Sonokinetic bring their idiosyncratic approach to sampling to the woodwinds section.
I’ve had the pleasure in recent months of reviewing several of Sonokinetic’s phrase-based orchestral sample libraries, as well as their ‘cinematic choir’ Tutti Vox. These rely to a large extent on replaying entire pre-recorded phrases, of musically useful lengths, and then on Native Instruments’ Kontakt 5 time-stretching to synchronise them into the tempo of your DAW. Really spectacular results can be achieved in no time at all with these libraries, they’re sophisticated and flexible, and I had no hesitation in giving them all a very warm recommendation.
If there’s a drawback, though, it’s that these phrase-based libraries are, after all, fundamentally preset and limited in nature. There’s not much sensation of ‘playing’ them — your MIDI controller only really triggers phrases — and if a suitable preset can’t be found for your musical needs you’re out of luck.
Ultimately, when maximum flexibility is what you’re after, a traditional multi-sampled, individual note-based library is the only tool for the job. And that’s exactly what we have in the form of Woodwinds Ensembles. It too runs in Kontakt, but this is much more the traditional orchestral library experience, of individual instrument groupings, articulations and keyswitches. What can Sonokinetic bring to the studio that hasn’t been done many times before?
The first thing to report is that the naming of Woodwinds Ensembles (which I’m going to call ‘Woodwinds’ from now on) is accurate, though not in the way you might at first assume. What we get here is four Kontakt instruments that present trio groupings of flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon individually. There aren’t any solo woodwinds, nor any bass clarinets, double-bassoons, cors anglais or piccolos.
Secondly, there are actually two versions of Woodwinds Ensembles, which differ in price. The Extended Edition has more or less double the number of trills, runs and dynamic variations compared to the Standard Edition, and some additional variations of the core sustained and Marcato groups too, but otherwise they’re identical. The screenshots here are from the Extended Edition that Sonokinetic supplied for review.
A last bit of factual low-down: the library loads into either a full version of Kontakt 5.5 (or higher) or into the free Kontakt Player. All the Kontakt instruments are NKS-ready, to light up the keyboards of anyone using a Native Instruments S-series controller.
Where Woodwinds begins to distinguish itself from some of its competitors is in the sheer number of articulation types available, especially so in the Extended Edition. They’re on display front and centre in the Kontakt interface, with those already loaded and ready for use shown in white lettering. Others load up when you click on them.
As you’d imagine, articulations are chosen as you play, using MIDI keyswitches. With this many articulations on offer, though, Sonokinetic have chosen to use a sort of hierarchical ‘two-tap’ system for getting at them. MIDI keys C0 through to A0 choose one of the six main articulation groups (Sustains, Marcatos, Shorts, Dynamics, Runs and Special). Then the neighbouring black keys C#0 through to A#0 select one of the individual articulations within the group. A few further ‘sub articulations’ (like run direction, for example) are called up with a keygroup higher up on your 88-note controller, above the main playing area.
In practice this system is intuitive and genuinely helpful, and beats octaves’ worth of keyswitches laid out next to each other any day. It also doesn’t take much longer to do a double ‘white-black’ keypress than a single. And a lot of the time you don’t have to do that anyway, because Woodwinds remembers the last specific articulation you chose in each group, and loads it again when just the group is chosen. Further expanding the possibilities, any three articulation combos can be saved on to the very lowest three keys of an 88-note controller, from where they can be recalled in a momentary fashion. And more than one articulation can be loaded at a time by playing two group keyswitches simultaneously. That way, if a straight sustained articulation doesn’t speak quickly enough for you, you can give it some bite by layering with a staccato, for example.
The net result of all this is that Woodwinds feels very explorable, responsive and playable, especially with the default arrangement of modulation wheel controlling dynamic level. Within seconds of beginning to use the library I felt I could knock out convincing, naturalistic melodies and figurations, containing several different articulations, with surprising ease. It’s not as if Sonokinetic have reinvented the wheel of course — it’s only a particular approach to keyswitching. But in this kind of library the detail of the implementation is everything, and here it makes for a very successful system.
