Vienna Symphonic Library – SYNCHRON-ized Special Edition Vol 1 & 2
It’s finally here! VSL, widely regarded as the best of the best in sampled orchestral instruments, has lovingly embraced NKS implementation, and the final result is a collection of accessible instruments worthy of VSL’s well deserved and unparalleled stellar reputation among professional composers.
In this specially extended review, International award winning & Billboard charting New Age pianist and composer , Kevin Kern takes an in depth look at these high end products which over the years have become an inspiring and integral part of his own creative process.
Over to Kevin…
VSL’s product line has always been considered the gold standard of the sample library market, however until now, because of their inaccessibility, sight impaired users have shied away from what could otherwise be a one of a kind creative experience, – but Shy away no longer as Vienna Symphonic Library are currently offering their newly accessible Special Editions as part of a sales promotion throughout December. for more information on this offer, visit
The VSL Legacy…
Komplete Kontrol users, or indeed any Kontakt user, will already know the VSL sound because their legacy sounds actually form the orchestral heart of the Kontakt Factory Library.
Despite the sounds in that library now being some twenty years old, they still hold up beautifully.
The NKS mappings in the Kontakt Factory Library are not exceptional but, when you consider that these sounds are offered as a subset of an all purpose introductory package that cover much more than just orchestral sounds, and the mappings were done by the Kontakt team and not by VSL proper, they still make a very good foundation for the orchestral portion of your starter pallet.
Historically, I was introduced to Vienna symphonic Library some twenty years ago when I encountered GigaStudio, a then revolutionary platform that was best run on dedicated slave machines in the Windows XP era. VSL, along with the original Garritan Orchestral Strings, formed the centrepiece of the orchestral offerings available in this new format and their sound was like no other I’d ever heard.
Whilst GigaStudio was never accessible, I used the limited vision I had, combined with the track template capabilities then available in Cakewalk Sonar 8.5 to create as many “set it forget it” environments as I could.
After GigaStudio left the scene, VSL regrouped and created a new interface which they called Vienna Instruments. In this environment, which was also inaccessible, key switches and something VSL called “Matrices,” where certain combinations of articulations and other performance behaviours could be lumped together and governed by velocity, modulation, playing speed and other variables which helped get the most out of this awesome collection of tools.
Again, track templates, combined with a control surface that could assign buttons to specific matrices, made it possible for me to use these tools with the limited vision I had.
To that end, I decided to try what VSL called “Special Edition.” Designed as an entry level product, Special Edition volumes gave the user a sense of what Vienna’s full packages could do at a manageable price point.
From the beginning, I did my best to make the case to the powers that be at VSL that accessibility would be extremely desirable. At one time, VSL did try a web style interface that could work on an iPad with Voiceover connected to one’s DAW via Wifi. But while that was a step forward, there was still a long way to go in achieving full access.
The Special Editions gave me a foundation that motivated me to splurge on two full version libraries in particular, “Appassionata Strings” and “Solo Strings”.
Appassionata Strings was a set of oversized string sections designed to give the user an intentionally lush sound. This was ideal for the sort of music I was making at that time, You can hear Appassionata Strings in action on my 2008 Real Music CD, Endless Blue Sky, where I used one violin and one cello to thicken the bowings of my ersatz orchestra, when not playing solos inspired by the other VSL Solo Strings library I owned.
The Addition of NKS…
When Komplete Kontrol and NKS arrived bringing with it new accessibility possibilities, I continued to lobby VSL and encourage them to adopt the NKS standard.
Although it took several years, in 2019, I was invited to take a look at their first attempt at making an NKS compatible version of some of their new Synchron Series instruments. The results were very exciting. Even though there was only one page of controls mapped in the beginning, simply being able to choose effortlessly from among these previously inaccessible sounds was a definite game changer.
In less than one year, VSL has further clearly demonstrated it’s commitment to the possibilities of NKS for both sighted and blind users by making nearly all of their flagship SYNCHRON-ized instruments NKS compatible.
