INSTANT FANFARE >Brass comes with more than 500 riffs from multiple styles to launch in Riff mode. Dragging one from the browser to the virtual keyboard launches it.
Breaking away from modeling classic analog synthesizers for the first time, Arturia has tackled one of the Holy Grails in the emulation world. For as long as synthesizers have existed (dating back to the original monophonic analogs), electronic composers have been searching for suitable emulations of brass horns. By its very nature, analog synthesis was extremely fluid and expressive but greatly lacked tonal and harmonic realism.
Today, for the ultimate in realism, we tend to use someone else's musical ideas in the form of sampled licks and phrases that, for all intents and purposes, are frozen in time. As far as composing your own solo or section horns goes, “ROMplers” sound okay in a pinch, and advanced sampling workstations have made great headway in the real-time control of blending prerecorded articulations. Neither, however, has addressed the ability to smoothly change the physics behind the sound of a brass instrument quite the way that real players do as they blow into and manually interact with the instrument.
Arturia Brass is a new kind of virtual instrument: a software re-creation of the trumpet, tenor saxophone and trombone. Through elaborate parametric representation of key brass characteristics, it aims to allow you to play those instruments just as fluidly as a live performer would and with more flexibility and expressiveness than sample-based technologies provide. Not only does it allow you to play and control attributes of those instruments live, but it also contains an extensive performance-based riff engine and user-exchangeable riff library that's entirely configurable and expandable.
Brass requires a fairly modern and beefy system to get off the ground in any practical manner. The minimum posted specs of a 1.5GHz processor and 256 MB of RAM are extremely conservative. Even my test system of a Pentium 4/3.2GHz with 2GB of RAM running Steinberg Nuendo 3 broke a sweat on occasion. Arturia has moved away from disc-based copy protection in favor of Syncrosoft's dongle-based authorization, which requires an available port for the USB key during operation.
Brass uses a new physical-modeling technology called Non-linear Multiple Feedback Loop developed in partnership between Arturia and IRCAM, a world-renowned music and acoustic research institute in Paris. IRCAM claims its physical models are far more realistic than the models developed until now.
With the trumpet model, for example, this new method allowed Arturia and IRCAM to reproduce the sound effects caused by changes in fingerings (different valve positions), the altering of lip tension and an increase of the blowing pressure and subsequent sound level (called the “brassy” effect). Noise induced by turbulence in the airflow is also modeled according to analysis on natural trumpet recordings. The trombone re-creation is actually based on the trumpet model, with the main difference and difficulty being emulation of the almost-infinite pitch possibilities and glissando-like transitions when using the slide. The saxophone model is different from the other two because it is the reed and not the lips that produces the initial vibration. Also, a well-controlled player/mouthpiece relationship is responsible for the distinctive sound of a saxophone. This is a model that even Arturia admitted was daunting to create.
Brass opens to a main screen that is spacious, colorful and logically laid out. Although it's an abstract departure from Arturia's typical WYSIWYG synth panel layouts, navigation immediately proved intuitive and respectful of screen real estate. There's only one main control window to learn, which subtly changes its appearance between operating modes; when called upon, further option windows temporarily open in the center of the interface. Across the top of the interface are two buttons that divide Brass into two main parts: Live and Riff modes. As the name implies, Live mode is designed for real-time playing. It is also in that mode that you can change the tonal characteristics of each instrument and create new presets.
The Live window is composed of four distinct sections. On the left side is the preset manager, which permits the loading/saving, creation/deletion, importing/exporting and browsing of instrument presets. The center section is where you'll find a snazzy, lifelike 3-D animated rendering of the current instrument along with its controllable parameters. On the right side is the instrument configuration pane with three categories to choose from: physical configuration, spatialization and MIDI settings. Selecting those launches the aforementioned pop-up windows in the center section of the interface. A virtual keyboard spans the bottom.
