Review – VSL Solo Strings I Full
We look at the VSL library featuring solo violin, viola, cello and double bass instruments, a library that many think defines the standard against which all others must be judged.
by Per Lichtman, Sept. 2014
VSL (Vienna Symphonic Library) Solo Strings I Full ($713 USD at www.ilio.com) is a Vienna Instrument library from VSL featuring solo violin, solo viola, solo cello and solo double bass playing un-muted/without sordino. It requires no additional sampler: the basic version of the Vienna Instruments plug-in is free (which is what I used for this review) so the only requirement is buying a Vienna Key or any other version of the eLicenser dongle (formerly called the Synchrosoft Dongle or Steinberg Key). If you don’t have one, you can get a Vienna Key from ILIO for around $30, so this is a trivial expense relative to the purchase price and it stores licenses for many other products (including any other VSL software you may buy in the future).
So why would you want to buy VSL Solo Strings I as opposed to newer competing products? Well, first of all it has the most extensive articulations list of any mass-market solo strings library available today and does not require you to buy a sampler to use it. That is not an opinion; that is the result of evaluating the articulation lists for different libraries using arithmetic. While other companies may have some articulations that VSL does not (non-vibrato legato intervals and bow-change legato being two that come to mind) no other library includes the sheer number of articulations that VSL Solo Strings I Full does. That is especially impressive when you consider how long other companies have had the chance to replicate the articulations list (eight years by my count, but I’ll get into that later). So if that’s your main consideration, you may not need to read the rest of this article. I’ll keep going for anyone that wants the rest of the story or uses other criteria, though.
Getting it Right from the Start
I’ve been working with software samplers since the 90s (both when they were being called that and when they were called trackers) and have had a chance to work with many of the libraries released during that time. And in my own experience, VSL has done the most consistent quality control of their libraries of any company I’ve purchased from. Part of it might be the Silent Soundstage: some other libraries I love will occasionally have sound bleeding in from the outside environment, but I’ve never encountered that with VSL in a decade of use. Part of it might be the attention to detail in the editing and programming: the repeated bows tend to be of a more consistent timbre and performance than in many other libraries. Part of it might be the way they developed technology to make things possible: over a decade ago they introduced the performance tool to make interval legato scripts work for the first time and they’ve been systematically adding software functionality (both in their core products and dedicated tools) ever since. They also added dynamic bowings before most other products, but I’m belaboring the point.
Basically, if I buy a VSL library, I don’t worry about being surprised – I tend to know exactly what I’m getting in terms of quality, consistency and ease of use because they’ve been hitting their targets regularly for so many years.
Part of it’s also the consistent organization that makes it very easy to go from instrument to instrument and know what articulations mean and where they are located – and that organization was improved with the release of Vienna Instruments from what had been used earlier in Horizon Series Solo Strings.
Now, it’s that very consistency that sometimes can be a polarizing point for people in regards to VSL’s sound and approach. When your sampling target is a pristine and consistent product with performances consistent with a Western European classical aesthetic, provided with maximum mixing flexibility and user control and minimal ambience, that means that there are certain things people might want or ask for that would take a lot of effort to create with the library. If you wanted performances with less flexibility but more specific expression built-in you’d have to look to another library, especially if the styles you were looking to work with fell far outside the Western European Classical tradition. With that said, keep in mind that there are large overlaps with the performance of classical music in other places, such as the United States or Russia for starters, and that a lot of film scores have been built upon that.
However, VSL is simply not a library I’d be likely to load if I wanted to write fiddle parts (there’s no non-vibrato interval legato, for instance) or certain ethnic styles and there are certainly times where a piece I’m working on benefits from a different take on vibrato than the library offers (either less or more or sometimes simply different in timing or timbre). Those are some of the things that the other libraries reviewed have been able to provide by placing less of an emphasis on the goals VSL has created and coming in with a very different style. In considering which recordings are most likely to fit your own aesthetic you might do well to listen carefully to simple, isolated examples of the libraries to get a sense for the character of the recordings as opposed to the scripting of the library or the MIDI mock-up skills of the user creating the demos. If possible, try getting some completely dry demos of each (with no FX on them at all, whether internal or external) so that you can try throwing them into your own mixing environment and play with your own panning and FX approaches.
