Bold as Brass

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Say goodbye to wheezy, cheesy brass and sax sounds.

By Marty Cutler

That's why we've compiled this roundup. Some packages are strictly brass, others include saxophones and other woodwinds, and another practically throws in the whole darned orchestra pit. Still another eschews samples in favor of physically modeled brass and reeds. Some head-to-head comparisons are inevitable, but it makes more sense to focus on what’s special about each set, which will give you a better idea of which collection is best for you and your music.

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EASTWEST/QUANTUM LEAP, Hollywood Brass Diamond Edition
In the world of sampled instruments, EastWest/Quantum Leap looms large in more ways than one. Their libraries are usually high-concept projects, and as such, Hollywood Brass holds a whopping 150GB of content that arrives on its own 500GB internal SATA hard drive—so make sure you have a free drive bay in your computer. Sonically, Hollywood Brass (HB for short) generally aims toward a different application than Mojo or Broadway Big Band, that is, more toward the scoring stage than the bandstand. There are no reed instruments such as saxes, but the tons of solo and ensemble horns on offer were pristinely recorded in EastWest’s own storied recording studios. Moreover, you can dress up the sounds with the luscious onboard convolution reverb, using impulses derived from those same studios and other locales.

HB relies on the EastWest Play engine, a sample player whose simple interface makes access easy. Play divides into two pages: the Browser, from which you load your instruments, and the Player, which offers tweaking, MIDI channel assignments, mix parameters, and other adjustments.

Each instrument is sampled from four mixable mic positions: Close, Mid, Main, and Srnd (surround). The close-mic version loads by default; you can add the other positions afterwards. If you’re running on limited RAM, be aware that each position is a separate set of samples and increases the load. Likewise, the “Vint” switch reloads alternate samples from the same positions, but captured through a vintage ribbon mic. These sound creamy, warm, and intimate, and seem in general to have a bit less room ambience than the standard mics. The Vint switch affects all mic positions together.

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Articulations and Control

MIDI control is relatively sparse. You can use messages of the non-continuous, switch sort to engage monophonic true legato, simulated legato on polyphonic instruments, round-robin sample alternation that avoids the dreaded “machine gun” effect, and portamento. Some patches are only marginally velocity-sensitive, relying instead on modulation and other CC messages to alter dynamics. That makes sense musically, and provides a more continuous sense of loud and soft, but it can take a bit of time for keyboardists to get used to.

According to the manual, key-switching is not yet supported, although it is promised in an update. Although there are enough expressive controls supplied with velocity and the modulation wheel for HB to do well as a live instrument, my take is that Hollywood Brass is meant to appeal primarily to the desktop composer. To fully take advantage of HB’s extensive library of expression, you’ll want to record parts into a sequencer, splicing the various staccato and legato instruments and special effects such as trills and flutters as separate tracks.

I tried to create my own velocity-switched trombone, taking advantage of the Play engine’s multi-timbral capabilities. Looking to build a sustained trombone that would move through slides and then falls with successively higher velocities, I loaded patches, set them for the same MIDI channel, and limited the velocity ranges of each so that they had mutually exclusive values. However, the values I set applied globally to anything on that channel. Updating the Play engine so that you could do splits and layers of any kind would make the instrument a more flexible real-time performer.

The HB library truly evokes the silver screen. Burnished, epic-sounding horns have varying degrees of room ambience sampled in even with the convolution reverb turned off—there’s nothing anechoic about HB. As good as the reverb may be, I prefer auditioning the instruments in this state.

Comprising the library are varieties of French horn, trombone, trumpet, cimbasso, tuba, and “Low Brass,” which is a combination of low-range instruments playing in octaves or in unison. Where applicable, these break down into ensembles ranging from two to up to six horns (in the case of French horns) and solo instrument renditions. All instruments further subdivide based on their playing techniques, such as mutes, accents, staccato, and marcato articulations.

By and large, the sound quality is gorgeous; the recorded ambience imbues the instruments with presence, and the detailed recording of the samples captures the low-end tubas, cimbasso, and bass trombone in all their brash, rich glory. In the solo category, the instruments have a beautiful, detailed dimensionality, the rips and flutter-tongue articulations are powerful, and the ensemble horns are fat with a tasty stereo spread that you can accentuate with the Play engine’s neat stereo doubler. Trumpets are warm and mellow, but never shrill. There are folders of special effects ranging from comedic to downright spooky, and while these might not be useful for Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in Eb, the menu of insectile triple-trumpet clusters in “3TP Rises and Oddities” would serve nicely as underscore in a horror movie.

