This comprehensive four-part sample library aims to provide a complete orchestral scoring toolkit.
One of the perks of this reviewing job is you get to meet interesting characters from all parts of the world — it's a bit like being a taxi driver, but with none of the traffic jams and drunk passenger hassles. This month, the person in the back of my virtual cab is Red Room Audio's Dickie Chapin. Mr Chapin has been at the forefront of professional sampling since 2014, when he attained the post of Project Director and Creative Lead at Impact Soundworks. Having helped to design several instruments, including Shreddage 2 and the impressive Bravura Scoring Brass, he fled the nest and founded his own company in 2017.
An ardent orchestral sample user from the early days, Chapin starting playing piano at the age of six and never looked back, progressing from high-school orchestras and ensembles to playing drums and singing in Chicago post-punk and goth-glam bands. The Eureka moment came in the 1990s when he acquired an Ensoniq EPS sampler. Chapin recalls: "I remember eagerly inserting a floppy disk into the drive and waiting for the mystery samples to load. When I pressed a key, out came the most glorious strings section I'd ever heard. I spent the following weeks holed up in my makeshift bedroom studio, in command of an orchestra for the first time. It was my personal introduction to the world of sampling and I was completely hooked."
This revelation led to Chapin moving to LA to pursue a composing career and the eventual formation of his own company, abetted by colleagues Christian Yoder and Mario Kruselj. The Palette Orchestral Series represents the pinnacle of his career as sample developer, and has been very well received by its users. So far so good, but how will it hold up under SOS's scrutiny?
Red Room Audio's Palette Orchestral Series consists of four separate sample libraries which run on Kontakt or the free Kontakt Player version 5.6.8 or above. All samples were performed by members of the Sofia Session Orchestra and Choir at Sofia Session Studio, Bulgaria (the same setup used by sampling maestro George Strezov). After purchase, the libraries can be downloaded as multiple .rar files, then activated under a single serial number in Native Instruments' Access application.
The jewel in the series' crown is Palette Symphonic Sketchpad (henceforth called PSS), a 26.6GB collection comprising strings, brass, woodwind, percussion, a mixed-voice choir and some enticing extras. The main ensembles were recorded in full and chamber sizes, so users can choose between 40 and 20 string players; similarly, you can wallow in the symphonic splendour of a 12-piece brass or woodwind ensemble, or scale down to more intimate-sounding sections of seven and four players respectively. Though none of these instrument families offers solo instruments (these are available in the Palette Melodics library, covered below), having flexible ensemble sizes at your disposal is a great asset when fashioning a full orchestral arrangement.
Consistency is a key factor: articulations are closely matched across different instruments and identical in sections' full and chamber versions. The GUI holds eight articulations which can be selected via user-configurable keyswitches. Though simple in appearance, the interface offers some powerful features: you can layer playing styles, set up velocity splits and edit individual artics' volume, dynamic control method, sample offset (useful for tightening note attacks), attack and release. Very handy.
PSS's string articulations are straight out of the modern media composer's handbook. The trademark spiccato, a speedy, accented short-note bowing, works a treat for the propulsive rhythmic ostinatos which pepper cinematic scores. For more ceremonious settings, the three-dynamic looped sustains combine a strong, emphatic attack with a rich, gracious tone, and dedicated sliders (which can be automated using MIDI CCs) enable you to add tremolo and expressive vibrato to long notes.
These main bowing styles are augmented by a choice of short notes: staccato is a useful alternative to the more hurried spiccato delivery, tenuto provides full-bodied notes of around 0.5 seconds duration, and the firm attack of the two-second marcatos would make a good resting point in a melodic passage. In addition, there are the standard pizzicato and semitone/tone trill articulations. Overall, the string players sound lively, positive and engaged, and their samples add immediate energy and presence to a score.
The brass players' urgent, pushy spiccatos and somewhat calmer staccato deliveries also work well for rhythmic passages, while their quiet sustains sound pleasantly warm and enveloping, with a subtle light vibrato available for the trumpets. Turning up the volume, the large brass section's loud sustains work a treat for majestic fanfares, and you can pump up the pomp by layering them with the forceful marcato samples.
The performances are immaculate, with almost supernaturally perfect tuning and timing — would that all orchestral samples were so blemish-free!
A personal favourite is the woodwinds full ensemble, a deftly orchestrated, well balanced section with good tonal blending — its tone trills are scintillating, and its short-note performances are great for adding a touch of jollity and colour to compositions. By contrast, the lyrical, mournful sound of the smaller chamber group suits more reflective moods. Featuring a strong foundation of bassoons, a fat clarinet-infused mid-range and a blend of reedy oboes and flutes in the upper register, these are woodwind sections for all seasons.
The only bump in the road was that I encountered a bug which causes stuck notes when using sustain pedal on the ensemble sustains. It's not a showstopper, and given the makers' quest for perfection, I'm sure they'll fix it by the time you read this. If you want to take the PSS ensembles for a test drive, you can download the free Palette Primary Colors edition (1.23GB) from Red Room Audio's web site.
