PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in February 2000, contributed by then Senior Editor Bruce Richardson. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!
Peter Siedlaczek’s Advanced Orchestra for GigaSampler (distributed in the US by EastWest) may well be the most-used set of orchestral samples on the planet. Thanks to its wide-ranging palette and reasonable asking price, this is a product that easily qualifies for ProRec’s more-for-less club.
Burned onto a five-CD collection, you’ll find an extensive set of samples (5455 to be exact) covering the instrumentation of the modern large orchestra. Particularly valuable are the orchestral mallet instruments, including a well-recorded vibraphone. You also get a good collection of woodwind esoterica such as contrabassoon and alto flute. One won’t lack for variety.
The Siedlaczek collection, like the Vitous, was originally released for hardware sampler formats, and similarly has received a complete refurbishing to take advantage of GigaSampler’s strengths. You’ll find an extensive key-switching scheme that allows instant access to standard articulations and playing techniques. And along with that, you will also find a large number of phrases that have been mapped out as well.
This is a big plus, and one of the definite strengths AO brings to the table. There are certain patterns that are part and parcel of the orchestral bag of tricks, such as arpeggiated chords in the strings, rips and growls in the brass, scale-runs in flutes, etc. These are almost impossible to reproduce using typical one-note samples. Peter Siedlaczek has recorded many of these stock phrases and mapped them to the key switches along with the various single-note samples. You will find yourself coming back to them more and more often as you become accustomed to using them in your compositions.
Here’s the Golden Rule of working with these collections: You MUST learn your samples like an instrument in their own right, and then let them inform what you write and how you execute. I am not saying this to point out a limitation. Rather, it is more akin to acceptance. GigaSampler can model a piano or any percussive instrument almost perfectly, both sonically and behaviorally. Record well, map well, and you’ve got it. That is a given. However, when you enter the world of string or wind instruments, all bets are off. On these instrument classes, tone and character shift on a note-wise basis to infuse music with the life of breath itself. The oceans couldn’t contain the possibilities of a single note’s expression. On these instruments, even with GigaSampler, we simply make do. Tonally, the sounds are there. But behaviorally, there is really no way to make a wind instrument sample respond like an acoustic instrument. Your ear for detail and your programming skill must fill the void.
With AO, you’re making do in pretty high style. I fell in love with the vibraphone, which is mapped rather simply with mutes, rings, and slow/fast rotor passes. Since the intention was to get an instrument that would sit in an orchestral mix rather than dance between the speakers in hyper-stereo, miking is not hyper-close like most vibraphone patches in synthesizers. Yet, it’s easily the very best vibraphone sample I’ve ever used for a pop or jazz setting. It sits in a slot and has a rock-solid positioning that provides excellent realism. And thanks to the key-switching, one can instantly go from a narrowly focused pedal-up sound to room-filling rotor sustains. With just a little work, you can also pull off very convincing mallet-mute and open tone phrasing that will fool the ears of the most critical listeners.
Personally, I’m not into that. I think you can waste a lot of your valuable time worrying about whether people can “tell” if it’s live or Memorex. Rather than getting caught up in that struggle, I find that it’s better to concentrate on really solid orchestration that cuts to the core of an idea. Once you’ve gotten that accomplished, issues of realism are usually just a nip here and a tuck there to smooth over the rough edges.
To aid you in your quest for the perfect orchestration, the Peter Siedlaczek Advanced Orchestra comes with a thirty-five page insert-booklet which details the mapping of each instrument’s GIG files. You will wear the ink right off the pages as you learn the mappings for the extensive set of instruments here, but as you get more familiar with the library you’ll find that the key-switches follow a very consistent pattern. Keep the book within arm’s reach for the first month.
Other notable inclusions are a nice set of percussion samples, including the basic orchestral families like bass drum, snare, timpani, cymbals and gongs. You’ll also find xylophone, marimba, chimes, glock, and a set of harp performances that include various glisses and arpeggios. The drums are well recorded and you’re given enough variety of performance techniques to cover almost any situation you’ll encounter.
Reality: What a Concept
One thing you’ll notice is that the recordings of these instruments will sound a bit thin to you at first. Keep the big picture in mind. These are not synth presets you’re working with, but a tool designed to give you a genuine symphonic picture when combined. No single instrument SHOULD be room-filling. Fact is, in an orchestral setting the drums and percussion instruments are at least thirty-five to fifty feet away from the conductor’s podium.
