Berlin Woodwinds Review

Posted on August 31, 2012 at 12:02 am, by Ben

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The Second Star to the Left by BenBotkin

You hear that? Those are the winds of change.

The woodwind section of the orchestra has had less than stellar representation in the field of available orchestral samples over the past couple years. With many or most of the major orchestral sample developments being focused on improving strings and brass (and there have been some considerable ones), a number of us sample-based composers have found ourselves just not writing with woodwinds of late because our old wood samples pale in comparison to our next-gen string ostinatos and brass stabs.

The primary reason for this dearth of substantial woodwinds is probably lessened demand. The film-score flavor of the decade has, for the most part, been moving away from the symphonic John Williams sound that dominated the 80s and 90s, which was very woodwind heavy, and morphing into the orchestral/modern hybrid sound of Hans Zimmer and his friends at Remote Control Productions, which is not. It’s very common in the latter style to hear dense string and brass combinations lavishly layered over a groove of sweeps, swoops, whumps, and drums the size of small houses, but orchestral woodwind usage (Ethnic winds excepted) is generally one dimensional or non-existent. (Note: this is not intended to bash the guys at RCP whom I greatly admire and have learned a lot from—just a fact)

As a consequence, a lot of the up-and-coming composers of my generation who immerse themselves only in the clichés of the day are forgetting what woodwinds are for and how to use them. This fact saddens me when I consider all the melodic, harmonic, and tonal possibilities that lie inherent within the richly colored palette of the woodwind section. How I would love to see the woodwind-rich understanding of orchestration espoused by Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Rimsky Korsakov, Dukas, Stravinsky, Korngold, Goldsmith, Williams and others make a comeback, but this drought of good sampled woodwind options has not aided that end.

Fortunately, all that is changing.

The Great Woodind Summer

The Great Woodwind Summer (as it will be known to future generations), is upon us in full heat. Three substantial next-gen woodwinds libraries have just been released by three different esteemed developers at almost exactly the same time:

Cinewinds Core by Cinesamples (Cinewinds Pro to come in the not-too-distant future)
Hollywood Orchestral Woodwinds by EastWest
Berlin Woodwinds by Orchestral Tools
(Also, 8dio has been teasing us with previews of a sweet sounding Oboe–though no one knows what that means yet)

Those of us who have been tracking these releases diligently (we few, we happy few) have been in a transport of fragile giddiness for months, as we go from extreme excitement to confusion to frustration and back to excitement again… tracking the demos, pre-order pricing, feature lists, and release dates. How to choose between all these exciting options… buy them all??? Well, most of us can’t afford to, and the ones who can don’t have time to fiddle around with three libraries, so let’s talk about some important decision-making factors and calibrate our grid of analysis.

The first question is this: “What sort music are you trying to write, and what do you plan to use woodwinds for?” Well, let’s do a quick overview of…

Woodwinds: Their Fundamental Role in the Orchestra

From Disney's Fantasia 2000

Symphonic orchestration is all about creating a unified texture and sound. The orchestra is not merely a room full of individual players with equal voices having their own say–it’s only in their togetherness and unity that they become special–become a team–an orchestra. Despite most orchestras having between 50 and 80 players, there are usually no more than 3 or 4 concurrent musical elements or lines going at any given moment, thus a lot of orchestral writing involves writing unison parts and/or what I call “invisible parts”, i.e., parts that cannot easily be heard while everyone else is playing, but add to the overall sound. The woodwind section, due in part to their relative softness, plays “invisible parts” quite often—but this is ok, because vibrancy of color can cut through and augment a mix even when quiet. Composer and instructor Robin Hoffman summed up this concept very well in a recent “daily scoring tip”:

07/12/12: It is in the nature of orchestral music to not be able to hear every instrument clearly in the mix. Some instruments like woodwinds even regularly “drown” in tuttis and their only purpose is to add to the ensemble sound. This is actually a main factor of creating that ensemble sound. I’m not speaking for undefined muddy orchestral mixes here but a certain degree of intransparency in mixes actually adds to the realism of orchestral music. So when you’re mixing your music (especially sampled music) don’t try to mix it too clinical as this will reduce the ensemble feeling.

