Amazingly realistic and expressive solo wind instruments.
Easier to get realistic performances live than anything else we’ve
CPU-intensive. Too few presets per instrument.
Samplemodeling has created nothing less than a new
standard in realism and expressiveness for solo brass and wind
instruments. This is the future.
The Trumpet, The Trombone, French Horn & Tuba: $194
Ms. Sax S: $155 | The Sax Brothers: $311 | larger bundles
available at discount*
*Prices are for direct downloads and based on conversion from Euros at press time.
Sampling has progressed by leaps and bounds since the
’90s, allowing ever more realistic instrument emulations. Most real
instruments have been well served by this progress, but a few have been
difficult to recreate convincingly via sampling, and attempts at
physically modeling them have fallen short of complete realism as well.
At the top of that list is the sax family, followed by brass. Sampled sections
are doing well, but the lone, exposed sax, trumpet, or trombone still
reveals signs of being digital. Formed by renowned developer Peter
Siedlaczek and Giorgio Tommasini (a cardiologist by day who has authored
a number of papers about improving the realism of samples),
Samplemodeling aims to change all that via advanced combining of
sampling and modeling. Their product family at the time of this review
includes The Trumpet, The Trombone, Mr. Sax A, Mr. Sax T, and Mr. Sax B
(alto, tenor, and baritone, bundled as The Sax Brothers), Ms. Sax S
(soprano), and French Horn & Tuba.
Most sampling engines is that while we can switch between
many layers of recorded samples at different velocities, we can’t
smoothly crossfade sustained notes in an overlapping fashion without
phase artifacts and harmonic incongruities. This isn’t a problem for
struck and plucked instruments, but in any wind instrument it means that
we can’t fully recreate what happens as you increase and decrease the
wind stream of a held note. A lot more changes timbrally than just
amplitude, and synth filters can’t realistically mimic these changes.
Combine this with the fact that seemingly each note played on a sax
sounds slightly different due to breath, embouchure, bite, fingering,
and a host of other aspects, and you’re at the heart of why these
instruments are so elusive to reproduce.
Fig. 1. Mr. Sax T hosted in Kontakt (Kontakt Player also
works.) The C next to a number denotes the MIDI CC controlling the
Samplemodeling’s Harmonic Alignment technology can crossfade from pp
and from no vibrato to vibrato, with continuity and without phase
artifacts. All Samplemodeling instruments start with samples of every
chromatic note of an instrument, recorded in an anechoic chamber at
every dynamic and articulation. Samples are 24-bit, unlooped, and have a
minimum duration of eight to ten seconds. From there, a number of
adaptive modeling techniques are applied to capture what the company
calls “the performance fingerprints of the real instrument.” These
include, but aren’t limited to, convolution, advanced MIDI processing,
and “modal resonance” modeling the standing frequencies of an instrument
that change as different valves are opened and closed.
For the sax models, a technique the company calls
Synchronous Wave Triggering (developed by Stefano Lucato and Emanuele
Parravicini) continuously interpolates among different vectors such as
time, dynamics, pitch, and formant (vowel-like character of the sound).
This allows things like constant-formant pitchbends, mixable
subharmonics, and growl and flutter tongue techniques to be performed in
Starting To Play
Fig.2. Controller pages from three different
Samplemodeling brass instruments, showing some of the available nuances
When you first load a Samplemodeling instrument, it tells
you it needs to receive MIDI CC 11 (expression) before the instrument
will play properly, even from the onscreen keyboard. So you’ll also want
a keyboard controller that has an input for an expression pedal—and
that has pitch-bend and modulation controls and can shift octaves (or
has at least 61 keys to avoid the need to). I understand the need for
expression, as that’s the “wind” beneath the wings of your playing, but I
always encountered that speed bump every time I loaded a new instrument
or family. It’s easy enough to move your expression pedal, but I’d
prefer to have to do it only once per session.
I then played a note on the Mr. Sax T. (tenor sax)
instrument and moved the expression pedal. Sold! The way the sound could
swell from a barely-played airy tone into a full-bodied bright timbre,
then all the way to a “just before overblown” character by only sweeping
the pedal was amazing. It took me a little while to get my playing to
sound natural, as my first inclination was to accent each note with a
pedal move, as with a wah-wah, rather than sweeping the pedal with the
arc of a musical phrase or pushing a held note forward and then back.
Not to mention adding vibrato to highlight held notes and ends of
phrases. But after a short time, I got the hang of it.
Playing The Trumpet was equally inspiring. I appreciated
how the vibrato seamlessly morphed from subtle and tasteful vibrato into
a “shake” where you hear a distinct alternation between two pitches.
The Trombone went from warm and murky to a powerful, “spitty” tone, and
Mr. Sax B. (baritone sax) had me moving from Gerry Mulligan jazz lines
to Doc Kupka funk licks with only a few parameter changes.
Each Samplemodeling title gave me the same experience.
