IK Multimedia Miroslav Philharmonik 1.1
Review by: Jason Buchwald
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Though the word orchestra may conjure up images of classical music performed in a concert hall, sounds of the symphony are present in many genres of music. Pop, rock, and, of course, film scores often contain full or partial orchestras. But if you’re not named Wolfgang or Johann, how do the rest of us get our hands on a quality orchestra at a reasonable cost?
IK Multimedia addresses this problem beautifully with Miroslav Philharmonik. Recorded in Dvorak Symphony hall in Prague, this powerful seven-gigabyte sample collection of orchestra and choir sounds (derived from the Miroslav Vitous Symphonic Orchestra and Choir Sample collections) is now a virtual instrument plug-in available in most popular formats.
IK Multimedia has done a great job of balancing price, sound quality, and usability. There may be many other orchestra sample collections, but not all of them include a playback engine for easily using the sample library. Miroslav Philharmonik’s musicality and reasonable demands on both your wallet and computer’s CPU set it apart. We really enjoyed using it, and will probably do so for various recording projects in the future!
Miroslav is a multi-timbral virtual instrument (soft-synth) that consists of orchestral and choir sample libraries. All major plug-in platforms are supported – VST, RTAS, and AU.
The samples, recorded by the Czech Philharmonic orchestra, include the original Miroslav Orchestra and Choir collections, plus additional previously unreleased content. The additional sounds include a concert piano and various percussion instruments – even a triangle is represented. Also in the library are a selection of other real-life sounds that are comprised of ambient noise such as coughs, musicians talking, and pre-performance tuning. The seven-gigabyte Miroslav Philharmonik ships on two DVDs that includes over 1,300 orchestral and choir sounds.
Version 1.0 required an iLok and only ran as a plug-in. Happily, the newly released version 1.1 does not require an iLok and also includes a stand-alone version of the program that runs without a host environment. Of note to Mac users, version 1.1 has Mac OS X Binary support, which allows it to run on Apple’s latest hardware.
Sixteen instruments can be played simultaneously. Each instrument can have up to four Insert effects, and there are four main Send effects (each with twenty effects choices). Miroslav Philharmonik boasts 256 notes of polyphony, which should be ample for most scoring needs. If you do find yourself running out of polyphony, just add another instance of the plug-in. Most likely you'll be running out of processor power long before you hit the polyphonic limit.
Miroslav Philharmonik is a sample playback unit that is powered by IK Multimedia's SampleTank 2.1 engine. Although the look has been changed to a more “orchestral” appearance, it operates in much the same way as SampleTank 2, so if you are familiar with that instrument, the learning curve will be practically non-existent.
There is a complete set of effects, also derived from Sampletank 2. However, one exception is CS Reverb, which comes from IK Multimedia's WIHO award-winning Classic Studio Reverb (CSR) effects suite. This particular reverb is tailored to orchestra sounds, and its simplified controls include Dry/Wet and Time, which are fine in this particular application.
The interface is divided into three sections: Ensemble, Sound, and Effects.
The Ensemble section is where the sounds are layered and assembled. This is where things like MIDI channel, output channel, panning, and of course, sound names are displayed.
The Sound section is where sound design is handled. There are two LFOs, two envelopes, a filter, velocity settings, key range settings, Send settings, and tuning controls. There are also Macro controls that allow the user to control four other parameters, and those parameters change based on the selected sound.
The final section is the Effects section, which includes the CS Reverb mentioned, as well as chorus, lo-fi, distortion, EQ/compression, and delay, to name a few.
In the middle of the screen, just below the Ensemble section, is where you’ll find two rows of control knobs. The top row automatically changes name and function depending on which Sound control is selected. For example, if you click the “Env 1” button just to the left of the knobs, the top row of knobs become Attack, Hold, Decay, Sustain, Release, and Level knobs. If you were to click on the “Tune” button, also to the left of the knobs, the first row of knobs automatically get re-assigned and displayed as Pitch, Fine, Bender, and Pan (with an additional mode selector switch for Re-sampling and Stretch). This auto-changing display is a welcome departure from other applications that layer multiple levels of windows to see the active controls.
