Violin Sample CD Review with Mark Weltner, Alain Mallet, Coleman Rogers and Dan

Another ancient Midi Magazine article...

Did you hear violins? I Did.

Peter Siedlaczek's Sample Library: ORCHESTRA
Akai Sampler CD-ROM
Formats available: Akai samplers; Digidesign Sample Cell.
Size: 242 megabytes of non-redundant violin samples
Retail Price: $399

Formats available: Akai S1000, S1100, and S3000; Digidesign Sample Cell; Emu EIII; Roland SP-700/S760; New England Digital's Synclavier. To be released: Kurzweil K2000
Size: 460 megabytes of non-redundant violin samples
Retail Price: $495

Both sample libraries are distributed by East West Communications, Inc.
Phone: 800-833-8339; fax: 213-848-3034.

Tested at Notable Productions on an Akai S1000 with 18 Mb of RAM through a Mackie 8-bus board, to a Hafler power amp, into Snell J2's, Sony MDRV600 and AKG K240 headphones.

Reviewing sounds is a strange job. One man's art is another man's soup. This especially rings true with samples. What is useful and inspiring to one musician may be trite or annoying to another. In order to solve this dilemma we got opinions from four separate sources.
The reviewers include myself, my partner Mark Weltner at Notable Productions, freelance engineer Coleman Rogers and pianist/producer Alain Mallet. Mark is an award-winning  electronic and classical music composer, as well as a guitarist and vocalist whose performance experience ranges from bluegrass to reggae to a cappella vocal arrangements. Mark recently sang Motley Cre for a rock and roll video game. Together, he and I have produced and scored music for the American Repertory Theatre, TV38 Boston, IBM, Robben Ford, Intel, Microsoft, and a number of films radio dramas and modern ballets. Coleman Rogers is a freelance recording engineer and technician who can never leave well enough alone. He has installed, wired and recorded at many of Boston's best studios. Recent projects include The Story, Vance Gilbert, and Deborah Henson-Conant. Alain Mallet is originally from Andernos, France, and has lived in Boston since 1983. He is trained as a jazz pianist and has played with Bob Moses, Tommy Campbell and Paquito D'Rivera. He co-produced two albums for The Story on Elektra and recently produced "Edgewise" for Vance Gilbert on Rounder.
Initially, I thought we would review these CD-ROMs as competitors, but after listening to them, we realized that they are more complementary than competitive in nature.

Both of these sample libraries were originally sampled on New England Digital's Synclavier. The Peter Siedlaczek's Orchestral CD was sampled in an East Berlin concert hall directly into a Synclavier. These samples were reprogrammed and produced by East West Communications under exclusive license from Masterbits GmbH, Germany.
The Denny Jaeger library had an illustrious beginning as the Synclavier violin library. Synthesist and composer Denny Jaeger spent two years and $400,000 to create this violin library. It was originally sold as a four gigabyte library for the Synclavier on a worm drive costing $12,500. Later it was sold as a three-CD package costing $1100, and contained many file redundancies to facilitate use with Akai 1000 series samplers. Mr. Jaeger later edited and reprogrammed this sample set to fit on one CD-ROM by creating special load sequences for the various programs, thus eliminating file redundancies. As a result, the price dropped dramatically to $495.

Listed below are the parameters that we evaluated in these libraries and the Cliff Notes for our findings.

Sample types

Denny Jaeger Violin Library
Loud Sustains
Loud Attacks
Soft Sustains
Soft Attacks
Low Sustains (to C1)
Trills (half & whole step)
Col Legno

(although this list is shorter, the number of samples and length of samples in each category is extensive)

Siedlaczek's Orchestra Library
Orchestra Hits
Orchestra Sustains
Orchestra Glissando
Orchestra Tremolo
String Pizzicato
Harp Hits
String Spiccato
Orchestra Spiccato
String Tremolo
String Sustains
String Arpeggiated
Orchestra Pentatonic

Denny Jaeger Violin Library
Highly realistic. Samples were never stretched more than a few half-steps to preserve their natural timbre.

Peter Siedlaczek's Orchestra Library
Highly realistic. Samples were stretched more than the Jaeger library, but not to the point of becoming unnatural.

Acoustic Environment
Denny Jaeger Violin Library
Completely dry.

Peter Siedlaczek's Orchestra Library
Real concert hall reverberation -- a large East Berlin hall with an orchestra micd at a distance

Background noise
Denny Jaeger Violin Library
None. The pizzicatos were NoNOISEDTM to reduce unwanted room noise and hiss.

Peter Siedlaczek's Orchestra Library
Concert hall room noises, with some variation. Digidesign DINRTM software was used to lower the background noise on the pp samples only.