Constructing an instrument is easy. From the preset manager, select the instrument type, and a list of relevant presets shows up. After choosing one that is closest to what you're after (such as Jazz Soloist Trumpet), you can tailor the physical characteristics of the horn to your taste by clicking on the Configuration tab. Depending on the type of horn you selected, this window provides a slightly different assortment of options. On trumpet or trombone, it is possible to choose among several types of mutes (none, dry, bowl, Harmon/Miles, plunger and wah-wah), whereas a saxophone has three types of mouthpieces: standard, classic and wood. For all horn types, you can change its constructive material from a number of models — bright Pop/Rock, warm Jazz, clear Classic (trumpet and trombone only), bright and sour Reggae (sax only) and subdued Ballad brass — to the more exotic Wood or Glass models. You can also set horns to 2-, 3- or 4-part unison. Adjusting the “humanization,” or tendency of an instrumentalist to fluctuate the playing pressure and embouchure, proceeds on a linear scale from none (Computer) to natural (Human) to extremely exaggerated (Beginner). Four different types of attack/note transition variances range from direct and short for pop and classical music to breathy and slurred for jazz and ballad stylings.
Instruments in Brass feature eight real-time pa-rameters: attack, pressure, pitch (for legatos, falls and so on), timbre, noise amount in the instrument sound, vibrato, vibrato speed and muting (for trumpet and trombone only). You can control those parameters with the mouse, using automation within the host DAW or by assigning MIDI continuous controller values from a special configuration section in Brass to configure your keyboard or other MIDI controller to the horn parameters.
The faders used to edit those real-time parameters are unique. A colored bar graph indicates the current value of the fader, while two small arrows situated to the left and right represent the boundaries between, which the fader will modulate when assigned to a MIDI control. That was particularly useful, for example, in tailoring the maximum travel of a modulation wheel to represent only a slight or midrange value of vibrato amplitude and frequency. That way, you effectively scale the throw of your controller, making subtle transitions much easier and smoother to control over a longer distance.
A handy aspect of the real-time parameters is that you can independently program curves into an internal automation player. That allows, for example, a progressive vibrato, a pressure change and more breathy noise to enter notes as they are held down. The automation player can synchronize to the host DAW and be programmed to start a certain period of time after keys are pressed.
Physical control is so crucial to the Brass sound that an entire MIDI settings matrix is devoted specifically to linking Velocity, Aftertouch, mod wheel, pitch bend, breath control and as many as four other continuous-controller values to Brass' real-time parameters, complete with individual MIDI response curves. Breath control is most useful when linked to attack and pressure. In lieu of a MIDI device with breath control, a foot pedal can do a wonderful job of controlling pressure while a mod wheel handles vibrato and noise.
One of the coolest aspects of Brass' modeling engine is the ability to place different instrument instances (as when using Unison mode) anywhere within a virtual room. That feature particularly shines in Riff mode, where as many as four horns can create lively ensembles on a virtual soundstage with left-right and front-back positioning.
Organized into Pop, Rock, Reggae, Blues, Funk, Mo-town, Soul, Disco, Latin, Jazz, Classical and other styles, Brass comes with more than 500 riffs geared toward solo and ensemble performance. You can, for instance, call up the Funk style, and select from Section Horns riffs, Solo Trombone riffs or Solo Trumpet riffs. As many as four riff tracks are presented in a piano-roll fashion. For those tracks, the notes are edited using standard DAW-style tools; their length is set in beats; key is determined; and tempo is set when Brass is not synched to a host program. The properties for each riff instrument are the same as in Live mode, including the ability to edit individual horn configurations in real time. You can also draw in edits and parameter control curves in a graphical riff timeline window.
By selecting riffs from the browser and dragging them to keys on the virtual keyboard, you can launch riffs just as you would loops in a traditional sampler, which is a convenient way of interfacing the Brass riff sequencer with your host sequencer, or for triggering riffs during a live performance. Unfortunately, you'll probably have your work cut out for you, because the factory riffs are pretty bad. Doing nothing to showcase the potential of Brass' modeling engine, they suffer from poor arrangement, unimaginative hooks and phrasing and edits that simply don't work with the instrument configurations in use. You can definitely coax some good-sounding riffs from Brass with a little elbow grease, and there's always hope that others in the online Brass community make use of the handy Riff Export feature and are kind enough to share their own creations. Sadly, the presets just don't do it an ounce of justice.
