What happens when an orchestra mutates into a cinematic virtual instrument? Our men in white coats investigate.
A UK pop producer once remarked to me "The problem with having an orchestra on a track is that you can't do anything with it”. Beethoven, Bartok, Birtwhistle and John Barry might not agree, but behind this apparently glib dismissal lies a subtle truth: sound design is a vital ingredient of modern production, and traditional orchestral textures, beautiful though they are, have a fixed, monolithic quality that doesn't lend itself well to the kind of creative sound‑shaping required for many contemporary projects. The point was well made in a recent interview with Crime Scene Investigation composer John M Keane: "The ambience on top of the music feels like the otherworldly part of the show. Cues aren't complete without the indefinable element or texture inside of the music...”
With this brave new sound-world in mind, New York‑based company Sample Logic developed Morphestra, a Kontakt‑based 'cinematic virtual instrument' that applies sound‑sculpting and processing to a 27.5GB sample pool. Derived from recordings of a wide range of symphonic, world and ethnic instruments and percussion, vocals and sound effects, the library was developed in conjunction with prolific samplist Kirk Hunter, author of the Virtuoso Series and Emerald orchestral libraries. I discovered one advantage of Morphestra before playing a note: it's the first library I've encountered that ships on a pocket‑sized hard drive rather than on DVD, which means that you can immediately start using it without first enduring a lengthy installation. Speaking as one who has twiddled his thumbs for what seemed like an eternity while installing Terabytes of sample data from DVD, I'm glad to see Sample Logic finally commit to a delivery system that has been promised by other companies since 2002.
Morphestra's mission to serve up the indefinable, amorphous and unrecognisable must have caused difficulties when it came to naming its contents. Its makers deal with the conundrum by dividing the library into three main categories: Atmospheres, Percussives and Instrumentals. The first of these contains a total of 261 Kontakt instruments grouped together loosely by mood, in folders labelled 'Mystery / Suspense', 'Sci‑Fi', 'Disturbed', 'Spiritual / Ethereal' and so forth.
Most of these 'Atmospheres' are sustained textures, the majority featuring a synthetic bass drone overlaid with nebulous, ethereal and blended sonic events of various kinds. These are rich timbres: 'Days of Old', with its reverberant, Mark Isham‑style solo trumpet languorously picking out a sparse, minor‑key melody, accompanied by backwards piano notes, is an evolving sonic event that sounds like a complete piece of ambient music. 'Errie Life' (sic) has a ghostly major-seventh interval slowly fading in and out over its bass drone, while 'Path to Tranquillity' does a similar trick with a breathy, almost subliminal, bathed‑in‑echo instrument that may once have been an ethnic flute. Contrasting with these complete‑sounding soundscapes are more minimal patches, such as the gorgeous 'Pleasantry', a sustained, nicely‑voiced 'C over D bass' chord played on a beautiful layered synth patch.
The ubiquity of apocalyptic bass-pedal notes lends a sense of menace: 'Dark'n'Scary' plunges you straight into Saw VI territory, with samples such as 'Brain Dead' and 'Death Horizon' sounding every bit as fearsome as the names suggest. After suffering the soothing (not) tones of 'Chainsaw Killer', I turned to the 'World' section for some light relief, only to be unnerved by the ominous sonorities of 'A Piercing Fright' and 'Jihad'. The plaintive, wailing melody of the latter and the folksy tune of 'An Irish Welcome' are played on what sounds like an Indian sarangi, indicating that in this morphed world, geographical boundaries are also blurred.
Though the prevailing mood of this section is disquieting, sounds like 'Power Of Three' (a floaty bed of echoing, breathy flutes based on the pentatonic blues scale) and the blissed‑out 'space orchestra' pad of 'Platinum Dreamer' are beautiful and tranquil, an instant inspiration to writing. Most of the textures use only one sample mapped over a couple of octaves — and, while I admire the imagination that went into creating them, I occasionally wished their elements were presented separately, so I could turn some off and add my own overlays. On the plus side, the Atmospheres samples offer an abundance of choice, and once you've found one that suits your musical mood, you're virtually guaranteed to find several more that will complement it.
In the twisted world of sound design, everything has to be processed, distorted, mutated into something alien and bizarre. The 'Impact' hits in Morphestra's 'Percussives' section are no exception: 'Hard Hitter' sinks a detuned, distorted, unidentified big drum hit in a pool of reverb, adding a supernatural sense of size and distance. Similarly, a detuned pair of piatti cymbals is refracted through a harmoniser in 'Crashed Out', transforming a cheerful cymbal splash into a hellish metallic soundburst.
'Impact sequences' make good use of Morphestra's arpeggiator and delay effects (more of which below): in 'Chordal Computations 2', a humble kettle hit is transformed into something so irresistibly weird and funky that I found myself jamming along with it for ages. Some of the heaviest hits in the library (notably 'Hard House' and 'Hog Menace') are found in this section — and if you don't need their built‑in rhythm patterns, just turn off the arpeggiator and you're ready to slam out some of your own.
These processed orchestral and acoustic percussion hits are supplemented by big, industrial, effected, metallic noises, doomy chimes, low‑pitched percussive material and a large variety of electronic impact noises. One of my favourites in the last category was 'I Want Your Soul', an utterly over‑the top, highly reverberant and distorted electronic percussion onslaught. Turning off some of the distortion effects reveals a fabulous, highly usable 'glitch kit' of electronic bonks, clangs, buzzes, zaps and crashes. Such patches are the exception rather than the rule, because, like the 'Atmospheres' textures, many of these percussive instruments consist of single samples.
