virtual instruments

The fast changing pace of articulation switching

What happens, when you play a piece with one of the modern, rich sound libraries? The computer takes your music symbols, and converts them into commands to select articulations. Here is how a solo violin looks in VSL's Vienna Instruments Pro, in a short video I assembled over an orchestral prototype I'm working on. Isn't it a bit like the Nineteenth Century Iron Age's mad utopia of musical automata?

Sound libraries and extended techniques

Grown in the European academia, I always feel a strong need for extended techniques. That is, those strange sounds going over the usual round technique used for crafting beautiful melodic lines, or the smart spiccato with which you push your most frantic rhythm ahead. Scratchy digging, feeble harmonics, colliding multiphonics.

These aren't very commonly included in sound libraries. I’m grateful to the handful of houses making sample collections including at least some of them.

While testing my new VSL-based orchestral machine, I moved in territories very dangerous for a humble sampler. And tried to replicate the mad violin of Sciarrino’s Capricci. Nearly impossible to play with a real instrument, virtually impossible to make with virtual instruments.

Yet, there are some interesting findings in exploring the extremes. And trying to recreate a, so to say, naturally produced sound can teach a lot on the nature of instrument virtualization.

Sound maps extending over 128 entries

Keyswitching can be done better with a common reference map, allowing for easy exchange of the same code between different sound libraries. The same Expression Map or Articulation Set can then be used or easily adapted to the various libraries in your arsenal.

My personal maps for libraries like VSL and Spitfire are modeled on the UACC map. Spitfire is not always coherent with their own map, and it is easy to understand why, thinking on how little conventional are some or their libraries like Tundra or Uist.

VSL has no reference organization system, but they have tried to standardize their presets over the years. Collections from different generations have a similar system to organize the many articulations, but these systems different between the different generations, and the different instrument families. The very flexible Vienna Instruments allows however to create your own presets, and set them as they better fit your workflow.

It may seem strange, but the 128 slots allowed by the Spitfire's UACC map are not always enough. My personal map contain many nuances, going from the basic sustain vibrato or non vibrato, or espressivo, to things like molto sul pont., with heavy pressure, or various degrees of measured tremolo. Overthinked and overworked, maybe, but an effective tool to avoid thinking to the mechanics behind the libraries when actually making music.

Something I've done in Logic to get more articulation slots is to duplicate the first 128 entries to the second group of 128 in the Articulation Set, to fill all the available 256 slots. This way, any variation to the base articulations can fall in a slot mirroring the ones in the first group. For example, there are two basic Longs at #1 and #2 in the UACC map. If you need two more, you can place them at #129 and #130.

Blending Spitfire Audio and VSL strings

Spitifire Audio's London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO) Strings are a fantastic addition to a contemporary composer's box of tricks. Open tuning, raw and sincere bowing, an exploration of the strings from bridge to touch (and back).

However, they lack true legato. You can try to fake it with the Release control. An Attack Offset control would have been a nice touch, but it is not there.

So, I did some tests with combining LCO Vivid Violins with some legato patches from other libraries. "Vivid" are the (nearly) ordinary articulation of this library. These are the LCO Vivid Violins alone:

Together with the six violins of the Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL) Chamber Strings, they resulted in a too big ensemble (despite the much lower volume I mixed the VSLs in):

On the contrary, only two of the VSL Dimension Violins worked fine, with the right ensemble size and the LCO timbre prevailing in the mix:

The VSL Dimension Violins alone, with the performance trill patch selected; there is some apparent phasing, but this is typical of this particular library, exhibiting its full beauty only when everybody is playing together:

All of them placed in the Teldex wide via MIR. No patch changes, only the raw ones.

Orchestral prototypes

We all agree that there is no substitute to a human player – a skilled one – playing contemporary techniques on real instruments. As for me, this is still the final goal of composing: making music for a community of people wanting to enjoy music, both as players and as listeners.

The use of computers and sound libraries is a help for composition. What once was done with a real piano, or even with the family or friends reading your freshly written music in the evening, is now done with this sophisticate keyboard instrument that is the sampler.

There is a growing opportunity of making nearly credible prototypes with the current tools. The libraries from IRCAM are explicitly made for contemporary music, and Xsample libraries contain several of the same techniques. Some smaller houses, like Soniccouture, Sonokinetic or 8Dio, have other useful sounds. VSL, Orchestral Tools, Spitfire Audio are adding more and more of these techniques, even if their core business is not mainly this niche, but the modern composer for media in advanced markets (like the sophisticate world of film and TV production in London, Paris or Berlin), where using the most recent vocabulary is allowed and even required.

My impression is that a composer is no longer forced to just imagine his/her music, but can put it to test with the available compositional tools. And if these tools can open a way to other new techniques – either in the world of acoustic or electronic instruments – music will gain something new.

Instruments and their colors

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VSL Vienna Imperial vs. Embertone Walker 1955

Stiil looking for the perfect sampled piano, today I did another comparison. I pounded some Bach and Mussorgsky on the Walker (v1) and the Vienna Imperial. Both set at 64 samples of buffer. Both read from an external SSD and controlled by a VPC-1. Playback via a pair of Mackie HR-824 mkI.

The pedal, first of all: while neither the VSL nor the Embertone feature half pedal, the pedal release in the former is more gradual, and can approximate at least the effect of continuous release of the pedal. Not so the Walker, that is immediately cut. It is as if one has a long release in the sample, the other lacks it. Maybe the variable release sampling made by VSL also regards sustained notes.

The on/off activation of both the damper pedal and the soft pedal seems better balanced in the Imperial. With the Walker I can hear a change in volume when pressing one of the pedals. The Imperial only changes timbre. Also, I feel the pedal change noise to be too strong with the Walker. While missing some important features, I feel the pedal behavior of the VSL more natural, with even a hint of repedalling (that shouldn't be there, but can be clearly noticed).

The Walker seems to do ribattuto notes better. This is surprising, considering that it seems to remain behind during normal playing. Play big chords in the "Pictures at an Exhibition", and the sound comes a little after you expect it. It also seems to miss some notes sometimes. Not so with the Imperial, always perfectly in time.

The Walker lacks a little on the fff side of dynamics. The Imperial on the opposite side, with ppp always sounding a bit too loud. Both have a gorgeous sound, an excellent representation of the original instruments – rich and well blended, much on the wooden side, the old Steinway, clear and focused, a bit steely, the Bösendorfer.

Still, I find that the most playable piano in my arsenal is The Grandeur. The sample is not as accurate, yet I feel there is something right in the scripting.