This complete orchestral library is the jewel in its maker's crown, but are we talking Tiffanys or Ratners?
Kirk Hunter broke onto the orchestral sampling scene at the tail end of the 20th century with the impressive Virtuoso Series Strings, an unashamedly Hollywood-esque concoction of emotional-sounding string sections capable of inducing a tremble in even the stiffest of British upper lips. Check out my appraisal at www.soundonsound.com/sos/ jan00/articles/kirkhunter_orch.htm. This was followed a few years later by Virtuoso Series Orchestral Brass Ensembles, an elaborate, classy piece of work reviewed in SOS April 2004 (see www.soundonsound.com/sos/ apr04/articles/kirkhunterbrass.htm). With strings and brass in the bag, it was tempting to speculate whether woodwinds and percussion might follow, thereby completing the orchestral picture. That day has come: seven years after his debut release, Kirk Hunter's symphony orchestra now features all the main orchestral instruments, recorded for the most part in a 2500-seater concert hall and lavishly programmed in EXS24, Kontakt 2 and Giga formats by the man himself.
Rather than follow the bling-laden silver, gold and platinum nomenclature of some of his competitors, the US violinist/composer calls his library's editions Sapphire, Ruby and Emerald. At the time of writing the first two were still in development, so I'll deal here with the full Emerald version (21.5GB) which I auditioned in Kontakt 2 format.
Emerald 's various parts can be bought separately — one of its principal components is the 3.4GB Symphonic Strings, featuring sections of 24 violins, 10 first violins, 10 second violins, 16 violas, 12 cellos and six double basses. Each section is presented individually and the 24 violins, violas and lower strings have also been blended together into some very useful unified six-octave 'combination strings' programs. You can see how Kirk Hunter mapped and blended the individual sections in the diagram on the opposite page.
With their dense timbre, concert hall acoustic and impassioned vibrato deliveries, the 24 violins sound similar to their counterparts in Virtuoso Strings. But if some samples seem familiar, there are plenty that are totally new. The trills and pizzicatos (which demonstrate the pleasant, natural-sounding reverb of the concert hall) are superior to those in the 1999 collection and a set of short spiccato notes work well for detaché deliveries. As in VS, there are short upwards slides of about a tone that give a tasty Bollywood flavour. The smaller violin sections' more delicate and transparent timbre works better for quiet pads and lyrical ballads. I suspect that the first and second violins' samples might be alternate takes from the same 10 players, but that's not a problem: it means you can write unison notes for the two sections with no fear of sample duplication causing phasing issues, something that can't be said for all orchestral libraries.
Sampled viola ensembles can sound a bit thin, but the 16-player section featured here have a lush, emotional sound across their three-octave range. Compared to the violas, the 12 cellos sound somewhat more astringent, but they still maintain a strong, rich sound. The six double basses are weighty and dramatic, and if their legato deliveries lack lyricism, they compensate with some tremendously powerful, energetic tremolos. Lurking in the deep end of the basses' sample pool are the remnants of some old Virtuoso Strings samples which sound as if they're played in octaves, not a desirable musical effect.
A versatile 'velocity marcato' style allows the strings' sharpness of attack to be controlled by strength of touch, so you can punctuate quiet legato passages with emphatic marcato stabs. Symphonic Strings' sections are great for composing and arranging, and their strong, slightly dark sound would be ideal for Bernard Hermann-style film soundtracks. All the samples and programs are duplicated in 'Mute FX' form, a cleverly EQ'd emulation of the shimmering sound of muted strings. The duplication of data accounts for 1.5GB of the library's total size.
Emerald 's solo strings (all played in a studio location by Kirk Hunter) were originally released as a separate Virtuoso Series title some time ago and have been included as a bonus. I didn't much care for the flat, toneless quality of the violin and viola's no-vibrato samples, but their vibrato deliveries are more usable. The cello and double bass are played with feeling and the latter's pizzicatos work fine for a jazz walking bass style. Unlooped and handicapped by one or two slightly out-of-tune notes, these aren't the greatest solo strings in the world; however, their performances (which include slides, trills, tremolos and programmed 'sfz' deliveries) could prove invaluable if you're working on a full orchestral score or mocking up a string-quartet arrangement.
The chamber strings — four violins, four violas, three cellos and two double basses — are more impressive. Kirk Hunter created the sections by overdubbing himself (thereby reducing the possibility of arguments amongst the players), an approach which has resulted in a rather pleasing ensemble sound. One interesting programming innovation produces an automatic 16th-note repeat (sync'd to Kontakt 2 's master tempo setting) on the short spiccato notes, a groovy rhythmic effect reminiscent of alternating up and down bows. All sections play nice lyrical vibrato sustains and the violins contribute some good upward and downward slides. Overall, the chamber strings sound strong, committed, expressive and full-toned. As with the solo strings, a little reverb helps soften the dry studio acoustic.
