Sonokinetic go epic with a grandiose 12/8-time orchestral phrase library.
Back in December 2013 I had fun reviewing Sonokinetic’s Minimal, an artful collection of tempo-sync’ed orchestral phrases which introduces users to the sound worlds inhabited by composers such as Philip Glass and John Adams. Having de-cluttered with Minimal, Sonokinetic pile on the drama in their new 33GB orchestral phrase collection. Titled Grosso, the library is optimised for scoring action, epic, fantasy and chase scenes. Grosso runs exclusively on Native Instruments Kontakt 5.1 and upwards, and also works with the free Kontakt Player.
Since Grosso and Minimal work in basically the same way, you may want to read the review of the earlier library at www.soundonsound.com/sos/dec13/articles/sonokinetic-minimal.htm to familiarise yourself with the operational principles. In this review we’ll look at Grosso’s musical content and suggest ways you can incorporate it in your arrangements.
As the name suggests, Grosso goes for the jugular with grandiose orchestrations and a cast of over 100 musicians (see the ‘Instrumentation’ box for details). I shudder to think what the session fees added up to, but despite the big wage bill, Sonokinetic have kept the price of this library at a reasonable level — at any rate, it’s unlikely to provoke a surge of phone calls from prospective buyers to rip-off loan companies.
Grosso contains separately recorded strings, woodwind, brass, percussion and choir sections. Each has a main patch containing all available phrases and multiple mic positions, as well as an alternative, CPU-friendly ‘lite’ patch featuring a mix of the various mikings. The library contains both 16-bit and 24-bit samples so you can conserve system resources when composing.
The library’s GUI grabs the eye with broad coloured stripes straight out of an upmarket Farrow & Ball paint catalogue. These colour-coded bands (known as ‘fields’) radiate the tasteful, attractive hues favoured by Notting Hill property owners to remind you that their house is worth (polite cough) considerably more than yours. Less striking than Minimal’s primary-colour ‘art attack’, the design is a good aid for at-a-glance instrument identification.
In the case of the strings, the three fields correspond to high, middle and low phrases: ‘high’ features first and second violins, ‘mid’ has a mix of violins and violas, and ‘low’ is cellos and double basses. Other instrument sections have a choice of high or low. You can load any type of phrase into any field — if you’re doing (say) a cover of Spinal Tap’s ‘Big Bottom’, you can give your woofers a workout by using three low phrases.
The factory patches contain sets of phrases which work together musically, any of which can be individually muted or soloed. However, you can’t mix and match different instrument families within a patch: to hear all of Grosso’s sections at once, you have to load five separate patches.
Although it’s not immediately apparent, each patch contains four presets arranged in a row across the GUI, only one of which is active and fully visible at any given time. Clicking on a preset opens up its display and mutes the other three. Keyswitches (a big feature in Grosso) can also be used to select or mute presets; an ‘info’ button on the GUI opens a diagram showing each keyswitch’s position and function, explained in more detail in the PDF manual.
As in Minimal, phrases have been given reference numbers but no name: instead, each is represented by a graphic symbol, a bold, modern and slightly annoying decision that would surely be applauded by the artist formerly known as Love Symbol (what was his name again?). A phrase menu resembling a piece of modern art shows each section’s available phrases, with ‘high’, ‘mid’ and ‘low’ tabs on the left indicating their pitch range. About 25 percent of the phrases have two or more variations which load in along with the main phrase.
Grosso’s string, woodwind and brass phrases were originally performed in the keys of C, Eb and Ab, with minor versions played in Cm, Em and Am. Pitch-stretching is used to fill in the other keys, producing no audible artifacts. Though the majority of phrases have major and minor versions, there are a fair number which are harmonically neutral (for example, many have a simple root-fifth-octave structure) or atonal, and therefore have no minor-key variant. Mini-scores for each phrase are provided inside the Kontakt GUI, and users can buy a 164-page PDF version of the full score showing all the phrases notated in their original three keys.
