A classic orchestral library makes a comeback in a streamlined new format.
Although some older sound libraries failed to survive the sampler format shifts of the early ‘00s, several important orchestral collections re-emerged dressed in new clothes. One such survivor is Sonic Implants’ Complete Symphonic Collection: released in stages between 2002 and 2005 and boasting what was then the largest strings volume in the world, the library received a warm welcome from the orchestral sampling community — you can read the SOS reviews at www.soundonsound.com.
Since its Gigastudio-format heyday, the collection has undergone various metamorphoses: after Sonic Implants changed their name to Sonivox in 2006, a Kontakt 2 version was released, followed by budget-priced, themed DVI ‘downloadable virtual instruments’ of selected ensembles. All these versions were subsequently withdrawn, but the good news is that the heart of the library still beats on inside Sonivox Film Score Companion, a suite of five instruments which can be bought separately, or collectively as a competitively priced bundle.
Film Score Companion (FSC for short) comprises Orchestral Companion Strings, Orchestral Companion Brass, Orchestral Companion Woodwinds, Big Bang Cinematic Percussion and Eighty Eight Ensemble. The first three are cut-down versions of instruments and ensembles from Complete Symphonic Collection, while the explosively titled Big Bang compilation includes orchestral percussion samples from the same source, as well as African drums and Latin percussion. As its name implies, Eighty Eight Ensemble is a multisampled concert grand piano with built-in additional instruments, pads and textures.
The five instruments are formatted for Sonivox’s proprietary sample player software, which runs on Windows and Mac computers as a VST, AU or AAX compatible plug-in. The player has no stand-alone version, so requires a host application such as Logic, GarageBand, Cubase/Nuendo, Pro Tools, Ableton, Digital Performer, Reaper and suchlike. I ran it successfully inside the Forte VST host. Authorisation is done online with a serial number via the new Pace Eden challenge and response protection system, which gives customers the option of storing their licenses on an iLok key for use on multiple systems.
In this review we’ll take a look at each of the five instruments contained in Film Score Companion and say a few words about the collection as a whole.
FSC’s publicity text poses the rhetorical question: “What would Jaws have been without the menacing drun-da, drun-da, drun-da in the background, announcing the imminent arrival of one of filmdom’s most infamous villains? Does anyone not know that music?” I’ve heard the music many times, though I must admit the lyrics are new to me. Good point, though: without the ‘drun-das’, this might have been yet another failed film about a bad-tempered fish with Luis Su rez-style dental tendencies, but the ominous two-note motif certainly added gravitas and, er, bite.
If you want to play your own ‘shark alert’ riffs, load the Orchestral Companion Strings instrument’s Ensemble Strings patch, select its spiccato articulation and hammer out some low octaves. You’ll then hear the cellos and double basses doing their big, sonorous, heavyweight Stravinsky-esque Jaws thing in a very agreeable concert hall acoustic. This patch also incorporates keyswitchable sustain, staccato and tremolo styles, as well as characterful pizzicatos which show off the plush sound of the cello section. Above all, the strings’ tonal breadth is fabulous, a reminder of why this collection received so many plaudits on its original release.
I like the way the string ensemble responds to touch: there’s an immediacy and brightness in the sustains which encourages rhythmic playing (not always the case with long-note samples), and the brisk, businesslike spiccatos motor along nicely, a perfect vehicle for energetic rhythmic writing. In a more romantic vein, the built-in volume swell and pronounced vibrato of the strings’ espressivo style is very nice indeed, and works well on high violin lines and lyrical mid-range chords. The cellos’ espressivos sound particularly emotional, and since they play up into a fairly high register, you can use them as a stand-alone section for compositional purposes.
