What it is: Mojo: Horn Section (MHS for short) is a VST/AU/RTAS/standalone virtual instrument based on NI’s Kontakt 3 player engine, and intended to be all the horn section you’ll ever need in the studio. It covers solo sounds to ensembles with 12 “core” instruments: trumpet, trombone, muted trumpet, muted trombone, piccolo trumpet, bass trombone, soprano sax, alto sax, tenor sax, baritone sax, clarinet, and flugelhorn.
Distinguishing characteristic: Brass samples are often either simplistic— basically, you play them like an organ— or overly complex, where you have a zillion articulations that you select and initiate through keyswitches, pedals, controllers, etc. MHS strikes a balance between the two, as a relatively simple interface masks a pretty complex engine. Part of the “secret sauce” is Kontakt 3’s ability to run MIDI scripts, which provide the articulations.
Up and running: Be very patient, as you need to install a 14+GB library (and authorize via the NI Service Center). Figure on up to an hour to install, depending on your DVDROM drive.
First impressions: I like adding horn sections to my music, but I’m picky. So, I hoped MHS would be the horn section I’ve always wanted.
I was initially put off because the interface defaults to looking like someone forgot to include the rest of it; there are only three knobs, a bunch of utilities (e.g., MIDI channel assignment), drop-down menus for Setup and Effects, and a browser for finding and loading instruments. Aside from a Tune control, the other two knobs control the number of players (from one to ten) and the mode—polyphonic, mono, or mono with legato (useful for solo instrument sections). However, you can open up many more modules within the Kontakt 3 player to show effects, a virtual keyboard, master control section, and more.
But the star of MHS is the collection of big, rich, brassy sounds. The sampling is spot on, and the playability is exemplary. And while I’m sure many users would be happy just to dial up presets and play, there’s also a hidden world inside MHS where you can tweak the sound in multiple ways.
Going deeper: The key to tweaking is the Setup menu. Here you can reach controls that modify the vibrato character, stretching modes, stereo spread, random timing differences among players, detuning, character (mellow or aggressive), punch, humanization, legato mode adjustments, pitch bend wheel behavior, and more. You don’t necessarily need to adjust these; the defaults are very usable. Still, it’s convenient to be able to customize the sound exactly the way you want—you can even make these changes in real time with MIDI controllers.
Keyswitches for active and release articulations are assigned to the keyboard, outside the instrument’s range. There are “prompts” in the instrument interface itself that show the current articulation, as well as colored keys on a virtual keyboard that can trigger articulations as well as show where articulations are assigned.
You get a lot of effects that can insert in an instrument, mixer channel, or four aux buses: Reverb (convolution and synthetic), EQ, dynamics, saturation, distortion, chorus, delay, stereo width, brickwall limiter, cabinet, 19 different filters, etc. There are also folders of “lite” instruments for computers shy on RAM, riffs, ensembles with minimal articulations, effects (e.g., key clicks), and a “sustains only” folder that trades off complexity for a light RAM footprint—ideal for sketching out arrangements fast.
Conclusions: Aside from the sound quality, what I like most about MHS is that it’s fun to play. Figure out the keyswitch options, and you can add manual articulations to the ones that are done “behind the scenes,” without having to think too much. Despite being a complex instrument, you can lay parts down quickly and ignore the complexity—or do insanely detailed tweaking. I also like that MHS does convincing solo parts as well as massed ensembles.
It’s not too much of a stretch to say that MHS applies artificial intelligence to virtual instruments. To your ears, the sound is vibrant and realistic—but it’s Kontakt’s scripting engine that’s doing the heavy lifting. (I hope we don’t have to wait too long before someone decides the world needs Mojo: String Section.)
MHS is an excellent realization of concepts we may have seen before, but assembled in a novel, effective way. It’s not cheap by virtual instrument standards, and it’s not forgiving about computer resources, but Mojo: Horn Section delivers on its promise.
Price: $499.95 MSRP