I would’ve hoped for more jazzy instruments, especially in the trumpets, whose tones are too well-mannered for jazz and pop. That’s consistent with EastWest’s stated mission for HB, which is for it to be a composer’s tool for soundtracks. Although it might not be best for complex, real-time control in live performance, Hollywood Brass is indeed a fine choice for the desktop or studio composer who scores for film, TV, commercials, or video games.

PROS Realistic, expressive, and beautiful sounding brass with lots of articulations. Great sounding, built-in convolution reverb.

CONS Key-switching not yet supported. Articulations require separate MIDI tracks and recording.

FORMATS Mac or Windows. AU (Mac only), RTAS, VST.

BEST FOR Classical orchestration and film scoring.

$995 |

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If you’re looking for great-sounding brass and reeds for pop, funk, and big-band arrangements, Vir2’s Mojo is a great place to start. The compilation of brass and reeds is dripping with attitude and a very human touch—which is to say that the samples appear to favor realism over slavish consistency. Artifacts come and go from one keystroke to the next, so for example, one sustained trumpet note sounds ever so slightly more tremulous then the next round-robin sample of that note. It pays off, producing ensembles which seem to have different musicians rather than the same player cloned several times.

Mojo lets you work practically any way you want. You can create solo instruments and set them up for legato performance—an essential way to avoid the note overlap and re-triggering that tips your hand as a keyboardist and not a real horn section. You can build multi patches out of individual horns, which is great for complex, individually articulated brass ensembles. You can also choose from a nice batch of multis that already have ensembles laid out across consecutive MIDI channels. If RAM is low, or you’re in a hurry and just want a single brass-section patch, Mojo has you covered with a bunch of single-MIDI-channel instruments comprising different combinations of brass and woodwinds.

As with most sample-based brass sections, the most realistic way to re-create an ensemble is one instrument at a time, each on its own MIDI track, and add bends and other articulations in a separate recording pass. Mojo—which loads into Native Instruments Kontakt or uses the included Kontakt Player—can load instruments in just this way. On offer are trumpet (including Harmon mute and cup mute), piccolo trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, bass trombone, clarinet, and baritone, tenor, alto, and soprano saxes.

The neat trick for both single instruments and multis is the ability to specify the number of players for a given instrument, so if you want to thicken up the horn section, a turn of the dial will give you more of any instrument you choose. In a multi, this lets you set up, for instance, two trombones, four trumpets, two alto saxes and a baritone sax, or any other combination. With a single patch, you simply get more of that instrument, whether solo piece or ensemble. If you’re expecting a simple replication of voices to sound keyboard-like or mechanical, you’ll be happily wrong: From one keystroke to the next, instruments evidence subtle tonal differences, and you can humanize note onsets and tuning. More so than most humanizing features I’ve heard, the results can be subtle or even create the sound of a downright amateur section if that’s your goal.

In Use
Mojo offers “lite” patches of its single instruments to help you conserve CPU resources. With 14GB RAM in my 2.83GHz, eight-core Mac Pro, I put Mojo through its paces on a dense, big-band, horn-section MIDI file that consisted of five saxes (two altos, two tenors, and one bari), four trumpets, and four trombones. I deliberately stripped the file of all MIDI control changes except for pitch-bend. Using the full-size patches in MOTU Digital Performer 7.24, tracks played back at the high end of the CPU meter, occasionally straying into the red, and causing DP to bring up overload messages with a buffer setting of 64 samples. After a bit of futzing with Kontakt’s memory management, and setting a buffer of 256 in DP, the track sailed along without a hiccup, never reaching into the red. Playing a solo horn against that track—even from my MIDI guitar—felt comfortable and musical.

In Apple Logic, CPU load didn’t seem to lighten appreciably when I used larger buffers, and the instruments felt quite playable at settings as high as 512 samples. Driving Mojo from a MIDI track of funk-brass parts from Twiddly Bits yielded equally slick results, albeit with only a single alto sax, tenor sax, trumpet, and trombone. That provided a good opportunity to crank that knob I mentioned, doubling the reed players and quadrupling the trumpets and trombones. The sound was fat and animated.

