FIG. 1: EastWest/Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra, Platinum Edition comes on 19 DVDs divided into four volumes.
As computers become increasingly more powerful and mammoth hard drives become more affordable, desktop orchestrators are flocking to gargantuan multigigabyte orchestral libraries that would have been completely impractical just a few years ago. EastWest, in collaboration with Quantum Leap, has now joined the fray with its own impressive and truly unique four-volume library (see Fig. 1).
What sets the Symphonic Orchestra library apart from the competition, aside from its 24-bit resolution, is that every sample is offered from three stereo microphone perspectives: close-up mics for detail and clarity with minimal reverb, a full mix from a cluster of stage mics, and a set of mics high at the back of the auditorium. That last perspective offers the full reverberant ambience of the modern American concert hall where the recordings were made, and it provides the necessary material to fill out a realistic surround-sound mix, if you are working in a multichannel format.
SOUND ON SOUND
The three mic perspectives were recorded simultaneously and assembled into three separate-but-complementary 44.1 kHz multisample patches for each instrument preset. Because the samples from the different mic positions have been accurately phase aligned, you can use them in any combination, and they sound perfectly natural. By playing all three patches for a particular instrument (they are provided as preset multis or individually), you can change the listener's perspective relative to the instrument by dialing in more or less of the different mic positions.
For example, you can produce a highly reverberant far-away sound by boosting the ambient patch and fading out the close-up patch. Or you can bring an instrument forward in the mix (for a solo, perhaps) by adding more of the close-up mics. EastWest refers to this feature as “audio zoom.”
Moreover, the three-perspective approach virtually eliminates the need for outboard reverb, because you can blend in anything from relatively dry (close-up only) to fairly heavy (ambient only) reverb. Of course, you can use the close-up patches alone and add your favorite reverb, but then you'd lose the great sound of this excellent recording space.
The ambient hall mics often add more reverb than I need, so I like to blend the close-up mics (which add definition, especially on attacks) with the stage mics (which add a more expansive stereo image). This library, however, is also designed to accommodate surround mixes. In that application, you would typically use the stage-mic patch for the front-left and front-right channels, the close-up patch (either the left or right channel alone) for the front-center channel, and the hall-mic patch for the left and right rear channels.
All of the instruments in the Symphonic Orchestra library were recorded in their proper orchestral positions. The violins, for example, appear on the left, the violas are centered, and the cellos and basses are on the right. That eliminates the need for panning, because all of the instruments automatically appear where they should be in a mix. The close-up patches were recorded centered, and then panned later to match the other patches, so if you want to create a small ensemble — say a woodwind trio or a brass quintet — you could use the close-up patches alone, pan them where you want, and then process them separately as needed.
FIG. 2: Each volume in the Symphonic Orchestra library has a dedicated version of Native Instruments' Kompakt as the front end.
Each volume in the Symphonic Orchestra library has been integrated with a customized version of Native Instruments' Kompakt (see Fig. 2). You can run Kompakt as a standalone program (each volume in the library has a dedicated version) or as a plug-in for programs that support VST 2, DXi 2, RTAS, and Audio Units formats. (For more on the installation process, see the sidebar “Registration Roundup.”)
Kompakt provides up to eight slots for loading instruments (patches); you can open more instances if you need to add more instruments. A drop-down menu at the top lets you load any of the multi programs, which include all three mic perspectives. When you click on an instrument's name, the front-panel knobs and displays change to reflect that instrument's settings for such things as envelopes, filters, LFOs, output level, and effects (reverb, chorus, and delay).
Arguably the most important knob on the front panel is the output volume knob, because it lets you adjust the relative levels of the three mic-perspective patches. Unfortunately, you can't see all three volume knobs at once — you have to switch from one instrument to another — which makes it a bit awkward to get the levels right without leaving the program.
By now you've probably gotten the picture that this library is not only huge in size (more than 67 GB) but that it also takes a huge amount of processing to fully use it. It isn't unusual, for example, for individual patches to take up more than a gigabyte of disk space, and with each multi providing three 24-bit, 44.1 kHz patches (for the three mic positions), that puts a substantial load on your CPU. And remember, that's just for one instrument part.
