Rising from the mist of old England comes the successor to Spitfire's flagship orchestral library.
As the UK economy continues to wobble and factories close left, right and centre, it's good to see a home-grown company succeed by selling products based squarely on British expertise. I refer to Spitfire Audio, purveyors of high-quality orchestral samples since 2008. Having set out their stall by granting licenses to use their libraries on a by-invitation basis, founders Christian Henson and Paul Thomson adopted a more conventional approach with their first commercial release, Spitfire Percussion. This was followed by harp, harpsichord, grand piano and solo strings titles, and the jewel in Spitfire's crown: the 39GB Albion orchestral collection. (Read the SOS review of Albion at /sos/oct11/articles/spitfire-audio-albion.htm.)
As sure as day follows night, a follow-up has loomed out of the mist: christened Albion 2 Loegria, its intriguing subtitle derives from the old Welsh name for a large, southerly chunk of England excluding Devon and Cornwall. (I had to look that up on the Internet, but I bet you erudite SOS readers knew it already.) Adding to the sense of mystery, 'Loegria' pops up regularly in Arthurian legend, evoking images of Merlin, the Lady of the Lake, The Knights of the Round Table and all that moody, mythical stuff beloved of Hollywood studios — and manufacturers of 'cinematic' sample libraries.
Where Albion 1 provides an instant, big symphonic sound for sketching Hollywood-style scores, Albion 2 adds instrumental detail, offering (in the makers' words), "Esoteric instruments and approaches and eccentric ideas... all with an essential selection of additional orchestral voices not found in Albion 1.” The content (all new) comprises string sections, an unconventional selection of brass and woodwind, big and ambient drums, musical rhythm loops, processed pads, drones, atmospheres and sound-design effects. Like all Spitfire's titles, the library was recorded at Air Studios' Lyndhurst Hall by Jake Jackson and benefits from the inimitable, grandiose natural reverb of that scoring location. The musicians were chosen from the ranks of London's finest and their performances recorded to two-inch tape, before being digitised.
Albion II is exclusively for Kontakt 5, which runs stand-alone and as a plug-in on Mac and Windows computers. (See the System Requirements box for more details.) A free Kontakt Player is included with the library.
As in Albion 1, violins and violas are combined in 'high strings' patches, while 'low strings' patches bring together cellos and double basses. Rather than sampling each instrument type separately and combining them at the programming stage, the producers recorded them together, orchestrating their parts so that (for example) the violins gradually take over from the violas going up the range. This has been done so deftly that you don't notice transitions between instruments as you move up and down their range. Mixed ensembles are the order of the day: there are no solo instruments, and no dedicated second violins, violas or cellos patches. Also absent is the octave doubling used extensively in the original library: all Albion 2's instrumental samples are in unison, which is no bad thing, in my book.
Section sizes (14 violins, four violas, four cellos and three basses) are smaller than Albion I's 20/seven/six/four line-up. The new numbers correspond to those I tend to use on pop sessions, so I know from first-hand experience the lush, expansive sound an ensemble of this size can produce. The 'Strings Longs Full' multi bears that out, combining high and low strings in an instantly playable, elegant and stately timbre with a luxuriant texture you can almost reach out and touch. The immediate impression is that of larger-scale symphonic strings, rather than a chamber-sized group. I've heard a few tasty string samples in my time, but I must say this combination of top players and a world-class room is irresistible.
Albion 2 offers a far greater range of string articulations than its predecessor, introducing subtleties such as col legno bow hits and some unusually sweet-toned, chromatically-mapped harmonics. The legnos are performed at mp dynamic only (albeit with four round-robin variations) and so sound rather delicate. I would have liked the option of a louder dynamic, even if this is a style you're unlikely to turn to very often. The same can't be said for the fabulous flautando long notes, which are just begging to be used in soft, romantic and lyrical music. Played by both high and low strings, their light, breathy, 'flute-like' tone is created by bowing above or near the fingerboard; the producers asked the players to play in a 'warm and harmonic-like fashion', resulting in a beautiful, sensuous timbre.
