Technology

Field Test: Vienna Symphonic Library

Imagine waking up one morning and saying to yourself, “I'm not happy with what's out there. 9/01/2003 8:00 AM Eastern

Imagine waking up one morning and saying to yourself, “I'm nothappy with what's out there. I think I'll just…sample anorchestra.” Austrian musician/composer Herb Tucmandl took thisnotion several hundred steps further: The Vienna Symphonic Library(VSL) is by far the largest and most ambitious sample library everdeveloped: Even the initial 16-bit/44.1kHz version comes on 14double-layer DVDs, taking up 94 GB — yes, gigabytes — ofhard disk storage. Anyone who's heard the library's online demos knowsthat VSL is something special, in both quality and quantity. Everyinstrument has been meticulously recorded in stereo, playing astaggering number of articulations, making it possible to sequencehighly expressive and realistic orchestral performances. Variationsinclude notes of various lengths, all kinds of dynamics (accents,crescendos/decrescendos, etc.), and effects such as tremolo strings andflutter-tongued winds and brass, trills, rolls — all recorded atvarious tempos and mapped to the keyboard in differentcombinations.

And more VSL instruments and articulations are coming in the nearfuture with the upcoming Pro Edition (which should be shipping by thetime you read this), bringing the total up to about 250 GB. What'smore, the library was recorded at 24-bit/96kHz resolution, and will bereleased in that format when it becomes practical, automaticallyswelling it to nearly three times the current size!

THE PRODUCT LINEUP

VSL's initial offering consists of four products. Each section canbe purchased individually: strings (including harp), woodwinds andbrass, and percussion. These sections are bundled as the OrchestralCube, a 42GB collection with all the bread-and-butter single-notearticulations that you need to sequence elaborate and convincingorchestrations.

The fourth product is the 42GB Performance set, which is made up ofmore specialized elements. Its pièce de resistance is thelegato performances, which are samples of each instrument playingsingle notes and the transitions between every two notes within anapproximately three-octave range (depending on the instrument).

These are controlled by a MIDI utility program called the Legatotool. Play one key and hold it down until you've played the next, andthe Legato tool causes the sampler to substitute a recording of themusicians playing those two notes in one bow or breath. If the firstkey is released before the second one, then you get separate notes.This is a brilliant solution to the problem of how to account for thetransitions between notes — not just the notes themselves —and the result is stunning.

The Performance set also includes ascending/descending octave runsin both legato and spiccato variations, up and down every major andminor scale, with and without the first and last note (so that you canstart and end on longer notes); same-note repetitions that are alsocontrolled by a MIDI utility program, which I'll explain later;woodwind grace notes; horn glisses; and much more.

Both the Orchestral Cube and the Performance set could stand alone,but the Performance set programs seem to be intended more as asupplement to the Cube programs: There's no percussion in thePerformance set.

I've been working with both the Emagic EXS and Tascam GigaStudioversions of the Orchestral Cube.

THE RECORDINGS

A low noise floor is especially important for sample recording. VSLwas recorded in the Silent Stage, a custom room essentially devoid ofreverb. (See sidebar on page 108 for more on the VSL facilities.) Ithas early reflections — the instruments are recorded with plentyof air — but reverb tails would have prevented the Legato toolfrom working properly. Plus, not having reverb allows you to add yourown and blend the VSL instruments with others very easily.

So if you hear the VSL dry, it sounds completely wrong! But it's notintended to be heard that way. Only after running it through a goodreverb program do you realize just how outstanding the recordingquality is across the entire library: miked closely enough to bedetailed, back far enough to sound right in an orchestral context,well-managed dynamics; it's just really satisfying to play. I've beengetting excellent results running VSL instruments through some of thehall programs in Audio Ease's Altiverb, a sampling/convolution reverbprocessor.

Looking at the individual sections, the strings are powerful, largesections, re-corded with just the right amount of rosin. Sampled harpsare usually recorded with mics way too close, but not this one: It'sjust outstanding. The brass is more refined than gritty, but it stillhas power to go with its clarity; both solo and four-person sectionsare available.

