The Vienna Symphonic Library, or VSL, with their all-encompassing range of orchestral sample libraries, is one of the heavyweights in the world of sampling technology. When we set out to review Spitfire’s Solo Strings and LASS First Chair it was immediately clear that there was one serious contender we just could not leave in the hiding: VSL Solo Strings. Offering 82 GB of sample material, VSL’s take on orchestral solo strings offers a solo Violin (and a special Violin 2 if you download a free update), Viola, Cello and Double Bass, all with a host of articulations. The library reviewed here is VSL Solo Strings I Full (Standard and Extended), containing basically everything a composer could wish for when wanting to write for solo strings. VSL offers a sequel, aptly named Solo Strings II, which features most of the articulations from the first library, but played con sordino. Solo Strings I, on the other hand, does not contain any con sordino samples! If you have not done so yet, make sure to have a look at our Vienna Instruments Pro 2 Overview, which will show you some basic concepts of how VSL’s libraries work, including the general idea of VSL’s matrix-driven sampling engine.
So let’s dive right in.
Installation, Activation and Setup
With the library coming on four dual-layer DVDs, depending on your system’s DVD drive, installation may take a while. My drive was able to read the DVDs perfectly, with no sudden spindowns apparent. Within just a bit more than an hour, the content was on the hard drive. The included Vienna Instruments disc gives you Vienna Instruments (the sample player included with every library, with the aforementioned VI Pro a paid upgrade with extra features), Vienna Ensemble (VSL’s software for multitimbral use of VI as well as for hosting VI outside your sequencer) as well as the eLicenser drivers. If you already use any VSL collections, all this will be on your drive and there is no need to install these versions; anyway it is better to download the newest versions directly from the VSL website, which is also stated on a note in the box.
Library installation itself is painless: All you need to do is to open VSL’s Library installer, which is automatically installed with Vienna Instruments and point it to the first DVD. That’s it. In my test, I had the issue that the Library installer crashed at the end of the installation. The library was installed just fine, though. I mention this because literally ten minutes after I sent a support ticket to VSL, I received an answer assuring me that this bug was known and would be fixed as soon as possible. And indeed – two days later it was. I found the support experience very pleasant and fast. Good customer support is sometimes rare, all the more I was happy to find it here.
To make the library work, you need an eLicenser. This dongle either comes as Vienna Key directly from VSL, or as a Steinberg Key (the one used for Steinberg Cubase). Both are identical, so if you use Cubase, there is no need to buy another dongle! The library is activated by entering the provided serial code into the eLicenser Control Center; depending on your serial, only the Standard library or both Standard and Extended are activated. Note that even if you only have a license for the Standard library, the Extended samples still live on your hard drive with no way to uninstall them. In terms of system requirements, this is the only major criticism that could be directed towards VSL – it may be prohibitive for technical reasons to allow installation of only the Standard sample set, but in my opinion it should be worth finding a solution for this. With its footprint of 82 GB, and assuming that a hefty part of this is for the Extended content, even with today’s large drives it would make sense to have a choice not even to speak of SSD drives, where space is indeed an issue. Note, however that for VSL’s more recent Dimension Brass, there are no separate Standard or Extended libraries, so maybe this licensing scheme is in the process of being reworked.
After installation and activation, you should pay a visit to the VSL website to register the library in your user area, giving you access to updates as well as additional downloads. Installing these updates is actually quite easy, once you have realised that all you need to do is drag the update file onto the Directory Manager application. The instructions clearly say what to do, though.
All in all, installation is very easy and painless and apart from the waste of hard disk space for people who haven’t bough the Extended library, there is nothing to complain about.
Included Instruments and Articulations
At 82 GB, you can expect some reasonable bang for the disk space and VSL Solo Strings I definitely delivers in this area. For a full list of included articulations, please see http://www.vsl.co.at/en/211/
The library features all the basic articulations for all the included instruments you would expect, down to even the Double Bass:
In the Standard Library you get what could be described as the must-haves, including Sustain with vibrato, staccato, détaché, marcato, fp, sfz, tremolos, semitone and whole tone trills, and of course pizzicato. For performance instruments (see an explanation in the Playability section) you have Legato, Portamento, repeating Staccato, repeating Spiccato, bow-change legato and for the high strings also some glissandi. Very nice to see are the addition of basic articulations (Staccato, Sustained and Tremolo) sul ponticello as well as a nice complement of harmonics.
The Extended library has everything you may have ben missing in the previous list, including grace notes, runs and sul tasto samples as well as additional variants of things already covered with their basics in the Standard library. For example: Additional glissandos on every string, col legno, sustains with no/less/progressive vibrato, crescendos and diminuendos, and much more.