While the string ensemble’s seamless mapping of violins, violas, cellos and basses across a six-octave range is highly playable, the individual instrument sections perform some useful extra articulations, such as tremolo sul ponticello and alternating up-and-down bows on their spiccato and staccato deliveries. Reflecting FSC’s stripped-down, easy-on-the-pocket approach, there are no con sordinos, col legnos, trills, harmonics or effects, and no solo strings (which were also absent in the original library). Interval legato samples are conspicuous by their absence, but the smooth bowing style of the sustains can handle melody lines reasonably well.
As mentioned earlier, a unique selling point of Sonivox’s orchestral collection is its hall acoustic: the 60-foot bare wooden floor, plaster walls and high arched ceiling of Sonic Temple (a former Masonic Lodge converted into a symphonic recording space) creates a lively hall ambience which imparts acoustic depth and excitement without smothering the instruments in a long reverb. This pleasant sonic halo can be heard to good advantage in Orchestral Companion Brass’ trumpet performances, which sound bright, cheerful, in tune and ready to spring into action playing triumphant fanfares as Donald Trump is elected president of the United States (sorry, just having a bad dream there).
Trumpet fanfares tend to include a mixture of staccato triplets and longer notes, which can be tricky to program; the main trumpet ensemble patch in OCB solves the problem by allowing you to keyswitch between these (and other) articulations on the fly. Alternatively, you can do the time-honoured trick of layering the trumpet section’s staccato performances on top of its sustains, which has the effect of increasing rhythmic definition by emphasising the initial note attack — that way, you can use the same sound for both short and long notes. However, when using Film Score Companion’s instruments, such layering requires you to open a second instance of the player (see ‘General Notes’ below).
For supportive brass textures, tonal options abound: the trumpet section’s muted delivery, played with a straight orchestral mute which makes the tone a little thinner without completely emasculating it, is a subtle variant. The French horns play some nice, fat-sounding sustains and bright, attacking sforzandos; while the section’s marcato style only attains its full brightness when you play at maximum velocity, the solo horn’s marcatos are more forthright and sound brighter when played quieter. They also work well as an attack layer over the instrument’s sustained notes. Muted ‘hand-stopped’ horn samples sound imposing in the high register, just the job for soaring, heroic movie themes.
A pair of tenor trombones matches the horns’ timbral versatility with fierce, ultra-bright sforzandos, warm sustains and a marcato articulation which falls halfway between the two, enabling the programming of anything from quiet pads to a big, noble-sounding symphonic roar. Oddly, there is no solo trombone in this collection, though a bass trombone is included — this was the case with the original 2004 library, so no change there! Fortunately, OCB’s solo bass trombone extends up into tenor trombone range and plays identical articulations to the trombone duo, so you can choose between a duo and virtual trio sound. Propping up the bottom end is a decent tuba which, although limited in the performance department, has a reasonable sonic range from fat, mellow sustains to blasting sforzandos and marcatos.
With the exception of tuba and solo French horn, all OCB’s instruments and ensembles play three-velocity ‘double-tongue’ performances consisting of very short notes with a clearly articulated attack, using either a ‘t’ or a ‘k’ tongue position. The two types have been mapped in separate keyboard zones three octaves apart, so you can play them with both hands to perform fast note repeats; they can also be used as a subtle attack layer, as described above. Reflecting a technique which was in its infancy when the brass library was first released, these short-note samples have three round-robin variations.
As with the strings instrument, the articulation menu focuses on straight notes and excludes performance-orientated styles such as falls, rips, trills, glissandi and effects, but all sections play the seemingly-obligatory flutter tongue samples.
Here’s a suggestion for all the TV composers out there: rather than reaching for pizzicato strings every time something quizzical, droll or staggeringly inconsequential happens on screen, why not try staccato woodwinds instead? Depending on your note choices, Orchestral Companion Woodwinds’ staccatissimo ensemble patch can sound funny, dramatic or both at the same time; it also lends itself well to rhythmic writing and has a fabulous, real-life hall ambience which will make the director think you spent a fortune hiring an orchestra and an expensive concert venue (thereby enabling you to increase your fee). When a more serious mood is required, you can keyswitch to the ensemble’s vibrato sustains and play some lyrical woodwind chords, a lovely sonority little heard in TV music world.
