Output Analog Strings – Expanding Horizons
Welcome to Music Nation. Today we’re looking at Analog Strings from Output, a new take on the traditional sample rompler with more than a few nifty tricks up its sleeve.
(Review updated February 2021) The Internet is awash with praise and admiration of Output’s recent line-up of audio instruments so I was excited to get my hands on their latest offering, Analog Strings. I wasn’t sure what to make of the marketing, is this an orchestra pack or a synth string library? Turns out a little from column A, a little from column B (terribly placed Steve Merchant gag there).
So, with my morning hot crumpet and a cup of strong coffee ready, let’s install this and see what all the fuss is about.
Firstly, let me say kudos to the excellent installer software – Output has its own ‘Output Hub’ interface for downloading and updating devices you’ve purchased. A little bit of upselling, of course, but I’m cool with that if the products are good. Downloading is a breeze, though you need to go through the Native Instruments authorisation gauntlet which can be a little frustrating as that interface is nowhere near as intuitive.
But serial codes were inserted and the product setup in Kontakt, I was away.
Analog Strings is a 2-channel rompler for the Native Instruments Kontakt platform that features customisable macro controls for filtering and morphing the samples. The UI features a pair of screens and a four-way slider of what looks like flat-wound bass guitar strings with zip ties. The zip-tie slide-along reveals an un-wound string graphic, but this is purely for show, no sonic changes are made in relevance to the shape of the strings or anything like that. It could have easily been a set of four knobs or sliders, but this contributes to the ‘string’ theme of the instrument.
With 500 patches included there is a lot of content to dabble with, but thanks to the excellent browsing system it doesn’t take long to get a feel for the timbre and workings of the instrument. For a 30-gig library though, I was expecting more than only 90 included samples. There is a good selection of orchestra strings (incidentally, a full 60-piece string ensemble recorded in Budapest for the project), but the bulk of the material is either synth tones or weird creative stuff like Folly effects, glitches and treated strings.
Each one of the two available sample slots at the bottom of the UI can be clicked to reveal a grid of available samples. They are first separated by categories; one shot, pad and tape, and then again by sound character; orchestral, synth and creative. One-shot and pad should be fairly self-explanatory, with the tape category containing samples with set loop regions applied. These all sound quite ‘looped’, but do mix well once processed with FX, though why you can’t modify the loop region is beyond me.
You can set the key range easily in the edit screen for each sample, this will show green on the Kontakt keyboard for sample A, blue for sample B and teal for where the two cross over. Quite easy to follow once you’ve had a good play.
The aforementioned ‘bass strings’ on the main GUI are actually custom macro controls which can be freely arranged as you need. Loading anyone of the 500 preset patches will display a unique configuration for each of the four strings, but you are likely to see a reverb, rhythm or filter tab, but then literally any one of hundreds of mappable controls could be present within the macros makeup. Though the string macros are usually pretty well designed, it’s largely guesswork as to what they do until you experiment with them. It’s a nice design, as you’re immediately drawn to start moving the strings around each new patch loaded.
Moving further through the interface, the edit tab houses the ADSR filter, portamento and stereo spread controls. Also, there is a neat colouration control that drops the samples keyboard assignment up or down, then resamples it back to pitch, altering the characteristics of the sound quite drastically in some cases.
The FX tab is split between individual or global FX options, with all your usual suspects here – filter, distortion, delay, reverb etc. There is nothing too characteristic with the FX, just your standard Kontakt usuals. The controls are bare-minimum, which works fine as it layers FX rather than using them for dramatic sound sculpturing.
A rhythm and arpeggiator are included, you’ll be familiar with this layout if you’ve used any UVI products. The rhythm tab contains two slots for each sample. Each can insert either an LFO or step sequencer – so yes, you get four in total for each patch – so things can get fairly wacky up in here. An interesting take on the step sequencer is included called ‘Flux’, which is basically a step sequencer again but with programmable steps. The thought of programming up 8 unique steps for every slot would drive me bananas, fortunately, there are preset rhythms you can load.
Finally, the arpeggiator section features a fairly straightforward pattern player for each sample with some handy controls for swing and velocity.
While working my way down through some of the presets it didn’t take long to hear how capable this instrument is. The presets don’t give any indication of the workings of the plugin, so a fair amount of exploring and manual diving is required to learn the ropes at first. I may be a bit slow, but I struggled to understand the relationship between the macro strings and the modulation effects for some time, then it just clicked and everything started to make sense.
The string macros are actually fairly basic routing controllers for elements within the device. If you open the macro editing section (by clicking the dark fader icon next to the Output logo), you will see one of four macro strings highlighted in light blue, signifying it’s in edit mode. To change what string you’re editing, choose another line from the dark icon area again next to the Output logo. You can define a name label for each string macro here by choosing from a dropdown list, but the names aren’t editable, you just get presented with a list of names to choose from as placeholders, meaning you need to match your assignments to the name if you want to keep everything laid out logically.
Each string macro can control up to 6 internal assignments which all work in unison. If one is already assigned, you can click the little blue arrow on its title to be transported to the control which will blink a few times to get your attention. If you have free space, assigning any control is a matter of mouse over the dial which will then change to indicate it’s usable, and then clicking it – it doesn’t matter what order you assign each. Each of the six assignments has range controls to define how much effect is applied, plus you can invert the range to add negative effect if applicable.
