Review – XSample Chamber Ensemble

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Herein we look at XSample Chamber Ensemble, a Kontakt 2 Player library consisting of keyboard, percussion, harps, solo strings and solo woodwind, each recorded in the same space in a similar fashion.

by Per Lichtman, July 2014

XSample Chamber Ensemble is a Kontakt 2 Player library (no additional purchase required) consisting of keyboard, percussion, harps, solo strings and solo woodwind, each recorded in the same space in a similar fashion. It’s €479.20 EUR when downloaded from Best Service’s SoundOnDemand, also available as a boxed product from BestService.de and apparently there may be educational discounts if you e-mail Best Service. The library is designed with composers in mind, catering equally to notation software users as well as the more commonly addressed DAW market. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the library holds special appeal to those that prefer to use notation software. The woodwinds and strings offer patches that switch articulation by key switches (which is what most people normally use) or ones that switch by CC (which are used by notation software without marking up the score).

The instruments in XSample Chamber Ensemble (I’ll just call it XCE from now on) can be purchased a la carte or in mini collection, if desired (for instance, the Solo Strings collection is available for €231.20 EUR including VAT, less if you already own any part of XCE). But full collection is rather different from a lot of other offerings and is both eclectic and useful.

It’s uncommon enough to encounter such a diverse group of chamber solo instruments but there’s nothing superficial about the way the instruments are treated. It offers lots of articulations but without making the user deal with a lot of patches – you just load one per instrument (though a trip through the manual is still mandatory for learning the articulations). The instruments also have wide ranges but the library is kept small in size by not using interval legato samples or a lot of dynamic layers or sampled round-robins (except for the unpitched percussion instruments, which often have six round robins). This is part of the reason for the extremely low system requirements compared to competing products and sometimes it works well and sometimes it’s more noticeable.

XCE doesn’t need a lot of hard drive space – the samples took about around 14 GB. It doesn’t need a lot of RAM – a template with every stereo instrument used 1.5 GB of RAM with default Kontakt settings in the K5 player. It definitely does not need an SSD and you don’t need to own a sampler – every instrument loads quickly with the free Kontakt Player, especially if you re-save them with the free updated Kontakt Player 5 (same is of course true of the full Kontakt 5 if you have it). Basically, you just need a DAW or notation software. Of course, the samples aren’t recorded in place or panned, so you’ll need to pan them and add reverb yourself.

 

A Brief Note about Round-Robins

The solo string spiccatos end up with six repetition cycles by combining their two sampled alternatives with scripted round-robin using neighboring samples. By default, this is activated and set to play “on repetition”, which is to say when the exact same note is played twice in a row. In fact the scripting also applies to the sustains, so if you don’t like the sound of neighboring samples, you may want to disable it. It’s partially a question of how distracting repetition is vs. re-tuning so you’ll have to decide for yourself.

 

What Instruments Are Included?

The variety of the collection is pretty huge, so I’ll just list it by groups.

Keyboard Instruments: celesta, clavichord, spinet harpsichord, piano (Steinway B) and toy piano.

Mallets: crotales, glockenspiel, marimbaphone, vibraphone and xylophone. Lots of mallet options.

Percussion: bird + pipe, bongos, cabaza + maracas, castanets, chimes, claves + woodblocks, conga, cymbals muted, cymbals, diatonic steel drum, friction drums, frog, gran cassa, hand bell, hi hat, horn ,jews harps, kalimba, kazoo, lotosflute, metronom, rainmaker, rattle + scraper, side drum, small anvil, steel plates, talk drum, tam-tam, tambourine, tibet bowl, tom-toms, train pipe + trill pipe, triangle, water gongs and wind chimes. And often these have several hits and dynamic layers and six round-robins, too. They can be loaded individually or a combined Kontakt bank.

String Instruments: concert harp (has a few articulations).

Strings: violin I, violin II, viola, cello and double bass (that goes to a low-C). These all have a lot of articulations. It’s not as many VSL Solo Strings I, but it’s more than pretty much everyone else. With harmonics, sul ponticello, and con sordino articulations included, there are many colors available. The most notable absence (for me, personally) is some sort of flautando or sul tasto option.

Woodwinds: bass clarinet, basset horn, bass flute, bassoon, clarinet, contrabassoon, English horn, flute, oboe, oboe d’amore and piccolo.  That’s eleven orchestral woodwinds – notably swapping a bass flute for the more common alto flute. These all have sustains both with and without vibrato (except the clarinets and piccolo, which are non-vibrato only), staccato, flutter tongue (except the bassoon family) and various FX.

