The sampling world, still reeling from the impact of Garritan Orchestral Strings, faces a full‑scale onslaught from a fresh challenger.
Orchestral string libraries are like buses: you wait for a couple of years and then they start appearing one after the other — well, almost. The latest über‑library, Sonic Implants' heavyweight Symphonic String Collection (SSC), comes all the way from Boston USA and certainly packs a hell of a punch. The 20‑CD GigaStudio set (also available on three DVDs) is supplied in an old‑style record box, making you wonder if you ordered a Wagner opera by mistake, and weighs in at 12.3GB, which makes it the largest sampled string library yet released.
Nearly a year in the making, SSC is an ambitious, large‑scale work, which was performed by top players from the Boston Pops and Boston Ballet orchestras and recorded by two award‑winning engineers. The location, chosen specifically for its acoustics, was Sonic Temple Studio in Massachusetts, a concert hall‑style recording space measuring 60 x 38 feet. In stark contrast to most pop studios' deadly carpet‑on‑the‑walls decor, Sonic Temple's wooden floor, plaster walls and 22‑foot‑high arched ceiling ensure a lively sonic response that benefits acoustic instruments.
Apart from some improvised noises in the 'effects' section, the library consists entirely of string ensembles playing single unison notes. Five sections were recorded separately: eight first violins, six second violins, six violas, five cellos and four double basses. Each section's performances add up to about 1.7GB (the basses somewhat less), making a total of 8.25GB of data. Derived from this sample pool are a further 4GB of 'ensemble' programs, covering all the main playing styles. These ready‑to‑play full string sections, with their instruments skilfully layered and mapped across six octaves according to range, will be greatly appreciated by users who don't have the time or GigaStudio know‑how to create their own.
In this industry, size matters, and with other string libraries boasting up to 24 violins, 16 violas, 10 cellos and nine double basses, SSC's 14/6/5/4 format might seem small by comparison. However, a quick listen to the 'Ensemble' four‑dynamic legato programs demonstrates that it's what you do with these players that counts — their sound is substantial, rich and vibrant. The players are clearly on top of their game, producing confident and united section bowing, and their performances have been elegantly recorded. Although these section sizes militate against a wide‑screen Hollywood‑style musical experience (or the English equivalent, memorably satirised in Private Eye as Neasdini And His Silken Strings), the musicians' polished delivery and the studio's naturalistic chamber acoustic combine to create a very agreeable string sound indeed.
Installing the library is extremely easy thanks to the automatic installation programs, which are found on the first disc of every section (we requested the 20‑CD version for review). The CDs are organised according to musical section, making it very easy to find the sounds you need if you're not installing the entire library, and it's good to be able to install and uninstall such a large library in such a logical, modular way. The first time you run an installer, you'll be prompted to enter your serial number and personal details, but subsequent installers for other sections will find these registration details to save you entering them again. However, you might want to dedicate an hour or so for a complete installation process, especially if you have the 20‑CD version.
The documentation is supplied as two 32‑page stapled booklets and follows the recent trend of explaining in honest detail how the library was created. The first booklet contains a general overview and guide to using the library, complete with instructions on how to combine instruments and other ideas for getting the most out of the sounds. The second booklet is a detailed catalogue of every instrument in the collection with a full list of programs and relevant MIDI controller numbers.
Getting into SSC from a performance angle is much simpler than it is with some libraries, although this is partly because the library lacks some of its rival's advanced performance methods for controlling articulations. Each articulation is stored in a separate instrument file, and it's left to the user to combine these into keyswitchable (or similarly controlled) 'performance' instruments, although, as previously mentioned, the manual does provide some guidelines on this. However, this isn't to say that the programs in SSC don't provide a useful degree of expressive control.
First and second violins, violas, cellos and double basses all perform:
Multi dynamic (number in brackets = dynamic variations)
- legato up/down bows (4).
- espressivo (2).
- con sordino (3).
- staccato up/down bows (3).
- spiccato up/down bows (2).
- tremolo (3).
- sul ponticello tremolo (3).
- tone and semitone trills (3).
- tight and loose pizzicato (3).
- natural & artificial harmonics.
- tight and loose snap pizzicato.
- pizzicato harmonics (cellos and basses only).
- col legno.
- miscellaneous effects.
Bow direction may be alternated according to the position of the modulation wheel in the 'MW>Down‑Up' programs, or by selecting the 'Keymap' programs, which effectively automate the process by providing up‑ and down‑bow samples mapped alternately on successive chromatic keys. A nice touch to the long‑bowed instruments is the inclusion of programs that allow you to crossfade dynamic layers using the modulation wheel. This type of control is becoming more popular in GigaStudio libraries and really does provide a level of expression way beyond what could be achieve by simply automating the volume of a part.
