A large new violin library for Kontakt turns legato sampling into an art form.
A historic difficulty for anyone working with string samples was the business of making legato melodies sound properly joined-up. We had to wait till 2002 for the first serious attempt to tackle the issue, courtesy of Gary Garritan's idea of overlaying 'masking attack samples' to smooth over note transitions in his then-groundbreaking Garritan Orchestral Strings library. A year or so later, Vienna Symphonic Library cracked the problem by sampling every interval up to an octave from each note in the instrument's range, and providing an intelligent 'performance tool' application which selected the appropriate interval sample for each note you played. For the first time, legato melodies in sampled arrangements sounded truly connected, convincing and musical.
VSL's interval-based approach has subsequently been adopted as an industry standard, and is now implemented in many strings, wind, brass and even choir sample libraries. The incorporation of multiple dynamics and replacement of the old, clunky 'performance tools' by unobtrusive MIDI scripts built into sample players has further expanded the usability and popularity of legato instruments. It therefore comes as no surprise to find that 8Dio Productions' Adagio Violins Vol 1 library places a strong emphasis on its legato samples. What has raised eyebrows, however, is that it boasts as a major selling point no less than 10 different legato styles!
Adagio Violins Vol 1 (henceforth known as AV) is the brainchild of Academy Award-winning composer Troels Folmann and Emmy-nominated composer and orchestrator Colin O'Malley. If the first name sounds familiar, it may be because Mr Folmann was a partner in the now-defunct Tonehammer company, creator of the impressive Requiem and Liberis choir libraries. AV is the first release from Folmann and O'Malley's new outfit, 8Dio. According to them, recordings are also completed for Adagio Cellos, Violas and Double Basses: Volume 1 of each library will be released this year, with second volumes to follow in 2013.
AV's samples were performed by a group of hand-picked orchestral players from the San Francisco area and recorded in a church the producers describe as "similar to Air Lyndhurst in the UK”. The recordings took place over 60 days, during which time all samples for both volumes of the complete Adagio series were captured. This entailed working six to eight hours per day, generating many Terabytes of material and no doubt causing sore fingers for the players. It took over six months to program AV's 33,600 samples, so 8Dio's programmers clearly have a big job ahead of them as they prepare the other Adagio releases!
This library features an ensemble of 11 violins, a smaller group of three players (referred to as 'Divisi') and a solo violin. Although the numbers don't quite measure up to the 16 first violins you'd find in a full-scale symphony orchestra, 11 players still constitutes a big section in my book — and as Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel shrewdly pointed out, it's one louder than 10. There are no second violins in AV, but since this library has an extensive menu of alternative articulations, it's easy to avoid sample duplication issues when it comes to programming your second violin parts.
Following industry convention, the string players' performances were recorded from different mic positions. The close miking has an agreeably wide stereo image, and while I normally avoid using close-miked instruments in orchestral arrangements, I'd make an exception in this case, as they don't sound excessively dry or 'in your face'. Distance mics placed towards the middle and end of the church provide a 'far' perspective with a narrower stereo, while a third, 'mix' option blends together the close and far mikings. Since the latter sounds broadly similar to the excellent close miking, I'd be happy to use either as a main stereo mix.
While the 'far' option sounds a good deal more ambient than the close position, it doesn't have the long, resonant reverb one associates with English stone church buildings, nor is it anywhere near as reverberant as the aforementioned Air Lyndhurst's lofty hall. Nevertheless, this perspective would come into its own in a surround mix, where it could be panned into the rear speakers to good effect. The only problem I found with this miking was that it exhibited an excessively slow attack on the 11 violins' main sustains, rendering that particular articulation unplayable in the far mic position.
AV's full ensemble's basic sustains patch is a good starting point from which to assess the overall sound of the library. The violins' clear, bright, vibrant tone sounds strong and penetrating at loud dynamics without ever becoming shrill. This clarity and transparency is maintained in the quiet dynamic range, which introduces a sheer, breathy bow sound. Coupled with the broad stereo image, the overall impression is that of a large, classy, fine-toned violin section.
