Orchestral Tools add orchestral percussion to their Berlin symphonic project and unleash a second cinematic epic.
To use a horse-racing metaphor not often seen in the pages of music technology magazines, Orchestral Tools appear to have the bit between their teeth. Following the success of their Berlin Woodwinds, Strings and Brass sample collections, these young developers have released Berlin Percussion, thereby completing a full hand of sections for their impressive orchestral series. In a separate initiative, they’ve also extended their 1920s-cinema-inspired ‘monumental orchestra’ range with Metropolis Ark 2: Orchestra Of The Deep, featuring a completely new set of strings, brass, woodwind and harps sections, three choirs, pianos, harmonium, pipe organ, percussion (including large drums) and a set of synth and waterphone effects.
Both libraries were recorded at the Berlin Teldex Scoring Stage from multiple microphone positions, and work with the free Kontakt Player as well as the full version of Kontakt 5.5.1. Metropolis Ark 2 is 54GB, while Berlin Percussion Main Library is 75GB (installed sizes). In this review we’ll take a look at both collections, starting with an exploration of the uncharted depths of Metropolis Ark 2 (henceforth called MA2). You can read the review of Metropolis Ark 1 at www.soundonsound.com/reviews/orchestral-tools-metropolis-ark-1.
In contrast to the high-decibel performances of its predecessor, MA2 exploits the orchestra’s quieter dynamics, producing an overall darker, more sombre tone. As in the first library, the sound is intensified by some unusually large section sizes, epitomised by a formidable low strings section of 12 double basses and eight cellos played in octaves. Normally you’d expect cellos to outnumber basses, but the intent here is to ensure the low register never gets overpowered. To that end, the cellos were played con sordino (ie. with mutes attached) to soften their timbre, while the basses played without mutes.
While the massive, throaty, grave and grumbling sound of this 20-piece low strings section readily lends itself to sinister and disquieting moods, the players sound equally at home performing high-energy spiccatos for fast rhythmic passages. In MA2, these low strings are the only section to play pizzicato, and they do so with a great, fat, heavyweight tone. The cellos/basses balance sounds ideal to me, but if you wish you can use the separate close mics trained on each section to adjust the mix.
Those who share my penchant for rich-sounding chord pads will enjoy the mid-range string ensemble included here. It consists of 10 violas and eight cellos playing in unison, creating a lush, super-rich timbre which in some patches is enhanced by half of each section playing sul tasto (a soft, breathy ‘over the fingerboard’ bowing) while the other half plays con sordino. Following German orchestral convention, the violas are seated on the right and the cellos on the left, so when you play a full, two-handed chord you’ll hear a satisfyingly wide stereo image. As with the low strings, violas and cellos have separate close mics so you can alter the section balance.
An unusually large group of 24 high violins, again split left and right to create a panoramic image, maintains the sul tasto/sordino divisi tonal scheme. A good range of articulations includes lively ‘spiccatissimo’ short notes, expressive swells, tremolos and elegant-sounding sustains and true legatos which work well in quiet and/or tense passages. The violins also play light, quiet col legno bow hits and eerie ‘harmonic glissandi’, a somewhat disembodied, synth-like effect created by running the finger lightly up and down the bowed string. The latter style is duplicated by MA2’s violas, cellos and basses, each performing as a separate section.
In addition to standard fast tremolos, all string sections play an unusual ‘slow tremolo’ style which adds a subtle, floaty, mobile timbre to long notes, particularly attractive in the mid-range strings. Another interesting bonus comes in the shape of the high strings’ quietly-played ‘irregular arpeggios’. There are two kinds: the first sounds like a root note topped by a perfect fourth interval an octave higher, while the second is based on a simple root-fifth-octave movement. Each player performs their arpeggio figure in a different tempo, producing a collective shimmering effect which yields intriguing musical results when played chordally using the notes of the pentatonic scale.