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Simply playing back my recorded tracks with just notes and velocity sounded terrific. Effective round-robin programming literally keeps it real. The generous supply of key-switched articulations can be a bit daunting for playing live, especially when you consider that Mojo uses MIDI continuous controllers quite a bit as well. For example, you could key-switch to engage legato mode, then alter the legato time or other qualities with series of consecutive CC numbers. That’s a lot to remember. If you’ve ever felt like you’ve forsaken your keyboard for the cockpit of an alien spacecraft with more controls than you have digits, you’re not alone. Fortunately, Mojo conveniently lets you assign your own key-switching scheme. Just select an articulation, hit the Learn button, and hit the key to which you want to remap that articulation.

For the most part, Vir2’s programmers have done an excellent job of providing realistic articulations. Switching directly from a relatively “straight” sound to an affected technique can often sound abrupt and contrived, but Mojo manages to pull it off convincingly most of the time—trumpet doits, subtle crescendos, realistic, one-finger trills, falls, glissandos, and more.

There are also folders of instrument effects, full phrases and riffs, and even a folder of patches optimized for wind controllers. With all that, there are still a few instruments I’d like to see: tuba, euphonium, and French horn are missing. I’d also like to see a wider variety of mutes for trumpet and trombone. Nonetheless, Vir2 Mojo presents a solid, great sounding pallet for pop, jazz, and funk styles.

PROS Great sounding, versatile library with articulate brass and reed instruments. Easily configurable key-switching. Expressive MIDI CC assignments. Convenient expansion of players for each instrument.

CONS No French horns, euphoniums, or tuba. Higher sample count can strain at lower buffer settings.

FORMATS Mac or Windows. AU (Mac only), RTAS, VST, and standalone. Loads into NI Kontakt or uses included Kontakt 4 Player.

BEST FOR Big band, pop, and funk.

$499.95 list | $449.95 street |

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FABLE SOUNDS, Broadway Big Band
Broadway bands need to be chameleons, changing mood, tonality, and even genre on a dime. Broadway Big Band’s (BBB hereafter) sample content is almost 75 percent larger than Vir2 Mojo, and small wonder; BBB goes considerably beyond supplying brass and woodwinds, including an assortment of drums, percussion, string bass, banjos, xylophone, and even ukulele.

Although brass and woodwinds take center stage, none of the instruments are afterthoughts, and each contains a thorough helping of key-switched articulations and round-robin samples. Furthermore, horn sections feature multiple brass and woodwind “players,” each with their own alternating samples, rather than randomized iterations of a common sample set.

Standout Sounds
Each of the brass and reed instruments offer multiple versions of the same axe. You’ll find four, five, or sometimes even six different mic positions, and that’s great for altering the timbre and ambience of the instrument. Brass and reeds also have legato or polyphonic versions. Weighing in at about half the sample count of the legato instruments, the poly ones are somewhat less complex.

Nevertheless, they’re handy for things like a gig-ready stack of saxes, trombones, or trumpets, and for just getting a part down in a single pass. Played very softly, saxophones have a soft, breathy attack. With stronger velocities, the attack gets more aggressive, but never takes on that unnatural organ-like sound. Yet for funk horn parts, the attack was always strong enough to “speak” accurately. Even better, the staccato and staccatissimo key switches were perfect for those tight, Brecker Brothers sorts of parts. The high end of many other sampled saxes sound tweezed and goofy—that’s definitely not the case in BBB. Harder hits in the highest octave progressively reflect a real player’s efforts to pull tone from the high end, and those notes evince a subtle smear into the target pitch at some velocities, topping it off with a screaming tone. This section has attitude.

Trumpets are every bit as satisfying, with controls for flutter, growl, vibrato, and four different plunger setups. Likewise, turning the stem
articulation on or off on the Harmon-muted trumpet can switch its character from comedic to dark to searing to Miles Davis-like. Sampled
trumpets usually gravely disappoint, but this one delivers the goods.

As with Mojo, tuba, euphonium, and French horn would be welcome additions, but again, you tend not to hear those in the funk, pop, and swing styles on which BBB is focused.

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Key-switching in BBB is extensive, with a patented system covering many non-standard behaviors—for example, some keys act like a shift key in combination with other notes. BBB provides incredible diversity and realism of articulation, perhaps the best I’ve seen, though playing it all in real time might involve more appendages than you have—at least if you intend to master every key-switch.

What’s most impressive about the articulations is how well integrated into their respective instruments they are. Many other libraries give you a sense of leaping between entirely different instruments rather than working the tonal qualities of a single one. In BBB, however, key-switching is more than an on/off activity. For example, in some instruments, holding down a certain switch will cause legato notes to smear smoothly into the target pitch. Other switches serve as triggers for glissandi and falls. Very sensibly, growls can switch on and off over an already sustained note.