As per the concept of VSL’s offerings, all articulations can be accessed as single patches containing only this articulation (there are plenty of matrixes with patch combinations included, though), so you can load anything as you need it without having to load additional samples as part of a patch/multi as it is the case with many other libraries. This greatly helps to harness the sheer volume of the library. The interface of the Vienna Instruments sample player included with the library is easy on the eyes, yet at the same time very powerful.
Playability and Sound
To talk about playability in regard to VSL’s libraries means to talk about their performance samples and tools. While most of the regular articulations in VSL Solo Strings operate very much like their counterparts in other libraries, the performance programs work a bit differently. Before we have a look at how those performance programs work, we will start with the „conventional“ part of the library and just have a look at a number of matrixes and single articulations so you can get a feeling of how the library performs. These are a representative cross-section of the whole library with equal focus on all instruments as well as detailing the additional perks of using Vienna Instruments Pro 2.
L1 Vl Articulation Combi
This matrix uses only Standard content and includes the articulations you would commonly find in „Master“ or „Keyswitch“ patches in other libraries. It basically includes the most common articulations, with Keyswitches from C1 to A1 as well as CC1 (Modwheel) controlling X/Y movement in the matrix.
As you can see in the screenshot from VI Pro, the cells in the matrix contain an abbreviation of the articulation loaded in them, with the full name (corresponding to the patch of the same name in the patch list) in the lower right. The active cell has a light blue border, which makes it very easy to see the currently selected articulation. I have found this to be a welcome touch of VSL’s sampler because if you control movement within the matrix via rotary encoders mapped to a CC, you can get a pretty good idea how far you will need to move your knob to get to the articulation you need. The articulation names and abbreviations are consistent between instruments as well as libraries, so while now those abbreviations may seem difficult to remember, you will find that after only a few hours of using the library, you will have no difficulties.
CC1 (Modwheel) switches between related articulations, for example sustain and sustain with marcato attack in the second column of the matrix, while the keyswitches select more varied playing techniques. This two-way approach works surprisingly well and Y-axis mapping is very logical. On the X-axis, however, one may ask why staccato is on C0 and sustain on C#1 and not vice versa as it is customary in most libraries’ keyswitch patches, where C0 equals sustain samples. This certainly is not a big thing, I just was a bit puzzled by it. If you are used to having your sustain on C0, you can easily swap the cell assignments.
So how does it sound? First, remember that VSL’s samples are bone-dry, so you will either need a 3rd party reverb plugin or use the integrated reverb in VI Pro (the regular VI does not have a reverb). For the sound examples here I used the reverb from VI Pro. Here is a short audio demo, recorded with the L1 Vl Articulation Combi. This audio demo, as well as all the other single-instrument demos in this review are recorded live and not in any way edited afterwards. This is to give you an idea of the out of the box capabilities of the library.
L2A 01 VA Perf-Universal
Here we are at what may be called the heart of VSL: The performance instruments. Back in the days when the VSL was young, the legato instruments introduced by the company indeed were a revolution. Despite most libraries today offering recorded legato transitions, VSL’s performance legato still firmly holds its place and works beautifully. Without delving into the technical details, which are described at length in the documentation, we will take one patch using such performance samples to have a look at playability and performance (pun intended) of those samples.
The VA Perf-Universal patch differs markedly in use from the VL Articulation Combi we had a look at before: It does not use any keyswitches, but instead is controlled solely by the playing style with a aid of the modwheel. Depending on how fast you play, different legato samples are triggered. Play very slow and you get smooth transitions between notes, allowing you to play highly expressive melodic lines. Play faster and the transitions are quicker, driving the melody line forward, just as a real player would do. The modwheel lets you choose between sustain, marcato sustain and spiccato-stacc with the tempo of playing then selecting tempo-adjusted patches for that particular articulation. If you map a controller to Velocity-Xfade, this method works extremely well. Here is a short example, played live without any editing afterwards. There are short gaps between the legato, marcato and spiccato parts so you can hear which is which. Again the reverb is straight from VI Pro.
Note that this matrix does not have any special scripting. The performance patches are just regular patches, which you can use like any other patch in your own matrixes. The matrix navigation with CC1 and playing speed, likewise, is not set in stone and it is a matter of a few clicks to change any of those settings, just as it is to assign controllers for any parameter. This, along with the fact that all matrixes are completely open for editing, makes tweaking existing matrixes or creating new ones a breeze, contrary to some competitors. Also, I have found to be all patches, especially the performance articulations, to be very light on the CPU. Even in very busy projects there were no dropouts, missed notes or CPU spikes.
