Spitfire Audio Orchestral Swarm – Oceans Alive
Hello, and welcome back to Music Nation. This week we’re looking at a rather unusual library from Spitfire Audio’s recent line of increasingly esoteric products that will surely strike a note with those seeking diverse sound pallets.
(Review updated July 2022) Spitfire Audio are the master of detail, and thanks to the incredible efforts invested in capturing every last nuisance of a recorded instrument, even the quietest note has a powerful impact on your arrangements. With high-profile collaborations and increasingly distinctive products, the company is clearly adventuring out into deeper waters with the 2017 range.
Long gone are any concerns with quality, Spitfire Audio simply does not release anything sub-par, period. What I look for now is how far they can push boundaries while still remaining practical for everyday use. With an extensive catalogue of orchestral libraries available, new titles to be trying to avoid repeating themselves by venturing into somewhat left-field and more experimental territories. The previous release of Phobos and the Bernard Hermann Library proved they are not afraid to push the boundaries.
Let’s get this whopping 50gig Library downloaded and installed, and see what surprises are on offer this time.
Orchestral Swarm is a unique orchestral library featuring high and low-string ensembles, woodwinds and brass. While that in itself is nothing out of the ordinary, the process the instruments were recorded is. The concept involved is what Spitfire dubs ‘the pointillistic effect’, an animated sustained note or chord perform with short staccato notes at random intervals. With many players in the group performing in this way, the result has the same effect overall as sustain, but with a moving, alive texture. There is much emphasis on the random nature of the performance, the slight mistakes and the human error.
This is not the company’s first foray into the ‘swarm’ process, three other titles have come previously which make more sense to the randomness of the process. The harp, mandolin and marimba instruments of the earlier releases naturally sound more balanced to my ears with this swarm-randomness effect, bowed strings and tongued brass instruments create a wonderful disjointed unease. The unpredictable nature of quickly playing notes out of time is much more pronounced with the new Orchestral Swarm patches.
Most of the library was recorded at British Grove Sound in secrecy for use on a recent Hans Zimmer/Radiohead collaboration for the new BBC Planet Earth II theme, only to be extended with a full orchestra at a later date for the release version we have here. The alternate location to the regular Air Studios features a much drier, more organic and more intimate feel than the previous libraries. A totally new signal chain consisting of a Neve 88r console with vintage EMI mics and pres, all recorded on a smaller stage with a more formative sound from the new environment.
The very familiar interface is well laid out with its typical, deceptively simple styling, hidden advanced controllers and mic mixer. Someone brand new to the Spitfire Audio ethos might not consider it terribly inspiring, but these are instrument patches designed to be layered many times over part of a larger template, so simplicity is imperative. The lighter ocean blue theme differentiates this from previous libraries and looks smart if, dare I say, in a very understated, English way.
Somewhat unusual for a Spitfire Audio library though, there are only 7 Patches included, with individual articulation banks to help ease CPU load if required. I did quickly check the manual to see if I was missing anything during the installation as usually Spitfire Audio provide many assorted patches, sometimes extra synths, and almost always curated presets and experimental patches to accompany the main core, but not this time.
Each of the patches includes a number of articulation styles, as well as your typical dynamics and variation controls which you’ll want permanently patched to your MIDI controller. Interesting duel-reverb controls add surprisingly lush results, and the 5-channel mic mixer allows you to enable extra mic recordings if required.
The first thing that strikes you when hearing any of the patches is wow, this is really bizarre. It’s unusual to your ears, of course, but also your brain is not used to hearing a large orchestra play purposely out of time like this, it takes a little while to become accustomed. Neat little pops of imperfect playing frequently pop from the jumble that would normally draw the irritated gaze from the conductor, but in this case are perfectly acceptable.
Spitfire Audio use the ‘ocean’ terminology a lot, and it certainly best describes the timbre of the sound. Each of the patches in their simplest form displays a kind of bubbling, rippling water characteristic, extending into much more aggressive and energetic results if you hit the dynamic controls harder or experiment with the articulation variations.
The string patches are separated into hi and low sections and the swarm effect is not as intense as the other products in the previous series. Due to the nature of a bowed string, the sound is more a trill effect as opposed to the very liquid, waterfall sound of Harp Swarm. Reducing the variation control simplifies the swarm effect making it more intense, but there is a definite large, heavy feel to the string section in general. The effect is not tempo locked, which is a real bummer. Though there is no actual rhythm to the playing, a definite tempo can be detected which sounds at odds in a very slow arrangement.
Brass, tuba and horn patches for me display the most distinctive personality, particularly with the unusual articulation choices. Woodwind whispers are wonderful, very off-worldly and mystical. As a whole, the library sounds lifelike and more realistic than usual due to this human error and randomisation factor. It has a very hypnotic and soothing quality, even though some of the instruments can get quite aggressive and raw when pushed with dynamic control.
