A new strings library sees a major European symphonic sampling project move one step closer to completion.
It was clear from the outset that Orchestral Tools were a force to be reckoned with. Recording and programming orchestral samples to a professional standard requires a serious investment of time and money, and the release of Berlin Woodwinds in 2012 proved that the young German company was equal to the challenge: offering enormous control over a full range of symphonic woodwind instruments and ensembles, this ambitious library has been widely praised for its musicianship and attention to detail.
Having originally won their spurs with Orchestral String Runs in 2011, it's no surprise to find the Berlin‑based samplists returning to their first love in their latest project. Titled Berlin Strings, the new library features string sections recorded (like the woodwinds collection) in the historic Teldex Scoring Stage. Since this library shares features originally created for OSR and Berlin Woodwinds, you might want to read the SOS reviews of those titles at /sos/sep11/articles/orchestral-string-runs.htm and /sos/mar13/articles/berlin-woodwinds.htm.
Formatted for the full version of Native Instruments Kontakt 5.3 and also compatible with the free Kontakt Player 5.3, Berlin Strings is Orchestral Tools' largest library to date: 254GB of samples, which compress down to 129GB on your hard drive. Downloading that much data takes a while (particularly in my neck of the woods, where if a cow stands on a cable it can take three days to send an email). With that in mind, Orchestral Tools offer Berlin Strings buyers the option of a backup on a fast 250GB Samsung 840EVO SSD drive, at extra cost.
Berlin Strings (BST for short) is divided into first violins, second violins (featuring a different set of players), violas, cellos and double basses. Each of the five sections has between 20 and 38 patches covering a generous selection of performance styles, many of which have keyswitchable variations. Though some instruments omit certain non‑essential articulations, the overall implementation is commendably thorough. (For a full articulation list, go to www.orchestraltools.com/libraries/berlin_strings.php.)
I was pleased to find that the vast majority of playing styles (including the all‑important legatos) have been sampled over the instruments' full range: the cellos span four complete octaves from C2 to C6, with their top note matching that of the violas. The basses get a similar treatment, which means that in addition to performing their traditional underpinning role, they can play expressive, lyrical melody lines in the upper register to great effect.
For composers who like to work with a single 'full strings' patch, BST's Whole Ensemble patches map and blend the instruments across their collective range of six octaves. Despite containing only a handful of patches, this folder houses one extremely potent secret weapon: the Whole Ensemble spiccatos, an absolutely tremendous resource for rhythmic writing. If you're a fan of those archetypal, propulsive and slashing string detachés which have permeated film soundtracks since Bernard Herrmann unleashed his disquieting score to Psycho in 1960, this patch will bring a smile to your face.
Sample library manufacturers can be coy about their vital statistics. When I asked one company how many players featured in a particular section, they replied, "We like to leave this to your imagination”. Left to my own feverish musings, I would have guessed BST's sections to be a good deal larger than they actually are, such is their impact and depth of timbre. In fact, Orchestral Tools have opted for a line‑up of eight first violins, six second violins, five violas, five cellos and four basses (28 players in all), which gives a rich ensemble sound while retaining definition and detail (see /sos/jun12/articles/string-theory-pt1.htm for further discussion on section sizes).
The samples were recorded from four main microphone positions: Close, Tree (as in Decca Tree), Surround, and the mysteriously named 'A/B', an alternative wide stereo image. In addition, the first violins have a mono 'Concertmaster' spot mic trained on Berlin Strings' principal violinist Cornelius Katzer; this extra mic position (activated by clicking on a large violin icon on the GUI) has its own volume and pan controls, so you can give this excellent player more prominence in the mix.
Conventional long‑note articulations are covered in depth. The basic sustains come in a choice of soft (ie. slow), fast and accented attacks; the latter two spring to life under your fingers with no hint of the hesitant, after‑you note starts which prompted exasperated session drummer Clem Cattini to utter the immortal request, "Can I have the strings a bit sooner in the cans, please?”
The first and second violins patches can be successfully layered to create 14‑player 'all violins' multis: doing that with the soft sustains, in particular, produces an agreeably lush sound. All the sections' accented sustains sound strong, while their 'expressive' deliveries feature a nice, heartfelt surge into an unlooped long note. Also included are two lengths of 'portato' medium‑length notes tailored for mobile, mid‑tempo melody lines.
Most long‑note patches have three vibrato options: the default 'romantic' setting gives you the classic lyrical orchestral string sound, while the torrid 'strong vibrato' is arguably best saved for moments of high drama. For calmer, cooler moods, the 'no vibrato' performances have a serious and more dispassionate atmosphere. A switch on the GUI turns on an accurate simulation of the muted 'con sordino' timbre; purists may object, but the producers argue that to offer recorded sordino for the whole library would double the amount of samples. If you feel like bringing out the samples' bow noise, that too can be activated and mixed in with the main signal via front panel controls.
In keeping with the contemporary trend for abbreviated short notes, the first violins' 'spiccatissimos' are the very model of terse brevity. Personally, I'd reserve this delivery for curt, clipped accents, but the regular spiccato style performed by all sections is, as mentioned earlier, an excellent detaché articulation for all occasions: combining a huge, full‑on sound with super‑tight bow attacks, this is a true 'desert island patch', guaranteed to add vitality, power and grandeur to arrangements.