Their NKS mappings have now expanded beyond one page to two and sometimes even three in a few cases.
The parameters they have chosen to include make it possible to do things more flexibly than you can with any competitor’s product, (See my discussion of dynamics with and without velocity and their approach to bow tremolo switching later in this review).
In this review I will cover the first two volumes of the SYNCHRON-ized Special Edition, Appassionata Strings will feature in a separate review due to its unique treatment of vibrato transitions and mic positions which are not included in SYNCHRON-ized Special Edition.
Although, Concert D-274Light, referred to as “Steinway Light” when scrolling through patches in KK,” the Steinway concert grand which is part of Special Edition, does present you with a number of prepackaged mixes and knobs which alter the relationship of close microphones to room microphones within such a mix, (See later in this review).
Please note that to be able to use the piano, you will have to download and install the latest version of the Vienna Synchron Pianos Player software.
For further information on working with the software, please refer to the dedicated Synchron Pianos manual. You can download both software and manual from MyVSL.
All VSL products run in their own bespoke plug-in rather than using Kontakt as a sample player. Downloading and installing Special Edition instruments involves the use of both a Vienna Download Manager and an eLicenser Control Centre by Steinberg, combined with a USB dongle called a Vienna Key, sold separately for €24.00. USD prices are approximate and may fluctuate with currency exchange rates. For this reason, all prices will be quoted in euros. It is strongly recommended that you download the latest eLicenser and Vienna Download Manager before downloading instruments. ELicenser Control Centre can be downloaded from
Furthermore, the KK installers are not automatically packaged within the conventional installers. You will find them under Templates instead of under Software Downloads. This is important because you won’t get KK accessibility without these additional templates.
Download & Installation…
VSL’s website is pretty accessible using either JAWS or NVDA , I have also read through their site using VO on a Mac but have never downloaded or installed instruments on a Mac.
As such, everything that follows in this article will presume that you are using Windows as an operating system. I use the Digital Audio Workstation Reaper with it’s OSARA accessibility add-on for my VSL work but it should be equally as possible to use Samplitude with it’s available JAWS scripts as an accessible Windows DAW.
Once you’ve downloaded and installed both the Vienna Download Manager and the Licenser Control Centre, you simply have to click on the license code in the e-mail you receive from VSL. This is much easier to do if you have access to your e-mail on the same computer where your DAW, Komplete Kontrol and libraries all reside.
I used NVDA for this and was presented with a window asking me if I wanted to allow this website to open a program on my computer. By default, I was placed on Cancel. I NVDA left arrowed to Allow and pressed Alt A which opened Vienna Download Manager. Since I had already chosen a default path for downloads in the Vienna Download Manager, I simply tabbed three times, confirming my destination location and hit OK. This put me in the Download Manager and the download began. I was unable to accessibly monitor the progress of the download until I Alt Tabbed out of the Download Manager and back in. Thereafter, I could arrow around and hear the progress of the download, this is a large download, so expect to wait a while.
As soon as one of the files finished, I was sent to the eLicenser to download the license required. The activation code was already in the box and I simply had to tab to Activate and hit Enter. When the license was activated, I was automatically put on Continue. just hitting SPACE put me on the Start Usage period button. Hitting SPaCE again started the license usage period. Pressing SPACE once more welcomed me to the Library Installer. There was a large box full of files with checkmarks on them indicating that they were ready to be installed. Pressing Next sent me to the license agreement. I accepted the license agreement and hit Next once more which put me in a box where I was asked if I wanted to put the new content in the existing folder. This was chosen by default and I merely clicked Next again and more content was loaded into place. Once the license was activated, I closed the eLicenser and the Download manager after choosing to delete all the downloaded files from the Download Manager.
