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Garritan Orchestral Strings

Sample Library
Published May 2002
By Dave Stewart & Mark Wherry

After creating the ultimate harp library, has Gary Garritan managed to succeed again with the most ambitious sampled string library ever undertaken?

Gary Garritan took violin lessons as a child and later studied the harp as a teenager, providing the inspiration for creating GigaHarp, a sample library that helped put GigaSampler on the map in 1998. However, returning to his first instrument, Gary decided that none of the existing string libraries were good enough and resolved to create his own. The resulting achievement is an 8GB library on 16 CDs (or 2 DVDs) devoted to reproducing the performance nuances of orchestra-sized string ensembles — a vast and ground-breaking piece of work.

GARRITAN ORCHESTRAL STRINGS sample library.The recording sessions took place over a two-week period at New York's Lincoln Centre using a hand-picked team of string players with priceless instruments, including a couple of Stradivaris — the Rolls Royce of the stringed instrument world. The 47 musicians were divided into 22 violins (also split into 12 first and 10 second), 10 violas, eight cellos, and seven double basses, and were recorded using B&K, Neumann, and Crown microphones into an Apogee A/D converter at 88.2kHz/24-bit.

Contents

The manual supplied with GOS is practically a work of art on its own, supplied in a ringbound folder containing the discs and an extensive, well-written, and beautifully printed guide to navigating and using the library. It also provides great insight into the creation of the library with commendable openness and honesty. As an added touch, the front page of the manual is custom printed with the name of the Maestro (the ego-indulgent title attached to GOS users) who purchased the library.

The library itself is divided into three categories: 'Long Bows', 'Short Bows' and 'Additional Techniques'. As you would expect, the violins have the most variations (including up- and down-bow versions of the 'short bow' techniques, détaché, portato, marcato, martelé, sautillé, spiccato, and staccato), but the other sections aren't far behind. In fact, though there are no chords, melodic phrases, grace notes, or runs, the number of styles still far exceeds any other string library on the market.

Although the ability to stream large samples from disk is the most publicised GigaSampler/Studio feature, the developers have implemented some comprehensive modulation possibilities that GOS makes full use of. The velocity switching patches (VEL) work as expected, with some of the pizzicato patches offering a fantastic sounding Bartok 'snap' pizzicato when played really hard. However, to create realism in other areas such as dynamics (EXP), and vibrato (VIB), GOS employs GigaStudio's ability to crossfade samples with the modulation wheel. With an EXP patch loaded, moving the modulation wheel crossfades between the different dynamic layers, allowing you to create more realistic crescendos and diminuendos, instead of simply making a single sample play back louder or softer. With a VIB patch, the same trick is used to crossfade between non-vibrato and vibrato samples. And, if this wasn't enough, additional X-FADE patches allow you to crossfade between other articulation combinations; for example, crossfading between loose and tight pizzicato is really cool.

However, one of the best articulation tricks can be found in the ALT détaché patches, where samples automatically alternate between up and down bow strokes as you play them. This is achieved with MaestroTools, a utility that sits between the notes played on the keyboard and the GigaStudio patch. (ALT 88 patches are also included, where the up and down-bow samples are mapped to different areas of the keyboard.) MaestroTools is also capable of a second trick when used with the special legato (LEG) patches where, to create realistic smooth legato lines, you can use the sustain pedal to trigger 'masking' samples that subtly bridge the gap between the end of one note, and the slow attack on the next. Whether the results of all this articulation magic are convincing depends on the context of the music, and the care taken in programming, but it's possible to create some amazingly convincing textures you'd never believe were produced with a sampled string orchestra. There are other controls for altering 'warmth', attack, and the length of short bowed notes.

An additional set of 'Full Strings Lite' patches are invaluable for composers, offering combined violins, violas, cellos, and basses, seamlessly mapped according to instrument range over six octaves. These are the only samples in the library that provide looped versions of the sustains, in addition to offering a choice of vibrato and mute sustains, marcato, spiccato, pizzicato, tremolo, and tone and semitone trills, instantly selectable at the push of a key via the Giga format's Key Switch (KS) facility.

Expressive, Expansive, Emotionally Potent

I started on the 'All Violins' long bows, which immediately hit the bullseye — their sustained vibratos sound sweet, expansive, and clean, with good intonation and excellent bow control throughout the chromatically sampled, three and a half octave (G2-C6) range. The vibrato is controlled but expressive. Sonically, there is no big, enveloping, concert hall reverb, but a careful listen on headphones reveals a very pleasant-sounding room or small hall ambience.

The first and second violin sections naturally sound a little smaller, but maintain the high sonic and musical standard. An 'altra corda' variation offers alternative fingering positions on the G and D strings, played with slightly more pronounced vibrato and broader ensemble tuning, resulting in a lusher, more 'chorused' sound. The use of mutes provides a thinner (but still attractive) texture, and there are austere-sounding (but still emotionally potent) 'no vibrato' versions. With GigaStudio's large polyphony, you can layer these sustains to produce 'virtual sections' of various sizes, which gives endless timbral possibilities.