OCW’s programmed woodwind ensemble spans over seven octaves from the contrabassoon’s fruity, buzzy low register to the practically supersonic top notes of the piccolo, with a nice blend of bassoons, oboes, clarinets and flutes playing in their respective ranges somewhere in between. The ensemble’s articulation menu is limited to long and short notes, so for more detailed and solo work you’ll want to dial up some of the performance options in the individual instrument folders, which include colourful flute glissandi and a comedic clarinet flutter tongue style.
All instruments and ensembles play both vibrato and no-vibrato long notes. In the case of the reeds, the understated nature of their vibrato makes the difference rather subtle, but the solo flute’s beautifully lyrical vibrato sustains are of a different order and stand out as one of the collection’s highlights. As with the strings, these woodwinds sound comfortable playing melody lines, with no clunky note attacks disturbing the flow.
Back in 2006, the company’s Complete Symphonic Collection was one of the first libraries to break convention and present woodwind ensembles as duos rather than trios, the theory being that when you need the effect of three unison players you can layer a solo instrument over the duo. As well as offering greater flexibility, this avoids the arguably over-dense build-up of sound caused by having three players on each note of a chord. Accordingly, the piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon ensembles each feature a pair of players, making a somewhat more transparent and focused sound than the woodwind trios of old.
Orchestral Companion Woodwinds replicates the former symphonic collection’s instrumentation with the exception of alto flute, bass clarinet, small clarinet in Eb and a second oboe, none of which is essential for basic orchestral arrangement.
Recorded in the same symphonic hall as FSC’s strings, brass and woodwinds, Sonivox’s Eighty Eight Ensemble 2 is an updated and expanded version of an instrument first released in 2010 (you can read the SOS review at www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug10/articles/sonivox.htm). The object of desire is not something you’d find in a car boot sale, but a nine-foot Steinway D grand piano hand-picked by concert pianist Peter Serkin. This instrument was given the tag CD327 by Steinway & Sons, denoting its special status as a piano earmarked for the use of a specific touring performer or recording artist.
I didn’t notice any significant timbral anomalies when I played this Steinway grand, which may indicate that the ‘tonal ring’ of some low notes mentioned in Tom Flint’s 2010 SOS review has now been tamed. In any case, I liked what I heard, and my impression (as with FSC’s orchestral instruments) is that the samples must have been programmed by a keyboard player, as the piano’s touch response feels just right. Unsurprisingly given the instrument’s 16 velocity layers, its dynamic response is also excellent.
The piano multisamples are presented in five main types, labelled A to E: the manual doesn’t explain how they differ, but my ears (which I increasingly rely on for listening purposes) inform me that type A’s lower notes are a touch quiet in relation to its upper register, B and D are perfectly balanced and very playable, with D sounding slightly brighter and more assertive than B. Type C sounds a little unnatural to me, while E (the brightest and most robust of the bunch) is optimised for rock playing styles and will easily hold its own against loud drums and guitars. Each preset type has a number of tonal variations, including warm, bright, light, hard and so forth.
The ‘ensemble’ part of the name refers to various extra sounds, which are presented in layered or split combinations with the piano. A few are questionable: the two synth lead patches sound pretty dire, but the basses and guitars are usable, and some piano, choir and strings layerings are very nice indeed — a lush orchestral timbre fit for the titles theme of a Chronicles Of Narnia-style fantasy film. The split points can be edited, and there are separate volume controls for the layered, bass and solo sounds.
Overall, this is a fine-sounding, versatile sampled grand which defaults to sounding mellow, lyrical and beautiful, but can also sound absolutely thunderous when you crank up the built-in EQ and crash around in its impressively stentorian bass register.
