction and multimedia effects and three libraries that have roughly equal value for dramatic sound design and contemporary music production.

All of the products reviewed in this article are offered by their respective manufacturers with a one-time purchase fee and no additional usage fees.

VSL FX Percussion

VSL FX Percussion

This sampler library is part of VSL’s Horizon series of orchestral sound libraries. It includes musical instruments and acoustic effects devices used in the symphony orchestra and around the world.

The set includes an angklung, bell tree, boobams (drums), brake disks & springs, bull roarer, Burmese bells, car horns, castanets, chimes, claves, cuica, exotic gongs, flexatone, hammer, Japanese singing bowls, jingle bells, lion’s roar, log drum, ocean drum, rails, rainmaker, shots, siren, spring drum, tam-tam, thunder sheets, vibratone, Walteufel, waterphone, whip and wind machine.

It is provided on one DVD-ROM with three GB of samples at 16-bit/44.1 kHz. Instrument mappings for both VSL products in this review are supplied for Logic’s EXS24, TASCAM GigaStudio, Steinberg HALion and Native Instruments Kontakt. They are intended to be played from a MIDI controller, such as a keyboard and in many cases offer various articulations or the same sound at different pitches across a range of keys.

Some of the programs use key switching to select articulations during performance. For example, the angklung, a bamboo instrument from Indonesia is available in short medium and long shakes. The combination program uses keys C1 to D1 to pick from the three.

Many of the sounds come from familiar objects, such as bells, horns and gongs. Much of this set is dedicated, however, to acoustic imitations of the natural world, many of which are commonly used in the symphony orchestra but some have origins that are more ancient.

For example, the bullroarer has a type of whiling aerophone, which is commonly associated with aboriginal Australians (although not by this name). The recordings are very deep sound with a high wind component that is captured beautifully in stereo.

Imitative instruments, such as the wind machine, thunder sheets, rain stick and ocean drum offer possibilities when mixed with recordings of the real thing. For example, thunder sheet mixed with real thunder creates a supernatural atmosphere.

Some sounds evoke a common feeling in different cultures while others do not. To my western ears, nothing says, “scary jungle” quite like the rattling bamboo tones of the angklung, an instrument native to Southeast Asia. The sound was used in Jerry Goldsmith’s original Planet of the Apes score. Goldsmith also made good use of the Brazilian cuica to mimic ape sounds. Here, the cuica chirps like a hairy ape and moans and groans like a wounded cow.

FX Percussion really shows off the acoustical environment that VSL created in their custom-built stage. This is most evident in the metallic pings, scrapes and boings. The Burmese bells samples, chimes are very relaxing and crystal clear. There is plenty of variety in the widely captured bamboo chimes. The Japanese singing bells program uses the modulation wheel to switch from rubber to wooden mallets, an expressive feature that I found very musical.

The more disquieting side is covered by thunder sheets and Peking opera gong. The China gong has more of the mysterious quality associated with tam-tams and is well represented with hits and rolls. However, the lack of bowed gongs and tams is unfortunate.

But fear not, or do fear, because there is bowing a-plenty in the thunder sheets and waterphone. The sound of distressed metal keeps me squirming no matter how many times I hear it. These samples are high quality and well suited to professional applications calling for terror and suspense.

Many of the sounds are explored in depth and the results have applications for sound designers in TV and film genres including comedy, drama, suspense, sci-fi and horror. The sounds are also perfectly suited to contemporary symphonic mock-ups.

(c) 2006 Carlos Garza

Vienna Symphonic Library Horizon Series

Horizon Series: Solo Strings, Chamber Strings, Woodwind Ensembles, French Oboe and Epic Horns

By Carlos Garza

Choosing a symphonic sample library used to be so much easier.  Dedicated hardware samplers from the likes of Roland, Yamaha, Kurzweil, EMU and Akai once ruled the studio and stage and sample libraries were designed around limitations of the hardware — memory and processor speed being the chief constraints. Price and sound quality were the key discriminators.