Denny Jaeger Violin Library

  • Scale Extremely consistent. There was almost no discernable difference between samples from the lowest to the highest notes.
  • Attack Consistent attacks, well edited. We found a few instances where the samples had slightly inconsistent attacks, and seemed to require further editing. However, these can be remedied or worked around. Relative to the vastness of the library, we were very impressed.
  • Loops All the loops we checked were amazingly seamless, although we could not check loop consistency of all notes for all samples.

Peter Siedlaczek's Orchestra Library

  • Scale Good but inconsistent. We often detected changes from one sample to another as we played a scale.
  • Attack Consistant attacks, well edited. Occasional anomalies
  • Loops Generally seamless, but more noticeable than the Jaeger collection.

Denny Jaeger Violin Library

  • Manual Generally the manual was clear, especially concerning the potentially complicated process involved in loading up varying programs. Provided full and accurate descriptions of programs and their intended uses.
  • Ease of loading Easy to load. However, because there are no file redundancies, the sample sets and programs had to be loaded separately, often a three step process.
  • Samples per square inch Packed -- 460 Mb on one CD-ROM
  • Technical specs:

- Frequencies Samples are available in 44.1K stereo, 44.1K summed mono (right and left channel summed together) and 32K stereo.
- Bank sizes Not for faint of heart, the bulk of these lush sample sets range from 3 Mb to 13 Mb, and go as high as 16.93 Mb.

Peter Siedlaczek's Orchestra Library

  • Manual This is a list, not a manual. Only the program titles and their locations are listed, with no in depth descriptions or bank size information.
  • Ease of loading One step - very easy
  • Samples per square inch Moderate (242 Mb, non-redundant files)
  • Technical specs:

- Frequencies Samples are available in 44.1K stereo, 44.1K summed mono and 32K stereo.
- Bank sizes No info listed. Many programs were in the 3 Mb to 6 Mb range.

To let you know a little more about the panel, here are a few questions we asked in the beginning of the session and the discussion that ensued:

MIDI: How much of your sample library is bought, and how much do you create yourself?

Coleman: Im an engineer so I dont keep one.

Alain: Actually, I've bought very little. I use samplers mostly to sample things from live sessions that I've done to turn a part into a different part. If there's a guitar riff that I like, I listen to the music in terms of snippets of sound and see how I could use it to create another part in a different part of the song or in a different song altogether. It's more a tool to use spontaneously. But I don't think I've ever bought samples because unless it's something you can audition ahead of time... It's great with CD-ROMs now, because you can now listen to what you're going to buy -- but all these mail order things, if you get the stuff and the loops are funky, and it sounds like shit, there's nothing you can do about it. So I've exchanged a lot of samples, I've resampled stuff from other samplers, but I haven't bought stuff over the mail.

Dan: Being a drummer, I don't buy loops generally, because I like to make loops out of my own grooves, or try to do grooves without looping. I keep a large instrument library on Syquest, DAT RAM and floppy for all kinds of sounds.  I regularly run a DAT recorder while in sessions at studios and I make a point of having samples to fix parts for clients without having to go back into the studio with musicians again. You never know when some bizarre warm-up or mistake might be musical for another composition. We also always get permission from the instrumentalists before doing this. I've only bought the Clearmountain drum libraries and an Invision Lightware CD-ROM. It's especially important to keep sounds for instruments that I don't have access to. I can borrow a synth, I can't borrow an orchestra.

MIDI: What criterion do you use to decide between players and samples?

Coleman: Budget and time. Sometimes you end up really having to play with a sample to get it to feel right, where if you just had someone who had an instrument it would.probably feel right right away.

Alain: I think different professional applications also determine what your demands are going to be. Say you're working in film, you have a huge budget, and you have to re-record a cue the day before the release of the film. You can bring a whole symphony orchestra in the studio the day before and re-record it. If you're working in industrial videos for instance and you have high standards of quality and one of the cues doesn't work at the last minute and they feel like the whole string part gets in the way of the spoken part or something like that, you do have to re-record it. If you were using real strings, you wouldn't have as much flexibility as you do when you use samples. If you have the patience to make it so that it works good for you...

Dan: You have to put hours into tweaking and making choices to use the different sample sets at the appropriate points in the composition and adjust their envelopes to the performance and/or adjusting your keyboard technique to the sample set. And although really good string players are hard to come by and expensive, a player with bad intonation can end up being just as expensive and more time consuming.

Mark:: I think, like Coleman says, if you have experience with the samples then you know --

Coleman: You get a handle on where you can use it, and what you can do with it.