Despite its large size, AV has only 30 patches. However, load any one of them and you'll find a wealth of keyswitchable articulations inside which reveal the true depth of the library. There are two sets of sustained notes: the first sounds smooth, even and nicely blended, while the second features a stronger attack and more intense vibrato, especially when played loud. I'd be inclined to use the more dulcet tone of the first set for chord pads, and feature the other set in melody lines. Conveniently included in the sustain patches are well-played tremolos and trills, the latter played in a choice of semitone, tone, minor third and major third intervals (the last two misleadingly labelled 'third' and fourth'). The trills also have very effective 'pfp swell' versions, a great resource for throwing a scary, dramatic shiver into your orchestral soundtrack.
Whereas some string libraries have cut corners and simulated con sordino (muted) string performances by EQ'ing the samples, 8Dio took the trouble to record the real thing. I'm glad they did, as the sordino samples' dark, vivid intensity is a superb timbre that contrasts wonderfully well with the unmuted sustains. Moving into more avant-garde territory, chromatically mapped harmonics make their usual ethereal, ultra-high-pitched sound, evocative of troubled alien skies and science-fiction nightmares. These long-note samples were recorded at tone intervals. The sustains and regular trills are looped, but the tremolos (which last about six seconds), swell trills and harmonics are not.
And so to AV's main claim to fame: its large menu of legato options. The 64,000-dollar question is, 'How can there possibly be 10 different types of legato?' The statistics are somewhat massaged by the decision to count the solo instrument and violin trio legato articulations as additional styles to the seven played by the 11-violin ensemble. Of these seven, two would normally be classed as legato portamento (ie. featuring a prominent pitch slide between notes), while a third ('Perdition') is played with mutes.
The remaining four 11-violin legato patches are less obviously differentiated, but each has a subtly different character: optimised for very slow to moderate tempos, the languorous 'Dolce' features a slight natural swell on note transitions and a subtle, fast portamento glide which becomes more noticeable on wide intervals. When you keyswitch to one of the dynamic 'arc' articulations within the patch, the next legato note you play dwindles gradually into a diminuendo, a nice expressive touch. This style is not suitable for fast melodies, though turning up the speed control on the Kontakt GUI enables it to keep pace with mid-tempo lines.
I enjoyed the beautifully pure, clean tone of 'Village'; it's less overtly emotional and dynamically mobile than the other legato patches, and its unsentimental, somewhat austere atmosphere lends itself well to classical pieces. The note transitions in the 'Extra Terrestrial' patch are quicker, more forceful and energetic, making it better equipped for faster tempos and/or louder music. From a keyboard player's point of view, 'Instinct' (named after Jerry Goldsmith's Basic Instinct score) is a very good all-rounder: the absence of portamento renders it more neutral and less dramatic than other legato patches, yet it's still full of feeling and can be used for fast lines to boot. The provision of four round-robins in this patch adds to the realism of short, repeated ostinato phrases.
When using the 'Emo Slur' legato portamentos, you can use AV's speed control to change the rate of the pitch slide. I generally find slower portamento speeds the most useful for mock-ups, but this patch's faster slides are also highly effective and sound very natural for faster melodies.
The word 'adagio' indicates a slow and stately tempo, and that's what these legato deliveries do best: stately, soaring melodies in the great Hollywood film music tradition. That said, I found that patches such as 'Instinct' could maintain natural-sounding note transitions even when I cranked my playing speed up to maximum. Not unexpectedly, the only playing style the legatos struggled to cope with was trills; fortunately, the provision of real played trills in a choice of four intervals provides a handy get-out-of-jail card.
While it's good to see the producers paying homage to their favourite composers, I fear they may come to regret their policy of naming legato patches after famous movie scores. I fell into a similar trap myself when I titled my 1992 collection of sampled jazz bagpipe phrases Carry On Up The Khyber in honour of the hilarious British film comedy, a decision that haunted me when it became the first sample library ever to record minus sales figures. I can only assume people stole it, then returned it to the shop to demand their money back.