It’s worth mentioning here three more aspects of how Woodwinds has been conceived and programmed. First, there aren’t any looped samples, and even samples in the Sustains group won’t play indefinitely, but only for about six or seven seconds. Next, Kontakt’s time-stretching is used to make some articulations tempo-sync’ed. For example, there are three different lengths of articulation for all the Marcato articulations, and the exact durations of these will adjust to keep pace with your DAW tempo. It’s the same in the Dynamics group, which really helps with sync’ing crescendos up to a big climax on a downbeat, for example. Speed of Runs also changes with DAW tempo, covering one octave per beat.
Finally, although Woodwinds doesn’t offer the hyper-realistic legato pitch transitions that some competitors use in their solo-oriented libraries, there is a sophisticated ‘polyphonic legato’ that seems able to support naturalistic, continuous-sounding legato lines for solo or even multi-voice parts even when played in real time. If you do want the dumb, conventionally polyphonic effect though, where notes indiscriminately overlap, the legato sensing can be turned off.
Going hand-in-hand with Woodwinds’ broad palette of articulations is a surprising degree of flexibility in sound and behaviour. A microphone mixing feature exposes the four mic perspectives that were used to capture the musicians. By default all the instruments use a premixed multi-mic ‘tutti’ perspective, but a mix of individual close, Decca (tree), wide and far mic feeds can be brought into play instead. Great for flexibility, but potentially a heavier strain on CPU and RAM if you mix together more than one. A little mixer panel with level and pans takes care of that.
An Options menu gives access to parameters for expression, legato and sound. There’s a little too much to discuss in detail here, but I’ll skim over most of it. Dynamic level can be switched to another MIDI CC of your choice, and the relative level of all the articulations adjusted, along with the level of ‘valve’ noise. Sample start and release time can be tweaked, and aspects of the polyphonic legato system tweaked.
The Options menu also calls up overlays to the normal graphical interface that allow you to move all the default keyswitch positions (brilliant for those using MIDI controllers with fewer than 88 notes) and, interestingly, almost entirely reconfigure the articulation chooser system.
Sonokinetic quite justifiably boast how Woodwinds was recorded in the same hall, with the same mic arrays, as all their recent phrase-based orchestral libraries. That’s important because it should make for a convincing gel in basic sound quality, and suitable stereo sound-staging and localisation, should you be in a position to use several of their libraries simultaneously. Also, the hall is a good-sounding one — not too cavernous or church-like, but with a likeable spaciousness that’s captured well in the CPU-friendly tutti mic perspective.
The quality of capture is generally very good too: attractively clear, open and with a low noise floor. I tried layering some Woodwinds instruments with Sonokinetic’s Sotto string library, and the effect was really convincing. I was initially concerned that as Woodwinds is built entirely from trio rather than solo samples it could end up creating the impression of an implausibly large wind section when multiple lines were sequenced. But that didn’t become an issue in practice, and in fact everything seems to blend very well, creating a really classy effect overall. A relatively modest round-robin system (often seeming to cycle three different samples) is employed to avoid artificiality on repeated notes.
Highlights of the library, for me, include most of the fruity, fast-speaking bassoons. The valve noise parameter really comes into its own there, varying the attacks from clean and clear to really wet and noisy. Flutes are a little softer-edged generally, but can do sexy and agile as well as spooky (think Alien titles). Oboes and clarinets are right up there too, for the most part, offering a great deal of playability and flexibility.
So let there be no doubt about it, this is a really good library. But it’s not without its unevenness.
There are a few tuning problems. The sustained clarinets’ lowest octave is generally way off of equal temperament, and many open intervals and triads in that region sound pretty twangy. It’s not helped at all by several round-robins near middle C that are unacceptably flat. Equally, some oboe marcatos use samples where the players took time to settle their unisons — high treble D is a bad one.