Returning to more familiar styles, the strings' staccatissimos are a treat, delivering a bright, brisk attack across their full six-octave-plus range and showing off the Lyndhurst Hall acoustic to great effect. The idea is not to blow your head off with power, but to provide a fairly light, 'brushed' bowing to keep rhythmic passages zipping along. This is an area in which smaller section sizes are a clear advantage, as the reduced numbers make it easier to produce a more focused, less 'spread' attack. The same is true of the brilliant pizzicatos, which, to my ears, work better for rhythmic ostinatos than their counterparts in Albion 1, and also sound great playing melodies and chordal accents.
Via a nifty bit of programming magic, Albion 2's free 1.1 update extends the high strings' legato range to cover the entire violin register, while the low string legatos currently span only the bottom two octaves of the cello. There are no viola or double-bass legatos, but, frankly, in the case of the basses you're unlikely to miss this articulation: their magnificently sonorous long notes flow together convincingly without the help of legato scripting, providing a tremendous foundation to the string sections. If you've never used true legato samples before, this would be a good place to start: the high violins have a magnificent regal sweep, and the four cellos deliver expressive, emotive melody lines with immense nobility. Inspirational for composers and impressive for listeners, these articulations will bring your arrangement to life.
The 1.1 update also introduces a new polyphonic legato feature, based on the astute realisation that using the mod wheel to control dynamics (now standard practice in orchestral libraries) frees up velocity to be used for another purpose; in this case, as a legato voice assignment controller. Here's how it works: turn on the 'Polyphonic legato' function in Kontakt, record a melody line, then edit all its note velocities to the same value — say, 1. Record a second line on the same track and fix its velocities to 20... and so on. The polyphonic-legato script recognises the different velocity bands you've created and assigns each one to its own monophonic true-legato voice. Using this simple but ingenious method, you can program up to eight independent legato lines using a single patch. You could achieve the same result by loading eight legato patches into one instance of Kontakt and assigning each to a different MIDI channel, but that would require eight times as much RAM and place a far greater load on your system!
Both the legatos and straight sustains have a 'half section' option, where one player from each desk remains tacet. The half-sections' somewhat purer, clearer tone adds definition to melody lines and will work well in conjunction with solo woodwinds. You can also use the half sections for true two-part divisi writing, satisfying the academic argument that two notes played by a sampled ensemble should not double the instrument count! The difference in sound between the full and half sections is less dramatic than you might suppose, which means that you can switch between them in mid-flow without disturbing the atmosphere.
Where Albion 1 offers the staple orchestral brass fare of trumpets, trombones, French horns and tuba, Albion 2 goes for a less classical alternative by providing an ensemble of two euphoniums and two French horns. Although well known to British ears as a brass band and military band instrument, the euphonium rarely finds its way into sample libraries, or, for that matter, film scores. The unison pair included here combines beautifully with the horns to create a warm, rounded tone. Containing no blaring sforzandos or Judgement-Day blasts, this perennially mellow timbre is ideally suited to soft chord pads, but its legato performances' loud dynamic is bright and robust enough to carry a lead line in a full orchestral arrangement. My only criticism is that the legato patch omits the low and high extremes of the ensemble's near-three-octave range, which may put a brake on your melodic excursions.
If the inclusion of euphoniums evokes cosy, Hovis-ad-style images of bygone days, Albion 2's other brass entry goes much further into the past. At some point in the 15th century, somebody fitted a slide mechanism to a trumpet (possibly as a joke?), and the instrument we now know as the trombone was born. Except it wasn't called that: the new-fangled slide-trumpet acquired the name 'sackbut', which may or may not be derived from the Spanish sacar (to draw or pull) and bucha (a tube or pipe). As is their wont, the English produced their own risible spelling variations, one of the more stupid of which was 'shagbolt'. Happily, common sense prevailed, and the name 'sackbut' is now firmly lodged in the musicological vocabulary.