Long before Mr H Zimmer popularised the use of ethnic percussion in film scores, British composer David Fanshawe was happily combining African tribal drums and chants with orchestral percussion and choir to great effect in his seminal work African Sanctus (1974). Big Bang Cinematic Percussion takes a broadly similar tack by amalgamating orchestral, African and Latin percussion from the Sonivox vaults, topped off by a large collection of sound-design patches containing baked-in detuning, filtering, reverb, delay and reverse effects.
The African part of the collection comes from the Sonic Network (parent company of Sonic Implants/Sonivox) library Atsi West African Dancing Drums, which I had the pleasure of reviewing in 2004. At the time I gave the library the maximum five stars, and would do so again: the timeless (though not groove-less) quality of its contents has not dated, and probably never will.
Many of Big Bang Cinematic Percussion’s ‘ensembles’ map earthy-sounding African drum single hits to white notes and Brazilian shakers to the black keys, so you can whip up Afro-centric grooves using a single patch. If you prefer a less overtly ethnic flavour, some excellent congas, bongos and cowbells are included. Though these percussion multisamples are colourful, groove-friendly and highly versatile, the real ‘big bang’ comes from the library’s reverberant, booming orchestral bass drum and large ethnic drum hits (as featured in the ‘Cinematic Bass hits’ patches), which go up to 11 on the Richter/Zimmer scale. Add a few fortissimo cymbal and tam tam crashes, and you’re well into epic film score territory. Other concert-hall sounds include a magnificent set of tubular bells (one of the few chromatically tuned instruments in the library) and some fabulous bowed cymbals.
Rather than sporting a conventional piano keyboard, the library’s GUI has a row of 24 round pads laid out in a keyboard-like row. Each of these pads has its own pan, volume, pitch, ADSR, filter, EQ and stereo delay settings which can be automated with MIDI controllers, a great tool for programming evolving tonal mutations. A note repeat function retriggers samples at a pre-selected beat/tempo value, a quick way of creating massive-sounding Burundi beats; the Intelligent Rhythm Control also allows you to set each pad to a preset rhythmic value (16th note, eighth note, etc), saving you the trouble of quantising that pad’s part in your sequencer. If some of the programming choices seem eccentric — for example, tuned cowbells which unexpectedly change pitch on note reiterations — they’re all geared towards making the library fun, if somewhat unpredictable, to use.
With no instrumentation details given in the manual, finding the right patch can occasionally be a hit-or-miss affair. Some patch names are misleading: ‘Pitched snare drum’ isn’t pitched and doesn’t sound anything like a snare drum, while ‘Bombay Chase’ contains no trace of anything Indian! Taking a lucky dip approach, I discovered that the ‘Elephant Hallows’ patch is a highly atmospheric, groaning pitched note produced by rubbing the skin of a large drum, layered in a fourths interval. Remember, you read it here first... Thankfully, a built-in browser aids searches by grouping patches into genre, class and instrument type. Once I got used to the presentation, I found many of Big Bang Cinematic Percussion’s patches to be a great, entertaining creative asset, with a musical potential which goes far beyond primordial explosive noises!
Despite its diverse instrumentation and somewhat convoluted corporate history, Film Score Companion maintains a common, unifying thread in the shape of Jennifer Hruska and Jason Jordan, both of whom have been involved in the production of Sonivox sound libraries since the company’s early days. The extensive, real-world composing and sound-design experience of these musicians would have been a great asset in the creation of a suite of instruments expressly designed to be musician-friendly.
A few words on using FSC: quick-loading ‘lite’ sustains-only patches are provided for all the mixed-instrument ensembles. All strings, brass and woodwind instruments and sections have a main patch incorporating five or six keyswitchable articulations which are prominently displayed on the GUI; the keyswitch notes and articulation menu are fixed and can’t be edited. If a particular articulation isn’t available for a certain instrument, clicking on its keyswitch will activate a ‘No Articulation Available’ message.
