NI and Sonuscore take assisted string arranging to another level with Action Strings 2.
Native Instruments’ original Action Strings, produced in collaboration with Dynamedion, was an undeniable hit when first released nearly 10 years ago. It combined an impressive sample‑based string section instrument with an innovative performance engine that made it easy to create convincing string parts even if you had little knowledge of orchestration.
While Action Strings is still a perfectly capable tool, the last few years have seen a number of alternative products, also combining sample‑based strings with performance‑based features, which have pushed the concept forward. Sample Logic’s Symphonic AI, UJAM’s Striiiings, Kirk Hunter Studios’ recently released Kinetic: String Motion Engine are obvious examples, but perhaps the most high‑profile competition comes from Best Service’s The Orchestra, produced in collaboration with Sonuscore. All of which makes it interesting that Action Strings 2 is actually a collaborative product between NI and Sonuscore. However, Sonuscore’s roots lie in Dynamedion, and they have already collaborated with NI on products such as Mallet Flux. So, what does Sonuscore’s expertise developed from The Orchestra bring to Action Strings 2, and do the two products tread on each other’s toes?
Sections Of The Virtual Section
Action Strings 2 consists of three main components. First, you get a 30GB sample library. It features a full orchestral string section and, in the playback engine, the instruments are divided into high strings (violins and violas) and low strings (cellos and basses).
Second, you get a mixing engine, allowing you to blend four different microphone positions (Close, Spot, Tree and Far), adjust a three‑band EQ and apply a simple but very nice convolution reverb. This allows you to take the sound from up close and intimate to grandiose and Hollywood‑esque. Turning off an individual microphone position will unload the samples associated with it.
Finally, you get the performance engine and, for both the high and low strings, this allows you to trigger complete phrases from as few as one MIDI input note. Keyswitches can be used to switch between different phrases on the fly or to switch to individual string articulations if you want to play your own string lines as you would with a more conventional string library. While these three main components are, in principle, the same as in the original Action Strings, as described more fully below, there are considerable improvements in all three areas.
Shiny New Strings
The sample library component features an all‑new 41‑piece string section sample set recorded in Budapest specifically for AS2. The recordings captured a combination of single articulations and ‘live modules’. The latter are mini phrases recorded at both different pitches and dynamics levels. These are then combined in various ways to form the two‑bar phrases that form the heart of AS2’s impressive performance engine.
Auditioning the high and low ensemble sounds using just the Close mic position (and no added reverb) reveals a well‑balanced, precise, and consistent sound with plenty of dynamics. The single articulations include staccato, staccatissimo (both very effective for fast runs), marcato, sustain, tremolo and (for the high ensemble only) trills. These are all excellent, but I was a little surprised by the lack of a pizzicato articulation. Of course, as AS2 offers a well‑implemented MIDI export feature, you can export some suitably staccatissimo phrases for playback by a pizzicato articulation from another string library if required.
Intimate To Epic
As indicated above, AS2’s mixer offers a blend of up to four different microphone positions. Both Close and Spot provide a more defined, intimate sound, while Tree and Far give you more natural ambience from the recording space. They are all very useable depending upon the musical context.
A small number of presets are included based on various different blends and you can, of course, configure your own mix. That said, I particularly liked each of the Spot and Tree positions in isolation, with the latter having its own sense of space that worked wonderfully with a dash of the convolution reverb to create a classy, sound‑stage‑ready vibe. The three‑band EQ is simple but effective, and each microphone position can be routed to a separate output within Kontakt if you want further processing options in your DAW host.
A Most Excellent Turn Of Phrase
Individual articulations aside, the preset ‘performance’ content of AS2 is organised in three tiers: Themes, Phrases and Modules. A Theme contains a number of related musical Phrases (generally two bars in length) and an individual Phrase is built from a number of Modules. And, as the user can both build their own Themes from Phrases and can build and edit their own Phrases from Modules, you are not limited to the performances contained within the supplied Theme/Phrase presets.
AS2 includes over 150 Theme presets and, within the neat and tidy Theme browser (with filter options), these are organised into five categories: Basic, Melodic, Chromatic, Arpeggio and User. Each category is designed with different compositional tasks in mind. Themes from each category also suit somewhat different combinations of MIDI note input. For example, within the Basic category, the Phrases are generally rhythmic in nature so you can play a single trigger note or a full chord and all notes you play will then be voiced across the low and high ensembles using the Phrases’ rhythmic pattern. In contrast, Phrases in the melodic Themes generally require a single trigger note and this acts as the root note from which the Phrases’ melody is then played. The PDF manual explains these differences very clearly but, once you have got your head around the different requirements, it really is very logical and straightforward.
By default, the set of 10 keyswitches within a Theme are configured with four related Phrases and a series of individual articulations. The user can swap Phrases or articulations in and out to customise a Theme and then save it in the User category. As well as the playing styles hinted at by the categories themselves, you can also filter by feel (fourth, eighth, etc), meter (4/4, 3/4, 6/8, 7/8 or 5/8) and style (unison, complex or lead by the low or high ensemble). I have to admit to grinning inanely as I first auditioned a selection of the Theme presets. Whatever your level of orchestration skills, AS2 is instantly gratifying even before you dig into the performance editing possibilities.
