Orchestral Tools go up to 11 with a large-scale symphonic library inspired by a sci-fi masterpiece.
Conceived as an homage to Fritz Lang’s revolutionary 1927 film, Orchestral Tools’ Metropolis Ark 1 sample library aims for size and massive power. Company founder and composer Hendrik Schwarzer explains: “Metropolis was the first full-length science fiction movie. In the early days Berlin had very big cinema production studios and this movie was one of their biggest, most expansive projects. We wanted to capture instrument ensembles which are simply monumental... We had a vision of a monumentally big orchestra that is unique, bold but also highly versatile and flexible for arrangers.”
Why ‘Metropolis Ark’? “The ‘Ark’ part symbolizes a kind of vessel in which the spirit and atmosphere of the 1927 movie is preserved in a modern interpretation, in the form of a sample collection. I think sonically it fits very well our imagination of how Lang’s Metropolis could sound, although it has nothing to do with its original soundtrack.” In a further combined tribute to the film’s Berlin origins and the library’s recording location, the makers named the sections after the street names around the studio.
Like Orchestral Tools’ Berlin Woodwinds and Berlin Strings (reviewed in SOS March 2013 and August 2014 respectively), Metropolis Ark 1 (henceforth called MA1) was recorded from multiple mic positions in Berlin’s historic Teldex Scoring Stage, famed for its classical recordings. The library contains large orchestral strings, brass and woodwind sections, male and female choirs, percussion, grand piano, rock drum kit, overdriven electric guitar and a bass guitar, the latter being the only instrument recorded outside the Teldex facility. Where Lang’s film was silent, this collection is anything but: it focuses on the upper end of the dynamic range, from mezzo-forte up to a “very, very loud” fortissimo.
In support of the ‘fundamentally huge’ sound the makers strive for, MA1’s orchestra features unusually large sections and line-ups which don’t follow classical tradition. One such section is the so-called Wolfenstein low strings, consisting of 12 double basses seated in a circle with eight cellos positioned in front. This is certainly unique — I don’t recall seeing that many double bassists gathered together anywhere outside of my local Job Centre. As you’ll have guessed, this idiosyncratic line-up is designed to produce a massive bass sound, with cellos added an octave higher, for enhanced definition and bite rather than extra power.
I’m not easily impressed by orchestral samples (or manufacturers’ claims for them), but I have to say that these low strings are phenomenal. If you ever felt your string arrangements were lacking a bit of oomph, here’s a ready-made solution: load MA1’s low string section’s ultra-short spiccato articulation, play some loud single bass notes and prepare to have your head blown off. Featuring nine round robin alternations, these octave basses and cellos make an astounding, visceral fortissimo racket which one can imagine Zeus, Thor, Jupiter, Wen Zhong, Xolotl, Mulungu and all the rest of the world’s thunder gods lining up to applaud. I have a feeling Lemmy would have approved too.
After spending a few hours pounding out fearsome low end riffs with the low strings’ spiccatos, you can create more mayhem using their ‘Bartok pizzicato + Col legno’ patch. Its layered ‘snap’ string pluck and woody bow hit creates an aural experience roughly equivalent to being beaten ‘round the head with a piece of stiff cardboard — but in a good way. For more moderate musical use, the low strings perform dark, atmospheric sustains and excellent true legatos, which employ my preferred VSL-style monophonic legato mode, ie. held notes are automatically re-sounded when a superimposed note is released, making it easy to play realistic trills and grace notes. Another articulation of note is the ascending glissandi patch, featuring some fantastic slow ascending atonal slides reminiscent of the noise of a jet plane take-off.
Consisting of 14 violins and 10 violas playing together, MA1’s ‘Finckenstein’ high strings are played in octaves with a unison option for their sustains, spiccatos and tremolos. There is no separate viola section. Spanning three octaves from C3 up to a high C6, their legato articulation (played in octaves only) is a magnificent resource for intense, soaring and passionate themes. The section’s tremolos are equally forceful, while the lovely hushed note starts in the long-crescendo patch demonstrate how lush this section can sound when asked to play quietly.
One online commentator described the high strings’ spiccatos as “very full and piratical sounding”, evoking visions of an eyepatch-wearing, violin-wielding band of cutthroats. Point taken, though: these urgently-played short notes are a great tool for underscoring swashbuckling action scenes, and for sheer drive, drama and power, they have few, if any equals. The high strings closely match the low strings’ articulation menu, turning in their own great set of atonal glissandi builds.