Instrumental details apart, the main difference between Minimal and Grosso is that the latter’s phrases are all composed in 12/8 time (Minimal is largely in 4/4). See the ‘Power Of Twelve’ box below for more details.
Grosso’s phrases are highly varied and dynamic, with plenty of rhythmic ostinato patterns to keep the music motoring along. Phrases sync to your DAW’s tempo, using Native Instruments’ Time Machine Pro and Sonokinetic’s intelligent tempo mapping, which keeps things musical by (for example) halving the phrase tempo when the speed of the music becomes unfeasibly fast.
If you like to build your scores from the ground up, the low strings have a good selection of driving ostinatos (repeated rhythmic patterns) played by cellos and basses in octaves; alternatively, you could start with a mid-range violas and violins eighth-note ostinato phrase and add a bass line later. Energetic and forceful, these figures are an excellent way to kick-start an arrangement, and I found they provided the spark for several compositional ideas.
The woodwinds are also a great source of propulsive rhythm patterns. A unison combination of two bassoons and bass clarinet pumps out some classic staccato eighth-note riffs, creating a mood that’s both jocular and sinister. Another rhythmic phrase, played on clarinets and bassoons, reminded me of the intro of Plan B’s ‘Ill Manors’ (itself borrowed from Shostakovich’s ‘Seventh Symphony’). Though fairly soft-toned, this repeated semitone lick has a compelling urgency, and works in a variety of harmonic settings.
In contrast to Minimal’s slender brass category, Grosso has a large complement of brass phrases. Unison horns and trumpets play uplifting ‘Superman’-style rhythm figures, with lower-pitched, more supportive variants performed by a low brass ensemble. On a less serious note, the composers have thrown in a horns-and-trombones melodic motif straight out of a French romantic comedy film, but the overall mood for the brass is stern and dramatic, as exemplified by phrases which feature all 14 players blasting out accented stabs over a rhythmic pulse.
The high brass phrases contain some great, rousing fanfare-like trumpet section figures, including a classic ‘Newsflash’ lick tailor-made for TV. Adding horns to the trumpets introduces a rollicking adventure-film sonority along the lines of the William Tell Overture, but there are also quieter, restrained horn ostinatos. I found that the high and low brass phrases often combined in interesting counter-rhythms, a testament to Grosso’s rhythmic variety.
Balancing out Grosso’s low-pitched rhythm patterns are an equal number of lighter, more decorative phrases: these include colourful, swirling woodwind flourishes, repeated violin section glissandi figures (sounding like a friendlier version of the infamous Psycho ‘eeks’), and a large collection of high-pitched melodic motifs, dancing arpeggios and repeating 16th-note patterns. There are also sustained chords with a subtle, built-in melodic movement, which creates a pleasantly mobile texture.
Many of the phrases have a simple tonic-dominant basis, as demonstrated in each section’s default factory preset (which we’ll no doubt be hearing soon in countless TV margarine ads). Though that might give an impression of naivety, the minor-key version sounds more serious and grown-up. In fact, there’s more to Grosso than straight major and minor triads: I found some nice major-seventh and minor-seventh chords, and appreciated the occasional appearance of intervals such as the minor sixth (in a major-key phrase) and sharp fourth.
The library’s harmonic horizons are further extended by a small menu of atonal strings licks, ranging in severity from mildly dissonant, jokey Tom & Jerry-style figures to murderous, slashing discords in the Psycho/Bernard Herrmann vein. I particularly enjoyed the manic momentum of one violin’s atonal col legno repeated eighth-note pattern. Though phrases normally follow your chord changes, these atonal riffs sound the same regardless of what key you’re in.
Convention decrees that all orchestral sample libraries must now include a choir, preferably singing in Latin so no-one will have a clue what they’re on about. Grosso does not disappoint in this regard. A mixed-voice choir intones a handful of phrases in the ancient tongue; ‘Sono Patris’, ‘Mysterium’, ‘Tu Solus Deus’, and so on. The singers also perform a few single-syllable words. While I recognise ‘Rex’ (sung with the obligatory, irritating classical rolled ‘r’) and ‘Pax’ from my childhood Latin lessons, I’m baffled as to why the singers suddenly sing ‘Fight!’ — perhaps a dispute erupted over the size of the session fee? An amusing extra is the elongated, rising ‘oh’ crescendo, as featured on Kaiser Chief’s ‘I Predict A Riot’ (Propheto Tumultum).
