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ProjectSAM Symphobia 4: Pandora

Sample Library By Dave Stewart
Published June 2020

Project SAM Symphobia 4 Pandora

The latest entry in ProjectSAM's Symphobia series promises heart-stopping thrills, terrifying sci-fi action and nerve-jangling horror.

Despite being part of the orchestral sample library furniture for more than a decade, ProjectSAM's Symphobia titles still rank highly. The Utrecht-based company hit on a winning formula with this product range, details of which are shown in the box below.

The fourth instalment of the popular cinematic series is Symphobia 4: Pandora. As everyone knows, in Greek mythology Pandora opened a box releasing all the evils of humanity (arguably not her fault, it should have been properly labelled). While this did the poor woman's reputation no good at all, it does at least provide ProjectSAM with an apt title for a sample collection which purports to explore the dark side. To this end, Symphobia 4 (henceforth called S4) provides a big-sounding, dramatic set of orchestral risers, falls, pulses, clusters, effects, playable articulations and percussion in a 74GB package which runs on Kontakt and Kontakt Player 6.1 and up.

Pulse Rate

A major feature of S4 is its 'pulses'. Played staccato in quarter, eighth and 16th note sub-divisions (each of which has a triplet option) and sync'ed to your song tempo, these looped short-note repetitions generate an instant propulsive groove from one key press. Built-in light on-beat accents help impart forward momentum. The pulses have a great, tight feel, start positively and stay rock solid throughout, making them an ideal tool for cinematic rhythm underscoring.

Symphobia 4: Pandora's 'pulses' are looped short-note repetitions which generate an instant propulsive groove from one key press. The extra yellow keys hold soft, looped sustain samples corresponding to the pulse performances in the blue region.Symphobia 4: Pandora's 'pulses' are looped short-note repetitions which generate an instant propulsive groove from one key press. The extra yellow keys hold soft, looped sustain samples corresponding to the pulse performances in the blue region.

A useful variant is the 'staccato crescendo' style, in which repeated short notes start quietly and grow in volume over two, four or six beats. The presets incorporate a separate region of single loud, staccato stabs corresponding to each pulse element, which you can use to add accents or create a climactic ending. In addition, pulses can be set to automatically trigger a staccato accent when you release a held note — in the review copy these note-off samples were terrifyingly loud, with no obvious way of reducing their volume. ProjectSAM ought to do something about that.

The brass and strings repetitions include an alternative 'Rise & Fright' snapshot which slowly rises in pitch over 12 bars or so, a great tension builder. A synth layer can be used to add an urgent electronic pulse to the string repetitions. The synth (which has three basic tones) has its own volume and low-pass filter controls but, frustratingly, you can't isolate it from the strings.

Cluster Groove

S4's pulses come in 'cluster' and 'tonal' varieties — the first are atonal cluster chords played respectively by brass, wind and strings, while the latter consists of single notes played by the strings only. The brass offers a choice of a French horns and trombones combo (a nice fat, rounded timbre for lower parts) muted trumpets (which sound pointed, cutting and energetic) and the broader, louder, triumphant tone of open trumpets. High-pitched pulses played by three flutes and a piccolo provide a delicate alternative.

While these brass and woodwind performances have much to offer, the strings' tonal pulses are likely to create the most excitement. The mid-range strings (unison violins and violas) play an excellent pulsating version of the common or garden spiccato style over an A#2 to E5 range, super-tight and motoring. Cellos and basses in octaves contribute terrific loud staccato accents, as powerful a low strings sonority as you'll hear anywhere.

The Articulation Expanded View contains additional controls and settings for pulse tempo interpretation (where appropriate), articulation switching and dynamic control.The Articulation Expanded View contains additional controls and settings for pulse tempo interpretation (where appropriate), articulation switching and dynamic control.

The cluster pulse chords range from utterly atonal (great for Bernard Herrmann-esque Psycho-esque workouts) to less deranged voicings which can be adapted for diatonic use. For example, the strings triad of B4, C5 and F5 works with the D-minor, G-dominant seventh and F-Lydian scales, while the wind clusters' humble tone interval of Ab4 and Bb4 is supremely adaptable. Once you've had fun exploring the mad-sounding clusters, these simpler triads and intervals could hold the key to more creative composition.

I found that repeated listens to these pulsating chords has an almost hallucinatory effect, which bodes well for their effectiveness in moody soundtracks. The only minor blemish were small loop clicks audible on several low brass and low strings pulse samples, which I hope ProjectSAM will rectify.

Rising Panic

The wild-card orchestral effects of earlier Symphobia releases continue here with a vengeance. If you want out-and-out horror, try the massed random semitone bends of the strings' 'Ghostly Bending' preset: the high violins screech like demented seagulls, while their scary 'Ghostly Rising' ascending figure, played with an agitated sul ponticello tremolo bowing, grates like fingernails on a blackboard. The slow cluster chord pitch bends in the low brass ensemble's 'Effects Collection' are equally nerve-jangling.