A modern orchestral French horn section might contain as many as eight players, but continuing the Nigel Tufnel-esque ‘one louder’ mentality, MA1’s has nine. The combination of large section size and tasty hall reverb creates a massive horn sound which composers will enjoy plastering over their scores. Whether they’re playing rousing true-legato melodies, marcato long notes or staccato accents, these horns sound absolutely splendid. Ensemble tuning is excellent throughout, and a superbly played set of octave rips shows excellent rhythmic co-ordination. Also included is a three-horn section optimised for chordal work; in the maker’s view, nine horns are fine for “huge melodies”, but the three horns’ tighter sound avoids an excessive, synthetic-sounding instrumental build-up when used for chord pads.
Once you’ve used the big horn section in the main titles theme of your latest blockbuster movie score, you’ll probably want to add some heroic trumpets. Anticipating this turn of events, MA1 supplies a four-player trumpet section ideally suited to triumphal and grandiose music. Though the trumpets lack true legato intervals, their ultra-strong sustains sound fabulous playing fanfares and noble, superhero-esque lead lines. For light relief, they also play some cartoon-style comedy clusters (three adjacent semitones) which come in staccatissimo, short crescendo and long crescendo flavours.
Remember Jurassic World’s terrifying, 50-foot long ‘Indominus rex’ hybrid dinosaur? Well, the loud bottom notes of MA1’s tuba section sound like the enraged basso profondo roar of one of those things. If you’re attracted to such earth-shaking low brass timbres, this library has several options, each featuring an unusual instrumentation: ensembles of three bass trombones, three cimbassos and three tubas collectively cover a wide timbral spectrum, ranging from the fiercely bright, stentorian tones of the bass trombones to the splendidly fat and rounded tubas, with the cimbassos (valved trombone-like instruments) tonally positioned somewhere in between.
As this is a library inspired by a dark, dystopian vision of the future set in a brutally mechanised megalopolis, it’s no surprise that it lacks the florid, romantic textures of high woodwinds. Instead, it focuses on the heavy artillery of bassoons and contrabassoons, each presented in a four-player section. I’ve never heard four unison contrabassoons before, and found it to be quite an impressive noise; a stirring, low-pitched unison foghorn-like blast one can imagine summoning an ancient army to battle. Pitched an octave higher and sounding more lyrical and friendly, the four bassoons play beautifully in-tune sustains, excellent, incisive short staccatos and some sumptuous swells which rank among the nicest orchestral textures I’ve heard.
All of MA1’s brass and woodwinds play sustains, staccatos, long and short marcatos, crescendos, swells and ‘dynamic flutter tongue’, the latter articulation sounding like the sort of involuntary bodily noise an Indominus rex might utter after a heavy lunch.
If I was using this library to rescore the 1927 movie, I’d be tempted to introduce MA1’s male and female choirs for the scenes where the oppressed workers rise up, revolt against the system and destroy the machines. Performed by members of the Berlin Opera in 10-strong sections, the choirs sing true legatos, sustains, short staccatos and marcatos, using the ‘aa’ vowel sound and a strong, vibrato-rich classical delivery. The singers also perform a small menu of atonal glissandi effects.
Both choirs’ legato sustains are excellent, and the articulation sounds particularly mellifluous on the female voices’ quieter samples. In a nod to the much-vaunted ‘wordbuilding’ concept, a simple but effective round robin system rotates between different syllables in the short-note patches. Though these sounds (which include ‘meh’, ‘tro’, ‘so’, ‘li’, ‘chi’, ‘tru’, ‘ru’, ‘cu’, ‘bre’ and ‘ta’) are nonsensical in their own right, they do create the impression of words being sung and can be layered successfully over the long notes. You can also solo or de-select certain syllables if you wish (see 'General Points' below). Hendrik Schwarzer has hinted these sections may be the precursor of a forthcoming choir library. Judging by what I’ve heard here, that would be an object of desire for many.
