For more than two centuries, the dream that one person could command complete control of every instrument in a symphony orchestra was just that: a dream. In the past few years, though, samplers and MIDI sequencers have made the impossible quite possible and even practical. One of the first and finest sample collections to capture the richness and nuance of fine orchestral instruments and players was Ilio Miroslav Vitous Symphonic Orchestra Samples, a series of CD-ROMs for Akai, Roland, and other sampler formats. Originally marketed to film composers and well-heeled studio musicians, the collection cost nearly $4,000, and chances are good that you've heard those samples used in quite a few television and movie soundtracks (see the sidebar “Where It Began”).
IK Multimedia, partnering with soundware developer Sonic Reality, announced its acquisition of the sample library in early 2005. A few months later, it introduced Miroslav Philharmonik, an instrument plug-in that incorporates an enhanced and expanded version of the library at a more affordable price than the original. Philharmonik's developers edited Vitous's 20- and 24-bit recordings to suit their specifications, and they added material that wasn't used in the original library. Philharmonik's 7 GB of sample data encompass string, brass, woodwind, and percussion soloists and ensembles, as well as complete choirs, harp, classical guitar, and keyboards such as piano, harpsichord, and pipe organ. IK Multimedia calls Philharmonik an “orchestra and choir workstation.”
Prelude and Fugue
Minimum specifications are 512 MB of RAM in either a 667 MHz Mac G4 with OS X 10.3 or a 733 MHz Pentium III- or Athlon-based PC with Windows 2000 or XP. You'll want at least the recommended configuration, however: 1 GB of RAM in a 1.25 GHz Power Mac G4 or a PC based on a 2.4 GHz Pentium 4 or Athlon. In these days of power-hungry plug-ins, such resource requirements are very reasonable. Because Philharmonik's samples play from memory rather than streaming from disk, though, you'll need plenty of extra RAM if you want to work with large ensembles.
You'll also need a little more than 7 GB of hard-disk space to install the sample library. If you share a hard disk on a local network and each computer has Philharmonik installed, your computers can share a single copy of the library. According to IK Multimedia, sharing works even if the computers are a mix of Macs and PCs.
FIG. 1: Miroslav Philharmonik is a sample-playback plug-in that combines the SampleTank 2 sound engine with the world-class Miroslav Vitous sample library.
I ran Philharmonik as an Audio Units plug-in in MOTU Digital Performer 4.61, as a VST plug-in in Steinberg Cubase 3.0.2, and as an RTAS plug-in in Digidesign Pro Tools M-Powered 7.0. My computer is a 2.3 GHz, dual-processor Power Mac G5 with 4 GB of RAM running OS X 10.4.4.
As with any program that supplies 7 GB of content, it took a while to install Philharmonik, and therefore to open the plug-in and begin exploring. After connecting the included Syncrosoft USB key, I activated it using a wizard application that connected to the Web and retrieved an authorization code.
Backstage at the Symphony
Miroslav Philharmonik is built on SampleTank 2's sound engine and features a variation of its graphical user interface. Like SampleTank, Philharmonik is a 16-part multitimbral sample-playback plug-in that supports Audio Units on the Mac, DirectX in Windows, and RTAS and VST on both computer platforms. Whereas the latest SampleTank (2.1) runs standalone, however, Philharmonik does not. Its GUI offers most of SampleTank's advantages and disadvantages, with some slight improvements (see Fig. 1). One improvement is larger type; I always disliked SampleTank's tiny lettering, but that's the price you pay to be able to see all 16 Parts at the same time. Philharmonik shows only eight Parts at a time and is much more readable.
If you know your way around SampleTank, you'll feel right at home with Philharmonik. Most of the GUI is dominated by the browser, which shows Parts on the left and Instruments on the right. Each Part displays its MIDI channel, instrument name, solo and mute status, file size, polyphony, panning, output, and current level. You can change some of those parameters and delete instruments by clicking in the appropriate fields.
