Monday, May 26, 2014

Orchestral Libraries 3: Vienna Instruments and VI Special Edition Review

I recently dived face-first into a special 6-month trial of the full Vienna Instruments Special Edition suite, and boy do I have some news for you all. This trial has greatly opened my eyes to the coveted world of MIDI composition that is Vienna Instruments. Because of their ever-expanding options and libraries, getting set up with Vienna doesn’t necessarily have to cost you more than you will be paid on your next few to several projects. However, I will say ahead of time, in order to properly reap all of the benefits VI has to offer, you do have to have a decent amount of experience writing, and more importantly, mixing music well. This includes having the ability to sufficiently handle a large amount of keyswitching. If you don’t know what that is, perhaps I will write an article for you.

The reason you need to know what you are doing as a composer or producer if you want Vienna to sound good at all is because everything is recorded completely dry. This means there are no “multiple mic positions” in the traditional, EastWest sort of way, although their separate MIR reverb software does enable you to process real stage positions and reflections in a very advanced way. Therefore, if you can’t mix or keyswitch well, or if you are newer to the field and lack advanced listening skills, you may feel like Vienna doesn’t sound much better than the stock MIDI instruments in your DAW. However, that couldn’t be further from the reality of just how different Vienna actually is. In fact, an advanced composer, or at least the mixing engineers he or she sends any Vienna-made scores off to, might be overjoyed that no big “room” sound was recorded along with all of the samples because it gives them complete control over reverb effects for any given situation. Purists might be upset by the dryness of Vienna, but room noise in what is still considered to be a “stage mic’d” sample isn’t exactly pure, now is it? Perhaps the truest of purists who lacks the ability to hire a full orchestra might simply take any sampled parts to a concert hall and re-record them for a “true” natural reverb… but that’s another topic for another time.

The really fantastic things about Vienna are its players, Vienna Instruments/VI Pro; the ability to create custom keyswitches; and the common sense they used when recording various articulations.

The player is a unique work of art all on its own, and other developers should learn from it. You have the ability to assign the various parameters to MIDI controlled channels for automation, and perhaps the greatest three features to control are the velocity fader, the velocity fader on/off switch, and the slot fader. That’s right, you can control and automate the velocity of any single, sustained MIDI note with the velocity fader, meaning that you could have a note on a horn start out at pp (pianissimo) and crescendo as it plays until it reaches a ff (fortissimo) volume… and the duration of the crescendo can be any length you want!  I don’t know of any other players that allow that kind of customization. The on/off control is there because, as avid automators know, once automation is turned on for a track, whatever the automating line says at that exact moment is what all of the other unattended notes will play back for the rest of the piece. So, if you only want to crescendo 3 notes during an entire score, it could be a bit of a pain to go in and set the velocities of every MIDI note via automation. Simply automate the on/off switch instead to tell your sequencer when to ignore velocity automation.

In addition, the slot fader lets you have the same kind of control… but get this—it’s between multiple articulations or instruments. Yes, you can have a fortepiano contrabass note magically transform into an organ or even have a sustaining cymbal swell suddenly become a flute, but on a more practical level, you could have a sustaining violin section slowly add tremolo as a note goes on. Or, you may like the “oboe d’Amore” sound for the first half of a note but want it to settle in with a simpler sound before the note ceases. Tiny details like this can greatly add to the realism of a MIDI mockup, and again, I know of no one else who offers this level of control.

The ability to create custom keyswitches is the next great feature. Whether you are or are not familiar with keyswitching, I’m sure you can agree that assigning C1 (except for low instruments, which I usually default to C4) to change all of your instruments to the “sustain” sound, C#1 to change to staccato, D1 to legato, etc., allows you to greatly increase your workflow and keep trigger memorization to a minimum. Other players and companies do offer keyswitching; however, many of them kind of throw the keyswitches in at random and follow no common setup for all like instruments. You might have D2 be pizzicato for one stringed instrument, but have it be tremolo for another. With Vienna, you get to choose and save your own keyswitches, so after the initial set up, time never really has to be wasted checking which trigger produces which sound. Amazing. I won’t even get into how the matrices or presets work, but let’s just say there are multiple layers of keyswitching that could allow you to keep your articulations all the same but change, say, the instrument type you are using, the playing technique from regular to muted, or the size of the viola section. Vienna Ensemble is a whole separate beast that allows you to preset an entire orchestra (with or without Vienna plugins, so you can mix and match) in a single player that will load every time you open a new or existing project and allow you to still control each instrument individually via aux channel.

Finally, in regards to what makes Vienna great, they had a little more sense than some other manufacturers when deciding what articulations to include in with each instrument set. Too often, you will see a sample set that has something like staccato in the solo cello and 10 cello sections, but leaves it out in the 3-4 cello sections. Or, you might see a trumpet, trombone, and tuba with a sforzato patch, but not get it in the horns. Everything in SE is pretty much standardized, with slight variations based on what instruments can play and on what you already have. So, obviously only strings will have pizzicato and tremolo (which I just put higher up in my keyswitch chain so as to keep the lower notes common among all instruments), but everything has sustain, staccato, sforzato, and legato and their plus versions have trills, fortepiano, portato, mutes, and more. The only area where this is slightly off is for uncommon instruments or instruments that repeat like bassoon 2, flugelhorn, and 8 “epic” horns, which have no “plus” articulations (in the SE versions). All in all, it’s pretty consistent throughout. One additional side note is that the legato patches in Vienna are all true legato, meaning that, much like a synthesizer set to “legato” voice/mode, only one note can be played at a time, and tiny crossfades and slides are applied to overlapping notes in order to emulate how a live player would move between two legato notes.