Komplete Kontrol Browser & NKS Mappings…
Despite the fact that many of these products have been on the market for several years prior to the arrival of NKS, and that they have similar but not identical interfaces with concurrent and sometimes repetitious sets of available parameters, there is, with the exception of the Concert D-274 Light, a pretty consistent set of NKS mappings that covers most of the product line.
I’ll take a moment to demonstrate a requisite cross-section of products and layouts to show what kinds of different NKS mappings apply in representative cases, do feel free to read the manuals for Special Edition volumes by visiting
Note that VSL’s manuals do not discuss using their instruments with either KK or site impairment in mind. The manuals are informative with respect to what is and isn’t included in the various volumes of SE.
Komplete Kontrol Browser…
Let’s begin by looking at the Browser for VSL within KK, For this example, I’ve chosen to Sort by Vender.
Knob 1 = Vender.
Knob 2 = Product.
Knob 3 = Bank. In this case, that guides you through the various volumes of the Special Edition.(See below.)
Knob 4 = sub-bank. This narrows down your search to specific instrumental families. (See below.)
Knob 5 = Type
Knob 6 = subtype
Knob 7 = not assigned.
Knob 8 -= patch.).
Let’s continue by using the browse function within KK to further isolate some of the individual product components of the Special Edition, and I will highlight the relevant price as I do so.
Special Edition comes in seven primary volumes:
Volume 1. Essential Orchestra. €295.00
Volume 1 FX. This is a subsection revealed by the Bank knob of KK but not mentioned on VSL’s site. It appears to contain some stylised orchestral patches with a hint of sound design.
Volume 1 Plus. Articulation Expansion for Essential Orchestra. (€285.00
Volume 2. Extended Orchestra. €295.00
Volume 2 Plus. Articulation Expansion for Extended Orchestra. €265.00
Volume 3. Appassionata and Muted Strings. €395.00
Volume 4. Special Winds, Choir and Solo Voices. €225.00
Volume 5. Dimension Strings. €345.00
Volume 6, Dimension Brass. €325.00
Volume 7. Historical Instruments. €265.00
The first Two volumes come in standard and extended libraries with these extended editions distinguished by a Plus after the name. The Plus volumes contain advanced articulations such as whole and half step trills and repetitions.
NOTE: Whole and half step trills and repetitions are not yet available for Appassionata Strings or Solo Strings under NKS. further, there does not appear to be an extended library for Appassionata containing the Con Sordino articulations with expanded mic positions. So, the only way to get Con Sordino for appassionata appears to be in the Special Edition Volume 3.
The Type knob can help you narrow down your search to various groups such as:
Subtypes will further refine your search, particularly if you choose one of the volumes of Special Edition before going to the type and subtype knobs. Volumes 3-7 are described by the titles you see. They contain additional sounds and instruments. For example, Volume 3 provides some of the Con Sordino strings for Appassionata, Orchestral, Chamber and Solo Strings. Volume 4 contains things like Contrabassoon and Contrabass Clarinet in addition to the choir and solo voices referenced in the title.
NOTE: The sub-bank knob yields an additional means of categorizing a search as follows:
Keyboards & Mallets
It’s interesting that the Concert D-274 Light gets its own subtype whereas the Bosendorfer, their first major effort at adding a piano to their product line, is listed under Keyboards and Mallets.
Let’s continue our exploration with SE Bank 1 and Bowed Strings. Once you’ve chosen this product and bank, the sub-banks give you:
If you were to choose Violin as your sub-bank, your rightmost knob would give you:
Orchestral First Violins 14
Orchestral Second Violins 14
Solo violin 1
Solo Violin 2
The Solo Violin 2 is just a little darker and panned slightly more centre than the comparatively harder left panned Violin 1. If we choose violin 2 as an example, there are a series of key switches which correspond to the articulations visible in the Plugin’s UI. These are common to all the strings, as you will see if you read VSL’s own manual at the link shown above. Beginning with C1, they are:
C1 Short notes
C#1 Long notes
Each of these notes has secondary articulations available as a submenu which can be triggered by the C and C# one one octave above the original series of notes. For example, the Short notes available to C1 exposes Staccato on C2 and Detache on C#2.