Philharmonik lets you save and load Combis — multitimbral combinations with as many as 16 Parts. Clicking on the Load Combi triangle reveals a pop-up menu that has lists of factory presets and user Combis. The included Combis come in four varieties: Advanced Ensembles, which layer various instruments on the same MIDI channel; Multi Setups, which assign articulations of the same instrument to different channels; Dynamic Layers, which make use of Velocity switching; and Orchestral Splits, which assign two instruments to different keyboard zones. When you're editing or constructing your own Combis, you can create splits and layers using the Range controls to specify each Part's note and Velocity ranges and to transpose pitch, if necessary.
FIG. 2: Although you can''t edit Philharmonik''s keyboard mapping, you can view a Part''s note assignments by clicking on its Zone button.
At the bottom of the plug-in window is an onscreen keyboard with pitch and mod wheels, octave buttons, and volume and pan knobs. A Zone button displays the current Part's keymap, and additional buttons enable polyphonic, monophonic, or legato performance (see Fig. 2). Two rows of soft knobs appear between the keyboard and the browser. To their left is a group of buttons for selecting the sound functions — LFO 1 and LFO 2, Env 1 and Env 2, Filter, Velocity, Tune, and Macro — and additional buttons labeled Send, Range, and Zone. Clicking on any of those buttons lets you control their associated parameters using the top row of knobs. For example, clicking on the Filter button reveals knobs for frequency and resonance, as well as additional buttons for selecting one of three filter types and one of three filter slopes. The bottom row of knobs controls effects parameters, and buttons to their right enable as many as four Send effects and four effects for each Part.
Philharmonik's Macros have predefined parameters tailored to each instrument, as determined by their programmers. There are six possible Macros, any four of which can be assigned to an instrument. Examples include Variable Speed, which uses Velocity to control attack; Aftertouch Push, which increases amplitude and brightness when you dig into the keys; and Velocity to Start Point, which moves the sample's start point in response to how hard you strike the keys. Macros simplify controlling instruments in real time and can do a lot to make your work go faster.
Although you can assign a MIDI Control Change (CC) to any knob, no MIDI Learn function is available. Rather than just clicking on a virtual knob and moving a real knob, you must enter the MIDI CC number into a dialog box. You need to do that only once for each knob, but that's still a minor inconvenience. And unlike SampleTank, Philharmonik doesn't respond to MIDI Program Changes.
A Tour of the Orchestra
In the Instruments browser, folders are divided into eight alphabetically arranged categories: Brass, Choirs, Elements, Orchestral Sections, Other Instruments, Percussion, Strings, and Woodwinds. Each category is hierarchically divided into subcategories, and those are filled with instruments, many offering assorted articulations. Clicking on a triangle to the left of a folder name shows the next level in the hierarchy. As the Instruments list expands, a scrollbar lets you view additional items. When you find an instrument you want, double-clicking on it loads it into the currently selected Part.
All the major instrument families are available in ensembles and as solo instruments, often in looped and unlooped varieties. (You can find a complete list of instruments and articulations at www.philharmonik.com.) Because the ensembles were recorded in stereo, their imaging re-creates each instrument's original positioning in the ensemble, enhancing the realism of the samples. Ensembles come in different sizes and combinations: ensemble violins, for instance, come in groups of 4, 11, or 23. Most others are in groups of two to four, just as they're typically grouped in an orchestra. Some ensembles contain several of the same instrument, and others contain several instruments in the same family. Woodwinds, for instance, contain bassoon, clarinet, flute, and oboe ensembles. In the Orchestral Sections folder, you'll find ensembles containing All Winds within Brass Wind Sections.
Unless you run short of Parts, creating your own ensembles is a snap; just assign different Parts to the same MIDI channel, and pan them to taste. When I needed more than 16 Parts, Philharmonik was so resource efficient that I could open additional instances without any problems (see Web Clip 1).
Most instruments provide articulations and other variations. Among the string articulations, for example, are staccato, pizzicato, tremolo, mutes, détaché, sul ponte (near the bridge, usually called sul ponticello), and sustained tones with and without vibrato. In addition to single notes, there are glissandos, trills, and the occasional double stop.
Many variations are accompanied by abbreviated suffixes that describe techniques for making the most of their expressive capabilities. Violins offer variations with labels such as AMV, Crs, and Expd. AMV lets you control brightness, volume, and attack using Aftertouch, Modulation, and Velocity. Crs lets you adjust the rate of crescendo with the mod wheel, and Expd uses the Expression Pedal to control volume. Other variations indicate playing technique (such as Slw for slow or Fst for Fast), programming technique (such as Stch for sounds using the Stretch engine), and associated expressive controllers (such as BC for Breath Controller or ExPd for Expression Pedal).
