SPITFIRE AUDIO HANS ZIMMER STRINGS – THE GENTLE GIANT
This week we are taking a detailed look at the new mega-library Hans Zimmer Strings from Spitfire Audio and its popular composer collaborations. This latest offering features a brand new interface and possibly one of the largest ever ensemble of players for a string library.
Hans Zimmer is certainly the centre point of the cinematic soundtrack industry at the moment. With his numerous film accolades and a recent world tour, the man is pretty much a household name now. His previous collaborations with Spitfire Audio are also well known, this being his third major title with the company.
Spitfire Audio has gone all out now, bringing together the largest-ever orchestral string group under one roof. Recording a standard one-hundred-piece orchestra is considered a massive undertaking, but Spitfire knocks that way out of the ballpark with this quite awesome 344-piece string orchestral library.
Hans Zimmer Strings is a string ensemble sample library running from Spitfire Audio’s brand-new proprietary software interface. The library takes up a whopping 170 gigabytes and will require twice that for the installation process. Spitfire Audio’s installation manager looks after all the downloading and installation behind the scenes and keeps tabs on your purchases and any updates available.
Unlike most Spitfire Audio libraries Hans Zimmer Strings runs from its own custom-designed player, not Kontakt. The slick new interface has been designed especially for the library in conjunction with white tie designers UsTwo.
As with most things Hans Zimmer, the library is extreme from all angles. Included are over 230 presets and 147 articulation techniques, plus a mind-blowing 26 potential microphone mix positions. Each category offers multiple dynamic layers, round robins, release triggers and legato options.
Recorded at London’s Air Studios, each of the core violins and cellos sections features 60 players as a full spread layout with extra recordings taken from 20 players on the studio left, 20 right, 20 more in the middle and finally 20 up high in the studio gallery balcony. The violas have a 20-player section spread in the full seating with 20 more spread wide, with the basses having 24 players set in the centre, bringing the total instrument count to 344.
Though it’s not made clear, the library was titled after its namesake due to the actual players who make up the orchestra, these being the same ones Mr Zimmer uses regularly on his recordings – not necessarily the “Hans Zimmer Sound”. Mr Zimmer had little input into the production and recording of the library, other than a spiritual association.
The attractive interface features a large dial, customisable with a number of dynamic effects such as release time, tightness, vibrato and reverb. Flanking to the left is a pair of faders for volume and dynamics. On the bottom half of the UI are three tabbed screens, the first for articulation technique selection and advanced trigger controls. Tab two is for the huge microphone mixer and stereo widening effects. The third tab contains the effect controls mirrored from the large knob control.
Hans Zimmer Strings RRP’s at $800 USD. That’s about $1150 to us Kiwis, so I hope you’ve saved some of your Christmas money this year.
If like me you are expecting bombastic Pirates of the Caribbean ostinatos right out of the box you will be disappointed. Though Mr Zimmer’s work is best known for its dark cinematic landscapes, the vast majority of Spitfire Audios’ Hans Zimmer Strings are moody longs and very…very quiet flautando and con sordino.
Hans Zimmer is well known for recording what he dubs “on the edge of silence” to retain the full character of the instrument. Orchestral instruments change in timbre drastically the louder you play them, so keeping the velocity as low as possible and then simply turning up the recordings provides much more dynamic range and is one of the tricks to producing his massive cinematic sound.
There are plenty of epic shorts for dramatic spiccato lines, but the vast majority of the library is focused on long, very quiet textures and ambience strings. Of the 19 or so available articulations for the 60 Cellos category, aside from your pizzicato and col legno type, there is only one short. This is presumably because trying to get 140 players to play the staccato technique is a complete mess.
One aspect of this library that struck me as confusing is the extreme volume differences in patches. Of course, this is done to reflect the before mentioned “edge of silence” technique, but some patches are so very quiet that if I did not see the meters moving slightly on my mixing desk I would have thought the samples were not triggering.