The long notes on C#1 yields Sustain on C2, Marcato on C#2 and XF Tremolo on D2.
This, in turn, presents one of my favourite characteristics of the VSL line for strings. When this tremolo crossfade is invoked, Knob 8 acts as the crossfade knob allowing the player to dissolve from a tremolo to a sustained note or chord of the same pitch. This is particularly useful when conveying a sense of tension and wishing to resolve that tension suggestive of bringing a moving object to a stop. I’m not aware of any other major VST manufacturer who offers this particular amenity. Unfortunately, there are some cases where, instead of the tremolo alternating with a long sustain as it should, it’s alternating with a sforzato, such as in the Orchestral Strings Multi. This causes a complication where transitioning from tremolo will result in silence if the transition is executed after a few seconds. I’m confident however that this will be resolved in a future update.
Continuing with the primary key switches, D1 is Legato. This exposes Legato on C2 and Portamento on C#2. The velocity of the portamento controls its speed. Low velocity gives you a slow glide. High velocity presents a fast glide.
Here again, we encounter another of the remarkable innovations the folks at Vienna have given us. Whereas other major players in the orchestral space intentionally make their long notes velocity insensitive, requiring the player to utilize a combination of Expression and Dynamics to alter volume and crossfade between dynamic layers, VSL gives the user the option of switching between two states by means of two KK knobs assigned to Velocity Fade ON/OFF and Velocity XF respectively. When the Velocity XF ON/OFF is set to the OFF position, regular velocity applies as one plays the keyboard. In that case, the Velocity XF knob is inactive. When the Velocity XF knob is set to the ON position, velocity is removed from the keyboard and is controlled by the adjacent Velocity XF knob which allows the user to crossfade in real time between layers. In the case of the portamento, as one turns the Velocity XF knob, the loudness rises and falls and the speed of the portamento is affected. Whereas, if the Velocity XF is set to OFF, the loudness of the sound and the speed of the portamento are governed by the player’s Note ON velocity.
I personally feel that this approach is preferable to always being required to deal with layer crossfades and dynamics with knobs and wheels and never having the option of putting keyboard velocity directly in the equation. Those of us who are life long pianists will appreciate having the option of both approaches at any given time.
Returning once again to the primary key switches, D#1 is marked Dynamics. This exposes Sforzato on C2 and Sfz XF Tremolo on C#2. Here again, the ability to transition between a sustain and tremolo by means of knob 8 is very useful.
E1 gives you Tremolo and exposes Tremolo on C2 and Tremolo Marcato on C#2. This in turn exposes a Staccato key switch in a further submenu which is visible but not accessible. I actually clicked on the UI on both the Tremolo and the Staccato to no avail. Tremolo remained constant.
F1 gives you Pizzicato and F#1 is marked Custom. You can create a series of key switches which you can assign to C2 through D#2. The process for doing this is unfortunately not accessible as far as I know.
Plug-in Edit Mode NKS Mappings
As for the plugin mode, in the case of our Solo violin 2, there are two pages of parameters. They are:
Page 1. PLAY
Knob 1 Master Level.
Knob 2. Expression.
Knob 3. The aforementioned VelXF ON/OFF
Knob 4. The also aforementioned Vel XF.
Knob 5. Legato Blur (According to VSL product manager Paul Kopf, “Legato Blur increases the overlap of two legato notes (they really need to overlap in MIDI as well), for those users who want a more “smeared transition”.
Knob 6. Filter. In many cases, this appears to be a high pass filter which is not active on all instruments.
Knob 7. Marc Attack. Essentially Marcato Attack which is relevant in specific cases.
Knob 8. Tremolo XF. (See above.)
Page 2. Edit and Humanize.
