Sonokinetic’s new library resurrects the sounds of the 1980s.
Sonokinetic’s brightly‑coloured, succinctly‑named new Kontakt library, 80, is the latest addition to their Orchestral Performance Series. As such it’s a phrase‑based musical tool, offering a broad menu of pre‑recorded musical material, often two bars (of four beats) in length, which you can explore and play in real time and also sequence in your DAW. The phrases, multiples of which can be triggered at any one time from your MIDI controller, adapt harmonically to major or minor chords you play in a dedicated keygroup, and they tempo‑sync to your DAW project. Some people think this approach to scoring is tantamount to cheating, but it’s hard to argue with when it allows you to lay out minutes’ worth of stellar‑sounding multi‑layered patterns and beds in about 30 seconds flat.
The unifying theme and musical provenance behind 80 is, to quote Sonokinetic, “the incessant action of classic 1980s television and movie scores”. Much of it is bright and punchy in a Miami Vice shiny‑suit and big‑shoulder‑pad sort of way, and bang on‑trend, but there’s also material that’s more generic and up to date. The sound palette is primarily orchestral and sumptuous with it, with separate phrases for a 56‑part string section, 16 woodwinds and 22 brass players. There’s also a fourth ‘section’ consisting of FM synth sounds sequenced on a Yamaha Reface DX. Actually, many orchestral phrases also have synth sounds embedded too, a feature that Sonokinetic term the ‘Retrofier’. You’re not bound to use these synth overlays: they’re equipped with per‑phrase volume controls as well as their own master fader in the form of the pastel‑coloured full‑width horizontal bars at the bottom of the user interface (which is a typically non‑standard, eccentric Sonokinetic touch). But when you do the timbre combo has a time‑machine like ability to conjure up the atmosphere of the ’80s era. As someone whose formative years were spent in that decade I have to say I felt right at home...
Selecting phrases for use is a mouse‑driven process. Twelve labelled slots accept phrases of any instrument type, and which correspond to chromatic notes in a single octave‑wide keygroup. Slots show graphic scores of the material they contain, and if you click on one you’ll get a menu/browser pop‑up that drills down through instrumental section, mood/type, and then the individual phrases on offer. Speaker icon buttons give audio previews, and to load a phrase you simply click its adjacent mini‑graphic score. Sometimes at this point a slot will indicate that there are ‘Partner Phrases’ available that work with it particularly well, and they can be loaded to following slots automatically.
Sonokinetic’s categorisation of phrases is interesting: it definitely repays an hour or so just exploring what’s on offer. For example, the Strings section’s 71 phrases are presented in nine descriptive categories. But it turns out that where ‘Heroic’ (very Schifrin, by the way) and ‘Romance’ are largely about high lines and melodic licks, ‘Tension’ and ‘Villain’ have much more in the way of low‑end dominated accompaniment figures. Brass’ 69 phrases, Woodwind’s 71 and Synth’s bumper crop of 120 have largely different and unique category names and differ similarly in musical style and orchestration. There’s everything from melodies to ostinatos, chords, driving repeated chords, riffs, and sustained beds.
The browser system in general is good, fast and intuitive, but there are two things missing. First, Retrofier synth layers are not only not present in audio previews, but there’s no indication of whether phrases even have one or not. That’s a great shame. Second, previews fade out after a moment, often before the entire phrase has been played. I’d have much preferred these to go full length, and even better to loop.
With phrases loaded to slots, 80 is dead easy to use. Play a chord in the harmonic recognition keygroup, then hit a key (or several) in the trigger keygroup, and you get instant playback. Kontakt’s time‑stretching keeps it in sync with your current DAW tempo, and you can either let the library choose half‑ or double‑speed playback, for a better fit when you’re using very fast or slow tempos, or select those manually.
Slot controls govern some straightforward things like volume and pan, rhythmic offset (up to three eighth‑notes in either direction), the level of key‑release samples, and the extent to which chord changes crossfade into each other. There’s more subtle stuff afoot too. For example, by default, mod‑wheel CC1 messages control playback volume of all slots, but you can override this on an individual basis to allow some slots to fade in and out while others remain unaffected. That works great for builds and drops.