Moving on to PSS's percussion, the marimba's five dynamic layers capture its full timbral range, from soft liquid plops to incisive hard taps. The xylophone is startlingly hi-fi — no danger of this instrument getting buried in a mix, it sounds as bright and piercing as a starting pistol! Other tuned perc gems include an ear-catching set of crotales mini-cymbals, solemn, deep-sampled tubular bells and an immensely pretty, pure-sounding glockenspiel to which the hall mics add an ineffable stellar sparkle.
Sampled over a C2-G#3 range, the timpani are absolutely flawless, some of the best I've heard: clean, pure and immensely powerful, sensibly mapped for two-handed performance with a separate keyboard zone for rolls. In a similar epic vein are six-player 'trailer drums' ensembles consisting variously of slamming bass drums and detuned timpani, a great, deep-sounding snare ensemble and booming toms, taikos and tupans, the latter a large double-headed ethnic drum which sounds like a resonant undamped tom-tom.
A traditional orchestral percussion selection includes a banging gran casa bass drum, a crisp solo snare, piatti splash cymbals and a bashy tam-tam gong. My stand-out sounds in this patch are the cymbal mallet rolls and a very nice set of temple blocks. Alternatively, if you fancy getting your Afro-Latin groove on, a separate hand percussion set provides usable cajon, djembe, bongos and conga drums.
If you're in the market for cascading sweeps and dramatic flourishes, PSS's harp's auto-glissando mode is a lot of fun: you can program convincing upward and downward glisses simply by selecting your desired scale and key, then alternating between a high and a low note placed at each end of your desired gliss range. An educational 'pedal mode' displays how the software selects the correct pitches for each scale. Unfortunately the harp's sweet, mellow tone is somewhat marred by one or two plunky high notes, but that doesn't spoil the party.
Though not exactly lyrical, the percussive attack of the library's Steinway B semi-concert grand is fine for bombastic mock-ups. The mixed-voice choir is more versatile: separately recorded men and women perform the vowel sounds 'ah', 'oh' and 'mm' in sustain and staccato versions. No word-building facilities are included (that's a relief, I'm starting to run out of syllable jokes). Presets are presented as a unified choir with male voices at the low end, women in the upper register and both sexes singing in unison in the F#3-G#4 range. If you prefer to hear unaccompanied women, you can turn down the male samples' volume.
PSS's instrumentation concludes with some heady electronic elements: Trailer Tools is a collection of over 250 ear-bursting sound design noises, including outrageous 'braams', booms, whooshes, risers, downers and some tremendous 'reverses' (backwards samples). Right up my street. As an added bonus, the makers sampled 22 waveforms from a critically acclaimed vintage synth and assembled them into 45 dual-layer presets in the form of Kontakt snapshots. There's a choice of filters and a surprisingly aggressive unison mode — go on, knock yourselves out!
Palette Melodics is the first of a series of 'brush packs' designed to supplement the core Palette Symphonic Sketchpad library: it contains 12 pre-orchestrated combinations and six solo instruments optimised for melodic work, as featured in the scores of the design team's favourite classical and modern film music composers.
Most patches feature an excellent VSL-style legato mode in which a held note automatically retriggers when a superimposed note is released. This style works particularly well when programming swirling decorative phrases and grace notes for woodwinds. The Melodics solo instruments (which include a surprisingly good violin) also benefit from a vibrato slider control, so you can add expressive vibrato to sustained notes at any point.
Strong lead-line sonorities abound: trumpets and French horns in octaves sound magisterial on heroic movie themes, while the octave violins and six-horn ensembles are a great resource for soaring top lines and uplifting, noble melodies. Staccatissimo brass blasts and animated woodwind rips also provide dramatic interjections. At the low end, octave cellos and basses do their classic Jaws thing, a bass clarinet and contrabassoon descend into inky subterranean blackness, and the cataclysmic bottom notes of the low brass & low strings combo would provide ideal accompaniment to the scene when the nightmarish Cloverfield creature lurches out of the night sky.
Mirroring the main library's playing styles and introducing a few more of its own, this 35.9GB stand-alone collection is the ideal companion to the PSS ensembles, adding another vivid set of hues to the orchestral sound canvas.
If you fancy sprinkling your arrangements with played orchestral effects (as opposed to electronic sound-design treatments), I can recommend this 11.6GB 'brush pack'. Orchestrated by composers Jongnic Bontemps, Tristan Noon and George Strezov, Palette Orchestral FX features PSS's strings, brass, woodwind sections and choir performing a huge collection of uninhibited musical effects, stings, textures, risers and downers ranging from jarring short stabs to extended, meandering musical excursions. The performances and keyboard mapping are consistent across all of the section patches, so you can layer them into a massive-sounding symphonic tutti.
Load the 'Orchestral FX Builder' patch, select an ensemble, choose a style category and click on the sample browser, and you'll hear an astonishing array of mad atonal events: flurries, scoops, slides, massed glissandi, wild pitch scatterings, chaotic improvs, up and down rips, wild ascending runs, exhilarating risers and falls, menacing, slashing, Bernard Herrmann-esque cluster chord stabs and dark, alienated textures, interspersed with the odd cartoon-ish musical gesture. Some instrumental textures border on the psychotic, while the choir joins in the frenzy with ritualistic satanic moaning, disconcerting cluster stabs and despairing, off-the-cliff falling groans. All in all, a great collection of powerful, well-composed effects with a healthy experimental edge.