Woodwinds, normally a soothing musical presence, step out of character with a set of short, menacing atonal snarls and threatening foghorn-like blasts played by angry contrabassoons and bass clarinet. The pianist joins the cacophony with a disconcerting, jangling rumble of atonal tremolo bass notes before descending into madness with loud, petulant low-end cluster bonks of the type performed by children who have grown tired of playing 'Chopsticks' on their auntie's piano. It's not clever and it's not funny, but it'll certainly grab listeners' attention.

String risers are a great device for building into a chorus or musical climax — these massed full-range slides start out in unison but break ranks en route to their high target note, creating a gloriously atonal slithering effect. The risers are played at four dynamics, three of which have a built-in crescendo. For pessimists, there's also a collection of string 'downers' (screaming slalom swoops from a very high note), which includes a crazy-sounding, manically chattering pizzicato version.

In my book this library represents a good investment for film composers, and unlike Pandora's Box of legend, only good things lurk inside.

Dissonant Effects & Textures

Alongside these iconoclastic effects sits a large collection of more subtle articulations. The 'Bending Note Cresc' horns preset, an undulating series of swelling and ebbing cluster note-groups, evokes a 'quietly going mad' state of mind, while the high strings' mournful 'Low Fall Down' clusters capture that sinking feeling you experience when your tax bill is twice as large as expected. The string players also play a great, hushed pianissimo version of their 'Ponticello Crescendo' articulation, a scary, unsettling sound suggestive of whisperings in a darkened room.

Suspenseful textures abound: in a variation on the 'Ghostly Bending' theme, the string players perform natural harmonics (high-pitched, ethereal notes created by lightly touching a point on the bowed string) to great eerie effect. Using the time-stretch control (more on which later) to artificially lengthen these samples renders them even more disembodied and otherworldly. Unison string notes which drift apart and dissolve into atonal chords are a similarly creepy sonority.

These textural elements are augmented by more recognisable, though still unconventional, musical performances: low strings growls (fast ascending and descending chromatic runs over three or four semitones), 'Flight Of The Bumblebee'-style swirling flutter-tongue woodwind phrases evocative of birds in flight and wild trumpet improvs where the players run riot like naughty boys in the jazz playground. All good stuff for your experimental, or just plain mental, scores.

Tonal Vision

The library's 'tonal orchestra' instruments consist of single-note or octave performances you can use to compose in any key or scale. One preset which caught my ear was the horn rips. That articulation was a highlight of the first Symphobia library, so it's nice to get an update 12 years down the line! Mapped chromatically over 21 keys, these blasting octave rips sound just as unrestrained as their predecessors, but end up on a clean unison note rather than a cluster. The horn section crescendos are also beautifully played, and a good showcase for S4's ingenious new 'Adaptive Sync' feature (see box).

Presumably named after its effect on your eardrums, the low brass ensemble's 'Burst' is one of the biggest, baddest low brass patches it's been my pleasure to review. No instrumentation is listed, but I assume we're hearing bass tubas, bass trombones and maybe cimbassos. Whatever the line-up, these gargantuan performances have the power to stop traffic and shatter windows. The section's short notes (available in 16th, eighth and quarter note lengths) also sound fabulous.

Other powerful timbres include the low woodwinds' rip-snorting short bass notes, played in octaves by bass clarinet and contrabassoons, and the piccolo's piercing, tinnitus-inducing short semitone grace notes. A harp ensemble adds drama with turbulent overlapping upward and downward string sweeps, performed in all 12 keys in the major and harmonic minor scales.

I was less convinced by the strings 'Chord Textures'; while these rapid, ad lib root-fifth-octave movements create an exciting musical effect, the tuning of their 'sus 2' and 'sus 4' variants is imprecise, one of the few times I questioned the players' intonation. But as mentioned earlier, the low strings' exemplary staccato accents and powerful short notes bring home the bacon.

Tutti & Combos

No, not the name of an Italian alternative comedy duo: 'tutti' instruments combine brass and strings into single playable patches, while combos lash together various presets into symphonic super-instruments. The huge-sounding tutti 'burst' performances feature brass and strings in octaves with optional gran cassa (orchestral bass drum) and timpani attack layers. The tutti crescendos are the star of the show — unbelievably powerful, they culminate in a devastating end-of-days percussive crash, and by way of contrast, also comprise a sultry set of quiet sustains. There's also a very good 'Glider' preset which I'm sure I've heard in TV drama soundtracks a few times — and no doubt will again.

