First Call Horns ($299.95) from Big Fish Audio is a sampled horn collection designed for Jazz, Latin, and Pop projects. The package's single DVD holds about 1.4 GB of 24-bit brass and woodwind instruments in solo and ensemble configurations with samples of improvisations. The performances exhibit specific playing techniques too difficult to emulate with modulation controls alone.
First Call Horns from Big Fish Audio contains realistic-sounding brass and woodwind samples with a variety of authentic playing techniques.
Native Instruments' Kontakt Player is the sound set's host instrument. The multitimbral (as many as eight parts) plug-in lets you create your own ensembles, add to existing ones, or build ensemble and solo-instrument combinations. Surprisingly, it is less flexible than the Kompakt instrument, another Native Instruments vehicle for sample playback.
I tested First Call Horns on a dual 1.42 GHz Power Mac G4 with 2 GB of RAM and running OS X (10.3.9). Host programs included Ableton Live 4.1, Granted Software RAX 1.2.3, MOTU Digital Performer 4.6, and Steinberg Cubase SX 2.2. The First Call Horns installer provided VST, RTAS, DXi, and Audio Units versions of the instrument.
The Kontakt player's interface displays eight slots just below the strip of logos at the top of the virtual keyboard. To select an instrument, you first select one of the slots, and then click on the Load button at the keyboard's right side. That will display a drop-down list from which you select a patch. You can also move through patches one at a time using the Up and Down buttons that flank the main button's center. Either way, it takes only a moment to load the sample set.
Every instrument (with the exception of soprano saxophone and French horn) includes a corresponding folder of “section” samples (multiple instruments playing in unison). There is a French Horn Duet patch, but it's hard to hear the presence of a second instrument. In every instance, samples are not looped and envelopes are as originally played; the Kontakt Player doesn't give you any envelope controls or filters. For the most part, that's not a problem, although it does impose limitations.
Most important, the samples and articulations are superb. The included reverb, saturation, and EQ controls, although minimal, add a modicum of sound-shaping capability. Because of the absence of synthesis parameters, however, there is little else you can do to adapt the instruments to your own needs. For example, ensemble swells play out as recorded, so if they fade out too early or too late, you're stuck. Of course, typical modulation assignments for filters and vibrato rarely sound convincing in programs with a single layer of samples. Considering First Call Horns' abundance of solo instruments, the absence of envelope and legato mode controls is a disappointment. Hopefully, they'll be included in a future update to the playback engine. It's hard to create authentic-sounding horn solos when the envelopes retrigger with each note.
Horns of Plenty
Still, there's an awful lot to like about First Call Horns; the beautifully played and recorded key-switched instruments feature realistic-sounding brass and woodwinds with a variety of articulations created by the authentic playing techniques. The patch TPT SEC KEYSW, for example, loads trumpet-section patches that you can switch with keys assigned below the range of the instrument. These patches include section swells, falls, Harmon-muted sections, and staccato performances.
You also get a nice assortment of combined-instrument ensembles, such as swells with alto sax, trumpet, and trombone. The soprano sax instruments are about the best I have heard, and there's a wonderful collection of solo lines grouped by instrument and key. With the addition of a modest set of envelope controls and legato mode, First Call Horns could be the killer collection of pop-oriented brass and woodwinds that it was meant to be. As it is, I still highly recommend the set.
Overall Rating (1 through 5): 3.5
Big Fish Audio