Sonokinetic's latest orchestral venture features a flexible collection of tempo-sync'ed section phrases.
For painstaking, note-by-note orchestral arrangements, we have the large, established sample collections; Vienna Symphonic Library, EWQL Symphonic Orchestra et al. But for those who want immediate symphonic action without having to program individual instruments, there's a new solution: Sonokinetic's Minimal, a 30GB library of tempo-sync'ed orchestral section phrases. Minimal (available as a download or on USB stick) is formatted for Kontakt 5.1 and up, and will run on the free Kontakt Player as well as the full version of Kontakt.
Based in the Netherlands, Sonokinetic were founded in 2008 by Rob van den Berg and pianist/composer Son Thomsen. Over the last five years the company have established a strong foothold in the orchestral sample market with their Tutti and Vivace (textures and effects) and Da Capo (multisampled ensembles) libraries, as well as branching out into more exotic territory with an intriguing batch of ethnic instrument and vocal titles. If you missed the reviews of Sonokinetic's previous orchestral efforts, you can catch up with them on the SOS web site.
To create this library, the producers stuck to the same formula used for Tutti, Vivace and Da Capo: composer Piotr Musial devised and orchestrated the musical material, the phrases were performed by the Capellen Orchestra (a refreshingly non-conservative European symphonic team who revel in pop and film productions), and the recordings took place in a modern concert hall in the delightfully named Zlin, in the Czech Republic.
Though I prefer to review sample libraries with my ears rather than my eyes, I have to say that Minimal's interface is something else. The makers describe its design as "a respectful nod to our Dutch art heritage”, but we're not talking Old Masters here; the eye-popping blocks of primary colour used in the GUI owe nothing to Rembrandt and Vermeer, but would look right at home in a Mondrian retrospective.
Squinting through dark glasses to avoid eye damage, I ascertained that the GUI has four large rectangular fields, each of which can accommodate one of five orchestral sections: Strings, Brass, Woodwinds, Percussion or Mixed, the latter being various permutations of instruments from the other sections. You can freely mix and match; for example, all four fields could contain strings, or you could assign woodwinds to one field and leave the others blank. To load a section, you simply click on the small instrument graphic in the top right of the field. The five section types are colour-coded so you can see at a glance which ones are currently active... believe me, you won't have to look twice!
While uncluttered and superbly functional, this elegant design takes up a lot of screen real estate. If its stained-glass-like 'window panes' start to become a pain, you can (as with any Kontakt instrument) collapse the GUI so only the basic player functions remain visible.
Musical patterns for each section are selected from a menu of graphic symbols. Each of these arty, unnamed squiggles represents a type of phrase, and each phrase type may contain between two and eight variations, though some have only one option. That makes for a lot of musical choice, as detailed in the 'Phrase Permutations' box below.
Minimal's phrases are two bars long and mainly in 4/4 (though a few are in 3/4, 6/4 or 7/8). All were originally performed at 110bpm, but thanks to Kontakt's Time Machine Pro feature they will happily sync to the host tempo of your DAW. Subtle time-stretching artifacts can be heard at very slow tempi, but that's to be expected; I didn't hear anything horrendous even at the lowest feasible musical speeds, and for faster tempos the time-compression algorithm sounds absolutely fine. In the movies, time machines are forever malfunctioning and sending their owners screaming back to the Dark Ages, but this one appears to work rather well!
For added musical flexibility, you can divide or multiply individual sections' tempo so that their phrases play at half, double or eighth-note triplet speed. There's even an option to divide the tempo by two thirds, which in notational terms adds a dot to a quarter note. In practice, the triplet setting tends to cause rhythmic chaos, but I found the double and half-time options very useful.
Having four separate play fields means you can layer up to four different phrases, each of which has its own on/off, volume and pan control. Mod-wheel volume control can be turned on or off for individual sections, enabling you to use the wheel to fade up (say) woodwinds under a repeating strings pattern.
Up to seven setups of this sort can be stored within a single Kontakt instrument as a user preset and selected via keyswitches. The only caveat is that all phrases within the instrument share the same MIDI channel; if you need more independent voices, simply open up another instance of Kontakt, assign it a different MIDI channel, and keep stacking 'em up.
My initial experience with Minimal was unpromising: I loaded a patch, played a note on the GUI keyboard, and (drum roll...) nothing happened. A quick scan of the PDF manual revealed the reason for the silence: to activate a phrase, you have to play a chord rather than a single note. The software analyses the chord's notes and immediately outputs a musical pattern in the correct tonality: for example, if you play (from the bottom up) D, F# and A, it outputs a phrase in the key of D major, while a C, Eb and G triad triggers a C-minor phrase.
Major and minor options are available for all 12 keys. You can play triads in any inversion (ie. E minor may be played E-G-B, G-B-E or B-E-G), and the intelligent chord recognition system will get it. Certain restrictions apply: the triad must be played within Minimal's two-octave play zone, it has to be a straight major or minor (sus fourths and minor ninths are out) and closely voiced. Ignore any of these rules and you'll experience the deafening silence described earlier.
