Spitfire celebrate this sceptred isle with a suitably grand orchestral library.
Between them, UK music‑to‑picture composers Paul Thomson and Christian Henson have a list of credits stretching over the horizon — you'll have heard their work on numerous TV series (Henson alone has scored over 50), commercials and film scores, including collaborations with former Hans Zimmer alumnus Harry Gregson‑Williams. Like the aforementioned Zimmer, the two writers felt compelled to create orchestral sample libraries for their own use, and in 2008 set up Spitfire Audio for that purpose. Adopting a British‑is‑best approach, the company hired the best UK orchestral players and recorded them at Air Lyndhurst Studios, renowned for its orchestral recording facilities.
Licenses for others to use the original Spitfire samples are granted strictly on a by‑invitation basis, but a more recent development has seen the company creating libraries for general sale (see /sos/feb11/articles/spitfire-percussion.htm for a review of Spitfire's orchestral percussion). Their latest commercial venture is an ambitious one: entitled Albion, it's a large (39GB) collection of orchestral ensembles and atmospheres recorded from multiple mic positions at Air Lyndhurst. The title, of course, refers to the ancient Greek name for the British Isles, not (as far as we know) to the West Midlands football club affectionately nicknamed 'The Baggies' by its supporters.
The mission statement of the library is to give users a cinematic orchestral palette with which they can sketch large, epic‑sounding, Hollywood‑style film scores, using a combination of scoring tools that will run on a modern laptop computer. A unique (and somewhat surprising) selling point is that, prior to being digitised, the samples were recorded to two‑inch tape in order to impart the subtle, organic flavour beloved of analogue audio die-hards. (See the 'Tape That' box for details.) Reflecting a current industry trend, Albion's ensembles contain mixed instruments, so rather than (for example) three flutes, you'll find a carefully orchestrated blend of piccolo, flute, oboe and clarinet, creating an instant 'real woodwinds' sound.
Drawing on the experience gained in creating their bespoke libraries, Spitfire booked top players from the English Session Orchestra and hired sound engineer Jake Jackson for the sampling sessions, which all took place in the spacious Air Lyndhurst hall. Orchestrator Ben Foskett was employed to score the parts. Rather than recording every performance style known to man, the library focuses on essential articulations likely to be the most useful to those who need to create big‑sounding MIDI orchestrations in a hurry.
Albion offers users a choice of four microphone positions: Close, on which some hall reverb is clearly audible; (Decca) Tree, a trio of vintage Neumann M50s placed above the conductor's podium; Outrigger (widely spaced AKG C20s positioned either side of the Decca Tree); and Ambient, a set of condenser mics placed high up in the gallery away from the musicians. These four mikings can be blended to taste. Patches load with only the 'Tree' option enabled and samples are automatically discarded when a mic position is de‑selected, thereby streamlining system performance. Armed with these options, users should have no difficulty in setting up 5.1 and 7.1 surround mixes.
Anyone who has composed music for an action film, TV series, trailer or computer game will probably have had to score a scene in which someone (be it a lantern‑jawed hero, beleaguered astronaut or cartoon animal) is pursued through a moody location by some despicable baddie. Though the characters and situations differ, the musical solution is the same: urgent‑sounding staccato strings, perfect for conveying the requisite mood of tension and terror.
With this in mind, I loaded Albion's string 'shorts' (Spitfire‑speak for staccato) and played some repeated eighth notes in time‑honoured action‑scene style. I was bowled over by how great they sounded; the timbre and blend of the instruments is stunning and the Air Lyndhurst hall's natural reverb sounds magnificently spacious and enveloping. If you listen to the Tree miking on headphones, it feels as though you're actually inside the big, lofty space with the players. This bodes well for surround use, where the ambient gallery miking can be assigned to the rear speakers to great effect.
Played by 11 first violins, nine second violins and seven violas, the high strings pizzicatos also benefit greatly from the hall acoustic. These plucked performances sound so delightfully plush that one can overlook the extraneous bow noise on the front of one of the violins' mp low-G samples — the makers take a laissez‑faire attitude to such imperfections, arguing that they're a positive real‑life attribute that helps make their libraries sound real. In this particular case, the click probably won't be noticeable in a mix, but it's relatively easy (assuming you have the full version of Kontakt and some basic programming chops) to remove the offending sample and substitute a neighbouring one.
In addition to their unison performances, the high strings are scored with first and second violins playing in octaves (octave doubling is a recurring feature of the library). This is a classic sonority for soaring string themes, and its legato option works particularly well, providing you play in the requisite slightly overlapping style. The high string legatos will accommodate fast runs and trills, but I found the unison version worked better for such fast deliveries, as the unvarying presence of the built‑in octave can sound a little stiff and unnatural played at speed. Conforming to the industry standard, legato patches are monophonic and work for all upward and downward intervals of up to an octave, though the sampled range of the unison violin legatos omits the low G to F register.
Menacing, slow‑moving low string lines, invariably played by basses and cellos in octaves, are another stock film-music technique, often used as an invitation for viewers to contemplate what dreadful thing might happen next. Albion's version of this classic timbre is mouth‑wateringly good: played by six cellos and four basses, the octave legatos are tremendously powerful and grandiose, and I predict this will soon become a go‑to patch for MIDI orchestrators. The low strings pizzicatos also sound satisfyingly ripe and weighty.