Articulations: Way Ahead of the Game
VSL Solo Strings I Full was released in 2006 and featured 24-bit samples for the first time in the VSL series and featured some entirely new recordings, but it also featured large amounts of performances that had been included for the first time (albeit in 44.1 KHz 16-bit form) in their Horizon Series Solo Strings that announced towards the end of 2003 (and reaching my hands at the NAMM show in January 2004). VSL obviously takes solo strings seriously: the official launch of the VSL library was in September of 2002, volumes started shipping months later and by early 2004 they had created the most massive solo strings sample library release up to that point in time – and it was already over 30GB in size (by comparison, the VSL Solo Strings I Full samples currently take up over 55GB of space on my hard drive). So now matter how you slice it, whether we’re dealing with 2003, 2004 or 2006 … that’s a lot of years to hold onto the crown for most articulations.
So what’s an example of the sort of articulations that Solo Strings is the only place to get? Well, how about sul tasto viola or sul tasto double bass articulations? Since Solo Strings I Full came out, I haven’t encountered a single other solo strings library that recorded sul tasto bowings either of those instruments, eight years later. Not “almost none” not “hardly any”, just plain no other library at all. Even for the violin and cello it’s rarely been sampled. London Solo Strings included a single sul tasto articulation for the violin and the cello in 2004 and then VSL sampled five sul tasto articulations for violin, viola, cello and bass. The next time I heard about a solo string with sul tasto was… Embertone Friedlander Violin in 2014. So that means VSL is still the only one to release sul tasto for viola, cello and bass over eight years later. I mean, this is the sampling equivalent of lapping the competition, so kudos to VSL. Maybe other developers will finally take note and finally start adding extended bowings to the full range of solo strings. I mean, one of the reasons I rented and eventually bought my own violin was to be able to explore a fuller range of bowings, hands-on, than most products offered so this is not an academic consideration for me.
So why am I dwelling on this? Because I think it’s a good way of illustrating how comprehensive VSL has been in their attempts to make their libraries definitive and timeless. They are exceedingly meticulous in every aspect of production in regards to ensuring consistency of performance, recording, programming and organization. VSL and their North American distributor ILIO have also adopted a pricing model that’s the inverse of some of their competitors: while certain other companies favored rapidly decreasing prices and intro sales, VSL has been far more consistent with their prices and has favored loyalty discounts. For example, with current exchange rates (and without adjusting for inflation) the price VSL Solo Strings I Full in 2006 was approximately $886 USD – and as I write this in 2014 it’s $713, having retained about 80% of its value and even offering case-by-case approval for license transfers with a modest fee. For a long time they even offered discounts on the Extended and Full versions of Solo Strings I (but not Standard) for users of the original Horizon Series Solo Strings from 2004. What do I mean by a long time? The most recent confirmation I had of them making it available to user that wrote them about it was 2013 – nine years later. These guys think long-term.
This is probably the biggest reason to keep reading, but it has also been combined with a low noise-floor and consistent recording quality in a specially designed acoustic environment called the Silent soundstage, making it easy to place the library in different environments. The environment has a short reverb tail (an RT60 of 0.85 seconds has been getting quoted around the net lately) and this allows them to pull the microphones back a bit without adding too much reverberation – while several competing libraries either have very close miking distances or a very strong imprint of a distinct space. It also includes for free one of the most rapidly and extensively configurable playback engines on the market may be the biggest reason to start your solo strings library search here. It offers several kinds of sampled interval legato (the only notable omission is bow-change legato), several bow positions, special FX like harmonics (both natural and artificial), lots of round-robin programs (often with four to nine variations) and are generally sampled in very useful ranges. You’re going to want the Full version and to not just settle for the standard library so I won’t go into the differences between the two too much other than to say that the all of the sul tasto articulations and many of the sul ponticello articulations are among the many things only offered in the Extended part of Full. If you want to opt for the less expensive Solo Strings I Standard Library ($344 USD), you can always upgrade with the Extended library later and VSL and ILIO provide articulation lists that clearly define what’s in Standard vs. Extended: http://www.ilio.com/products/vienna-instruments/strings/solostrings1.