READY, SET, BLOW
This is tough to have to admit, but here it is. Brass sounds anything but convincing. The trumpet and trombone have their moments, but anyone with a good ear can tell they're not real instruments. Notwithstanding the mastering of articulations and control necessary to pull off a persuasive brass performance, holding down a steady note and hoping for that bang-on familiar, rich tone will be a letdown in Brass. The brighter Pop configurations sound okay when left open — particularly in a mix — but placing mutes on them send it all downhill with cheesy, thin and lifeless sound. Frankly, all the models are disappointing, and the tenor saxophone model is terrible; it sounds more like a plastic toy than a sax. The Wood and Glass models are cute but completely synthetic sounding. Apple Logic's Sculpture sounds far better and more organic.
In Riff mode, the ensemble horns don't present a commanding sound together. The factory riff sequencing and articulation programming falls flat as well.
IN NEED OF POLISHING
Heading into testing, hopes were set fairly high for Brass — perhaps too high. Arturia's track record consists of incredible-sounding instruments that score a 10 on the quality scale time and time again, so I expected nothing less here. Modeling real instruments is obviously a much harder process than modeling a synthesizer and has a long way to go before it's successful sonically while functioning practically.
In standalone Live mode, and with no other applications running, Brass would regularly gobble upward of 35 percent of the test PC's resources. With two or three parts playing back in Riff mode, that percentage skyrocketed to 50 or 60 percent. Starting with the audio buffer set to 128 samples — my normal setting for quick responsiveness — proved far too taxing on the 3.2GHz processor with Brass. A buffer size of 256 samples helped, but not for long. Playing back a quartet horn section in Riff mode, with a trumpet in unison for an added challenge, blasted the system to processing capacity and rendered the sound completely useless, due to all sorts of nasty digital grunge, hoots, loud squawks, crackling and stuck notes. Surprisingly, however, the system never crashed throughout the testing.
When run as a plug-in, Brass severely limited how much could be running in sessions and forced me to close or bypass nearly all other virtual instruments to regain regular audio and system functionality. Forget about trying to run more than one instance of Brass, especially on a lesser machine. In fact, any kind of real-time playback in Riff mode was virtually useless during a weighted-down session, so freezing tracks became a mandatory practice. Dual-core or dual-processor machines should fair better.
If only the sounds of Brass were impressive, there would be no problem overlooking the high CPU demands and chalking them up as the price you pay for bleeding-edge technology.
All is not lost, though. Let us not forget that this is Arturia's (and IRCAM's) first commercial venture into brass modeling — a technological first-generation, if you will. As a proof-of-concept release, they have set a fantastic roadmap for what could very well be a bright future for Brass. Current winning features such as spatialization, real-time instrument configuration, advanced parametric control and performance-control automation are huge steps in that direction. The fluid expressiveness that you can achieve in all manners of control is a constant reminder that sample libraries really do suck at easily pulling off brass phrasing in a convincing manner. Even with the current synthetic tone of these models, a breath controller and a laptop running Brass in Live mode can make for an incredibly cool and dynamic-sounding electronic performance instrument. The synthlike tones could even be part of the appeal in such a case.
There is actually a lot of potential in Brass. If Arturia sticks to its guns and continues to research and develop its models as the company says it will, there's little doubt that it will eventually pay off big time and perhaps even win over purists someday. For now, it's a highly flexible synthesis tool best suited for the experimental musicians and sound designers of the world who can appreciate its unorthodox brassiness.
Judge Brass for yourself. Visitwww.remixmag.com/cd_romand download the demos.
BRASS > $349
Pros: Proprietary models can be played in real time with the same control and flexibility of real brass instruments. As many as four simultaneous instruments in Riff mode. Spatialization places horns anywhere in a room. Attractive, smart UI. Standalone or plug-in.
Cons: Poor instrument emulations. Random stuck notes and digital mayhem. Extremely CPU intensive.
Mac: G4/1.5GHz; 256 MB RAM; Mac OS 10.2 or later; VST-, RTAS- or Audio Units — compatible host required for plug-in use
PC: 1.5GHz; 256 MB RAM; Windows 98 SE/2000/XP; DXi, VST- or RTAS-compatible host required for plug-in use