Spitfire Audio Albion One: 10th Anniversary Edition.
It’s a happy day when a new Spitfire Audio product comes across the Music Nation office desk, but with such heights of excellence already achieved, are the incremental technology advancements and rehashes still enough to draw in new customers?
There is no doubt Spitfire Audio is among the world’s most respected virtual instrument developers, mostly for their excellent orchestral string, brass, woodwind and percussion titles. Albion One has always been the flagship for the company and certainly is a powerhouse toolkit for any aspiring (or established) composer. Spitfire Audio’s recent decision to rebadge and expand on older libraries is great news for newcomers to the scene and breathes new life into ageing titles, but is the sizable cash outlay too much for current owners to dust off their credit cards again?
With a title so well respected in the industry, almost to legendary status, why not rehash the product with a bunch of curated patches and recordings with a catchy subheading? The 10th Anniversary Edition certainly sounds inviting, and with a fresh new interface and workflow this is a great opportunity for new aspiring composers to discover the product, and veteran owners to upgrade and invest a little more cash along the way. Clearly, Spitfire Audio’s marketing team are a clever as the development guys!
What you get with Albion One is a jack-of-all-trades toolkit for creating cinematic, contemporary film scores. Though Albion One’s orchestral section tends to be a little heavy-handed, excelling at the high energy, big sounding thrills of a blockbuster action trailer, it is capable of lumbering clumsily into softer, more gentle passages if you’re very careful on the dynamics fader. But this is where you can make a big impression on your listener.
What’s in the box? Quite a trove of goodies, actually.
New to the 10th Anniversary edition is 15 new orchestral patches, a huge (!) Easter Island storm drum patch, 63 new Stephenson’s Steam Band sounds, with 67 custom presets from Christian Henson. And to cap it off, 78 new Brunel Loop recordings with 90 new presets.
Firstly, the big guns:
The 109-piece orchestral section features three brass, two woodwind and a single ensemble string patch. Each has a selection of articulations and four mic position recordings. In addition to the main patches is a massive collection of individual specials, custom modwheel controlled combinations, legato, pre-recorded runs, stretchable time machine and COG, with allows you to alter the start position of the samples.
The Brunel Loops section is the first in the series of cryptic in-house named categories. In here you will find a massive collection of loops played with the eDNA synthesiser. Further divided into smaller, more manageable section, this will still take some time to run through to become familiar with the offerings. Each preset has up to three zones mapped over the keyboard for alternative variations, with the modwheel affecting the overall velocity of the hits. It is quite a neat workflow, but it can be tedious going through each preset one by one (it take a second or so to load after you drag and drop and dismiss a confirmation screen). Fortunately, Dev Kit versions are included which load all the samples from a category as a mega-patch.
Stephenson’s Stream Band again features the excellent eDNA synth, but this time the emphasis is on mangling and modulating the orchestral recordings, in essence creating a sound design focussed orchestral synth. The patches range from the sublime to the totally crazy, some being very aggressive, others hauntingly beautiful and soft.
Again, mega-dev kit versions are included to load complete RAM killing patches, but I found these to be most exciting and creative to use. It is a lot easier to experiment with samples when they’re all loaded in front of you. The best stuff I’ve come up with using Steam Band was done using the Dev Kit patches. Happily, you can purge unwanted samples once you’ve created your masterpiece, dropping the RAM requirements back to sensible again.
Darwin Percussion features the new ‘Kickstart’ engine with four drum focused patches, plus a couple of auxiliary legacy and stereo mix folders. Recorded in the same hall as the orchestra sessions, everything will match perfectly with your main arrangements. The ensemble patch is a collection of six orchestral percussion instruments, four toms in the Hyper Toms section, a good selection of incidental percussion in the XXL folder.
Finally, Easter Island is the new section with a pair of earth-shaking storm drums. A legacy folder houses all the original cymbal crashes and swells.
There is a lot to cover with this product, but mostly you will be interested in the overall sound. Though Albion One is marketed as an orchestral library, the vast majority of the content is actually loops and effects. There is a massive amount of control over the eDNA loop engine, from typical ADSR and filter synthesis to built-in sequencing and arpeggiators. Most loops sound fairly mundane in their raw state, but once added as part of a larger patch, the user is able to modulate the sound way beyond the original source. The loops are mostly rhythmic based grooves or atonal drones, all of which are individually chosen to best match the cinematic intentions of the library.
As to the sound of the main orchestral patches, the most immediate consideration is the room. With four mic positions available the room can totally transform the dynamics of a patch and is certainly a handy tool for changing the characteristics of a tone without resorting to plugin effects.
Albion One is better than other titles really to show off the scale of the Air Studio’s main hall. The close mics are the most dramatic, showing off the gritty nature of the stringed instrument when the dynamics are hit hard, particularly with the low register bass and celli.
