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“Vienna Symphonic Library Review”

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Pic of Greek flag Αυτό το άρθρο εκδώθηκε στην ελληνική έκδοση του περιοδικού μουσικής τεχνολογίας, Sound Maker, το 2005.
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Vienna Symphonic Library Review

Music Technology Software Review by Matheson Bayley, 2005

Fig.1 - Herb Tucmandl
Herb Tucmandl

Whatever you read, whomever you ask, the Vienna Symphonic Library – brainchild of Viennese composer Herb Tucmandl (See Fig. 1) – is sweeping 5-star reviews across the board. And this article ain’t no exception. With the launch of their First Edition's 92GB library back in the spring of 2002, the world was confronted with a new benchmark of sampling excellence: a comprehensive articulation list for a mind-boggling panoply of symphonic instruments, each catered for with astounding attention to detail, insurmountable quality, and sensitive musicality. The VSL Pro Edition upgrade (2003) blew the original out of the water, with a colossal 235GBs, capturing almost every sonic nuance the modern symphony orchestra can muster, from Piccolo flutter tonguing and thrumming Harp bisbigliando, to the Indonesian Angklung (tuned bamboo rattle) and Peking Opera Gong. One begins to get a feel for the enormity of the €5 490 library when told that every chromatic note of the woodwinds flaunts 10 different trills: from a semitone to a perfect forth, both traditional and accelerating! Exhaustive and meticulous, the world had never seen anything like it.

Next came the Horizon Series – ‘supplementary’ libraries which specialised in specific instruments – each of which promised to fill in the missing bits, so to speak. Formerly absent instruments were conjured up, while we were spoiled with yet more playing techniques, culminating in an incomparable set of ultra-realistic sounds which, when wielded in the hands of a clever programmer, could trick even the most educated Classical ear.

Fig.2 - Orchestral Cube
Pic of Orchestral Cube

The VSL's strings (10.77GB), woodwind & brass (20.71GB), and percussion (12.55GB) sets, when bought in bulk, go by the name of the Orchestral Cube (€3 190) (See Fig. 2), whose emphasis is largely on single-note multisamples. The Performance Set, however, at €2 590, is dedicated to more complex, multiple-note events, from octave runs & glissandi to grace notes & upbeats. The two can be purchased together as the VSL Complete Orchestral Package. On the upbeat front, the brass are particularly well decked out, with one, two or three 16th notes leading to a short note in 3 dynamics, and 12 different tempos ranging from 80 to 190bpm. Insanity.

I: Robot

Fig.3 - The Performance Tool
Pic of The Performance Tool

As if superlatives were not in overabundance already, here enters...drum roll...The Performance Tool. (See Fig. 3) The Musicians’ Union’s worst nightmare, this powerful piece of unparalleled programming adds the finishing flourish of perfection to any MIDI score, ‘humanising’ even the most pernicious of ‘robotic’ phrases. Most impressively, gone are the days of the dreaded ‘machine-gun effect’ – that tell-tale sign of real instrument fakery, heard when the same sample is triggered by a string of fast consecutive notes. It may take a little time to program in the necessary tempo etc, but realistic rapid repetition is unquestionably within your grasp. Perhaps even more disturbing to the MU is the ‘legato function’, which blends the ends of adjacent notes seamlessly with one another. This was achieved by sampling every interval from a minor second to an octave (both upwards and downwards) from each note in every instrument's range, after which the front of each sample was trimmed, leaving but a few milliseconds of the starting note. Thus, the smooth transitions between one pitch and the next were preserved. The stuff of dreams.

It’s not all plain-sailing, however. Getting the Performance Tool to work with the Horizon Series entails a sizeable amount of tedious fiddling with ‘on-line activation wizards’, but the realistic slurs (and even string portamento) you’ll hear as a result makes it worth the struggle.

It’s all in the Programming

If the ‘realism’ of a MIDI rendition depends 80% on the quality of the samples, well, that final, crucial 20% is in the hands of the programmer. To be the ‘clever programmer’ mentioned above comes intuitively to some – particularly those of us who play an instrument or two – and there’s no doubting that experience with the ‘real thing’ is the only sure-fire way to know how to ‘fake it’ with samples, but there’s still the odd trick the rest of us can learn to add a little realism to our MIDI. The Bible on this subject, written by veteran VSL user Beat Kaufmann, can be found at: http://www.beat-kaufmann.com/tipspcmusic/
There’s no question: even the quality of the VSL combined with the power of the Performance Tool produces lifeless, unnatural results in the hands of the inept.

