The Miroslav Vitous Symphonic Orchestra Samples

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on in February2000, contributed by then Contributing Editor Bruce Richardson. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

I’ve got to admit, there’s a couple of things that made this particular review meaningful to me.

One was testing these samples in a real-world situation, rather than just casually playing through them. Most reviews, frankly, are written as a result of a couple days’ tinkering on the workbench. That’s just the way it is. If I have an article due on 12/20, and I get the material on 12/6 – and between that time I must write and the webmeisters must edit and publish… well, you can imagine how much time there is to actually explore possibilities. It makes a huge difference when you’re actually on the front line, rather than just imagining how this or that sample MIGHT work out. When you’ve got to end up with a world class product, there’s no gray area. Things either work or they don’t.

Anyone who has even dabbled in orchestral samples knows about the Miroslav Vitous collection (available at From Hollywood to New York, and everywhere in between, composers have relied upon these samples to deliver up full-blown orchestra scores in high style.

The Libraries

I had heard plenty of music produced from the samples, but had never actually heard them raw. So when Miroslav sent me a small collection of the larger set to evaluate (the Ensemble Strings and Brass/Woodwind ensembles were intermingled on my evaluation disc), I loaded them up in my GigaSampler rig and opened up a preset performance–Bassoon / Oboe / Flute.

Nothing could have prepared me for the sound I heard as I began to play. It felt for all the world as if my fingers were being led from one key to the next as I played. The sounds were vibrant and living, airy and reedy. One word that comes to my mind immediately is thick. Not in a negative sense, though. It reminded me of the first time I ever heard a really great flute player live. Suddenly the flute wasn’t the thin airy instrument I’d heard all my life. It was this huge forceful sound, vibrant and, well…thick.

That’s the same way the Miroslav Vitous samples compare to, say, your average keyboard preset orchestral sounds. Most synthesizer presets are constructed by very good musicians, but the overriding concern is to make a very generic and pretty soundset that plays well in the music store.

The Miroslav Vitous samples are far funkier than the glossy, sweet sounds you’ll find in most synth and sampler presets. Nothing has been sanitized. The flutes have air, presence, and body. The oboes have distinction of attack and a wonderful tendency to lead from one note to the next. The bassoons are dark and lovely, and there are many variations of sound from legato to a very aggressive marcato. The pizzicato violins and basses were thick and full of body – not just bright and plucky. The legato bowed string sounds were full of rosin and realistic vibrancy.

Matter of fact, vibrancy is one word that applies over and over again. There are no dull or lifeless sounds in this collection. Every note is going somewhere, leading you towards the next.

There are various ways in which the GigaSampler editions of this library are unique. First, be aware that these are not newly recorded samples. They are the same samples used to make up the Akai and other versions. Not to worry. They are extremely well recorded with top-shelf gear.

What makes this a truly new product is the way the samples have been remapped and combined to take advantage of GigaSampler’s unique capabilities.

With an Akai or other hardware unit, you’d need a minimum of twenty to thirty-thousand dollars worth of samplers and a good chunk of your day to load up the same ensemble you can call up in GigaSampler in around a minute flat. And even with a mountain of hardware samplers, you wouldn’t have the ability to key-switch between different articulations, or roll in a bit more attack with your expression pedal without hours of brain-numbing programming. You wouldn’t be able to attach acoustic hall resonance to your key releases. And your sequences would be spread out over dozens and dozens of MIDI channels. In plain English: Pain in the ass + pain in the pocketbook = no thanks.

Even beyond the sheer capability that GigaSampler brings to the table, what you’re purchasing with the Miroslav Vitous collection is Miroslav Vitous himself.

This is no small issue. The real, musically limiting problems with any sample set are not basic recording issues. They are ultimately musical problems. I have discovered in my own sampling that it’s not enough just to get the notes. It takes extraordinary musical skill on both sides of the glass to record a useful, expressive sample. When you get a single pitch’s samples, then the task becomes matching the intention in the various levels of each and every note that’s being recorded. Otherwise, you’ll have a different sounding set on every key.

The musical demands are mind-boggling. The producer must then understand how to map the captured performances to the keyboard in a way that allows them to be played easily and logically by the end user. A commanding level of expertise and clarity of purpose is required for each production step. Just as in actual musical performance, each sampled note must be performed with musical intention. The real trick then becomes making it accessible in the end product.

There’s musical intention aplenty in this collection. One difficulty I had is that the samples I evaluated really WANTED to go somewhere. It was hard to make a line sit still, and even harder with a few voices to get any sort of decrescendo at the keyboard.

“That’s something we freely share,” says Peter Vitous, president of Marcati Distribution (no, it’s not a coincidence–Peter is Miroslav’s son). “Miroslav initially recorded all these sessions as tools for his own personal use, and they reflect his own musicianship and aesthetic. That’s why it is so important to learn each sample set of each instrument. Working with samples is an art unto itself.”

So, my challenge in some cases was to un-romanticize some lines that wanted a more static reading. In some cases, switching samples solved the problems. In others, it became a mixdown issue. Ultimately, I made them work for me. And there are many samples that didn’t get converted until after my deadline, that I suspect there are even more ways to get what you want with the full kahuna.

