Sonokinetic turn their usual high standards towards something more sinister...
Despite huge advances in the complexity and subtlety of orchestral sample libraries in recent years, it can still be a challenge to create truly convincing, natural-sounding results, especially when production deadlines are tight and the clock is ticking. That’s even more true when out-of-the-ordinary, bold, extended instrumental techniques are called for: conventional multi-sampled libraries can often be left sounding decidedly polite and puny. So what do you do when you need ballsy, atmospherically charged, fully scored results that’ll bear the closest scrutiny of believability?
Sonokinetic’s solution is phrase based. Rather than you building up musical material note by note, you instead select from a ready-to-go menu of hundreds of loops and hits, all recorded by a real orchestra, in a great acoustic, in completely naturalistic fashion. Delivered through Kontakt, these loops still offer some degree of control and flexibility, and when needed they conform to your sequence tempo via automatic time-stretching.
This approach underpins most of Sonokinetic’s major libraries, but with Espressivo the underlying musical mood is of a very distinct character. The name might suggest something subtle and beautiful, but in fact Espressivo’s strapline is ‘aleatoric orchestral sampling’, for ‘colour and drama’, and the principal inspiration here is said to be Stockhausen, Penderecki, Bernard Hermann and Jerry Goldsmith. I personally hear just as much the influence of Bartok, or John Williams at his most dissonant, and with a nod toward Zimmer thrown in for good measure. The main thing is that what flows effortlessly out of Espressivo is clashing, alienating, often seemingly chaotic and starkly cinematic in character. And unlike most other Sonokinetic phrase libraries, you don’t play this one with any sense of key — it’s for music beyond key, jarring and discordant.
At its heart, Espressivo is a straightforward affair. Single orchestral phrases are mapped to individual keys and play for as long as the key is held. At any time 16 different phrases can be chosen, from an apparent provision of around 400 on offer. However, as all phrases come in matched High, Mid and Lo pitched versions, laid out on adjacent keys, there’s actually 48 phrases available to trigger in total at any one time, across a four-octave range. And under the hood, as they say, there’s many more actual samples involved.
Each octave is arranged in such a way that it can potentially trigger an entire orchestra’s-worth of mayhem. High, Mid and Lo string phrases are on C, D and E; woodwinds wail away on C#, D# and F. Brass stakes out G, A and B, and percussion lurks in its shadow, on Gb, Ab and Bb. Other octaves have the same layout, but trigger their own user-configured palette of phrases. Kontakt’s keyboard indicator confirms the layout, with colour-coded keyranges. If you’re using a Native Instruments S-series MIDI controller the keyboard Light Guide follows suit.
There aren’t really any restrictions on how many phrases you can trigger at one time, or their specific combination, and as CPU demands aren’t great (this is relatively simple sample triggering, after all) anything from single note triggers to full-arm clusters is fair game. However, as many individual phrases are very complex, and positively ooze atmosphere, even quite modest combos can generate the most thrilling, awesome racket.
Loading phrases is done by clicking on one of the colour-coded orchestral section areas in the user interface, and using the phrase picker that pops up. It groups phrases into descriptive categories (and sub-categories) so they’re easy to drill down into. Crucially, too, each has an audition button, so you can instantly hear it, before finally loading it by clicking on an individual graphic score. Repeatedly clicking the audition button, by the way, cycles through the linked High, Mid and Lo pitch versions. Then, from the main graphic interface view, a few other pop-up configuration panels are available.
Via the outer part of the concentric-circles ‘target’ in the middle of the interface you can access Espressivo’s mic-mixing features: Close, Decca (tree), Wide and Far perspectives are available. If you wish two can be chosen, and a cross-fader used to set the balance between them.
Also available (by clicking the centre of the target) is a ‘Quick Controls’ overlay, which displays various parameters associated with the last-played phrase. The overlay updates as you trigger new phrases via MIDI too, and settings are instantly remembered. That makes it a huge help in rapidly configuring basic volume and pan for all 48 available phrases, working with MIDI keyboard with one hand, and mouse with the other. You can also adjust phrase tuning (+/- 2 semitones, so microtonal effects are very achievable), the volume of note-off release samples, and whether phrase volume is controlled by the modulation wheel.
This last feature is simple but powerful. For sustained bed or ‘pad’ sounds (amongst others) mod wheel volume, which is turned on by default, means you can fade them in and out, ominously. But by disabling mod wheel volume control for some phrases and not others, and then playing them simultaneously while using the wheel, you effectively loosen the strictures of the phrase-based approach, perhaps creating much larger-scale shapes above unchanging, held textures.
All the same parameters can be accessed by clicking an orchestral section’s keyboard graphic (which is bizarrely futuristic in design, in typical Sonokinetic fashion). Here, though, they apply solely to that specific loaded phrase, and show the settings for High, Mid and Lo pitch simultaneously. There are two additional features here also. Clicking ‘Score’ displays the printed score for that phrase that the musicians played from in the recording session, for reference. And for any rhythmic phrases, which will time-stretch to match your DAW sequence tempo, a button next to the graphic score cycles between settings to let Espressivo intelligently determine playback speed (‘ITM’) or to force it to normal, double or half speed.
There’s nothing left to say, really, about how Espressivo works. It’s nothing like as complicated as many multi-sampled orchestral libraries, and is also simpler than Sonokinetic’s phrase-based libraries that deal with more conventional tonal musical material and respond to real-time chordal input. Other bells and whistles — synthesis architectures, built-in effects processors — are also notable by their absence. The key to this library’s success, or otherwise, lies almost entirely in the quality of the source material.
