Orchestral Tools expand their Berlin Series with a muted strings collection.
Berlin Strings is the most fully evolved category of Orchestral Tools’ Berlin Series, which started in mid‑2012 with the critically acclaimed Berlin Woodwinds and subsequently blossomed into a complete, richly detailed symphonic library. Hitherto the most recent addition was Berlin Symphonic Strings, released shortly before Christmas 2020. Following that, undaunted by a deadly plague sweeping the globe, OT were back at work recording Berlin Con Sordino Strings, a full 50GB collection in which all instruments are played with mutes attached.
In common with other Berlin collections, the new library was recorded at the Teldex Scoring Stage from OT’s standard mic positions: the main room sound is captured by a traditional Decca Tree array, augmented by A‑B mics placed above the Tree, Spot and Leader close mics, and the more distant Outrigger and Surround positions. The latter has obvious advantages for surround mixes, while the A‑B option may prove useful for immersive audio work involving height speakers.
Berlin Con Sordino Strings (BCSS for short) runs exclusively on Orchestral Tools’ free Sine Player, which connects directly to your online account, shows your product licences and enables you to download just the instruments and mic positions you need whenever it suits you. Single instruments and ensembles can be purchased separately, though it’s considerably cheaper to buy an entire collection in one go. As well as suiting the budgets of orchestral sample newcomers, this flexible, user‑friendly system offers pro users a valuable aid to managing disk space.
The Sordino Sound
In orchestral scores the term ‘con sordino’ instructs string players to engage their mutes. The mute is a small device which fixes over the bridge and reduces its vibration, thereby dampening high frequencies and subtly softening the instrument’s sound. This is particularly effective in reducing the inherent brightness of the violin’s high register. For ease of use during performances, mutes rest on the strings next to the tailpiece and can be quickly moved onto the bridge when required.
Con sordino string writing is a staple in both classical works and film scores. Notable examples of the former include ‘Aise’s Death’ from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No 1, ‘Le Petit Poucet’ from Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and the opening of Stravinsky’s Firebird, an ominous 12/8 pattern played by muted low strings with the double basses divided between con sordino and pizzicato. In the cinema, Jerry Goldsmith’s ‘Main Theme’ for Basic Instinct, John Williams’ ‘Reunion’ from Far & Away and Bernard Herrmann’s iconic Psycho score all feature con sordino strings to great effect.
Orchestral Tools’ Sascha Knorr says of the style: “It lends itself to quieter and atmospheric music — it’s not for your big soaring melodies or big action pieces, though Bernard Hermann made an exception with his very aggressive muted string passages in Psycho. In BCSS we recorded some short notes which are quite aggressive, but overall it’s more on the softer, very warm and atmospheric side.”
Though rubber mutes are the norm nowadays, wood, metal and other materials are sometimes used. When recording BCSS’s First Violins section the makers experimented with half the players using wooden mutes — this created a marginally brighter sound — but for the other sections they settled on the more familiar and warm‑sounding rubber type. While such conventional mutes reduce overall volume by around 20 percent, the library also features practice mutes (aka ‘hotel mutes’), which reduce the sound to a whisper.
Sustains & Shorts
Composers who like to use chord pads and long pedal notes will enjoy BCSS’s selection of long‑note articulations. You can choose between straight and soft sustains, the latter incorporating a slower attack and subtle volume swell. Emotive played crescendo swells are also included. All of the above articulations can be switched between subtle and expressive vibrato styles, the latter veering towards a passionate ‘molto vibrato’ delivery. The romance continues with heartfelt expressive sustains in which a soft accented attack gives way to a subliminal long swell, while no‑vibrato sustains provide an austere, plain‑sounding alternative.
A favourite of OT founder Hendrik Schwarzer, the quiet, breathy ‘sul tasto’ bowing sounds great played on BCSS’s layered cellos and violins. Played with the back of the bow, ‘col legno tratto’ sustains are hushed, delicate and somewhat anxious‑sounding — in a similar vein, the players execute their multi‑dynamic tension‑building tremolos with admirable precision and control.
Moving on to the short notes, the ubiquitous spiccato bowing is the definitive rhythmic string ostinato style and the darling of media composers. Though lacking the aggressive bite of an unmuted section, BCSS’s spiccatos are powerful, ultra‑tight and impressively full‑sounding, with four velocity layers covering the spectrum from softly insistent to brusquely imperious. An equally tight and classy staccato delivery is also available for accents and chordal stabs. In addition, there’s a beautifully graceful and expressive medium‑length portato style, played long and short with a choice of vibrato intensities.
Throughout the Berlin Series OT have used a monophonic true legato mode in which held notes automatically re‑sound when a superimposed note is released. This cool technical detail was originally implemented by legato sampling pioneers Vienna Symphonic Library. I’ve long regarded it as a great programming aid, so was sorry to see it discontinued in VSL’s latter‑day legato patches. Happily OT have stuck to the script, which means you can program a trill with any of BCSS’s legato sustains patches simply by holding down a key while rapidly repeating another note.