Like the strings, these well-sung, tightly synchronised choir phrases are divided into high (sopranos and tenors in octaves), mid (unison altos and tenors) and low (octave tenors and basses) categories. Though you have to play a triad to trigger them, the phrases are mainly sung in unison on a single pitch, rather than harmonised. You can of course create your own harmonies by using multiple instances of the choir patch on different MIDI channels. I found that gives an impressively big sound, with excellent ensemble tuning and timing.
Grosso also includes the obligatory ‘cinematic’ taiko drums and orchestral percussion (is Hans Zimmer getting royalties here?) If you’re looking for rhythmic inspiration, simply dial up one of the ‘low’ percussion phrases and you’ll hear six players vigorously pummelling a set of large Japanese taikos, augmented by an orchestral bass drum. Some phrases include clacky shell-hit punctuations; all lumber along agreeably, adding weight, depth and an ethnic presence to scores.
The so-called ‘high’ percussion consists of dynamic combinations of orchestral snares and bass drums, toms, rototoms, piatti, suspended cymbal and anvil, playing a set of somewhat drum-heavy patterns which generally lock in well with the lower-pitched taiko phrases.
Grosso’s Transition Builder patch is a new feature which automatically builds brass and woodwind crescendi based on user-selectable additive chordal intervals. Intervals range from simple octaves to multi-layered concoctions spread across three octaves. Most build patterns have variations (some as many as six) which introduce extended upper intervals such as sevenths, ninths and 11ths.
Unlike Grosso’s regular patches, the Transition Builder responds to non-triadic chord shapes (dominant seventh, diminished, augmented, etc.). The results don’t always correspond directly to the notes you played, to the extent where a simple sus4 chord can produce a madhouse aggregation of pitches which would make even Mark-Anthony Turnage reach for the earplugs. All good fun, and some of the more complex shapes produced this way are strangely beautiful. The Transition Builder patch also includes percussion fills and powerful taiko drums single hits, a handy bonus for programmers.
In Grosso, every phrase has something different to offer, and although the presets contain many useful combinations, it’s ultimately up to you to find phrases that work together effectively. I thought I could quickly get results by making a note of all the likely sounding ostinato patterns, but with such a large phrase menu, keeping track proved difficult. In the end, I had the most success by taking a ‘lucky dip’ approach: the unpredictability was a lot more fun, and the results were often inspirational in ways I’d never have expected.
When recording a large number of musicians playing hundreds of phrases, it’s inevitable that imperfections will occur, and although there are no glaring wrong notes, I did hear a few examples of imprecise timing which rendered the rhythm of some phrases a bit lumpy. That said, the overall feel is good and the phrases loop well.
Sonokinetic’s impressive product demos demonstrate how Grosso’s phrases can be strung together in evolving orchestral compositions. However, the demos do contain material from the company’s other libraries; if you hear an evolving top line, the chances are it’s not contained in Grosso, which (though it has some melodic material) restricts itself to repeated phrases.
While phrase libraries such as Grosso and Minimal are a useful resource, they can’t cover every musical possibility. Grosso owners who want to try their hand at programming a few notes of their own should consider Sonokinetic’s Da Capo library, which contains separate, multisampled strings, woodwind, brass and percussion sections recorded in the same hall as Sonokinetic’s other libraries. Instruments are blended according to range into single playable patches, and although the orchestral instrumentation is incomplete, the playing styles work well for instant composition.
Da Capo’s strings are particularly strong: I used them to recreate one of Grosso’s presets, and after a bit of tweaking, the played phrase and my programmed version sounded remarkably similar. You can read Tom Flint’s SOS review of Da Capo at www.soundonsound.com/sos/mar13/articles/symphonic-orchestra.htm.