Pull up a vibraphone patch on any hot-dog expensive keyboard in a music store, and you’re going to hear a hyper-clean-in-your-face-wide-as-the-grand-canyon beautiful sound. And that’s great for selling keyboards to sixteen year-olds (or their mommies). But anyone who has tried to wrestle that kind of a sound into a mix knows that’s where the honeymoon ends. You can’t work with those sounds. They’re crap for just about anything except moving product through the music stores.
The sounds in Advanced Orchestra are real, for better or worse, and adjusting to that concept may be a bit of a shock for those of you who don’t have experience working with actual flesh-and-blood orchestral ensembles. But experienced orchestrators will find great comfort with the distance and imaging built into the collection, and those just learning the technique will soon realize and appreciate the difference.
The Inevitable Question
Now, by this point in the game, I know that there’s a question looming in the back of everyone’s mind. How does the Peter Siedlaczek Advanced Orchestra compare to the Miroslav Vitous Orchestral Samples?
What a question. I don’t like to make comparisons. Not surprisingly, I get a lot of email criticizing that aspect of my review approach. There are readers who would like to see a few more charts and graphs, and a more comparative slant. People want me to judge.
Sorry to disappoint. I’m not going there. First, I don’t seek out products for review that don’t have a good use. If they’re sent to me unsolicited and I think they suck, I send them back, and politely decline. If I’ve asked the manufacturer to lend an evaluation copy and I start using it and find that it’s not a good product, I usually call them on the phone, explain that I don’t find the product useful, and let them know that I’ve decided not to review it. They usually agree that it’s best that I don’t. So, read between the lines, and understand that there is going to be a baseline level of usefulness in any product I review for ProRec.
I will, however, explain what I think are the key differences in the Siedlaczek and Vitous libraries.
In the Vitous review, you’ll see that I practically gushed superlatives about aspects of that library’s sound. They were absolutely sincere. You will notice that I’ve been a good deal less gushy about the Siedlaczek. Don’t let that lead you to any false conclusion.
The Vitous samples are dripping with musical intention, every note leading in one direction or another. They are “gushy” by nature, and they evoke that response. That is its unique and indispensable value. Equally valuable in my estimation is the manner in which the Siedlaczek collection has been constructed. You get a large, precise, collection of tonal color to work with that’s been very well mapped and conceived. But every instrument does NOT lead your fingers around the keyboard, pulling at your heartstrings. You will not find that level of musical intention here, and that is the difference that some folks perceive as negative. Personally, I think it’s a tradeoff, and can’t be that easily quantified into good or bad. It’s just different.
But I will make one comparative analysis which I think constitutes a critical difference. The arco strings and some of the ensemble winds in the AO collection are not as expressive by a significant margin. This is probably an actual weakness, and is an area where the Seidlaczek collection could use some improvement.
But put this into perspective, please, and remember my very important statements about the nature of orchestral sampling. You cannot have enough samples in your collection. An instrument that charms you out of the chute may not fit into the musical moment at hand. Conversely, a sample that initially sounds flat may come to life in the right setting. Every idea and every situation will present unique challenges for you, and in many cases a sample from the Siedlaczek collection is the perfect solution. Many cases. There were very few pieces in our test project that didn’t contain material from this library, and that in itself should be a powerful statement.
There’s also the matter of scope. The Vitous is a classical orchestra instrumentation, with massive effort focused towards musical intention from note to note. It mostly concentrates on unison ensemble playing. Coverage of the full “modern” orchestra was not the chosen path – he chose to concentrate on the backbone instrumentation. The Siedlaczek is a modern orchestra instrumentation (note that the words classical and modern refer simply to instrumentation), which includes all manner of lesser used instruments in addition to the workhorses. The production demands of either of these collections dictate that something must give, and I think both producers made good choices as to what their collections would and wouldn’t include.
Whether you’re just starting out in orchestral scoring or a seasoned pro, you’ll want to pick up Advanced Orchestra. It gives you an instant toolkit that is in use by many of today’s leading composers. They don’t use it just because it’s a good value, though that’s a nice bonus – they use it because it works. In particular, you’ll find that some of the solo brass and woodwind samples are the most effective solutions available. It is absolutely worth its asking price, and it passes the value test with no question. And as I’ve stated numerous times throughout this series, you won’t outgrow a single sound. If orchestral composing or arranging is your bag, this tool will be useful for years and years to come.