To judge that for yourself I can only suggest you go to www.sonokinetic.net/products/instruments/espressivo and listen to some of the demos on offer. And then let me reassure you that those demos aren’t some hyper-programmed promotional effort that took dozens of hours of continuous controller futzing to achieve. On the contrary, these kinds of results just flow out of Espressivo within a minute or two of beginning to use it.
All orchestral sections include pads and texture phrases that loop indefinitely, sometimes with quite extravagant attack phases, and they are all very successful. For example, the frenzied pizzicato and col legno strings textures are wonderfully evocative: of scuttling spiders, scary-looking dolls in rocking chairs, and other similarly insomnia-inducing images. Many low brass pads and screeching licks are simply disgusting. And I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. Percussion phrases range from all-hell-let-loose rim and drum-body rolls (think The Shining) to a good assortment of pointillist xylophone and glockenspiel textures that work well by themselves or sparkle above other orchestral sections. The Woodwind section includes some nice, subtle microtonal flute blends, as well as ominous bassoon grunts and shrieking runs.
In short, it’s a spectacular-sounding library: classy, utterly convincing and naturalistic. It offers hundreds of textures, in endless combinations, that would be otherwise unachievable, short of scoring them yourself and hiring an orchestra, venue and sizeable recording rig for a few days. Throughout, the quality of orchestral capture is excellent: clear, spacious and with great dynamic range. Those working in the music-for-picture field should certainly consider Espressivo very seriously, but I can also see how many phrases would fit into experimental, cinematic pop and electronica styles.
Is it perfect? Well, for me, I’d have loved to see even more phrases offered generally, and for all categories of phrases to have at least 10 different alternatives to choose from. Some, like Woodwinds/Melodic/Broken, are a bit sparsely populated, and their material a little too easily exhausted. It’s a shame, too, that not every phrase gets a full complement of High, Mid and Lo variants.
Looking at the detail of sample playback, lowering the level of release-sample note-off tails introduces an artificial quality to proceedings that suddenly screams ‘sample library’ — there’s no elegant way round this, without adding additional reverb with another plug-in, or just masking the effect with other material. From a technical point of view, too, I saw some CPU spiking associated with note-offs when using Espressivo with small playback buffer sizes in Studio One. Finally, the odd sustained phrase occasionally exhibited a few loop-related glitches, but they seemed to go away of their own accord, and I could never reproduce them on demand.
Espressivo is a fascinating and potent library. It lets you create orchestral effects, with just a few MIDI key presses, that reference some of the most dynamic and exciting film music ever written. It’s also a fun place to begin a scoring journey, and can be a creative springboard for bigger arrangements including virtual and real instruments, sound effects and voices. The phrase-based approach is, of course, fundamentally inflexible, and a few users may have trouble with it on ethical grounds. But when the results sound this good, and the alternatives so laughably beyond the remit of most production budgets (as well as conventional orchestral libraries), it seems churlish to complain.
There’s a surprising number of sample-based products out there that are similar in style to Espressivo — at least in their aim of generating cacophonous orchestral textures. Big Fish Audio’s Tension ($150) is a similar all-in-one solution, with all sections of the orchestra represented. Dynamic Sound Sampling’s Orchestral String FX ($99) can produce any number of layered glisses, clusters and hits, but isn’t really dedicated to longer phrases. Strezov Sampling’s Aleatoric Modular Series does something similar for brass, but has trumpets, horns and low brass split into three different products at $110 each. Perhaps most elaborate is 8dio’s CAGE and CASE products (that’s ‘Comprehensive Aleatoric Group/Solo Effects’) — full orchestral bundles cost in the region of $1000 each, when not discounted.
Aleatoric means chance-based, or random; the word is related, originally, to ‘dice-playing’. In the context of this sample library it’s potentially a tiny bit misleading, because there aren’t any true chance-based or generative processes involved in the way the samples are delivered, and not all the name-checked composers were exponents of this kind of approach. But it’s fair to say that the audible results from Espressivo do often sound like aleatoric music, and a fair amount of guided improv seems to have been involved in the recording sessions for the samples. Also, like many Sonokinetic phrase libraries, this one has a serendipitous trick up its sleeve: click the ‘O’ of the word Espressivo in the Kontakt user interface, and the currently visible octave’s-worth of phrases are replaced with random new ones. It’s a nice feature that can deliver inspiringly weird phrase combinations.
Espressivo’s most obscure phrase parameter is ‘Fade’. As you adjust it via the Quick Controls overlay, for individual phrases, it’ll often appear to do nothing. In fact, it provides another way to introduce more flexibility from the phrase-based system. It works like this.
By default, Fade sliders are turned right down — effectively off. Set like this, triggering any of the High, Mid or Lo versions of the same phrase, one after another, will cause them to all play back tempo-sync’ed, but not necessarily aligned to each other or to your DAW’s tempo grid. This is good, because for one thing it lets you trigger phrases on the half-beat (or elsewhere) if necessary, and explore quasi-polyrhythmic or canonic effects.
Dial in any amount of Fade for a phrase, though, and it’ll now sync perfectly to any previously sounding version of the same phrase when it’s triggered, with a fade-in time adjustable from almost instantaneous to several seconds. It works beautifully for smooth pad build-ups, or driving rhythmic textures, amongst other things — they can be made to grow and surge organically, even if the underlying phrases have crisp attacks.