Sonokinetic claim that Grosso is “an evolved entity that is a Homo Sapiens to Minimal’s Homo Erectus.” Speaking as a member of the Homo Stultus species, I can see that Grosso does represent a step forward, though to use it intelligently requires a degree of musical understanding beyond that of the average ape. Adapting the 12/8 phrases to 4/4 and other meters requires some thought, but once you’ve mastered that, the sky’s the limit, and with five sections playing nearly 300 phrases between them, there’s plenty of opportunity to explore the outer reaches.
Though TV reality shows may suggest otherwise, evolution marches on, and Sonokinetic already have a follow-up product in development that may be available by the time you read this. If so, I look forward to assembling more pieces of this ever-expanding orchestral-phrase jigsaw.
As mentioned in my review of Sonokinetic’s Minimal, there are a few very good libraries containing (respectively) tempo-sync’ed strings and woodwind phrases, but no similar collection of orchestral brass phrases is available. Grosso’s combination of strings, woodwind, brass, percussion and choir phrases is therefore unique. The only close alternative is Minimal, which lacks a choir.
Grosso features a total of 109 performers:
Strings (52 players)
- 12 first violins
- 12 second violins
- 10 violas
- 10 cellos
- Eight double basses
Brass (14 players)
- Six French horns
- Three trumpets
- Two trombones
- Two bass trombones
Woodwinds (11 players)
- Three flutes
- Two oboes
- Two clarinets
- Bass clarinet
- Two bassoons
Percussion (eight players)
- Gran casa, snare drums, rototoms, tom toms
- Suspended cymbal, piatti, metals, taiko drums
Choir (24 singers)
- Sopranos, altos, tenors, basses
One of Grosso’s unique selling points is that its phrases are composed in 12/8 time. This time signature has cinematic form: memorable 12/8 movie themes include Superman, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, Alice In Wonderland and Tim Burton’s Batman. Usually phrased as four groups of three eighth notes, the meter works well for conveying a sense of bustling excitement and/or martial menace, and its lilting rhythm can impart a dreamy feel to quieter music. Being the time signature of jigs and reels, it’s also well suited to folk settings: a good example is Hans Zimmer’s Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest theme, in which a folksy cello tune gives way to a full-blown orchestral workout in classic adventure film style.
Grosso’s 12/8 phrases will adapt to other time signatures (including 4/4). Here’s how it works: when you’re running Kontakt as a plug-in inside your DAW, Grosso’s Kontakt script detects time signatures as well as tempos. When the script encounters a quarter-note-based signature like 4/4, 3/4 or 6/4, it plays back the phrases with their eighth notes sounding as triplets over the quarter-note beat. If you change to an eight-based time signature (6/8, 9/8, 12/8 etc.), the script automatically plays the phrases back slower so that their former eighth-note triplets become straight eighth notes: the song tempo remains the same, but you’re now hearing two eighth notes per beat instead of three. This happens regardless of how many beats there are in a bar, it’s the denominator of the time signature that counts!
By this means, you can move freely from triplet to duplet time and vice versa. A useful tip is that changing a 4/4 time signature to 8/8 will effect the aforementioned ‘gear change’, so if you trigger a phrase at the top of every bar, the former triplets play in 8/8 as 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2 — a nice syncopation which no longer feels like a ‘diddly-diddly’ 12/8 pattern!
To hear the phrases inside your DAW at their original recorded speed with no time-stretching, set the song tempo to 90bpm and the time signature to 4/4; to hear them in their original state in 12/8 time, use a tempo of 135bpm (ie. 150 percent faster). These are only starting points — you can use any tempo you like and the phrases will sync to it.
Two restrictions apply: due to a Logic bug, the scripting doesn’t work properly with Logic Pro, but that can be remedied by using the ‘Bar Sync Reset’ feature (explained in the manual). Secondly, time-signature recognition doesn’t work when Kontakt is run in stand-alone mode. A simple workaround for all such issues is to deactivate Kontakt’s ‘Ext’ (External Sync) button and adjust Kontakt’s tempo manually till the phrases fit your arrangement.