So, let me give you the breakdown of what SE includes. There are 4 products in the VI SE line, and special editions 1 & 2 both have “plus” versions, which come with additional instruments or articulations beyond the standard packages. Versions 1 & 2, along with their “plus” add-ons, are probably the most essential parts to get if you are on a tight budget and are considering Vienna. Together, they encompass the bare minimum you need to write music for an orchestra, but, as you can see in the list above, don’t expect to get extreme in your creativity. Version 3 is strictly a con sordino strings and harp 2 add-on, while 4 includes more obscure instruments, like the euphonium, cornet, heckelphone, and bass flute.

The strings sections are pretty good. They are definitely not “Hollywood” bright or big, so if that is the sound you are going for, you may prefer something that has a more unrealistic high end. In the full version of SE, you get regular and plus articulations for all five sections as solo instruments, chamber ensembles, and full orchestras. You also get an even larger grouping called “appassionata” strings, but each section only contains sustain and staccato articulations. Everything is very realistic, and it is highly recommended if you know what you are doing and don’t need that many articulations. The harp options are very nice, though they only come with simple articulations in SE. I give strings a grade of A-.

The percussion/rhythm section is interesting because it is very classical for the most part. If anything were going to have a bit of a Hollywood edge to it, I’d recommend it be the percussion, maybe because I love to write for big and world percussion styles. Pitched percussion is fairly easy to sample, and things like the glockenspiel and xylophone in SE hold their own well. The timpani also sound great with classical pieces but need a boost from something like EastWest’s timpani if you really want to bring the thunder. Unfortunately, there are only one or two options (a left hand hit and right hand hit) for important instruments like gongs, cymbals, mallet cymbals, bass drums, etc., so the sounds get repetitive quickly. Plus, there are no foreign instruments except for taiko, and it always sounds like they are clipping at their highest velocity. Pianos and guitars are also extremely basic in this version, but lots of these instruments can be upgraded. Regardless, the Vienna percussion sound often isn’t enough for me, since I write for many foreign percussion ensembles, so if you have similar needs, be prepared to seek an additional supplier or a Vienna upgrade for your percussion. Overall, I’d give Vienna SE’s percussion library a B.

The brass is the weakest grouping here, so I can’t give it higher than a B or B+, but even so, it is still good as brass instruments are not easy to sample realistically. You just have to know how to use it. My main issue with the brass is the thin, phase-y sound it has when it is completely unedited, especially in the grouped sections of 3 instruments.  I prefer to have 3 solo brass instruments I can customize individually, luckily, but using similar keyswitches in unison parts can still get a bit wild. Once mixing is done, you can usually blend the brass and get most phasing issues to go away, but I’d still rather they not be there at all.

The woodwinds are a huge plus, probably my favorite of the included sections. They have all four main instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon) and their counterparts (piccolo, English horn, bass clarinet, and contrabassoon), and there are alternate options for all four main instruments. I also often include the rare or alternate instruments from the SE 4 collection in my scores. Again, I don’t really have a need for the multi-instrument sections, as I write for each woodwind individually, but those are included as well.  Although the bass clarinet seems to be twice as loud as the other winds, which has happened with every sampled bass clarinet I’ve ever heard, I give this section a solid A+ because of the incredible realism and control possible with the woodwinds. The only way I can imagine it being better is by buying more Vienna articulations.

Lastly, I mentioned that Vienna doesn’t have to cost you a fortune. While the rules and prices vary between Europe and the Western hemisphere (American-based composers can purchase Vienna through Ilio at www.ilio.com), the products remain the same. Yes, the full Vienna suite plus all of the additional software and plugins will run you over $15,000, but they recently outdid their Special Edition package by offering individual instruments or sections for single purchases, each complete with the option to go standard, go extended (plus), or do both at once. These are a bit more expensive (about $50-100 for standard or extended per instrument and $150-$200 for both), but you also get a significantly larger collection of articulations since they come from the non-SE full packages. Oddly, strings are not included in this offer, but most everything else they have to offer outside of the “dimension” series is available. The great thing about choosing this route is that you can select exactly what instruments you want your orchestra to be comprised of. So, if you only want one flute type but need the contrabass tuba, euphonium, and regular tuba sets, you can buy whatever you want whenever you want it. Plus, if you do need a basic strings package, the SE packages can be broken down by section (allowing you to just buy strings) and there are various other strings packages, though those are pricey. However, rumor has it that they will give you a discount on new purchases that overlap with what you already own.

I know this is a longer article, but there is a lot to know about Vienna… and I barely scratched the surface. It is a great collection of instruments if you know how to use it properly and its sound blends well with some of the bigger “in-your-face” libraries out there. I wouldn’t recommend it to a beginner, but then again, I wouldn’t recommend much to a beginner, so it’s actually a nice first library to have, especially if you are willing to practice, make mistakes, listen, and learn. Who I really wouldn’t recommend it to is the lazy composer who maybe doesn’t have professional aspirations. A library that has automatic mic positioning and preset reverb setups is going to make your cheesy 5-minute loop with no use of the available keyswitches sound better. But to everyone else considering high-end professional material, this is a must-have. The player paragraph should have made that obvious. Vienna can easily be a great way to achieve your realism goals if you prefer live musicians (don’t we all) but only have the time or money to hire a few main pieces.

To hear samples of songs that are made with or incorporate Vienna instruments check out my site at www.natecombsmedia.com and its various links.

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