The bottom row of knobs corresponds to the Effects section. Different effects will also have different control options. For example, the filter effect has controls for Frequency, Resonance, Depth, Rate, and Mode, whereas the compressor effect has controls for Attack, Release, Drive, Ratio, and Spread. Just like when editing the sound itself, the effect knobs change depending on which effect is selected. Again, this is a nice feature, as there are not windows upon windows of editing knobs and digging up the right set of active controls – it’s all right there!
We loaded Miroslav Philharmonik 1.1 on our Apple Power Macintosh G4 DP with two GB of memory, and ran it through Pro Tools LE 7.1 as an RTAS plug-in. We also tested the new stand-alone version.
Installing the program was no problem. However, there was a difference in performance between the plug-in and standalone modes. On our aging G4, the plug-in version did not run into any CPU hiccups and performed flawlessly – even when running other CPU-intensive plug-ins like Akoustik Piano.
However, while functionality is essentially identical, the standalone version sometimes crashed our system, and only allowed sound to pass through our system speakers – not the studio monitors attached to our Digidesign 002r interface.
At first, when we tried to fix the problem by changing our hardware settings to route output through the Digi 002r, we experienced a number of unexplainable crashes. Multiple settings and preferences tweaking did not seem to fix our problem. Oddly enough, on a different day, despite using the same machine under exactly the same circumstances, this problem disappeared, and the standalone version worked just as well as the plug-in version without any glitches. We still aren’t sure what caused the initial hiccups, but it seemed to disappear in our later testing.
Finding and loading sounds can be done either through the Browser (by category) or a via keyword search. Browsing is straightforward – just pick the category you want to browse (Brass, Winds, Strings, Percussion, etc.) by clicking on the triangle to the left of the category folder and it will expand to show the instruments. Sounds also have abbreviated keys at the end of each name to help understand what each one is or how it will play. The sometimes-cryptic abbreviations are described in the documentation.
When you find the sound you are looking for, just double-click and it loads into the slot that is highlighted in the Parts section. That’s it!
Searching for sounds was implemented well. Certain keywords have been programmed into each sound as a form of search metadata. This means that although the keyword may not be in the title of the sound itself, it has been programmed into the description of the sound. For example, if you search for the word “pipe” (as in pipe organ), a list of cathedral organ sounds will be displayed, none of them containing the word “pipe”, but all sounding like pipe organs.
The manual states that each instrument can have up to thirty-two searchable descriptive words, and while this is probably true, those words may not be readily apparent to most producers. At the back of the Sounds manual was a list of sample searchable keywords that we found very useful, but too much to memorize. Overall this feature worked best for locating groups of instruments and broad categories. It may also be a way to find a flavor or texture of sound across different instruments.
Another feature we found well-implemented was the ability to load Multi sounds. These are ready-to-go sets of instruments (ensembles, sections, etc.) that can be used individually, as splits, or as layers. A lot of attention has gone into the programming of sounds, and the Multis provided a good working example. They were easy to play, and there were a lot of them!
As for the actual playing experience, Miroslav Philharmonik was very expressive, and the intuitive, and well organized, interface encouraged us to just play!
Editing sounds was easy. As mentioned earlier, when you click on a parameter, the knobs change names and functions accordingly. When we clicked on the parameter of the sound we wanted to change (Envelope, LFO, Filter), we were able to turn the virtual knobs to hear our changes in real time. Because everything was clearly displayed on the primary interface screen, there were no menus or screens to go digging through to find what we wanted. This is great for musicians who just want to play and not get bogged down with menus and hidden pages (i.e., this reviewer).
Likewise, creating layers/splits was straightforward. To create a layer, we inserted sounds one by one onto the ensemble section by double clicking them from the list of sounds available. Once we had all the sounds we needed, we then assigned each sound to the same MIDI channel (listed to the left of each sound). That’s it!
Since volume is listed to the right of the sound names, it was easy to adjust the mix. For creating splits, all we had to do was click on the range button in the lower left-hand corner and change the low/high note ranges. We were also able to create a velocity split (which enabled us to change the sound by pressing the keys harder or softer) by adjusting the Velocity Range knobs. For example, we took a violin legato sample and layered it above a violin tremolo sample based on velocity. This way, our harder key strikes created the tension of violins playing tremolo passages. We thought that was pretty cool. When we were done with our setup, we saved it as a Multi to recall at a later time.
