The Anglo‑Australian strings library returns with a radical version 2 upgrade.
In the spring of 2010, I reviewed a new sample library called Cinematic Strings that positively bristled with appealing features: a sweet concert-hall acoustic, three mic positions, real legato intervals, lush sustains, powerful staccatos and a full complement of sections, including separate first and second violins. (You can read the review at /sos/may10/articles/cinematicstrings.htm.) I wasn't expecting any developments beyond the odd bug-fix or patch update, so was pleasantly surprised to learn that that its makers (aka Antipodean maestro Alex Wallbank and UK composer/arranger David Hearn) have released a completely redesigned version of the library, called (unsurprisingly) Cinematic Strings 2.0.
Unlike the original, CS 2.0 is compatible with the free Kontakt 5 Player and will also run on the full version of Kontakt 5. The existing samples have been completely overhauled and an additional new set of staccatissimo and 'mix' samples created (the latter are a highly effective, full‑sounding blend of the library's three mikings). For the privileged few who work in surround, these blended samples will help conserve system resources throughout the programming stage, as well as giving a good impression of how the individual mic positions will sound in the final mix.
Existing owners of Cinematic Strings can upgrade to CS 2.0 for a fee of $49 (about £30). The payment reflects the charges made by NI to manufacturers who licence their Kontakt Player technology, and doesn't seem unreasonable given that the upgrade virtually doubles the size of the library to around 38GB. (Due to NI's lossless .NCW sample compression format, the samples occupy only 21.1GB of disk space.) CS 2.0 is available only as a download direct from Cinematic Strings' site; as the sample pool has been completely redesigned, owners of the original library wishing to upgrade will have to download the entire shooting match again, but can still continue to use the old library afterwards if they wish (more on which later).
CS 2.0's spiffing new Kontakt interface contains a giant close‑up of one side of an extremely expensive violin. Let's hope someone didn't saw off the other half with a view to flogging it on eBay. Occupying more than twice the area of the old GUI, the updated screen contains a new four‑channel mic mixer with volume faders and pan controls for the close, stage, room and mix samples. Each instrument loads with eight main articulations (arco, tremolo, semitone/tone trill, 'run mode', staccato, marcato and pizzicato) in place, along with variants such as monophonic legato and staccatissimo.
The loading procedure has been vastly improved: you can load and unload individual articulations and mic positions with a couple of clicks, and when you switch on a particular miking, only the samples for the currently active articulations are loaded. This intelligent system means that if you need (say) only the stage‑position pizzicato samples, you can load them in just a few seconds, making it quick and easy to audition different mic perspectives.
As the 'mix' samples incorporate all three mic positions, playing any combination of the mixed and individual mikings together would create phase problems. To avoid this, the three individual positions are automatically muted when you select the mix option; mute the mix samples, and the other positions are turned back on. Very smart. The only function missing here is a solo button, but the system is so flexible I think we can manage without it.
CS 2.0's new ultra‑short staccatissimo articulation will be welcomed by media composers who need to knock out hectic, Hollywood‑style action cues in a hurry. The new samples are derived from the staccato samples, using a proprietary algorithm devised by Alex Wallbank. Instantly playable straight out of the box, they combine a brisk, emphatic and powerful delivery with the library's hallmark lush hall acoustic. The overall effect is extremely impressive and, due to the method of their creation, the staccatissimos are a perfect match for the staccatos!
Selecting a staccato articulation causes a staccato/staccatissimo selector dial to appear on screen. You can adjust this manually, or control it via the mod wheel or a MIDI CC command of your choice. (The same goes for many of CS 2.0's controls.) Further subtle tweaks may be performed on the 'Advanced' screen, which contains a set of faders controlling the length and release time of the staccato and pizzicato short notes.
A new 'live mode' aims to reduce the over‑precise, synthetic effect of fast runs by strategically inserting custom samples. According to the makers, "Fast passages will now sound as if they're played by a group of people, including all the live, imperfect human energy that goes on with it.” I feared that this was a euphemism for what we in the trade call 'bum notes', but have to admit that the live mode did make a fast, 16th‑note rising figure I'd programmed sound better; the notes subtly blurred together in an agreeably lifelike way, and the overall feel was noticeably more organic.
Much work has gone into improving the library's legatos: the scripting now automatically adjusts note envelopes to your playing speed, softening the attacks of faster passages. Although the updated legatos can't cope with ultra‑fast lines and trills, I found that they responded more evenly to variations in touch than the originals. A great deal of attention has been paid to achieving a consistent performance across the five sections, and it shows: you can switch mid‑stream between the first and second violins' and violas' legato performances with no trace of discontinuity. If you play the low strings on the same MIDI channel, the basses will track the cellos an octave down, a classic technique that sounds absolutely wonderful with these legatos.
