Impact Soundworks Straight Ahead Jazz Horns ($249) is a Kontakt Player instrument containing all thirteen horns of a standard big band.
It started out as the Jazz Horns library released by Straight Ahead Samples, who specialized in jazz sample libraries, and later got a new interface and scripting thanks to Impact Soundworks.
All These Horns
The included instruments are four trumpets, four trombones, a bass trombone, two alto and two tenor saxes, and a baritone sax. So, all the standard modern instruments are there, enough for an entire big-band arrangement, and there are no extras such as tuba or flugelhorn. All this takes a little more than 20 GB of space as compressed NKX files, duplicated in 16-bit and 24-bit versions. “Straight ahead” jazz means, in short, jazz which rejects the influence of 1970s fusion of jazz and rock, and doesn’t get too avant-garde either. In other words – it’s what most people would call “regular” jazz (as opposed to decaf, unleaded, minty fresh or extra wide – yes, that’s a satirical article, but it really does get to the bottom of what playing jazz is like in real life). It is definitely old-school, and that shows in these samples. All the typical ornamentations used in this style, such as falls, doits, and trumpet shakes, are present.
Now, why have four different trumpets played by four different people? The reason is that the differences in tone, legato timing, etc. are what makes an ensemble sound like an actual ensemble, as opposed to a single trumpet player being overdubbed four times. These samples are geared towards making coherent-sounding ensembles. They are tight and controlled like players playing in a big or somewhat biggish band with at least a three-member horn section, and not like the looser, more expressive way the only horn player in a small combo would usually play.
The individual instruments are monophonic with true legato samples (from my testing, apparently up to leaps of an octave, with scripted legato beyond that), dynamics controlled by the mod wheel for long articulations and velocity for shorts, and scripted vibrato. All the articulations except for glissando (controlled by the sustain pedal) are on keyswitches. The keyswitches are very cleverly split into three categories: note length switches (sustain, quarter, staccato and staccatissimo) which latch, non-latching switches which affect the start of the note when held down (falls and scoops for all, plus flops and turns for trumpets and trombones), and a third set of switches which do their work when hit in the middle of a note (long falls, doits, bends, plus shakes for the trumpets and trombones). If you don’t know what a flop or a doit is, don’t worry – play one and you’ll go “oh, it’s that sound I’ve heard hundreds of times before!”
Notice that there are no growl or subtone articulations for the saxes, though some of the solo tenor’s bends get growly. So, you can’t quite get those growly sax solos in the style of 1980s pop, or very breathy noir soundtrack sax. There are also no flutter-tongue articulations or mutes for the brass – I suppose those are not really used in straight ahead jazz, either, more in fusion and modern movie soundtracks.
Everything’s recorded with two close microphones – an RCA 44 ribbon mic and a Neumann U47. I’m not usually a big fan of multiple mic positions in cases where there are closer and more distant mics to choose from, as I nearly always end up using the close mics only, but in this case, I’m all for having both available. The vintage RCA sounds very old-school, even when recorded digitally, while the U47 nails the modern hi-fi sound. Since everything’s recorded close, the recordings need reverb, and Kontakt’s effects section is used to provide that, with a nice set of impulses to select from.
Jazz And Beyond
Sure, these samples were made with a certain style of jazz in mind, but to how many other genres will they stretch? They certainly can handle a broad range of pop, from old-school Memphis soul to modern Korean pop, and also trumpet-heavy Latin styles – just keep the dynamics near the top. Sure, a flugelhorn and maybe a flute would be nice for ballads, but I understand why they’re not included in a jazz-focused library. The fall articulations are certainly very useful here – they’re exactly what I was missing every time I tried to use orchestral trumpet samples in a pop song. Saxes and brass for old-school reggae or dub are also no problem, and with some lo-fi vinyl effects these horns are perfect for electro swing.
There’s no tuba, clarinet or cornet, but add those in from somewhere else and this library can also do Dixieland. For more folky styles, whether Mexican banda, Balkan brass or highlife, the sound is just not rough enough to be fully convincing (and also the various sizes of saxhorns would be missing, along with the sousaphone or helicon, and possibly clarinets), but these samples are still probably the closest thing that currently exists in the market. And, of course, small combo jazz which requires very virtuosic soloing, such as bebop, would probably need some articulations which these samples don’t have.
As with Impact’s guitar instruments, the way the articulations are set up is very configurable, with keyswitches, MIDI CC and note velocity all supported as methods of switching between articulations, and the dynamics for the short sounds being controllable by either CC1 crossfade or velocity. The default setup works well, though, and doesn’t take much time to get used to – though some of the special articulations are only available in part of the instrument’s range. For example, since falls involve the pitch going down or up quite a bit, there’s just physically nowhere to fall to when trying to play a fall near the bottom of an instrument’s range. Also, with some articulations, it’s possible to play another note while a fall or shake is still going, and thus get an instrument to temporarily behave polyphonically. In other words, if you do need to play another note before the fall sample ends, let go of the key with the previous note which is falling. Otherwise, things will not sound realistic. So, these are the things which take a bit of getting used to from a playability perspective. Still, aside from these cases, things are quite intuitive, or at least as intuitive as they can feel while playing notes and controlling dynamics and vibrato and keyswitches at the same time.
Now we come to the really clever part – the smart voicing multi instruments. Making a convincing jazz arrangement takes genre-specific knowledge, as well as quite a bit of time when entering the parts one instrument at a time. The smart voicing multis essentially do the work of an arranger – hold down chords with the left hand and play melody notes with the right, and you get an arrangement for the selected multi. The ability to just play chords and get those spread across several instruments would be another good option to have, but the way this works is different – playing chords by themselves results in no sound, and the sound of an entire section playing the whole chord is triggered when a melody note is played.
To put it simply, play some stuff, get a jazzy sound. The scripts are quite good at detecting chords with jazzy alterations or inversions and making up a reasonable voicing even when the melody note is something not found in the chord. The 4-part close voicings are very jazzy indeed, often including notes in the chord being played, with the triads being cleaner and more “obedient” in terms of sticking to chord tones. All the articulations are available, too – again, falls work out great.
There are different voicing options here, as well as multis ranging from a typical pop section of trumpet, trombone, and two saxes, to all thirteen instruments in the entire library at once. Unsurprisingly, I like the all four trumpets multi best. Doing this with all thirteen instruments is pretty resource-intensive, using almost 2 GB of RAM and around 30-50% of CPU on my machine when playing fairly complex parts, but it’s very lush. Sure, it’s not really a viable way to play an entire 4-minute song, as a real-world big band arrangement wouldn’t have all the instruments playing throughout. However, for occasional chord stabs, or a hip-hop producer who wants something that fits a specific chord progression and will sound like a 10-second sample of a 1950s big band (this is where the RCA mic really comes in handy), these smart voicings are actually perfectly usable and a great time-saver. Then again, if time permits, it’s good to at least understand some basics and write out your own arrangements.
Jazz or pop horns have not been sampled nearly as frequently as classical brass and woodwinds, and have been the biggest hole in my virtual instrument arsenal for years. This library does an excellent job of providing exactly the kind of jazz/pop horns I was looking for. And even if you think that you have your jazz horn samples covered, this library was made by people who really understand the jazz style it’s aiming for, and therefore really nails the requirements of that style.
More info: Impact Soundworks Straight Ahead Jazz Horns ($249)
Straight Ahead Jazz Horns Review
Straight Ahead Jazz Horns was made by people who really understand the jazz style it's aiming for, and therefore the library really nails the requirements of that style.