To help stand out from the crowd, Spitfire Audio made the bold decision to include a sackbut ensemble (which sounds to me like two players) in Albion 2. While this archaic trombone duo shares some of the euphonium/horn combo's mellow tendencies, it can also emit a stirring, brassy racket, as evidenced by its loud marcato short notes. Its plump-sounding staccatissimos would work well for a fanfare signalling the arrival of Henry VIII at his royal court; however, the instruments' main strength lies in playing sumptuous brass pads, thereby providing an interesting alternative to conventional horns and trombones.
The sackbuts' usefulness in this field is compromised by some dodgy tuning: the long note of D above Middle C is the worst offender, with one player starting his note flat of the other. Impossible to rectify in post-production, this sample should really have been re-recorded (although I do understand that historic instruments can be difficult to play in tune). Fortunately, anyone with rudimentary Kontakt programming chops can delete the sample in question from the patch and fill the gap by stretching the play zones of the neighbouring notes. Once I'd done that, these instruments with the ugly name rewarded me with some very sweet music.
It's woodwind Jim, but not as we know it. Rather than following convention and adding auxiliary orchestral instruments such as alto flute or contrabass clarinet to their previous library's standard woodwind line-up, Spitfire again went for the unpredictable in Albion 2 and opted for two-player recorder ensembles, recorded in high and low versions. As the makers point out, the fact that most of us played recorder in our youth gives this sound an immediate nostalgic familiarity, and the low recorder duo's sweet, wooden-flute tone certainly has a charming innocence and purity. The low duo's sustains are lovely for chordal work, and you can add expression to legato melodies by pushing up the mod wheel to introduce vibrato on louder notes.
The high recorders are undeniably attractive, though I must admit that I've never been able to find a home for this childlike, piping timbre in my music. However, the fact that these are duo rather than solo performances gives them a fresh angle, and they would certainly come into their own if you were scoring an epic, mythic screen production involving Maid Marian or Lady Guinevere (not Lady Gaga, though). In any case, the recorder's piercing high register should be used sparingly, as the makers themselves admit, "In the wrong hands they can loosen fillings”!
A minor footnote is that the manual states: "We have introduced a slider to control the attack [of the recorders] as we feel the bite of the tonguing at the beginning of every [note] may limit its uses.” In my review copy, this slider is conspicuous by its absence.
Included in the original Albion library is a collection of drily-recorded, lightweight rhythm patterns intended to provide composers with some instant rhythmic impetus that won't dominate the overall sound picture. Albion 2 intensifies this approach with a new collection of loops that one can only describe as slightly mad. Inspired by the pre-recorded musical rhythm tracks built into the original split-keyboard Mellotrons, the producers hired a seven-piece acoustic band and instructed them to play a selection of short loops that evoke the spirit of our glorious (and not so glorious) musical past. In honour of the clunky tape-loop technology of the old instrument, the collection is called Byron Tapes.
The loops feature various drum kit patterns dating back to the swinging '60s and beyond: a 12/8 slow blues in a choice of sticks or brushes, a scuffling, not particularly well-played dance-band beat, a bossa nova complete with Latin percussion, a fast '10-to-10' swing beat with bongos (a nice one, that) and some 1970s Headhunters-style funk grooves. With the addition of guitar, acoustic piano and upright bass, we move into classic Mel O'Tron accompaniment territory with loops which include a re-take of Johnny Kidd's 'Shakin' All Over' guitar lick, a 'Blueberry Hill'-style slow shuffle, a spirited rockabilly/skiffle riff, a dash of 1960s party music, a bit of ska, and so on. It's all good fun and though the tempo-sync'ed patterns sometimes don't loop very well, this tongue-in-cheek romp through the styles of yesteryear should serve at least to acquaint younger users with some of the weird musical motor habits of their grandparents, even if some of them are desperately corny. I'm not sure where the 'Byron' bit comes in, but if these styles aren't exactly Byronic, they're certainly ironic, and maybe even iconic... in a cheesy kind of way.