Some Cello articulations
To show you a few of the special articulations of the library, here is an mp3 of a number of different cello articulations. Some of these require the extended library. The scope of available trills, swells and many other articulations is staggering and really the strongest aspect of this library. You really get everything you could wish for (again with the exception of con sordino samples, which have their own Solo Strings II collection).
To demonstrate the sound of the library on an actual piece, here is a very short piece by J.B. Logier (1777-1846), who wrote a book on music theory with some short musical pieces in there. Everything is 100% VSL Solo Strings, with QL Spaces for reverberation and some compression at the end. The file is a MIDI export from Sibelius, cleaned up a bit in Logic Pro and using solely the Articulation Combi patches. I did not re-record any of the lines, so everything is straight from the MIDI file. Again this serves to show you how the library performs for these tasks.
Special Vienna Instruments Pro 2 features and 2nd Violin
If you own the paid big version of VSL’s sample player, Vienna Instruments Pro, you can get a few additional features in an update to Solo Strings, which is available for download in the User Area on the VSL website. This update adds a number of matrixes using features unique to VI Pro 2, most notably the sequencer. There are a variety of chordal matrixes in different inversions, as well as runs and phrases. Everything is completely editable in the sequencer, so you can build great sounding string phrases with ease.
With VI Pro 2, you have special matrixes for the regular articulations in the library. The difference between the matrixes also usable
in VI and the ones for VI Pro is that all cells are disabled by default to save memory. You just activate the cells you need and they are loaded. Because the samples are only loaded when you really want them, these new VI Pro matrixes have far more cells than the VI ones. While technically not bringing anything new to the table (with the exception of the chords and patterns!), I have nevertheless found the new matrixes to work very well and provide all articulations I needed, while I frequently had to add a few patches in their VI counterparts. See those new matrixes as a new way to harness the huge number of available articulations – you may very well come to use articulations you did not even know existed!
Also, VSL silently included a second solo Violin with the library update. This additional violin uses semitone-transposed samples of the original violin and is a very nice bonus. It has the most common articulations and can be found in the 90 Violin 2 menu in the patch browser. These new patches also work with the regular VI, so you do not need to purchase VI Pro to use the 2nd Violin. See the following screenshot for the available articulations:
VSL Solo Strings, when compared with its recently released competitors, has the advantage of a longer shelf life, but nonetheless I found the quality of the editing and programming impressive. All articulations play just as they are supposed to, levels are well and loading times are very good! In fact, I think right now VI/VI Pro is the best sampler for large orchestral instruments in terms of both loading times and CPU use. Memory count can get high on some matrixes, but in VI Pro you can just deactivate unused articulations without actually having to remove them from the matrix. The samples will then be removed from memory, but can be reloaded later with one click. You can do this for every single cell in a matrix. So if you were so inclined, you could load all of Solo Strings in one huge preset or matrix and activate cells as needed. There also is a handy purge feature, which removes all samples not in use in the current project from memory.
General usage is easy to grasp and feels natural after only a few minutes with the player. You can easily see the amount of thought VSL have put into designing both the library and the VI/VI Pro sample player. The matrix allows you to put together the perfect selection of samples for your particular composing situation, and the factory matrixes provide a very good starting point to explore the vast amount of articulations present in the library. As said before, its completeness in terms of provided articulations is the one thing that really makes VSL Solo Strings a mandatory part of your template. There plain and simple is nothing out there that can compete with VSL Solo Strings in terms of sheer completeness. The fact that the library sounds great, is reasonably easy to use after having grasped the concept behind all of VSL’s collections and is light enough on resources to comfortably fit into almost any technical environment, only confirms its place as a serious library to consider when looking for solo strings samples.
One thing that to me stands out is the ease of re-programming things. It is a breeze to switch velocity control from keyboard velocity (how hard you press the keys on your keyboard) to the modwheel or any other CC. This makes VSL’s sample libraries extremely adaptable to one’s own workflow and is one of the reasons why, in my opinion, the VI/VI Pro player is so popular and is generally received with a very positive response. VSL definitely did the right thing when creating their own sample player.
So, what’s the final verdict? VSL Solo Strings set out to provide a comprehensive library of solo string articulations with a focus on playability, ease of integration into existing templates (very dry samples, so fits anywhere with a little help from the reverb) and speed and stability. It succeeds in all those areas, and then some. If you need a solo strings library that is light enough on resources to run on a portable machine without hiccups, yet at the same time will offer you almost anything you can possibly want in terms of articulations for your solo string work, look no further!