Unlike most string libraries, Emerald 's strings were not recorded at different dynamic levels; variation of expression is produced instead by different degrees of vibrato. The three vibrato styles employed are described as 'no vibrato', light vibrato and heavy vibrato. While 'heavy vibrato' is an accurate description, 'no vibrato' is misleading because (with the exception of the solo strings) some vibrato can clearly be heard. That's OK by me, because strings played with absolutely no vibrato tend to sound rather harsh and unmusical.
The 6.3GB Woodwinds is an important and colourful part of Kirk Hunter's symphony orchestra. The reverb die-away one hears occasionally suggests a large-hall recording, but close miking has ensured intimate contact with the listener. With the exception of alto flute and bass clarinet, the entire orchestral woodwind family is represented. All the instruments were recorded solo, then samples of the solo flute were layered to produce a virtual two-player flute ensemble. A clarinet 'duo' was created by the same method.
I really enjoyed playing these woodwinds. The instruments are well matched: in keeping with the classical tradition, all except the clarinet play with vibrato, and most have an option where the vibrato is introduced gradually. Unlooped but nicely played and tuned, all seven instruments are capable of delivering a melody with expression and feeling, and their staccatos are bright and incisive. One standout is the extraordinarily buzzy contrabassoon, which sounds like a 20-stone wasp trapped in an 40-litre bottle! If I had to criticise, I could point out that a few flute staccato notes need re-tuning and that the bright, four-dynamic clarinet sustains lack a truly soft-toned 'pp' layer, but that would be nitpicking; these are attractive woodwinds which will add lovely textures to arrangements.
In addition to sustains and staccatos, the woodwinds play trills, octave runs (most in major and minor scale versions) and fourths runs extracted from the latter; these are particularly effective on the piccolo. The flute's 'rips' are fast pentatonic runs up to a target note, also presented in a trimmed three-note version. All good, lively stuff. The clarinet's subtle played swells are useful, and while the programmed 'sfz / mod wheel swell' option provided for all instruments can sound a bit synthetic, it gives arrangers the chance to add dynamic mobility to their woodwind parts. On the downside, one programming forehead-slapper sees most of the clarinet and English horn 'Legato Live' keyswitch programs failing to load because they can't locate a bunch of, er, oboe samples. There may be a rational explanation, but this kind of thing doesn't exactly help your workflow!
At the time of writing, Kirk Hunter Symphony Orchestra Emerald is only available to order through www.kirkhunterstudios.com. Prices are as follows:
- Whole library (strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion), $325 for one format, crossgrades $160.
- Available separately (Kontakt 2 and Giga only): All Strings (Symphonic, Solo and Chamber Strings), $225; Symphonic Strings, $189; Chamber Strings, $149; Brass, $99; Woodwinds, $99.
Emerald 's 3.5GB brass volume features samples recorded during sessions for the massive Orchestral Brass Ensembles. According to its maker, the solo trumpet and some horn samples also appear on OBE, but the rest are different takes selected from 'literally terabytes' of material. Many patches layer multi-dynamic sustains and staccatos: in these, the staccato element can be brought to the fore with the mod wheel or by playing harder, which makes it easy (as with the strings) to introduce stabs into a soft legato passage. The trademark 'mod wheel swell' programs facilitate the programming of volume swells and diminuendos but don't quite nail the change of timbre that occurs in a real played crescendo. My favourite trumpet ensemble patches are the 'marcatos', which add just the right amount of attack to the big, fat, bright-sounding sustains. The solo trumpet matches the ensemble's performances and adds some jazzy octave rips. Its long notes are played with a subtle vibrato that places it outside the classical tradition — but don't let that put you off!
Load the cryptically named 'Tbs K' and you'll be rewarded with some tremendous trombone section samples — tight marcato sustains, soft long notes (as in the Coronation Street theme) and some fabulous tight, powerful staccatos, all instantly available at the push of a keyswitch. A decent solo trombone offers the same options, along with a nice 'sus vib' patch in which the mod wheel subtly crossfades vibrato notes with non-vibrato sustains. None of the trombone long notes are looped. Emerald 's bass trombones don't quite hit the heights of the pair in OBE and a few of their upper notes sound slightly synthetic; however, they're still powerful and will cut the mustard in arrangements.
The French horn ensemble sound warm and expansive and, although you can hear reverb on the tail end of their (excellent) staccato samples, fairly closely-miked. Hit the keys hard and the horns' characteristic brassy blare leaps out of the speakers; load their intense, vibrant hand-stopped 'muted' performances and you enter a new tone world. The solo horn deviates from the straight-note agenda with some octave rips (presented in a choice of long or short note-fronts) and vibrato sustains. I raved about the tuba duo in OBE and they also sound very healthy in Emerald, where they are joined by a solo tuba. The solo instrument plays its big, fat, warm sustains with an understated vibrato, but its unlooped sustains last only four or five seconds. Looped versions would be a useful update.
By concentrating on no-frills deliveries, Kirk Hunter has kept Emerald 's brass 'lean and mean', staying true to his original concept for the library. The simple menu of long and short notes has been very well programmed into a set of strong-sounding patches. Some fine 'with mutes' performances by the trumpets and trombones are the icing on the cake, bringing extra colour to the timbral palette.
