by Danny Poit
With all the choices for orchestral samples out there, it can be difficult deciding which tools might be appropriate for any given composer and any given usage. Some libraries try to closely match the Hollywood sound, whereas others try to mimic a more classical sound. Some are recorded in famous concert halls and sound stages with multiple mic positions, whereas others are recorded completely “dry” and leave the reverb completely up to the composer. Some boast huge section sizes, while others specialize in smaller sections, and even others try to provide everything in between. The Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL) takes a unique approach in providing extremely dry samples and allowing the composer to sequence and manipulate them in an infinite amount of ways to bring them to life with their incredible software.
VSL offers just about every orchestral instrument ever created (plus other non-orchestral instruments) as single instruments, instrument collections, and Special Editions. This review will focus on the Special Editions, which are packages designed to give composers all of the major pieces needed to write orchestral music and build onto them in chunks with additional articulations, instruments, and section sizes. I am also including the Vienna Instruments Pro (VI Pro) sample player in this review, which is a must-have for any composer using VSL products.
The Special Editions come in four volumes, including two “Plus” versions:
VOLUME 1 – Essential Orchestra: €310
VOLUME 1 PLUS – Articulation Expansion to Vol. 1: €365
VOLUME 2 – Extended Orchestra: €375
VOLUME 2 PLUS – Articulation Expansion to Vol. 2: €325
VOLUME 3 – Appassionata & Muted Strings: €365
VOLUME 4 – Special Winds & Choir: €275
Note: As the company is actually based in Vienna, Austria, all prices are in Euros. However, a quick Google search can show you the conversion amount to your currency via current exchange rates. For example, Volume 1 which is 310 Euros = roughly $420, as of this writing (early 2014).
All of these prices together may seem daunting, but most composers will never need all of these volumes. My recommendation is to start with Volume 1. For $420, you will be hard-pressed to find a more comprehensive set of orchestral samples.
Volume 1 includes all of the major instruments from the orchestral sections, including instruments that are commonly doubled by certain players in many orchestras, such as piccolo, English horn, and bass trombone. Most of the instruments are single instruments, except for the brass and strings, which also include ensemble patches. To create ensemble performances of these single instruments, this can be done in a few ways: One option would be to add on additional volumes of the Special Edition. For example, Volume 2 adds ensemble patches of the main woodwind instruments. Another option would be to build your own ensemble patch using multiple layers of the single instrument, each manipulated slightly differently to sound like a different player. This is the versatility VSL provides and is the basis of their approach to sampled instruments (and why VSL only provides one violin section).
As far as sound quality, the samples in the Special Editions still sound pretty good for being several years old, but keep in mind they are not intended to sound great “out of the box.” However, with the right processing and sequencing, they can still produce a pretty convincing result. I suggest listening to the audio demos for the Special Editions on the VSL web site to get a feel for what they can do.
All VSL instrument purchases come with their free Vienna Instruments player, which works as a standalone or plug-in. However, to really get the most out of your VSL instruments, you really need the Vienna Instruments Pro (VI Pro) player. Even if you only have Special Edition Vol. 1, it is worth the €145 ($197) to upgrade to this brilliant player. In my opinion, it is the most powerful, intuitive sample player for orchestral samples on the market.
Like the regular Vienna Instruments player, it allows you to load up single patches or build matrices of several patches that can be switched between using several methods, like keyswitches. It also has the same functionality of designing control maps for different controls, such as expression and pitch wheel. Where VI Pro takes it to the next level are in its advanced features, such as polyphonic legato, layering and mixing of multiple patches within a cell, advanced instrument settings for pitch and tuning, and a very cool humanization engine.
For example, let’s say you need a keyswitch-able flute ensemble, but you have Special Edition Vol. 1, which only includes a Flute 1 patch. Starting with one articulation, you can add multiple instances of the patch as layers on top of each other within the same cell. Without any additional manipulation, this could cause a phasing effect by having the same sample played many times at the same time, especially if the patch does not have multiple Repetitions (round robins). However, VI Pro allows you to alter the humanization for each layered patch within the cell. Within seconds, you can load up a different humanization preset for each patch, and suddenly you have a working flute ensemble patch with no phasing! This can then be done for each articulation you want to build your fully functional ensemble instrument. You can even create your own humanization presets with the nice graphical interface provided inside VI Pro. The programmability of this software is amazing.
In summary, the VSL Special Editions, particularly Volume 1, are a great starting point for a composer looking for a cost-effective yet comprehensive orchestral toolkit, and the VI Pro is really an essential upgrade for anyone using VSL instruments. VSL’s instruments generally take a bit more time and involvement to get the desired sound, when compared to other offerings on the market, but the time spent working with them could also be useful for those learning or continuing to study MIDI orchestration. It’s not the easiest sample library on the market, but it’s also not as hard to work with as one may think. Like everything else out there, once you work with it for a while, it becomes easier. The key is to understand VSL’s approach towards providing the most basic building blocks and giving the composer a massive toolkit for manipulating the dry samples. Versatility is the key word here. VerSatiLity.
Product web sites
Vienna Special Editions: http://www.vsl.co.at/en/211/261/2124/1821.vsl
Vienna Instruments Pro: http://www.vsl.co.at/en/211/497/537/1456/1083.htm