Orchestral Sound Library
Review by Carlos Garza
Originaly Published in Pro Audio Review
|Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL), GmbH is based in Vienna, Austria and is distributed in the US by ILIO. Their main product lines, First Edition and Pro Edition, are symphonic orchestra libraries for Windows and Mac OS Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs).
Our look at the Horizon Series begins with Opus 1 and Opus 2 Orchestra, a selection of string, brass, woodwind and percussion instruments from the Pro Edition. Opus 1 and 2 are available individually and bundled.
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. The EXS24 instrument programs were tested for this review.
Opus 1 covers the standard instruments of the modern symphony orchestra. Opus 2 expands on the articulations in Opus 1 and adds instruments. Note the use of, “Instrument” for VSL sample programs and lower case “instrument” for real-world objects in this review.
Opus 1 Orchestra contains around 1,300 Instruments using over 40,000 samples (25GB) and ships on four DVDs. Opus 2 Orchestra includes almost 400 Instruments, using around 13,000 samples (9.3GB) and ships on two DVDs.
VSL reports that the samples were recorded using Schoeps mics through a Millenia Media HV3D preamp and a Daniel Weiss ADC1 MK2, 24/96 AD converter. They created the original 24-bit/96kHz.recordings on their “silent stage” with minimal room ambience. The samples have the same resolution as the Pro Edition, 16-bit/44.1kHz.
The Instruments are nearly identical for all platforms with only small differences based on sample player features. EXS does not support release velocity, for example, while GigaStudio does. The unique Performance Instruments are powered by VSL software that integrates into EXS24 and runs as a standalone utility for the other environments.
Opus 1 includes solo harp and ensembles with 14 violins, 10 violas, 8 celli and 6 double basses with articulations including staccato, tremolo, pizzicato, trills and more. The “bonus files” include major scale runs on violin and viola and harp glissandi.
Opus 1 includes Performance Legato Instruments for all woodwind, brass and string instruments, except harp. Opus 2 includes solo violin, viola and cello and bass with basic articulations. It also includes sixteenth-note repetitions and harmonic minor, chromatic and whole tone runs for ensemble strings.
Opus 1 woodwinds include solo piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, English horn, bass clarinet, bassoon and contrabassoon in a variety of articulations including Performance Legato. Opus 2 adds looped solo woodwinds including piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bassoon and performance legato bass clarinet and contrabassoon.
The brass family in Opus 1 is represented by solo tuba and solo and ensemble trumpet, trombone, and horn. Opus 2 adds muted solo and section trumpets and trombones, and a stopped horn section.
Opus 1 includes a comprehensive percussion section with timpani, snares, bass drum, cymbals, gongs, thunder sheet, bells, glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta, assorted hand percussion and, of course… TUBULAR BELLS (couldn’t resist). Opus 2 adds marimba, vibes, cencerros (Brazilian cow bells), waterphone, plate bells and timpani glissandi.
The Performance Tool included with each version of the product must be registered to activate its features. This tool, created by VSL’s engineering team, creates a more authentic sounding performance through real-time sample substitution.
In Legato Mode, the tool substitutes samples of notes played in succession in place of individually played notes. The Repetition Tool substitutes alternate samples to avoid the “machine gun” effect. Alternation Mode allows switching between different articulations in a single phrase or performance. Notes outside of the instrument range are used to select the articulation change dynamically.
I tested VSL Horizon products with Logic Pro 6.4.2 and 7.1 under OS 10.3.7 on a G4 2x1Ghz Mac with 1.5GB RAM and a Pro Tools 96 I/O. The sounds were monitored through Mackie HR824 speakers.
All installation DVDs contain both EXS24 and TASCAM GigaStudio Instruments and audio files compatible with all formats. Installation is accomplished by dragging the compressed Instrument and sample archives to appropriate hard drives and folders and uncompressing them. The sample files can be stored on any fast drive — preferably not the system drive. I used a external FireWire 400 drives for the samples.
HALion and Kontakt Instruments can be downloaded from the VSL website after registration. Updates to Instruments and samples can be downloaded by all registered users.
A good way to get a feel for the range and power of VSL products is to download a MIDI file and a corresponding MP3 demo from the VSL web site (vsl.co.at). MIDI files and MP3 demos are posted by VSL on their public site and by users on the Forum.
I chose a realization of Ravel’s “Little Ugly” posted by an Opus 1 user because it uses articulations and performance features in several instrument families of Opus 1 and includes around 60 Opus 1 Instruments.
I imported the standard MIDI file into Logic Pro, moved each region to an Audio Instrument track and assigned the recommended Opus 1 Instrument in the EXS plug-in.