The microphone position isn’t as close as in libraries like the solo string offerings from Embertone or SimpleSamSamples but the “Silent Soundstage” used to record them offers a relatively neutral recording environment with an impressive noise floor – and the library is certainly much drier than those recorded in position in orchestral halls, such as Spiftire Solo Strings.
For this review I used the standard Vienna Instruments interface, which is provided free with any of Vienna Instruments libraries, but requires a Synchrosoft dongle (which is not included in the library price but can be bought from ILIO or various retailers for around $30 USD).
The consistency of the performances, sound quality and organization in the VSL libraries I’ve used is a key selling-point and VSL Solo Strings I is no exception. You basically learn the nomenclature and categories once and then can apply them consistently to each instrument. To nitpick slightly, the sections are largely (but not entirely) consistent in the patches offered (something I got to see for the first time with the ensemble libraries CineStrings CORE and Cinematic Strings 2.11), but this is also true of every other solo string library I’m reviewing this month. Also, VSL Solo Strings I Full is nonetheless completely consistent in how they are organized and named – which saves a lot of time and confusion.
Which brings me to one of my first notes on the library: before you do anything else, bypass the algorithmic reverb that’s turned on with the Vienna Instruments by default. I’ll wait here while you do it. Done? Okay, good. There’s a ton of detail in the recordings for this library and you can get much better sonic quality out of that by marrying it with the sound of a good convolution reverb from a live space (or for a less realistic effect, your favorite algorithmic reverb effect instead of this built-in one) but every once in a while I’ve heard a user forget to disable the default reverb before they do that. Don’t let that be you. J
The release samples are great, switchable and well implemented. The Silent Stage may be a very well-controlled and low-noise environment but it’s still large enough to have a 0.85 second RT60 on the tail, which partially facilitates the more distant miking used compared to some of the other libraries without adding the longer tails of recording in situ in a concert hall or church. The only time I ran into any trouble with the releases samples were on some patches of short duration. If I was going to nitpick, I’d point out that occasionally releasing the note after the sample had ended would still results in a release tail being played, though this is an issue I’ve encountered in libraries from some other developers as well.
Legato Intervals/Performance Intervals
Remember earlier how I said that VSL Solo Strings I Full had the most articulations on the market? Well settings aside the con sordino factor (discussed below) the legato section deserves a bit more discussion. First of all, VSL quite literally were the first company to bring interval legato samples to mass-market sampling well over a decade ago. Every single “interval legato” or “true legato” product that has been released has sprung from that technique and work. VSL built significantly upon the original legato types they offered in their main library and their Horizon Series Solo Strings (which I put when they first became available at Winter NAMM in 2004, a decade ago). So the VSL legato approach created the bar by which all other libraries were measured and it took years before any other company even released another solo string that attempted the approach.
So fast-forwarding to 2014, when several other companies have fully embraced interval sampling, how do the current legato interval in VSL hold-up? The VSL offerings are wide in variety. For example, here are the types for the solo violin: normal legato”/”slur”, detache, zigane/folk style portamento, normal portamento, marcato, harsh legato, spiccato (with transitions instead of round-robin), sul G and progressive vibrato. Some of these are available in both fast and slow versions. All but the detache articulation are also offered for the violas and cellos. The double basses omit detache, sul G, progressive vibrato and zigane. It’s a long list and it addresses several of the gaps in the original Horizon Series Solo Strings (which I was still using in some of my work, a decade after purchase, at the time I received my review copy of Solo Strings I Full). I mainly still favor the perf_detache articulation and wish they had it for the other instruments, but that’s a small quibble. So what’s missing from that list?
The primary one that got my attention was bow-change legato. Ever since the articulation was first introduced to the market in competing products, it’s been a part of a huge number of my string compositions. So I do miss it. And I miss non-vibrato legato samples, too. I can find both of those in the Embertone libraries solo violin and cello libraries, but that does nothing for the violas or basses. So I spent some time doing my best to find the “closest match” within the VSL intervals. For bow-change legato I tried using the marcato intervals (mainly at the lower of the two dynamic layers) but for the violin often opted for the detache intervals again anyway. It’s not a deal-breaker, and there are so many other articulations on offer that it seems almost odd to point it out, but I mention it just in case it’s an articulation that’s important to you.
