Orchestral Tools beef up their Berlin orchestra with a full‑size symphonic string instrument.
Orchestral Tools first made their mark in 2011 with Orchestral String Runs, featuring string players from the Belarus Philharmonic performing a huge collection of fast runs and figures devised by OT founder Hendrik Schwarzer. Under the leadership of its young MD, the company then wowed orchestral sample users with the impressive Berlin Woodwinds library before forging ahead with Berlin Strings, Berlin Brass and Berlin Percussion.
While most parts of this critically acclaimed series have been enlarged with expansion sets, there remained a conspicuous gap: in contrast to the symphonic scale of the other titles, Berlin Strings seems (on paper at least) comparatively modest, featuring only 28 players in an 8/6/5/5/4 configuration. Though the sections’ real life sound is bigger than the bare numbers suggest, the head count falls well short of the 60+ string players you’d hear in a classical recital, film score session or major artist recording date. (More notes on section sizes below).
To pump their Berlin orchestra up to full heavyweight status, Orchestral Tools have released Berlin Symphonic Strings, featuring 68 string players recorded from multiple mic positions in the Teldex Scoring Stage. According to OT, the library was planned a long time ago: “The Berlin Series is about providing a comprehensive orchestra that’s all recorded in the same space, so while we were capturing the medium‑sized ensemble, we were already thinking about what we could do with really big section sizes. We were very happy with Berlin Strings, and it’s great for most uses, even symphonic music. But there are some situations where you need the big soaring violin section or a huge low end with a lot of cellos and basses. We wanted to add large ensembles and musically, we wanted to capture that big, opulent, dramatic sound and make it available to everyone.”
Berlin Symphonic Strings (BSS for short) works exclusively with Orchestral Tools’ Sine player, which runs standalone and as a plug‑in on Mac and Windows systems. You need the latest version of Sine, which is available free online from the Orchestral Tools website. The full library is 74.64GB installed, but you don’t have to buy the whole thing: individual sections can be bought separately at prices starting from €126, after which you can download any or all of their mic positions as and when you need them. A great, flexible system which points the way forward for the industry. Crossgrade prices are also available for Berlin Strings owners.
Recording sessions for BSS took place over a two‑week period using a traditional orchestral seating arrangement and an expanded version of the standard mic positions used in all of OT’s Teldex sessions. This makes all the Berlin titles acoustically compatible, and means they can be treated as components of a full, unified symphonic sound picture. All samples were captured at four dynamics (pp, mp, f and ff).
To ensure melodic fluency, OT’s ‘Adaptive Legato’ technology tracks your playing speed and automatically selects the right kind of legato note transition for each interval. Based on the legato concept originally developed by Vienna Symphonic Library, this joins up notes, smoothes over the cracks and gives great realism to melody lines. OT’s legato triggering system (wherein held notes are automatically re‑sounded when a superimposed note is released) also mirrors that of VSL, and makes it easy to program realistic trills and grace notes. I find this particular approach gives consistently excellent musical results, so I’m glad to see it implemented again in BSS.
The library offers a choice of three legato styles: ‘Melodic’ legato (the default ‘sustains + legato’ patch) is optimised for soaring expressive themes and intimate, emotional melodies, while ‘Rapid’ legato (which uses the players’ staccato samples as a basis) is best suited to fast runs, flourishes and ornaments. Positioned somewhere in between is the new ‘Pattern’ legato, which uses an alternative set of sustains and three round‑robin takes of the legato transitions to make ostinatos, arpeggios and long‑note accompanying rhythm patterns sound more convincing. All of the three styles’ transition samples were also recorded at four dynamics, so you can freely add expressive dynamic movements to your legato lines with the mod wheel.
Numbering 18 and 16 players respectively, BSS’s first and second violin sections play over the instrument’s full range of G3‑D#7. The two sections are nicely balanced, perfectly in tune and seamlessly looped. When starting an arrangement the first violins’ straight sustains are a good way to go, providing a broad, rich tone and steady delivery which sounds sweet and singing in the quieter notes and strong and stately at loud dynamics.
There’s certainly nothing second class about the second violins: their long notes sound a touch more transparent than the firsts, with a sweet, open and clean top register which sounds very nice in high‑pitched chords. In certain deliveries the seconds play with slightly more attack, but overall I’d recommend using the larger group for your main violin parts in the safe knowledge that the second violins will provide a classy accompaniment.
The violins’ soft sustains are great for tender emotional passages. Accented sustains played with a strong downstroke work well for rhythmic chordal passages, and you can tighten up the rhythm by shortening the release time in the envelope window. The designated staccato style is also a good resource for rhythm work, and can be interspersed with short and long marcato notes to great effect.
When starting an arrangement the first violins’ straight sustains are a good way to go, providing a broad, rich tone and steady delivery which sounds sweet and singing in the quieter notes and strong and stately at loud dynamics.
