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Introducing BBC Symphony Orchestra... by Spitfire Audio

First fruits announced of three-year collaboration with the BBC's oldest orchestra

Spitfire Audio's latest great leap forward — BBC Symphony Orchestra.Spitfire Audio's latest great leap forward — BBC Symphony Orchestra.

With a lavish launch at London's Barbican Centre on August 28th, Spitfire Audio announced a new and very detailed orchestral library. It captures the sound of the internationally renowned BBC Symphony Orchestra (SO) in its entirety, as recorded in the orchestra's soon-to-be-decommissioned recording and broadcasting home, Maida Vale Studios.
The keynote launch at London's Barbican Centre, with Spitfire's founders Paul Thomson (left) and Christian Henson (right) at the bottom right of the stage.The keynote launch at London's Barbican Centre, with Spitfire's founders Paul Thomson (left) and Christian Henson (right) at the bottom right of the stage.

Properly (and logically) titled Spitfire Audio BBC Symphony Orchestra, the new library is the culmination of several years of thought, serious planning over the past three years and dozens of recording sessions which took place over two years, finishing earlier in 2019. From talking to Spitfire founders Christian Henson and Paul Thomson at the launch, the idea was sparked by a discussion in a pub with Dominic Walker, a Commercial Director at BBC Studios (formerly known as BBC Worldwide), the commercial arm of the Corporation. Although the main part of the BBC is a publicly funded body in the UK, a large part of the BBC's income has for years derived from commercial ventures with private companies, and in this vein, Dominic Walker originally suggested a partnership between Spitfire and BBC Studios to make orchestral sounds more accessible to musicians, encouraging orchestral composition and making it more approachable. Gradually, this evolved into the idea of creating a comprehensive orchestral library by working with the BBC's oldest broadcast and performance orchestra, the SO (founded in 1930 and almost as old as the Corporation itself). Following a visit by Spitfire to hear the orchestra playing at its traditional home, the idea developed to make the recordings for the new library in Maida Vale Studio 1, which has been the base for the SO ever since 1934.

Recording strings at Maida Vale.Recording strings at Maida Vale.

The end result will be a serious one-stop scoring sample library made with Spitfire's usual attention to detail, roughly 600GB in size and accessed via a single stand-alone cross-platform software instrument and plug-in for all major PC and Mac DAWs. It's now nearing completion, following 84 recording sessions with 99 players and a total of 55 different instruments. These include the SO's 60-piece string section (the leaders of which were captured separately), the woodwind and brass sections (again, soloists and ensembles were recorded separately for more flexibility) and a large variety of percussion, plus the SO's harp and celeste. These instruments were recorded using around 500 different playing techniques, and 11 different mic positions (including close and outlying mics and Spitfire's usual Decca Tree) as well as two mix signals, five different spill signals (more of which below) and two Dolby Atmos-compatible signals (front/rear), for maximum flexibility when orchestrating.

BBC Symphony Orchestra's Harp — just one of the library's many instruments.BBC Symphony Orchestra's Harp — just one of the library's many instruments.

It's clear that Henson and Thomson have been utterly thrilled to work officially with the BBC, even joking that they've used the same company font as the Corporation for years (take a bow, Gill Sans) in a bid to curry favour. Their enthusiasm for the artistic aspects of this endeavour and the honour of working with some of the world's finest orchestral musicians is palpable during both the launch keynote and in their conversation afterwards. "This is the first complete orchestral library we've made with a family of musicians that plays together all the time, who know each other's playing styles intimately" explains Christian Henson animatedly. "Our task has been to capture that; I was very nervous and insistent about doing it justice." The pair are also very excited about the new ground the library breaks technically. As Paul Thomson explains, at times over 80 channels were being recorded simultaneously, which required the creation of a self-built temporary control room at Maida Vale and a custom recording rig based on Millennia preamps and an array of many, many solid-state hard drives. "In this form, this library wouldn't have been possible five years ago," explains Christian Henson. "It's only because solid-state drives are now so affordable and fast, because we have mic preamps with such good noise performance, and because the tools we've developed to reduce ambient noise across so many channels are available, that we've been able to make it in this form at all." Spitfire also developed SFLAC, a new completely lossless audio compression algorithm, especially for BBC Symphony Orchestra, reducing the eventual size of the finished library down from approximately 1.4 terabytes to around 600GB.

Recording the BBC Symphony Orchestra's 1st violins at Maida Vale Studios (part of Spitfire's custom rig containing Millennia mic preamps is visible in the foreground).Recording the BBC Symphony Orchestra's 1st violins at Maida Vale Studios (part of Spitfire's custom rig containing Millennia mic preamps is visible in the foreground).