I was struck by the smoothness, accuracy and coordination of these legatos. If you layer legato first violins, second violins and violas and play a series of joined‑up notes, the three sections track with uncanny accuracy and realism. The same is true of layered cellos and basses, and when you transpose the basses down an octave the effect is monumental. Playing these patches at high velocities triggers fast portamento swoops between notes, a more restrained effect than the exuberant Indian ‘Bollywood’ style but highly expressive nonetheless. A third legato style called ‘Playable Runs’ is optimised for fast short‑note runs and flourishes.
As with earlier OT libraries, legato transitions may be activated for most of the long‑note styles, portatos, swells and even tremolos, a remarkable facility which should help eradicate any unwanted lumps and glitches in your melody lines.
If you simply need an expressive, musically versatile standalone library which digs deep into the timbral and performance variations of muted strings, this excellent con sordino package is a first‑rate contender.
Having been in the orchestral sample library game for a while now I feel as if I’ve heard most of the performance styles on offer, but this library introduces a couple of newcomers. ‘Fifth drops’ does what it says on the tin: a quick descending fifth‑interval short note, played across adjacent strings under one bow movement. The second violins and cellos perform it as a distinct rhythmic motif you can use to create dancing eighth‑note patterns, the first violins play it so quickly it resembles a double‑stopped chord, while the basses’ messy and inconsistent version falls somewhere in between.
‘Rips’ repeats the idea, this time with an octave interval. Played in a choice of ascending and descending versions, the colourful, gently animated effect of these artics is a million miles removed from the ear‑splitting glissando rips played by horn and brass players. For some unknown reason the viola section performs neither the rips nor the fifth drops, but that instrument’s register is amply covered by the violins and cellos.
Grouped together in a ‘specials’ folder, the following artics introduce unusual twists to traditional performance styles. BCSS’s arpeggio samples consist of a fast, repeated up and down sweep of a widely‑voiced three‑note chord. Played in major, minor and open‑fifth versions in all 12 keys, the arpeggios are unmetered and have no deliberate rhythmic pulse, but you can use them to set up a hypnotic and turbulent chordal backdrop. I found the first violins’ open fifths option to be the most musically useful, since it leaves harmonic space for compositional development.
The name ‘Louré’ sounds like it might be some mysterious, exotic and other‑worldly musical extravaganza used to accompany a magical ritual dance of elves, nymphs and fairies, but actually it just means a series of slowish repeated single notes played without lifting the bow from the string. Played as quarter notes, eighth notes and in a syncopated 8th‑4th‑4th‑4th‑8th pattern, these tempo‑sync’ed samples can be combined into softly propulsive rhythm patterns which loop indefinitely.
All sections play a chromatic set of harmonics in a choice of straight sustains, fast tremolo and slow irregular tremolo styles. As ever, the violin harmonics resemble ethereal high‑pitched sine waves emanating from somewhere beyond the universe, while the basses’ slow tremolo version can create fascinating quiet chordal textures. In a similar vein, the ultra‑quiet, neighbour‑friendly ‘hotel mute’ patches match the above mentioned playing styles, with the cellos’ slow tremolo artic providing an intriguing harmonium‑like texture.
Being a two‑handed kinda guy, I was pleased to see that all the BCSS instruments offer a choice between mod wheel and velocity volume control. The latter frees up my left hand and gives me the option of old‑school dynamic touch control for all patches. For many years the orchestral library convention has been to offer velocity control only for short notes — no problem with that as far as it goes, but when it comes to long notes it’s impossible to experiment with different chord inversions and bass lines if your left hand is constantly tied up with the mod wheel.
A related issue is the provision (or otherwise) of playable ‘full strings’ patches. Usually created by mapping the various sections across the keyboard according to range, these give you a full six‑octave playing span with violins at the top, basses at the bottom and cellos and violas strategically positioned in between, another boon for double‑handed playing. Programming such lash‑ups requires decisions about whether the second violins should be included and whether to overlap or juxtapose adjacent sections — in either case, you have to determine each sections’ upper and lower range limits, which is less straightforward than it sounds.
Since the main Berlin Strings library contains full strings patches, I’m surprised that none are included here. For the sake of compatibility and user convenience, it would be nice if Orchestral Tools supplied them for both BCSS and Berlin Symphonic Strings. That said, if you simply layer BCSS’s first violins, violas, cellos and basses without worrying about range overlaps the resulting blend sounds fine, which arguably makes the absence of pre‑programmed full strings patches in this library a moot point.
Following the extermination of various annoying bugs and a slight visual makeover, Orchestral Tool’s Sine Player v1.1.1 has reached an impressive state of maturity. You can switch articulations by means of user‑definable keyswitches, MIDI channels, MIDI CC commands and MIDI Program Changes, and the ingenious speedometer‑like Polymap performance switcher lets you easily blend, stack and crossfade instruments. You can also save system resources by merging multi‑mic setups into a stereo mix which can be recalled at any time.