Round-robin programming is deep, with multiple cycles for every velocity level. That creates far more realistic tonal variations in tone than one or two cycles. No less useful is the Dump/Reload tab, which lets you free up memory by unloading articulations you don’t need.

Though mastering all the key-switching takes some time, you can jump right in and get a ton of mileage from the smooth mod-wheel crescendo and a couple of carefully chosen key-switches. You’ll definitely want a 61-key (or longer) controller!

In Use
I subjected BBB to the same note-dense MIDI tracks as the other products in this roundup. In Kontakt, audio latency was the same as Vir2 Mojo, although BBB has significantly smaller sample loads—not that you’d guess that from listening. I was mightily impressed by the remarkable live character and authenticity of the sounds, which jumped out at me as though I was sitting in the middle of the orchestra pit. Apart from ensemble arrangements, solo instruments were expressive and convincing, owing in part to smooth, musically integrated release samples, and tremendously expressive modulation wheel control. Here, the default setting created crescendos and diminuendos that realistically changed timbre as well as volume for the instruments. Of course, you can assign a different controller to this. In fact, you can change the default assignment for practically every expressive aspect of BBB—even velocity response.

I wish more software instruments would follow BBB’s lead and put an octave-shift button on the panel. It remaps the samples accordingly so as not to pitch-shift the instrument beyond its real-world range.

At nearly $2,500, Broadway Big Band doesn’t come cheap, and likely won’t be your go-to brass and reeds for classical projects. Nonetheless, with such a painstaking focus on injecting life and a musician’s attitude into each and every note, Broadway Big Band easily rises to the top of the heap for jazz, pop, and funk.

PROS Enormously expressive brass and reeds. High-quality supplemental instruments. Unique key-switching system with modifier keys. MIDI control is extensive, musical, and configurable. Deep round-robin programming provides tremendous real-time authenticity.

CONS Mastery of complex key-switching system requires some time. No tuba or French horn. Full version is expensive.

FORMATS Mac or Windows. AU (Mac only), RTAS, VST, and standalone. Loads into NI Kontakt or uses included Kontakt 4 Player.

BEST FOR Jazz, pop, funk, rock, and big band.

$2,495.95 list | $2,295 street | Lite version: $499 |

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Perhaps one of the best-known producers of sample libraries targeted for virtual orchestra pits and film scoring stages, Vienna Symphonic Library continues its expansion of expressive, classically oriented instruments with Dimension Brass.

Dimension Brass is just that—no saxophones, other woodwinds, jazz horns, or anything other than classically-oriented brass instruments. You get an assortment of trumpets, trombones, horns, and a group of low instruments: a few bass trombones and tuba, all of which are clean, dry, and gorgeous in their detail.

The Vienna Instruments plug-ins and standalone software are elegantly suitable for desktop composers and live musicians alike, drawing on conventional key-switching and a few seriously innovative tricks in the service of natural, articulate instrumental performance. The core environment of Dimension Brass and other Vienna libraries is a performance area they call a Matrix. Basically, this is a multi-timbral aggregation of patches that you can combine in any order you wish, and it can parcel out the sounds in several ways. You’d be tempted to call it a “multi,” but it’s actually a suborder below that, as you’ll see. Most useful for live performance is the ability of a Matrix to load an entire instrument and its associated articulations and map them to key-switches.

When you drag your choice of instruments into a Matrix, it becomes a cell, essentially a component of the Matrix, or you can drag or double-click to load an entire Matrix with all articulations loaded into cells and key-switches as signed. The resemblance to a Multi ends here, and this is where things get a bit more complex. You can layer as many Matrix files as your computer’s memory can bear, but they’ll occupy a single MIDI channel. That’s fine for creating stacks, but when you want to load instruments for different MIDI channels, you’ll use an additional program called the Vienna Ensemble. Think of the Ensemble as a rack with a sub-mixer and each instance of Vienna Instruments as one sound module in that rack.

Vienna Ensemble works standalone and also as a plug-in. So, to create a multiple horn arrangement in Logic (for example), where you’ll need to define a multi-timbral instrument and the number of channels, you’ll want to create an instrument track for Vienna Ensemble first, then load a Vienna Instrument from inside the plug-in and assign each one to its own Logic track. This is inarguably a bit complex (in a large part because of the way Logic handles multi-timbral instruments) but it has its benefits: With each instance, you can insert third-party instrument plug-ins directly into Vienna Ensemble, rather than the host program. This requires Vienna Ensemble Pro; the free, non-Pro version hosts only the Vienna Instruments. The workaround, of course, is to send instrument outputs to an aux track.