As in CS 1, the arco sustains default to monophonic legato mode when loaded, but can be instantly rendered polyphonic for chordal playing by a new 'legato off' switch. The secondary, synthesized legato mode implemented in the original library has been removed, which is a bit of a shame, as it did a pretty good job of simulating Bollywood‑style pitch slides.
In CS 2.0, the mic position formerly known as 'spot' has been renamed 'close' (a good thing, too — why would you want to use a dog's name to describe a mic position?). The original library provided a wealth of individual patches for different combinations of playing styles and mic positions, resulting in a grand total of 90 patches; in CS 2.0, that number has been reduced to a mere five, just one each for first violins, second violins, violas, cellos and basses — a welcome simplification which reflects the fact that the new patches are super‑versatile.
Other innovations include a cool new 'Playing Position' control on the GUI, which switches between the bright, transparent sound of sustained notes played low on the instrument's neck and the denser, darker tone created by playing the same pitches on a lower string a fifth higher up the neck. This subtle aid to realism can be controlled by a MIDI CC command of your choice. A new convolution reverb, based on the sound of the Verbrugghen Hall in the Sydney Conservatorium used for the original sampling sessions, can be used to add extra hall ambience. It sounds fine if introduced subtly, but becomes a little synthetic at higher levels.
The original library had a choice of round-robin modes: one cycled through the four RR's in consecutive order, while the other played them randomly with no repeated samples. In the simplified CS 2.0, you're left with just the latter version, in which every separate key on the keyboard has its own independent random cycle — which is particularly advantageous for chordal playing, according to the makers.
A careful comparison of the old and new close‑mic patches reveals that the close samples are now mono. According to David Hearn, this particular miking was mono all along, but in CS1, a Kontakt insert effect was added to give it a slightly wider image. Hearn explains that the effect has now been removed, partly because the Kontakt 5 Player doesn't allow users to 'reach inside' the player to turn the effect off, and also because he and Alex Wallbank eventually decided that "we didn't love what it did to the sound”. So there you go!
Thankfully, such minor details need not be lost forever to existing users. Since the 2.0 upgrade doesn't overwrite the original samples and patches, you can keep both versions on your hard drive and load old CS1 projects without fear of them sounding different — you can even run the original library alongside the upgrade in the same instance of Kontakt 5. Other manufacturers should take heed of this sensible, user‑friendly approach: in the real world it's common to return to projects for remixes and re‑workings, and the last thing you want is to find they sound like a dog's dinner due to some badly‑thought‑out product update.
Cinematic Strings always sounded great, and the 2.0 upgrade has made it more compact and instantly playable. The new staccatissimos are ideal, energetic film‑score fodder and the improved legato engine is an aid to emotional expression; the streamlined, simplified and intuitive design is also a boon to busy composers.
While it remains a highly effective tool with many creative applications, the omissions and attendant caveats noted in my original review still apply; but for quickly creating classy‑sounding orchestral string scores of great vibrancy, colour, power, lushness and emotionality, this collection is hard to beat.
The only library to match CS 2.0's double‑whammy of multiple mic positions and separate, real‑life first and second violin sections is EastWest/Quantum Leap's Hollywood Strings, which has bigger sections, more articulations, five mikings and a correspondingly larger price tag. If neither of those features is essential, the large sections and profuse musical detail of Vienna Symphonic Library's Appassionata Strings I, and the flexible ensemble sizes offered by both Audiobro's LA Scoring Strings and Kirk Hunter Studios Concert Strings II are all capable of delivering fine musical results.
- Twelve first violins.
- Eight second violins.
- Seven violas.
- Seven cellos.
- Six double basses.
(Total 40 players.)
Articulations (long notes)
- Sustain non‑vibrato.*
- Sustain vibrato.*
- Legato sustain.*
- Trills (whole tone & semitone).
Articulations (short notes)
- 'Snap' pizzicato.
* Available in high and low playing positions.
** Layered staccato and sustain.
*** Derived from staccato samples.
Like its predecessor, Cinematic Strings 2.0 makes extensive use of user‑configurable keyswitches. The difference is that you can now see where they are, depicted in a variety of hard‑to‑miss colours on the GUI's keyboard. You can create custom keyswitches by holding down 'shift' and clicking on an articulation on screen; when it glows orange, simply play the note you want to use as its keyswitch. As well as selecting articulations, keyswitches are used as 'on' and 'off' switches for the 'Legato' and 'Live Mode' front-panel switches.
A nice touch is that when you turn an articulation off, its keyswitch is automatically removed from the GUI, making it impossible to accidentally trigger an inactive playing style and thereby create an embarrassing silence in the middle of your latest masterpiece. If you'd rather avoid using keyswitches altogether (as some composers do, due to their propensity to mess up the look of a score), you can use MIDI CCs to select articulations instead.