The third and final 'brush pack' is the 2.17GB Palette Runs & Arps, a splendid collection of tempo-sync'ed scale runs and arpeggios performed by separate string and woodwind ensembles. The two sections' samples are closely matched and synchronise beautifully: there's a choice of six scale types (including chromatic and whole tone), each with up to 13 variations, and a collection of fast four-note arpeggios based on major, minor, diminished and augmented chords. Every run and arpeggio was performed in all 12 keys. The performances are immaculate, with almost supernaturally perfect tuning and timing — would that all orchestral samples were so blemish-free!
For those who can read music, the GUI displays notation for the current run/arp and allows you to drag and drop MIDI data for every performance to your DAW, so you can layer a played strings or woodwinds run with other instruments of your choice. Love that. You can also use the Downbeat Sync feature to ensure the final note of the performance lands on the first beat of the next bar. Easy to use and brilliantly executed, this little library is a great source of colourful orchestral material.
I went into this review expecting a sketch and came out feeling I'd experienced something of a masterpiece. The four libraries are supremely well organised, perfectly integrated and intelligently presented, and the playing is of an exceptionally high standard. A work of art indeed. Congratulations to the musicians and production team. Whether you need an easy-to-use writing tool or want to expand your orchestral armoury with some high quality instruments, I can heartily recommend Palette Symphonic Sketchpad and its three companion titles.
Audio Imperia's Nucleus (20.4GB) covers roughly the same ground as Palette Symphonic Sketchpad and Palette Melodics combined, but has fewer articulations and mic positions and no chamber ensembles, harp or piano. Orchestral Tools' 9.5GB Berlin Orchestra Inspire also contains blended full-sized ensembles, solo instruments, percussion, harp and piano, but lacks a choir and uses a single mic position. Unsurprisingly, neither includes a synthesizer.
Orchestral effects libraries in the same atonal ballpark as Palette Orchestral FX include Project SAM's 74GB Symphobia 4 Pandora, Spitfire Audio's Albion IV — Uist (62.3GB) and 8Dio's Symphonic Shadows (4.2GB). Though not strictly speaking an effects library, Symphobia 1 (17.4GB) is also worth a listen, since its large effects section comprises 50 percent of the library. For string and woodwind runs, check out Orchestral Tools' capacious Orchestral String Runs (19.7GB) and Cinesamples Hollywoodwinds (3GB).
Red Room Audio's Dickie Chapin has a bee in his bonnet regarding ensemble recording. He explains, "I've always been a fan of the ensemble patches in orchestral libraries. You get the whole section in one patch, and that's perfect for fast, easy writing. The issue I've had with them, though, is that they're always scripted, meaning the developer took all the different recordings of each individual section — basses, celli, violas, violins — and layered them all together artificially with scripts to create kind of a fake full ensemble."
In pursuit of a more organic, unified and natural sound, the sample maestro assembled the entire section in the hall and recorded them playing together, with the players watching the conductor and responding to each other as they would in a normal performance.
In the case of the strings, recording started with the basses playing their bottom note, performing all articulations and then carrying on up their range in similar fashion. When the basses reach the bottom of the cellos' range, the cellos join in, in unison. As notes get higher, violas and finally violins enter the fray. In principle, each instrument plays its full range, but strategic adjustments were made to avoid extreme high notes (unless you're a hardened jazz fan, you don't want to hear a double bass attempting to play up in the violin register).
The same procedure was repeated with brass and woodwinds, and with all the chamber sections. To my ears, while the results don't sound radically different from other orchestral libraries' ensembles, the sections are very well balanced, vibrant and musically poised, and critically, you can move freely up and down their range without experiencing any timbral disruptions.
- Palette Symphonic Sketchpad is an easy-to-use, versatile compositional tool with an impressively comprehensive instrumentation.
- Palette Melodics' solo instruments and combos are a great asset for soaring lead lines.
- Palette Orchestral FX raises the bar for played orchestral effects.
- Palette Runs & Arps will squirt colourful splashes and decorative dashes over your symphonic creations.
- The solo instruments menu is quite limited.
- Er, that's it.
The Palette Orchestral Series' four libraries collectively cover a huge amount of musical ground. You can get started with Palette Symphonic Sketchpad's comprehensive instrumentation, add Palette Melodics' powerful lead instruments, then branch out with the amazing orchestral effects and colourful runs provided in the other two companion titles. Highly playable, easy to use, well presented and packed with great performances, this series is a serious contender in today's orchestral sample marketplace.
Palette Symphonic Sketchpad $299, Palette Melodics $199, Palette Orchestral FX $199, Palette Runs & Arps $199, Palette Primary Colors FREE. Prices include VAT.
Palette Symphonic Sketchpad $299, Palette Melodics $199, Palette Orchestral FX $199, Palette Runs & Arps $199, Palette Primary Colors FREE.