The easiest and most obvious way to use woodwinds is to place them in the foreground or your mix, usually with a solo carrying the melody. There is an important place for this, but if you arrange in this way exclusively you will miss a lot of creative possibilities. Take advantage of the rich tapestry of colors found in the woodwind section, and apply liberally. Woodwind tones can be flighty, nasal, pompous, cowardly, plaintive, mystic, pinched, breathy, thin, growly, silky, and more. Trying to write full, rich orchestral music without them is kind of like trying to copy a Monet and having only 2 of the 3 primary colors to work with. Listen to some rich, full, orchestral music from the late romantic era… even if at first you cannot specifically hear a lot of woodwinds, it doesn’t mean they’re not there or not important. Take a look at the orchestral score and you can see what all is REALLY going on.

Common orchestral uses of the woodwinds include (but are not limited to):

– Carrying the melody (solo wind) on top of other accompaniment
– Carrying the melody (wind ensemble) on top of other accompaniment
– Doubling string or brass melodies
– Doubling chords and harmonies
– Runs, trills, grace notes, flutters, to accent, add flourish or movement–add sparkle or spontaneity

With that established, let’s see how Berlin Woodwinds stacks up.

Berlin Woodwinds Overview

Here is a video overview I did of Berlin Woodwinds to show some ways it can be used, to do a patch run-through so you can see how it’s laid out and how the patches sound when you’re just monkeying around on the keyboard. Bear with me–some of the content is a little redundant with this review, and I did this live, so it’s a little sloppy.

What’s Included?

The Instruments:

Piccolo, 1st Flute, 2nd Flute, 3rd Flute, Flute 8va, 1st Oboe, 2nd Oboe, English Horn, 1st Clarinet, 2nd Clarinet, Clarinet Ensemble, 1st Bassoon, 2nd Bassoon

Key Features:

True Legato for all instruments and ensembles, powerful 8x RR Staccato and Staccatissimo Patches, playable runs, DIVISI with 2nd and up to 3rd instruments, Trills Orchestrator with up to never before recorded 5th trills, RUNS BUILDER, Up to 3 different vibrato styles, Controllable key and wind noises, ARTICULATIONS PERFORMER: Switch and x-fade through the articulations and create your custom keyswitch sets!
100 GB of samples (53 GB compressed)
24Bit / 48KHz Patches
Works with the free Kontakt Player 5 or Kontakt 5

What’s Missing?

As of this writing, Bass Clarinet and Contrabassoon are not included, but Orchestral Tools has mentioned that they will be coming in a future update (it’s not clear yet if it will be a paid update or free). It would be nice to also have Alto Flute and Bass Flute, but that is not a glaring or disabling omission. Not every possible woodwind effect is included—certain types of rips and overblown staccatos and stuff you will have to find elsewhere, but orchestral FX libraries are pretty common these days. I should point out what I hope is the obvious… being an orchestral woodwind library there are no ethnic winds included.

What’s the sound quality like?

When I first heard about this library, I was doubtful if it would compare in recording quality and musicianship to the libraries recorded at Hollywood recording stages with full-time Hollywood players. Soon after the install, my fears were relieved. The sound quality, venue, and musicianship is excellent, and the small amount of “baked-in” reverb from the Teldex hall (which is very pleasing to my ears), seems to blend very well with other big name libraries… especially when you take into consideration the multiple mic positions you can use to modify the environment.

How playable are the patches? Does it require endless tweaking to sound good?

If you stick close to the beat, follow basic principles of arrangement and voicing, and use the samples as they’re intended to be used (no runs with sustain patches, please), there shouldn’t be much to tweak. When I compose, I always spend extra time fine-tuning the phrasing and dynamic levels to get my performances sounding as alive and expressive as possible, but if your instincts are really good this can theoretically be done on the fly.

The only thing that needs to be taken into consideration at this point is that, as of the 1.0 and 1.1 versions, when you crossfade between dynamic layers in some of the solo legato patches you can hear overlap between dynamic layers which can sound like two players a once. This is the biggest issue with Berlin Woodwinds at the moment, but the team at OT has been working on this and has said that they will continue to work on the legato scripting to minimize or eliminate this phasing issue–just a week after release they already had an update (1.1) that drastically improved this problem. Will it always be noticeable? I guess I can’t say with certainty, but I have good confidence in OT that BWW’s best days are still in the future.