My favourite combos include 'Outrunning Time' (tutti cluster pulses channelling vintage Herrmann-esque tense, driving ostinatos), 'Tonal Pulses' (a handy concoction of mid-range strings eighth notes, low strings quarter notes and a short initial tutti accent bolstered by slamming drums and timpani single hits), 'Braaam' (Google it) and 'Dianoga Danger', an insane mix of twittering woodwind wild textures, low brass effects and pitch-bending strings. Result: unholy, unhinged churning orchestral madness.

Percussion & Sound Design

S4's orchestral percussion (timpani, gran cassa, toms, cymbals and tam tam gong) gets its own full presentation comprising hits, rolls, flams and intriguing played effects (mysterious timpani groans and cavernous rumblings, bowed cymbals and swooshing mallet cymbal crescendo rolls). The drums and timps are big, powerful and resonant, with the pounding 'cinematic drums' preset sounding like an amalgam of gran cassas and toms.

A gallery of real-time effects includes a tempo-sync'ed stutter effect and a synthesizer-style pitch envelope.A gallery of real-time effects includes a tempo-sync'ed stutter effect and a synthesizer-style pitch envelope.

As with any Symphobia title, sound design plays a big part, but this time it's more interactive. In addition to a comprehensive effects module comprising stutter LFO (great for string risers), pitch envelope (always welcome in my music room), convolution reverb, delay, high and low EQ, cutoff filter, 'Skreamer' distortion and a limiter, there's a 'sub sweetener' (deep, low-end synth samples you can mix in with the drum hits).

The time-stretch control allows you to manipulate a selection of samples using waveform controls. You can stretch or compress samples within a range of 1 percent (ie. 100 times longer) to 800 percent (eight times faster), reverse the playback and adjust the sample start point.The time-stretch control allows you to manipulate a selection of samples using waveform controls. You can stretch or compress samples within a range of 1 percent (ie. 100 times longer) to 800 percent (eight times faster), reverse the playback and adjust the sample start point.That's not all: clicking on the interface's Triangle icon activates sound design mode, which allows you to directly manipulate a selection of samples using waveform controls. This is heaven for tweakers: you can time-stretch the samples within a range of 1 percent (ie. 100 times longer) to 800 percent (eight times faster), reverse the playback and adjust the sample start point.

When combined, these features radically transform the source material, as evidenced by the brilliant 'snapshots' supplied for most instruments. They include horn rips propelled into the stratosphere by extreme pitch-bend processing, accelerating stutter pulses, bleak, icy soundscapes created by infinitely elongated time-stretching, 1950s spaceship SFX, doppler effects, shuddering pitch descents... the list is endless, but my Desert Island Snapshot has to be the col legno strings 'Forest Temple', an amazing, monumental grinding racket midway between a dinosaur roar and a jet engine.

Conclusion

If you're already a Symphobia fan, this library won't disappoint. For those new to the series, Symphobia 4 Pandora would actually be a good place to start — it's just as exciting and musically varied as its predecessors, but also benefits from excellent new technical features which extend the horizons of its musically versatile sample set.

On the downside, it's not cheap, but if it comes down to a question of (to slightly re-word the catchphrase of the 1950s game show Take Your Pick!) 'Keep the money or open the box', I'd recommend the latter. In my book this library represents a good investment for film composers, and unlike Pandora's Box of legend, only good things lurk inside.

Alternatives

Orchestral effects libraries are a growth area. Though lacking the scope of ProjectSAM's Symphobia 4, Sonokinetic's phrase-based Espressivo (13.9GB, reviewed in SOS November 2017) and Red Room Audio's 11.6GB Palette — Orchestral FX occupy roughly the same stylistic ballpark. Espressivo matches S4's instrumentation, while the Palette library substitutes choir for percussion. Spitfire Audio's 62.3GB Albion IV — Uist and Galaxy Instruments' Thrill (31.6GB) also serve up scary atmospheres, atonal clusters and hybrid textures.

Since they follow the same blueprint, it could be argued the closest alternative to Symphobia 4 is Symphobia 1 (still available), but S4's technical facilities are far superior. For smaller budgets, Vienna Symphonic Library's trilogy Vienna Smart Spheres, Vienna Smart Hits and Big Bang Orchestra: Black Eye (the latter now shipping after a pre-sale period of 13.8 billion years) collectively cover some of S4's musical territory without breaking the bank.

Microphone Positions

S4's samples were recorded in a concert hall from close, stage, far and wide stereo microphone positions, each of which has its own volume fader. A fifth channel carries a mix of the four individual mikings.

All instruments load with the mix channel enabled and individual positions disabled. The makers warn that enabling multiple mic sets consumes a considerable amount of RAM (particularly when using Adaptive Sync and Sound Design mode), so unless your system has 12GB of RAM or more, they suggest enabling no more than two microphone sets per instrument. In my experience, this advice holds good for practically every multi-miked sample library on the planet!

