Like many of you, I realize much of my orchestral writing by using sample libraries and the tools with which they ship. On a piece that I scored for strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion called Walking Central Park, I fleshed out the parts by mixing and matching from various sample libraries. Just as musicians bring their own sound and sensibility to a recording session, sample libraries also carry the personality of the producer and recordist; judiciously mixing libraries together can help you create a sound with a personality that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Walking Central Park comprises 16 stereo tracks — a small number by today's standards — including three string parts (first violins, cello/double-bass/ensemble pizzicato), winds, brass and percussion. Most parts comprise an original Vienna Instruments performance (with controller data overdubbed on a second track to increase the number of articulations), along with samples from Sonic Implants and EastWest/Quantum Leap's Symphonic Orchestra blended in. I ran Steinberg Cubase SX on a workstation with dual AMD Opteron processors (built for me by ADK Pro Audio) and a single-processor PC that I use as a Tascam GigaStudio 3 machine.
Some of the libraries I employed on the piece are reviewed here. You can hear the complete work at www.mixonline.com.
Acoustic Legends HD
Vir2 Instruments is a new division of Big Fish Audio that showcases high-quality plug-ins that may cost more than some of the company's other releases. All of the instruments in Acoustic Legends HD ($250) were sampled at 24-bit/96kHz, and their sound quality is excellent.
This is a large library — about 19 GB — and it seems the developers concentrated on recording as many instruments as possible (including ukelele, banjo and mandolin — the mandolin tremolo should find its way onto pasta commercials in short order) while leaving the innovative stuff for later releases. Instruments and multisamples are laid out in standard fashion, with key-switching handling chord-type changes, alternate down- and upstroke variations, and a variety of mutes and percussive body effects. There's also a wide variety of steel- and nylon-string guitars that are not assigned to chords. Fret noise has been sampled and randomly blended into performances. It's a nice touch that adds realism.
A bonus folder of effects is included, but given the standard set by MusicLabs' RealGuitar2 plug-in set, in which MIDI files are built into the player to help the user create stunningly realistic performances, I hoped the Acoustic Legends HD would take a more innovative approach. Fortunately, the developers say they are in the planning stages of Version 2, which will take advantage of the scripting potential built into Kontakt Player 2 and incorporate MIDI files. As things stand, Acoustic Legends HD offers a wide variety of instruments that were beautifully sampled and well-organized.
Vir2 Instruments, 800/717-3474, www.vir2.com.
VIENNA SYMPHONIC LIBRARY
Prized for the depth of articulations offered and — with last year's introduction of the Vienna Instruments interface — the ease with which they can be accessed, VSL libraries have become the gold standard against which competing products are measured. However, one lingering criticism, particularly with the strings, is that they are less “emotional” than others. The newly released Appassionata Strings is the company's answer to this perception.
Large sections (20 violins, 14 violas, 12 celli and 10 basses) were tracked and some dramatic effects were recorded in addition to the normal bag of samples, the legato articulations that VSL is well-known for. When you assume your Bernard Herrmann alter ago, you'll be sure to take advantage of the “out-of-tune” samples, which are just that: samples of sections hitting a pitch while taking a few seconds to center on it. Using the A/B switch, you can also access the somewhat exaggerated portamento samples that can be extremely effective. A word of caution: Use these effects sparingly and in good taste!
The sections' clusters and random pizzicato patches will convince your clients you are a true musical genuis who understands the value of aleatory music. The grace-note samples are another nice touch; they rise and fall at a distance of a minor third and can be struck on their own or combined with other articulations. Of course, the more you get the more you want, including a bank of grace note samples in intervals from a semitone to a tritone.
The Appassionata Strings collection is smart, well-designed and a natural complement to VSL's other string libraries. Prices: $595, Standard Library; and $1,130, Extended Library
Vienna Symphonic Library, dist. by ILIO Entertainment, 800/747-4546, www.ilio.com.
EastWest has a history of applying creative thinking to the sampling game. As far back as the early '90s, the company worked with Dave Frangioni to integrate MIDI files and sample sets. Symphonic Choirs, which includes a word builder that lets the user apply text to a chorale performance, is a standard-bearer.
Symphonic Orchestra was recorded by Dr. Keith Johnson and comes in three packages. This is an excellent all-purpose library for film composers, thanks to its large ensembles (18 violins, for example) coupled with Johnson's well-documented ambient recording technique.
Presented in Kompakt player form, up to eight Instruments can be loaded into a rack. It's not a CPU-hog, so you'll be able to load lots of sounds, providing you have at least one reasonably fast processor in your rig. For quick sketching, grab one sound — a violin section playing with vibrato, for example. Ample key-switch integration is provided, and as you get familiar with the larger Instruments, you'll use them to execute more detailed performances.
DXF (dynamic crossfading) Instruments include multiple velocity layers (although I couldn't tell exactly how many), which are accessible via the mod wheel. You can move through these layers while sustaining a note to create convincing crescendos and decrescendos.