BST's staccatos carry the forceful attack of the spiccatos on into a slightly longer note, while its loud 'martelé' (literally, 'hammered') bow strokes stir the blood when used for rousing stabs and emphatic rhythm lines. Played by the cellos and basses in octaves, this thunderous delivery will easily hold its own in a rock arrangement; like the spiccatos, it has the happy knack of making everything you play sound great!
Perhaps taking a leaf out of Vienna Symphonic Library's book, BST's legatos (which work for all intervals up to 12 semitones above and below the starting note) will intelligently adapt to your playing speed. Play slowly, and the Kontakt script automatically selects the expressive 'slurred' legato interval transitions. Faster playing triggers more defined 'agile legato' transitions, and when you play very quick lines, the 'fast runs' legato kicks in. Also utilised in BST's 'Playable Runs' patches, the latter articulation (which works for intervals of up to a fifth) is designed to recreate the small inaccuracies of intonation which occur naturally within fast string runs.
In addition to tracking your playing speed, the legato script uses note velocity to control the bowing style: low velocities (ie. quiet strokes) trigger a soft bow attack, medium velocities produce a fast bowing, louder strokes trigger an accented bowing, while velocities 125 to 127 access portamento slides, as used in the terrific, sinuous 'Bollywood strings' style. To give you some feedback on what's going on behind the scenes, the name of the current bowing style is displayed in the centre of the GUI.
The scripting produces natural‑sounding musical results: the subtle stylistic changes outlined above occur automatically in real time with no need for keyswitching, which takes the strain out of playing. However, keyswitches are also provided for occasions when you need to specify a particular legato style. If you'd rather stick to one style throughout, clicking on its 'solo' button on the GUI deactivates the other two options and purges their samples from memory.
Since the library's initial release, new 'ostinato legato' patches for first violins and cellos have been added. These transitions work very well for fast playing (better than the 'agile legato' option, in my opinion) and can even render played trills convincingly. The only downside is these patches take a long time to load!
While some instruments' pizzicatos have an alternative, accented version, there are no violent 'snap' (aka 'Bartok') pizzicatos. To help you get over that, BST thoughtfully supplies an articulation I've not encountered before: pizzicato tremolos, consisting of fast, repeated plucked notes. Slightly random‑sounding, this would be the perfect musical accompaniment to a TV nature documentary depicting a crowd (fleet? flock? herd?) of small crabs scurrying across a rocky surface.
Other ear‑catching styles include 'hook' tremolos and trills: the first consists of three very quick, repeated short notes, like a fast triplet, while the second is simply a rapid short trill. As in Berlin Woodwinds, a cool 'Trills Orchestrator' is used to generate semitone and tone trills; all you have to do is hold down the two trill notes. The double and triple note‑off repetition style found in BWW is also replicated here, but a set of extended, tempo‑sync'ed 16th‑note and triplet-note repetitions, an articulation unique to BST, is likely to be of more general use.
Having gone to town with virtually every conceivable scale variation in the gargantuan Orchestral String Runs, it's a pleasant surprise to find that the makers have pushed out the boat once again in BST, this time by sampling a complete set of tempo‑sync'ed, ascending and descending major-octave runs in all 12 keys. Having selected the key you want by pressing the appropriate keyswitch, you can play octave scales starting on every step of its scale. The runs stick faithfully to the major scale of the key in question: in the key of C-major a played note of C produces a C‑to‑C white‑note run, a D produces a D‑to‑D white‑note run, and so on. Change key to Eb, and the runs use only the notes of the Eb major scale — play an E natural while in the key of Eb, and you'll hear nothing!
This flexible key‑based system means you can create musically perfect three‑part harmonised runs in real time. It also enables you to play different types of minor scale; having selected the key of G, playing an E will trigger the 'relative minor' scale run of E, F#, G, A, B, C, D and E (which incorporates a minor-sixth interval), while playing an A triggers a minor scale of A, B, C, D, E, F#, G and A (which uses a major sixth). Supplied for violins and cellos only, these runs sound great: the first violins' and cellos' runs track beautifully, while the second violins' perform an alternative, somewhat speedier version which ends on a clipped staccato rather than a longer note.
If you're wondering what the 'blurred' patches listed in BST's articulation menu sound like, I can reveal that they consist of slightly out‑of‑tune notes being bent into pitch. This can be subtle (as in the first violins' 'blurred sustain' patches) or more obvious, as in the blurred staccatos, which can perform an approximation of the Psycho soundtrack's screechy string stabs. According to the makers, the blurred patches can be used "to change the impression of the intonation in a phrase”, and they could also be a useful, scary‑sounding sound-design tool. However, they should be handled with care, as in the wrong context they can come across as merely out of tune!
BST's dynamics are an outstanding feature. As well as the usual mod wheel‑controlled dynamic cross‑fades (which can be switched to old‑school velocity control with a click of the mouse), there are various types of played crescendos, diminuendos and pfp (soft‑loud‑soft) performances. Both approaches produce enormously dynamic results: the cellos' played crescendos (to take just one example) combine a super‑rich timbre with an amazing volume surge, and all sections perform their swells and fades with great commitment and feel.