Violas are often a disappointment, and I've grown used to wincing at samples of thin, scrapey performances. Happily, this isn't the case here — the viola section's tone matches the mature, rich quality of the violins, and I particularly liked the heartfelt vibrato of the muted sustains. As the violas rise into their upper register, they produce a sweet, singing tone that blends very nicely with the violin sections. The cellos' 'rich vibratos' are beautifully played and recorded; their smooth, lyrical delivery carries a tune with authority, and if sustained in chords, produces a delightful stereo image that's pure headphone 'ear candy'.

And so, on to the double basses — did the players blot their copybook by turning up to the session drunk, fighting amongst themselves, and producing a wavering semitone when asked to play in unison? No, they too have contributed some excellent samples, offering a choice of smooth and hard attacks, sensual, dark woody sustains, strongly bowed staccatos and deep, weighty pizzicatos. Like the rest of the library, the basses are solid, clean, accurate, and highly useable.

GOS provides up to four dynamics within the same sample program. At first I could discern only two or three, and it was only after much concentrated listening that I began to hear each of the four layers — the same phenomenon happened when I tried the EXP patches. My conclusion is that the dynamic crossover points within the programs have been chosen and calibrated so carefully that the results are remarkably subtle and realistic. Dave Stewart

Critique

Despite the library's large scope, there are some limitations: many violin 'short bows' programs end on F#5 (with C3 as middle C) rather than C6, and the violin pizzicatos, tremolos, and trills only make it as high as C5. The cellos 'additional techniques' are similarly reduced in range. Though the tremolo and trill samples are looped, the 'long bow' sustained notes are not, lasting between 11 and 15 seconds, which can be a real nuisance when composing and programming. The documentation provided no answer, so we asked Gary himself about the lack of loops.

"Chromatically sampling each note at four velocity levels amounts to over 144 samples per patch and, with so many patches, it's a daunting (if not impossible) task to perfectly loop the number of samples involved. So, instead, firstly we looped the 'Full Strings Lite' samples, which should work well for most indefinite sustain situations. Secondly, MaestroTools' Legato mode can be used with unlooped legato sustain instruments to allow very smooth retriggering, if required, which is how real string players naturally sustain notes — by changing their bowing slowly and imperceptibly. And thirdly, we're experimenting with methods of looping the sustain samples in a way that can be delivered with an articulation file. If and when this can be accomplished, it will be provided as an update option."

No matter how hard you try, finding technically bad, out of tune, or otherwise unmusical samples in this library is impossible. However, one general programming criticism concerns some of the 'short bow' programs' decay envelopes: once a note is released, the sample decays rather too slowly (which tends to mask the next note's attack), but then suddenly disappears as if noise-gated. This compromises the useability of détaché and other short note passages — it would be good to hear a shorter, more natural-sounding decay applied.

HALion: A Modulation Odyssey

Now that it's possible to import Giga libraries into HALion, many high-end users have been curious to know if they're able to use GOS. So, with this in mind, I tried importing instruments into HALion and experienced no problems in getting the VEL and KS patches to work — in fact, I quite happily reach for my Garritan imports in preference to any other string patch when I'm using HALion these days. However, because HALion doesn't currently support crossfading samples with the modulation wheel, and some of the other clever abilities of GigaStudio, none of the other patches will import with 100 percent accuracy at this time. There's some good news, though, because the crossfading modulation wheel functionality is one of the features planned for the next update, and Steinberg are very receptive to improving the functionality of HALion.

Recommending this library to HALion-only users is difficult right now since a great advantage of this library is in using the more advanced programs to achieve greater realism. It's also impossible to apply the ART articulation files (used by GigaStudio's Editor) to add updates to the patches in the library. However, if this library is within your budget and you're prepared to put up with the current limitations, I don't think you'll be too disappointed, although adding GigaStudio to your shopping list is probably a good idea. Mark Wherry

Conclusions

At this time, the library is only available in Giga format (see box above on HALion compatibility), but a slimmed-down 3-CD Akai version (which includes the 'Full Strings') will be available soon — a solo strings library is also in the pipeline, though Garritan is reluctant in committing to a delivery date. However, just as we were finishing this review, we received an update providing eight-way variable short bows (meaning that differently-tuned versions of the same sounds are triggered), and some aggressive short bow articulation files from a GOS user. This demonstrates both the commitment to providing updates and the community spirit amongst GOS users — a dedicated online forum can be found at www.northernsounds.com.

The long march towards orchestral sampled perfection continues and although, realistically, there will always be a gap between MIDI orchestration and real players, this library has narrowed the divide. The only complaint I've heard about GOS so far came from a composer who said there just wasn't time to explore all the different variations, which underlines the fact that such a huge, painstakingly-organised library demands time and patience. Once you're fully acquainted with this library's depth and scope, you should be able to use it to produce string ensemble performances of great subtlety, expressiveness, and realism. Needless to say, if this review had appeared in Sample Shop, it would have received the five star maximum.

Published May 2002