However, the sessions weren't all about the very latest tech and techniques. A classic vintage BBC Marconi Type AXBT overhead microphone, of the kind used to capture the orchestra in its very earliest days, was employed throughout, and the output from this mic is just one of the many flexible user options available with the library. The high channel count was also in part down to Paul Thomson's wish to, as he puts it, have "all of the mics open all of the time" — the output of all of the mics was being recorded even on days when the team weren't recording players next to some of the mics. This was an idea Spitfire wished to explore from the days of traditional live recording concerning the creative importance of mic spill and bleed in forming the recorded sound of an orchestra; they captured the spill in all of the mics of all the different sections of the orchestra at all times, in order to replicate what happens when recording an orchestral ensemble live. In the final library, users will have the option of adding controlled spill to the final arrangement if desired, creating what Paul Thomson referred to as an all-enveloping sound.

The vintage BBC Marconi Type AXBT mic used during the BBC Symphony Orchestra sessions.The vintage BBC Marconi Type AXBT mic used during the BBC Symphony Orchestra sessions.

This point leads to some serious discussion of the amazing qualities of the sound of Studio 1 at Maida Vale, which Spitfire feel it was important to capture for the new library along with the direct sound of the SO playing. "It's a huge space, large enough to accommodate the full orchestra and a studio audience of 200 listeners, and yet it's so well controlled, with a short reverb time compared to AIR Studios... the classic John Williams-style scoring stage sound" explains Paul Thomson. "It's an intrinsic part of the BBC Symphony Orchestra's sound," adds Christian Henson. "If I had to sum it up... it's epic, but with definition. You can write detailed parts for the orchestra in that space and know that they won't be lost in the acoustics."

Recording the celeste at Maida Vale.Recording the celeste at Maida Vale.

As our conversation winds to a close, it is Henson and Thomson's delight at working with such an amazing institution, and the possibilities their new library will open for the next generation of musicians, that leaves a lasting impression. Both hope that the new library, by providing all the tools needed to make orchestral compositions in one place, will not only encourage orchestral scorewriting, but also lead eventually to orchestras receiving more work from composers who have grown up using libraries such as this one. While it can be argued that detailed libraries like this can take work away from orchestras, it's clear that Spitfire put far more into the community of orchestral musicians than they take out. They can point not only to many anecdotes showing that musicians they have collaborated with on libraries have gained more work as a result of the exposure they've had as featured Spitfire library artists, but also that the company pays performance royalties twice-yearly to every artist who has performed on their recordings, making them a source of income for classical musicians rather than a drain on their resources. "Plus, the end result of using tools like these will be musicians who want to work with real orchestras — what orchestral composer doesn't want to do that?" says Christian Henson excitedly. "Before libraries like this came along, when people were getting started, they simply didn't have access to these sounds. Products like BBC Symphony Orchestra are introducing a new generation of musicians to orchestral music and scorewriting, and we hope that, one day, those people will be in a position to realise their ideas using the genuine article."

An early version of Spitfire's BBC Symphony Orchestra being used to play back a full orchestral demo during the launch event.An early version of Spitfire's BBC Symphony Orchestra being used to play back a full orchestral demo during the launch event.

There were many hints during the keynote and my subsequent conversation with Henson and Thomson that the launch of BBC Symphony Orchestra will not be the end of Spitfire's collaboration with the BBC. Both talk animatedly about how a single, universal library containing the sound of a whole orchestra opens possibilities for easy collaboration between an international community of scorewriting musicians, and explain how they want to simplify that process by developing orchestral templates for the library that will integrate seamlessly into DAWs like Logic... but it seems likely that there will probably be more than that to come. While it also looks as though the library will be superb value for money — we'll have a full review in SOS very soon to assess it properly — it's also a little difficult to see at present how the full cost of BBC Symphony Orchestra (see below) tallies with Dominic Walker's original concept of a product accessible to scorewriting beginners. But neither Henson nor Thomson will be drawn on their future plans... yet. More news as and when we have it.

At the time of writing, work on the £899$999 library is still ongoing — it will be released on October 24th, but may be pre-ordered immediately. If you part with your money before November 7th, the entire library can be had for £679$749. As with previous Spitfire libraries, BBC Symphony Orchestra can be obtained via a lengthy download, or supplied on a solid-state hard drive which will be delivered ready to use on the day of release.

For more information, check out the introductory videos above, and Spitfire's dedicated product page below.

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