Nowadays no orchestral library worth its salt dares to omit the large, booming ethnic drum sound popularised by Hans Zimmer. The formula is simple: get a big drum such as a Japanese taiko or Brazilian surdo, take it into a reverberant hall and bang the hell out of it. Orchestral Tools have stuck to the script in MA1, giving us solo and ensemble taiko drums, a surdo ensemble and what sounds like orchestral bass drums, tam tam, piatti crash cymbals and anvils. In addition to the unvarnished single hits, the makers employed processing, detuning and layering to create the truly colossal ‘Epic Percussion Hits’ patch.
Accompanying the percussion is a fine sounding, strong-toned grand piano. Though sampled at two dynamics only, it’s usable for a wide range of styles; you may prefer a more intimate piano timbre for sensitive ballads, but the clear, open, robust tone of this instrument is ideal for holding its own within loud arrangements.
Combining an orchestra with a rock band may appear to be an anachronism, but the idea fits neatly with MA1’s all-out aural assault. In a move likely to appeal to baby boomers and Deep Purple fans as well as younger metal listeners, the library rocks out with an overdriven Ibanez seven-string electric guitar, an aggressive-sounding bass guitar and a rock drum kit.
I was pleased to note the guitarist uses the high-gain ‘Djent’ tone beloved of the progressive metal fraternity: though well heavy and suitably low-pitched, it arguably falls a little short of the deathly, megalomaniacal racket employed by Meshuggah and their ilk. Guitar samples are presented in ‘left’ and ‘right’ folders intended for double-tracking, though you can play them separately. A good range of distorted styles includes power chords (which can be used for single-note chugs), single strokes, tremolo and tremolo palm-muted performances. There are also some hair-raising slide effects, and a raucous ‘dead note’ for cutting off sustains.
The library’s bass guitar has two amp setups, one of which has been post-processed, and an ‘OD’ position that lets you control the amount of overdriven signal. Result: a nice, crunchy bass which wouldn’t sound out of place on an indie-rock track. In addition to various miking options, both the guitar and bass have a separate clean DI feed so you can add your own effects.
Completing the rocking combo is a basic, multi-dynamic drum kit sampled in the Teldex hall and mapped in General MIDI style. The somewhat ‘splatty’ bass drum may not quite represent the typical kick sound of modern metal, but the overall kit is muscular and very usable.
To achieve the “loud, bold and fundamentally huge” sound its producers envisaged, MA1’s instruments were mainly sampled at two dynamics, mf and fff. The smaller horn section and percussion hits have an additional quiet mp dynamic, while the percussion ensemble and drum kit each have six velocity layers. In all cases, a softer, mellower sound can be attained by turning off the fff layer.
The library makes extensive use of round robins, providing (for example) six alternations on the strings’ spiccatos and eight on the drum kit hits. You can randomise the alternations’ sequence, and/or turn off individual round robin layers. I found the latter facility useful for tightening up staccato rhythmic passages.
Reviewing this library gave me the opportunity to try Orchestral Tools’ Capsule, which stands (almost) for ‘Control and Performance Symphonic Utility Engine’. Developed by Stan Berzon, this highly capable piece of scripting integrates unobtrusively into Kontakt, operating as an articulation management system for the Berlin Woodwinds, Strings, Soloists, Brass, Percussion and Metropolis Ark 1 libraries. The latest Capsule 2.5 update requires Kontakt 5.5.1 or higher.
Capsule uses both single and multi-articulation patches: not be confused with Kontakt ‘multis’ (collections of individual patches), the latter are single super-patches contain multiple articulations, making it easy to switch, layer and cross-fade between different playing styles. More complex real-time morphing between up to four articulations can be performed by moving a cursor around an on-screen grid.
As is customary, each style within a multi-articulation patch has its own dedicated keyswitch, but a cool innovation is polyphonic keyswitching, whereby pressing up to four simultaneous keyswitches stacks the articulations in question on top of each other. Users can create their own custom keyswitch maps (handy if you want to integrate these libraries into an existing orchestral template) and share their settings with other Capsule patches.
Other new features include the ability to apply true legato transitions to any articulation of your choice simply by activating the ‘legato button’, and a redesigned microphone mixer (details below).
Lauded as being ‘not too wet, not too dry’, the Teldex Scoring Stage’s acoustic has been captured from several microphone positions: ‘Spot’ mics positioned very close to the instrument give the driest and most direct sound, ‘Close’ is also direct but a little less dry, ‘Tree’ (the classic orchestral miking technique) adds a controlled room sound, ‘Surround’ is a distant, reverberant room position and ‘A/B’ features a wide stereo image which can be blended in with other mikings. The default mic position is a mix of Close and Tree; Spot is not available for the strings, low brass and piano.