Remember that whole “eclectic” thing I was saying earlier? I wasn’t kidding. This is a very, very diverse group of instruments and you’ll note that there are a couple “wind” instruments in the percussion section (like the kazoo), too. But the diversity of the keyboard instruments is perhaps the most surprising – this collection has a lot to offer those looking to make period music, to be sure. The bebung effect (a period ornamentation introducing vibrato in pitch above the note played) isn’t accounted for in the sampled clavichord (nor in any other collection I’ve encountered) but  the clavichord is well recorded and you can emulate the effect by varying pitchbend values – just make sure to only use neutral or positive values. And exempting organ scores, almost every period keyboard instrument score could be performed using the instruments here.

 

Instrument Ranges

It offers a wide variety of instruments, with wide ranges (the low-end extension on the double-bass is every bit as appreciated as its high) and the only program choice that the user has to make is whether they plan to use the library in their DAW or their sequencer. The solo strings were the primary focus of my review so I’ll emphasize that the playable ranges are extensive for each of them. The double bass deserves special mention: it’s got in excess of a four octave range in many of the articulations that goes up to a high D, when even VSL Solo Strings I stops a perfect fifth lower.  But the ranges are very good in the other instruments as well: the bass clarinet had the full 3.5 octave range that I wanted from the Bb on upward; the piccolo extends almost three octaves from its low D (it’s a major 2nd shy), and I just never ran into a situation where I wanted to write for a note outside the range recorded. Not everything is chromatically sampled, but a surprising amount it is.

 

Keeping it Simple

As mentioned before, there are other libraries that go deeper with dynamic range or that have legato intervals and other sorts of scripting, and XSample Chamber Ensemble doesn’t try to compete with that. But it has one of the most consistent keyswitching approach available to date (which can be fully edited for full Kontakt users, unlike EastWest’s PLAY libraries), does include round-robins. For example there are six round-robins for all the bongo articulations except wipes and two for the solo string spiccatos. When you switch articulations it displays the currently selected one at the bottom of the Konkakt/Kontakt Player window as soon as you hit it. In regards to what I mean by “consistent key-switching”, I don’t mean that it gets used equally by all the instruments – it’s for the woodwinds and strings. But I’ll use the solo strings as an example.

The key switches are identical for every solo string, for better or worse (mostly for better).

The only downside is that for the handful of articulations where only some of the solo strings were sampled activating the key switch will results in silence. It’s not ideal, but it’s all clearly listed in the manual and  I liked not having to re-learn the placement of the key switches (which is pretty much the opposite of the solo strings in Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra that I’ve used for many years).

Picking Your Patch

As I said, all the instruments only need one patch, but you do start by choosing “which version” of that one patch you need. It’s a little different for the woodwinds and solo strings, so we’ll start with those.

Step One: Choose whether you want to work with mono or stereo instruments.

Step Two: Choose the instrument family (woodwinds, strings, etc.)

Step Three: Choose whether you want the play or score version of an instrument. They contain the same content, but the play version switches articulations are using key switches while the score version switches using a MIDI CC. Unless you’re using notation software, you should load the play version.

Step Four: Choose your instrument.

For other than woodwinds and solo strings, you can skip step three.

That’s it. You just loaded every available articulation for your instrument. Feel free to take a moment to study the PDF that came with XCE to get a sense for everything you now have at your fingertips, because it’s a lot. Out of the many solo string libraries I’ve reviewed so far, XCE’s solo strings articulation list is second only to VSL in its variety.

The microphone distance and timbre make XCE sound surprisingly good before any reverb is applied, yet doesn’t feel cavernous or overly wet. It’s definitely not the warmest or smoothest library out there for the solo strings, but it has some grain and detail to the sound that help keep it from sounding “synthy”. And something about the sound of the close-miked concert harp in particular made me smile: it’s got a much rounder sound than the close mic for the harp in Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra, for instance.

 

The Importance of Growling

For the last decade or so, I’ve been doing a lot of highly rhythmic solo string writing. There are certain sounds that I like to use that aren’t found all that often in solo string libraries and one of them is a “growling” spiccato. Anyway, I found it easy to get it out of my live violin performances within the first couple weeks of lessons so I was surprised that it wasn’t found in sample libraries more often, eventually figuring it must not be considered a sufficiently refined sound… until I heard XSample Chamber Ensemble. The ability to consistently get bite and growl out of the loudest spiccatos throughout the solo strings was a real boon but the star of the show is the lowest octave of the double bass.