For now, the woodwinds are all solo, but VSL is planning to releasealternative performances for making choirs. Piccolo is really the onlystandard orchestral instrument missing from the initial release, but itwill be among the instruments in the forthcoming Pro Edition, alongwith solo strings and many other instruments and articulations. (Iheard a beta of the solo violin from that set and it's absolutelystunning.)

The percussion is uniformly spectacular, and it includes some reallynice exotic instruments such as spring drum and Japanese singing bowls.There are samples of cymbal rolls played with various weapons, butcymbal crescendos are missing from the collection.

Looking at the 16-bit/44.1kHz first-edition files in thespectragraph of Metric Halo's SpectraFoo program, you can see quiteclearly that they were reduced to 16 bits from their original 24 withnoise-shaped dither. The audio quality is as spectacular as therecordings themselves.

THE LEARNING CURVE

The VSL is likely to inspire awe when you first load up some of itsinstruments and start playing. That's especially true after you firsttry the portmento strings in the Performance set, which are that set'smost dramatic feature.

After that first blush, though, it took me a few days to feelconfident getting around the library, almost like learning a familiar,but new, instrument. The library is organized with consistencythroughout all of the instruments. In fact, you can pretty muchsubstitute the instrument being played by a sequencer track withoutmuch performance tweaking.

For real-time control, the VSL uses keyswitches and the mod wheelonly; no other controllers are used (although you can use Controller11, Expression, as a volume control in both Giga and EXS). Key-switchesare on-the-fly program changes, triggered by notes in an unused regionof the keyboard.

The first programs in the file list for most of the instruments areBasic Instruments, which are “toolbox” programs that makeconcessions to lower the RAM requirements and therefore allow you toload a lot of programs. (Even though they play the bulk of the samplesfrom a disk, streaming samplers still need “head-start” RAMbuffers, and memory for loading programs is the first resource you runout of.)

The regular, high-quality programs add additional samples to theones used by the Basic instruments: They're sampled at every noteinstead of every other one, and they have more velocity layers. To giveyou an idea of the VSL's depth, let's use the violins as anexample.

The violin has about 20 “bundle” files — .gigfiles or EXS folders — each containing about 20 programs. Theseconsist of three kinds of staccato notes, each with two variations(up/down bows, in this case).

Then there are combination programs that might employ mod wheelcrossfades between layers, or keyswitching between differentarticulations or between the two variations. Plus, there are programswith release samples that are triggered by note-offs when you releasethe keys.

The programs that offer the most real-time control — and, ingeneral, use the most RAM — include the Dynamic Layer programs,which use the mod wheel to fade between two to four layers (instead ofkeyboard velocity). The transitions between the string layers areexceptionally smooth, but the brass transitions don't work quite aswell.

This is especially true in the EXS24 Dynamic Layer brass programs,which tend to be programmed with slightly rougher transitions betweenzones than their Giga counterparts. But you really need to switch zonesin between two brass notes anyway, because louder, buzzy brass notesdon't crossfade politely to smooth quieter ones (or vice versa). Plus,you'll sometimes hear one or more players making quick intonationadjustments, especially on the lower notes; you can't crossfade intothat.

As an alternative to using the mod wheel to move dynamics, you canuse actual crescendo and diminuendo performances, mod wheel crossfadingbetween the two when necessary (and that does work well). While youcan't control how quickly the brass gets into and out of the buzzytonal range, there are recordings of different lengths to choosefrom.

In general, the VSL plays very well at the keyboard. My biggestcomplaint about the mapping is that some of the short-string programsbite all of a sudden when you trigger the higher-velocity layers.However, the folks at VSL have demonstrated that they're bothinterested in and responsive to user suggestions.

Users complained that the strings aren't looped, making them hard touse for suspense cues. The company is looping them. The Performancelegato violins don't go all the way up to high C. VSL is recording moresamples to extend the range. The oboe is German-style, not the moregoat-like French sound that we're used to, although samples from aFrench-style oboe player are planned. And so on.