The included patch browser, which incidentally is excellent, includes a preview play button giving you a quick C-chord stab so you know what you’re getting. The range in volume differences requires you to boost your studio monitors, and then quickly reduce the volume to prevent speaker damage on the louder patches. As an example with the 60 Cellos category, the loudest patch is the shorts, measuring in at around -2bd on my meters. Conversely, the super flautando peaks around -48db, it’s that much difference.
Just to make matters worse, the expression or volume settings are not “sticky”, so while you can boost the volume by 400% inside the player, as soon as you change articulations the volume is reset.
The advice from support is to include MIDI CC automation in your sequence arrangement to counteract the volume reset. I prefer to split the multi patches out into individual instances inside my DAW, then apply channel volume levels for each articulation. More on this in a minute.
The other rather large elephant in the room is the hilarious number of microphone choices given in the advanced mode. Now don’t get me wrong, I love more stuff. More stuff is great, but I’m not 100% sure why, for instance, there is a microphone recording the inside of a water bottle and then another recording under the stage riser the band is sitting on.
The cello category alone has 88 microphone recordings! I just don’t see an application that requires such pin-point environmental mixes that might call for an extra gallery mic on the third cello to the left. Also, if they were tonally interesting I could see some merit in providing a few dozen alternatives, but a mix of the ambient spot and outrigger mics quite literally sounds exactly the same. Sure, it’s nice having the ability to fine-tune the levels for each individual spot, but this extremity makes me wonder if I’ve bought an orchestral library or an acoustics engineering course.
Admittedly, the aforementioned bottle and stage riser mics sound quite unique and interesting, but the rest of the time I pretty much have close mics up, Decca tree and a little ambience mic, I never need to use the rest.
Of course, the solution is to use the library in simple mode with its distance fader which works perfectly well for 99% of the time. The frustrating thing is the huge amount of resources dedicated to your hard drive to these unused microphone recordings accounts, which I’m guessing account for the vast majority of the 170-gigabyte install footprint. An option to install fewer would be great.
Firstly, prepare yourself for some serious hardware stress testing, this library will push your machine limits if you plan on using the full complement of mics included.
It starts with the monstrous 170gigbyte download, so book in some extra bandwidth if you’re on some kind of limited data plan with your ISP. Next, you will need double that in spare hard drive space to install the library – so if you’ve recently bought a 250gig SSD for all of your sound libraries, it’s time to bin that.
Though the box states the minimum RAM requirements are 8 gigabytes, that is woefully optimistic. Our 16gig test machine really struggles to load even the most basic microphone mixes. Realistically, you will need 32 gig minimum, even on an external networked VSL system.
The savvy will notice the Apple Mac computer used in the demonstrations videos on YouTube costs close to $18k. So a hands up to anyone who is looking to replicate the advertised session arrangements, you’re going to need some serious horsepower.
Loading times for multi-patches are extreme too. Even the default 60 Cellos “All In One” patch with a single “Tree” microphone up takes around 3 minutes to fully load, and it’s only a 430meg patch. Even smaller, sub-200meg patches take an extraordinarily long time to load. I suspect there are some optimization issues with this v1.0 release.
Interestingly, and the support team could not provide an answer for this, loading individual instances of the same multi-patch is dramatically faster. So, for example, it takes nearly 3 minutes to load the 430meg “All In One” cello patch takes but a DAW track with each of the 11 articulations loaded into separate instances completely loads in around 40 seconds.
We found in testing that this is common across all categories of the library – loading multis severely slows down performance over individual instances. This is great news for folks running orchestral templates, however, casual users may find frustration in this approach.
The hardware limitations of our system really kick in when attempting to run multiple mic mixes. Since each mic channel is a separate instrument recording, you can potentially chew up 100+ voices if you hold the sustain pedal. Running 5 or 6 microphones could easily have 500-600 voices playing at once, way beyond the limits of our system. Tying to come anywhere near the 344-piece orchestra demonstrated at the product launch is way, way beyond the abilities of our system.
More concerning is the new interface appears to have no way of purging samples! This is a massive under sight and something I am sure many will be complaining about. As you may be aware, in Kontakt you can load hundreds of instances of the library as the unused samples can be purged from memory. Spitfires’ interfaces allow you to remove articulations, but all of the sample memory is retained across the entire 88-note piano range (or the full range of the instrument, at least). I beg Spitfire to address this in future updates.