Let’s take, say, a C major scale going up nine notes then coming back down again. Ie: Do → Re’ → Do. Now, imagine that we’re gonna play it on a Bb Clarinet at 120bpm, with each note lasting a quaver. Reminiscent of boring homework as this may be, let us also try to conceive of it as a ‘musical’ phrase – not just an exercise (and any instrumentalist will tell you that even the humble scale should be practised musically). Well, which articulations should we use? There is, of course, no objectively correct answer to this. The potential combinations are only limited by your imagination, though mood, taste and context will most often rule out less orthodox choices. One obvious approach, if aiming for a lyrical, happy feel, is suggested in Fig. 4:

Fig.4 - C major scale (click to enlarge)
Pic of C major scale

Grouping notes in sub-phrases which mirror the breathing of the performer (or the bowing etc), is vital if the end result is to sound at all convincing. The same scale played entirely legato, or entirely detached, though quite possibly appropriate in certain contexts, is unlikely to sound as ‘natural’ as one with ‘shape’. By ‘shape’, I mean such considerations as dynamics (swelling a little louder as the line rises in pitch, and relaxing as it descends), and the judicious placement of accents on stronger beats (the second note of each group of four in Fig. 4 would most probably be played a little shorter than the third note, for example). But there’s indubitably no ‘quick-fix’. Any guitarists among you familiar with MusicLab's Real Guitar will be all too aware of the importance of intelligently positioned up/down strums + muted ‘ghost’ notes in order that the result bear any resemblance to a ‘real guitar’.

Summary / disclaimer: the Performance Tool doesn’t work magic on its own; first, the wand-waver must know which spells to use.

The Horizon Series

To date, the VSL Horizon Series has offered us the following specialised collections: Vienna Concert Guitar, Overdrive Guitar, Saxophones 1, Epic Horns, Woodwind Ensembles, French Oboe, Mallets, FX Percussion, Vienna Harps, Solo Strings, Chamber Strings, and Glass & Stones (a bizarre collection of such rarities as the shimmering glass harmonica, the verrophone, and a 5-octave lithophone). (See Fig. 5)

Fig.5 - The Horizon Series
Pic of The Horizon Series

All the Horizon Series DVDs include GigaStudio and EXS24 mk II format. Also, any Horizon product can be used with Tascam’s GigaStudio, Steinberg’s HALion (stet) or Native Instruments’ Kontakt samplers – you simply need to download the respective programs which use the .wav files contained on the DVDs.

The best deal going, however, is without doubt, the Horizon Opus 1 & 2 Bundle. At a fraction of the price of the Pro Edition, it takes the best of the best (and the most useful!) from the Cube, the Performance Set & other Horizon Series, to give us a generous (if marginally impoverished) salmagundi of instruments, techniques and effects – far more pragmatic than the Orchestral Cube alone. Granted, it doesn’t boast the extreme outside members of the brass family of which Wagner was so fond, but then again, how often will we want to use the Bass Trumpet, Wagner Tuba or Cimbasso (a valved, contrabass brass instrument which stands on the floor while played)? Far more useful, it seems to me, are the Opus 2 ‘Instruments & Articulations Package’ of String Legato Runs (major, harmonic minor, chromatic and whole tone scales), the extraordinary ‘Flautando Strings’ (played with the bow close to the fingerboard for a flutelike quality), and the aforementioned, indispensable ‘Fast Repetitions’.

Opus 1 provides the basic stock of string techniques, also present in the Cube, (27 GB) such as: long & short Détachés (up and down bow), Sforzato, Sforzatissimo, Espressivo, Trills (half and whole tone), Col legno (tight & loose), Sordino Staccatos, Sustained Notes, and Tremolos. This is complemented by Opus 2’s 9.3 GBs of data on 2 DVD-ROMs. Naturally, this builds upon the necessary foundation of Opus 1, which is itself, anything but a ‘light’ version. While providing enough basic set instruments to keep all but the most demanding professionals satisfied, it also has a very user-friendly structure, enabling instruments to be exchanged without confusing controller assignments or messy altered program numbers. This is a bundle of unbeatable value (over 50 000 samples!) and impressive versatility (ideal, unless you intend to devote much time to creating MIDI renditions of The Ring Cycle).

Mention must also be made of the brass ‘bonuses’ available on Opus 2: sordino and stopped playing techniques. Note that the Cube doesn’t contain any of these; no muted brass whatsoever. The basic set of the Horizon Series' majestic Epic Horns is also thrown in. On the woodwind front, the complete Performance Legato articulations for bass clarinet and contrabassoon are present, not to mention looped sustains for all woodwind instruments, as well as the Flute & Clarinet Ensembles + the basic set of the French Oboe. With all that going on, I must repeat that I feel somewhat duped by having remortgaged my house for the arguably inferior Cube.

