Spitfire Audio Symphonic Strings
It’s getting increasingly more difficult finding a balance when reviewing Spitfire Audio products, they’re all such high quality that you know there’ll be no real faults to find. The question isn’t so much ‘should you buy?’, as the obvious answer is, of course, yes. The real question is…can my composing do justice to this level of excellence?
If anything, Spitfire Audio titles could be accused of being somewhat over-engineered, in that only the upper-echelon producers the like of Hans Zimmer and co would require, or appreciate, such attention to detail. But then this ‘super’ bundle offering delivers such amazing value for money there’s no excuse for even modest bedroom producers now to compete with the big boys.
Symphonic Strings is a re-boxed collection from Spitfire Audio’s previous BML Mural series (BML Mural 1-3 and Ensembles & Evolutions collections), with a heap of new presets and legato patches thrown in. The only real difference is the trimming down of extended mic position recordings (which you can purchase separately if you need). Sister woodwind and brass collections are also available offering you a complete orchestral palette.
SPITFIRE MURAL R.I.P. – PRESS RELEASE
“For reasons we’ll give in a minute, we’ve decided to take Mural 1, 2, 3, Ensembles & Evolutions off our shelves in their current form. To celebrate their award-winning success and to give everyone one last opportunity to enjoy this modular set of tools we’re going to be offering ALL volumes at a discount of a massive 47% whilst also putting Symphonic Evolutions on sale as a standalone library for the first and last time.
After nearly 4 years of hard graft we’re proud of what we consider to be the definitive selection of Symphonic Strings Samples. However having this broad selection of tools spread across different volumes does make for complications. We also found that without unifying the main body of work, we were unable to take advantage of articulation sharing between the different volumes for greater functionality and ease of use. We also feel if you want to go blockbuster you have to go bold, if you want cinematic you have to go big. So we have decided to take every articulation, dynamic layer, round robin, legato interval and rationalise it into the ultimate encyclopaedic compendium of Symphonic strings sampling to date, recorded in London, with no expense spared. Spitfire Symphonic Strings is the ‘Daddy’.
We will initially release Spitfire Symphonic Strings as a ‘core’ product with everyone’s favourite and most diverse microphone positions C(lose), T(ree), A(mbient). Followed soon after by two expansion packs, #1 Additional Mics & Mixes and #2 ‘Evolutions’.”
Though this is a seriously large download (150gig!), installation is a breeze and automatically handled by Spitfire’s Library Manager software behind the scenes, but you’ll need at least 200gig of spare HD space for installation – so now might be a good time to invest in that dedicated 250gig SSD drive you’ve been considering.
Out of the box you get a Kontakt NKS compliant sample library collective of 30 violin, 12 viola, 10 celli and 8 basses with around 170 articulations, dynamic layers, microphone positions and multiple round robbins. There are 5 individual string sections and a selection of ensemble patches, all recorded in pristine high-definition at Air Studios.
If you’re a newbie Spitfire Audio user, the GUI can look a little simplistic for such an imposing collection.
The root directory of patches contains individual groups of violin 1 and 2, viola, celli and bass, with an ensembles patch containing a mix of all five. Digging down into the directory structure you’ll find legao, core and decorative techniques, often with extended individual articulations for each – from variations of long’s, short, trems, trills, marcato and others. Its deep, but well laid out in a way you don’t need to dig in too far unless you’re looking for a specific performance style.
Once a patch is chosen and loaded they all share the same standardized GUI structure, so knowing your way around one sets you up for the rest. The default status when you load a patch is ‘Easy Mix’, where you only have access to simple performance controls and basic close or far mic mix positions. By clicking the little spanner icon on the top left corner you’ll access a more detailed view where you can fiddle with multiple mic positions, round robin controls and extra controller functions like speed and tightness. Importantly, if your system is struggling with the CPU requirements you can individually unload (or purge) styles you’re not using.
The layout is clean and easy to navigate once you’ve spent 5 minutes with it, though as typical of Spitfire libraries, you’ll need to refer to the manual to decipher the microphone position descriptions (In this case C meaning close, T for decca tree and A for ambience).
Learning to use MIDI controls is essential for a more natural sounding performance. At the very minimum, you will need a MIDI controller with three sliders – expression (volume), dynamics and vibrato. Extra controls for release and mic levels would be handy, though you can just as easily use the mouse to adjust major settings like that. We have a Yamaha MOTIF he in the Music Nation studio with four-zone sliders which worked well, so after a little time setting up default CC control on the keyboard and assigning host automation assignments in Kontakt, we were fully interactive with the library. Time spent feeling out the intricacies of each patch using dynamics and vibrato controls is well spent, and fortunately, there are few key articulation locations to memorize.