Referring to the original pre-recorded loops that inspired this collection, the makers say: "Over recent years, these loops have become miraculously popular and can be heard on everything from rap records to washing-powder commercials.” Funny to think that something that already sounded old-fashioned in 1970 should undergo such a renaissance, but I guess in the music business everything gets recycled eventually!
The Byron loops were recorded onto tape through vintage mics and mastered through a variety of outboard devices to enhance the period flavour. The idea is to give users a choice of six different processed sound sources, accessed in the same way that you select different mic positions, but although the different sample sets are incorporated into the Kontakt instruments, the ability to switch between them on the front panel was not implemented in my review copy.
Two other main sound categories instigated in Albion 1 are developed in this library. 'Darwin Percussion Ensemble 2' is a collection of walloping, reverb-drenched, surround-ready drum hits — "calamitous”, the makers call them, and they don't mean they're a disaster. 'Easter Island hits' (a selection of gargantuan, booming bass drums) is a highlight, while 'Fine Drums' is more defined and ethnic-flavoured. A full set of rock toms have plenty of weight and impact but little sustain, so you can program them into busy patterns without creating a messy build-up of overtones. I'd suggest you reserve the 'Sub hits' patch for the moment in a film-music dubbing session when the engineer asks you, "Got anything scary for this bit?”, at which point you can whip out these low-pitched, bowel-loosening impacts. Less junkyard-oriented than the equivalent patch in Albion 1, 'Metal Shop 2' is a surprisingly tuneful miscellany of metallic clangs and dings.
The other main sound set, 'Stephenson's Steam Band 2', offers a cataclysmic assembly of heavily processed pads, drones and crescendo swells entirely derived from the Albion 2 recordings, and a set of sequenced effects created by programmer Stanley Gabriel. Most of them share an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world feel: 'Steam Missile', in particular, is unbelievably apocalyptic, and sounds even more awesome when layered with orchestral strings. Several patches had me thinking I could hear heavenly voices, but since there are no choir samples in the library, it's probably just my medication. Anyway, these symphonic-scale soundscapes offer plenty of scope for both surreal sound-design and traditional note-based composition.
Also worthy of note are the 'Fenton Reversals' (presumably a tribute to composer George Fenton), a very useful and varied selection of backwards samples which, in time-honoured reversed-cymbal tradition, start off super-quietly before building to an intense crescendo. Watch your amp levels with these: you won't know how loud they're going to get until it's too late! The makers suggest that these noises would be useful to film composers when a scene is unexpectedly re-edited and their music cue no longer fits (an all too common occurrence). Rather than fiddling about inserting 5/8 bars or tempo changes, you can place one of these noises shortly before an edit point. Its loud 'whoosh' effect will obliterate anything going on underneath, thereby providing a dramatic transition while covering any awkward musical hiatuses.
The microphone positions used in Albion 2 are identical to those in Albion 1: Close, Decca Tree (above the conductor's podium), Outrigger (widely spaced stereo pairs positioned either side of the Tree), and Ambient (high up in the gallery). As in the original, patches load with only the 'Tree' option enabled and samples are automatically discarded when a mic position is de-selected, which helps to conserve RAM. Given Lyndhurst Hall's reverberant acoustic, 'close' does not mean dry, and while that miking provides the most definition, some hall reverb is still clearly audible in the background. Rule of thumb: use the close miking for pop, and the Tree for orchestral work.
Instrument articulations are handled in a very different way from Albion 1: rather than dedicating a separate patch to individual playing styles, each ensemble patch has all its available articulations available, selectable on the front panel and via keyswitches. It's important to remember that when you load a patch, only two or three of the most useful articulations actually load in with it; to access the rest, you click on a small rectangle underneath their graphic symbol on the GUI. This caught me out a few times, but in general it's a very good way of speeding up patch loading times and keeping system resources to a minimum. Of course, if you re-save a patch with all its articulations in place, it will always load like that in future.