That said, there are easy workarounds, and not every legato instrument has this problem to a noticeable degree. When you load the patch you want to use (say, 1st Oboe Legato) play around with it and figure out if it has any weak spots in the crossfading. Take note of where they are, and don’t make a quick crossfade through those regions when that patch is playing an exposed line. Is this limiting? Theoretically, yes, but let’s be realistic: all of sample composing (or composing with real instruments!) has limits and boundaries that you need to work around.

The way I see it, there are 2 fundamental principles to creating realistic and powerful orchestral mockups:

1 – Write Like you would for a live orchestra… work to know “proper” orchestration, understand how the instruments are used, know their limits, etc.
2 – Understand the limitations of sample technology, and don’t do what samples cannot.

Bring your strengths to the foreground. Push your weaknesses into the background. Example: if your sampled solo cello sounds like rubbish, don’t write pieces where your rubbish solo cello will be exposed and make the rest of the piece sound like rubbish. (I used “rubbish” three times in a sentence and I’m not even British–do I get points for that?)

For me, the legato phasing, even in its current state, is not a paralyzing issue. And just so you can be sure that I’m not saying BWW sounds like rubbish, listen to this demo featuring the legato patches… written with a pre-release beta version.

Saying Goodbye (Berlin Woodwinds Demo) by BenBotkin

If the weakest part of BWW sounds as convincingly real as this, I think that speaks pretty well for the rest of the library.

Summary

I think this product is beyond exceptional. Berlin Woodwinds has extended the boundaries of my creativity in writing, because it fills what has been for a long time, a gap in my palette of orchestral colors. Ever since getting BWW I’m continually thinking of places I would have used them if I’d had them. In my piece “When I Think of My Bride”, I was running into the problem of running out of colors and instruments to work with. I’d write a segment with soft strings, and I’d want to maintain the softness of the piece, but didn’t want to bore the listener and wear out the piece by having the same soft string ensemble to carry the next segment too. If I’d had BWW, it would have added freshness by having a soft wood choir carry the melody for a bit, and the whole piece would have been stronger. I also wouldn’t have been ashamed to expose a solo flute or clarinet.

I used to really play up my strings and brass and hide my woodwinds, but now I’m finding that I’m writing with a preference toward the woodwinds, and that I’m actually using them to make my brass and strings sound better. With instruments or with life, it’s exciting when your biggest weaknesses become your biggest strengths, and this has been my experience to date with BWW.

I don’t have either Hollywood Orchestral Woodwinds or Cinewinds, so although I’ve been following their spec sheets and announcements and demos closely, realize I can’t speak with final authority to this: even though I have great respect for both of those developers and use many of their products daily, I have a hard time imagining that they can beat BWW after playing around with it for a while. If you have to chose just one woodwind library, I think that Berlin Woodwinds is probably the woodwind library to get if you’re interested in using woodwinds in the orchestral tradition of Williams, Rimsky Korsakov, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Debussy and other symphonic greats. I think there is very little that cannot be done with this library given you know what you’re doing.

To take full advantage of this library’s potential (actually this is true about any library), I recommend doing some additional research on woodwinds and how to use them. Mock up some existing classical music, read up on the chapters of Rimsky-Korsakov’s principles of orchestration that regard woodwinds, listen to a lot of woodwind writing and copy it, observe in orchestral scores how woodwind voicing is usually done, etc. Don’t just think of your BWW purchase as adding a new tool to your sonic toolbox, but as a learning opportunity. Sample technology is getting to the point where the samples themselves are rarely the biggest roadblock between you and professional sounding, expressive music.

These are exciting times.

2 Comments

  • […] pro audio, however, not so much. Sample technology for composition is advancing by leaps and bounds, but mics, mixers, and recorders haven’t changed much since the digital revolution over a decade […]

    Posted by Ideas for New Audio Gear - Outside Hollywood on September 13th, 2012 at 3:15 pm
  • Thanks for the review! I noticed the phasing right in the official demos so that really worries me. Also the playable runs in the BWW walkthrough video didn’t sound that great to me, but I think the legato and tweakability of the library are strong points. I wonder why VSL’s woodwinds weren’t mentioned considering they’re better to my ear than Hollywood Orchestral Woodwinds and Cinewinds (I think BWW stacks up quite well against VSL’s winds).

    Posted by Casiquire on January 10th, 2013 at 4:58 pm