8Dio sampled their 11 violins playing several types of spiccato short notes, each carefully tailored for the urgent ostinato passages modern-day media composers seem obliged to churn out round the clock. The lightly-brushed strokes of the 'feather' spiccatos sound great playing driving eighth-note figures, and you can use the more heavily-played on-bow and 'tapped' spiccato variants to increase the overall intensity, or to add emphasis to certain notes. For slower, weightier accents, the very strong staccatos and marcatos work a treat. It's fun to cheat by playing quick staccato notes on the 'Arp Spicc' articulation: this throws in an automatic repeat every time you release a key, a handy shortcut for performing very fast repeated notes.
All these short-note articulations are tightly executed, in tune and nicely balanced, so you can switch between them with no hint of discontinuity: I found that switching mid-stream between different spiccato styles and staccatos produced passages of stunning realism. The one disappointment was the single-dynamic pizzicato articulation, which sounds small and subdued in comparison to the bowed samples. Another minor criticism is that a few of the col legno round-robin samples have a noticeably sloppy attack, and although the damage can be reduced by turning up the 'tightness' control on the Kontakt GUI, it still has the potential to undermine the rhythmic cohesion of ostinato figures.
'Measured tremolos' are a cool feature of AV: these are basically simple mini-phrases of eight repeated 16th notes, which sync to your host tempo and conclude with a final accent. With a little experimentation and judicious use of the sustain pedal, you can use this articulation to play exciting, galloping, repeated-note passages. It works surprisingly well once you get the hang of it, and sounds particularly effective on chords.
As a spur to creativity, 8Dio also sampled around 60 violin ensemble phrases of the type often heard in orchestral music and movie scores. They consist of simple two- and four-beat patterns repeated over two 4/4 bars and concluding with a final accented note. The majority of them are eighth-note licks played at around 176bpm, and each phrase has an alternative crescendo version. Although tightly played, the phrases are unfortunately not tempo-sync'ed, but they do sound absolutely great, and should provide inspiration for anyone who needs some ideas for authentic-sounding violin ostinatos. Also included in this patch is a miniature collection of rather predictable effects: random pizzicatos, unisons that drift out of tune and slide around randomly, and a couple of samples of the players tuning up.
One of AV's unusual features is its inclusion of a bowing style called 'louré'. Some of you will know it by its alternative Italian name, 'portato'. This bow stroke is used to slightly separate notes without actually stopping the bow's motion or changing its direction: the separation is done by momentarily reducing bow pressure on the string, and the slight emphasis which occurs when pressure is resumed has the effect of re-articulating the note.
This refined style would be of no use whatsoever in a death metal track, but if you're engaged in the delicate art of orchestral arrangement, it does provide an expressive way of subtly reiterating notes. Various kinds of louré articulation, some featuring built-in crescendos and diminuendos, are gathered together in a single patch, and the style is also incorporated in AV's legato instruments. I found it to be an elegant way of elongating sustained notes that also adds a nice little rhythmic lilt; the only complication is that while not as sharply defined as a regular repeated note, the rhythmic reiteration naturally has its own built-in tempo. For that reason, I'm pleased to hear that 8Dio plan to add tempo-sync capability to the louré samples in their forthcoming Vol 1 update. Currently, they play at their original tempo only and require external time-stretching to adapt their playing speed to your track.
Dynamics are generally controlled by the mod wheel, and transitions from soft to loud are seamless — you can take the legatos down to a whisper and back up to a triumphal, searingly loud fortissimo without encountering any timbral glitches. For extra dynamic expression, 15 types of 'Dynamic Bowings' are available, comprising some delightfully subtle, beautifully played crescendos, diminuendos and pfp swells.