Making it Work

The 23 Violins series, for instance, gives a number of options as to vibrato depth, etc. These are probably the patches to use for straighter readings of a line, since there are more players. The 11 Violins series, that I did have in the evaluation, gives you a very intense little section with a very discernible separation of individual players.

The thing that pleasantly surprised me was how little work I ended up doing in mixdown to make the MIDI performances inherently musical. That’s where the extra attention to musical intention pays off. Anyone who has done orchestral work with keyboards knows that you’ve got to really tweak out the sequences to get a decent sound, and then you must do even more in mixdown. Once I’d converted all my MIDI tracks to individual audio tracks and got the ensemble balanced up, there was very little tweaking to do.

Indeed, that was consistently the silver lining of the strong musical imprint Miroslav placed on the collection. Maybe these samples weren’t saying exactly what I had in mind at a given time, but they were saying SOMETHING that I could shape into a phrase. Music was being made, not just notes being played. And when it came time to mix those parts into a cohesive musical statement, this was always a help.

ProRec Interview: Miroslav Vitous

One great thing about doing this review was spending a little time with Miroslav Vitous himself. I’ve respected Miroslav as a musical force for years, and I really never expected to fast-forward to a time where I’d be having conversations about music and musicianship with him. When I came up, Miroslav and his colleagues were some of my biggest musical heroes. I wore those records out, trying to learn each little nuance of what they were doing. It was a gas to finally meet him.

You can’t help getting a little excited when you’re talking with Miroslav Vitous. He talks in fast-motion, and speaks eloquently about music and musicianship. When I was coming up, Weather Report was like a class for me. Miroslav was everywhere, and his playing was always a treat to hear – expressive, smart, and full of the juxtapositions and musical depth that the fusion movement really focused on capturing.

The Miroslav Vitous Symphonic Orchestra Samples originally appeared in AKAI format, and are widely recognized as THE sample set for serious composers. We talked to Miroslav just as he was burning the final masters for the new GigaSampler versions of the collection, after eight long months in development.

The first thing I noticed in these samples is that they never sit still. They’re always in motion. I find my hand being led across the keys by what I’m hearing…

Yes, this is an important element of the collection. When I recorded the orchestra, I described musical moments: Play this like Mahler, or Dvorak or Wagner. I wanted every note to express some musical idea.

I think one can safely say this is the defining element of the collection.

Yes. What we also wanted to accomplish was a means of allowing the composer to realistically manipulate all the articulations in realtime. We do this with key-switching, but in a couple of other unique ways. For instance when you add the mod wheel, you’ll get tremolo in the strings, or portamento and fortissimo in the wind samples. It will always be an intensification of some sort. Similarly, the expression pedal is mapped to add staccato samples to the mix. If you needed more attack in a mostly sustained section, rolling in a little of this can give you the clarity or punch you need to realize the line.

Also, you’ve provided some performance settings that are real time-savers.

Standard groupings like horn/clarinet/flute or bassoon/oboe are provided in a series of performance settings that the user simply adds to his performance folder. These are layered according to standard ranges, and give the user an instrumental choir that can be played in realtime to good effect.

That’s really where it’s at–getting the button pushing out of the way, so that one can be creative.

The GigaSampler is the best sampler in the world today. There is nothing that can come close to it. Until the GigaSampler was developed, using a library like the Symphonic Orchestra Samples required banks of expensive hardware that took hours to load and program. Now, the composer has all the expression at his fingertips. He can forget button pushing and concentrate on ideas.

The collection is not cheap…

The full collection is a professional composer’s tool. What may appear expensive to the casual observer is actually quite a value compared to a single day’s studio fees for an orchestra. We’re talking about the capability of realizing a complex orchestral score with world-class players, in a way that’s not affordable for most composers by traditional means.

And there’s big news for folks who are not ready to make that investment just yet

We are releasing a compact collection of these samples, twenty-five or so instruments and ensembles in about thirty-five banks, that is designed to put these world-class sounds into the hands of musicians that may not be able to afford the full collection. The list price is $349, which is lower than many “bargain” products, yet it features the same expressive playing as our more detailed set.

The Question of Value

Let’s not avoid the obvious. The other thing that makes the Miroslav Vitous collections stand out is price. They are pricey, for sure. The full set will cost you about as much as a decent used car.

There are other collections that cover essentially the same ground for less. Are the Miroslav Vitous collections really worth the higher price? Is there value attached that justifies the price?

I’d have to say yes, although I’ve got to admit I’d like to see them set the price point just a little lower. I’d like to see the playing field leveled a bit.

But I also respect the fact that Miroslav has poured years of his life into these samples, and that aspect of the equation certainly commands a premium price. You know he is a musician you can trust, and that he’s put forth extraordinary effort. Your investment should be weighed against your potential to leverage the product’s strengths into dollars. You can produce world-class orchestral material with these samples. You can achieve realism that’s difficult if not impossible to discern from the real McCoy in many cases. And if you price many of the highest-tier single instrument samples, then compare to what you get here in terms of raw orchestration power, you will find that the pricing structure is still competitive.