It's worth noting that your triad serves only to determine key and tonality; the phrases' voicing and register remain the same regardless of which inversion you used, or where it happens to fall within Minimal's play zone. This isn't a problem, however; the phrases collectively span a wide pitch range and are so varied that you're almost certain to find something with the right musical flavour in the register you need.
Once I'd got past my initial misunderstanding regarding single notes, things went swimmingly. I was impressed by the speed at which Minimal analysed chords and triggered phrases. There's no discernible latency, but I assume the software must take a little time to perform its calculations. Given that, and the inherent 'lateness' of orchestral samples in general, you may find it expedient to use your sequencer's delay/advance function to drag your MIDI notes back in time by a few milliseconds.
The line-up of Minimal's orchestra is shown below. Apart from 20 or so 'Mixed' phrases, the instrument families are segregated, with strings taking the lion's share of performances. Each family features numerous variations of instrumentation: the woodwinds are particularly versatile, featuring over a dozen different instrument combinations, while the strings range from high-pitched violin figures to full-section performances featuring meaty cellos and double basses.
Rather than the traditional orchestral fare of timpani, outsize bass drums and piatti crash cymbals, this library favours a lighter, more colourful spread of tuned percussion enhanced by celeste and piano, which helps to give it a fresh, contemporary feel. In a similar spirit, the small collection of brass phrases avoids heavy Wagnerian statements and concentrates on lighter, more supportive material.
This attitude pervades the library; although the strings perform plenty of classical-sounding licks, there are many simple, unadorned patterns which smack of 20th-century minimalism (no surprise, given the product's name). Violin phrases abound: repeated single notes, 16th-note figures which oscillate between two pitches, quick repeated four-note runs, simple and stately triadic arpeggios, et cetera. The violins and violas join forces to perform joyous-sounding, lightly harmonised pentatonic figures which bring to mind soaring cinematic landscapes and speeded-up nocturnal cityscapes (think Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi), while the low strings add power and gravitas to punchy, syncopated chordal rhythms.
Though virtually all the string phrases are played arco, I did stumble upon one very nice pizzicato pattern based on a repeated group of three eighth-notes spun over a 4/4 pulse. The two col legno (played with the back of the bow) patterns are fun, if a little messy, but one of them sounds very late to the click. Overall, the strings' delivery ranges from urgent, Bourne Again staccato ostinatos to sweet, romantic legato performances, thereby covering most needs of the modern media composer.
In the woodwinds section, flutes and clarinets in two-part harmony have a lovely, liquid swirling effect, while the addition of bassoons and bass clarinet creates a darker, more sonorous atmosphere. I particularly liked one low-register phrase that slips an anxious-sounding F# into a C-major arpeggio, a welcome, somewhat sinister deviation from straight harmony. This section covers a lot of ground: there are simple two-note patterns, repeated single notes, solemn chords, legato arpeggios, Baroque figures, driving rhythm patterns and droll, circus-like fast triplet licks, and the mood ranges from pastoral to jocular. The woodwinds blend beautifully with the strings, and due to the high standard of the player's performances, they stand up very well on their own.
Being a marimba fan, I was pleased to see that this library has two of them — indeed, most of the percussion phrases are played on unaccompanied marimbas, with celeste and piano occasionally popping up to add (respectively) fairy dust and a bit of extra oomph. If you like rippling, bubbling tuned percussion textures, you'll enjoy the lightly propulsive 16th-note marimba patterns, played with medium-hard mallets, which maintain rhythmic definition while preserving the instrument's mellow tone.
The slender selection of brass includes trombones, horns and tuba playing sustained, straight major and minor chords with a built-in crescendo/decrescendo over two bars. More brass performances can be found inside the 'Mixed' phrases, which contain some treats: perky, syncopated 3/4 figures played on woodwinds and muted trumpets, a great, staccato 5/4 bass riff underpinned by a fat tuba, and a cool unison pattern in 6/4 played by a fabulous combination of four horns, marimba, piano, cello and bass clarinet.
Minimal's phrases are nicely composed, with particular attention paid to voice-leading so that chord changes tend to avoid jarring leaps in register. To take an example, if you play a C-major phrase whose melody line features alternating notes of G and E and then change to F major, the two melody notes will move to the adjacent scale notes of A and F, rather than jumping up a fourth to C and A. An essential element of good arrangement, this voice-leading expertise helps to smooth over transitions and makes the library sound more polished.
Harmonisation within phrases is usually simple, based on straight major and minor scales and rarely dense, giving many of the phrases an open, airy quality. The only example of slight weirdness (and I mean that as a compliment) is the woodwind figure with the F# mentioned earlier, which is also played to great effect by the strings and tuned percussion. Some phrases are unharmonised, and I appreciated the inclusion of plain root-fifth-octave accented staccato chords, briskly played by all instrument families and absolutely perfect for pop.
You can extend the library's harmonic capabilities by utilising its 'Harmonic Shift' function. This enables you to switch instantly between harmonically related keys simply by pressing a note in Minimal's upper octave of keyswitches. If you've activated a phrase in good old C major (and why not?), pressing the keyswitch note of D instantly changes the chord to D major, while an A note triggers a change to A minor... and so on.