Now, despite the accolades above, it hasn’t escaped the notice of some that the Vienna boys are as shrewd in business as they are in the studio... Although the exorbitant €5490 price-tag of the original VSL Complete Orchestral Package is outside the budget of most private musicians, it came as quite a shock to those who shelled out for the ‘complete package’ that it wasn’t actually ‘complete’. Notably, there’s no saxophone: (you’ll have to shove your hand deep into your pocket again for the Saxophones 1 Horizon Series – and even that doesn’t contain an alto sax!), though its omission is arguably understandable given the predominantly Classical orientation of the library. Then again, composers have regularly employed the brass clarinet-cousin in orchestral works since the mid-19th Century. Quite what their excuse is for the omission of an Eb Clarinet, however, I can’t imagine. Once more, it does exist, but you’ll be buying the Woodwind Ensembles before you get to hear it! Even more strikingly, while the Cube contained a voluptuous Solo Violin and exquisitely executed Solo Cello, it leaves us wanting for either a Solo Viola or a Solo Double Bass. These two pivotal instruments, yet again, have been recorded, and can be found on the Horizon Series’ Solo Strings collection, along with an additional Second Violin sporting a most-welcome contrasting timbre to the (First) Solo Violin – ideal for rendering string quartets. Needless to say, the Violin & Cello are identical to the Pro Edition samples. Ditto, the Cube’s basic woodwind sets mirror those of the Woodwind Ensembles etc... Frustrating conclusion: it isn’t possible to get hold of the entire volume of Vienna sounds without buying (much) more than one package, and consequently, ending up with quite a few extraneous duplicates.

Stringing Us Along?

Solo Strings offers a dazzling armoury of techniques: who could fail to be impressed by a sample library capable of convincingly rendering the example notated in Fig. 6 below? For your delectation: staccato, 1.3 second length notes, 1.5 second length notes, sforzando, legato, various (de)crescendi, weak/strong vibrato, pizzicato, Bartok pizz (violently ‘slapped’ pizz) and col legno (hitting the strings with the wooden part of the bow), not to mention portamento when using the ‘legato mode’ in the Performance Tool. But alas (and here comes more evidence of VSL’s entrepreneurial nous), you may be disappointed to find that while the Violin also contains a veritable treasure trove of spiccati, acciacature (grace notes), runs and glissandi, the Viola does not! Moreover, you won’t find any string harmonics – the one regrettable omission of some significance – though the Chamber Strings package introduces flageolet natural harmonics, and the 'Baroque' trill, which lingers momentarily on the initial note before the trill starts.

Fig.6 - Contemporary Abstract Musical Notation (click to enlarge)
Pic of Contemporary Abstract Musical Notation

I presume we shall, at some stage, see the release of yet another ‘even closer to complete’ Strings Series, which – for the sake of completeness – means even more money, and even more duplicates.

Let me take a moment to register my reservation that there is no Vienna product in any Horizon Series which offers the ‘sweet’ Hollywood string sound to which we have become so accustomed at the movies. The ‘rawness’ of the 14 First Violins together, while faithful to reality, is far from the surging timbre required for a lush legato melody, or a gentle pad.
Update 2007: 'Appassionata Strings' is now available, which fills this gap.

Interfaces

Tascam’s GigaStudio is the recommended sampler for use with any VSL product. It is, after all, (to quote their blurb): “the world’s biggest, fastest, and most powerful sampler – now even bigger, faster, and more powerful...”. The most recent update, Version 3.1, also boasts the simplicity of ‘drag & drop creation of GigaPulse presets’, a ‘Stack Instrument Selection Feature’ which far surpasses previous Dimension limits by allowing you to assign keyswitches for swapping sounds on a MIDI channel during a performance. Fig. 7 shows the instrument loading pane. All very nice. But hold onto your horses, there’s a spanner to be dropped in the works...

A fleeting survey of support forums online reveals the regrettable fact that it can be hellish to get GigaStudio stable on your system. Of course, some lucky users simply install the thing without a hiccup, and progress to compose ether-shattering symphonies with no further technical hitches. For many, however, the daunting array of system settings and compatibility issues make for a less-than-happy initiation. I, personally, was one of those many. And things aren’t helped by our having to decypher Vienna's inexplicable choice of opaque abbreviations that label each sample: "PO" is trombone, "KB" is double bass. So before battling with GigaSamples, remember to get a degree in Computer Science, and to learn German.