The Kompakt player's Instrument section offers plenty of tweaking capabilities, most of which you'll never use. But check out the multiple micro-tunings available in this area. Using a sforzando attack on the largest violin ensemble, I played a closed-position A major chord, adding the B-flat above the root; then, using the Glide function added a bit of scoop into the pitches and called up a microtuning. Instant Frenzy, a là Bernard Herrmann!
Street prices: Platinum bundle, $2,695; Gold bundle, $895; and Silver bundle, $265.
Stradivari Solo Violin Version 2
The trend in orchestral sample libraries is to give the user an ever-expanding number of articulations and interfaces to help navigate through them. Gary Garritan has taken a different approach. The Stradivari Solo Violin library ($199), which uses Native Instruments' Kontakt 2 player as a shell, includes the original sample set and a newer, more lyrical instrument.
Garritan's idea was to create a relatively slender volume of samples (less than 1 gigabyte) and an easy-to-learn shed of controller tools that provide you with unprecedented sound-shaping capabilities. At the center of the concept — which Garritan has ported to his soon-to-be-released solo cello plug-in — is a technique called Harmonic Alignment, developed by Giorgio Tommasini.
Rather than crossfading between discrete samples to create dynamics, as is traditionally done (which results in a temporary doubling of samples), the Stradivari Solo Violin samples morph into one another without introducing phase or doubling issues. At least that's what the literature says. But what's it like to play the Strad? In short, extremely satisfying. The sound is beautiful, and using a combination of controllers (CC 11 to modulate volume, mod wheel for vibrato volume and after-touch for vibrato rate), the Strad becomes a warm and highly expressive instrument. Take a listen to the demos on Garritan's Website.
There's lots more to be said about the Strad, which also incorporates traditional key-switching, but space doesn't permit a full review. Some clever touches were well-appreciated, including the tremolo keyswitch, which plays a sample twice: when a key is struck and again when it's released. Instead of having to choose tremolo samples at selected pitches and tempos, you can easily create convincing tremolos and maintain full control over pitch and speed.
Garritan Libraries, 360/376-5766, www.garritan.com.
BIG FISH AUDIO
LA Drum Sessions 2
Most products are difficult to review in 250 words. Not this one. The success of LA Drum Sessions encouraged Big Fish Audio to head into the studio for round two. The result is a no-frills set of grooves that is a must-have for many loop-based producers.
Being a Stylus RMX user, I used that app's SAGE converter to strip the REX file loops off the DVD. As usual, the content is also offered in AIFF, WAV and Apple Loops form. Whatever form you choose, you'll need just more than 3 GB of hard drive space for this collection of loops and hits. If you're short on space, then you can choose not to import all of the files. Big Fish has included dry, wet and room versions, and while it's true that there's no substitute for a set of room mics, in this age of affordable reverbs, you can easily go with the dry samples only and tailor them for your productions at a later time.
Loops were sampled at 15 different tempos, and all of the grooves in a particular tempo folder can be easily mixed and matched. LA Drum Sessions 2 offers high-caliber performances, and the fills in particular are a great bonus, especially if you use them as starting points and dissect them in an editor. Price: $99.95.
Big Fish Audio, 800-717-3474, www.bigfishaudio.com.
True Strike, True Strike 2
In 2002, composers Martin Spruijt, Vincent Beijer and Marco Deegenaars joined forces to develop ProjectSAM, a sample library production company. Their goal was simple: to offer well-recorded discs packed with great emotional wallop, with film composers as their primary target.
The company's first library, Horns, was released in 2002. Soon after, it brought several other brass libraries to market, and in 2004, ProjectSAM released True Strike, billed as a “Cinematic Orchestral Percussion” library. Last year, True Strike 2 (“Cinematic World & Effects Percussion”) hit the streets.
With so many well-sampled orchestral and ethnic percussion libraries already on the shelves, developing new sample sets offering something significant was a tall order, but ProjectSAM delivers. Limited space precludes a discussion of all of the libraries' contents, which can be loaded as Kontakt, GS3, HALion, EXS24 mkII or MachFive presets. Individual waveforms can also be sucked into Stylus RMX as REX files. Individual hits, which comprise the bulk of these libraries, won't require it, but you might want to import some fills into RMX and match them to your sequencer's tempo.
Recordings are provided in Close, Stage and Far variations. On True Strike, the same content is offered in these three mic placement settings, whereas True Strike 2 offers different material. If you have unlimited storage space, you may want to load all of True Strike's three sets of mic placements. However, if space is a consideration, then load the Stage mic placements. Rarely will you use the dry sounds; adding reverb will let you place the Stage sounds in a room of your choosing.
Everything about these libraries — such as the timp glissandos and tom-tom phrases — speaks to a film sensibility. For example, consider Dystopian Effects on True Strike 2. Who knew that dystopia is defined as “a society characterized by human misery”? This clever description aptly describes its content. The prepared piano on True Strike 2 is superb.
These libraries are highly recommended, and the company even offers some 300 MB of free samples on its Website to get you hooked. Street price: $399 each.
Gary Eskow is contributing writer to Mix.