The owner's manual claims that you can run the library using a 500 MHz Mac G3 (or Pentium III) with as little as 256 MB of RAM, but that's really only enough to get Kompakt up and running. To use the library in any meaningful way, you'll need a top-of-the-line G4, or better yet, a G5 (or an equivalent PC). And don't even think about using this library with less than 1 GB of RAM. Although the library streams the samples from the hard drive, it still has a voracious appetite for RAM. I'm currently using the library with a dual-1.42 GHz Mac G4 and 1.5 GB of RAM, and I still get occasional Out-of-Memory warnings when I load some of the bigger multilayer patches. For best results, EastWest recommends 2 GB or more of RAM.
You'll also need a fast hard drive. I've gotten acceptable performance from my 7,200 RPM FireWire 800 external drive, but for power users, EastWest strongly recommends a dedicated 10,000 RPM internal drive. If you're independently wealthy, you might try putting together EastWest's “dream system” of two or more high-end computers for each volume in the library. That would let you play back entire orchestrations with all mic positions in real time.
For those of us who can't afford to set up eight or more computers, however, the library's demands aren't as overwhelming as they first appear. Several relatively easy compromises and work-arounds make Symphonic Orchestra practical, even with a single-computer setup. For starters, EastWest offers a couple of scaled-down versions of the library that reduce the price as well as the processing demands (see the sidebar “Orchestral Options.”) But even with the full Platinum Edition, it all comes down to managing your resources appropriately.
In my use, the stage-mic samples serve quite well as general-purpose patches, and you could easily use them alone for many of your projects. The stage mics have a good stereo perspective with a generous dose of reverb. If you're low on RAM, EastWest recommends initially working up your sequencer arrangements using only the stage-mic patches, and then going back and rendering each instrument part individually — but this time using all three mic positions, each on a different audio track.
Once you've recorded each instrument part onto three audio tracks, you can use your sequencer's onscreen mixer to blend the mic perspectives for maximum effect. Of course, that will cause a 25-track score to suddenly balloon into a 75-track score, but it will also give an unprecedented level of control over the final mix. Moreover, if you keep the original sequence intact, you can always go back at a later time and remix everything in a surround format if the need should arise.
SENSATIONS OF TONE
Aside from its high-resolution, three-perspective approach to sampling, this library also has a few other noteworthy features that set it apart from other libraries. For example, the library has separate release samples to give a more natural sense of ambience. That in itself isn't so unusual, but in Symphonic Orchestra, the release tails are “amplitude matched.” When you release a key, Kompakt analyzes the sample's current amplitude and adjusts the level of the release tail to properly blend in.
Because Kompakt supports keyswitching, several patches in each volume take advantage of it. For example, in the brass and woodwind collections, keyswitching lets you change from sustain to staccato notes. With the string sections, keyswitching lets you select among several legato articulations.
The Modulation Wheel is usually used to increase or decrease a note's attack, but it also serves to crossfade between other articulations. Some of the larger keyswitching patches demand massive amounts of memory, so if you're planning on doing a lot of real-time keyswitching, you should bulk up on RAM.
The woodwinds in this library are among my favorite patches. As a preliminary test, I plugged several of the patches into a MIDI file of a piece that I had already recorded in a large studio with live musicians. I was stunned at how closely the sampled instruments resembled the studio recording. The flutes are especially nice. The concert flute has a fine velvety timbre, and the flutist shapes the sustained notes beautifully. The alto flute is warm and lush.
The oboe is suitably reedy and woody. It's offered in an unusually wide dynamic range, from barely audible to downright squawky. Its timbre ranges from edgy in some patches to softer and more dulcet in others. The clarinet is smooth and clear, with a sound ranging from appropriately hollow in the lower register to a well-balanced timbre throughout the clarion register. The wide dynamic range lets you play notes from a hushed pianissimo to a honking fortissimo.
The bassoon patches are wonderfully rich with enough reediness in the low end to add plenty of character. The upper register offers a plaintive, satiny sound that is quite appealing. Other instruments in the woodwind section include English horn, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, and piccolo, as well as three-part unisons of flute, oboe, and clarinet. A couple of woodwind ensemble patches are also provided.
The Modulation Wheel patches give excellent control over the attacks in all of the woodwinds, enabling you to introduce just the right amount of tonguing between notes and phrases. Aside from various legato patches, the woodwinds have several other articulations such as staccato, trills, grace notes, and glissandos.