Knob 1 Dynamic Range acts like a MIDI compressor. If it’s all the way down, you will be able to play with velocities ranging from very soft to very loud depending on how you strike the keys. If it’s all the way up, your velocity variation will be much less. This is similar to how velocity responds if Velocity XF is set to OFF.
Knob 2. Attack
Knob 3. Release
Knob 4 Reverb
Knob 5. Humanize Delay Scale. According to Patrick Weber at VSL, this feature is for scaling the tuning curve.
Knob 6. Tuning.
Knob 7. Amount.
Knob 8. Not assigned.
Delay and Tuning are the 2 parameters that HUMANIZE consists of.
For more information, read here:
Having spent a great deal of time considering strings, let’s move on to the other sections of the orchestra.
In general, the woodwinds, brass and percussion have the sort of patches you’d expect in a starter pack. Much like Spitfire’s BBC Discover, there’s only one mic position and they don’t have all the articulations of the full version. But they have a very full compliment of playing techniques. Let’s take a look at the woodwinds and focus on a clarinet as an example.
You can load the clarinet using the same search methods described above when loading the strings.
NOTE: For some reason, the lowest note of the clarinet is a playable C3, which would sound an octave below middle C on the piano. Clarinet’s lowest note is a D concert, one whole step above the C that sounds in this patch and I have no idea why this clarinet sounds two notes which don’t exist in real life. The Plugin Mode NKS layout is identical to that of the strings referenced above.
As with the string example, the clarinet has a series of key switches which are arranged starting from C1.
C1 = Staccato
C#1 = Long notes. This in turn exposes Sustain on C2 and Marcato on C#2. When Marcato is chosen on C#2, this exposes a further submenu which is accessed through the Marc attack on Knob 7 which alternates between Sustain and Marcato. In practice, this is the presence or absence of a marcato attack on the note in question.
D1 = Legato. This exposes Legato on C2 and something called Legato-sus on D2.
Paul Kopf Product Manager at VSl, explains, “The authentic legato target notes are not looped and are played for 2-4 seconds, and many users wanted endless notes. To help out, we have created Legato-sus, which crossfades from the legato transition to looped sustained notes”.
D#1 = Sforzato
E = custom where you can create your own key switches. This creation process is not accessible.
Also, like the strings, we have the tandem knobs of Vel XF ON/OFF and Vel XF. These behave exactly as they do in the strings. In my opinion, their value really shines when using the clarinet because the VSL clarinet is darker than others I’ve played and the velocity layers allow the player to create a much more lifelike crescendo or diminuendo by turning just one knob instead of two which is often the case with other libraries.
If you prefer to achieve your dynamics with keyboard velocity, you can simply turn off the Vel XF ON/OFF knob as an alternative.
Now let’s move on to the brass and use Horn ensemble 4 as our example. You can reach this patch using the methods detailed earlier. In Plugin mode the NKS mappings are the same as for the strings and clarinet.
Unlike the strings and clarinet shown above, the key switches for the horn ensemble are all arrayed above the playing range of the horns themselves beginning on C6.
C6 = Staccato
C#6 = Long notes exposing Sustain on C7 and Marcato on C#7. This is controlled by Marcato Attack on Knob 7 as before.
D6 = Legato and exposes the same Legato and Legato-sus on C7 and C#7. See above.
D#6 = Sforzato
E = Custom
All the playing behaviours are the same as with the clarinet example.
We will now take a look at the percussion offerings. In SE Volume 1, they are divided into Bells, Cymbals and Gongs, Drums, Orchestral Percussion and Timpani.
The bells are divided into Tubular Bells and Plate Bells, accessed by alternating key switches at C1 and C#1. All the other Plugin parameter mappings are as above. Note that you can’t choke the tubular Bells the way you can in some libraries by holding down the sustain pedal for ring and leaving it up for choke.
