EWQL Symphonic Orchestra PLATINUM Edition [19 DVDs Set]
Fancy getting a complete symphony orchestra inside your computer? This massive new sample collection might just make that dream a reality. Have you noticed that the world of sampling is enjoying a refreshing renaissance at the moment? It's a natural response to the increase in the amount of computer power that we have at our disposal so it shouldn't really come as a surprise. But in recent months there have been a couple of groundbreaking new products that genuinely give samplers and sample libraries a whole new complexion. Call then what you will- sample players, ROMplers or whatever- they consist of huge and comprehensive libraries of sounds recorded in natural spaces, and come bundled with their own software playback interface.
In these products, the samples have been multi-miked with close and distant microphones, and the sample programs allow you to balance the levels of close and ambient mics just as if you were working on a real recording session. One of these products is BFD, a drum collection from FXpansion (which received 9/10 in CM68) and the other is the Symphonic Orchestra collection from EastWest and Quantum Leap Productions, a package that pushes the sampling envelope to its limits.
The difference between the sound of a real orchestra and one created using a collection of samples has historically been pronounced. To anyone who really cares in the classical world, samples have been a non-starter and have been useful only for mapping out orchestral ideas before going into the studio to record them for real. For those working on film and TV scores, where budgets don't stretch to that luxury, it's been a constant uphill struggle to get close to a realistic emulation.
The drawbacks are many. To start with a real orchestra is a diffuse sound unified by the space in which it is recorded. That's what gives it life. The expressive vocabulary of an orchestra is vast, and to capture and record it's range requires a fastidious attention to detail and a huge amount of storage capacity. and last but not least, the triggering of samples has traditionally been more like a machine gun than an instrument.
Thanks to computer hardware advances, all of these problems have been addressed by the producers of Symphonic Orchestra in an attempt to create a library that has enough versatility and flexibility to get close to the reality of the real thing. It also gives you the facility to create true surround orchestral mixes.
The collection is divided into four themed volumes, so you don't have to buy the whole thing at once. These are Strings, Woodwinds, Brass and Percussion. Each volume comprises a complete collection of samples: there are recordings of sections and solos with many different articulations, and all at three mic points: close, stage and hall. They all come bundled with a version of Native Instruments' Kompakt sampler that's been tailored specifically for the Symphonic Orchestra. Kompakt allows you to balance the three pairs of phrase accurate stereo samples to create the exact three-dimensional mix that works for you.
The recordings were made in a huge 2500 seat modern auditorium by Professor Keith Johnson, a Grammy-winning classical engineer. The session was produced by composer Nick Phoenix and EastWest's Doug Rogers, who came up with the initial concept. The recording technique followed the traditional Decca setup, which has long been accepted as the most realistic method around. The recordings themselves were made at 24-bit/88.2kHz though for future-proofing reasons, a 176.4kHz print was made at the same time.
The Symphonic Orchestra represents the realization of a huge and costly project, so understandably, it is heavily protected from piracy. Authorization is handled by Native Instruments' much dicussed new system; each volume has to be registered at the NI site within five days of installation. You can use the volume unregistered for that period, but the incentive to register quickly is heightened by the fact that you can only get the update to stream samples from disk once you're an authorized user.
It's a good idea to put the library onto a fast external drive, though the authorization to run the program is always specific to the host computer. So for each of the four volumes, you first need to install the software onto the computer, and then manually copy the vast sample library from the collection of DVDs that comes with it (there are seven in the String volume alone) onto the hard drive. Once that's done, you have to register, which is simple if your computer is connected to the internet: otherwise, you'll be copying out long numbers. After that, you need to download the update, and then the disk streaming extension.
A version of Kompakt is installed for each volume, and this can either run as a standalone player or a plug-in within your host sequencer. On the Mac, Kompakt currently supports VST under OS9, and RTAS and Audio Units under OSX. The Windows version supports the VSTi and Dxi plug-in formats.
Even with the disk streaming extension installed, you need a good supply of spare RAM just for the initial buffering, because you're dealing with a lot of information at one time. Each individual sound is made up of three 24-bit stereo samples, and then there are the high polyphony figures that occur because so many reverb tails overlap. And that's before we even get to the sample crossfading and keyswitchable programs. The programs vary in the demands they put on your computer, but 1GB of RAM us a good starting point for running one instance with an average amount of content. Yes, we're talking large scale computing here. You also need a fast processor; anything under 800MHz is going to result in glitches when things get a bit too polyphonic.
The total size of all four volumes in the library is over 65GB, so we think a dedicated fast and large capacity FireWire drive would be the best option.
The producers talk about a dream system of two fast computers for each section- a total of eight- to run everything live but even that might not be enough to give you uninterrupted reverb tails. You've got to be serious in both intention and wealth to go there. The reality for most users will be that they render each part of the orchestra to solid audio as they work. Alternatively, it might be a case of mapping out full ideas with some other instrument to hear the whole picture and then substituting parts with the Symphonic Orchestra one by one.