Moving on, we find a collection of six harps playing together in a section (don’t expect to see that on a concert stage any time soon — the porterage bill would be crippling). The harps produce a deep, rich and luxurious sound and play so tightly that their straight long-note performances give the impression of one single, giant super-harp. The ensemble also sounds wonderful playing unison harmonics, a sonority I’ve loved since first hearing it in Gustav Holst’s The Planets Suite — the slow tremolo version of this style is beautiful, a musical evocation of stars twinkling in the night sky.
The harps’ major, minor and fifths-based chords span two octaves and are played with an emphatic downwards sweep. While that delivery might come in handy from time to time, users are more likely to reach for the harp’s ‘glissando beds’, played in various scales including the classic pentatonic glissandi that 1960’s film composers used to accompany dream sequences and flashback ‘dissolve’ effects.
With so many competing products on the market, any new orchestral library needs a unique selling point. MA2’s USP is summarised by its makers as “deep, wide and low”, a description which certainly fits some of the library’s three-player woodwind ensembles. Pitched a fourth below a regular concert flute, three alto flutes play sumptuous sustains with and without vibrato, the former a fine expressive option for top-line melodies. Pitched a full octave below the concert instrument are a lovely trio of breathy, solemn-sounding bass flutes. I’d be inclined to use their no-vibrato delivery for supportive parts, as its simple, plain quality sits nicely with other woodwinds.
Back in the day, the first wave of orchestral sample libraries included three-clarinet ensembles, though I can’t recall ever finding a use for them. That’s unlikely to be the case with MA2’s trio of bass clarinets, which sound superbly fruity in the reverberant hall acoustic. While effects such as mad squeals and enraged bull-like noises are good value, the bass clarinets’ straightforward staccato style is a classic, menacing ‘pantomime villain’ timbre which I’m sure will find its way into many soundtracks. The icing on the cake here is the splendidly-named Graefenberger contrabass clarinet trio, a line-up I haven’t encountered elsewhere. Their low notes (which again include powerful staccatos) are tightly synchronised, resonant and intensely mysterious-sounding.
In addition to sustain, staccato and legato straight notes, all of MA2’s woodwind sections play long and short swells, and (no doubt in a nod to the avant garde fraternity, who would start a riot if they weren’t included) flutter tongue articulations and some great multiphonics effects.
The three-player ensemble theme continues with five brass sections, each of which boasts an unusual line-up. Most long-time users will have encountered a solo flugelhorn in a sample library, but I’d imagine a flugelhorn trio is a new experience for all of us. Lacking the brash attack of a trumpet, the flugels are a great resource for soft, mellow chord pads and mournful solo lines (particularly of the jazzy variety), and the trio achieves an impressive overall section blend. If you need a warm trumpet sound in a lower pitch register, the mellifluous tone of MA2’s three bass trumpets will do the trick.
Designed to play noble trombone-esque themes with the less incisive tone of the French horn, the Wagner tuba was created for Richard Wagner’s operatic Ring cycle in the mid-19th Century. Orchestral Tools hired three players of these rare valved instruments to perform a set of essential articulations, resulting in a soft-toned, warm and enveloping horn-like timbre with an extended range which is inspirational for composing.
Returning to more familiar territory, we have a trio of regular tubas which, though played softly, still manage to sound big. Higher up the scale, a trio of euphoniums evoke the classic sound of the British brass band. These subtly differentiated brass timbres blend together beautifully in chorale-style arrangements, creating a big, expansive symphonic brass sound while retaining a soft edge.
MA2 builds on its predecessor’s choral foundations with three new choirs: a sweet-sounding, mixed-sex 16-piece children’s choir sounds suitably angelic singing legato ‘oohs’, though for the squeaky top register, the mature voices of the women’s choir (six sopranos and six altos) arguably sounds a little stronger. At the other end of the pitch spectrum are 11 ‘basso profondo’ males who effortlessly descend into the bottomless pitch depths, but can also push their voices up into a high range. Layering the three choirs produces a wide stereo picture and rich choral textures in keeping with the grand vision of Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi masterpiece.