As a courtesy to users who wish to program their own templates from scratch, the library includes empty 'Palette Shells', into which you can load the specific articulations and mic positions you need. A single mic position of the high strings with all articulations loaded uses around 350MB of RAM — which is a pretty modest figure, given that the high strings play 14 different articulations. An on-screen mini-slider enables you to edit the pitches of the keyswitches to suit your template, although it seems that you can only slide them up and down as a block; you can also effectively disable keyswitching by engaging the 'lock articulation' switch.
At the time of writing, the Kontakt multis were limited to a set of combined high and low strings articulations, two 'All toms' setups and a smallish set of sound-design layerings. One assumes more will follow in future updates.
Despite lumbering themselves with a stiff-upper-lip trading name, Spitfire Audio are proving to be surprisingly flexible. Few companies would include a sackbut in an orchestral collection, let alone a set of musical loops that sound like they've escaped from a 1959 BBC TV documentary about holiday camps. But, of course, eccentricity is one of our great British attributes, and the world would be a duller place if every company followed the same agenda. The inclusion of such left-field samples gives Albion 2 a lot of character, which can pay dividends: in the crowded field of media music, having some non-standard sounds in their locker gives a composer an edge over the competition.
By creating products of genuine quality, Spitfire have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with worldwide. In my view, the fact that they also pay their session players royalties on sales is commendable, and only fair when you consider the superior musicianship these contributors bring to the table. As with Albion 1, the holes in the instrumentation make this library unsuitable for creating all the detail of a full traditional score. That's the only significant caveat. On the plus side, Albion 2's lush sound, superb string sections, eclectic brass and woodwind, formidable, big-screen percussion and impressive sound-design features are a potent combination that orchestral sample enthusiasts will find hard to resist.
It almost goes without saying that no other library comes close to duplicating Albion 2's eccentric instrumentation. Whereas all orchestral collections contain string sections, you have to turn to specialist titles like Vienna Symphonic Library's Special Brass, Cinesamples' Cinewinds Pro and Audio Impressions' DVZ Brass to find such rarities as (respectively) a euphonium, recorder or sackbut; even then, you're looking at a solo instrument rather than the duo performances of Albion 2. Project SAM's Symphobia series' mixed-instrument orchestral ensembles and sound-design patches broadly emulate the spirit of the Albion titles, but ultimately the only close match for Albion 2 is its predecessor, Albion 1.
* High strings only; ** Low strings only; *** High sackbuts only.
(h) = half-sized section.
m = muted (con sordino)
[m] = muted version also available
Numbers in brackets = alternative types.
Albion 2 contains 27.3GB of data, which has been losslessly compressed from nearly 50GB of material. Its samples are presented in Native Instruments NCW format, which runs exclusively on the Kontakt platform. The library is available as a download only, with a free Kontakt Player included. Although the Player does not allow deep editing, owners of the full Kontakt 5 can tweak patches to their hearts' content. Spitfire Audio caution Kontakt 5 owners to make sure they have the latest version of the program, pointing out that 98 percent of enquiries to their support department are cured simply by upgrading (done online via Native Instruments' Service Centre software). Having fallen foul of this myself more times than I care to remember, I wholeheartedly endorse this advice!
For optimal performance, Spitfire recommend 8GB of RAM and an i5, i7 quad or octo-core PC, while Mac users are pointed towards a Mac-Pro Intel-based dual, quad or octo-core machine. Preferred operating systems are Windows Vista 64, Windows 7 or Mac OS 10.6.1 (Snow Leopard); however, Spitfire also say Albion 2 will work satisfactorily with only 1GB of RAM on a Pentium or Athlon 1.4GHz PC using Windows XP SP2, and on a Mac Mini 2.4 GHz or a MacBook Pro 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo.