Review – Berlin Woodwinds 2.1 and Expansions A thru D
Berlin Woodwinds – simply one of the most powerful, comprehensive, flexible and best sounding woodwind collections ever sampled.
by Per Lichtman, Nov. 2017
The Orchestral Tools Berlin Series is their top-of-the-line, flagship multi-articulation and multi-mic orchestral library. If that sounds appealing, read on, because we’re going deep today! We’re reviewing all five released parts of their Berlin Woodwinds, available for immediate download (or shipped on an SSD additional cost) at OrchestralTools.com. There’s Berlin Woodwinds: The Main Library (ca. $542 USD), Berlin Woodwinds Exp A: Additional Instruments (ca. $147 USD), Berlin Woodwinds Exp B: Soloists I (ca. $295 USD), Berlin Woodwinds Exp C: Soloists II (ca. $246 USD) and Berlin Woodwinds Exp D: SFX (ca. $293 USD). For obvious reasons I’ll be referring to them simply as The Main Library, Exp A, Exp B, Exp C and Exp D respectively from here on out and Orchestral Tools as OT.
We’re talking about a lot of 48 KHz 24-bit samples, even with lossless compression. The Main Library uses 67 GB of content (compressed from 120 GB), Exp A uses 7 GB (compressed from 13.4 GB), Exp B 7 GB (compressed from 13.4 GB), Exp C uses 5.6 GB (compressed from 11 GB) and Exp D 14.7 GB (compressed from 30 GB). That’s just over 100 GB compressed and c. 190 GB uncompressed.
Each part is purchased separately (no bundle discounts) and is fully self-contained: you do not need The Main Library in order to use the expansions. The main library works with either Kontakt Player or Kontakt Full 5.5.1+ but expansions A-D each require Kontakt Full 5.5.1+. All prices listed are from outside the EU, converted from Euros. The most current version of each library was used at the time of review: version 2.1 for the Main Library and Exp A-C with version 1.1 for the more recent Exp D. All volumes are worth reading about, and if you’re new to the Berlin Series I suggest reading our earlier review of the interface as used in Berlin Strings, but here are the cliff notes of what you might be most interested in.
If you’re mainly looking for short articulations, runs or having a number of different performer options within the same section, read about the Main Library and Exp A. If you primarily want the most expressive legato options and sweetest most lyrical sampling, read about Exp B and Exp C. If you want the most exotic sounds and unusual woodwind textures and articulations (as well as some bread and butter patches for a kicking bassoon ensemble) read about Exp D.
A Word About Miking and Performance
The volumes in Berlin Woodwinds have been added over several years and the mic positions on offer vary a bit from one part of the library to another. The main library includes four mic positions: close, room (equivalent to decca tree), mix (a blend of the other positions) and noise (breaths, etc.). The noise layers are only included for the individual instrument patches, not the performer ones. By default the mix layer is loaded, but I recommend saving each patch to load the Room mic by default instead, so that it blends best with any newer libraries. Exp A takes a similar approach but omits the noise layer. On the other hand, Exp D is miked and labeled like the newer libraries (such as Berlin Strings), with close, AB, tree (equivalent to room) and surround mics – loading the tree mic by default, as desired. Exp B and Exp C use close-miking in a booth in the hall with convolution reverb impulses to integrate with the other instruments.
Also, to get the best loading time performance out of the library (and most other complex Kontakt libraries), it’s important to save the patches with absolute paths, not relative paths. I suggest making a copy of your instruments folder (I name mine “Instruments – Original”) and then perform a batch-resave in Kontakt. To do this, open Kontakt and click File>Batch Re-Save and select the Instruments folder. Kontakt will scan the folder, make a list of any samples it can’t find, ask you where to find them (if it can’t find them on its own) and then start re-saving the files. This is literally the first thing I do with any complex library I get and speeds up load times a lot. Or you can load patches individually, tweak them to taste and then save them with the absolute paths option checked. Remember, you don’t ever need to save the samples, though – just instrument files. 😀
When in doubt, check out the free manuals Orchestral Tools puts up for each of their products on their site.
Berlin Woodwinds – The Main Library and Exp A
There’s a lot to cover here, so let’s start by breaking down the instruments and articulations. You’ll notice that the Main Library features two-to-three different performers (each with a unique instrument) for each of the main woodwinds, in addition to different instrument types and some dedicated ensemble patches. We’ll be looking at the Main Library and Exp A together because Exp A basically adds three instruments to the main library – it’s organized in almost exactly the same way.
Piccolo Flute: legato, sustains, staccato, staccato short, portato short, portato long, double tongue, triple tongue, TO Trills half-step through whole-step, TO Trills measured, TO Trills sforzando, TO Trills 1x and runs transitions.
Flute 1: legato, sustains, staccato, staccato short, portato short, portato long, sforzando, double tongue, triple tongue, TO Trills half-step through perfect fourth, TO Trills measured, TO Trills sforzando, TO Trills 1x and runs transitions.
Flute 2: legato, sustains, staccato, staccato short, portato short, portato long, sforzando, double tongue, triple tongue, TO Trills half-step through perfect fourth, TO Trills measured, TO Trills sforzando, TO Trills 1x and runs transitions (special patch, combined with flute 3).
Flute 3: legato, sustains, staccato, staccato short, portato short, portato long, sforzando, TO Trills half-step through whole-step, TO Trills sforzando and TO Trills 1x (special patch, combined with flute 2 and found in flute 2 folder).
Flute Ensemble Doubled at the Octave: legato, sustains, staccato, staccato short, sforzando, double tongue, triple tongue, TO Trills half-step through whole-step, sforzando, TO Trills 1x, runs transitions and runs builder.
Oboe 1: legato, sustains, staccato, staccato short, portato short, portato long, sforzando, double tongue, triple tongue, TO Trills half-step through perfect fifth, TO Trill measured, TO Trills sfz, TO Trills 1x and runs transitions.
Oboe 2: legato, sustains, staccato, staccato short, portato short, portato long, sforzando, TO Trills half-step through perfect fifth, TO Trills sforzando, TO Trills 1x and runs transitions.
English Horn: legato, sustains, staccato, portato short, portato long, sforzando, TO Trills half-step through whole-step, TO Trills sforzando, TO Trills 1x.
Clarinet 1: legato, sustains, staccato, staccato short, portato short, sforzando, double tongue, triple tongue, TO Trills half-step through perfect fifth, TO trills measured, TO Trills Sfz, TO Trills 1x and runs transitions.
Clarinet 2: legato, sustains, staccato, staccato short, portato short, sforzando, double tongue, triple tongue, TO Trills half-step through perfect fifth, TO Trills Sfz, TO Trills 1x and runs transitions.
Clarinet Ensemble in Unison: legato, sustains, staccato, portato short, portato long, sforzando, TO Trills half-step through whole-step, runs transitions and runs builder.
Bassoon 1:legato, sustain, staccato, staccato short, portato short, portato long, sforzando, double tongue, triple tongue and TO Trills half-step through whole-step.
Bassoon 2: legato, sustain, staccato, staccato short, portato short, portato long, sforzando, double tongue, triple tongue and TO Trills half-step through whole-step.
Eb Clarinet: legato, sustains, staccato, portato short and TO Trills half-step through whole-step.
Bass Clarinet: legato, sustains, staccato, staccato short, portato short, portato long, sforzando, double tongue, triple tongue and TO Trills half-step through whole-step.
Contrabassoon: legato, sustains, staccato, portato short, portato long, sforzando, double tongue and triple tongue.
Now that looks like a lot of articulations and instruments – and it is – but the library does a great job of simplifying things and making them easy to use, in part thanks to the Capsule 2.5 interface used in the patches. The articulations are organized into three folders: single articulations, multi articulations and time machine patches. I primarily use the multi-articulations patches because I can access almost every articulation for an instrument in a single patch, organized and switched between as I choose with the option to add legato transitions to almost every patch. Having used Berlin Woodwinds version 1.x release (which I found very time consuming to while getting started), multi-articulation patches make the difference between loading say, sixteen patches and over one-hundred and sixty. That’s why the library is so much easier to use than it used to be – even as it has preserved and expanded functionality. Flexibility is the key.