No sample library gives you everything, but Philharmonik's content makes an admirable effort. The variety of instruments and ensembles is extraordinary, and their quality ranges from good to outstanding. The strings are lush and versatile, with most of the articulations you'd hope to find in a library that isn't string specific. The solo and ensemble brass, which includes trumpet, flügelhorn, French horn, tuba, and tenor and bass trombone, has uniformly excellent tone and works very well when layered with other instruments. And although the woodwinds aren't particularly flexible, most of them sound terrific.
Choirs includes Female Choirs, Male Choirs, Mixed Choirs, and Split Choirs. The samples focus on single syllables, such as ah, fa, and mmm, and most are unlooped, just as I prefer. Most of the choirs sound fine, but they can't compete with dedicated vocal libraries from developers such as Quantum Leap and Bela D Media. On the other hand, Philharmonik's choir glissandos are so nice that I wish there were more of them.
The selection of six Cathedral Organs is superb, and they include barely audible bass pedals. The untuned percussion is very good and offers ample variety; a number of presets map drums and percussion to the General MIDI standard, which makes it easy to find what you're looking for. I was disappointed, however, by the lack of cymbal rolls. Several sounds in Chromatic Percussion are excellent; Vibraphone Hard Stick is a standout there. Occasionally, though, I found instruments with programming problems: Chimes Hall, for example, was so quiet that it was completely buried by other instruments, even at full volume. Chimes Studio, however, cut through loud and clear.
Mixed Orchestra layers different combinations of instruments and serves as a real time-saver, though it's most useful for creating quick sketches. Also of note are Elements, which furnish several monophonic instruments, one-shot percussion samples, instruments playing outside of their normal ranges, and extraneous noises such as coughs and squeaks.
Variations on a Theme
Like most sample-playback software, Philharmonik lets you change sound-shaping parameters such as filtering, envelopes, and assorted modulation. Either LFO can control pitch and filter cutoff, with one modulating amplitude and the other modulating pan — all simultaneously, if desired. Both envelope generators have a Hold stage in addition to the usual ADSR stages. Env 1 is hardwired to control amplitude, and Env 2 can control pitch and filter cutoff. I appreciated that the envelope's time parameters are calibrated in seconds and milliseconds.
Befitting a plug-in controlling the nuances of orchestral instruments, Philharmonik's Velocity routing is impressive. You can dial in Velocity control of amplitude, filter cutoff, pitch, resonance, LFO 1 depth, and Env 2 sustain — again, all simultaneously.
The Tune function makes good use of the sound engine's time- and pitch-stretching prowess. You can choose from three algorithms to change the length or the pitch of samples: one plays them faster or slower, another compresses or expands pitch and time, and another uses IK Multimedia's own brand of tempo-based resynthesis, called Stretch. (For more information on the three algorithms, see the SampleTank 2 review in the April 2004 issue of EM, which is also available online at www.emusician.com.)
Philharmonik gives you a nice selection of high-quality, orchestra-appropriate effects processors. You can process either individual Parts using Part Inserts or several instruments at the same time using Send buses. You can apply as many as four insert effects to each Part and four Send effects to the entire plug-in. In both cases, however, the first effects slot will always be EQ and compression. The EQ gives you control of the gain for three bands and the mid EQ frequency. The compression gives you control of level only. The other 20 effects (12 fewer than SampleTank) range from reverb and delay to multi chorus and distortion. Among those are a compressor with Attack, Release, Drive, Ratio, and Spread controls, and 2-band parametric EQ. Philharmonik's only effect not found in SampleTank 2.1 is CSReverb, which borrows algorithms from IK Multimedia's Classik Studio Reverb and furnishes only Time and Wet/Dry controls. (A full-fledged plug-in version of Classik Studio Reverb should be available as a separate product by the time you read this.)