Moving on to the so-called 'Divisi' violins, I was thoroughly impressed by the sound these three players make. Instead of the slightly thin timbre I associate with chamber-sized sections, their sustains and louré samples sound big and expansive, making me wonder at times whether I'd accidentally loaded an 11 violins patch. A playing style unique to the three violins is the staccato 'pfp repeat', similar to the 'measured tremolo' performances described earlier: they consist of repeated, tempo-sync'ed 16th notes with a built-in crescendo/diminuendo over two bars, which conclude with a final long, quiet note. I'm sure you'll think of some ingenious creative uses for them!
The slow, deliberate delivery and impassioned portamento of the three violins' legato performances would be very effective for underscoring a sad film scene. I noticed when playing this patch that it's possible to play duophonic legato lines, provided that the lines stay more than an octave apart. However, as soon as you play overlapping notes within the same octave, the legato script kicks in and renders the sound monophonic (standard procedure for this kind of legato sampling).
Thanks to numerous screen adaptations, we now all know that Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes character, when not engaged in the pursuit of a dastardly villain or injecting cocaine, amused himself by playing the violin. Due to Holmes' current screen popularity, the chances of any media composer being asked to score a Sherlock-based project are quite high: if this happens to you, I recommend that when it comes to the cue accompanying the inevitable moody long shot of Holmes in his study with the fiddle, you give AV's solo violin a whirl.
As well as performing a small menu of multisampled performances (including some very effective, emotive 'dynamic bowings') the solo violin has its own legato style, known as 'Schindler' (another movie tribute): featuring a strong, expressive vibrato, this works reasonably well providing you stick to the sad, reflective style its name suggests, but it's less well suited to the brisk, cheerful, no-nonsense melodies we Brits enjoy.
In addition to these multisamples, the solo violinist turns in a sizeable collection of highly expressive minor-key phrases, featuring the occasional Paganini-like virtuosic outburst and a few examples of double-stopping, a playing technique I can't recall ever hearing in a sample library before. The mood is passionate, melancholy and romantic. The phrases sound improvised, but that's all to the good; Sherlock Holmes probably made up his violin licks on the spot too, and if you're stuck for a musical solution, these versatile melodic elements might just help you to crack the case.
As noted earlier, all AV's patches contain multiple articulations, and a single 'core patch' such as 'Legato Dolce' can contain up to 12 related performance styles such as heavy vibrato, louré, and so on. Sets of keyswitches starting on C0 are implemented throughout, so you can quickly change between these different styles, a great aid to expression. You can easily customise the keyswitch pitches by clicking and dragging their values up or down. However, if you do so, you won't receive any visual feedback from Kontakt's keyboard, which resolutely shows the original keyswitch note positions, regardless of any changes you make! I liked the fact that keyswitching to a new articulation in mid-performance doesn't cut off the previously selected one, so you can (for example) hold down a straight sustained chord and add some high trill notes over the top.
Though AV's violins sound fine straight out of the box, I found that adding a splash of hall reverb makes them sound even better. Unlike some string libraries, no convolution reverb control is provided on the Kontakt front panel, so unless you fancy opening the Kontakt editor and turning on one of its internal reverb effects, your best bet is to use a reverb plug-in in your sequencing program.
When auditioning the patches, I noticed occasional small imperfections, such as extraneous pitches, background honks and questionable ensemble intonation on some legato transitions. While they're planning to address tuning issues in their upcoming Vol 1 update, the developers' view is that such phenomena are actually desirable: 8Dio's Colin O'Malley says, "If you take a recording of a live orchestra, even a great orchestra, and you solo a track, it's not perfect. There's grit, there's settling into pitch and all sorts of chaos going on. That's really what we're trying to capture with Adagio. The major focus for Troels and I has been to really let the musicians cut loose and do what they do naturally — playing with emotion, playing with dynamics, and playing with natural musical imperfections.”
There is an opposing school of thought in which 'natural musical imperfection' goes by the shorter name of 'mistake', but we won't have that discussion here. Suffice it to say that none of the extraneous performance artifacts I heard were noticeable when played as part of a full arrangement, and they would only cause me concern when exposed in a solo passage.