As we’ve all come to know, the spiccato delivery is the one media composers crave for its brisk, propulsive effect. The first violins’ version nails the taut, tense driving style which has become a standard articulation in string libraries. The seconds’ spiccato bow attacks may be fractionally less tight, but you have to strain to hear the difference; both sections perform excellent and compelling examples of this essential cinematic style.
When it comes to emotive melodies and heroic themes, the violin’s main sustain‑legato patches are among the elite of their kind. Note transitions are perfectly captured across the instruments’ full range, and though there’s no dedicated portamento style, the occasional quick, subtle swoop between pitches reminds you that these are real played intervals. Play slowly, and you’ll hear measured, graceful transitions; play quick darting runs, and the Rapid legato samples automatically kick in to track your speedy movements. For virtuosic ‘Flight Of The Bumblebee’ cadenzas, the dedicated short‑note Rapid legato patch does an unbelievably good job of rendering speed‑of‑light scales into a convincing, fluid stream of notes, and the Pattern legato style is equally good at joining up the notes of your melodic ostinato figures. All in all, these legatos are second to none, and a joy to play.
In days of old, viola players had a reputation for musical timidity, the docile sheep of the string orchestra. Not these guys. The library’s 14 viola payers make a fabulous big, confident and lavish sound which dispels any notions of wimpiness. Played over a C3‑D6 range, the section’s sonorous, dignified and serious tone is especially telling in the low octave below Middle C, the zone where the viola really makes its mark in a string orchestra.
The viola players’ vibrato is more pronounced in the louder dynamics — though this sounds natural enough, the amount of expressive vibrato used in the ff dynamic is a little strong for my taste, and left me wishing I could hear the loud notes’ exhilarating, throaty roar with a little less baked‑in espressivo (I’m English, dammit — we don’t hold with displays of emotion). Another advantage of the violas’ long notes is that layering them with the first violins’ sustains creates a delightfully lush, big sheer sound. It’s a pity Sine doesn’t have any built‑in effects, because adding a big Lexicon‑style reverb to these strings would be the icing on the cake. Oh well, I guess you can’t have everything.
Moving on, the violas’ legato sustains are superb for uplifting anthemic and superhero themes. Though I don’t consider myself to be unduly patriotic, I found my fingers picking out the opening notes to Holst’s ‘I Vow To Thee My Country’ and must confess it felt good. Designed for inner parts, the Pattern legato style works very well for joining up viola ostinato long‑note figures — it’s easy to imagine them singing out in a John Williams score.
‘Dramatic’ is the word that springs to mind here. This 12‑piece cello section got my pulse racing, and made it immediately clear that its spiccatos will do a great job of powering an arrangement. The spiccato bowing is tight, attacking and perfectly executed across the four dynamics. As a test, I recorded a rhythmic eighth‑note passage at a medium dynamic level, then adjusted its global velocity on playback — whether set to very loud or very quiet, the samples rocketed along with great propulsion and forward motion. The cellos’ cleanly played pizzicatos also motor along nicely, and their attractive plump, resonant timbre is a delight. If you want more aggression, simple dial up the accented sustains and loud staccato and marcato short notes, which sound hugely powerful playing fifths in the bottom octave. The whole‑tone trills are great too — get your stirring nautical themes ready!
The cellos’ sustains and legatos also hit the spot. The long notes’ wide C2‑G5 range means you can program full string chords without involving violins or basses. Quiet chords sound elegantly serene and plaintive, while the passionate vibrato of the louder dynamics tugs at the heart strings. The legato sustains are another triumph: notes ebb, flow and fold into each other in an unbroken flow, with lovely, small controlled glides occasionally evident on wider intervals. If you need a cello section to carry an emotional, soaring theme in your arrangement, look no further. The players’ rapid legato style also copes admirably with very fast runs, so although there are no octave scale runs in this collection, you can easily program your own — just make sure your notes overlap slightly to trigger the legato transitions!
Call me a cynic, but it’s a surprise to hear eight double basses performing together with such precise intonation. The old jazzers’ joke “What do get when you write a unison note for two bass players? A semitone” certainly doesn’t apply to this group. As well as playing beautifully in tune over their C1‑C4 range, the eight basses sound absolutely stentorian in their low register, and although I assume their samples haven’t been EQ’d, the amount of low end is staggering, but that’s to be expected with such an unusually large section. The basses’ three‑octave range means you can write chordal passages of great emotional resonance, though to avoid muddiness you have to take care to play open voicings pitched high in the instruments’ register. Slow‑moving melodic legato passages are equally effective, with note transitions once again beautifully captured.
The welcome absence of flams means you can write mobile walking bass pizzicato lines. The players’ spiccatos also zip along nicely, though you may have to drag them back a little on the timeline to sync with the click. Staccato and marcato short notes are played with wonderful precision, confirming this bass section’s place in the top echelon of orchestral string samples.
