Field Test: Vienna Symphonic Library

Sep 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Nick Batzdorf

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Imagine waking up one morning and saying to yourself, “I'm not happy with what's out there. I think I'll just…sample an orchestra.” Austrian musician/composer Herb Tucmandl took this notion several hundred steps further: The Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL) is by far the largest and most ambitious sample library ever developed: Even the initial 16-bit/44.1kHz version comes on 14 double-layer DVDs, taking up 94 GB — yes, gigabytes — of hard disk storage. Anyone who's heard the library's online demos knows that VSL is something special, in both quality and quantity. Every instrument has been meticulously recorded in stereo, playing a staggering number of articulations, making it possible to sequence highly expressive and realistic orchestral performances. Variations include notes of various lengths, all kinds of dynamics (accents, crescendos/decrescendos, etc.), and effects such as tremolo strings and flutter-tongued winds and brass, trills, rolls — all recorded at various tempos and mapped to the keyboard in different combinations.

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

THE PRODUCT LINEUP

VSL's initial offering consists of four products. Each section can be purchased individually: strings (including harp), woodwinds and brass, and percussion. These sections are bundled as the Orchestral Cube, a 42GB collection with all the bread-and-butter single-note articulations that you need to sequence elaborate and convincing orchestrations.

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

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

The Performance set also includes ascending/descending octave runs in both legato and spiccato variations, up and down every major and minor scale, with and without the first and last note (so that you can start and end on longer notes); same-note repetitions that are also controlled 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 a supplement to the Cube programs: There's no percussion in the Performance set.

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

THE RECORDINGS

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

So if you hear the VSL dry, it sounds completely wrong! But it's not intended to be heard that way. Only after running it through a good reverb program do you realize just how outstanding the recording quality is across the entire library: miked closely enough to be detailed, back far enough to sound right in an orchestral context, well-managed dynamics; it's just really satisfying to play. I've been getting excellent results running VSL instruments through some of the hall programs in Audio Ease's Altiverb, a sampling/convolution reverb processor.

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

For now, the woodwinds are all solo, but VSL is planning to release alternative performances for making choirs. Piccolo is really the only standard orchestral instrument missing from the initial release, but it will be among the instruments in the forthcoming Pro Edition, along with solo strings and many other instruments and articulations. (I heard a beta of the solo violin from that set and it's absolutely stunning.)

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

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

THE LEARNING CURVE

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

After that first blush, though, it took me a few days to feel confident getting around the library, almost like learning a familiar, but new, instrument. The library is organized with consistency throughout all of the instruments. In fact, you can pretty much substitute the instrument being played by a sequencer track without much performance tweaking.

For real-time control, the VSL uses keyswitches and the mod wheel only; no other controllers are used (although you can use Controller 11, Expression, as a volume control in both Giga and EXS). Key-switches are on-the-fly program changes, triggered by notes in an unused region of the keyboard.

The first programs in the file list for most of the instruments are Basic Instruments, which are “toolbox” programs that make concessions to lower the RAM requirements and therefore allow you to load a lot of programs. (Even though they play the bulk of the samples from a disk, streaming samplers still need “head-start” RAM buffers, and memory for loading programs is the first resource you run out of.)

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

The violin has about 20 “bundle” files — .gig files or EXS folders — each containing about 20 programs. These consist 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 wheel crossfades between layers, or keyswitching between different articulations or between the two variations. Plus, there are programs with release samples that are triggered by note-offs when you release the keys.

The programs that offer the most real-time control — and, in general, use the most RAM — include the Dynamic Layer programs, which use the mod wheel to fade between two to four layers (instead of keyboard velocity). The transitions between the string layers are exceptionally smooth, but the brass transitions don't work quite as well.

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

As an alternative to using the mod wheel to move dynamics, you can use actual crescendo and diminuendo performances, mod wheel crossfading between the two when necessary (and that does work well). While you can't control how quickly the brass gets into and out of the buzzy tonal range, there are recordings of different lengths to choose from.

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

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

ALTERNATION, REPETITION AND LEGATO TOOLS

Keyswitches allow alternating between the variations (such as upbows/downbows, left/right-hand percussion strokes and “upbeat and downbeat” woodwinds/brass) available for many Orchestral Cube articulations. The Alternation tool can automate the keyswitching process between the two variations in up to 12 programmable 12-step patterns (1-2, 1-2-2-1, etc.); you can use this to program paradiddles on snare drum, bowing patterns on strings and so on. It works by intercepting the incoming MIDI data and then managing the Giga or EXS24 key-switches, and is simple to set up and use.

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

To avoid having repeated notes sound identical — i.e., to make them more realistic — the VSL includes recordings of the same note played a few times in succession; these are available in various tempos, articulations and dynamics (including crescendos and decrescendos). The Repetition tool allows playing these notes at, or faster than, the tempo at which they were recorded.

The Repetition feature ranges from only subtly different from using the Alternation tool (at the expense of quite a bit more tweaking) to very natural when you use the crescendo and decrescendo repetition performances.

The amazing Legato tool is easy to use and quite versatile. For the string Performance Legato programs, for example, the VSL includes both standard and portamento (gliding) performances. These are only available with a single-velocity layer in each program, but there are “p” and “f” versions, and the company is reportedly working on layered programs, as well. The Performance Legato performances in the initial release are all long tones, but I checked out a beta program of short-note performance legato violins that's really great.

VSL has done an excellent job of making this huge library and its legato, repetition and alternation features playable. And this is the area of sampling technology with the most room for growth. Even with keyswitching and MIDI tools, you still have to use multiple sequencer tracks routed to different articulations on different channels a lot of the time. That's where you get into programming rather than performing parts.

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

MACHINES

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

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

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

The differences between the EXS and Giga versions of the VSL are small. GigaStudio has the ability to adjust the times of release samples (which are note tails triggered when you release the key). EXS can load more key-switchable programs onto a single keyboard. VSL takes advantage of these features in a few programs, but there's really nothing 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 get out of a single machine. There's an excellent program — available for both Mac and Windows — that does this (in addition to converting sample libraries between a large number of formats): Chicken Systems Translator Pro.

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

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






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