The Drums are a collection that includes Taiko, Bass drum, Snare drum, Snare drums a4, Tambourine and Concert drums, all spread across the keyboard.
Orchestral Percussion includes Thunder sheet, Rails, Wind chimes, Castanets, Triangle and Crotales, spread across the keyboard.
Transposition Key switches: the crotales can be switched between “88 keys” (A0) and “loco” (B0). The 88 keys option maps the crotales an octave lower than they sound, so that the entire preset can be played on a regular keyboard.
The Timpani are pretty straight forward. There are three key switches assigned as:
C1 = single hits.
C#1 = Secco.
D1 = rolls.
The timpani are playable by two hands by virtue of being replicated twice on the keyboard. But you don’t have staccato or choked timpani hits. When rolls are invoked, you can take advantage of the fact that single hits are mapped to the right hand so that you can end a roll with a stinger last note.
While Vienna symphonic Library earned its place by focusing on the instruments of the post-romantic orchestra, the Special Editions also include a number of instruments which are not strictly orchestral. These include saxophones, acoustic and electric guitars and pipe organ, to name but a few.
The Concert D Piano…
I mentioned the Concert D-274 Light earlier in this review and I think we should devote some time to it because, among other reasons, it provides more attention to multiple mixes than any other instrument in the Special Edition.
To begin, Concert D-274 Light provides six different mixes, Ambient, Concert, Intimate, Mighty, Player and Pop
There are two pages of NKS mappings which are,
Page One – MASTER MIX AND PLAY:
Knob 1 = Master reverb.
Knob 2 = Master level
Knob 3 = Mix room mix
Knob 4 = Mix Close
Knob 5 = Play dynamic range (Dynamic Range acts like a MIDI compressor, If it’s all the way down, it will bring out the piano samples very loudly, a useful tool for ballads and intimate pieces.
Knob 6 = MIDI Sensitivity. MIDI Sensitivity changes how the software responds to MIDI Input. Play back a piece and play with the slider, should be quite obvious. but If you overdo it, you might get some serious distortion!
Knob 7 = Play half pedaling
Knob 8 = Not assigned.
PAGE Two – EDIT:
Knob 1 = Body.
Knob 2 = Resonance.
Knob 3 = Timbre Shift.
Knob 4 = Not assigned.
Knob 5 = Pedal noise.
Knob 6 = Key noise.
Knob 7 = Release level.
Knob 8 = Not assigned.
The Room microphones and Close buttons work in tandem so you can choose how much of the room you want in your mix. By default they are both set to equal volume and turning either one simply raises or lowers the amount of that particular volume relative to the other.
The dynamic Range and MIDi Sensitivity also work in tandem to alter the keyboard response. See the D274 manual for more information.
VSL for many will perhaps be a considered purchase, however if you are putting food on the table through your music composition work, then the exceptionally high quality of these products in combination with the addition of the new NKS accessibility will permit you to think of these libraries as essential tools of your trade, with the investment of better tools generally equating to a polished and professional result, which is something amply reflected within VSL’s ‘who’s who’ customer base.
Do check out the extensive audio demonstrations found on the VSL website, along with the links to video walkthroughs at the footer of this review.
VSL SYNCHRON-ized Special Editions can be purchased directly from their website at:
VSL link to December Promotion:
Introducing VSL SYNCHRON-ized Special Editions:
VSL SYNCHRON-ized Special Editions Overview:
December 16th, 2020
About The Author
Kevin Kern is a New Age pianist and composer whose recorded output spans 25 years and eleven CDs, including six billboard charting albums. The most successful of which, In The enchanted Garden, spent a combined 26 weeks on billboard’s New Age chart. For more information, visit
KK-Access.com or it’s authors accept no responsibility for subsequent purchase decisions made as a result of this article,or Any inaccuracies found within this review. All opinions or product functions stated are based solely on information perceived as a blind user whilst using the product or gathered from official factual sources on the web, developer or product manual.