The Symphonic Orchestra brass instruments rival the woodwinds in quality and expressiveness. The solo trumpet, for example, ranges from a gentle pastoral sound at quiet levels to a brilliant glass-breaking martial sound at fortissimo. The solo trombone has a warm and mellifluous sound at soft and medium dynamics, with powerful blatty notes (among my favorites) when played hard in the lowest register. The solo French horn ranges from smooth and majestic at moderate levels to bright and brassy when played loudly.
Playing chords with any one of these instruments produces a nice ensemble sound if you pay attention to your technique. As with the woodwinds, Modulation Wheel patches let you fade-in more of an attack to each note, but with the brass instruments, the effect is more pronounced.
Aside from the solo brass patches, Symphonic Orchestra has several unison ensembles: four trombones (including a low octave of bass trombones), four trumpets, six French horns, and three Wagner tubas (an unusual but welcome addition). The six-horn section has a particularly long list of playing techniques, with sforzandos, staccatos, rips, slides, and shakes. It also has a stopped sound, which unfortunately is lacking in the solo patches.
In fact, there aren't any muted brass sounds in the library at all (except for the stopped unison horns), so if you're writing for big bands, you'll have to supplement the collection with other patches.
Symphonic Orchestra's percussion collection is the smallest (two DVDs) of the library's four volumes, and its patch list is relatively conservative. It lacks such exotic instruments as gamelan bells, waterphones, and wind machines and focuses instead on the most important bread-and-butter sounds. These are offered in an array of types and sizes, and all are impeccably performed and recorded. I especially like the full assortment of cymbals, which includes several sizes of suspended cymbals with fluid, carefully modulated crescendos that begin with a barely perceptible shimmer.
The library also has several snare, tom, field, and bass drums with single hits and rolls. The snare drums (in three sizes) have separate right- and left-hand samples, and all allow a wide range in dynamics. Other patches are woodblocks, crotales, chimes, castanets, bell tree, vibes (with the motor off), xylophone, various metal sounds, and assorted toys.
Among my favorite instruments in the percussion section are the timpani patches. They include hard and soft mallets playing long and short crescendos and individual hits with separate left- and right-hand samples. The rolls are nicely played, beginning with an almost inaudible rumble and building to a rousing finish.
At 28 GB, the string collection is by far the largest volume in the Symphonic Orchestra library. It has section patches for violin, viola, cello, and double bass as well as solo patches for violin and cello and a few basic harp patches. The violins are not offered specifically in first- and second-violin sections — as they are in some libraries — but instead are offered in a large 18-player section and a small 11-player section. You could treat these as first and second violins in most situations, although both sections are panned to the same position on stage.
Using all three mic positions enhances the string-section sound by filling it out and adding a more robust quality. In some cases, I prefer the 11-violin section over its larger counterpart. For example, with the Butter Legato patch (an excellent general-purpose patch), the small section sounds tighter and a bit more focused than the large section. On the other hand, the large section shines in some places, such as the lovely slow Sordino (muted) patch. In the small section, I especially like the Expressive Diminuendo patch, and in both sections I like the terrific Short 3-Way patch that automatically plays a different staccato attack each time you repeat a note.
Unfortunately, in an effort to keep the library from growing unwieldy, the developers decided not to offer the large and small sections with strictly parallel patch lists. That may force you to use work-arounds if you're using the sections as first and second violins. For example, the small section includes spiccato, glissandos, and trills, which are not available in the large section. The large section includes pizzicato and tremolos, which are not offered in the small section. In addition, the large section has an extensive list of Modulation Wheel programs that are not available for the small section. I was also surprised that there is no patch that lets you keyswitch between legato and pizzicato.
All in all, this library offers most of the essential playing techniques in one violin section or the other. The remaining sections include ten violas, ten cellos, and nine double basses. All of the instruments — from the highest violins to the deepest double basses — sound rich, full, and detailed, and all have a wide array of articulations. The solo violin and cello are particularly expressive and sonorous; they're a joy to work with.
