Spitfire’s latest project marks a new partnership with an iconic London studio.
It seems to be an article of faith with Spitfire Audio that each new project has to be even more ambitious than the last. Less than a year after releasing their massive BBC Symphony Orchestra, Spitfire’s team were back in a major London studio frantically setting up mics for a new large‑scale sampling project. This time the recording location was the historic Abbey Road Studios, an iconic space which has generated an incessant stream of pop, classical and film soundtrack recordings since its conversion from a Georgian townhouse in 1929.
Touted as ‘the world’s largest purpose‑built recording studio’ and famed for its warm, clear and expansive acoustic, Abbey Road’s Studio 1 is 92 x 52 feet with a 40‑foot ceiling, so can simultaneously accommodate a 110‑piece orchestra and 100‑piece choir (though if everyone wanted their own headphone mix, there’d be trouble). Over the years the studio has acquired a stupendous collection of over 680 vintage and modern microphones, including a pair of ultra‑rare EMI RM‑1B ribbon mics dating from 1949, which Spitfire give a dedicated stereo channel in this collection.
Spitfire’s Paul Thomson explains: “Having worked there a lot over the years, it was a natural step for us to collaborate with Abbey Road Studios on creating new collections of instruments, one of which will be an enormously detailed professional modular orchestral library recorded in Studio 1. The concept was to create a library that had bags of control and detail but also was incredibly simple to use, so that anyone can start using this classic film score sound in their tracks.”
Named ‘Abbey Road One’ in honour of the fabled recording space, the first chapter of this new enterprise is the 60GB Orchestral Foundations core library, comprising strings, brass, woodwind and percussion ensembles recorded from 10 mic positions by four‑time Grammy‑winner Simon Rhodes. Featuring 91 of the top orchestral session players used by Spitfire in their previous collections, Abbey Road One: Orchestral Foundations utilises up to five dynamic layers and five round robins throughout and runs exclusively on its own dedicated plug‑in, supplied free with the library.
When I write string arrangements I like to play with both hands in order to get an immediate impression of a whole string section. This approach requires a full, six‑octave strings patch which combines violins, violas, cellos and basses in a single playable unit. Unfortunately this library doesn’t have such a thing, but I was pleased to find that layering its high and low strings patches produces a supremely playable full strings combination.
Having layered the two sections, I was rewarded with a majestic, full‑bodied string ensemble of the highest quality. The players’ perfectly tuned long notes sing out across their dynamic range. Quiet notes are breathy, hushed and intimate, the tender mezzo‑piano bowing is elegantly lyrical, while louder deliveries employ a more assertive, incisive attack. A tasteful light vibrato gives way to a stronger, impassioned vibrato style when the loudest dynamic layer kicks in. You can also use the GUI’s hard‑to‑miss control knob to crossfade between no‑vibrato and vibrato sustains, a handy expressive device.
Comprising 30 violins and 12 violas, the high strings patch has a fantastic rich, broad tone, while the low strings (10 cellos and eight basses) are powerful, well balanced and equally emotive. Sample blending between instrument ranges is deftly handled, with the transition between basses and cellos almost imperceptible. This means you can write regal, dignified low string melodies extending into the basses’ low octave. The cellos’ upper notes also blend comfortably with the high strings where their ranges overlap.
Needless to say, the popular rhythmic spiccato short‑note style gets pride of place, along with a decent set of pizzicatos and some great, energetic tremolos which can double as a manic‑sounding attack layer. Spitfire’s trademark flautando and sul tasto articulations aren’t included, but by way of compensation there’s a set of ‘con sordino’ sustains which sound like agreeably softened versions of the regular long‑note samples.
Though these strings play only five articulations, they ooze class — as someone almost said, never mind the width, feel the quality! Comparisons are odious, but this feels like the right time to make a judgement call: my personal grading system for sample libraries ranges from one star for budget entry‑level products to six stars for the top pro‑quality collections I use myself (and I am rather fussy). Abbey Road One’s strings score a six‑plus, and rank amongst the best I’ve heard over the last 20 years.
Abbey Road One’s strings score a six‑plus, and rank amongst the best I’ve heard over the last 20 years.