When you switch off a position, its samples are purged from memory; there are also manual purge options for the release samples and legato transitions, useful for conserving RAM. New features in the mic mixer include ‘Chain All’ (mic position volume settings are linked and controlled from a single fader while maintaining the current balance) and ‘Auto Gain’ (Capsule maintains a consistent output volume level when you change the microphone balance).
Anyone looking to inject extra power into their orchestral mock-ups will welcome the advent of a library designed to do exactly that. While MA1’s non-classical instrumentation may offend some purists, I suspect most media composers will be delighted to add its forceful sections to their scores, and the inclusion of a contemporary rhythm section will appeal to rock musicians. Ease of use is another considerable advantage — these instruments are playable straight out of the box, no fiddling around required.
Unsurprisingly given the library’s theme, subtle pianissimo performances are conspicuous by their absence: consequently there are no high woodwinds, which makes this an unsuitable library for realising a traditional orchestral score. Nevertheless, it’s a serious, musically intelligent collection with wide applications for orchestral sample users across the board, and in the pragmatic world of trailer music it looks likely to reign supreme.
Since no single library offers an identical instrumentation to Metropolis Ark 1, matching its contents would entail buying several different high-end collections, at considerable cost. For big string sections, EastWest’s Hollywood Strings, VSL’s Appassionata Strings, LA Scoring Strings, Spitfire Audio’s Mural Symphonic Strings and Cinesamples Cinestrings are all a good, high-quality bets, while the 24 cellos and eight basses in Spitfire’s Albion III Iceni generate the same kind of low-end power as MA1’s Wolfenstein section.
In the horns department, VSL’s Epic Horns, EastWest’s Hollywood Brass, Spitfire’s Horn Phalanx and Soundiron’s Symphony Series Brass Collection have similarly large French horn ensembles, while Cinesamples Cinebrass Pro contains a particularly huge section. The same companies offer powerful low brass sections (though none exactly match MA1’s line-ups), and VSL, Spitfire and Soundiron’s SSBC also have trumpet ensembles of between six and eight players. When it comes to low woodwinds, many orchestral libraries contain bassoons and contrabassoons, but this library’s four-player sections of those instruments are unique.
Lastly, it goes without saying that for the Hans Zimmer-style ethnic drums and percussion, a viable alternative would be, er, Spitfire Audio’s Hans Zimmer Percussion.
Metropolis Ark 1 works with the free Kontakt Player or the full version of Kontakt 5.5.1. The 24-bit sample database is 160GB in size, which condenses to 70GB when installed on your hard drive thanks to Native Instruments’ lossless compression system. The library is available as a download with the option of buying an additional backup on a 250GB SSD drive. This backup drive is not separately available, and can only be provided along with a new purchase of the library.
The download consists of 35 individual RAR packages for the samples, a single RAR file for Capsule and a zipped folder containing the Kontakt instruments. If you’re using the Continuata Connect download system recommended by the makers, it will automatically unpack the rar and zip files into a folder of your choice once the download is finished. Alternatively, you can download the files manually then unpack the first rar file into your chosen folder, after which the rest will be unpacked automatically — no need to manually unpack each of the 35 files! Orchestral Tools recommend the extraction programs WinRar for Windows, and UnRarX for Mac OS users.
- Large strings, brass and low woodwinds sections turn in hugely powerful fortissimo performances.
- The unusual instrumentation of some sections is very effective.
- Male and female choirs, Zimmer-esque percussion, piano and a rock rhythm section are welcome extras.
- Recorded from multiple mic positions in a great, reverberant hall acoustic.
- Contains no flutes, piccolos, clarinets, oboes, harp or tuned percussion — but in this case, that’s probably academic.
‘Epic’ is the word. Oversized orchestral sections, ominous choirs, Zimmer-style percussion and a banging piano backed up by a thundering rhythm section turn in a set of performances featuring the loudest dynamics known to mankind, recorded in a great-sounding classical hall. Delicacy and romanticism are not on the menu (hence, no high woodwinds), but this is the ideal library for bombastic, over-the-top orchestral scores.