When the call comes from the BBC asking if you can supply two hours of music for their upcoming 16th-century historical drama by 9am the next morning, it's essential to have the right sample library to hand. 'Down & Dirty Dubstep Grooves Vol. 13' won't cut it, and 'Extreme Metal Drums' could be a touch overstated, while 'Tribal Chants Of New Guinea' is clearly way off the mark. But Soniccouture's The Conservatoire Collection might just do the trick…
This collection samples a set of period instruments acquired over the years by the Birmingham Conservatoire. These are no decrepit relics (I refer to the historic instruments, not the curators); the original specimens are too ancient and fragile to be played, so what you hear in Soniccouture's 23GB library are mostly painstakingly accurate copies made by modern-day instrument makers.
One of the most curious is the Hurdy Gurdy: it emits a continuous, tambura-like drone (tuned G1-C2-G2), over which you play tunes on two unison melody strings. An optional harsh buzz effect can be activated with a trigger key to create rhythms. Sensibly, Soniccouture sampled each of the HG's strings separately. Its loud drone and strident, stirring skirl could be mistaken for bagpipes at a distance, and though it's not the first sound you'd want to hear when waking up with a hangover, it's a great timbre for rousing, medieval-flavoured folk melodies.
The library boasts a pair of very nice harpsichords from the 17th and 18th centuries — both beautifully, deeply sampled and sounding handsome, well-balanced and tonally satisfying. It would be worth buying the collection for these fine instruments alone, the only caveat being that they are somewhat CPU-intensive. I also loved the exquisitely pure, delicate plucked twang of the Psaltery, an old English zither played with quills.
If you fancy a bit of 'Baroque'n'roll', the dulcet, low-pitched tones of the lute-like 'theorbo' and a mellow-sounding, gut-stringed Baroque guitar will provide a great accompaniment. Percussion is represented by a pair of small, nondescript-sounding Nakers drums (Arabic ancestors of the timpani), a low-tuned Renaissance Side Drum (good for those inevitable execution scenes) and a pair of chromatically mapped Baroque Timpani. The timps (which offer rolls, straight hits and a choice of beaters) sound less bright and resonant than their modern, mass-produced counterparts, but nevertheless possess a unique period atmosphere and charm.
The Conservatoire's collection contains no wind instruments, making this library strong on pluck and bonk but short on toot and honk. However, third-party samples of flute, trumpet and recorder (all in use in the 16th century) will authentically fill the gap. You could even hire a live player to perform them. If the BBC's budget won't stretch that far, simply throw in a couple of sampled licks from 'Blazing Soul Sax' and hope they won't notice the difference. Dave Stewart
£239 including VAT.