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Trouble in Paradise
At the 2002 AES Convention, a new company called Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL) announced that it would soon release the largest, most versatile, and most realistic orchestral sample library ever attempted. With private funding and a seemingly unlimited budget, VSL had custom-built a state-of-the-art studio and recorded thousands of hours of samples played by world-class musicians from ensembles such as the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestras. Led by visionary Herb Tucmandl, VSL had begun editing, processing, programming, and assembling those samples into a massive collection of unprecedented proportions.
A few months later, VSL shipped the First Edition of the Complete Orchestral Package, followed by the Pro Edition in 2003 and many volumes in the Horizon Series in 2004. All of them supplied detailed 16-bit sample libraries for popular software samplers, and all but the First Edition are still available.
In 2006, VSL began shipping all ten volumes in its gargantuan 24-bit Vienna Instruments library, known collectively as Symphonic Cube. Vienna Instruments is more than a sample library, however; it's also the name of the software instrument that serves as its graphical user interface.
FIG. 1: Vienna Instruments'' sample player runs standalone or as a plug-in. Its well-designed interface offers plenty of real-time control over the library''s 24-bit, 44.1 kHz sample content.
Setting the Stage
The ten boxed collections, which you may purchase separately, are Solo Strings, Chamber Strings, Orchestral Strings I and II, Harps, Woodwinds I and II, Brass I and II, and Percussion. They vary in size, price, and number of installation DVDs. Each includes a CD-ROM for installing the Vienna Instruments software instrument, which runs standalone and as a plug-in for AU and VST hosts.
To accommodate so much content, I bought a 500 GB Seagate hard drive and installed it in an external USB 2.0 enclosure. My computer was a dual-processor 2.3 GHz Apple Power Mac G5 with Mac OS X 10.4.8, 4 GB of RAM, and a 16x DVD drive. Although I ran Vienna Instruments standalone and as a VST plug-in in Steinberg Cubase SX3 and as an AU plug-in in Apple Logic Pro 7.1, I spent most of my time working in MOTU Digital Performer 4.61.
Before installation, you must download and install the latest version of Syncrosoft's License Control Center (LCC). Then you go to VSL's Web site to authorize your ViennaKey ($23), a Syncrosoft-compatible USB dongle.
FIG. 2: Vienna Instruments'' browser lets you select from an extensive list of Patches. Each instrument-specific Patch offers a single multisampled articulation or some other kind of variation.
You begin installing each volume by running the Vienna Instruments Library Installer, inserting the first DVD, and waiting while the files are copied and decompressed; on my computer, it took about 50 minutes per disc. The installer will visually prompt you to insert the next DVD. In all, the 10 volumes furnish 29 installation DVDs, most of them double density. You cannot install only certain instruments; you must install the entire volume containing the instrument you need. Nor can you delete from disk any instruments or articulations you don't plan to use.
After installation, the total content added up to about 375 GB — much less than the 550 GB I had expected from VSL's specifications. According to the company, Vienna Instruments decompresses its 24-bit data every time you load an instrument into memory. It uses a proprietary technique with a 3:2 compression ratio, making 24-bit samples on disk the size of 16-bit samples.
Because most users don't have a single hard drive large enough to hold the entire collection, you can distribute the sample libraries on several drives. In any case, you must initially run the included Directory Manager application to tell Vienna Instruments where to find its content.
To authorize Vienna Instruments, you must register each volume on VSL's Web site and then paste the activation code you receive into Syncrosoft's LCC application before you can download a license to your ViennaKey. Installing and authorizing the entire Symphonic Cube took more than two days for me to complete.
Big, Bigger, Biggest
Vienna Instruments is available in three editions: Standard, Extended, and Full. The Standard Library provides the articulations that are most useful for every instrument. The Extended Library, an add-on to the Standard Library, gives you articulations that are more detailed and of greater variety, but few additional instruments. Together, those two editions make up the Full Library, the version that VSL authorized for my review.
When you install any volume, you install its entire content, Standard and Extended. After authorizing the Standard Library, you can use any volume's Extended Library for 30 days from the first time you open its Extended content. If you don't spring for the Extended Library at the end of 30 days, you can't delete the unusable data from your hard drive. I suspect that given the choice, most users would rather reinstall the entire Standard Library than keep hundreds of gigabytes of unusable data on their hard drives.
In the center of Vienna Instruments' GUI is the Selector Ring; clicking on one of five buttons on its perimeter activates a function page (see Fig. 1). The Right Workspace contains either the browser or controls for the current function page, and the Left Workspace displays detailed information about the current page. Near the bottom of the window is a keyboard flanked by Pitch and Volume knobs.