As with the strings, woodwinds are presented in pre‑orchestrated high and low unison ensembles which can be successfully layered into a playable unit. The instruments are stirred together into a kind of musical alphabet soup with contrabassoon and bass clarinet at the bottom end, two bassoons in the low midrange, cor anglais and clarinets in the upper midrange, oboes and flutes in the high register and a pure‑sounding piccolo taking care of the top octave.
Skilfully blended and simmered over a gentle heat, this mouth‑watering concoction sounds splendid in Abbey Road Studio 1’s uplifting acoustic. The low woodwinds’ opulent sound is great for moody writing, the only surprise being that the contrabassoon, famed for its chandelier‑shaking sub‑bass notes, goes no lower than Bb1. In the high ensemble the mournful, angular tones of the reed instruments are softened by clarinets and flutes, creating a lush organic texture which is a great resource for poignant and tuneful section chords.
In addition to the woodwinds’ lovely long notes are some great zippy staccatissimos you can use for colourful rhythm passages, and emphatic, positive‑sounding marcato and tenuto short notes (the latter not played by the low section). The articulation menu is completed by excellent short, medium and long climactic swells ranging from half a second to two seconds in length. All in all, an attractive, classy and versatile pair of woodwind ensembles.
Spitfire’s decision to expand the number of velocity layers in this project is validated by the amazing dynamics of the library’s horn ensemble, particularly noticeable in the superb touch response of its staccatissimos. Though they avoid the brassy ‘cuivré’ delivery found in other Spitfire libraries, the four players maintain an excellent clean delivery and superb control from pp to ff, covering all musical requirements from serene warm chords to loud heroic themes. The distinct, precise attack of the quiet tenuto, marcato and long‑note styles provides much‑needed rhythmic definition, making these samples come alive under the fingers.
The four trumpets are also dynamically versatile, perfect for magisterial loud fanfares or soft supporting chords. Their confident, brilliant‑toned loud sustains sound very strong, and are marred only by the sour tuning of one high ‘A’ note (one of the very few examples of questionable tuning I found in the collection). The trumpets’ smartly played staccatissimos are as bright as a button, and their swells track beautifully with those of the woodwinds.
Given the popularity of the so‑called ‘Braaam’ noise, it’s no surprise that this collection has its own huge‑sounding low brass ensemble. The players turn in an impeccable set of artics over a C1‑C4 range, performing big, sombre and stately quiet notes, formidable, imperial‑sounding loud notes, fabulous rasping staccatissimos, awesomely powerful swells and some top‑rate marcatos which make a good attack layer for the loud sustains.
If you want to really big it up, the ‘orchestra’ patch features the strings, brass and woodwind sections playing together live (not layered) over the full symphonic range. This real‑life full orchestra performs only five artics, but they’re goodies: their swells sound absolutely mighty, the long notes pack true heavyweight power and the staccatos are a great, guilty‑pleasure resource for epic symphonic riffs.
The ‘Percussion’ patch’s 14 instrument combinations collectively cover the main orchestral bases, including a generous serving of cinema‑shaking big bangs which are given a supercharged turbo boost by the studio’s large‑room ambience. You can choose between four unison bass drums and a combo of large taiko, gran casa and enormous ‘Verdi’ bass drum, both of which generate an epic thunderous racket. For a more subtle effect, soft hits on a single bass drum create an ominous, soft low‑end boom.
Snare drums come in three flavours: a bashy trio of regular snares, a high‑pitched piccolo snare ensemble which contributes some powerful, cracking rim shots, and a mixture of the two. I was initially disappointed at the tom ensemble’s lack of resonance, but cheered up when I heard the massive punch the ambient room mics add to the sound. On a lighter note, I enjoyed the octabans, a set of five melodious single‑headed drums whose lower pitches have a pleasant ring.
In the metals department, there’s a good selection of bright, triumphal splashes played on handheld piatti cymbals, and some great suspended‑cymbal ensemble crashes, explosive choked smashes and superbly dramatic mallet swells. The booming orchestral gongs ensemble sounds passably hefty, but lacks the outrageous roar of a fortissimo single tam tam hit. Instead of the manic Wagnerian clangs I was expecting, the anvil hits are pretty and quite delicate‑sounding, so could feasibly be used for Afro‑Latin bell and triangle patterns. Similarly, the highly dynamic ribbon crashers’ can deliver an effective hi‑hat groove!