In Use
With a buffer setting of 128 in MOTU Digital Performer, I loaded a section from a General MIDI composition for brass and assigned eight separate voices: two trumpets, three trombones, and three horns. That’s eight instances of Vienna Instruments, each with the full set of articulations. As the music ran its course, DP’s performance meter never went over 50 percent. Feeling lucky, I reduced the buffer to 64. The meter bumped to about 75 percent, but things started to pop and click, letting me know that I was pushing the audio engine too far.

I then moved the buffer back to 128, and put all instruments to Omni mode so that the patches, most of which are polyphonic, would play all their voices at once. This sounded ugly, but the point was to be a stress test. DP sailed through it with the Performance meter still hovering around 50 percent. In short, you have to work pretty hard to bring Vienna Instruments down. All the same, I set the buffer to 1,024, and played. The feel was a bit spongy, but I was able to compensate. Things were pretty playable from buffers of 512 on down.

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Dimension Brass really shines as a player’s instrument. The patches are wonderfully expressive, and when put together in a matrix, they fully come alive. Key-switches are logically laid out and are realistically and beautifully integrated. You can use the default settings or create your own, but the best news for those who like to keep both hands playing is that you have alternative means to change articulations. The instruments’ Control Edit section confers pitch-bend, velocity, speed (time between notes), and any MIDI control change in addition to key-switching.

You can program the X and Y axes of the Matrix with independent modulation sources, so you can traverse each cell of articulation in any way you like. For instance, you might use the pitch wheel for one axis and key-switches for the other. It’s a brilliant way to switch samples, but it feels a bit like skating on ice at first. My first lesson: Never use a spring-loaded wheel or joystick as a controller; it just moves back to the starting cell whether you want it to or not.

More Features
It’s worth noting that you can upgrade your Vienna Instruments Player to a Pro version. This adds more real-time capability to Dimension Brass, including an automatic voicing feature that separates the instruments as you play. The Pro version includes patches designed to take advantage of these enhanced features; it’s sonically appealing to pick an auto-divisi patch and hear the voices spread over the stereo field as you play your keyboard. You also get a nice sounding, programmable reverb, and a very organic sounding pitch humanization feature with an intuitive graphical interface that lets you draw your own pitch profile over time—the way most acoustic instruments actually behave. Dimension Brass ships with a fully functional, time-limited demo.

As a host program, Vienna Instruments is a bit dense with separate apps: the Ensemble, a 64- or 32-bit service, and even an app to change the brightness and contrast on the main screen if you’re using Dimension Pro. I can’t shake the feeling that they could combine most of this into the main interface.

All in all, Dimension Brass is a killer instrument for serious orchestral applications, whether they’re classical compositions or film scores. Taking the time to master its Matrix-based articulation system pays off with real-time performances that sounds as authentic as if you’d spent hours editing MIDI in a piano-roll window.

Beautifully recorded, remarkably expressive orchestral brass. Virtually limitless controls for switching articulations. Outstanding real-time control. Realistic auto-divisi and pitch humanization when used with Vienna Instruments Pro.

CONS Uses several satellite apps, which can be confusing.

FORMATS Mac or Windows. AU (Mac only), RTAS, VST, standalone.

BEST FOR Orchestral music and film scoring.

$805 list | $765 street |

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ARTURIA, Brass 2
As they sing on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others. Although Arturia Brass 2 produces very realistic sounds with tons of real-time control, it uses physical modeling, not samples, for its sounds. Let’s explore what this means for your music.

Brass 2’s repertoire is less expansive than the sample libraries in this roundup; you get trumpet, trombone, and tenor sax—no baritone, alto or soprano saxes—and you can’t play the instruments below their natural range. Although Brass 2 has eliminated the ability to specify fanciful alternate materials such as glass and wood, plenty of new parameters can shape instruments to a wide variety of musical styles.

As a keyboardist, you’ll be more interested in Brass 2’s Live section; as a desktop composer, you’ll find handy uses for the Riff section. You can set up anything from a single instrument to a quartet. Brass 2 is four-part multi-timbral, and you can play stacks as a whole or program individual parts responding to MIDI data from sequencer tracks.