As in the original Metropolis collection, the female and male choirs perform a set of staccato syllables, in this case ‘pre’, ‘mo’, ‘si’, ‘noo’, ‘un’, ‘ki’, ‘em’, ‘bru’, ‘sa’ and ‘bis’. By manipulating the round-robin chain you can construct virtual phrases, which though utterly devoid of meaning, will give unsuspecting listeners the impression that words are being sung.
The orchestra is further fleshed out by a small selection of keyboards, spearheaded by a unique grand piano ensemble of two Steinway Ds and a Steinway B. The trio plays sustains, staccato, open fifth chords and soft tremolo articulations (an interesting atmospheric jangle reminiscent of silent-film piano accompaniment). A weird twist is provided by an ancient harmonium described as “at the edge of total disintegration and a true challenge to sample”. Thankfully the battered relic held together long enough to wheeze out some usable notes, which media composers can dial up for those scary ‘Hansel and Gretel in peril’ moments. In a more soothing vein, a soft and breathy wooden pipe organ sounds solemn, peaceful and innocent, providing a nice contrast to MA2’s darker side.
The inclusion of unpitched percussion means this library can be used on its own to create entire scores. Percussive highlights include beautifully sonorous big drum hits, monumental, processed ultra-low booms and thunderous detuned detonations, unsettling bowed cymbal noises, and the usual array of creepy waterphone effects. The booms are augmented by a variety of low-pitched, distorted synth rumblings, some of which had me thinking my audio interface was about to expire. On a more tranquil note, Tibetan bowls, small bells and an exquisite finger cymbal are on hand for quieter, more reflective musical moments.
On to Berlin Percussion (BP for short), the final piece in the Berlin orchestral series jigsaw. Right off the bat, this comprehensive collection strikes me as one of the best I’ve heard, benefiting from a multi-microphone setup which includes spot mics for a true close-up sound, as well as more distant mic positions which capture the classic concert hall ambience.
Space does not permit a detailed examination of every instrument, but I’ll give you a quick run-down: BP’s four bass drums are clean, resonant and hugely powerful, just the thing for a resounding wallop at dramatic musical moments. Four sharp-toned, tight-sounding snares of different pitches contrast with the deeper, more historic timbres of a field drum and tenor drum, while a superb set of toms are available for rocky fills and Hans Zimmer-esque tribal drum workouts. (No taikos though — you need MA1 for those.) Timbales are modestly played in the orchestral style, rather than the exuberant, clangy, raucous Latin delivery heard on pop tracks.
Though the piatti cymbal crashes are not as triumphant as I’d have liked, the suspended cymbals’ gorgeous crescendo mallet rolls (played in various lengths) are among the best I’ve heard. If you’re suffering from a hangover and need to keep the volume down, brushed versions of the cymbals are also provided. Once the headache has subsided, celebrate your return to health by playing a series of enormous crashes on BP’s huge 130cm tam tam gong, which also contributes some tremendous, earth-shaking crescendo rolls. When the neighbours complain, you can pacify them with some delicate quiet hits on BP’s bell tree, triangles and metal chimes.
A star turn in the tuned percussion department is a delightful marimba played with soft mallets — an absolutely enchanting timbre. Other highlights include a nicely sampled, dreamy-sounding vibraphone which plays some magical white-note glissandi, a highly usable celeste, excellent tubular bells and a charming set of chromatic tuned cowbells which make a colourful, soft rustic noise redolent of cows on Swiss mountainsides.
While everything in this library sounds good, certain miscellaneous items caught my ear: the pristinely-recorded temple blocks, wood blocks and claves sound delectable, and the ‘body percussion’ (powerful, reverberant heavy foot stomps, thwacking hand claps and macho finger clicks), featuring 20 round robins, is a great resource for programming rhythm tracks. I also enjoyed the ship’s bell (an excellent specimen), savoured the beautiful high-pitched finger cymbal and even found time to appreciate the fog horn, said to be Michael Gove’s favourite musical instrument.
