VSL’s founder Herb Tucmandl talks to Time+Space!

VSL’s founder Herb Tucmandl talks to Time+Space!

A former cellist in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Herb Tucmandl founded VSL in 2000 after his sideline scoring films gave him first hand experience of the frustrations faced by almost every composer in history: how to get your music performed quickly and cheaply.

Since then, more than 100 excellent musicians have devoted up to a year of their lives to the recordings for the VSL producing over 1.5 million samples within the company’s own Silent Stage recording studio.

In the latest of our supplier features, Herb tells us more about this year's groundbreaking releases from VSL, his biggest challenges plus his thoughts on the relationship between VSL and the Nintendo Wii…

Hi Herb, thank you for your time. So what were you up to before VSL was born?

I was busy in the film business, directing commercials and documentaries, composing music for my projects and for some Austrian movies. My last big project before I started VSL was doing sound design for a kids’ movie – an adventure film placed in the mountains of Salzburg.

What's the story behind the beginning of VSL?

Primarily, I was not very happy with the options for my symphonic mock-ups, working with existing sound libraries in the early 90s. Having a background as a professional cellist, I was very familiar with orchestral music, and the results of working with a sequencer and samples were always miles away from the music I had imagined. In a nutshell, I wanted to dispose of composing tools that did not have so many restrictions. So I started to develop the concept of a really complete sample library in the mid-nineties.

Roughly how long does it take to record and edit a Vienna Instruments library? Do some instruments take longer than others?

Of course there is a big difference in the complexity of recording different instruments. Each instrument is a big challenge. But there are simple rules depending on the possibilities of different instrument types.

We have to spend less time for percussion instruments than for wind instruments because we don’t have to record interval performance samples for percussion. These performance recordings of combinations of notes are the most time consuming articulations to produce.

String instruments are more complex than wind instruments. Another factor obviously is the play range of a given instrument.
- A xylophone for instance can be done in less than ten recording sessions.
- Wind instruments need 30 to 50 sessions.
- A solo string instrument needs up to 100 recording sessions.
(A session is regularly 3 hours of recording.)

What's been the most challenging single Vienna Instruments library to record and why?

Our Vienna Choir seems to be the most challenging project so far. It starts with finding the right singers. We did a lot of research and hearings, but finally, we founded a dedicated VSL choir to achieve the continuity and the quality we needed. Furthermore, it’s more difficult if you host large groups of people in the studio. The progress is naturally slower than with a soloist.

Another challenge was the Vienna Konzerthaus Organ, mostly because of the miking situation. It’s the only instrument that has not been recorded at the Silent Stage because the venue itself (the Great Hall of the Vienna Konzerthaus) is part of the instrument. We recorded each pipe of each register, and some of them are very low in volume. At times the noise floor was louder than the sound itself! So we had to get rid of this noise since with organ music you usually stack different registers, and you are playing a whole lot of keys at the same time (two hands and two feet simultaneously). It was a real challenge for our producer Dietz Tinhof to get this instrument right, and we are very proud of the final result.

Believe it or not, one of the most difficult instrument was the piccolo – simply because the instrument is a big strain on the ears, especially the high register. If you have to listen to this instrument for many hours without a break, you can really damage your ears – and your brain. I had to promise my recording and editing team that we’re not going to record any piccolo sections in the future ;-)

Do you have a particular favourite library?

Usually, the last one we’ve produced is always my favourite library. In this case; the Vienna Imperial. In my point of view, during the past 20 years, Bösendorfer developed the CEUS technology only to provide us with the perfect computer-controlled piano for sampling ;-)

Seriously, the combination of technology and know-how of both companies Bösendorfer and VSL was a historical chance for us. We’re extremely lucky that our core programmer George Yohng is a piano software maniac. For this product, he developed the best piano software player I’ve ever seen.

What do you like to do in your spare time, away from musical activities?

I love to make bicycle trips with my wife. I really appreciate my job because I can freely decide on which day of the week I won’t be in the office. Regularly, I choose the day that offers the best weather conditions for cycling.

I’m also a movie maniac, by now I have a very extensive collection of DVDs. This month’s main focus are the movies by director John Frankenheimer. Generally, I love extremes. It can happen when watching two films in a row that the first movie is an Ingmar Bergman film, followed by a Stanley Donen musical.

2009 has seen the announcement and release of some exciting and diverse products from VSL; most notably Vienna Suite and Vienna MIR (Multi Impulse Response Mixing and Reverberation). For the benefit of our web visitors, could you explain the concept of Vienna MIR?

In a nutshell, Vienna MIR offers the concept of a mixing and production environment that can be easily used from the point of view of a composer/conductor, and not following the usual approach by a mixing engineer. I’ve never done the mixes of my projects myself because I didn’t trust my technical skills. The concept of audio buses, inserts, plug-ins, early reflections etc. has never been my cup of tea.

When we started Vienna MIR, I said to Dietz that if he were able to develop a concept that enables me to control a virtual orchestra on a virtual stage just like a virtual conductor, then I’d be the happiest man on this planet. And here we are! Additionally, Vienna MIR offers sonical options that are absolutely unique and no other technology comes even close. So I’m a lucky guy, I’m getting the best production/mixing software for orchestral music ever, and in addition to that I can operate the software by myself ;-)

VSL's revamped mixing host with MIDI and audio LAN capability – Vienna Ensemble PRO – has just been released, what are the fundamental new features of this?

All the features are listed on our website: http://vsl.co.at/en/211/497/1685/1693/1342.htm

My favourite features are:

'Preserve Instance' which is a huge timesaver, because you don’t have to reload your sample template if you switch from one project to another (when using VE PRO as plug-in).

'3rd party VSTi/AU hosting' of course!


'Multiple key range spans' I love this one (it was one of my feature wishes), it enables you to stack different instruments on the same channel, each one with a dedicated key range. A good example are string instruments, with the basses in the lowest register, then cellos, violas, and violins in the highest register. Up to now, if you wanted to switch articulations using key switches this was not possible with stacked instruments (with individual key ranges) because the key switches triggered only the basses (when the key switches were placed below the lowest note of the basses). With Vienna Ensemble PRO you can set up a second key range area dedicated to key switches for each instrument. And then you can put together full string matrices using all available articulations.

Earlier this year, Paul Henry Smith conducted the first ever live concert of a Beethoven Symphony, performed with Vienna Instruments and Nintendo Wii controllers. If Nintendo approached you about creating a Vienna software specifically for the Wii would this be of interest to you?

Absolutely! But I would prefer that Nintendo developed the perfect Wii controller with dedicated features exclusively to conduct VSL products…

Do you think this type of software would encourage people to learn a real orchestral instrument?

I don’t know, maybe. It could definitely help to encourage people to conduct real orchestras.

What's been the most memorable event of your VSL career?

That’s easy! I’ll never forget the day when I tested the prototype of the Performance Legato software (Performance Tool) the first time, with the very first legato performance patch – I think it was the piccolo trumpet. Recognizing that the concept was really working was phenomenal. In the meantime, this technology and the possibilities are natural. But back in 2002, it was really giving me goosebumps to play on a keyboard and get these authentic legato performances out of a sampled wind instrument.

Are you able to give us an idea of the projects you'll be working on as we lead up to Christmas and of course, Winter NAMM 2010?

Our main focus is to complete the Vienna Choir. Hopefully, we’ll be ready just before Christmas. We are also working on a new version of our Vienna Instruments, which will offer some really cool new features. Sorry that I can’t talk about these features right now…

Thanks Herb!

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Click here for more information on Vienna Choir