Playable Repetition Samples
This is one of the many areas that has drastically improved since Horizon Series Solo Strings. While the normal short notes often have four round-robin variations, here you’ll find many more that were taken from a longer series of notes. I didn’t analyze too carefully, but it felt like somewhere between six and nine variations were usually on offer. These versions are livelier and less strictly refined sounding than the ones included in the shorts section, too, so I would audition them at the same time as you audition other shorts to see which ones you like better. Staccato, spiccato and “harsh” are all on offer and you’ll likely be visiting these samples a lot of if you (like me) like to work at brisk tempos or with high rhythmic density.
The sound of these samples are different from the aggressive samples in some of the other libraries (here they are often a little rounder sounding with a little less edge – if you want edge, look at the spiccatos in XSample Chamber Ensemble) but the harsh articulation is quite unusual. I thought this would simply be a series of fortissimo au talon samples, played as rapidly as possible but (at least for the double bass in particular) they actually often include a lot of percussive sound that make them more useful as single accents than as rapidly repeated notes. Things like this are part of the reason why it’s so helpful to go through the whole articulation list at some point.
And There’s More?
There are a more articulations on offer (dynamic bows, glissandi, other FX, etc.) but it’s beyond the scope of my normal review length to cover them all. Suffice to say, you should definitely take a look at the articulations lists on either the ILIO or VSL sites to see what else is there.
The Sordino Question
Given the sheer amount of content in VSL Solo Strings I and the fact that I was reviewing numerous other string libraries for this issue, I opted to focus on Solo Strings I Full alone instead of asking to review it in concert with Solo Strings II Full (the dedicated con sordino library). I hope to remedy this in a future issue when I can give it the proper attention, but for the time being I will simply note that no sordino patches are offered in Solo Strings I – they are all saved for Sordino Strings II, which includes acoustic recordings of mutes, not a sordino FX. Some competing solo string libraries (notably XSample Chamber Ensemble, the solo instruments in the 8Dio Adagio series) include sordino articulations in their basic library, and some others use FX to achieve a sordino in their main library (like Embertone Friedlander Violin and Blakus Cello) but many do not include them at all.
So How Does It Compete?
For users needing the most different articulations, VSL Solo Strings I Full remains the default recommendation eight years after its initial release and has definitely been helped by the many updates to the Vienna Instruments player during that time. It’s got a massive amount of content, is organized clearly and the player makes it very quick to change the way you work articulations – that’s something I really wish EastWest’s play offered and something that is cumbersome to do in Kontakt by default, though more and more developers have added good scripting to do it themselves. Nonetheless, for solo strings, VSL Solo Strings I Full remains the quickest to customize. The only other library that offered significant breadth to its articulations was XSample Chamber Ensemble, but offers fewer round-robins, fewer dynamic layers and no interval legato samples, so it’s really catering to a different user.
If you don’t want to deal with mixing at all you may want to look at a library recorded with more ambience and tail. EWQLSO has that but nothing resembling good legato and the solo string articulations list is limited by comparison to VSL. Spiftire Audio Solo Strings might be a good option but I haven’t tried it yet and the articulations list is much shorter than VSL. Keep in mind, if you buy tools like VirtualSoundStage from Parallax Audio or MIR from VSL, they make it pretty easy to place instruments in your mix. And even without them, a good convolution reverb library that used real acoustic spaces (such as Quantum Leap Space, pretty much any of the Numerical Sound libraries, the HDIR collection for SIR 2 or some of the Vienna Audio Suite convolution plug-in offerings) makes a big difference.
If you want controllable modeled vibrato, I would look at the Embertone Friedlander Violin and Blakus Cello which offer both vibrato control and interval-legato-samples but … that still leaves you without either a viola or double bass. And since the recordings on those libraries are even more closely-miked than VSL, you’d need to put a similar amount of effort into mixing them.
If you don’t need all the articulations or all the instruments, there are other products that offer differing colors (several that are warmer) or performance styles (I often preferred the vibrato in other products) or may cost less, but VSL Solo Strings I remains the standard by which other solo strings are judged. It doesn’t do everything, but it sure gets closer than anything else I’ve tried.