Then there are the ‘forgotten sounds’ from percussion’s dusty top shelf: sleigh bells (an unwelcome reminder of Christmas at any time of year), a vibraslap (an indispensable entry in every percussion collection, despite the fact that no-one has used the sound in 25 years) and that classic comedy accessory, the so-called ‘duck call’, which in this case sounds nothing like a duck — maybe that’s the joke?
If you’re looking for grandiose and imposing powerful orchestral timbres, don’t let Metropolis Ark 2’s focus on quieter dynamics put you off: when blended together, these ensembles sound absolutely massive, and their dark, brooding timbre, subtle articulations and great ensemble tuning would be an asset for any composer. Benefiting from highly consistent articulation menus from instrument to instrument, MA2’s distinctive orchestration and unusual colours mark it out as a unique sample collection; whether used alone or in conjunction with its predecessor and/or Orchestral Tools’ Berlin series, it’s capable of producing top-notch symphonic arrangements.
I can also recommend the Berlin Percussion & Timpani bundle as a seriously good, top-quality collection for anyone engaged in sample-based orchestral work.
If you need the combined forces of outsize strings sections, unusual woodwind and brass ensembles, booming big-screen percussion, choirs and piano featured in Metropolis Ark 2, Orchestral Tools’ original Metropolis Ark 1 library (which focuses on louder dynamics) also supplies them. If you can get by without the choirs and piano, 8Dio’s Majestica has the same epic sweep, while Spitfire Audio’s Albion III — Iceni (which lacks choirs, piano and high strings) shares MA2’s predilection for all things deep and powerful.
Libraries in the same ballpark as the Berlin Percussion & Timpani Bundle include VSL Percussion, VSL Synchron Percussion I, Spitfire Percussion, East West Hollywood Orchestral Percussion and Cinesamples’ CinePerc.
Formerly released as a taster for Berlin Percussion under the title of ‘The Timpani’, this 6.2GB (installed size) library has been adapted into an expansion set for the main library. The two may be purchased separately, or together as a bundle. Now updated with Orchestral Tools’ Capsule articulation management system (which operates unobtrusively inside Kontakt), the expansion features a set of deeply multisampled concert timpani played by percussionist Sebastian Trimolt.
Recorded at the Teldex Scoring Stage from four mic positions, the timpani are played with normal, soft, hard and Baroque mallets and incorporate up to seven velocity layers and 10 round robins. The library features a naturalistic ‘True Damping’ technique which uses release samples on note-offs, allowing you to damp ringing notes at will. Performances include single hits, two-handed sforzando ‘impact’ flam hits, rolls (normal, crescendo and decrescendo), forte-piano, glissandi pitch-bends, note repetitions and ‘thunder effects’.
Spanning two chromatic octaves and handily mapped for two-handed programming, these super-clean, transparent-sounding and powerful timps are a perfect match for the instruments in the other Berlin series collections, and will add class and grandeur to any orchestral arrangement.
- MA2 features unique strings, woodwind and brass textures, all played with great ensemble tuning.
- MA2’s articulation menus are admirably consistent across its instruments.
- Taken together, Berlin Percussion and its Timpani expansion are a top-class, powerful and comprehensive set.
- All three libraries sound great.
- Some of MA2’s note tails contain extraneous noises.
- MA2 and Berlin Percussion are pricey.
Serious-sounding, monumental and wallowing in the darker timbres of the orchestra, Metropolis Ark 2 focuses on quieter dynamics but still sounds huge. While its outsize string ensembles, unusual woodwind and brass sections, big-screen percussion, choirs and piano are an ideal companion to Metropolis Ark 1, it will also work stand-alone. Berlin Percussion and the Timpani expansion are top-notch collections which collectively provide a comprehensive, classy and powerful orchestral percussion instrumentation for composers.