In the Kontakt 2 version of Emerald, many instruments and sections benefit from a programming technique called 'Legato Live', a clever piece of scripting that simulates legato transitions between notes. In the case of the string sections, the effect (activated by the mod wheel) works monophonically on intervals of up to a minor sixth, producing very realistic portamento pitch glides, which can be used to emulate the sinuous, voice-like inflections of the Indian 'Bollywood' string style.
The technique sounds different on the library's woodwinds and brass — instead of glides, it produces subtle micro-grace notes to fill the gaps between samples. Providing you play monophonically and overlap your notes slightly (which usually involves some after-the-event MIDI editing), the effect works nicely; in my trials, it coped well with slow melodies, medium-paced tunes and fast chromatic runs, and only occasionally fell down when I played fast wider intervals and arpeggios (probably because I failed to slightly overlap all the notes). The odd glitch apart, this is a creditable facility that renders instruments more fluid and lifelike — it sounded particularly good on the oboe and English horn, adding an agreeable liquid surface to their soft, seductive tone.
At 1.12GB, Emerald 's percussion is the smallest part of the library and can't be bought separately. Kirk Hunter admits he added it to justify Emerald 's claim to 'full orchestra' status, and its scope is therefore pretty restricted. Nevertheless, it contains some great stuff; the timpani have a mighty, ambient sound and pack plenty of 'bang'. There are no timp rolls, but the round robin programming helps to ensure that programmed rolls will sound realistic. I was pleased to see a celeste included, though its appealing sound is slightly spoiled by some 'knocky' higher notes. The xylophone is superb, one of the best I've heard.
The unpitched percussion features a slender menu of concert-hall hits. The orchestral bass drum sounds pretty explosive; the snare drum is also good, but its solitary roll sample can't be cut off by the straight snare hits, which is a bit frustrating. Two hefty strikes on the tam tam threaten to blow your head off, then are quickly and disappointingly damped. Few of the so-called 'tom tom' hits actually resemble toms — to my ears, most of them sound like bongo drums, boobams or octobans, but they're very powerful nonetheless!
Suspended cymbals are covered in more depth, offering a choice of attractive mallet hits and rolls. Luckily, the single piatti splash is a good one! Also featuring tambourine and sleigh bells, the entire unpitched percussion menu fits snugly into one three-octave keyboard patch. Though it manages to cover most of the basics, it would be nice if this section of the library could be expanded in future, especially since the current hits sound so promising.
Follow the yellow brick road and you'll find a nice surprise waiting in Emerald city's small percussion department: a stunning concert harp. This sumptuous, sweet-toned instrument sounds wonderful, and in the EXS24 version (which I didn't have time to audition) its straight-note samples are augmented by a comprehensive 957MB set of glissandi. There's also the bonus of a Yamaha C7 grand piano, which sounds a little hard and nasal in the middle range. I wouldn't want to play it unaccompanied, but it will sound fine submerged in an orchestral arrangement.
The Hunter house programming style features a lot of sample processing, layering and envelope shaping and provides users with a lot of options — the Symphonic Strings alone have 875 patches. Though this approach generally produces good musical results, I occasionally wished there were more simple, unlayered patches to use as starting points. Bucking the general trend, no release samples are used, but 'Mod Dec' programs help alleviate this by allowing release / decay speed to be controlled with the mod wheel. Round robin sample-alternating is a big feature of the library and is available as an option for most instruments.
Although the documentation is an improvement on the insanely repetitious booklet text of Orchestral Brass Ensembles, it's still a mess. The patch listings in the library's 128-page PDF manual are presented alphabetically, rather than in themed folders (as are most of the Kontakt 2 patches), so it can take a while to find the style you're looking for — and brain-boggling names like 'FhsMt_mrc_sus-VelXfd_ModSftMrc-rr' don't exactly help! In place of a properly typed list, certain parts of the library are represented by Mac screen grabs of files and folders, with hundreds of redundant Mac file icons needlessly consuming huge amounts of page space. Frankly, the manual gave me a headache. Although it's clearly a labour of love, Emerald 's documentation is badly in need of an overhaul: as things stand, the useful information it contains is in danger of being obscured by the sprawling, disorganised presentation.
This library is a work in progress. The chamber strings programming was still in development at the time of writing, and new (free) samples and updates pop up regularly at the maker's web site. While this gives the operation something of a cottage-industry feel, it does demonstrate that the boss cares about the product and is committed to continually improving it.
Only time will tell whether Emerald will prove to be more precious to users than its Platinum rivals, but this affordable, potent and expressive collection could be worth its weight in gold to those who need to create a complete orchestral sound on a restricted budget. Although it doesn't set out to cover all the subtle stylistic shadings of bigger libraries, the library focuses on the deliveries most people need, and what it lacks in stylistic variation it makes up for in playability and attitude. I found many of its programs to be excellent, and although it has a few flaws and is still in development, I can recommend it in its current form as a viable orchestral collection that will deliver exciting musical results.