Tuned percussion is confined to three classic‑sounding instruments. The powerful timpani brought to mind the melodramatic vibe of 1960s British TV music, some of which I guess may actually have been recorded at Abbey Road! A flawless, exquisitely toned xylophone shows off the room acoustic wonderfully and is a treat to play, while the glockenspiel sounds pure and sparkling, the twinkling fairy on top of the orchestral Christmas tree.
Apart from the cymbals, all the percussion instruments perform a small menu of straight single hits with no rolls, swells or fancy stuff. Some drum flams are occasionally heard, but they’re a by‑product of the ensemble hits rather than a designated performance style.
I appreciated the opportunity of visiting Abbey Road Studios without paying for the privilege, and very much enjoyed playing these remarkable orchestral sections.
The mic positions used in Orchestral Foundations are Vintage 1 and 2 (classic RM1B and ribbon mics), Pop Close (a mix of spot mics), Pop Room (room mics for use in conjunction with Pop Close), then Spitfire’s classic Close, Decca Tree 1 & 2 (two different trees with different mics), Ambient and Outriggers, with an extra Spill channel carrying the sound of all the unused mics dotted around the room! In addition, Simon Rhodes created two stereo mixes, and a very nice Lexicon‑style large hall effect is also included.
All instruments are played in unison with no built‑in octaves (a good thing in my book). You can layer articulations within a single patch, but layering different patches requires multiple instances of the plug‑in. This being a foundation library, performance styles such as trills and runs are absent, there are no sound design patches and no legato mode. Although the latter is not critical for ensembles, cash‑strapped Spitfire users might question a pricing policy which charges as much for this library as the more full‑featured Albion One.
I’m starting to lose track. How many full orchestral libraries have Spitfire released to date? We’ve had the bespoke licence‑only titles, the British Modular Library series which became the Spitfire Symphony Orchestra, the Albion range, Spitfire Studio Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and now this. It’s hard to think of another company who have been quite so prolific, and a harsh critic might say the company is spreading itself too thin. That said, I heard nothing in this opulent‑sounding collection that suggests any dip in the high standards Spitfire have set for themselves over the last 13 years — to my ears it’s more a case of ‘practice makes perfect’, with each new project building on the strengths of the last.
A more long‑term view is that the company’s exhaustive multimiked expeditions into iconic studio spaces such as Air, Maida Vale and now Abbey Road provides a valuable document of the acoustic DNA of historically important recording locations. Having seen Olympic, Trident, Wessex and Angel fall under the axe, I’m glad Spitfire have been able to capture what may prove to be the last gasp of some of the UK’s great studios.
On a more upbeat note, I appreciated the opportunity of visiting Abbey Road Studios without paying for the privilege, and very much enjoyed playing these remarkable orchestral sections, whose inspirational sound and poised, tuneful delivery possess the magic spark which gets my compositional juices flowing. There are some stellar ensembles in this library, and I look forward to the more specialised themed titles that follow in its wake.
Spitfire’s Abbey Road One: Orchestral Foundations core library presents strings, woodwinds and brass in separate unison sections with no solo instruments. Though mainly ensemble‑based, the percussion patches contain a few solo instruments.
- Tutti strings, brass and woodwinds
- High strings: 16 First Vns, 14 Second Vns, 12 Violas
- Low strings: 10 Cellos, eight Basses
- High woodwinds: Piccolo, two Flutes, two Oboes, Cor anglais, two Clarinets
- Low woodwinds: Bass clarinet, two Bassoons, Contrabassoon
- Four Trumpets
- Four French horns
- Low brass ensemble: three Trombones, two Bass trombones, Contrabass tmbn, Tuba, Contrabass tuba
- Bass drums
- Large drum ensemble: including Verdi bass drum & large taiko
- Snare drums
- Piccolo snares
- Bass, snare drum & tom ensemble
Cymbals, Gongs & Metals
- Suspended cymbals
- Orchestral gong ensemble
- Ribbon crashers
Abbey Road Studios is situated in the salubrious surroundings of London’s leafy (bit of journalese there) St John’s Wood. A capacious two‑storey townhouse in this neighbourhood will likely set you back 15 million quid or so, but if you factor in its musical history, this particular pile of bricks and mortar would go for a good deal more.