Never before had I tried solo sax and brass sounds that came to life so
naturally. I never felt like I was obviously switching a sample by
touch, and I never felt like a filter was opening and closing on the
same sampled sound. It had the fluid characteristic of playing a
physically modeled instrument, but it sounded so right that I
knew it had the accurate “snapshot” quality that sampling delivers—only
with the snapshots transforming into each other in a way I’ve never
When hosted in Kontakt or Kontakt Player, Samplemodeling
instruments offer pretty much the same parameters for determining how
your playing interacts with the sound, so let’s take a tour through the
Mr. Sax T tenor sax (see Figure 1).
In the center are meters showing realtime velocity,
expression level, vibrato depth, vibrato rate, and dynamic level. Below
these are the settings for the various parameters the engine offers.
These include: Master Tuning, Random Expression (a slight varying of the
expression value for a more human effect), Controller Mode (keyboard,
keyboard with breath controller, and two forms of wind controller), and a
Dynamics-to-Pitch parameter, which slightly varies the pitch based on
your expression level (harder blowing usually moves the pitch flatter).
The third column of settings contains macros for how the
attack is shaped: Enhanced Attack Hard, Smooth Attack Hard, Enhanced
Attack Soft, and Smooth Attack Soft. These work by reading the velocity
level of your new note and momentarily taking over from the current
expression value (i.e., where your pedal or breath
controller is at) to produce different response shapes for the
newly-played note. The note dynamic starts based on your played velocity
and then ramps up or down to the current expression level, producing
slight swells, or sforzandos, in a very musical fashion. The parameter below that is for what controller is used to modify portamento time.
Below that is Key Noise (KN), which works, in a
satisfyingly random fashion. Modal resonance was mentioned earlier, and
varying it brings in what can best be described as an additional
harmonic: You don’t notice it much until you get to higher levels, but
when you take it away, you really miss it. Dial it in to taste.
Pitch-bend (PB) mode can be asymmetrical (bends down but barely up, like
the real instrument), or symmetrical (like on a synth).
Fig. 3. Ms. Sax S, a soprano sax, has similar parameters
to the other instruments but is the first to use Samplemodeling’s custom
sound engine instead of Kontakt.
The rightmost column starts with sustain pedal assignment,
which can control the growl level, sub-harmonic level, or a slightly
reduced velocity offset, but Samplemodeling recommends using a
continuous controller (aftertouch is nice), not a simple switch. Next is
the sub-harmonic level itself, then Touch Sub-harmonic (T.SH), which
produces a short sub-harmonic burst at random note attacks, Then, there
are the direct levels for growl and flutter, then pitch-bend range.
Brass are slightly different from saxes, offering control
over a variety of mute choices and built-in early reflection impulse
controls (see Figure 2). Recently, Samplemodeling has been
developing their proprietary SWAM engine (Synchronous Wave Acoustic
Modeling), which offers similar controls but, according to the company,
is better under the hood for saxophone realism than Kontakt. The first
title to offer it is their soprano sax, Ms. Sax S (see Figure 3).
All the Samplemodeling brass instruments (The Trumpet, The
Trombone, and French Horn & Tuba) offer key-switching, which can
affect the next note played, the currently sounding note, or what
happens at note release. Articulations include accents, crescendos,
transient vibrato, short swells, slight vibrato at note release, and
fall-offs. The intensity of the effects is usually tied to the velocity
of the key-switch trigger itself—for example, the speed and length of
the fall-off is tied to how hard you press MIDI note B1. This is a
wonderfully expressive way to play. I suggest you add a MIDI
pedalboard—such as Keith McMillen’s 12-Step (reviewed Apr.’12)— freeing
up your hands.
In the studio, first you concentrate on playing the right
notes, then you go back and add controllers to enhance realism. Live,
though, it’s normally very hard to “play” all the requisite controllers
in real time. Even using just velocity, pitch-bend, the modulation
wheel, expression, and aftertouch, Samplemodeling instruments far
outperform most solo instrument libraries I’ve ever tried—making them
ideal for live performance.
Is there room for improvement? In some areas, yes. First,
I’d like more presets for each instrument. Samplemodeling has given you
each instrument in a single, natural presentation, assuming you’ll
develop the sound as you play. But I see no harm in rolling say, a dozen
presets per title instrument to hook you on the possibilities.
Next, I’d like to see a built-in modulation matrix, as is
common in soft synths, so a single controller could be routed to more
than one parameter in varying amounts. True, this isn’t needed for
“pure” performances, and certainly not when sequencing, but it could add
greatly to the live playing experience.
Last, all the instruments have been recorded and voiced
with a tasteful film and orchestral leaning. I did get more aggressive
tones from them, but I’d love to see some additional sample sets based
on stronger jazz, funk, and rock “attitudes.” None of these are failings
of the current offerings, just suggestions for a way to expand the
palette for the future.
I barely scratched the surface of all that these
instruments offer, and I strongly suggest you watch and listen to the
many demos on their website. The Samplemodeling instruments are new
benchmark of realism and expression for solo wind instruments, and I had
a blast playing them all. Note that these are monophonic: You can load
multiple instances to create sections, but you can’t just play block
chords on a keyboard. So don’t look to them for recording pop-brass and
big-band sections in a single pass—there are other libraries for that.
But what they do, they do like nothing I’ve ever experienced. These are breakthrough instruments that have raised the bar, and clearly Key Buy winners.