One other very interesting and powerful feature was the stretch/tune function. When initially loaded, all the instruments are pre-set for their natural ranges. For example, a flute sample played down in the bass range of the keyboard would not make any sound. However, the Tune-Stretch mode (by clicking the Tune button) allows you to actually have the sample pre-analyzed and then ready to be altered. This enabled changing of timbre, slowing or speeding up sampled phrases without changing pitch or timbre, and changing the range of instruments beyond their usual range. Indeed, we were able to create our very own (and unique) bass flute.
The sample library includes the original Miroslav Orchestra and Choir collections, plus additional previously unreleased content. With so much material here it was easy to find something suitable for most orchestral applications.
The sounds themselves were very clean, yet still had plenty of warmth to them. Bows, strings, and breaths were each present, and did not sound artificial. Other people have describes Miroslav’s sounds as organic, and we would agree with that comment.
When selecting sounds, you have a choice between looped and un-looped versions. Not surprisingly, the un-looped samples were more natural to our ears than the looped samples, especially when dealing with wind instruments and choirs. Strings and woodwinds sounded excellent, while some of the brass sounds, good as they were, weren’t quite as natural sounding as the other instruments. We loved the included whimsical sounds.
Our reviewer had previously composed an original orchestra piece while in college, when Finale (music notation software) was still at version 2.6! After digging around, we found a MIDI file (on a floppy – remember those?) containing the nearly ten-minute composition. While the file needed more editing than time allowed during our review process, with only minimal effort at arranging sound assignments, the piece breathed new life. In fact, it hadn’t sounded like that since it was last played with a real orchestra in 1993! Miroslav indeed is a very exciting, powerful piece of software.
There were a number of sounds that caught our attention in particular. Within the “Advanced Ensembles” collection, which comprises ready-made groupings, were a few of our favorites. Though simple, the “Bass and Piano” ensemble was great – it sounded like a high quality piano and upright bass in a jazz club, which was an unexpected treat to find in an orchestra collection. The “Pop solo” ensemble was a multilayered string and piano ensemble that would work well for a big, epic pop ballad. The “Japanee” ensemble, consisting of slightly detuned metallic percussion sounds, brought a knowing smile to our face, reminding this reviewer of time he spent living in Japan.
The choir sections overall were a pleasant surprise. Very realistic sounding, these could easy be incorporated into many kinds of music. In fact, we had fun playing the choir parts of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” while singing the lead above it. These were really quite good, though we do wish a boys choir sample had been included. Though the women’s choir could easily fill that sonic role, the additional inclusion would have been a nice touch.You can listen to examples of what Miroslav Philharmonik is capable of on the IK Multimedia website (see the link at the bottom of this review). We recommend checking out “Bach’s Badinerie” and “Dvorak’s New World Symphony”. There is also an example of how expressive layers can be used in a live setting in the file “Live Miro Combi.” Certainly, getting mixes to sound as good as these demos takes a lot of practice, but we did find that they faithfully demonstrated the sound of the product.
The Sound manual has an introduction to the library, and includes a brief history of the man who originally recorded the sounds (legendary bassist Miroslav Vitous), and also of the hall they were recorded in (Dvorak Hall, in Prague). It also offers a kind of crash course in orchestral arranging, explaining how instruments are generally positioned in the orchestra, and their general tones and ranges. This was very useful information sure to appeal to beginning arrangers, though it doesn't (and isn't supposed to) take the place of a really good book on orchestral arranging or formal training.
The various control sections were explained well, and there were some examples in the manual detailing how some of the functions work.
Also included was a poster showing (graphically) the range of all the various instruments. This is particularly helpful for someone new to orchestral writing, or an aspiring student (in fact, our reviewer had to make one such chart by hand during college in preparation for composing his orchestra piece), but for more seasoned composers, it was of more limited value. Nevertheless, it was a thoughtful item to include with the manual.
Miroslav Orchestra ($599 MSRP) sells for $499, and has been seen online for even less. No doubt about it, this is a very good deal. In fact, considering what the original library cost (over $3,000) this could almost be considered a steal. Although there are cheaper alternatives out there, they don't have nearly the number of sounds and variations that Miroslav Philharmonik offers. Further, its value is enhanced by general ease of use and wide compatibility with popular DAWs.
Now all we need to do is write a triangle ensemble piece for Ed Grimley…
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