Alain: So after a while you must know what works and what doesn't, what envelopes would work best, how much velocity between such and such tempo, etc.

Coleman:  So you're talking about things that are going to be more incidental, where it's not the focus of what you're doing. But you still need high quality -- you still want the impact and sweetness of something that sounds really good.

Alain: Yeah.

Obviously we couldnt describe all the specific pluses and minuses of each program and sample set on these extensive CD-ROM sample libraries, so we gave our overall impressions, occasionally using specific examples to illustrate.
Loading up the two libraries was fairly simple. In the case of the Peter Siedlaczek's Orchestral Sample Library, you simply load up the volume you want, and you can start playing immediately. However, the insert that came with it was far from adequate. It gave no guidelines or recommendations for how to use it. We looked for statements like: The strings on Drive D work beautifully for lush legato pads and so forth. There was also practically no technical information. Just plug it in and find out for yourself. Alains comment says it all: Thats the whole pamphlet, thats the whole thing?
The Jaeger librarys pamphlet, on the other hand, was full of technical information and advice on how each program and sample set worked best. By reading the insert for 15 minutes before using it, we were much more well-equipped to take advantage of its wide variety of samples and programs. We also appreciated Mr. Jaegers clear step-by-step instructions on how to load volumes and banks. We loaded them up and began to try them out.
A quick overall listening of the Denny Jaeger Master Violin Library found it to be immediately impressive. We found it to be very consistent and realistic. It is also potentially flexible because it was recorded with no reverb, whereas the PSOL was recorded with the natural reverb of a concert hall. Clearly, both have their unique merits. The Jaeger library is more adaptable to any given situation, but it lacks the warmth of the orchestral samples. On the other hand, the orchestra, while beautiful, is naturally more restricted in its application because of the concert hall ambience. For the same reasons the orchestra CD-ROM is more impressive right out of the box. It gives the instant gratification of playing a whole orchestra with a few key strokes. Coleman said this about the orchestral CD versus the Jaeger library:
The good thing about this one [orchestra CD] is that it does have the full orchestra so when you go to play something it sounds warm and full and you have the whole arrangement, whereas the other one [Jaeger library] playing individual parts in there, you never got the feeling of the whole.
The Jaeger library at first listen is less fun but is clearly built for more in depth use by someone with a real working knowledge of string arrangements and their nuances.
Another immediately noticeable difference was that the Jaeger library is very clean and quiet, whereas the orchestra library is noisy, partially a result of recording a large group of musicians in a hall, in which case extraneous noise is inevitable.
Once we got into the specific programs and samples, it got more interesting. The Denny Jaeger violin library is incredibly seamless and consistent, to the point of almost not being human -- both a plus and a minus. Another aspect of the Jaeger library regarding its consistency is that it goes beyond specific samples, loops and programs -- the CD-ROM as a whole is consistent from program to program. It really sounds like a unified whole. Alain had a good point to make about this:
I also think it's important for people to realize that it's all the stuff that you don't hear that makes all the difference. Let's say you're going to make a killer string part based on those samples, and say you come really damn close, and it's so far behind [back in the mix] and it's drenched in so much reverb that nobody will be able to tell the difference -- it's all the stuff that you don't hear, the fact that in a real section, the same note at the same dynamic would never sound the same way twice -- all those little things make the difference between a good tune and a great tune.
The orchestra CD is much more varied in the sounds and textures it provides, and its consistency varies both within sample sets and from program to program. Some programs sound beautiful. For example, we loved the slow string program, even though it was far noisier than the Jaeger library. On the other hand, the major, minor and diminished orchestra hits varied dramatically not only from sample to sample, but from each other. The diminished hits seemed to highlight the woodwinds as a whole, whereas the major hits were string-heavy. This would make it difficult to integrate the different programs into one composition. Furthermore, we could almost always detect the change in samples within each of these programs.
The more we discussed the practical uses for the sample libraries, the more we agreed that, no matter how good some of the sample sets were, the instances when these samples could be used as a featured or solo instrument would be rare. Furthermore, each sample set and program is an instrument in itself, and cannot be used haphazardly to create an effect or mood. They must be chosen carefully. In the case of the orchestra, the samples are quite varied, and its range of applications is probably more limited as a result. The Jaeger library is less expressive and thus more flexible in this way, but also more labor intensive. Heres how the peanut gallery grappled with these issues:

Alain: I understand the Miroslav Vitous long violin samples have been sampled with a lot of dynamics in them, which my friends were sort of complaining could be a drawback if you're trying to get any other kind of expression out of the samples. But it's realistic, and it has expression that was executed by real string players and not just a MIDI thing. So how real is real? Do these things [Jaeger library] sound better than a lot of string samples that I've heard? Well, they sound just a good as a lot of them, and probably better than most, but how do you judge them is what we're talking about.