Though technically the mic controls would be used to balance the orchestra in mixing environment, I find them very handy for portraying distance and natural dynamics. You have a choice of Decca tree conductor ears perspective, ambient audience ears, outrigger stereo mics up in the gods somewhere and the close, players ears perspective. Starting with a close mic level, the more of the other three you add in, the more lazy and distant the sound becomes.
Albion One’s orchestra is a big and heavy sounding. Though the dynamic control allows a wide range of control over the volume, it’s difficult to achieve a light touch. Albion One is best at being ‘shouty’ and aggressive, especially when coupled with the Darwin Percussion and a nice fat orchi-synth drone underscore from the Steam Band.
The strings for me excel in the low register. The basses and celli are sublime. Nothing comes close to Albion One’s slow and lazy bass. It oozes out of your speakers like molasses. The Brunel Loops are purely for action sequences, and they effectively convert a simple string chord into a manic car-chase sequence from a Jet Lee movie with ease.
If the soundtracks to the action Hollywood blockbusters inspire you – The Dark Knight, Interstellar, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter etc, Albion One is your new best friend.
The third major section of the library is the Kickstart engine used to power the Darwin percussion category. The sounds are one-shot samples layered in group zones across your keyboard, making performance quite easy once you familiarise yourself with the zones. The one-shots are quite expressive with an extended velocity range and various alternative hits on each of the zone keys. Each note also has multiple round robin recordings, so everything makes for a very dynamic performance, even on a MIDI keyboard. I easily re-mapped the software to match my 16-pad controller and found this to be by far the best way to play the instrument.
Off topic slightly, I can highly recommend the little Akai MPD218 for this purpose if you’re interested, at under $100 its a perfect companion for Albion One and sits nicely on your keyboard.
The manual is fantastic. From the opening page, with is the classy logo in small capitals on a blank page with beautiful typography and layout, you know you’ve invested in a high-end product. Though it’s quite a long read, it’s well worth the time spent at least briefly to run over and become familiar with the basic operation. There are many tricks to getting the most from Albion One to be found here.
Performance is excellent, though you’ll quickly run into trouble if you start layering too many instances without purging samples. It is a must to do a batch resave to align the software with your hard drive structure, and since you’ve invested in such a high-end product, you really should make sure your PC specs are adequate. A dedicated 150gig SSD with 16gig RAM is a must, the more you can invest here the better. Professional composers tend to run networked slave computers, which is great if you have the budget, but in all honesty, a modern PC with plenty of RAM and sizable SSD drive will suffice for most projects. Once you start composing Hollywood blockbusters, then you’ll have the budget to go wild.
It is reassuring to know the library was recorded through the best Neve Montserrat pre-amps and the mighty 88R console onto tape! This was converted to 96k digital for editing, so no expense was spared at any stage of the process.
The clever Ostinatum arpeggiator is included which allows up to 8 short sequences to be played back in the orchestral category. While every DAW is capable of recording MIDI loops like this, the Ostinatum has a very nice human feel about it, and I always prefer to use it if at all possible. It’s a little clunky to program, but worth persevering with. Hopefully Spitfire Audio will develop this feature further in the near future.
Even though Albion One has an updated UI, it is still extremely small and tricky to navigate with a mouse (especially on a high-resolution monitor). After coming from IK Multimedia’s awesome T-Racks 5, with its huge dials and fully scalable interface, this feels like a dinky toy.
Spitfire Audio has a top quality product in Albion One – a product that truly deserves that accolades that it receives. Possibly the biggest challenge facing Spitfire Audio right now is the number of products that they have available. With re-brands like Albion One and their recent Symphonic series, composers can be left wondering where best to invest their money!
Quality can be taken for granted in all Spitfire Audio’s titles. The issue for the composer is whether incremental improvements warrant the cost of their new products. I think it would be helpful if their website could clearly explain the core differences between their titles and suggest a purchase path for new users. I feel Spitfire Audio has a strong case for a subscription model.
Thanks to the constant efforts of founders Christian Henson and Paul Thomson to be the visible faces behind the company, a fantastic community has risen online with the developers being very interactive and approachable, and very happy to talk shop with anyone. There is a real feeling of connection with Spitfire Audio that I think creates a good relationship between the company and its customers. Pretty much anyone else in the market tends to hide behind an email-only support brick wall.
Every Spitfire Audio release is partnered with hands-on tutorials and live action videos showing the product in real-world use. You begin to feel like you’re part of the Spitfire family once you own a product.
So again, a wonderful library from Spitfire Audio. Flawless quality, excellent curated presets and very usable content. Absolutely one of the finest composer toolkits on the market, and as confusing as the product lineup might be to new users, rest assured this is definitely the grand-daddy flagship and the one you want to aim for with your budget. Albion One is not only for film composers, but if you’re looking for that larger than life cinematic sound, there is very little else on the market offering such a complete package.