Another way to ‘decouple’ slots from each other is with the harmonic shift feature. This lets individual slots play back at a different pitch to others, with the offset interval set by playing a note in another dedicated keygroup. Offsets can be altered in real time, which opens up possibilities for creating tone clusters, extended harmonies, or ostinatos that rise and fall in pitch over a static pedal‑like bed, amongst other things. There’s also some subtle but important functionality for sync’ing relative positions of phrases within your DAW’s meter, and to each other.
These things are crucial to squeezing the maximum musical flexibility from a phrase‑based library like 80, and go a long way to overcoming any limitations inherent in the approach. It can feel like a tangential way of working at times, especially if your background is in note‑by‑note grafting, but rewarding too.
Finally, as is seemingly de rigeur with most orchestral libraries, there’s a mic mixing feature. The sessions were captured in the same hall used for most of Sonokinetic’s other libraries, with a close mic array, a Decca tree, a far array, and wide outriggers. Any of these can be chosen by itself, or a crossfade mix created between any two. It’s a good system that gives the maximum amount of soundstaging flexibility with the fewest controls. There’s a useful option to have the synth sounds use only the close mic mix, regardless of what you’ve chosen for the orchestra, to keep them direct and more DI‑like.
Back To The Future
Like its namesake decade, 80 is undoubtedly big, sometimes brash, and often colourful. It can achieve a lot by itself, and infinitely more in combination with additional conventional or phrase‑based orchestral libraries and a few synths.
My criticisms are relatively few. I mentioned the lack of synth‑layer information in the browser already. Another specific concern is tuning: it’s rare, but to my ear a few of the Retrofier layers are a bit too out of tune with the orchestral material they’re designed to blend with. I’m hopeful Sonokinetic can tighten up some of these in due course. Also slightly irksome are the lurches in voicing and pitch (sometimes referred to as the tessitura) that can occur for individual phrases with specific changes of chords: some, especially beds and other sustained textures, would benefit greatly from having at least one alternate voicing that could kick in according to context. It would have added to the complexity and the size of the library, but also made for far smoother and more sophisticated results in some cases. Other things to be aware of are the lack of compound‑time/shuffle material, and the slightly contrived ways that have to be found to work with triple time or irregular meters. These are edge‑cases, arguably, for the scope of this individual library, but can’t be completely overlooked.
There’s a lot here for many different types of producer, regardless of the size of your hair.
However, there’s also a great deal to enjoy. if you’re comfortably with the phrase‑based approach in principle then 80 is tremendous fun, and musically very rewarding. The quality of capture and musical performance is nearly always excellent, and the package as a whole works equally well for sketching out ideas, for spicing up pre‑existing arrangements, and (aided by various randomisation options) as a source of inspiration in itself. Also, while there is an understandable bias towards music‑for‑picture work, 80 works just as well lending a classy sheen and symphonic scale to pop arrangements. There’s a lot here for many different types of producer, regardless of the size of your hair.
A nicety that 80 carries over from many other Sonokinetic products is the score display for each phrase, which shows what the musicians were reading on the sampling session. Dedicated features let you see how the material and voicing of sections varies with different keys and major/minor tonality, but more importantly perhaps is a MIDI drag feature that will write MIDI notes, in multiple tracks if necessary, to tracks in your DAW. In this way 80 becomes a useful source of MIDI phrases, supporting doubling of the pre‑recorded parts or the complete repurposing of its source material with other virtual instruments in your arsenal.
- A classy capture of a big but agile orchestra.
- FM synth sounds are a fun and hugely important addition.
- Plenty of ways to add expression and complexity to simple loop functionality.
- Easy to use and quick to learn.
- An almost imperceptible presence on a modern CPU.
- An even broader menu of phrases would of course be welcome.
- The odd tuning discrepancy.
- No voicing alternatives available, either contextually or manually selected.
A bold, characterful orchestral and synth‑based phrase library that can help you capture the sound of the 1980s, but with enough flexibility for more general use.
€302.38 including VAT.