This may sound like a bit of faff, but believe us when we say that it will be worth it. You will never have a sound palette like this outside a concert hall. It's all here: the clarity, the richness, the depth of field, the perspective. Then there's the range of articulations that more than covers the array of orchestral expressions, you're likely to need. And beyond that, there's the spatial control at your disposal, from being able to balance between the close mics, the stage mics and the hall mics, to being able to reduce the size of the hall by curtailing the envelope. You can highlight what you want by turning up the close mic, take sounds 'off stage' by just having the hall mic, or move the listener's position around the hall. And mightiest of all, you can create true surround mixes: have the close mics left and right, the stage mics central, and the hall mics to the rear.
Pump up the volumes
The string section is the largest, weighing in at a massive 28GB. It covers sections- ten cellos, ten violas, 11 and 18 violins and nine double basses- soloists of the same instruments and a harp. There are also layered large string sections of 50, 60 and 70 pieces just in stereo.
An acid test for any sample collection is the sound of its strings, especially the low ones, and those on off
er here go right to the top of the class. The double basses have both depth and growl and the cellos are rich and full, and both have a realism and immediacy that's unsurpassed. The same goes for the violins and violas, which are so natural in their hall setting. For some (and in certain circumstances) the close mic sound of the section called "Multis" may be too wet and not cutting enough, but such occasions will be rare, because generally their diffusive meld is pure aural joy.
To get a full list of articulations you can visit the website, but all the usual ones are present: marcato, legato, pizz, staccato, crescendo, trem, slur and many others. There are also vibrato and non-vibrato where applicable. Several programs use the mod wheel to crossfade between two articulations- for example, between vibrato and non vibrato versions or between sustain and trem samples. What's more, there are a number of keyswitchable programs in which you can switch between several of the articulations by hitting a MIDI key outside of the instrument's range. You have an extremely comprehensive set of tools to work with, and these make the programming of the subtle nuances of an orchestral performance a realistic possibility.
The quality continues into the Woodwind volume and the natural hall provides the cohesion. The clarinet, flute and oboe sections are sublime in their realism, as are the various solo woodwinds: alto flute, bass clarinet, bassoon, clarinet, concert flute, contra-bassoon, English horn, oboe and piccolo flute.
Articulations follow a similar pattern to the strings and also include those specific to woodwind, such as tongue flutters and glissandi. There are more key-switch and crossfade combinations, too.
The sound of the brass volume is majestic, with blistering, fat trombones (tenor and bass), searingly triumphant trumpets and more wistful French horns. And let's not forget the tuba. Everything sounds very impressive indeed- upfront and ambient in variable proportions.
Perhaps the smallest section of the orchestra, and certainly the smallest of the four volumes (5GB) the percussion is no less impressive sonically. There are all sorts of cymbals, gongs and chimes struck in all different ways, some big ratty snares and field drums, amazing timpani hits, rolls and crescendi plus a variety of metal and other percussion. There's also a good choice of mallet instruments: glock, vibraphone and xylophone. You still have control of the three stereo fields, so your percussion can be as dry or as wet as you want it.
Symph-ly the best
The Symphonic Orchestra sets a new standard for sample collections, for several reasons. Truly unique are the three sets of phase-locked stereo samples that let you control the diffusion and ambience of your piece and create true surround performances. The sonic quality is faultless and the range of articulations should satisfy all but the most demanding. The high level of complexity creates its own problems though, and this collection is perhaps a little bit ahead of its time in terms of the amount of computing power currently available, but this will soon change.
The high price will put many people off- we'd like to see a package that contains all four volumes on a single FireWire hard drive- but it does reflect the huge potential of this library. If you're genuinely serious about your orchestral arrangements, this collection will pay for itself many times over.
You and I must make a 'pakt
Kompakt is the sample playing software that comes packaged with each of the four volumes of the Symphonic Orchestra collection. It's a cutdown version of Native Instruments' Kontakt, but it has a fine feature set of its own. It's structured along the now orthodox sample lines of Mutlis, Programs and samples, and you can load all the orchestral instruments directly into Multis. Each Multi consists of three programs: the close miked stereo pair, the stage mic pair and the hall mics. You can also load individual programs if you so desire. You can then edit each program individually...not that you're going to need to do much with the filtering and modulation options on offer if you're just after the realism of an orchestra. There are a few relevant features, though: you can assign the three samples to different outputs for surround mixes or independent EQ ing and so on, you can adjust the reverb tail of each using the amplitude envelope, and you can balance and pan each part. You can also flatten the velocity curve if you find the dynamic sensitivity of your keyboard playing fails you, which is quite likely if you're not much of a keyboard player. The dynamics of the samples are huge, but they're not hard to control.
You can have up to eight programs, but the chances are that just the three are going to push your system to breaking point. The natural reverb of the samples is lovely, but if you need more, there's an onboard reverb, as well as chorus and delay. For each program you have a filter section plus envelope and LFO modulation options.
The virtual keyboard highlights the range of the loaded instrument- all of them are mapped naturally, but you can extend them if you want. The keys used in any of the key-switch programs are highlighted in a different color: key-switch programs load several different articulations, which can be selected remotely by an assigned key outside the selected voice range.
All in all, this is a very neat package.