In this way creating fairly impressive soundscapes is a cakewalk, and in a way, the software almost begs you to adjust and evolve effects like this. It doesn’t take long to find yourself neck-deep in FX and motion controls. It’s a real shame you can’t cross-modulate between the macro strings themselves, opening up possibilities for string location-dependant modulation.
Swapping out either one of the two core samples is even simpler, just click the icon and choose from the 90 presented grid options. Alas, you can’t import your own samples which feels a little stingy considering the limited choices on hand.
The level control can be a problem when modifying patches since there is no master limiter or auto gain, you need to constantly adjust output volume to compensate, especially when playing forte or with larger 10-finger chords. Also, swapping mic samples from close to far often drove the levels into the red. Pretty much any modification to the amplitude will require attention to the output gain, again something an AGC would fix.
The dial controls are very twitchy. The only way to control them with any degree of accuracy is to hold shift and go into fine mode, or assign them to a MIDI CC fader on the keyboard. Getting any kind of smooth dial control with the mouse is impossible, making recording automation tricky.
Speaking of DPS, it’s hardly a lean machine on processing requirements either. The initial core takes some time to load on our machine (well, 30 seconds maybe), and even though subsequent patches are only around 100-300MB each, the main core requires over 2gig of RAM (!!) to load and chews through a whopping 30% of DSP per instance averagely on our test machine.
I’m happy to report that yes indeed Analog Strings sound great – though I’m not doing summersaults like many of the fanboy reviews I’ve seen. Analog Strings certainly isn’t as ‘stringy’ as I thought it should be, in that mostly the presets are very synthetic sounding with very little string content at all. Great for sound design, but not so much for songwriting.
Speaking of samples, on the whole, the orchestral selection sound very nice, if a bit aggressive and upfront, but that suits the nature of the device. Despite the limited velocity layers they mostly feel very nice to play, if somewhat mechanical due to lacking any round-robin layers or decent legato. Included are close and far mic positions recordings you can swap between, however, no fader control – so it’s all or nothing. You’re not going to be scoring huge cinematic works with Analog Strings, but considering the weight of the data footprint, I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on the orchestral elements so you could create more than just rudimentary arrangements.
I particularly like the creative sample category. It’s difficult to decern how most were constructed, but judging from the manual a lot of time was spent curating weird and wacky source material. Mostly these are great companions to the synth and orchestral samples.
The synth tones don’t make much sense to me. For a start they’re very bland, mostly patches the free Kontakt Factory library can easily produce, and if I’m honest, sound better too. There are no synthesis controls, just straight one-shot samples. Also, considering Analog Strings has only two sample slots, why have three sample categories anyway? personally, I would rather see just the two orchestral and creative categories with more samples, than maybe include an oscillator or two as effect inserts. If you want to layer synths with any degree of mojo, use any number of free or commercial ones you probably have already in your Kontakt library.
So, other than the lack of strings samples, Analog Strings has a good collection of presets. There are no long evolves, and since you can’t import your own samples, you’re stuck with the shortest sample length offerings. This means everything leans towards shorts, one-shots and looping pads. If you’re after something with more dynamics, I’d be looking at Spitfire Audio’s Evo or Phobos instruments.
Of course, all this sample nit-picking is slightly irrelevant due to Analog String’s core design as a layered machine. To a certain degree, sample quality and coherence don’t matter as much as the creative application. The samples are intended to be morphed and manipulated, smudged and stretched, beyond recognition if possible.
You can come up with any amount of the crazy atmospheric stuff easily, if somewhat randomly, by just throwing stuff in, turning up things and seeing what happens. But I gravitate towards building sections with movement, and yes I must admit, finally, I’m starting to feel this instrument. Even with only two samples in play and basically no dynamic control, I’ve made some really emotive patches using just the internal FX and some inventive automation from the DAW.
So an unusual instrument that takes time and some inventive thinking to get the best out of. It’s not as groundbreaking as the marketing suggests, I can easily name half a dozen very similar instrument libraries out there – but what this does very, very well that the others often miss the mark on is present a sandbox environment that compels you to explore and experiment. The excellent interface is particularly fast and intuitive for manipulating the clever macro controls, also making this a very capable live instrument.
Analog Strings is more flexible than I first thought. It clearly excels at sound design atmospheres and the like, there is plenty of room for creating solid-sounding single sample patches. The interface is clean, well laid out and easy to read, but I’m disappointed string macro GUI is only a slightly clever variation of a control slider, it feels like a missed opportunity to include some kind of ‘string intensity dependent modulator’…or something equally clever sounding like that.
The synth sounds I could take or leave, however, the creative and orchestral samples are wonderful and I can’t believe how good they sound considering the somewhat limited dynamic control you have. Though the included FX are vanilla-plain Kontakt units, the way they are incorporated into the signal chain makes using them intuitive and actually quite fun to experiment with.
The performance requirements concern me, I’m not sure where nearly 30 gigabytes of installed data has gone, surely the 90 supplied samples don’t account for that, and why the large DPS footprint, especially when compared to the likes of SampleLogic Cinematic Keys, for instance, requiring 1/3rd the processing power. Some serious attention needs to be given to this and the jerky control feedback. A limiter or automated gain control on the sample banks would be a handy addition too.
Analog Strings is a very creative instrument with ingenious macro FX controls and superb sounding samples, and at $199 RRP represents pretty good value. The clever interface inspires you to push creatively deeper, rewarding your efforts with gratifying results, and at the end of the day, that’s the mark of successful design.
$199 USD with bundle discounts available. No demo, but full 14-day money-back guarantee. More details with purchasing options over on Outputs main site www.output.com
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