All instruments play in monophonic legato mode, but you can craft chords in a couple of ways. You can build a stack with up to four notes, tuning instruments to intervals. (Additionally, you can assign a MIDI channel to add scale corrections.) The other method is pseudo-divisi: It assigns the four voices to the notes as played, with each instrument, low through high, in any order you choose. You can also divide up the voices with (for instance) two instruments in unison or in intervals, and the other two allocated to two notes of a chord. There are plenty of other possibilities, and the ensemble presets give you some good examples. “Funest Ebrass” [sic.] sounds like the Portsmouth Symphonia meets Weather Report after an absinthe binge, thanks to deliberately overzealous application of the humanization feature. Solo instruments include “Blue,” a subtly muted trumpet that evokes vintage Miles Davis, the fat honk of “Street Sax,” and the startlingly realistic “Jazzmaster” trombone.

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Physical Modeling
The things you can control are fundamentally different from most sample libraries. Programming and customizing your own sounds is stupidly simple, and aided by an elegant user interface. Select sax, trumpet, or trombone, then choose a mouthpiece and a Type, which is a preset for body construction and material. You can specify types of attack, mutes where applicable, and even multiply the instrument up to four times—this seemed to add more presence rather than create the impression of a section. At sensible settings, the humanization creates subtle but palpable variations in pitch, timbre, and even articulation.

The modulation matrix lets you assign MIDI controls to various playing artifacts: attack, breath pressure, mute position, plunger position, noise, growl, vibrato, and volume. Assigning vibrato frequency to a control adds a nicely deterministic but human touch. Some of the most interesting sounds happen when you over-modulate and “break” the instrument. I got some really cool “Bitches Brew”-style effects by randomizing noise and growl.

Finally, you can add a sense of ambience and placement in the Spatialization section. Dragging a graphical stem in the box gives the sonic
impression of moving instruments around the room. At that point, I discovered the elusive Chorus Mode—it’s mentioned only once in the manual but never described thoroughly. I set up a four-instrument solo trumpet and discovered four stems in the “house.” The multiples of the instrument simply beat against each other due to subtle tuning differences, but it’s a remarkably powerful effect.

Riff Mode is essentially a built-in step sequencer with a library of brass patterns in different styles. You can paint in your note data for each of four parts in a piano-roll-type window, and paint in a variety of modulation choices along the sequence’s time line. Th e destinations are the same expressive features you’d control in real time. Then, you can drag the sequence data into a MIDI track in your DAW. Riffs are limited to two-bar phrases.

In Use
I tested Brass 2 with the same big band MIDI file I’d used with Mojo and Broadway Big Band, albeit with fewer parts, as a single instance of Brass 2 would not have the capacity for 13 instrumental parts. Not surprisingly, instant gratification wasn’t forthcoming. The ensemble sounded unconvincing and accordion-like. That isn’t Arturia’s fault; as a physically modeled instrument, Brass 2 requires a bit more information than simple notes to evidence a bit of humanity. Expression-wise, Brass 2 is essentially a blank slate, so you’ll need to add the attitude via MIDI controllers. On the positive side, all of the expression is mapped to realtime MIDI controllers—and in such a way as to fall right under your fingers without the need for key-switches of any kind. In fact, you can instantly set up an instrument to respond to a MIDI keyboard, keyboard plus breath controller, or an electronic wind instrument such as the Akai EWI.

With a buffer of 64, the four-part big-band track ran smoothly—even though the CPU meter in MOTU Digital Performer was mostly pegged. At 128, the tracks ran just under the red, and when played, the responsiveness of the sounds was still superb.

If you can put up with a few puzzling hiccups in the software and the documentation (as examples, a help balloon that reverses the high and low note range settings and the manual’s occasional naming inconsistencies), you’ll find that Brass 2’s real-time expression is unmatched by any sample-based product. It doesn’t quite meet the “aural Photoshop” accuracy of the best sample-based libraries, but as amazing as those may be, Brass 2 gives you one important thing the others can’t match: totally continuous musical expression, which can often go further in creating realism. One of the earliest criticisms of physically modeled wind instruments was that playing them as a keyboardist had a long learning curve. Arturia Brass 2’s most outstanding grace is how it brings immediate and innate expressive capability to the keyboard.

Natural, realistic, and easy-to-play expression for keyboardists. Extensively customizable sounds. Riff section creates parts and patterns for MIDI tracks. Four-part multi-timbral.

CONS Only three main instruments. Single instruments are monophonic only. Minor interface and documentation glitches.

Mac or Windows. AU (Mac only), RTAS, VST, and standalone.

BEST FOR Playing like a keyboardist but sounding like a trumpet, trombone, or sax—in any musical genre.

$249 list | $199 street |

***Click here for audio examples and performance tests of all these virtual brass instruments.