Fig.7 - Instrument Loading Pane (click to enlarge)
Pic of Giga Studio instrument loading pane
Fig.8 - Giga Studio
Pic of Giga Studio

Giga is a very ‘heavy’ program – so running it alongside the gigantic VSL, the Performance Tool, and your sequencer while trying to keep latency down is likely to result in memory problems. Though Giga (See Fig. 8) offers a theoretical unlimited polyphony, such resources as a 3.4GHz CPU with 4GBs of RAM will still result in clicks, pops and drop-outs if you run just a handful of instruments simultaneously. Here’s why: Consider what happens during the split-second that two notes overlap when playing legato: suddenly what might have been a mere 4 wind instruments becomes 8, demanding twice the amount of RAM. It gets worse: when playing notes in rapid succession, you may even find that the third note is struck before the release of the first note has completely faded away. Ergo, what might have been only 4 becomes 12. But here’s the real rub: as each chromatically sampled note has 24 variants in legato performance (12 different intervals, up and down from the base pitch), loading around 7 of them gobbles up nearly half a Gigabyte of memory. Then there’s the fact that many instruments are actually layered. The piano, naturally, can play almost a hundred notes simultaneously (and we don’t need a hundred fingers – only one foot for the sustain pedal!)

Fig.9 - Hans Zimmer
Hans Zimmer

The conclusion is, that despite the enormous exponentially increasing power of our twenty-first century computers, there really isn’t a solution. Well, there is, but not for us mortals: legendary Hollywood film score composer, Hans Zimmer, seems to have cracked it... (See Fig. 9) For years now, he has famously been providing demos with his 22 linked machines, each one dedicated to running Giga and a single VSL instrument (one computer for each instrument of the orchestra). A monstrous daisy-chain of enviable power.

Till that day comes for me, my approach to creating a top-notch demo without having to hire the Vienna Symphony Orchestra itself, is to perfect a score in Sibelius, take the MIDI to Cubase SX3, load each respective instrument into Giga, and convert it to audio before opening another.
Unquestionably, should you require much ‘real legato’ in an arrangement, you’ll have to bounce everything as you go. You may forfeit the luxury of being able to make changes with the ease of MIDI, but, well, if you’re not as rich as Hans...

Networking two computers together with both computers running GigaStudio will, of course, double your power. A common misconception: this has nothing to do with getting Giga to communicate with another instance of Giga, but rather, with getting MIDI from your sequencer out to each instance of Giga, and routing audio back into the sequencer for mixing with your tracks etc (details depend on your precise setup).

You can either do this with a MIDI interface, returning audio via, say, Lightpipe; with Midioverlan (sends MIDI via Ethernet); or with Fxteleport – software for sending MIDI and audio over Ethernet.

Keyswitching

Be it the Pro Edition, Opus Bundle or any of the Horizon Series, one of the most impressive features is their sequencer interface. From crossfading through velocity layers with the modulation-wheel, to the Alternation Tool / Giga’s keyswitching facility, this is one area they’ve got truly sussed. Selecting a COMBINATIONS option in Giga immediately turns the bottom octave of a full-sized piano keyboard into a real-time sample switcher. (See Fig. 10) For example, the Violin 1 Basic-Set offers the following triggers in the C0 octave:

Fig.10 - Key Switches (click to enlarge)
Example of VSL Key Switches

Tapping one of these keys with your left hand while playing happily away with your right becomes second nature in no time at all. You’ll soon be able to play a fluid melody – switching between staccato, legato and so on, as appropriate – all on the fly. Of course, for the less prestidigital among us, the sample changes can be programmed just as easily.

In conclusion, a word or two about limitations:

Any musical instrument in the hands of a pro exhibits an near-infinite range of subtle variations: dynamics and attacks; grace notes, trills and runs; bends, falls, doits, tremolos & flutter tonguing; plus a multitude of contrasting timbres. The sheer quantity of permutations of these orthogonal parameters thwarts any attempt to sample an instrument in its entirety. (Though VSL is taking a good stab at it with 1 599 007 samples in their database thus far!) The only exception is the percussive family, such as the piano, xylophone or maraca, for which the possibilities are more finite, hence the quasi-perfection of such sampling giants as Steinberg’s The Grand 2 or Synthogy’s Ivory. But with the limitations of today’s computers, nothing can replace the finesse and sensitivity of a solo saxophonist. Particularly so for jazz – an idiom which lends itself even more to the vicissitudes of the improvising individual than does, say, the more strict, homogenised playing of a classical orchestra. So, while you’ll be blown away by the grand symphonic sound of this luxurious library en masse, you may be in for a disappointment if it’s an exposed, solo instrument you’re hoping to fake. It bears repetition that the quality of the output depends enormously on the skills you acquire for manipulating the samples effectively, but, for the time being, no tricks, knowledge or talent can replace the skeddadling virtuosity of a Stan Kenton Big Band, or the pathos of a lugubrious cello in full Romantic flight. The trades of weaving, wood-inlaying and shoe-making may be close to extinction, but if the Vienna Symphonic Library is the Industrial Revolution of recording, then Luddite performers have little to worry about…yet. And thank heavens for that.

Matheson Bayley © 2005
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