Symphonic Orchestra offers a splendid collection of samples and articulations. Although it is well suited to traditional orchestral writing in a variety of styles, the library was born primarily of a desire to fill the needs of film and television composers, arrangers, and other musicians in the entertainment industry. The recording techniques and many of the content decisions, therefore, grew out of those needs.
Symphonic Orchestra's few shortcomings include its lack of a celesta and a piano and the aforementioned omission of muted brass sounds. (According to EastWest, a Symphonic Orchestra-2 library is planned that will add celesta, muted brass, and other sounds.) The owner's manual is also poorly organized and provides only an incomplete patch list. Moreover, its scant descriptions sometimes offer little help in effectively using the patches.
These few gripes aside, however, I was greatly impressed with much of this library: the recording quality, the performances, and many of the layered programs make the Symphonic Orchestra library one of the best toolkits available for serious desktop composers. If you're interested, check out the EastWest Web site for some stunning MP3 demos.
Contributing editorDavid Rubinlives and works in the foothills outside of Los Angeles.
Minimum System Requirements
Symphonic Orchestra, Platinum Edition
MAC: G4/1.42 GHz; 1.5 GB RAM; Mac OS 9.2 or OS X; 70 GB hard-disk space
PC: Pentium 4/1.4 GHz (or equivalent); 1.5 GB RAM; Windows 98/2000/ME/XP; 70 GB hard-disk space
I'd suggest that you set aside the better part of an afternoon for installing the full Platinum version of Symphonic Orchestra. The process involves multiple steps, and it does take time.
For starters, each of the four volumes in the set must be individually registered with Native Instruments at its Web site. An exchange of serial number and authorization response is needed to complete the process each time. You also have to copy all of the patches and multis from the DVDs in each volume to a fast hard drive. The entire library consists of 19 DVDs, so a lot of copying is involved.
After installing the library, you must then go to the EastWest Web site to download the latest update, and you'll also need to download a separate disk-streaming driver from Native Instruments. The whole process can seem a bit arduous, but it went relatively smoothly for me.
Symphonic Orchestra, Platinum Edition is a formidable sample library that is targeted squarely at professional composers who aren't fazed by the $2,995 price tag and the library's need for a top-of-the-line computer system. If, however, you can't quite scrape together the price of admission for the flagship product or your computer is less than state-of-the-art, EastWest has several options that may interest you.
For example, you don't have to buy the entire Platinum Edition all at once. You can individually purchase Platinum Strings ($995), Platinum Woodwinds ($995), Platinum Brass ($995), or Platinum Percussion ($495) and expand the library as your needs arise.
You can also purchase the Symphonic Orchestra library in the Gold Edition ($995). It has most of the same instruments that the full library does, but instead of Platinum's 24-bit resolution and three mic perspectives per instrument, Gold has everything in 16-bit resolution with only the stage-mic patches. That provides a moderate amount of reverb and a very good sense of instrument placement, but it lacks the surround capability or the close-up detail. Still, you get a fine stereo library with excellent performances with much less drag on your CPU.
If the Gold Edition is a bit too much, consider the budget-priced Silver Edition ($295). Like the Gold Edition, it has 16-bit, single-perspective patches, but the Silver Edition has fewer articulations, making it a much smaller library. And unlike the Gold and Platinum libraries in which every instrument is chromatically sampled, the Silver Edition has samples that are spaced at minor-third intervals.
However, the Silver Edition has a few extras that the other libraries don't: a Steinway B grand piano (from EastWest), a pipe organ (from Post Musical Instruments), and male and female choirs (from Quantum Leap). These additional preexisting libraries were added to make the collection more suitable for the educational market, at which this edition is aimed.
Each edition of the Symphonic Orchestra library has the Native Instruments Kompakt front end, and EastWest has an upgrade policy if you decide to move into the upper ranks at a later date.
Symphonic Orchestra, Platinum Edition
FEATURES4.0EASE OF USE4.5QUALITY OF SOUNDS5.0VALUE4.5RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Excellent 24-bit recording quality. First-rate performances. Three-mic audio-zoom approach offers unprecedented control over natural ambience. Separate amplitude-matched reverb tails. Standalone and plug-in support. Full surround-sound capability.
CONS: Very high processing demands. Incomplete documentation. Lacks celesta, piano, and muted brass. No formalized first and second violin sections with matching presets.