An interesting way of using this feature is to load two fields with identical phrases, then activate Harmonic Shift on one of them. Sticking with the C major example, playing a keyswitch note of E will cause one phrase to modulate to E minor while the other is unaffected, creating a superimposition of two different chords which constitutes a pleasant major seventh harmony. Similarly, playing an Eb keyswitch in the key of C minor creates a composite minor seventh chord. It gets a little confusing when playing in keys other than C, but if you think of the keyswitches as a set of transpose switches, it all makes sense!
Minimal's section phrases are designed to be homogenous and complimentary, so if you select the same phrase type for strings, woodwind and percussion, you'll hear a musically satisfying symphonic blend. However, the system is not rigidly implemented, and some experimentation is required to establish which phrase variations go together.
Since phrases are unnamed on the main GUI display, navigating them can be tricky; one solution is to memorise the graphic symbols, which are easily differentiated. An alternative, more scientific approach is to click on the stylised musical stave depicted on a white background at the upper right of the interface, which opens a small score showing the phrase's notation and identifying it by name. Those who read music may also be interested in purchasing a PDF version of Minimal's full score, which is available separately.
Dynamism is another admirable hallmark of the library: many phrases have built-in volume swells and fades, thus preventing repeated patterns from sounding overly mechanical. Crucially, whether loud, quiet, delicate or robust, the phrases have an inexorable forward momentum which helps get the music going and can inspire compositional ideas. For my money, this is Minimal's main selling point.
Sad to say I have never been to Zlin, but if its concert hall is anything to go by, it must be a cultured and progressive place. This large, modern building has fantastic décor and lighting, and its sound is very nice indeed.
The samples were recorded from four mic positions, none of which sounds remotely dry: the 'Close' miking has a great stereo image and a fabulous ambient die-away; the 'Decca Tree' option is brighter and more ambient, while the 'Wide' and 'Balcony' positions respectively add a sense of panorama and distance which would be great assets in a surround mix.
To help owners of more modest systems, a 'Minimal lite' patch featuring a stereo mix of the various microphones is provided. In the same vein, the library includes both 16-bit and 24-bit versions of the samples, enabling users to conserve RAM and CPU resources by working with the 16-bit samples until an arrangement is complete, then switching to the 24-bit samples to render it.
Having scrutinised its contents mercilessly, I found half a dozen or so small bugs and programming errors in the review copy. None of them were show-stoppers, and I'm assured that they will all be fixed in an update by the time you read this, so I won't bother listing them. However, if you find a new blooper amidst the 33,000 samples, I'm confident that Sonokinetic (a relatively small company who pride themselves on good customer support) will fix it without undue delay.
While this is a great way for inexperienced composers and arrangers to get immediate results, there is (as ever with phrase-based libraries) a danger that if you don't venture beyond simply stringing a few phrases together, your 'composition' may end up sounding exactly the same as those of other users! That said, these well-conceived phrases leave enough space for you to add original ideas of your own, so there's really no excuse for not getting creative with them.
I found Minimal quick and easy to use. Phrases load immediately, and once you figure out what they all do (something of a lottery, initially), it's fun to assemble, layer and mix them. This is an entertaining library which delivers authentic symphonic sound in a flexible and manageable form, and its modular section construction opens up countless colourful arrangement possibilities.
Contemporary libraries such as Orchestral Tools' Orchestral String Runs (33.4GB), Native Instruments' Action Strings (14GB) and the excellent 3.5GB Hollywoodwinds from Cinesamples offer a large set of tempo-sync'ed phrases and user phrase-building capabilities for their respective string and woodwind sections. However, there appears to be no similar collection of orchestral brass or orchestral percussion phrases, nor any other phrase-based library which combines all four sections under one roof. Given the absence of similar products, one has to say that there are currently no realistic alternatives to Minimal.
Minimal's large orchestra contains the following instruments:
String Section (52 players)
- Twelve First violins.
- Twelve Second violins.
- Ten Violas.
- Ten Cellos.
- Eight Double basses.
Brass Section (11 players)
- Four French horns.
- Three Trumpets.
- Two Trombones.
- Bass trombone.
Woodwind Section (12 players)
- Three Flutes.
- Three Oboes.
- Three Clarinets/bass clarinet (Clarinet 3 doubles bass clarinet).
- Three Bassoons/contrabassoon (Bassoon 3 doubles contrabassoon).
- Two Marimbas.
Between them, Minimal's five instrument sections play a large number of patterns.
- Strings (62).
- Woodwinds (41).
- Percussion (34).
- Brass (8).
- Mixed (21).
- Normal time.
- Double time.
- Half time.
- 3:2 time (triplet).
- 2:3 time (dotted quarter notes).
Each phrase plays in all 12 keys and the vast majority have a major and minor version, bringing the total number of phrase possibilities up to around 4000. Phrases sync to host tempo and can play at five different tempo multiples.