Pros: Excellent recording quality. Creative, musically useful programming. Wide range of articulations and dynamics. Close and ambient samples let you tailor the room environment.
Cons: No looped programs. No fall-offs or other jazz articulations. Bottom Line: An outstanding collection of horn section samples that plays and sounds incredibly realistic.
Dan Dean might not be a household name among sample junkies, but nonetheless this company (virtually a one-man operation, really) has created some of the best orchestral-oriented libraries I’ve had the pleasure to play. Brass Ensembles is the latest title, which complements the previously released Solo Brass library. That said, there’s a significant difference between this library and any other Dan Dean titles — DDBE is the first to take advantage of release triggers. In GigaStudio, it’s possible to create instrument programs that use note-off messages to trigger samples of the recording space (ambience). This results in a much more realistic sound compared to dry samples, and it means you won’t necessarily have to fire up an expensive outboard reverb to create the illusion that your virtual brass players were recorded in a firstclass ambient space.
I reviewed the Giga version, but there’s also an Akai format available. According to Dan Dean, a Native Instruments Kontakt version will be available shortly (maybe by the time you read this). Note that the Akai format doesn’t support release trigger samples.
The multisample set consists of trombone, French Horn, and trumpet sections recorded playing a variety of articulations. Dynamics range from pianississimo to fortississimo, and include forte piano, with legato/no vibrato, staccato, and portato representing the bulk of articulations. Sections were also recorded with mutes (or stopped, in the case of the horns), so there's a bit of tonal variety to play with.
I was uniformly impressed by the recording quality of these sounds — it’s clear a lot of attention went into mic placement and selection. On the most basic level, instruments were recorded with close and ambient mics. Every dynamic and articulation is represented with both perspectives.
On the whole, these are bright-sounding sections — maybe a bit too bright for certain applications. "These are clearly fine orchestral players," notes Ernie Rideout, "who can push their instruments to the limit at high dynamic levels. Think Mahler's Symphony No. 6, and you’ll get the idea."
I found that by applying a lowpass EQ I could make the instruments fit nicely in orchestral MIDI sequences that required a darker, more distant tone. In fact, some programs have lowpass filter tied to mod wheel, so you don’t even need to bother with third-party EQ.
The programming is top-notch. Dan and his crew have provided key switched programs that allow you to easily switch among a variety of articulations. In addition, there are a number of “dynamic crossfade” programs that let you transition smoothly from one dynamic to the next. This is especially effective with brass samples — as you move the mod wheel, the ensemble sound changes in a natural way, getting brighter and “brassier” as you move from a piano layer up to fortissimo.
In practice this works very well; however, a few programs, such as the novibrato trombones, don't morph as smoothly as I would like. I wasn't able to get a completely seamless transition between mezzo dynamic layers. To be fair, this may be due to the resolution of my MIDI controllers (I used a Roland D-70 and an Access Virus Indigo). According to Dan Dean, this is due to a dynamic crossfade limitation of only four layers with Giga version 2.x — reportedly, version 3 will support more crossfade layers, so this shouldn’t be an issue.
DDBE employs other programming techniques as well. The Split Keyboard programs are set up with the different samples of the same notes and articulations mapped to the upper and lower part of the keyboard. This makes it possible to create more realistic doublings and believable repeated note phrases. Indeed, these programs deliver. On one commercial project I used Split Keyboard trombones for a Holst Mars-like driving part, while the French horns swelled in reaction to what was happening onscreen. “The horn samples are by far the best I’ve ever used,” said Ernie.
I found DDBE to also “play nice with others” — layering the ensembles with strings and woodwinds from other libraries resulted in a fine blend. At no time did I run into any intonation problems, and the added release trigger ambience helped things gel together in a very “authentic” way.
While DDBE is definitely oriented toward orchestral composition, I was able to evoke “crime jazz” arrangements, thanks to the programs that use mod wheel to control the length of crescendos. For the most part, these sounds won’t limit their use to any one particular genre. Even so, I do wish there were a few more “modern” articulations such as fall-offs and shakes. This would open the library up to more possibilities.
Other criticisms? The sustained samples aren’t looped. They sustain for as long as a good section would be capable of. But there are times when looped programs come in handy, and I wish these were included. This isn’t a deal breaker, though. “Learn to write for brass instruments, for chrissakes,” grumbled Ernie.
All in all, DDBE is an outstanding brass ensemble library that offers musical and useful programming, a variety of dynamic section sounds, and most of all, beautifully recorded samples that have plenty of bite at nuance, depending on how you play them.
If you work mostly as a composer for MIDI orchestra, you shouldn't look at another brass ensemble library until you’ve heard Dan Dean's Brass Ensembles. It's expressive, musical, and just maybe the only brass library you'll ever need.