Founded by composers Paul Thomson and Christian Henson in 2007 who originally wanted to record high-quality sample libraries for their own use, Spitfire Audio is now based in London working from their own purpose-built recording studio with well over 50 titles available from their extensive catalogue.
Symphonic Strings is a giant library, with most of the patches requiring long load times.. The main Ensembles patch, for instance, takes around 10 seconds to load, then another 5 or 6 seconds once you’ve decided on your mic positions – so it’s certainly not an instantaneous process to hot-swapping out patches.
Time spent setting up your sequencer with multiple Kontakt instances running various patches is the best way, then swapping between tracks is faster than reloading one by one. Interestingly, loading many instances of Symphonic Strings didn’t seem to be as taxing as I thought – we had 12 unique tracks of MIDI playing with a little over 30% CPU resources being used. Though the code appears to be well optimized, if you’re running an older machine with anything less than 8gig RAM, I wouldn’t expect miracles.
On our system we encountered a few sample chopping issues when playing larger chords, especially when performing dynamic sweeps. When recording this didn’t affect the results, fortunately, playing the MIDI back didn’t reveal any dropped notes or weird timing. I think our system is about the verge of where you should want to be if looking to compose with this library. Anything less and you’ll be frustrated (See below for our review system specs). Most problematic for our machine is the hard drive Symphonic Strings is installed on, being a 7200 RPM SATA dinosaur, upgrading to a SSD would surely help I’m sure.
The library has a very open sound, especially when played carefully with MIDI dynamics, vibrato and expression controls, everything sounds full and alive. It does takes a while to hone your skills, but once you get the feel for the controllers you can achieve amazing results.
Though this is a massive library of samples instruments, it doesn’t immediately sound ‘massive’. You can achieve a certain degree of heaviness by increasing the ambient mics or layering more basses, the default tone is clear and airy. The fidelity is outstanding and you can really pick out individual instruments in an ensemble chord.The trick is to bring the dynamics way back and letting chords swell up slowly with a touch of vibrato, then more intense and you increase the dynamics. Just beautiful to hear when you nail the performance. You can, of course, hit the keys hard and get some decent sounding power chords, but Symphonic Strings sounds best with a light touch, less impacts and more slow building tension. It’s big sounding, but not thick – the wind in the forest, not the hammer and anvil. A beautiful long note chord held with subtle marcato ostinato lines dancing in the background is equally cinematic due to the clarity and air in the recordings.
Symphonic Strings fills the soundstage without dominating it, allowing other layered orchestra and even synth lines to balance in easily. It is easy to achieve a solid foundation, allowing room for solo instruments come forward naturally, without a need for drastic volume changes or processing. The mic position mixer differs from a normal reverb effect, mostly in that the sound gets progressively more distant and airy as you add more. Of course the room at Air Studios where everything was recorded is responsible for the wonderful effect.
Legato patches are brilliant and very lifelike, but the Time Machine patches are incredible, allowing you to stretch or compress the release tails with a MIDI controller. You can apply on the fly change to affect the feel from sus to marcato, it’s a very musical effect and once you get the feel of it, something you’ll use often. Some patches allow you to use the built in Ostinatum arpeggiator, which is brilliant in use, just a little awkward in setup due mainly to the small GUI size.
The basic note length and attack is defined by many obscure (for me at least) musical terms that even if you know what they mean you’ll need time to learn the sometimes subtle differences each can make, especially when introducing dynamics and vibrato. This is especially true in the extended techniques patch section, which contains some very unusual FX and trills.
Symphonic Strings is a real performance library – you cannot just patch browse and hope to find what you need. Having a good knowledge of real-life instrument helps as sound and characteristics of solo instruments requires a certain skill when playing. And likewise, time is required with each of the patches to learn the intricacies and details of the performance controls.
If this is a first-time foray into Spitfire Audio products, you’re in good company. There’s a reason all the a-list composers use Spitfire Audio libraries, and this being the premium product available right now at such a competitive price, Symphonic Strings is now an ideal entry point for composers for music or film, students or anyone interested in working with larger orchestral arrangements.
Symphonic Strings hyper-real recordings won’t immediately appeal to pop producers and does lack some of the instant gratification of 1-finger ‘wall of sound’ type libraries, the likes of ProjectSAMs wonderful Orchestral Essentials or Lumina for example. The vast majority of patches require time to swell and develop, the more aggressive immediate sounds required for pop being only a tiny part of this instrument. Symphonic Strings really suits composers with a moderate level of theory and arranging skill plus a good working knowledge of stringed instruments – basically, you’ll want be more comfortable wearing a tweed jacket and turtleneck sweater in the studio as opposed to a sideways baseball cap and baggy tracksuit pants.