Can Sample Modeling's combination of, er, sampling and modelling deliver convincing string sounds?
Solo string sounds have long been the bête noire of keyboard workstations and synthesizers, with even the better offerings being more useful as instruments of torture than of music. Recent years have thankfully seen virtual instruments making huge leaps forward with highly detailed sample libraries that are able to reproduce many of these instruments' subtleties and which, in sensitive hands, can sound astonishingly convincing. Physical modelling brings the prospect of even greater realism and flexibility — good news for solo instruments that are heard prominently, and therefore subject to close critical scrutiny.
The brainchild of Giorgio Tommasini and Peter Siedlaczek, Sample Modeling's Solo and Ensemble Strings (henceforth referred to as S&ES) are the result of four years research and development. In common with the other excellent modelled instruments in their product line (Trumpet, Trombone, French Horn and Tuba), S&ES runs in Kontakt 5.8.1 and above. As the company name suggests, the science involves samples as the base material for the modelling process. Applying proprietary 'harmonic alignment' technology to recordings made in an anechoic chamber results in seamless dynamic transitions from pp to ff with no phasing artifacts; in conjunction with convolution techniques and fiendishly clever intelligent scripting, the player is able to perform articulations in an intuitive way with the minimum of keyswitching.
The S&ES package comprises solo violin, viola, cello and double bass, and also the same instruments (which include violins 1 and violins 2) as ensemble sections. Sample Modeling's GUI 'house style' looks quaintly archaic, harking back to the earlier graphics of Kontakt 3 libraries. No animated bows, plucking fingers or fingerboards here, although fingering information would have been useful from an educational point of view. Despite the visual simplicity, S&ES provides many controls for customising the instrument's behaviour; clicking on the 'Main View' button reveals a drop-down menu comprising multiple sub-pages of parameters and other customising tools. Rather than subject the reader to an indigestible list of knobs and widgets, let's jump in, start playing and get a feel for the instrument. The first thing to do on loading any instrument is move the dynamics MIDI CC controller — until this is done the instruments will not work. By default dynamics are assigned to CC11 (expression); a breath controller or wind controller can optionally be used. Once S&SE has registered that CC movement, the instrument 'wakes up' and you're good to go.
Let's start with the solo violin (a very good place to start); the default state on loading has a delayed vibrato coming in around half a second after each new note. Key velocity controls the amount of attack — a combination of envelope shaping and spiccato samples overlaid onto the main body sound — which is a common technique used by many sample libraries. The amount of spiccato overlay is also dependent on CC11: higher values give a more pronounced attack. The instruments' normal behaviour is monophonic, so overlapping notes produces legato transitions — the spiccato attack is only applied to notes played in a detached manner.
Whilst noodling around in the violin's out-of-the-box state, my initial impressions were mixed; it certainly sounded like a violin, but something was lacking. It quickly became clear that more than just CC11 dynamics and a fixed, delayed vibrato were required to bring it to life. Fortunately, vibrato depth is also under CC1 (mod wheel) control — the 'auto' vibrato is overridden as soon as the mod wheel is moved, so one hand is employed full time with that task.
However, playing keys, moving the wheel and the dynamics fader requires three hands, so one of the former two tasks needed to be hands-free. A continuous foot controller would be one option, however I decided to try my trusty Yamaha BC-1 breath controller (still working after 36 years) to control dynamics. The difference was remarkable, yet there was one further refinement to make. All the 'knobby' parameters in S&ES are MIDI controllable, so I remapped vibrato rate to the mod wheel so both depth and rate are controlled by a single movement.
One problem arose in that both speed and depth quickly escalate to overkill at the top of the wheel's range. I was able to compensate for that by adjusting the wheel's maximum range on my keyboard; scaling it to 60 percent did the trick. I hope Sample Modeling will consider adding MIDI CC range parameters in a future update, as not everyone has the facility to re-scale hardware controllers. The changes outlined above were enough to bring a remarkable sense of liveliness and expression to the instrument — certainly not up to Sarah Chang, Joshua Bell or Nam Yun Kim standards in my hands, but it felt as if there might conceivably be a living, breathing violinist in the room.