There can be no argument that this is a deep, intensively sampled set; it contains many subtly differentiated performance options which can be combined into highly realistic passages rich with musical nuance. To get the best out of the library therefore requires time, thought and experimentation. Some may feel that the number of choices is excessive, and I certainly wouldn't want to try to examine all the musical options while chasing a tight deadline, but you don't have to use all the performance styles on day one: the presentation is clear and accessible, so you can immediately start working with a simple sustained, short-note or legato articulation, and investigate the deeper options later.
I'm tempted to conclude the review with this amusing quote from the PDF user manual: "It works fluently without mangling.” However, I think I can put it a tad more eloquently: Adagio Violins Vol 1 is a serious attempt to expand the expressive vocabulary of sampled violins, and the library has succeeded in raising the bar in terms of the shades of nuance available to users.
Nowadays, most orchestral strings sample libraries contain the whole strings family. It's been a long time since anyone released a violins-only volume, and though the best of those past releases contained some good raw material, they don't really measure up to today's sampling criteria. To match the quality, size, scope and true legatos of Adagio Violins Vol. 1 you'd therefore have to look at contemporary strings collections such as East West Quantum Leap Hollywood Strings, Vienna Symphonic Library Orchestral Strings I and/or Appassionata Strings I + II, Audiobro LA Scoring Strings 2.0 and Cinematic Strings 2.0. Of those four, only LA Scoring Strings 2.0 contains a solo violin and chamber section as well as a full violin ensemble, while the VSL titles are the only ones not to feature multiple mic positions.
- Sustain (2)
- Sustain muted
- Legato (6)
- Legato muted
- Louré (16)
- Trills (4)
- Swell trills (4)
- Dynamic bowing (14)
- Dynamic bowing sord. (3)
- Spiccato (3)
- Bartok pizzicato
- Col legno
- Staccato repeats (2)
- Measured tremolo
- Sustain muted
- Legato (2)
- Louré pfp (2)
- Dynamic bowing (7)
- Dynamic bowing sord. (4)
- Staccato repeats pfp
- Measured tremolo
- Sustain & Sustain sord.
- Dynamic bowing (10)
Numbers in brackets: alternative versions
Sord: con sordino/muted
Adagio Violins Vol 1's 50GB of 24-bit sample data compresses down to 24GB on your hard drive, due to Native Instrument's lossless .NCW audio file format. The library runs only on NI Kontakt 4.2 and upwards, which works as a stand-alone application and as a VST, Audio Units or RTAS plug-in on Mac OS 10.4/10.5 and Windows XP (32-bit), Vista 32-/64-bit or Windows 7 (32-/64-bit). RTAS requires Pro Tools 7 or 8.
You can get away with using this library with 1GB of RAM on a Mac G5 1.8GHz or Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz, or a Windows Pentium or Athlon XP 1.4GHz computer, but a faster system with at least 2GB is highly recommended. AV's patches' multiple articulations and optional mic positions will tax a modest system, so a 2.4GHz or 2.6GHz machine with 4GB of RAM would be a sensible starting point. For those who like to poke about under the bonnet, it is possible to edit and re-save the instruments, but the sample pool is locked for editing. As a safeguard against piracy, samples are individually watermarked and traceable back to users.
Eco-hardliners will be pleased to hear that the library is available only as a download, although that's less welcome news for those of us who have to endure sluggish broadband speeds — indeed, even those blessed with a super-fast connection will have time for a cuppa or three while downloading this large library. Due to a glitch in my download, I had to re-download the last three or four .RAR files manually. When I extracted them (which is done simply by extracting the first file, after which the rest will automatically follow), I found that the Kontakt instruments were missing; in order to get those, I had to go back and extract the last .RAR file in the list. 8Dio say this is a rare occurrence, but since there's no mention of the manual instrument extraction procedure on their site, I thought I'd mention it in case it happens to others.