Morphestra's 'Instruments' category is by far its largest, comprising melodic instruments, pads and some bonus orchestral patches. Some of the most entertaining sounds in the library are found in the 'Arpeggiated' folder. where patches such as 'Forensix' transform simple chords into mobile, dancing rhythmic ostinatos with note values and delay times conveniently sync'ed to your song tempo. A selection of pitched loops is included; these can change key without changing tempo, but when playing multiple notes you have watch your timing in order to avoid inadvertently creating messy flams. (That's not the case with the arpeggiator, which happily chunders out its rhythm patterns in perfect time regardless of when notes are played!) Many patches use the mod wheel to control filter cutoff, enabling users to perform subtle or extreme timbral changes on the fly.
Most of the instruments in this section are reverberant, with longish repeat delays and decays. I found some nice, ethereal, orchestral‑flavoured pads, but thought too many featured built‑in octaves, which limits the potential for chord voicing. To my ears, some of the instrumental sounds are a little cheesy: an over‑reliance on synthetic‑sounding, overly bright, mallet, bell and plucked attack transients prevents the patches in question from sounding contemporary and gives many an outdated, '80s feel. I also occasionally felt that the effects (particularly the built‑in delays) were the main event, rather than the actual sound source. That said, there are some beautiful and emotive pad textures in here.
As well as supplying orchestral sound sources for the library, Kirk Hunter donated bonus full strings, brass and woodwinds patches, each of which comprises multiple instruments mapped according to range. Though sounding a little unconvincing down in the bassoon register, the high end of woodwinds contains an appealing oboe‑and‑flute combination; the legato strings sound rich, smooth and expressive; and the brass patch's trumpets are a knockout, great for fanfares and triumphant, militaristic themes. This unprocessed bonus material is a useful labour‑saving device for composers who want to quickly add orchestral timbre to pieces without having to load, balance and program all the individual instruments from the three orchestral families.
From the title, I assumed that this was going to be another orchestral library with some bolted‑on tweaking facilities, but Morphestra turns out to be more adventurous than that. Much effort has gone into creating something out of the ordinary, and the results are imaginative, varied and rewarding; another advantage is that, unlike some libraries, it contains a wide enough range of material to create self‑contained pieces of music, albeit of a somewhat warped nature! Gazing into my battery‑powered crystal ball, it may be that the current fashion for unsettling, disorientating and scary noises in movie, TV and game scores will eventually give way to a more romantic lyricism, but as long as we continue to live in troubled times (musically speaking), Morphestra will have a place in the market.
The current craze for 'ambient soundscapes plus electronic loops' collections was kick‑started a few years ago by Spectrasonics' excellent Distorted Reality volumes, followed by BT's inspired Twisted Textures (which introduced the concept of categorising samples by mood). 'Cinematic' titles now abound: Ueberschall's ScoreFX is a fairly typical example, combining beds, rhythms and accent hits in a 7GB package. At the cheaper end of the market, Zero‑G's 4.3GB Dark Skies — Cinematic Ambiences and Big Fish Audio's Stratos (4.1GB) cover similar ground to Morphestra, while Phantom Files from Best Service (8.3GB) offers more bang for the buck. For the skint but discerning, UK synthesist Ian Boddy's Transmission‑X is a nice, affordable mix of ambiences and analogue‑synth electronic beats.
An array of effects tabs is available at the top level in Morphestra instruments, enabling users to perform custom tweaks without delving too deep under the bonnet. A built‑in arpeggiator adds a lot of value and is very comprehensive; arpeggio patterns (which are saved along with user patches) are user‑configurable and can contain up to 32 segments, each with their own volume setting. To create 'gated' rhythmic effects, all you have to do is reduce selected note levels to zero, leaving the others to play the desired rhythmic pulse.
Timbre may be varied with simple two‑band EQ and a static filter, although as the latter has no envelopes, you can't use it for filter sweeps. But you can introduce nice Leslie effects via the flanger, or use the phaser and tremolo to add 1960s psychedelic ambience. Distortion, chorus, 'stereo widener', delay and reverb can be turned on and off via the front panel, but you may find you don't need to reach for the last control very often, as a good number of Morphestra's samples have their own long, heavy reverb built in.
Morphestra ships on a Glyph Portagig Firewire 800/USB 2 SATA II hard drive with Kontakt Player 3 software and samples pre‑installed. The review copy arrived on an 80GB drive, which Sample Logic have since upgraded to 160GB. Online authorisation is done at Native Instruments' web site.
Like all sound libraries formatted for NI's Kontakt Player, Morphestra can be loaded into the full version of Kontakt, which offers comprehensive editing facilities. Morphestra requires Kontakt 3.5, but if you're already running that version, the Kontakt Player software provided with the library will not install. That's because Kontakt 3.5 already incorporates all the functions of the player software. (This somewhat confusing piece of Native Instruments protocol applies to all Kontakt 3.5 libraries, not just Morphestra.) This shouldn't pose any problems for users, since Kontakt 3.5 does everything the player software can do, and a whole lot more.