Some of the single articulation patches offer unique functionality in single articulation mode, even though the samples can be loaded in multi-articulation mode. You get a lot of additional options for recorded multi-note performance in the single patch interface, like measured trills where you get locking to host tempo, auto-temp and the playback rate multiplier as a function of the tempo. And while you can load up your own legato mapping in a multi articulation patch, if you want a simpler interface, the legato patches load just the relevant vibrato types and the legato transition with a default mapping – so you’re ready to go right away.
The patches in the time machine folder allow you to manually speed up or slow down the sample playback for each articulation, either by using the onscreen slider or MIDI CC 51 (which be reassigned to another CC if desired). I consider this a power user feature because several of the rhythmic patches (like prerecorded runs) are already setup to automatically sync playback speed to your tempo using the time stretching, so this is really is just for people that want manual control. The usable range is pretty good, and while you’ll certainly get artifacts at extreme settings (and I personally tend to prefer using the samples at their original playback rate most of the time) you can actually modify the speed a pretty decent amount before artifacts become overly obvious.
The Main Library and Exp A span a pretty wide range in terms of articulations, so it helps to know what the highlights are. The Main Library and Exp A excel at rhythmic writing (sampling two forms of staccato makes a big difference), divided part writing (having a minimum of two players means never having to worry about moving in and out of unison) and trills and runs. The round-robins on offer here are quite extensive. Most instruments have multiple round-robins and/or dynamic layers and some have 8x RR with multiple dynamic layers too! If that’s what you’re going for, these volumes have lots to offer and the recordings aren’t overly wet, so I find them easy to use on a project even if I load brass and strings from another vendor. I can honestly say I’ve hardly ever used woodwind libraries from another vendor since I first started working with the Berlin Series.
On the other hand, while the legato on offer here is pretty nimble and neutral – I don’t think anyone will complain that it’s overly colored – it’s not the most “expressive” or “organic” sounding I’ve heard. You’ll need to use controller data to get the most out of the legato offered and I find some of the instruments just a little too accented, even with legato, to use featured melodies. Note that this is more so for the double-reed instruments than flutes or clarinets. On the other hand, if you’d like a little more movement in the recordings or you’re looking for something a bit more evocative, you can always use Exp B and Exp C instead.
Expansion B: Soloists I and Expansion C: Soloists II
I’m covering Soloists I and Soloists II together because they are sampled quite differently from the other parts. Each soloist was close-miked dry in the Teldex Solo Booth with two different mic positions and convolution impulses of the hall are used to integrate the players into the same space as the rest of the orchestra and each instrument seems to have been played with an eye toward a sweeter and less neutral tone than the main library. There are no hall mics and you can switch between the Close I and Close II mic positions (loading one position unloads the other in the interface), with Close I loaded by default with signal being sent to the hall convolution impulse. The mic controls here let you enable and disable the convolution reverb from the hall and has knob to tweak the amount of pre-delay as well as the dry and convolution reverb (wet) levels. You can either use the soloist centered by default (suitable for concerto soloist, for example) or tweak the settings (including panning) to integrate the soloist into its section in the main orchestra. During the review I used Parallax Virtual Soundstage 2 to quickly accomplish this since I found I got better results more quickly than using the controls in the Kontakt library.
The soloists are divided up by range. Exp B: Soloists I covers the five sampled treble and alto soloists. There’s solo flute, solo alto flute, solo oboe, solo English horn and solo Bb clarinet. Exp C: Soloists II covers the bass soloists. There’s solo bass flute, solo bass oboe, solo bass clarinet and solo bassoon. Between the two expansions, that means there are nine different soloists on offer with some interesting choices among them (notably the bass flute and bass oboe). We’ll come back to specific instrument choices later, but let’s dive into the articulations for a moment.
The articulations are organized into the same three folders as the other Berlin Woodwinds products (Multi Articulations, Single Articulations and Time Machine Patches) but the articulations on offer are a bit different. Note that sampled legato transitions are available for almost every listed articulation.
Solo Flute and Solo Alto Flute: legato, decrescendo and crescendo vibrato sustains, grace notes, portatos and staccatos.
Solo Oboe and Solo English Horn: legato, decrescendo and crescendo vibrato sustains, marcatos, portatos, staccatos and trills.
Solo Clarinet: legato, non-vibrato and vibrato sustains, grace notes, portatos, staccatos and trills.
Solo Bassoon and Solo Bass Oboe: legato, decrescendo and crescendo vibrato sustains, portatos and staccatos.
Solo Bass Flute: legato, decrescendo and crescendo non-vibrato and vibrato sustains, portatos and staccatos.
Solo Bass Clarinet: legato, decrescendo and crescendo non-vibrato and vibrato sustains, grace notes, portatos and staccatos.
Within the articulation categories listed above, there’s some variation from instrument to instrument – for example how many kinds of portato – but they are quite consistent in their approach to legato sampling. Slurred legato, retongued legato and agile legato transitions have been sampled for every instrument (except for retongued legato for the solo flute) and the multi articulation patches give you the option to fully configure the use of three them by speed with any sampled articulation, not just sustains. The exceptions to this are the staccatos, where legato transitions can only be switched on and off. It bears mentioning again that this is unique to Orchestral Tools – I have yet to see any other library developer offer this sort of powerful legato sampling. As a power user, I found myself loading each multi-articulation patch three times and mapping it to its own track or MIDI channel: one mixing slurred and agile, one mixing retongued and agile and one with no legato. That way I could quickly compare a given passage with each approach to see what I preferred.
The sampling is pretty different from the Main Library. While many of the short articulations have multiple round-robins (up to eight for the staccatos) every articulation has a single dynamic layer, unlike the multiple layers in most of the Main Library patches. On the other hand, the sustains on offer here take a different approach, with all the main sustains being presented in both crescendo and decrescendo varieties that work really well with the legato transitions. The crescendo sustains come in soft with an evocative light bloom while the decrescendo sustains come in stronger then fade in a musical and expressive fashion. When combined with the robust legato sampling on offer here, the lyrical possibilities are on a different level from the Main Library. That’s not a knock on the Main Library: the sustains and legato sampling in the main library have simply been done in a more neutral fashion, whereas the soloists here seem to have been directed to perform in the most expressive fashion. Between the two colors, you’re bound to find one you like. Personally, I tended to favor the Soloists I and Soloists II options whenever I wanted rich melody lines and the Main Library when I was using broader harmonies, a wider dynamic range or certain articulations (like playable runs).
The lyrical possibilities are actually a bit wider than I mentioned since several of the other articulations (especially portato long for the instruments that offer it) are more nimble alternatives than the main sustains that can nonetheless similarly be used with the legato transitions. In addition, most of the articulations besides the sustains tend to have more round-robins, so playing repeating patterns works especially well with the portatos.
The organization by range makes sense conceptually (higher register instruments in Exp B and lower register instruments in Exp C), a much clearer approach than the arbitrary grouping in some competing products. Even so, I’m sure some thrifty users might have preferred grouping primary winds (flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon) and auxiliary winds (alto flute, English horn, bass flute, bass oboe, bass clarinet). The main reason for this is that bassoon gets featured so much more frequently (both as a soloist and ensemble player) than the other bass woodwinds. If you are getting both Exp B and C, then that’s not an issue.
I don’t envy any sample library developer when it comes to choosing which woodwind instruments to sample. When it comes to sampling the soloists, there are questions of both rarity and applicability when it comes to the instrument choices. There are certain instruments you’ll find in Exp A (Eb clarinet and contrabassoon) and The Main Library (piccolo flute) that aren’t found among the soloists, but on the other hand there are two comparatively rare instruments (bass flute and bass oboe) that are featured. After spending time using all the above patches I’ve come to the following conclusion about why OT may have chosen these specific instruments. First, there’s the question of range and timbre: the bass flute extends down to the same sounding pitch as the low note of the viola, with the bass oboe extending down a minor third lower – less extreme than the contrabassoon, piccolo flute or Eb clarinet. Even though the bass flute and bass oboe are rarer, they have a pleasant timbre that benefits more from solo use than the aforementioned other three instruments. As I said, there’s no pleasing everybody – but as for the instruments sampled, I like them an awful lot.
If you are looking for the sweetest, melodic and lyrical volumes in the Berlin Woodwinds, definitely start by looking Exp B and C. For some of the instruments, like the oboe and English horn, the difference is just night and day.
Expansion D: SFX
Exp D is a surprisingly large and varied set of woodwind articulations, ranging from “less common” to “very unusual” and gives yet another example of what I like so much about Orchestral Tools’ approach to sampling. Just to be crystal clear: these orchestral FX were performed live and are not the result of sound design in post. I feel that’s important to emphasize since some are so otherworldly that you could be forgiven for thinking that they had been created through exotic synthesis of some sort, rather than sampling. I have lots of good things to say about them.
I don’t mince words when it comes to orchestral FX. I’ve often been rather disappointed with the orchestral FX in some of the earlier woodwind libraries I purchased. Sure, they had some nice sounds but they were so specific and their range was so limited that I kept feeling like I was repeating myself. With Exp D, it’s very different – and more like the feeling I would have listening to some of my favorite flurries of woodwind activity in Elliot Goldenthal scores, like Batman Forever. I keep finding things I forgot where there each time I come back. There are quite literally more woodwind articulations than I can remember off the top of my head. Most FX cover a wide range on the instrument, the majority have 2-3x round-robin, some have multiple dynamic layers and there are sampled legato intervals too. Here’s the list!
Piccolo Flute SFX: flutter-tongue legato, flutter tongue sustains, flutter-tongue portato, bending sustains, whirling sustains, whirling staccati, overblown short, runs up, runs down, runs updown, runs accented up, runs accented down, rips long up, rips long down, rips long updown, rips short up and rips short down.
Flute SFX: flutter-tongue legato, flutter tongue sustains, flutter tongue portato, bending sustains, whirling sustains, whirling staccati, overblown short, jet whistle accented, jet whistle, multiphonics, wind noises, wind noises accented, slaps, tongue rams, runs up, runs down, runs accented down, runs accented up, runs accented updown, rips short up and rips short down.
Flute ensemble SFX: cluster flutter-tongue, cluster staccato, bending sustains, whirling sustains, whirling staccati, overblown short, whirling up, whirling down, wind noises, runs up, runs down, rips short up, rips short down, rips long up and rips long updown.
Clarinet SFX: glissando legato, flutter-tongue legato, flutter-tongue sustains, bending sustains, whirling sustains, whirling staccati, multiphonics, rips short up and rips short down.
Bassoon SFX: flutter-tongue, flutter-tongue portato, whirling sustains, whirling staccati, whirling sustain trills, multiphonics, rips short up and rips short down.
Carver’s Low Bassoon Ensemble: legato, sustains, staccato, cluster sustains, cluster sustains wide, cluster staccato, staccato wide, whirling sustains, whirling staccati, rips short up and rips short down.
These are some of the most interesting woodwind textures I’ve heard sampled to date. The whirling articulations, in particular, are dynamic, energetic and full of organic detail and a real highlight. I also liked the cluster voicings in Carver’s Low Bassoon Ensemble much more than I thought I would. Orchestral Tools didn’t skimp on the sampling either: in some places a sample may be mapped across a range no wider than a single semitone and the widest spread I found on the patches I inspected (while not exhaustive) was a across three semitones.
Almost all the patches (except the ones involving bassoons) have flutter tongue legato but the clarinet SFX patch uniquely also adds glissando legato, for some very cool and weird note transitions. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Carver’s Low Bassoon Ensemble features bread and butter sustain, legato and staccato (with a full 6x round-robin!), all of which sound great and are usable in a much broader context than the “FX” designation suggests. Orchestral Tools has sampled a lot of bassoons over the years (between the BWW Main Library, Exp A and Exp D as well as Metropolis Ark I) but the fff dynamic layer available here (in multi-dynamic patches no less) is the most powerfully aggressive bassoon ensemble I’ve ever heard from them. If you haven’t used it yet, you’re in for a treat – I mean, multiple dynamic layers, the most aggressive fff I’ve heard in a bassoon ensemble and I can use legato on it at the same time? Just for kicks, I literally put together a stack of every other bassoon OT had sampled and compared it to the Carver Low Bassoon Ensemble. Even in that unfair comparison, the Carver Low Bassoon Ensemble had a grit that the other stack just couldn’t match. I’m impressed.
Getting back to Exp D as a whole, the more FX style articulations work wonderfully, both in a broader orchestral context and when used in more of sound design capacity far outside the concert hall, for instance in EDM.