Now, there may only be two round-robins to the spiccatos for this double-bass but simply can’t get that sort of growl out of 8Dio Adagio, Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra, VSL Solo Strings I or even Prague Solo Strings. Every one of them sacrifices growl for tone, which might be what you want a lot of the time but… when you really want to get primal and visceral, their tone can’t take you to this place the way that XSample Chamber Ensemble can.

 

Woodwinds

Now, the legato script doesn’t use interval legato samples and it works pretty well on the solos strings… but it works even better on the woodwinds. Having spent years working with Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra, the woodwind legato script here completely blows that away. Thanks to the script, I really enjoyed playing flowing ascending and descending triplets in every one of the woodwinds.

The variety of woodwinds, the consistency of their timbre and the range… I just really enjoyed using them a lot. Both the staccatos and the sustains were high quality – and the flutter tongue sounded good in my brief exposure to it, but it’s just not an articulation I find occasion to use in my compositions very often. The same goes for the FX.

 

What CCs Do I Need?

Now, if you’re going to play XCE live, it might be helpful to know how the MIDI CC #s are routed. The most important ones are CC1 (modwheel), which is normally used for either dynamics are switching between articulation options (depending on which key switch is loaded) and CC68 (for turning the legato script on and off). I used both of those a lot and the combination of the two was very simple to keep track of. CC2, CC24 and pitch bend are all also supported but… I honestly didn’t find myself using them after the initial experimentation stage. Anyway, XCE doesn’t provide an obvious way to remap CC68, so if you don’t have a configurable MIDI controller, you may have to automate it in your DAW.

 

Key Switching

Unlike many other libraries, the play mode versions of the instruments use what I like to call a “dual key switch” approach. What this means is the you pick your keys witch bank with a high register key switch, and your specific articulation using a low register key switch. Velocity is sometimes mapped to the dynamics, but the sustains generally have their dynamics controlled by the mod-wheel.

Since all the articulations are mapped into a single patch, a single table in the PDF manual can tell you how to access each of the many articulations at a glance, and what controllers are used (and it’s just as good at illustrating ranges for different instruments and ranges). Honestly, it’s a very elegantly condensed document that quickly started being a time-saving reference.

 

Recording Style and Mixing Tips for the Solo Strings

Across the board, the articulations were recorded in a balanced and interesting fashion. The spiccatos could get the bite I wanted when I called for it, but didn’t seem edgy or harsh (though of course I often wished for more round-robins). The samples never suffered from an overly clinical or dead sound, and the recording approach meant that the samples were really “ready to go” when used in more of a chamber setting. The sustains don’t have the warmth of the solo strings in 8Dio Adagio or Prague Solo Strings and they sound a bit less “hi-fi” than VSL Solo Strings I, but they don’t take up too much space in a mix and they can be made to site quite well with a little EQing. I found cuts at 4.1 KHz (to reduce air and edge), 362 Hz and 128 Hz (to reduce the low end from close-miking) and a boost a 2.05 KHz helped to make it easier to work with. And the vibrato sounds different (doesn’t cut as much as VSL but is more consistent its energy than some others) so you might find it either layers well with other libraries or works in mixes where others struggle.

 

So Where Does It All Fit In?

The variety of what XCE offers for its price (especially in terms of the percussion and keyboards), the quality woodwinds in conjunction with the legato scrip (even without legato samples), the growl possible in the spiccatos and the simplicity of having just one patch to work with for each of the instruments are all good reason to look at the library, especially if you don’t own many of the instruments covered. If you’re looking to replace or augment your existing samples, it may be helpful to think about exactly what you want or need. If you have a library with a lot of ambience and need something drier, XCE is an option. If you want samples that were just performed a little differently or want to additional chairs to your arrangements (maybe you need another couple solo violins, for instance) then XCE is a good option. If you need something with low system requirements, XCE is a good option. If you don’t have Kontakt or hate dongles, it’s a good option.

But if you’re mainly looking for a library based on the “built-in” sound (something recorded in position in a larger space or at least with preset panning, etc.) or with multiple microphone positions, then XCE doesn’t fit the bill. If you want controllable modeled vibrato, then XCE doesn’t fit the bill. If you want interval legato samples or lots of round-robins (exempting percussion) or dynamic layers, then it doesn’t fit the bill.

As for me, I’m going to go back to enjoying those growling spiccatos and the woodwinds with the legato script as soon as I finish this article.

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