A recent V1.1 update (received after this review was first published) adds a new 'Attacks' parameter, controlled by CC38. This interacts with key velocity, progressively introducing a grittier on-bow marcato characteristic to the beginning of non-legato notes at high settings; lower settings produce an off-bow spiccato. Similarly, the Release parameter has been improved, making a clearer distinction between on-bow and off-bow note endings.
Most significantly, owners of the original release V1.0 will welcome the new cello in V1.1. The designers recognised the original sample set had its shortcomings, and to their credit set about recording a completely new sample set to address the problems. I'm happy to say that it now sounds excellent.
Unlike standard sample libraries, the timbral character of S&ES instruments is not cast in stone. Each instrument is provided with various convolution body impulse responses: seven each for the violin and viola, eight for the cello and one for the double bass. All but the double bass include a con sordino impulse. The choice of these is down to taste and musical context — I found myself drawn towards the rich, full-bodied timbre of number 2s for the violin and the warm woodiness of number 1m for the viola and the rich tones of 4s for the cello. Further timbral customisation is possible using a feature Sample Modeling call Timbral Shaping, discussed in the relevant box later on.
Various articulations are achievable without recourse to keyswitching, relying largely on the judicious interplay between dynamics level, key velocity and keyboard technique. Other parameters come into play, most notably the Attack time, and to some extent the Release time. For legato playing, both key velocity and the Attack time parameter affect the speed and character of legato transitions. High velocities and/or low Attack settings enable very fast, fluid runs and trills; trills and ornaments are a doddle to play thanks to the retrigger feature — just hold the first note down whilst trilling or ornamenting (if that can be a verb) on the other notes. Conversely, lower velocities and higher Attack settings give softer legato transitions. Very low velocities produce portamento, the speed of which is controlled by a combination of key velocity and the Attack time. Leaving the Attack parameter in its midway position works well for the most part, but having it under MIDI control does increase your range of options. On some keyboards it can be difficult to accurately control portamento time with key velocity, as the available velocity 'window' is very small. To help with this, S&ES's Vel Remapping page enables the response curve to be redrawn to make access to the lowest velocities easier. If controlling dynamics with a wind controller (as opposed to a breath controller), portamento speed can optionally be controlled by CC5, which is a necessity since wind controllers don't generate key velocity.
To play a phrase of long notes detaché, press the sustain pedal while playing legato — Attack time value and key velocity determine the 'tightness' of the re-bowing effect. The sustain pedal is also used for re-bowing the same note — shorter Attack times work best here. Shorts (spiccato, staccato) are achieved simply by playing the keyboard in the appropriate way, adjusting key velocity and dynamics to vary the intensity. Other more esoteric bowing techniques can be achieved after a fashion: to perform martelé, a key velocity of 100 and dynamics of 110 followed by a quick reduction to around 60 works well. The nearest I could get to a collé effect (very short scratchy 'pops') entailed a similar approach to martelé, but with the release time at zero, dynamics level high and playing extremely short notes — no more than 100 ticks long. In both cases they need little or no spiccato overlay, as this will soften the scratchy edge. Expecting S&ES to do ricochets is perhaps going too far, and indeed it proved beyond its (or perhaps my) capabilities. I don't expect many will lose sleep over this, however.
Even though much can be done without keyswitches, there are a number of these to deal with additional articulations, as well as extended performance functions. Additional articulations are pizzicato, tremolo, col legno and harmonics; these can be momentary or latching, depending on the key velocity at which they're pressed. The performance keyswitches modify the behaviour in several ways: in Mono mode (the default) double stops can be played if two notes are played within 25ms. A neat bonus is that one note of a double stop can move around as long as it plays legato and the other note is held down, making for finger lickin' good country licks — yee hah. Polyphonic mode is useful for playing fast, blurred flourishes that finish with a double stop. The Detaché keyswitch duplicates the same function as the sustain pedal; Portato introduces a crescendo effect to notes played legato; Open Strings, as the name implies, forces S&ES to play G2, D3, A3 or E4 on open strings. Low and High position keyswitches, unsurprisingly, adjust the playing position — High position sounds slightly less bright, but with a more intense mid-range. The solo violin has an additional keyswitch that plays in the highest position over the widest possible range. Microtuning is also available — 10 user presets are available, selected by the B0 keyswitch in conjunction with one of the other 10 keyswitches.