Such a thought may have crossed the minds of local estate agents when it was reported back in February 2010 that the debt‑ridden owners EMI Records had put the studios up for sale. The news provoked an outcry. A Save Abbey Road Studios campaign was launched, music fans went berserk and luminaries such as Paul McCartney weighed in to voice their opposition. Within days, EMI backtracked and said it now planned to keep the studio, prompting the UK Labour government to declare it a Grade II listed building by virtue of its cultural heritage. This timely intervention protected the premises from major alteration, thereby averting a dystopian future for the UK’s most famous recording studio.
These unseemly shenanigans would have been unthinkable when the studio opened its doors in 1931. The first piece recorded was ‘Land Of Hope & Glory’ with Sir Edward Elgar conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in Studio 1 (with ‘electrical recording’ still in its infancy, we can assume that Pro Tools wasn’t involved). During the 1940s the studio flourished as a classical recording location, but by the end of the ’50s the pop boys had taken over, resulting in a spate of smash hits by the likes of Cliff Richard and the Shadows.
In 1962 the Beatles lugged their guitars up the front steps, and the rest is hysteria. Reflecting the band’s global popularity, the owners changed the name from EMI Studios to Abbey Road in 1969. That astute move cemented the studio’s reputation, since which time it has played host to a never‑ending parade of international recording acts and iconic soundtrack recordings, including scores for The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, Skyfall and Black Panther.
Almost 60 years after the Liverpudlian legends put it on the map, tourists still risk their lives posing for photos on the zebra crossing near the studio, and council workmen regularly repaint a nearby wall to cover fans’ graffiti. Meanwhile, Abbey Road Studios remains a premier recording site for performers of all stripes, as it has done for 90 years. Long may that continue.
Starting in March 2021, the Orchestral Foundations core library will be followed by a series of smaller, inexpensive Film Scoring Selections titles inspired by classic scores recorded in Abbey Road Studio 1. Designed for easy use, these pre‑orchestrated titles will feature idiomatic themed instrumentations such as ‘romantic violins’, ‘sparkling woodwinds’, ‘melodic cello lines’ and ‘big‑sounding brass’, enabling users to create their own sound palettes. In Paul Thomson’s words, “In line with Spitfire’s mission of inspiring a generation of composers, and in part due to my passion for music education, I wanted to make the sound of an Abbey Road Studio 1 film score available to anyone of any skill level.”
The selections (which work independently of Orchestral Foundations) include the same microphone signals, round robins and dynamic layers as the core library, and will incorporate Spitfire’s newly-designed legato patches, the result of extensive R&D aimed at combining simplicity of use with increased realism. Regardless of whether you own several of the smaller selections or the whole range, all the Film Scoring Selections will load up inside the same Spitfire dedicated plug‑in, so you can access the entire collection in one place.
In terms of instrumentation, orchestration, section size, articulation menu and price (not to mention the similar name), the closest all‑in‑one alternative to this library is Spitfire’s own Albion One, recorded at Air Studios from four mic positions.
- Features Spitfire’s crack team of orchestral players recorded in a world‑famous recording space.
- Contains large, pre‑orchestrated strings, woodwind, brass and tutti ensembles of superlative quality.
- Three percussionists drum up an exciting cinematic racket.
- Faithfully captures the wonderful acoustic of Abbey Road’s large Studio One from 10 mic positions.
- No solo instruments.
- No legato mode.
If you fancy splashing out for an all‑in‑one, pro‑quality orchestral sample library capable of creating a classic film score sound, do check this one out before taking the plunge. Recorded in the unique acoustic of Abbey Road’s huge Studio One from 10 mic positions, its magnificent strings, vibrant woodwinds, heroic brass and powerful percussion cover all the essential orchestral bases in style, with the prospect of affordable auxiliary selections to come.