Happily, there is a very simple, if quite heavy-handed fix for this limitation, and that’s just don’t run any ambient mics. We found great results by using only the close microphones and then using high-quality 3rd party convolution reverbs to emulate the environments of Air Studios. Of course, this totally removes much of the atmospheric location benefits of the library, but when you’re on a performance knife-edge, this is a quick fix.
So using individual instances instead of multis, summed and submixed through a reverb BUS** we found excellent performance results with all the benefits of articulations being available. It’s a frustrating trade-off, because of the vast amounts of hard drive space dedicated to holding all those microphone recordings that will never be used. But being able to perform with the entire library with a good degree of efficiency on our machine was worth the extra routing.
**If you plan on trying this technique, can I suggest you limit to 4 or 5 instances of convolution reverb busses that have multiple recording points. Eventide’s Stereo Room is good for this, also Audio Ease AltiVerb or Wave’s IR-L as they all come with true location recordings with multiple room location options. Your first BUS send should feature a very close, almost dry mix, with subsequent busses each progressively further away. With this method, you can dial in a specific mix similar to Air Studios but applied to all of your articulations using the same environment, therefore keeping the orchestra in the same acoustic space. Since BUS sends use dramatically fewer DPS resources than individually applied microphones, you can essentially quadruple your CPU performance.
The new interface is gorgeous with its black/green on grey, certainly one of the more classy-looking UIs around, but it does have some quirks.
The top half is mostly dedicated to only one large dial, two faders and the logo. There are a number of hidden menus that would provide very important information that could have been displayed here.
The large centre dial looks great. However, there is only a single assignable control from one of the four included FX. Clicking in the centre section allows you to choose one of four available controls to affect, each of which is also available directly underneath the knob in the FX menu, making the large dial mostly superfluous. I wish there was some way to put this control to better use, perhaps similar to Yamaha’s new Montage’s “Super Knob”, where you can operate multiple effects and parameters at once.
As much as I like the layout from an artistic point of view, it can be frustrating when using the mixer as you need to flick a lot between pages to set up a microphone mix. Some related mixed elements are spread between pages, such as the close left, right and centre, which doesn’t make much sense.
I will, however, totally forgive all the minor quirks as the ability to rescale the entire interface is fantastic! Gone are the days of squinting at tiny Kontakt layouts. You can drag-resize the entire interface to any size you like. Awesome.
If there’s one thing Spitfire Audio does very well, it’s string libraries. This is the pinnacle of the company’s achievements to date, so of course, the sound quality is outstanding.
It is difficult to convey a definitive description of sound and because Spitfire Audio does not release demos it’s rather hard for prospective customers to hear for themselves what they are paying for. Though the online promo videos are great, you need to bear in mind the huge amount of resources the demonstrators have behind the scenes to make everything sound flawless.
As this is an ensemble library the intent is for category patches to be played single-finger legato style, not as a chord. While the temptation is to bash out a few 10-finger chords with the sustain pedal firmly planted to the ground, since there is no auto-divisi option the best way to listen to judge Hans Zimmer Strings, in my opinion, is as a minimal single note with plenty of dynamic movement with the mod wheel.
So with that in mind, from my experience with Hans Zimmer Strings, the descriptive words that come immediately to mind are thick, weighty and syrupy. The sound envelops you like quicksand. The soundstage of the full 60-piece cello or violin patches is blanketing, especially when separate sections are set up and panned as per the orchestral seating plan.
Hans Zimmer Strings is not as slow as I expected, but there is a slight gravity to the sound development as if things take a little longer to ramp up.
I predicted a fat, lumbering whale but in reality, the library is fairly spritely, considering its girth. Much of this density comes from the room environment and the release tails.
Let’s look at a few of the more expressive articulation options you have to play with.
The shorts, in particular with the full 60-piece loaded, are more like giants’ footsteps with tight spiccato flicks. Pizzicatos are wonderfully thumpy, more like an elephant trying to sneak around than a ballerina, with the Bartok variant being the total opposite. Instead of a dainty plucked note imagine 60 string players smacking their instruments with the back of their bows and you’ll have an idea as to how it sounds.