One of the most notable features of SSC is the implementation of release triggers for instruments right from the outset, which is where the acoustic space chosen for the recording really comes into its own. The legato‑bowed instruments contain programs both with and without release triggers, whereas the short‑bowed and plucked instruments have their own natural 'built‑in' release triggers. Given the choice, you'll end up choosing the legato programs with release triggers as they sound so much more natural, especially when you're not drowning your strings in reverb.
The only downside to using the release triggers is that they absolutely eat up the available polyphony on your GigaStudio machine (or machines, as is increasingly becoming the case), although this is no way Sonic Implants' fault. Playing a four‑voice passage with the '1st Violins Legato Down Bow R' program frequently reached 24 voices, while a particularly busy passage with the '1st Violins Spiccato Down' program peaked at 40 voices. "Dear Tascam, please send another copy of GigaStudio to..."
Considered as a whole, SSC contains no significant weak points, and playing its carefully produced, well‑presented samples is an inspiration as well as a pleasure. While it doesn't cover all the subtle bowing variations that lurk within Garritan Orchestral Strings, SSC is nevertheless a work bordering on the monumental, representing many months of detailed work for its producers. Congratulations, therefore, to Sonic Implants for giving musicians such a grand, finely co‑ordinated and versatile armoury of string samples.
Reviewing the entire contents of the SSC library would probably exhaust the UK's ink and paper supplies, as well as your patience, so instead, I'll give you the edited highlights of the sounds that caught my ear. The violins' legatos are admirably smooth and controlled, making them suitable for all manner of sustained pad work. Calm, measured up‑bows and quicker, more emphatic down‑bows give way to smooth, comfortable sustains with just the right amount of vibrato. For a more languid approach, the hushed, breathy 'con sordino' muted sustains are very effective; but the 'espressivo' programs, with their slower attack and more pronounced vibrato, supply the lushest, most romantic tones.
Unlike other major string libraries, a separate detaché style isn't provided, although the provision of up‑ and down‑bows adds some welcome variety and realism to melody lines. There are no combined first and second violin samples — however, you can easily create your own 'all violins' program by layering the first and second violins. Since all the individual string sections were recorded 'in place', in their conventional stage positions, layering all five produces a realistic and satisfying stereo spread.
The lower strings match the uniformly good quality and assured performances of the violins. Violas tend not to sound luxurious in isolation, but this section's mature tone and committed delivery manages to make up for its relative lack of numbers. The cellists produce a fine ensemble sound in all styles — after plucking some pretty pizzicato harmonics, they team up with the basses and get nasty with some low‑register tremolos whose heavy, menace‑laden shuddering had me soiling my trousers in terror. On a less unpleasant note, the high range of the basses' legatos is poignant and very expressive — you might be tempted to use them in lyrical chordal passages.
Both violin sections deliver some fairly ferocious marcatos, which will work a treat should Sid Vicious ever decide to record a posthumous version of 'Eleanor Rigby'. The lower strings, perhaps mindful of the possibility of inflicting damage on their expensive bows, sound somewhat more inhibited in this area. Sound companies please note: aggressive performances, even if they offend the players' tender orchestral sensibilities, are often the ones that work best in the sample world.
Sampled pizzicato strings invariably sound great, and these are no exception, revealing Sonic Temple's pleasant natural reverb of just over a second. Following Gary Garritan's lead, the pizzicatos come in 'tight' and 'loose' flavours — I would use the former in rhythmic passages, and reserve the loose version for isolated hits. The effects section turned out to contain some agreeable surprises: in addition to the usual collection of horrible knocks and scrapes, you get mad slitherings and twitterings, 'Tom & Jerry' style cartoon slides, Psycho 'eeks', eery drifting clusters, psychedelic glissandi harmonics and some dementedly abstract soundscapes created by bowing behind the bridge.
I saved the best news until last: all the sustained samples are looped, smoothly and imperceptibly. Hooray, crack open the champagne! Call me old‑fashioned, but when I play keyboards, I expect a note to go on sounding for as long as I hold down a key. Heartfelt thanks, then, to SSC's programmers for upholding this time‑honoured convention. Dave Stewart
- A rich, detailed, well‑recorded sound.
- First‑rate playing and programming allows you to concentrate on notes rather than samples.
- Release triggers capture the ambience of the recording venue to give added realism.
- No separate detaché category.
- Switching between articulations isn't as flexible as it could be: you have to manually create instruments to add this functionality.
Symphonic String Collection is a well‑rounded, highly professional library that gets as close to emulating a real string section as is currently possible. This new contender punches its weight, and orchestral samplists would be well advised to take it seriously.
Sonic Implants +1 781 641 0063.