A Few of My Favorite Things
Berlin Woodwinds, taken as a five volume whole, is significantly greater than the sum of its parts. The range covered is massive by every metric: number of articulations, number of instruments, ensembles vs. multiple different individual performers, sampling depth, etc., etc. On top of that, it features some of the best scripting you’re likely to find in any sample library. Honestly, it’s difficult to think of woodwind needs it couldn’t address. If you consider yourself a power user, this is the first woodwind library I would check out.
Berlin Woodwinds faces no shortage of competition. VSL, Spitfire Audio, EastWest, 8Dio and CineSamples are just some of the many other developers that have created some great woodwind libraries and some of them are a lot less expensive or are recorded in another venue (that your personal taste my prefer). I can’t do justice to all of them here, but I can explain what Berlin Woodwinds does differently.
To the best of my knowledge, Berlin Woodwinds covers more bases than any competing library. Some skimp on the number of different players for a given instrument, others lock you into a particular miking approach or have less advanced scripting, etc. Berlin Woodwinds doesn’t skimp on anything. If you get the full collection, you have access to both close-miked and multi-mic options, one of the most extensive articulation sets available (catering both to bread and butter and highly exotic) and the scripting is very solid. So my suggestion is listen to it first, use it as the benchmark (I do) and then listen to the other libraries with any eye towards their strengths and weaknesses relative to Berlin Woodwinds.
Room for Improvement
As much as I like the collection, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing I’d change in an ideal world. Here are my thoughts on what could be changed in an ideal – and yes, several of them are simply nitpicks.
As I said, you can’t please everyone in regards to the instrument selection front and ideally I would have liked to see more consistency in the instruments chosen between the Soloists I and II and the Main Library and Exp A. I missed the alto flute in the main library, and I found myself occasionally wishing the contrabassoon was a soloist (even though I acknowledge it probably would have been a less sexy choice). On the other hand, it would be great if there were greater miking consistency between the non-soloist volumes and the rest of the Berlin Series as a whole. I would love more miking options in the main library, want the tree/room mic as the default (and re-saved the patches so that it is) and could do without the mix position (which I never use).
Taken in isolation, the legato patches in the Main Library and Exp A aren’t as compelling as I might prefer, but it seems almost churlish to complain when the close-miked Soloists in Exp B and C have legatos that sound fantastic. Of course, that puts extra pressure on the soloists in regards to the single dynamic approach (if you’re going to use the staccatos in particular) since you can’t easily mix and match articulations between Oboe 1 and Solo Oboe in the same line, for instance. Also, for users without great mixing tools like Parallax VirtualSoundStage 2 (which I use anytime I want to place Exp B and Exp C performers anywhere other than center) Exp B and C require more mixing knowledge to use optimally than the other multi-mic volumes.
In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to choose between expressive legatos and multiple performers on the instrument type or multiple dynamic layers. In practice, however, I didn’t waste much time worrying about it – I just used one or the other depending on what was most important to that passage.
Capsule 2.5 is great. The only thing I wish is that it supported more than twelve articulations per instance. Of course, there are trade-offs in terms of the user interface if that were tweaked – so I’m not sure what the best solution would be, short of a VSL style grid system.
As I said, these are mainly nitpicks. There isn’t a single one of these issues that’s prevented me from using Berlin Woodwinds almost every single time I wanted orchestral woodwinds ever since I installed. It’s hands down my favorite woodwind library that I’ve used so far.
Is It Right For You?
If you have the drive space and the money, Berlin Woodwinds is the first woodwinds library I would look at. Chances are at least one of the five volumes will really speak to you. If you’re looking for the best legatos, and aren’t as worried about dynamics or shorts (shy about doing a bit of mixing work yourself), start of by checking out Exp B Soloists I and Exp C Soloists II – they are the most impressive, and either one by itself is less expensive than the main library. If you need the most aggressive bassoon ensemble or exotic textures , check out Exp D. If you need a bread and butter orchestra with a wealth of part-writing potential, especially for rhythmic parts, check out the Main Library and Exp A. And if you want all of that, get all the volumes.
On the other hand, if you’re short on hard drive space, or money, just want a different recording approach, or don’t have Kontakt support on your platform, then there are other options on the market.