Vienna Instruments arranges sample data in a 3-tier hierarchy of orchestral instruments and variations. Presets contain Matrices, and Matrices contain Patches. A Patch, the most basic level in the hierarchy, is a multisample of an instrument playing a single articulation or event. It could be a solo violin played staccato, a bass clarinet trill, or a tubular bell hit. When you click on Vienna Instruments' Patch Assign button, the browser reveals an extensive list of Patches within folders (see Fig. 2).
FIG. 3: A Matrix arranges Cells in two dimensions, horizontally and vertically, and you use controllers to change Patches in either direction. The Matrix shown here lets you instantly switch between 12 Muted Trumpet articulations.
The next level up in the hierarchy is a Matrix. A Matrix contains one or more Cells, and each Cell contains a Patch (see Fig. 3). A Matrix loads a number of related articulations — such as legato, portato, and staccato — and allows you to quickly switch between them during real-time performance. Patches may contain other variations as well; a glockenspiel Matrix, for example, may offer single hits, rolls, or glissandos with a choice of wood or metal mallets. Each instrument comes with a variety of preconfigured Matrices, and you can easily create and save your own.
A Matrix also stores controller assignments for navigating between Cells in real time. You can instantly switch articulations by moving your mod wheel, changing Velocity, or playing faster or slower. Cells are arranged horizontally and vertically, and you can assign one controller to move horizontally and another to move vertically through the Matrix to instantly activate any Cell. Switching between Cells is how you change articulations, and thus control musical expression, in real time.
At the top of the hierarchy are Presets. A Preset contains as many as 12 Matrices arranged in a useful combination, which are selected using keyswitches. Most instruments have a Level 1 Preset and a Level 2 Preset. Generally, Level 1 Presets contain fewer variations; for instance, whereas Level 1 Presets for harp offer only major glissandos, Level 2 Presets also give you minor and diminished glissandos (see Web Clip 1). Level 1 Presets contain only data from the Standard Library; Level 2 Presets also contain data from the Extended Library. Consequently, Level 2 Presets take longer to load, but they offer much more flexibility.
Clicking on the Control Edit button lets you assign controllers for switching between Cells in two directions (see Fig. 4). You can also switch between two opposing articulations in the same Patch, such as crescendo and decrescendo or up and down arpeggios. Controllers can be keyswitches, the pitch wheel, Note On Velocity, playing speed, or any MIDI Control Change (CC) message.
FIG. 4: You can switch between Cells using keyswitches, Pitch Bend, or any MIDI Control Change message, or by changing Velocity or even playing speed. In this example, keyswitching moves through the Matrix horizontally, and Modulation (CC 1) moves through the matrix vertically.
The Perform Control page provides sliders to control parameters such as attack and release, lowpass filter cutoff, and the depth of crossfading between Patches (see Fig. 5). In addition, you can tweak the master tuning, enable or disable release samples, or instantly switch to the slowest Patch in a speed-controlled Matrix.
A MIDI Learn function lets you easily assign any physical controller to an onscreen knob, button, or slider. Clicking on the Map Control button will display a page for assigning and editing controller assignments and defining their response curves. You can also right-click on an onscreen control and then move a hardware control to assign it.
By default, Pitch Bend has no effect. You'll probably want to assign your pitch bender to control the onscreen Pitch knob, but no matter what controller you choose, bends will be limited to a maximum whole step up or down. That's the range I usually assign for Pitch Bend, but if you're accustomed to a larger interval, you'll be disappointed.
Also on the Perform Control page is the Sample Management section. Vienna Instruments' Sample Management scheme is a brilliantly conceived and elegantly implemented technique for conserving your computer's resources. When you click on the Sample Management section's Learn button and then play a track in your sequencer, Vienna Instruments will remember which samples were used in the sequence. If you then click on the Optimize button, the plug-in will delete any unused samples from memory. This procedure very effectively frees up memory that would otherwise be unnecessarily wasted. To reload the deleted samples, just click on the Reset button.
Frank Zappa complained that orchestral players were uncooperative and obstinate (admittedly, he gave them grounds to be that way). He would have loved Symphonic Cube. It does what you want it to without objection, no matter how outrageous your demands. It also excels at just about everything you'd normally want an orchestra to do, and although it will probably take you quite a while to master it completely, at least it can eventually be mastered — you can't say the same of a real orchestra, as Zappa would no doubt have attested.