When you do finally dig into the Editor screen, you soon realise just how much potential AS2 has to create your own Phrases. For both the high and low ensembles, the Editor allows you to customise the currently selected Phrase (or create your own from scratch) by making adjustments to each of the Modules (mini‑phrases) from which it is built. Clicking on the score‑like display at the top of the Editor, you can select an individual Module (it becomes highlighted in grey). Modules of different lengths can be combined to form the complete Phrase.
Beneath this, you can set the relative dynamics of each module and, at the left side of this section, you can toggle the playback of the Phrase between Melody and Arpeggiator modes. In Melody mode, you also get a ‘pitch’ lane, where you can adjust the relative pitch of the Module. By combining suitable Modules, this makes it possible to create almost any melodic phrase you might wish and, on playback, AS2’s performance engine will transpose it based upon the MIDI root note used to trigger it. No, it doesn’t automatically re‑map the melody to a specific key/scale, but it is still very flexible and, with full MIDI export, you can always use your DAW’s MIDI editing options for further adjustment.
The Editor’s own browser (accessed via the magnifying glass icon) allows you to search through the impressive collection of over 900 supplied Module presets. As shown in the screenshot, these are also organised into categories ranging from single notes through to falls, trills and extended melodic runs. These latter three groups make it very easy to construct a Phrase with those fast passages typical of action movie cues. The Editor does have something of an initial learning curve but, AS2 ‘assisted string arranging’ is powerful stuff, while still giving you plenty of flexibility over the melodic/harmonic nature of the arrangements you create.
Over & Out
Once you are ready to perform with your chosen Theme it’s simply a matter of using the keyswitches to move between your Phrases (or one of the singular articulations) and triggering the Phrases with some suitable single notes or chords. AS2 will then translate that into a full low and high ensemble string performance.
However, as mentioned earlier, AS2 also includes a MIDI export option. Once you activate this (via the mini keyboard icon located top‑right of the main UI), your next AS2 performance (live or from a pre‑recorded MIDI track) will then record that as full MIDI parts (separate high and low ensemble MIDI clips are created) that can be dragged and dropped to a pair of MIDI tracks in your DAW. This works a treat and makes it very easy to use AS2 to build your initial musical idea but then arrange the MIDI output across other virtual instruments, be those alternative string libraries or other orchestral sounds (brass or woodwind) to create a fully orchestrated cue.
Hats off to NI and Sonuscore; AS2 is a very impressive successor to the original Action Strings concept and takes assisted string arranging to another level.
Ready For Action?
As suggested by the title, AS2 is designed with ‘action’ in mind and, with an excellent selection of preset Modules providing faster note passages, it is certainly suited to the creation of up‑tempo cues to suit action and/or drama moods. That said, pick a suitably slower tempo, and AS2 can also do mellow, romantic and tranquil; it will be interesting to see if NI’s Emotive Strings also gets the v2 treatment with the AS2 engine.
Creating convincing orchestral arrangements with virtual instruments can be a challenge. For me, in terms of ‘assisted string arranging’, AS2 sits somewhere between Striiiings and The Orchestra. Striiiings is perhaps even more instant in terms of rapid results and includes some additional, non‑conventional, processed string sounds. However, the phrases themselves are not editable and there is no MIDI export. In contrast, The Orchestra covers the full suite of orchestral sections and includes MIDI export but perhaps has a steeper learning curve. However, you can still go deep with AS2 and, with its notation‑style graphical editing, it will feel instantly familiar to most musicians. This approach to the editing environment will undoubtedly have a strong appeal to those wanting to work with an orchestral palette.
The original Action Strings, Toontrack’s EZ products and UJAM’s virtual guitarist line can be found in thousands of studios around the world; love it or loathe it, the virtual musician genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Sample‑based string libraries that assist the composer in creating a convincing performance are therefore here to stay. If your high‑octane musical cues require a full string arrangement, Action Strings 2 can undoubtedly deliver. Whatever your level of orchestration skills, great results can be achieved very quickly but, equally, the performance engine is both flexible and powerful provided you are prepared to tackle the relatively modest learning curve. Hats off to NI and Sonuscore; AS2 is a very impressive successor to the original Action Strings concept and takes assisted string arranging to another level.
- Sounds great and includes flexible microphone choices.
- Impressive collection of Themes for instant performance gratification.
- Powerful Phrase editing environment.
- Excellent MIDI export feature.
- No pizzicato single articulation.
Action Strings 2 is a very impressive revamp of the original classic concept. For suitable musical styles, it makes great‑sounding string arrangements a realistic proposition whatever your orchestration skills.
£269, upgrade £179. Prices include VAT.
$299, upgrade $199.