Mark: Yeah, I agree with you. I think it all has to do with context. In some ways it's interesting to compare the Jaeger library to the orchestral samples, because in the orchestral samples, the string ones were very expressive, but to me they're expressive in a certain context. You can use them in certain contexts, and in other contexts, forget it, because you have that huge hall reverb, and it sounds like you're saying the same thing -- perhaps it's more advantageous to buy a sample library that is more expressive and less flexible

Coleman: and just use it where it works, take advantage of the expression that's there.

Dan: I don't think any of us is oriented towards composing compositionally for classical music and then executing it on MIDI and then trying to sell it to anyone as classical compositions, I don't think that's our goal here at all. To me it's more about, if you have a CD library that has 600 snare drums on it, if you find the one that works for that occasion, then you're in good shape. In the Jaeger violin library, there's enough flexibility and enough different types of attacks, I think that I'll be able to find that one sample that will work for a specific situation. To me that's the beauty of it. I'm not going to sit down with this library and compose a quartet and try to fool people into believing that it's all real players.
We also asked the group what problems had come up when using violin and orchestral samples. Here are some of the responses and comments and how they related to these libraries:

Alain: I've used the Proteus, and one of the problems that I've run into is that it's so out of tune. But I use mostly a very analog sounding stringy pad. I've also used the Kurzweil. But when I had all these string sounds available, I ended up using the string sounds from the Kurzweil micropiano, and that's what I used, and doing dynamics with the fader as we were going to tape. I'm not saying it's the best sound, but it's what felt right at the time, and sometimes you have to go with the moment.

Mark: I find it interesting that you say that analog stuff is good. It makes sense to me because the problem with using orchestral and violin samples is that you want something seamless, you want something that's not going to sound uneven as you go between samples, where you hear that difference between samples, because it immediately becomes annoying, whereas analog at least sounds seamless, even if it doesn't sound authentic.

Dan: So it fills in the gaps between all those stiff sample problems.

Mark: Yeah. But the fact that the Jaeger library is so even makes it seem like a perfect compromise.

Alain: We're back to the dynamics thing. What we have here is string sounds that looped so perfectly that you get a very even tone, but I've never heard a string player be able to do that.

Dan: Its funny you say that because I understand that Denny Jaeger got his violinists to perform unfamiliar techniques when he recorded the samples. So here we are, trying to play expressive violin parts from a keyboard with samples that have a beyond-human consistency. I guess its better than a machine-like bad loop.

Alain: So if you want to recreate the kind of dynamics that you get from a string performance, you're going to have to do it using automation or using MIDI volume, which has nothing to do with the actual articulation of a real string dynamic. There's a timbral difference, there's also the unevenness of not all doing at the same time exactly perfectly. So it's not going to sound like the real thing.
Clearly, the debate around live players versus sampled players could (and did) go on most of the night. So what is the bottom line? Are these samples worth the price? Most of us agreed that both were worth the price. On the other hand, none of us have bought the products yet. One reason Alain mentioned was that when you buy mail order samples you dont know what you are getting until youve shelled out several hundred dollars.

Coleman: Having to learn how to play this system [Denny Jaeger library] as an instrument, owning it, you'd probably have to work with it for a couple weeks and work out some things to use this library effectively. You'd have to learn the strong points and the weak points of it and how to manipulate it so that it works.

Mark: I think that it's important to address the difference between this violin library and a live player, because it's so easy for Denny Jaeger to say this is the best thing since sliced bread -- he's billing it like this will do everything. But this will not do anything. These may be some of the best violin samples around, but they're still samples.

Alain: But as a tool for accessing a lot of violins in a lot of different textures, bowed attacks, etc., [the Jaeger library] makes it easier to construct something once you've already decided not to use a real violin section.

Dan: In this violin library, there's enough flexibility and enough different types of attacks, I think that I'll be able to find that one sample that will work for a specific situation. To me that's the beauty of it. I'm not going to sit down with this library and compose a quartet and try to fool people into believing that it's all real players.
On the other hand, Peter Siedlaczek's Orchestra Sample Library is, as we have said, better for creating or accenting a specific mood without a big time commitment. If an orchestra in a big hall is what you want, then this could be a much better investment than the Denny Jaeger library especially if you dont have a concert reverb and/or orchestration chops. Dont let our sample-cynicism distract you from the fact that compared to many sample libraries, these sound great, and the consistency of Denny Jaegers library is especially impressive.

updated: 11 years ago