The range of articulations, in general, is quite focused, not straying far from the core style. On first play through it felt a little limited in flexibility, but after practice, I found much more useful than I expected for many of these parts.
A selection of staccato articulations is included mostly for finalising or ending chords, but due to the very dry and raw recording style, this is one of my favourite patches of all Spitfire Audio libraries. Something about the very dry, small soundstage used to record, they sound very gritty, more in your face and immediate.
A brief note on system performance, and as expected you will require fairly serious DSP to push larger multi-layered templates, however, individual instances are surprisingly frugal on processing power. A single instance reported around 3-5% CPU, depending on the articulation and mic mix of course. As with all sample libraries, and especially Spitfire Audio ones, there is never such a thing as too much RAM. Even though an SSD drive is preferable for faster load times, our ageing SATA drives perform fine, though again, an optimal setup will want to look at much higher access speed options.
The two main controls you’ll want to map to your controller are dynamics and variation. Dynamics is your intensity and tends to increase brightness as the musicians attack the notes with more ferocity. Variation is an interesting control and has different results depending on the dynamic level and the articulation of the instruments selected. When available this control morphs between the two alternative recordings, usually a softer and smoother swarm, the second being simpler yet more aggressive in performance.
Changing articulations is easy as clicking the switcher or playing a mapped keyboard note. I personally like to assign a drum pad controller for the role, as I find it more accurate to hit the right changes on the fly. Interestingly, you can layer articulations on top of each other, resulting in an increasingly more chaotic disorder. You are able to convert the mic mixer from global to individual control, allowing individual articulation mixing, really good stuff.
Power users will want to set up UACC for controlling articulations, this is Spitfire Audio’s control system which assigns a CC data number to each articulation, allowing you to totally customise the way you perform with your chosen MIDI device. A nifty new function is the ‘By Speed of Playing’ option in the triggering menu, which simply changes articulations depending on how fast you play. Again, something power users will take full benefit of to create very tactile and expressive performance results. Of course, all of these control features are fully exploitable with your DAW, so even if your performance skills are a little off, you can utilise everything within your sequencer.
The room mic features a large mixing panel where you’re spoilt with options. Of course, there is full output routing through Kontakt to your DAW if you simply must mix outside the interface. By default, the (T) Decca tree is selected consisting of a set of three mics at the conductor’s position, plus you have full control over a collection of valve mics at the close position, stereo vintage outriggers, stereo mics at ground level close to the Decca tree, an R88 stereo ribbon mic at the back of the room and finally a mid-room mic on the brass patches for added punch. So yes, there is a great selection of mics included.
Spitfire Audio’s brilliant Ostinatum arpeggiator is available for short articulations, and though somewhat clunky to program, the results are surprisingly humanistic. You could technically draw sequences these in your DAW, but the simple drag-and-drop style step arranger is perfect for folks with limited programming ability, or if you just want to play with some rough ideas or drop in some quick little one-finger phrases. It’s also a great way to generate some unexpected inspiration – randomising some notes, layering and even duplicating over multiple instances will often create madness, but every now and again, gold.
Spitfire Audio Orchestral Swarm is a very focused and specific character library, certainly not one I’d recommend for your first purchase if you’re new to virtual instruments, this will require fairly high composition skills to utilize to its full capabilities. Due to its very signature sound, also this won’t be something you’ll want to lavish over all of your arrangements, mostly in small embellishments.
Even though the voicings are unusual, the results are not a radical assault on your ears. Swarm has an underscored tension, a living texture and the subconscious feeling of movement that tricks the ear. There is no other compromise available, no way to replicate this effect realistically. In the right circumstances, Orchestral Swarm will be a revolutionary mindset change for some composers.
Due to the very characteristic style of the swam effect, this would be a difficult library to produce more than sound design projects or perhaps very avant-garde projects if used by itself. What I did find, however, this is an excellent complement to Symphonic Strings and other libraries. Orchestral Swarm is the catalyst to elevate your orchestral projects to the next level. The swarm effect can be as subtle or audacious as you like, probably with the old adage ‘less is always more’ firmly seeded in the back of your mind – this most definitely has the potential to become trite if overdone.
There are no demo versions available, however, Spitfire Audio has produced a range of excellent hands-on tutorials and overviews which are well worth watching through for insights and usages of the library in a professional environment.
Another absolutely wonderful offering from Spitfire Audio, who time and again show they are happy to push boundaries and explore new frontiers. Orchestral Swarm is certainly one of the boldest innovations in sampling technology right now, and an essential element for any new composer wishing to lift their A-game, or those at the top looking to stay there.
Full details with purchasing options are available on the official Spitfire Audio website right here www.spitfireaudio.com
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