Limited space prevents me from describing the sounds in much detail; suffice it to say that without exception, they are extremely good. The strings are impressively versatile, even providing Gypsy articulations and scale runs in the Extended Library (see Web Clip 2). The woodwinds are stunningly lifelike, with solo versions of 13 instruments and bassoon, clarinet, flute, and oboe trios (see Web Clip 3). Brass instruments feature practically every articulation imaginable, as well as offbeat horns such as the cimbasso, Vienna horn, and Wagner tuba (see Web Clip 4). The percussion section delivers every instrument you'd expect and some you might not, from taiko drums and finger cymbals to lithophone and Peking opera gong (see Web Clip 5). Check out the complete contents on VSL's Web site (http://vsl.co.at).
If you listen to enough symphonic music that you can distinguish one orchestra or conductor from another, Vienna Instruments won't fool you. Even if you're only a casual classical-music buff, careful listening will reveal the sampled forgery if you suspect one. But for most audiences, under most circumstances, and in the hands of a skilled musician, Vienna Instruments will probably fool most of the people most of the time (see Web Clip 6). Without a doubt, it is possible to make wonderful music with Symphonic Cube, as proven by many fine recordings on VSL's Web site. The sampling quality is uniformly excellent, and Vienna Instruments sounds just as convincing as the state of the art allows.
FIG. 5: On the Perform Control page, you can specify parameters such as filter cutoff and pitch-bend range, and you can delete any unused samples from RAM.
The software instrument has some brilliant touches — such as the tremendous variety of techniques for switching articulations and the ability to automatically delete unused samples — and a few annoyances. Installation and authorization were tedious (see Web Clip 7), and whenever I loaded a Preset or Matrix, Vienna Instruments demanded to be the foremost window.
Sequencing with Vienna Instruments has room for improvement. The software instrument is not multitimbral, and it receives MIDI data in Omni mode only. That means you'll need to instantiate a new plug-in for every instrument or instrument group you want to record. As long as you remember to delete the unused samples as soon as you finish every track, you can probably load dozens of instances without any resource-related problems (depending on your computer, of course). Nonetheless, I still wish it were multitimbral, because I'd rather not have to keep track of so many plug-ins.
Using Vienna Instruments was frustrating at times, but ultimately the results were always worth the effort. The samples sound generally amazing, and once I had learned my way around, it was fairly easy to find just the articulation I needed at any given moment. However, you can't edit or remap the samples as you can with sampler-format orchestral libraries; that may or may not be important to you.
As with any virtual orchestra, there is plenty to learn before you can get the best performance from Vienna Instruments. Fortunately, VSL's documentation is top-notch. A 40-page printed manual comes with each volume, as well as a PDF version of the same manual and another PDF that details every Patch, Matrix, and Preset for every instrument in that volume — more than 1,300 PDF pages for the entire Symphonic Cube. Considering Vienna Instruments' cost, though, I'd have expected full paper manuals too. You'll find a ton of knowledge that anyone can access on VSL's Web site, including very detailed information about individual orchestral instruments and orchestration. In addition, you can download 45 minutes' worth of helpful video clips.
As Good as It Gets
Vienna Instruments is groundbreaking, that's for sure. The full-tilt Symphonic Cube has twice the content of any competing virtual orchestra, and it costs more than a Korg OASYS. Whether the cost is a problem depends on whether your alternative is to buy a less expensive sample library or to hire a real orchestra. If you can afford it, you won't regret your purchase. And if you own any previous VSL sample libraries, you may be entitled to a discount for any Extended or Full Library.
Symphonic Cube is remarkably complete, furnishing practically every articulation and orchestral instrument you could ever want — hats off to Vienna Symphonic Library for such a monumental achievement. If you (or, better yet, your employer) can afford to join the exclusive club of Symphonic Cube users, you will come as close as possible to putting a living, breathing orchestra on your desktop.
EM associate editor Geary Yelton lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.
VIENNA SYMPHONIC LIBRARY
Vienna Instruments Symphonic Cube 1.1
Standard Library, $4,620
Extended Library, $6,370
Full Library, $10,990
FEATURES4EASE OF USE3QUALITY OF SOUNDS5VALUE3
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Breathtaking sound. Complete selection of instruments and articulations. Well-designed expressive capabilities. Superb documentation.
CONS: Seriously pricey. Not multitimbral. Problematic copy protection. Can't delete Extended samples from hard disk.
Vienna Symphonic Library/Ilio (distributor)