Unlike other sound engines, FSC’s sample players will only hold a single library-specific instrument at any one time: it’s not possible (for example) to load a strings patch into the Orchestral Brass Companion player, or stack up multiple instruments within one instance of the player. This at least has the advantage of keeping things simple! Layered combinations can easily be created by opening multiple instances of a player and assigning them all to the same MIDI channel. However, as the sample players have no on-board MIDI channel select setting, any channelising must be done on your DAW’s MIDI tracks.
This being a stripped-down, few-frills product, certain features we’ve come to expect in orchestral libraries are absent: rather than being controlled by the mod wheel, dynamics respond to velocity, MIDI CC7 (volume) and CC11 (expression) commands. Thankfully, this old-school approach doesn’t extend to using the mod wheel to introduce a bogus, pitch-modulated vibrato! Pitch-bend is fixed to the industry-standard two semitones, with no way of extending its range — arguably no big deal in an orchestral library, unless you’re in the habit of ending passages with a two-octave dive-bomb bend.
My review copy contained no documentation, but I’m told the latest versions of the instruments have built-in manuals. Another fillip for existing users is free updates (currently 1.4 for the orchestral instruments, 2.5 for the piano and percussion) that greatly speed up loading times. In the case of Orchestral Brass Companion, the free update incorporates sonic improvements which necessitate re-downloading all the samples.
Glad as I am to see these fine samples made available in a convenient, playable and affordable modern format, I’d be happier still if Sonivox’s flagship symphonic collection was fully reinstated with all guns blazing — this is too good a sample collection to remain incomplete. Going by the favourable comments about the original collection made by composers and arrangers, I suspect many pro users will feel the same way.
In a perfect world, the ideal ‘film score companion’ would be a friendly neighbour like John Williams, Thomas Newman or Hans Zimmer who, in between writing their next major symphonic work or blockbuster film score, would pop round to your place, listen to your piano sketches (preferably without laughing) then knock off a few dozen cues in the requisite style while you made lunch or went to the shops. Sadly, I have to admit this scenario is unlikely to occur outside of the fevered imagination of your reviewer. Back in the real world, the musical tools contained in Sonivox’s Film Score Companion are readily available at a sensible price, and though they won’t write your music for you, they have the power to make your orchestral arrangements sound presentable, polished and professional.
There is no exact single equivalent to Film Score Companion’s particular suite of instruments, but comparable low-cost alternatives to its orchestral instruments exist: Vienna Symphonic Library’s Special Edition Vol 1 and the Silver Editions of EastWest’s Hollywood orchestral series both have separate strings, brass, woodwind and orchestral percussion collections: neither includes African drums, but VSL’s percussion volume contains studio-recorded Japanese taiko drums.
While low-cost, sampled single-piano packages abound, a close alternative to Sonivox Eighty Eight Ensemble is Synthogy’s Ivory II American Concert D; same make of piano, same deep sampling and additional pad sounds, though the Ivory piano’s pads exclude a choir and solo instruments. If you can live without the pad layer, Soniccouture’s The Hammersmith and Cinesamples Piano In Blue (both historic Steinway D pianos) are viable alternatives in the same price bracket.
- Contains a classic symphonic collection with a very nice, classy hall acoustic.
- Hall-recorded orchestral percussion and African drums add the requisite Zimmer-esque ‘big bang’.
- Includes a top-drawer, nine-foot Steinway grand piano with 16 dynamic levels.
- Strings, brass and woodwinds have no interval legato samples.
- Lacks some modern sampling features.
- The orchestral instruments lack fancy styles such as trills, glissandi, harmonics, runs and so on.
If you’re in the business of creating broad brush stroke orchestral mock-ups, Sonivox’s Film Score Companion collection will get you rocking straight out of the box. Recorded in a great concert hall acoustic and focusing on the most useful playing styles, its symphonic strings, brass and woodwinds sound classy and grandiose. A superior Steinway grand recorded in the same space covers all the bases from Rachmaninov to rock, while the Big Bang Cinematic Percussion instrument (which contains a wealth of African drums as well as orchestral percussion) does what it says on the tin.
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