There's a whole raft of other details that can be adjusted — attack detuning, bow noise, pitch and bow pressure instability, overtones, the virtual soundstage, the built-in convolution reverb — all MIDI controllable in real time. You may never feel the need to tinker with them, but they're there if you want to.
I find the lure of these instruments intoxicating — I've spent so much time playing them that I often forgot I was supposed to be writing this review!
There are several sample libraries out there that employ the trick of layering multiple solo instruments together to create the illusion of an ensemble, with varying degrees of believability. The S&ES ensembles, however, came as a very pleasant surprise. Each of the five sections (including Violins II) load as Multis, consisting of four modules all receiving in Omni mode — for that reason it's advisable to load each Multi into a separate instance of Kontakt. Only the top module has a GUI — the other three are inaccessible, and can be left alone. The tone of the violins in particular is exquisite, the dynamic range going from a silky whisper to a passionate ff. These instruments have two secret weapons at their disposal not found on the solo instruments, the first being the Expr. Vibrato control. At its zero value, vibrato within the ensemble is asynchronous, ie. they all wobble independently. As the value is increased the vibratos become more synchronous, producing a more intense effect. If you want apassionata, this is how you do it. The second 'weapon' is the Ensemble Size control, which widens S&ES's field of applications considerably. Ensemble size is continuously variable from a small handful of players to full Hollywood excess, or any stage in between. Being able to coax Baroque, chamber and blockbuster orchestras all from the one package makes S&ES a very powerful resource.
It's our duty as reviewers to offer critical observations: firstly, concerning the open strings — they fully respond to vibrato! Since that's not possible in reality without putting severe force on the instrument's neck (not recommended on a £350,000 Stradivarius), an addition to the scripting that disengages vibrato for open strings would be welcome and save a lot of mod wheel work. How about it, SM? Lastly, there are 'buggy' occasions when re-assigning MIDI controllers on the CC remapping pages fails. On the solo instruments this can sometimes be solved by using the MIDI learn method, but with the Ensembles that method is not possible — nor can vibrato depth be controlled by anything other than CC1.
Overall I'm very impressed by the tone and playability of all the instruments. It takes a bit of practice to co-ordinate hand, expression and vibrato gestures, but once you get a feel for it S&ES simply oozes emotion. I find the lure of these instruments intoxicating — I've spent so much time playing them that I often forgot I was supposed to be writing this review! As words invariably fail to convey the sounds themselves, I give you over to the excellent YouTube demonstration by physical modelling maestro Ramiro Gómez Massetti: www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0a3tAZoHUg. Perhaps it's time to buy myself a swanky new breath controller...
The obvious competitor to S&ES in the modelling field is Audio Modeling's SWAM system, based purely on mathematical models with no samples involved in the sound generation. At present the SWAM string instruments comprise solo violin, viola, cello and double bass, but as yet no ensemble sections.
Several 'traditionally' sampled solo string sample libraries include Embertone's Joshua Bell and Friedlander solo violins, Chris Hein Solo Strings, Spitfire Solo Strings, Cinematic Studio Solo Strings and various VSL packages.
Timbral Shaping provides the means to radically alter the timbre of instruments, but it behaves very differently to EQ. The frequencies of a traditional EQ stay fixed in place — if an instrument's part moves outside the range of the boosted or cut frequencies, their effect is diminished or even lost altogether.
Timbral Shaping works by boosting or attenuating specific harmonics; as the instrument moves around, those harmonics move with them, so the sounds remains consistent. There are 10 bands ranging from the fundamental to what my ears tell me is three octaves higher, which I believe makes that the 8th harmonic. The effect of these bands can also be MIDI controlled, and there's also a global formant shift control thrown in for good measure. Whether you like your strings mid-rangey and brash or warm and sweet, this is a far more effective way of achieving those tones than a static EQ.
- Highly realistic once the essential principles are acquired.
- Solo and Ensemble instruments in a single package.
- Resizeable Ensembles.
- Many articulations performable with the minimum of keyswitching.
- Custom tonal shaping at the harmonics level.
- MIDI CC remapping can be a bit flaky, particularly with the ensembles.
- Vibrato on open strings? No way!
- Would benefit from a modernised, more efficient interface.
A fine collection of Solo and Ensemble strings that rewards time and exploration with great realism. The ability to resize Ensembles should be a very alluring prospect to anyone considering buying multiple libraries to cover those needs.