What’s not to like? First, the mixer volume faders, mixer pan sliders and instrument main volume control have no numerical readout, which makes it hard to precisely match instruments’ mix settings. Secondly, although it’s been around for four years, Sine still lacks built‑in effects and you can’t tune patches or alter the amount of pitch bend. Not a show‑stopper, but it’s hard to think of another professional sample player with the same limitations — I wish OT would do something about it.
Muted ‘con sordino’ strings are an important item in the orchestral composer’s toolkit. Though much trailer and film music centres on violent action and mayhem, there will invariably be the occasional soft romantic interlude or pause for reflection. At such moments, the big, imposing sound of an unmuted strings orchestra might come across as pompous and overbearing, and that’s where the warmer, more intimate con sordino sound can make its mark.
BCSS can be viewed in two ways: if you’re an Orchestral Tools aficionado, it offers a chance to complete your Berlin Strings collection with a fresh set of tonal colours which are 100 percent sonically compatible with the existing titles. On the other hand, if you simply need an expressive, versatile standalone library which digs deep into the timbral and performance variations of muted strings, this excellent con sordino package is a first‑rate contender. Either way, BCSS is a beautiful, soft‑sounding muted strings collection which is perfect for subtle and emotive scoring.
As has been remarked ad nauseam, we live in a world of doubtful reality. Due to some clickbait headline glimpsed on their phone, tens of millions of people now believe that the Moon doesn’t exist, that Nigeria’s president is a clone, Prince Charles is a vampire or that lizard‑like humanoids from Alpha Draconis are conducting a worldwide conspiracy against humanity. (Actually that last theory may not be so far‑fetched — a record company A&R man I met in the ’70s displayed distinctly reptilian traits.)
Even serious thinkers are not immune to such flights of fancy. Writing in the Philosophical Quarterly academic journal, philosopher Nick Bostrom proposed that the universe and everything in it might be a simulation, a view enthusiastically endorsed by leading intellectual Elon Musk. While you might think these guys are taking the plot of The Matrix a tad too seriously, there’s no doubt that simulation plays a big part in our lives, whether it be patently fake news stories, the manufactured plotlines of TV so‑called reality shows or the doctored photos on Internet dating sites. Simulation is also rife in the world of commerce, where products very often fail to live up to their exaggerated advertising claims.
Such matters evidently weighed on Orchestral Tools’ minds when considering how to deal with the Berlin Strings con sordino question. In the past some sample companies have simulated their sordino samples — rather than record a whole standalone collection played with mutes, they simply applied filtering and EQ to the unmuted samples to simulate the sordinos’ softening effect. An understandable shortcut given the expense of recording thousands of orchestral samples, and it has one advantage: the muted effect can be instantly activated at the touch of a button, and is completely musically compatible with the regular samples.
OT’s Hendrik Schwarzer explains: “We talked a lot about what we should do with the Berlin Strings con sordino thing. Sascha [Knorr] suggested maybe we can come up with a simulation so that we have all the various articulations still available, but to really do it right the only way is to record everything again with real con sordino.” Knorr adds: “The effect can be simulated to a certain extent with filtering but it’s not linear, it reacts differently in the instrument’s low register and it has a much bigger effect than the mute itself on the high register. Another thing against simulation is that the style and the playing actually changes when the players apply their mutes: they react to the sound, something you can’t replicate with filtering or post‑production techniques. Basically, as with everything, if you want the real deal you have to actually record it that way, there’s no way around it.”
Heartening words. So even if it turns out we’re all living in a computer‑generated dream world of cascading green code, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that at least Orchestral Tools’ con sordino samples are the real thing!
Berlin Strings Overview
Comprising strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion, Orchestral Tools’ Berlin Series offers composers a complete orchestral solution. The series shines an intense spotlight on strings, offering large, small and medium‑sized sections along with a generous choice of solo instruments and hundreds of articulations.
All of the below strings titles have now been updated and formatted for OT’s Sine Player. Also available is Orchestral Tools’ debut library Orchestral String Runs (14/12/10/8/6), recorded in Minsk with players from the Belarus Philharmonic two years before the launch of the Berlin series.
- A lovely warm‑sounding con sordino string orchestra which offers oodles of expressive performance variations.
- Articulations are consistent from section to section.
- The six mic positions are identical to those used in the other Berlin Series titles.
- No playable ‘full strings’ patches.
- No onboard reverb or effects.
- No manual.
Orchestral Tools complete their Berlin Strings collection with the iconic sound of muted con sordino strings. This excellent medium‑sized string orchestra comprises first and second violins, violas, cellos and double basses, with each section presented separately but also sounding great when played together. Though not recommended for violent action thrillers, Berlin Con Sordino Strings hits the mark for tender, romantic, subtle and expressive string writing.
Full library €598.80, single instruments from €34.80. Prices include VAT.
Full library €499, single instruments from €29.