Another question that I certainly entertained: Is the “Miroslav factor” that big a deal after all? Anyone with a decent musical and technical head can produce this stuff, right?

Again, no simple answer is available. There was no market for this kind of material when Miroslav produced it. He was producing a library for his own use as a composer’s tool. Knowing what kind of music he was planning to write, he made session player choices based on that idea. In the sessions, he asked them to imagine themselves playing particular composers, pieces, or lines, so that he didn’t end up with a collection of, “dead notes,” as he so aptly describes. He knew that if he did not get the instrument sound AND the musical intention he needed, that his later work would be more difficult.

So, he invested heavily in the sessions, and walked away with his (then largely unusable) treasure-trove of samples. As time went by, well-heeled composers began buying huge banks of hardware samplers and experimenting with them. Eventually he made a product from his samples for these users, and the library was born. Still, not all of the material could be utilized, and only the best-appointed composing suites had enough hardware to make the collection’s use as a virtual orchestra practical.

Enter GigaSampler, and everything changed. With no practical limits on mapping or sample length, sounds that were difficult to reproduce (read: any nonpercussive sustained instrument), became practical via complex dimensioning. And Miroslav had captured shelves full of this very kind of material for his own use. In very plain terms, the reason this collection continues to be valid is because it was well-planned and ahead of its time. The technology has just now caught up to the captured session material, where the various sections can truly be manipulated all at once in realtime by someone who does NOT have half a million dollars to spend on hardware.

So that is, in my estimation, the Miroslav factor. It was conceived, recorded, and initially produced as a personal tool, not a product, and that purity of purpose is evident. It manifests itself in a kind of musical mojo that might never have been considered for a more commercially oriented product.

You can identify and quantify it musically. Since it will enhance your earning potential, it must also be assessed when you address price and value.

The Missing Element

However, the larger factor in the equation is you. Are you able to utilize the tool? The sounds are all there. It’s up to you to make the music, though. If you don’t have a good foundation in orchestration, then you won’t be instantly amazing, no more than if you scratched out a score and hired the players. Orchestration is an art in itself that is completely separate from your raw musicianship. Some composers are brilliant with melody and form, and that carries their music. Others are amazing orchestrators, who can take relatively average melody and paint it all the colors of the rainbow.

When you work with the Miroslav Vitous samples, or any of the orchestral samples for that matter, you must take on the role of orchestrator. Actually, you must be sort of an orchestrator-meets-conductor. Since the performance style is built into the samples, you must interact with them as a part of the process. Sometimes the sample itself will inform what you write…or perhaps it will force you to reconsider a passage, like the musician who just “doesn’t get it.” Sometimes you change things, even with flesh-and-blood players, so that everyone can just go home and you can stop the studio clock before your profits fly away.

This is especially true of this particular library. It is a fair assessment to label it as a highly emotive soundset. This is its strength compared to most collections that are musically a bit more static. But just as is the case with everything, that strength presents an equal and opposite weakness–if you DON’T want to be emotive with a particular line, you may find some of the samples leading you off-track.

So, don’t pull up that MIDI file of Beethoven’s Fifth that you downloaded, assign the instruments, hit play, and expect to be amazed. More likely you’ll be appalled. It just doesn’t work that way with these kinds of sounds–the variations are simply too vast to be easily predictable. You must learn the samples like the back of your hand, and know exactly which one is appropriate for what kind of phrase. That is where the responsibility again rests with the purchaser.

Consider this sample set an instrument, give it all the effort that you would dedicate towards any instrument’s mastery, and you’ll reap its rewards. Less dedication on the user’s part won’t work with something that contains this much highly directional material. Find a less “imprinted” sample set to work with, and live happily ever after. But just like the manic-depressive that won’t take his lithium because it evens everything out, don’t be surprised if that option leaves you somewhat cold. Music is not static, and chances are, your music will be blessed by the musicianship funneled into each sample in this collection.

Be aware that this is a lifetime investment when you compute value. These samples will always sound great, no matter what the future may bring. They’ll simply be there for you. There is no loss of value attached to time when you are talking about pure sounds based on an ongoing orchestral tradition. This is not Dr. Funky’s Booty Beats, Volume 12, that will be out of style with your next change of underwear. One person’s use of this collection will be unrecognizable from the next. You will not “use it up,” or outgrow it. That is how it has held value since its first introduction, and why it will continue to hold its value when you are ready to invest.

Ultimately, I found myself reaching for the Miroslav Vitous samples first on most occasions during our test project, especially the strings. Take that for what it’s worth. No matter how I imagined working with them before they were actually under my fingers, I really was clueless as to how I might benefit from their use until I went about the task of actually making music with them.

If you are either very serious about honing and demo-ing your own orchestral writing, if you are a working composer using these kinds of sound to make a living, or if you’re hoping to establish yourself as a power producer, then this collection is worth the price you’ll pay to own it. You’ll very likely never find yourself looking to replace it, only to augment it. In a time where technology has become disposable, this is a very comforting thing to say.