In a large arrangement, you could have thousands of sample files open at once. Before I could load all the Instruments and associated sample files I ran into an OS X limitation on the number of open files.
I could have bounced a few Audio Instrument tracks to regular audio tracks and removed some EXS24 instances. However, a less compromising solution is available with EXSManager from Redmatica, which performs a number of useful chores for owners of large EXS24 sample sets.
One function takes a large number of sample files for an Instrument and merges the audio into fewer yet larger files. Also, EXSManager drastically improves the initial load time for Instruments with many sample files by pre-linking the Instruments and samples.
Once the MIDI tracks were active, I could hear the sounds individually and see the mod wheel and volume data that makes the sounds come alive. The mod wheel controller was used extensively in this realization to cross-fade samples with different dynamics.
Several things became clear after trying several MIDI files and my own pieces. First, a great amount of knowledge went into the generous selection of Instruments and articulations. The VSL creative team clearly understands how each instrument and section functions in the context of a symphony orchestra.
Secondly, the VSL samples are very well played and recorded. The MP3 demos on the site are a useful preview but compression loses the full quality of these gorgeous recordings. With the performance features and a nice reverb, you have the makings of a very realistic sound.
The realism in the Performance Legato Instruments is a major breakthrough. The Performance Tool is not snipping note starts as other sample libraries do. This is real legato playing.
The woodwinds and strings are detailed and expressive. The English horn in the Opus 2 set practically sings with joy. The performance legato contrabassoon and bass clarinet are positively spooky. Hitchcock would have loved these sounds.
The brass instruments are resounding. I was disappointed in the lack of muted brass until Opus 2 came along. The muted trumpets and trombones are going to get a lot of use in my next animation score.
There is plenty of variety in Opus 1 — strings for every occasion and percussion to launch an army. The variety of articulations in the cencerros and waterphone in Opus 2 is a real plus for anyone interested in exotic percussion effects, especially suspense, sci-fi and horror composers and sound designers.
Another favorite from Opus 2 is the “flautando string” sound. It’s mysterious but not as edgy as tremolo. The solo flute with vibrato in Opus 2 is beautifully executed and includes a graceful embouchure change with a progressive vibrato. Lovely touches like this have been very hard to find in orchestral samples at any price.
The lowest octave in the grand marimba in Opus 2 is an awesome sound. My only gripe is the bottom two notes, which sound a bit on the bright side compared with the rest of the octave.
The vibes were programmed with a long release, which makes it impossible to vary the length of each note. I’d rather use the sustain pedal to get longer notes. Maybe this will be fixed in an online update or another user will post a version without the long release time.
Note that VSL customers are free to swap Instruments but not the underlying samples. This is a good move as it has allowed the VSL products to be improved by their user base.
Another gripe — 24-bit/48 kHz samples would benefit those of us working in higher resolutions for audio and video production. I realize that would turn a 6 DVD set into a 9 DVD set and require faster drives and more memory but I suspect the sound would be awesome.
Opus 1 is an impressive collection and combined with Opus 2 it’s even more remarkable. The nuances in the playing and tone quality of the recorded instruments make these sounds come alive. The sound is nothing short of beautiful. Articulation playing requires new playing skills and possibly some patience to perfect but the payoff is astounding. Realism has never been this close in sampled instruments.
But you are wondering, are they worth the price? Opus 2 is roughly half the price of Opus 1 but is closer to one third the size. To quible about this would be missing the point. Opus 2 combines some basic articulations of instruments from other Horizon sets and adds articulations and instruments not found in Opus 1 and the First Edition. The highlights include basic articulations of solo strings, ensemble flute and clarinet, muted brass, looped sustained woodwinds, French oboe, marimba, vibes and percussion effects and the phenomenal Epic Horns.
The Opus 1 and 2 bundle canno be compared with the two to three hundred dollar mini-sets because it so broader and deeper in every instrument family. User feedback went into the selection of sounds in Opus 1 and 2. It is also priced well below the Complete Orchestral Package, Pro Edition, which lists for $5990 and the First Edition, priced at $3690. The combined bundle has enough variety to fill the needs of composers and arrangers working in almost any genre without breaking the bank. If you need a comprehensive orchestral set and are just jumping into the Horizon series, then the two together are a excellent value.
Opus 1 and 2 are the cornerstone of VSL’s Horizon line. In other reviews we will look at how other Horizon products such as Solo Strings, Chamber Strings, Epic Horns and the Woodwind Ensembles expand on this versatile library.
Carlos Garza composes music for films. His work has been heard on DVD, Turner Classic Movies and the National Gallery of Art. He is a regular contributor to Pro Audio Review.
(c) 2005 Carlos Garza