Col legno tratto is the technique of playing with the back of the bow, which sounds like the very last thing you would ask a professional musician to do, however, the results are wonderfully narrative, with nice little pops of slight dissonance and dynamic mismatches. With the full 6 round-robin option enabled, you can achieve a bubbling wall of sound teaming with life and is definitely one of my favourite sounds in the library.
Super flautando technique I had to do some research on it as it’s not one I am familiar with. Flautando is playing the string over the fingerboard creating a more airy sound. As it turns out, “Super” flautando is that, but with a much lighter touch so as to induce string harmonics and a more “glassy” sound, as the manual puts it. This sound has a very slow ramp-up that requires some fiddling with the release tails for it to cross-fade nicely with itself but used as a single chordal wave you can achieve a lovely textured build
Super sul pont is abrasive, biting and spikey – a string player’s variation of scratching one’s fingernails down a chalkboard. This is pretty much the polar opposite of flautando – the string is played directly next to the bridge. A very characterful and challenging voice to use, but it brings extra dimension and layer to an arrangement if used well.
The long con sordino is fantastic and my favourite (if I had to choose a favourite). Beautifully smooth and heavy, the string players apply mutes to their instruments to create a softer and more expressive sound over the slightly harsh, full-bowed longs.
Tremolo con sordino pont waves variants are not as chaotic as I first thought but there is more randomness for sure that a smaller chamber orchestra would provide. This is a tremolo technique with the con sordino mutes applied but played sul pont styler closer to the bridge. The effect is closer to Spitfire Audio’s “Swarm” than a traditional tremolo in my opinion, with a more blurred and softer vibrato that you might be used to. There is an interesting development in the orchestral width as a chord is held which I enjoy
There is much more to discover with this library than I have covered here, but the basic feeling I was hoping to convey is the complexity and weight of the recordings. This is not a library to throw around into fast action sequences or pop arrangements and expect tight and immediate results. It will get up and move, albeit in a lumbering way. The natural environment for this library is in slow, thoughtful arrangments where the timbre of the instruments and the dynamics of the room have time to develop fully.
How does it compare with other libraries though? Well, this is where it gets a bit tricky because the biggest competition really is from Spitfire’s own Chamber Strings and Symphonic Strings libraries. Hans Zimmer Strings could be considered the “fat boy” of the three, having the slowest development and largest weight of sound, so as part of a triad of Spitfire products, this is part of a match made in heaven.
There are other libraries on the market with similar, or at least equally nice-sounding voices, but Spitfire Audio really goes out of its way to provide as much flexibility as possible with the number and detail of its included articulations.
Hans Zimmer Strings is the new flagship for the company and possibly the centre point for your orchestral collection. Early adopters also receive a nifty collectors coffee table book so you can show all visitors to your studio that you have the best available gear.
The product is also a fantastic example of slick marketing. To say style over substance is a little unfair, I champion any developer who can break away from the Kontakt “shackles”. But it seems to me that the new GUI has a stronger focus on aesthetics rather than workflow.
Hans Zimmer Strings is an insight into the production sound inspired by the composer’s work. It is the sound he would expect from his players, the articulations and the mic position he would typically use in a session. There are no ‘Inception” or “Pirates of the Caribbean” presets. You cannot simply dial up a soundtrack.
What you do get are the building block foundations for achieving the essence of those soundtracks – you still need to provide the composing skills, unfortunately for me.
Though I have criticised Spitfire Audio in the past for offering libraries with only tiny incremental differences from each other, here is something so outrageously different and brazenly over the top. I have no doubts now the company is not afraid to think outside the box.
In this case, they’ve smashed that box to pieces with a large wrecking ball.
There may be a couple of artistic decisions causing potholes in the road, but Hans Zimmer Strings ultimately is a tour de force. A triumph on both a technical and emotional level, a truly beautiful instrument to play and compose with.
Full details and purchasing options are over on the official Spitfire Audio website
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