The sound quality expectations are higher than ever but another battle ground has risen around the software features of disk-based streaming sample players. Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL), GmbH, based in Vienna, Austria and distributed in the US by ILIO, is one of the leading contenders in this market. VSL was one of the first to build a controlled recording environment has developed a proprietary, real-time performance control mechanism compatible with four major sample players covering Windows and Mac.

Our look at the Horizon Series began in the October 2005 issue with a review of the Opus 1&2 Orchestra bundle, a selection of strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion instruments. In this review, we uncover the Solo Strings, Chamber Strings, Woodwind Ensembles, Epic Horns and French Oboe.

VSL Horizon Series

VSL Horizon Series

Features

All products in the Horizon series are available for Apple Logic’s EXS24 sample player, TASCAM’s GigaSampler/GigaStudio, Steinberg HALion and Native Instruments Kontakt.

Some of the Horizon products include samples from the Pro Edition while others are completely new. For the most part, these are single-note instrument samples rather than phrases. All Horizon products covered in this review are 16-bit/44.1kHz stereo. VSL claims an average of 95 dB signal-to-noise ratio. (See the Opus 1& 2 review for more recording details.)

Solo Strings includes 50,000 samples requiring about 29GB of hard drive space and ships on five DVD-ROMs. It includes samples from the Pro Edition and new samples. Each instrument, violin, viola, cello and double bass, is represented in a number of articulations. There are more articulations for violin than the others but all include: short notes, staccato détaché, long notes (with and without vibrato), dynamics, tremolo, trills, pizzicato, Bartok pizzicato, col legno, performance-legatos and repetitions.

Woodwind Ensembles contains around 14,000 new samples (6.1GB) and ships on a single DVD-ROM. It includes ensembles with 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets and 3 bassoons. The French Oboe set contains over 13,000 samples (7GB) and ships on a single DVD-ROM. It also contains instruments for “French style” English horn, small E-flat clarinet and piccolo runs. Epic Horns ships on a single DVD using 2.7GB for about 5,900 all new samples.

Chamber Strings includes almost 32,000 new samples (17.8GB) and ships on four DVDs. It includes programs with 6 violins, 4 violas, 3 celli and 2 double basses.  Each instrument group includes short notes, sustained notes, tremolo, pizzicato, trills, harmonics and other articulations. The performance articulations include legato, with and without portamento, and several styles of repeated notes. Also included are ensemble instruments, incorporating combinations of string families.

All reviewed sets include the samples (taking most of the disk space) and the EXS24 and Giga instrument programs on the DVD-ROMS. HALion and Kontakt instruments can be downloaded from the VSL website after registration.  Updates to Instruments and samples and the performance tool can be downloaded by registered users.

The performance tool, which is included with all of the products in this review, supports smoothly connected legato playing and key switched articulation selection for on-the-fly substitution of samples.  For example, users can switch between various short notes, staccato, long notes or pizzicato samples while playing in a single phrase.

In Use

I tested the VSL Horizon products using the EXS24 sample player plug-in under Logic Pro 6.4.2 and 7.1 under OS 10.3.7. Early testing was done on a 1 GHz Dual processor G4 Mac with 1.5GB RAM. The G4 was monitored through a Pro Tools HD|1 with a 96 I/O and Mackie HR824 speakers.

The samples were loaded on an OWC Mercury Elite FireWire 400/800 enclosure, which I attached to the G4 at FW400 speed. I later acquired a Quad G5 Mac running OS 10.4 “Tiger” with 4GB RAM and attached the OWC drive using its FireWire 800 port.

A few years ago, my group, Silent Orchestra, recorded a surround score for the Image Entertainment DVD of the silent vampire classic, Nosferatu. Most of my symphonic sounds came from a Kurzweil PC88 keyboard and two Akai S2000 samplers with the Miroslav Vitous mini set, Roland Strings and the Peter Siedlaczek Advanced Orchestra.