Adaptive Sync

ProjectSAM's new 'Adaptive Sync' feature takes the guesswork out of lining up crescendos and risers to a specific downbeat or hit point. Set the tempo, choose a sample and the software intelligently selects a performance of the right length.ProjectSAM's new 'Adaptive Sync' feature takes the guesswork out of lining up crescendos and risers to a specific downbeat or hit point. Set the tempo, choose a sample and the software intelligently selects a performance of the right length.

Adjusting the timing of crescendo and riser samples to fit a song tempo can be frustrating — unless the sample was precisely timed to a click at a specific listed tempo, positioning it so its volume peak arrives on a desired beat often entails a fair amount of trial and error. S4's new 'Adaptive Sync' feature takes the guesswork out of the process by picking the closest recorded crescendo length available and intelligently tweaking it to exactly match your hit point.

The Adaptive Sync module has four different modes: sync to next downbeat, sync in bars, sync in seconds and, if you prefer to set the crescendo timing manually, sync off. The first two are tempo-dependent, while the third is useful when working in free time (for example, adjusting a crescendo to coincide with a specific hit point in a film scene). Depending on the selected mode and sample content, the software decides on the best method to match lengths: time-stretching, trimming the front of the sample, delaying its start, or a combination of all three.

There's one minor wrinkle: due to limitations in the communication between host software and Kontakt's script processor, the 'sync to downbeat' mode may miscalculate where the downbeat falls if your track includes time-signature changes (an affliction also suffered by some Prog drummers). ProjectSAM say as soon as it becomes technically possible they'll update this mode to support meter changes.

On a more creative note, most of S4's Adaptive Sync instruments have an extra keyboard region (marked in yellow on the GUI) containing soft, looped sustains which match the sound of the crescendo samples — you can use these samples to delay the start of a crescendo (say by holding the sustain for two bars, then starting the crescendo) or to extend a swell or diminuendo. For those who demand precise micro-timing adjustments (step forward, Gavin Harrison), you can use the 'Hit Point Offset' control to nudge the crescendo/diminuendo timing forward or backwards in milliseconds.

Symphobia Series

ProjectSAM was founded by composers Maarten Spruijt, Vincent Beijer and Marco Deegenaars. Having set out their stall with a trio of orchestral solo brass libraries in the now-defunct Gigastudio format (yes, they've been at it that long), the company unveiled Symphobia in 2008. Recorded in a concert hall acoustic, Symphobia  1 bucked then-current trends by recording different instruments playing together, rather than segregating them: basses, cellos, violas and violins were blended into one playable strings section, while orchestral brass received the same unification treatment.

This approach continued in Symphobia 2, which featured forceful full-orchestra articulations and excellent string spiccatos optimised for action scenes. In addition, both libraries contained amazing wild–card effects, clusters, rips, massed glissandi, atonal chords and dissonant crescendos never before heard in an orchestral sample library. Also included are a large number of processed soundscapes comprising evolving low-pitched drones, electronic warblings, glitchy electronic splutterings, brain-juddering impacts, explosions and even (as if to underline ProjectSAM's defiantly non-purist stance) a lovingly recorded chain saw.

While such extravaganzas are now commonplace in orchestral collections, Symphobia 1 and 2 did it first, and helped set the mould for today's cinematic libraries. In May 2013, Symphobia 3: Lumina took a more delicate tack, investigating filmic fantasy and mystery worlds with smaller ensembles, Celtic harp, solo woodwinds, piano and a unique live combination of orchestra and choir, including the intriguingly named Elven choir.

Supplementing the main series are two budget-priced side dishes: Symphobia Colours: Orchestrator serves up pre-orchestrated ensembles (including strings and choir) performing major and minor chords along with legato chord transitions (another innovation), while the golden age of cartoon music is playfully explored in Symphobia Colours: Animator.

You can read the reviews of Symphobia 1 (December 2008) and Symphobia 2 (December 2010) at SOS's web site. For more details on the series, visit: https://projectsam.com

Pros

  • An exciting collection of adventurous and atmospheric orchestral effects, motoring ostinato rhythms and playable articulations.
  • Recorded in a fine concert hall acoustic.
  • New 'Adaptive Sync' feature takes the strain out of positioning crescendos and string risers.
  • Sound Design mode opens the floodgates for wild, transformative effects.

Cons

  • No long-note legato articulations.

Summary

Optimised for action, thriller, sci-fi and horror productions and bulging with dramatic crescendos, pulsing rhythms, clusters, risers, falls, textures, effects, playable instruments and percussion, Symphobia 4 maintains the power and quality of earlier Symphobia titles while introducing some great new technical features. Versatile, grandiose and packing a massive attack, this intensively sampled orchestra gives no quarter.

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Published June 2020