A few general points: an on‑screen ‘variation slider’ in the Sine player allows you to switch between a light, subtle (often barely discernible) vibrato and a more pronounced expressive vibrato on most long notes. There’s nothing in between the two styles, and you can’t cross‑fade them. You can also use the slider (which defaults to MIDI CC4 control) to switch between semitone and whole‑tone trills. Articulations can be selected on the fly with keyswitches, the pitches of which can be repositioned to suit your orchestral template.
I found the articulations to be very consistent and well balanced between sections, so you can reassign (say) a violins part to violas without disrupting a mix. The only thing I missed in this admirable collection is a set of ‘full strings’ patches for composing purposes, perhaps Orchestral Tools will supply them at some point? In any case, the Sine player lets you edit instrument note ranges and build your own multis, so I’m sure I’ll have fun creating my own!
All samples in Berlin Symphonic Strings were recorded simultaneously from seven mic positions.
- Spot 1: A mix of condenser spot mics for each section, typically one microphone per two desks.
- Spot 2: A pair of vintage ribbon mics above each section, providing an alternative softer, old‑school string sound.
- Decca Tree: A trio of three Neumann M50s in the time‑honoured Decca Tree configuration, the main miking in most orchestral scoring stages.
- A‑B: A stereo pair of omni‑directional DPA 4006 mics above the Decca Tree, which can be blended with the tree for additional warmth and ambience.
- Leader: A single spot mic in front of each section leader.
- Outrigger: Supporting mics placed far apart in front of the orchestra which can be blended with the Tree to add stereo width.
- Surround: The most distant mic position, a pair of Neumann M50s placed high and wide.
The possibilities are endless, but if you start out with the Decca Tree and blend in Spot 1, you’ll immediately enjoy a classic orchestral sound without overburdening your system. Multiple microphone set ups take a long time to load and gobble up RAM, but there is a workaround: if you create a multi‑mic mix you particularly like, you can use Sine’s ‘mic merge’ feature to bounce it down to a new single mic position which will be saved on your hard drive. Thereafter, your mix will appear with its own dedicated channel inside the Sine mixer.
Bigger is not always best. Does a drum kit with seven toms automatically outclass a standard three‑tom kit? Is an 88‑note master keyboard a better instrument than a five‑octave 61‑note workstation merely because it has 27 more keys? You have to use your ears as well as your eyes.
This maxim also holds true for string section sizes. There are a few sample libraries on the market that boast sections numbering hundreds of players, reminding me of the old Charles Atlas bodybuilding advertisements of the 1940s, where a humiliated ‘97‑pound weakling’ transforms himself into a conquering hero by dint of his big muscles — the stats may look impressive, but do you really need that massively beefed‑up sound in your arrangement?
As intimated earlier, a full 16/14/12/10/8 symphonic strings section collectively produces the big, rich, expansive, opulent sound we’re used to hearing in symphonic concert halls, on film soundtracks and in lavishly‑produced pop ballads by the likes of Adele. However, further down the pop ladder, many artists favour the more intimate sound of a chamber group (typically 6/5/4/4/2), and often omit basses into the bargain.
In one memorable strings session I produced, the songwriter asked for the initial 8/6/6/6 line‑up (with no basses) to be halved to 4/3/3/3, and then further scaled it down to 2/2/2/2 after hearing the results. Watching the unneeded players put on their coats and leave as the sections shrank was like watching a speeded‑up Big Brother final, but it was interesting to hear the group’s lush sound steadily dwindle to the point where it was possible to make out the individual players — for the song in question, a triumph of intimacy and personal connection over grandeur.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to put you off buying Berlin Symphonic Strings — I am simply pointing out that you have to scale your section numbers to the job in hand. For the epic trailer music community, a big symphonic sound is a prerequisite, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you need to use orchestral samples in a wider range of music, it’s as well to bear in mind that ‘small is beautiful’ sometimes beats ‘bigger is better’!
- Full‑sized symphonic string sections make a glorious sound in the Teldex Scoring Stage.
- The 12‑player cello section’s spiccatos are bang on the money.
- The articulation menu and miking scheme is consistent from section to section.
- Advanced interval‑based legato scripting ensures fluency of melody lines, fast runs and ostinato patterns.
- No ‘full strings’ patches.
- No portamento articulation.
- It’s expensive — but it sounds that way.
If you’re selling orchestral sample products to cinematic‑minded buyers, it helps to have symphonic‑sized sections in your catalogue. Orchestral Tools’ Berlin‑series woodwinds, brass and percussion already boasted a full symphonic instrumentation — the excellent Berlin Strings now measures up with a new symphonic string orchestra of 68 players, featuring separate first and second violins, violas, cellos and double basses recorded from seven mic positions in a great‑sounding scoring stage. Top stuff.
Berlin Symphonic Strings €658.80, individual sections from €126. Prices include VAT.
Berlin Symphonic Strings €658.80, individual sections from €126.