Dynamics patches load with crescendos enabled; to access diminuendos, you simply play harder (a novel alternative to the usual switching methods). A set of user‑definable keyswitches allows instant access to the various dynamic styles. A couple of minor niggles: I found the difference in duration between the so‑called 'short' and 'long' dynamic performances to be less obvious than expected, and although the timing within each section is tight, there are minor inconsistencies of duration between the different instrument groups. That said, neither of those points distract from the musical effectiveness and power of these articulations.
While on the subject of dynamics, it's worth noting that Orchestral Tools chose not to 'normalise' the amplitude of their samples, preferring instead to leave them at their played volume. A Volume Range dial lets you expand or compress the samples' natural dynamic range. Further subtle (or otherwise) control can be obtained via a user‑definable Volume Curve, which can assign a different volume setting to 128 velocity levels. There's also a selector which allows you to unload unwanted velocity layers, which is a good way of conserving system resources.
Berlin Strings represents the second stage of Orchestral Tools' mission to create a full, in‑depth orchestral library recorded at the Teldex Scoring Stage. The main strings library reviewed here is supplemented by the 48GB 'Special Bows 1' expansion, which offers col legno, harmonics ('flageolet' in the European parlance) and delicate sul tasto (played over the fingerboard) 'flautando' bowings performed by first and second violins and violas. Currently at the editing stage, Special Bows II offers the same articulations played by the lower strings. Also in the pipeline are expansion sets containing solo strings, 'first chair' (ie. principal) soloists and string effects.
All Berlin expansions can be bought individually: you don't need to buy the main library first, which is good news if you just want to add some specialised articulations to your orchestral template. However, prospective buyers should note that although the main Berlin Strings library will run on the free Kontakt Player 5.3, the expansion sets require the full version of Kontakt 5.3. Long time PC users should also be aware that this version of Kontakt won't install on Windows XP!
With the release of Berlin Strings, the question of which strings collection to buy just became a little more complex. Given the different needs of users, it's impossible for anyone to provide a definitive, one‑size‑fits‑all answer, but I can say that due to its great sound, musical consistency, excellent, heartfelt and tight performances, huge dynamic range, swift responsiveness to touch and comprehensive articulation menu, it's a cast‑iron certainty that I'll be using this library in future. And despite the hefty price tag, it's a pretty safe bet that many orchestral sample users will be joining me in droves.
In terms of sheer data size, the only library to out‑gun Berlin Strings is East West's 312GB Hollywood Strings, featuring a grand total of 57 players. Like BST, it lacks solo instruments, but benefits from a comprehensive articulation menu. Other large, contemporary string libraries in a similar vein include Cinesamples Cinestrings Core (50GB) and Cinematic Strings 2 (38GB): the former covers a little more musical ground than the latter, with a correspondingly higher price tag.
Taking a slightly different tack, 8Dio's legato‑enriched Adagio series (available as separate violins, violas, cellos and basses volumes) total approximately 160GB and Audiobro's feature‑heavy LA Scoring Strings (24GB) offers flexible section sizes and solo instruments, but has no full second violins section. Also worthy of consideration are the Vienna Symphonic Library collections Appassionata Strings I (11.9GB) and Orchestral Strings I and II (42.4GB), the former boasting lush symphonic‑sized ensembles and the latter packing more detailed articulations than you can shake a stick at. However, none of the VSL titles includes separate second violins or multiple mic positions. All of the libraries mentioned above feature true legato intervals.
On first playing BST's 'Playable glissandi' patch (available for first violins only), my initial impression was that a swarm of angry wasps had invaded my music room, but after watching Orchestral Tools' video demo I got the idea. In order to create real‑time glissandi, you play an ascending or descending white‑note scale: this creates a smeared glissando effect which follows the direction of your scale. Play an octave scale, and you'll hear a long, wide‑ranging gliss; play two adjacent white notes, and you get a short glissando. Glissandi can thus be timed exactly to follow your music.
Though it roughly tracks keyboard register, the glissando's pitch doesn't correspond precisely to played notes, which means the technique works best as an iconoclastic, wild effect rather than a controlled pitch slide. Hats off to programmer Stan Berzon for devising the script which powers this mad, thoroughly enjoyable musical racket.
Glancing through BST's patch list, it appears that some entries are extremely large; for example, the first violins legato patch lists a total sample size of 13.3GB. Yikes! However, in practice this shouldn't be problem: if you limit yourself to the default Tree mic position, the legato patch uses 0.78GB of RAM when loaded, and because BST uses disk‑streaming throughout, only played samples are loaded temporarily into RAM.
That said, some violins' legato patches contain nearly 30,000 samples and take over two minutes to load even on a fast computer, so if you want to go bonkers with elaborate multi‑patch templates, simultaneous multiple mic positions or 7.1 surround mixes of the full string orchestra, the old orchestral sampling adage applies: you'll need a fast machine with plenty of RAM.