Next, I think the vibrato in the Sustains/Vibrato articulation (for bassoon and flute especially) takes too long to get going; sometimes a few seconds of absolutely plain non-vibrato before abruptly starting. And clarinet vibrato in general (which, to be fair, is not a very fashionable thing in the orchestral world) is quite a fast, shallow, unattractive affair.
More concerning, you’ll hear spurious release samples if you hold a note beyond the point where it dies away when using some of the main Sustain articulations for flute and oboe. It afflicts the flute’s special/frullato articulation too.
Another programming glitch has a number of high treble clarinet sforzando round-robins actually playing a semitone out. And I counted several inaccuracies relating to duration, such as the bassoons’ whole-note Marcato sub-articulation that only lasts a half-note, and various Dynamics durations that just did not seem to last as long as they were supposed to. There’s weirdness surrounding some Special articulations too, especially ‘short trills major’. They time-stretch to DAW tempo and I really think they shouldn’t.
More generally, I found the flutes’ staccato and staccatissimos far too polite. And while the Runs are a welcome feature, they seem to be constructed from two samples — the run itself, and a final note — and I was never 100 percent convinced by the way the two dovetailed. Too often the very end of the run seemed strangely weak and truncated, especially so if a DAW tempo change had taken place.
Now, it has to be said, these drawbacks only come to light following a forensic exploration of the library as a whole, and many won’t cause problems in most normal scoring contexts. However, Woodwinds is not a cheap library, and I think users could rightly expect to see updated Kontakt instruments in due course that iron out at least some of the wrinkles. Sonokinetic do issue these updates, so we can be hopeful.
In a direct feature comparison with some of its competitors (see the Alternatives box) Woodwinds perhaps doesn’t seem to come off so well. It can’t offer any woodwind exotica, doesn’t have any solo instruments at all, and has no specific double-tonguing, portamento, run or trill ‘builder’ features. However, in use it feels both flexible and musical. That partly comes from the friendly, easily mastered system for choosing articulations. And partly it’s down to the light-touch behind-the-scenes programming that supports the polyphonic legato and time-stretching. Certainly, once you get down to work with Woodwinds, fine-sounding results flow out of it, and for many scoring jobs most listeners would be hard-pushed not to think they were hearing a real orchestra recorded live.
The fair number of little rough edges in this first version of Woodwinds is definitely something potential purchasers should be aware of, but I want to stress it is not a deal-breaker, and I doubt Sonokinetic will allow them to persist anyway.
All things considered then, Woodwinds is worth really serious consideration by anyone looking for a specialist wind library. It should do all that most arrangers looking to build that big symphonic sound will ever need, and do it with considerable speed and ease.
The ensembles-only focus of Sonokinetic’s wind library is pretty much a unique selling point, and there’s nothing on the market that directly compares. However, Orchestral Tools’ Berlin Woodwinds does offer ensemble samples as well as a layered ‘divisi parts’ feature, heavy round-robin programming, a ‘Runs Builder’ and ‘Trills Orchestrator’. Meanwhile, the solo-only EWQL Hollywood Orchestral Woodwinds offers a stack of articulations as long as your contrabassoon, and includes the likes of contrabass clarinet, cor anglais and alto flute, alongside more common instruments.
With Standard and Extended versions available, and both 16- and 24-bit samples supplied, installation size of Woodwinds Ensembles varies quite a bit. The full Extended version comes in at over 71GB, but restrict yourself to Standard 16-bit (which sounds perfectly good) and you’ll get away with a mere 12GB or so.
RAM footprint also varies a lot, according to how many articulations you have loaded concurrently, and whether you opt for the tutti mic perspective or the multiple individual feeds. However, you can easily end up going well over a gigabyte per instrumental instance in Kontakt, so you’d better have plenty of RAM on hand if you want to sequence whole wind sections alongside other libraries.
And needless to say, you’ll have a far better time of it loading up from a solid state rather than a mechanical drive.