ALTERNATION, REPETITION AND LEGATO TOOLS

Keyswitches allow alternating between the variations (such asupbows/downbows, left/right-hand percussion strokes and “upbeatand downbeat” woodwinds/brass) available for many Orchestral Cubearticulations. The Alternation tool can automate the keyswitchingprocess between the two variations in up to 12 programmable 12-steppatterns (1-2, 1-2-2-1, etc.); you can use this to program paradiddleson snare drum, bowing patterns on strings and so on. It works byintercepting the incoming MIDI data and then managing the Giga or EXS24key-switches, and is simple to set up and use.

When the Performance set is added to the Orchestral Cube, theAlternation tools are incorporated into a similar program called thePerformance tool. This tool provides two additional modes: Legato andRepetition.

To avoid having repeated notes sound identical — i.e., to makethem more realistic — the VSL includes recordings of the samenote played a few times in succession; these are available in varioustempos, articulations and dynamics (including crescendos anddecrescendos). The Repetition tool allows playing these notes at, orfaster than, the tempo at which they were recorded.

The Repetition feature ranges from only subtly different from usingthe Alternation tool (at the expense of quite a bit more tweaking) tovery natural when you use the crescendo and decrescendo repetitionperformances.

The amazing Legato tool is easy to use and quite versatile. For thestring Performance Legato programs, for example, the VSL includes bothstandard and portamento (gliding) performances. These are onlyavailable with a single-velocity layer in each program, but there are“p” and “f” versions, and the company isreportedly working on layered programs, as well. The Performance Legatoperformances in the initial release are all long tones, but I checkedout a beta program of short-note performance legato violins that'sreally great.

VSL has done an excellent job of making this huge library and itslegato, repetition and alternation features playable. And this is thearea of sampling technology with the most room for growth. Even withkeyswitching and MIDI tools, you still have to use multiple sequencertracks routed to different articulations on different channels a lot ofthe time. That's where you get into programming rather thanperforming parts.

There aren't many ways around a lot of this, of course. But we couldstand to see more intuitive ways of having the articulation that wewant come up in real time. To me, the samples are mature, while theperformance interface remains in its childhood. The VSL people say thisis a limitation of the software samplers' RAM capacity.

MACHINES

The first step toward performance nirvana is to have all of thearticulations you want loaded up in Giga or EXS, ready to play. As ofthis writing, that requires more RAM and polyphony than a singlecomputer provides, so many composers run multiple-computer setups.However, the next generation of computers promises to consolidate thesesetups considerably. The newly announced G5 Macs will load up to 8 GBof RAM, for example.

The VSL Performance instruments are RAM-intensive, yet you can loada lot of the Orchestral Cube into a single Mac or Windowsmachine: 32 different programs of varying complexity might be typicalfor a CPU loaded with 1.5 GB of RAM.

There's practically no difference in the amount of VSL on my twotest machines: One runs Logic/EXS24, the other is running GigaStudio.GigaStudio's polyphony is fixed at a maximum of 160 mono voices, whileI was able to run roughly 180 stereo EXS24 voices off a FireWire drive.Multiple-machine GigaStudio setups are more economical than multipleLogic/EXS24 Macs.

The differences between the EXS and Giga versions of the VSL aresmall. GigaStudio has the ability to adjust the times of releasesamples (which are note tails triggered when you release the key). EXScan load more key-switchable programs onto a single keyboard. VSL takesadvantage of these features in a few programs, but there's reallynothing between the two versions.

To get more mileage out of the VSL, at least while composing,convert its programs to mono. This effectively doubles what you can getout of a single machine. There's an excellent program — availablefor both Mac and Windows — that does this (in addition toconverting sample libraries between a large number of formats): ChickenSystems Translator Pro.

CONCLUSION

Sample library reviews usually conclude with comments like, “Iwas surprised at how much of this disc was actually usable.”Well, the VSL is miles beyond those considerations: Every articulationof every instrument is not just usable, it's for real.

Taking nothing away from the other excellent libraries on themarket, I consider the VSL one of the most important products in thehistory of modern music technology. Reviewers are supposed to keeptheir distance, but even with my eyes wide open, I have to confess tohaving fallen madly in love with it. It's awesome and inspiring to workwith.

Dist. by ILIO Entertainments, 800/747-4546, www.ilio.com/vienna.

Nick Batzdorf is an independent writer/engineer/producer based inSouthern California.

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