I’m fond of the Akai samples I used but the S2000’s 32MB memory and the limited real-time performance controls are a hindrance to realism. Instead of simply remixing and editing the score for CD, I decided to see just how much better the strings, woodwinds and brass could sound using the new VSL products.

Our score uses a solo cello melody as a leit motif for the vampire. I found the edge I wanted in the forte performance-legato cello from the Solo Strings collection. The automatic features of the VSL performance tool made it effortless to create an animated part with smoothly connected notes and subtle slurs.

The VSL products are not a panacea. Effective realization of symphonic arrangements requires an understanding of each instrument in the orchestra and a willingness to explore the capabilities of the product. A combination of articulations (varying the note length and dynamics) help create a more realistic performance. Since the VSL samples were recorded dry, you can create any acoustic environment you can imagine through EQ, panning and reverb.

One section of our score features woodwinds. I used Opus 1’s solo flute with the Woodwind Ensemble clarinets, oboes and bassoons for the accompaniment. I put a very quiet Epic Horn part in the upper register to add weight to the high parts while the bassoon section held down the low end. The blend was sonorous and so convincing, that Rich O’Meara, co-writer of the score commented, “it sounds like a real orchestra.”

VSL products have potential in non-symphonic settings. For example, I was hired to write solo cello and violin parts for an alternative rock recording. The parts were to eventually be recorded with a cellist and violinist. Plans changed when they heard my mock-ups using the Horizon Solo Strings. Time and money may have been factors but I like to think it was the striking quality of the samples and the convincing performance-legato programs.

I decided to try the Chamber Strings in an arrangement for another rock band, Red Racer. One piece called for an aggressive part based on a guitar riff.  A solo cello wouldn’t have had the impact I was looking for. The détaché celli in the Chamber Strings set had just the right combination of attack and weight.

The “French style” English Horn and the French Oboe — both are from the French Oboe set — are the most evocative woodwind samples I’ve ever played.  In this pop setting, the English horn added a stately quality but it would be equally at home in a world music arrangement or a moody film score.

The guys gave me complete freedom to experiment so I put the “French” English Horn, Chamber violins, violas and celli and a soaring Epic Horn solo on one track. The Epic Horns are majestic, powerful and inspiring while the English Horn and strings are seductive and enveloping. It feels like a hit.

VSL’s studio team has done a great job of capturing the instrument sounds.  The extended frequency response is generally a huge advantage. The winds and horns are detailed and airy. The strings are bright and crisp. The horns are commanding.

All VSL samples are recorded in a “silent stage” with standard articulations making for a very compatible sound across all Horizon products. Some performance features are very straight forward, For example, programs using the mod wheel to cross fade between dynamics are very easy to use. The performance tool features is very effective but some features require a bit of study. Most of my problems resulted from running too many EXS24 tracks on my G4 and maxing the 1.5GB of RAM. I had no problems on the Quad G5 with 4GB of RAM and the FireWire 800 interface.

There is plenty of depth in the articulations but I’d like to see more atonal effects — perhaps a single product incorporating spooky and amusing strings, brass and woodwinds. The alternate English horn and oboe are fantastic but more alternative instruments would be welcome. Wouldn’t it be nice to have another identically recorded solo violin for duets? How about a rock or jazz flute?

Summary

These Horizon products score high marks in sound quality and ease of use. They are expertly recorded, beautifully played and offer exciting ways of creating realistic performances. You’ll want a fast G4 or a G5 with plenty of memory if you plan on sequencing many tracks. A fast drive is also recommended.

The recent price reductions have created a bargain situation for all but the Chamber Strings, which is priced closer to Opus 1 Orchestra than the other Horizon products. Chamber Strings is still worth the asking price, it’s just not the bargain that the others are. Solo Strings is a steal.

VSL offers discounts on certain 24-bit Vienna Instruments for owners of First Edition and Pro Edition products and some related Horizon products. See the discount calculator on the VSL web site for specifics.

Whether you are scoring for stage, TV, film or pop arrangements, these VSL Horizon products are a fabulous resource and highly recommended.

(c) 2006 Carlos Garza