Unlike most modern sample players, Philharmonik's SampleTank sound engine doesn't give you access to more than one Velocity layer for each Part. IK Multimedia says that each Part supports eight layers internally, but there's no way for users to view or edit them. Because you can specify each Part's minimum and maximum Velocity, though, Philharmonik does allow you to assign different Velocity ranges to Parts within Combis. In fact, the included Dynamic Layer Combis have Velocity-switched variations assigned to the same MIDI channel.
Because multiple Velocities were not a consideration when the Miroslav Vitous library was created, however, very few of the individual instruments supply more than a single Velocity layer, and there are no Velocity release layers. As you might imagine, minimal layering does restrict Philharmonik's expressivity somewhat. At a time when instruments with as many as 24 Velocity layers per note have become the norm, the nominal layering in Philharmonik's samples is its greatest shortcoming. On the bright side, instruments load quite quickly because they consume less RAM than if they were extensively multilayered.
If you're accustomed to controlling articulation by keyswitching (as you can with many sample libraries in programs such as GigaStudio and Kontakt), you may also be disappointed by Philharmonik's lack of keyswitching abilities. The only obvious way to instantly change articulations is to place them on different Velocity layers in a Combi. However, you could also create a Combi with different articulations on the same MIDI channel, and then assign MIDI switches to toggle them off and on using the Mute and Solo buttons; it wouldn't be an elegant solution, but it should work. Otherwise, the only practical way to switch articulations is to assign them to independent Parts on different MIDI channels and change tracks while sequencing.
Philharmonik does offer some useful real-time performance capabilities by providing Macros and lots of MIDI CC routings — allowing you to control parameters such as envelope attack, filter cutoff, and vibrato using Aftertouch, Modulation, and Breath Controller, for example. Still, those are no substitute for being able to instantly change from portato to legato to staccato by simply pressing a key. Fortunately, the manufacturer intends to offer keyswitching in a future version of the SampleTank sound engine.
Philharmonik furnishes a nice selection of high-quality sounds in an easy-to-use plug-in. With so many orchestra libraries to choose from, though, what makes Miroslav Philharmonik special? Most important, its sampling is top-notch, and the value is terrific when you consider the variety of its instruments and articulations. The Miroslav Vitous library sounded great a decade ago, and with all the enhancements programmed into the Philharmonik version, it sounds even better today.
What's more, working with Philharmonik is faster than working with most sample players, thanks in part to its well-designed user interface and the speed with which samples load. If you're in a hurry, you can get very satisfying results from Philharmonik with a minimum of effort, unlike working with sample libraries that demand microscopic attention to detail. The plug-in's sound-shaping capabilities allow you to customize instruments to suit your needs, and its modulation capabilities allow a fair degree of real-time expression.
Philharmonik furnishes such a wealth of sounds that it will take a while to familiarize yourself with all the possibilities at your disposal. In general, the sound of the instruments is rich and satisfying. They don't sound particularly aggressive, and they won't be suitable for every occasion. Nonetheless, I expect to get a tremendous amount of use from this plug-in and its sample library. For most occasions that call for strings, brass, woodwinds, and other orchestral instruments, Miroslav Philharmonik may be everything you need.
EM associate editor Geary Yelton recently celebrated 22 years as a Macintosh user, and he began using Windows almost 16 years ago. He lives and works in Charlotte, North Carolina.
IK MULTIMEDIA Miroslav Philharmonik 1.0
orchestral sample plug-in
PROS: Excellent sample content. Impressive variety. Sounds load quickly. Versatile effects processing.
CONS: Minimal use of Velocity layers. No keyswitching. No MIDI Learn.
EASE OF USE
QUALITY OF SOUNDS
WHERE IT BEGAN
Miroslav Vitous Symphonic Orchestra Samples began taking shape more than a dozen years ago, when Weather Report bassist and composer Miroslav Vitous, a native of Czechoslovakia, wanted a superior orchestral library for his own use and couldn't find a suitable off-the-shelf solution (for more information on Vitous, see his official Web site at www.miroslavvitous.com). Intent on creating a collection of samples tailored to his specifications, he hired members of the Czech Philharmonic and recorded them in Prague's Dvorák Symphony Hall. During the recording sessions, he suggested to the performers certain composers whose styles he wanted them to emulate in their playing. According to Vitous, the project proved so expensive that he decided to release it as a commercial product — something he hadn't originally considered.