I'll leave you to argue amongst yourselves over whether the strings' con sordino samples are an essential orchestral timbre; however, I will say that these muted deliveries have a nice, somewhat brooding, romantic atmosphere which strikes me as tailor‑made for film scores of the more subtle, grown‑up variety. The strings' straight‑note articulations are complemented by a large menu of effects comprising various types of glissando (including the spooky, open‑string harmonic glissandi showcased so effectively in Stravinsky's The Firebird); repeated, fast, chromatic figures reminiscent of an angry swarm of bees; random pizzicatos; groaning discords; clusters which resolve to a unison note (a nice one, that); and unison notes that fly apart into a short, diminished chord. The low strings do their own take on some of these effects, and also add a few of their own. Whether you're scoring a kids' cartoon or a documentary about Prince Philip, this large menu of slightly twisted performances will have something to offer.
Couch-potato composers take heed! If you enjoy hearing Albion's samples playing repeated ostinato patterns but can't be arsed to play them yourself, Spitfire have designed just the tool for you: grandly titled Ostinatum, it produces automated repeated notes in response to your key presses. Having set the sequence length to anything from one to 16 beats, you can play a note or chord, then sit back and enjoy hearing Ostinatum pumping it out as a repeated pattern. Each beat can have its own user‑defined volume level; the sequence cycles through the samples' four round-robin variations, but if you prefer to hear the same sample over and over again, simply disable the 'round robin' function on Kontakt's front panel. The medical profession should be grateful to Spitfire for reducing the risk of RSI induced by playing endless repeated notes, but I'm concerned that this benefit may be cancelled by the attendant risk of weight gain caused by lack of exercise.
Albion's high brass section (three trumpets and four French horns) sounds mighty strong, but I was disappointed by its lack of unison samples — the trumpets play an octave higher than the horns throughout. While that certainly creates a big, dramatic sound, it limits the section's flexibility for chordal writing. Spitfire's Paul Thomson explains: "Trumpets and horns rarely appear in the classical/film literature in unison — when playing the same pitch, they are almost always in octaves.” That's as may be, but in my little corner of Composer World, the pure, unadulterated sound of unison trumpets is much in demand.
The library's designated 'low brass' ensemble consists of two tenor trombones, bass trombone and tuba, sounding enormously sonorous in the big hall. They too are voiced in octaves, but in their capacity of playing supporting bass lines, that can be seen as an asset rather than a handicap. Packing a potency reminiscent of the glass‑shattering, subsonic foghorn blast of the Close Encounters mother ship, this is a low‑end brass sound that combines weight and grandeur.
Both high and low brass have a lively set of effects; the high guys play a full chromatic set of pitch‑perfect, nicely voiced straight major and minor chords; vigorous, ribald rips culminating in a staccato semitone clash; clusters of various lengths; softly‑played, eerie, whole‑tone‑scale chords; and the usual assortment of breath noises and abstract, free‑jazz atonal excursions. The low brass cover similar territory; their chordal contribution is a set of stately root‑fifth‑octave warning trumps of the type used in film soundtracks to signal the imminent arrival of a barbarian army. On a less life‑threatening note, the two trombonists have fun sliding sleazily up and down a tritone, utilising the most enjoyably vulgar crescendos imaginable.
As mentioned earlier, Albion's high woodwind ensemble consists of piccolo, flute, oboe and clarinet, naturalistically orchestrated, with the clarinet playing the low‑to‑middle range, the piccolo single‑handedly tackling the extreme high register, and the other two instruments joining in from around Middle C and up. An alternative version substitutes a second flute for the piccolo's low notes, giving a broader tone and slightly wider tuning spread. The combination of beautiful playing and a great room sound makes this a gorgeous timbre. The flutey upper reaches of the legato patch sound particularly lyrical, although its high notes don't extend up into the piccolo range.
The 'low woodwinds' section comprises two bassoons, a bass clarinet and a contrabassoon, a highly effective orchestral colour in which the bassoons' droll, reedy timbre is fattened by the round, lugubrious tone of the bass clari.
With their full, clear sound and expressive performances, these woodwind ensembles are as classy as they come. Collectively, the two sections span the full orchestral compass, from a low, contrabassoon C0 to a piercing piccolo B6 — a great resource for budding composers and seasoned hacks alike.
In the effects department, the high woodwinds play cluster chords culminating in a series of quick staccato reiterations (too bad the reiterations aren't supplied separately); dissonantly harmonised, descending chromatic runs; drastically overblown flute notes; forlorn‑sounding random‑note passages; cartoonish squeals, and so on. A smaller selection of low woodwind noises ranges from atonal, avant‑garde burblings to overblown foghorn blasts of a (to me) comedic nature. In all this mayhem, it's easy to overlook the high woodwinds' colourful set of ascending runs, played in all keys, in a choice of five different (undocumented) scale types.
Albion has one further instrument up its rather capacious sleeve: a Steinway grand piano, Air Studios' pride and joy, played here with all the delicacy of an enraged rhinoceros by what sounds like a black-belt karate master. Its articulations are limited to fortissimo, staccato single bass notes of the type one used to hear banging out atonal, eighth‑note ostinati in 1970s US crime-movie car chases; in the mid‑to‑high range, these give way to three‑semitone cluster chords, also played staccato and ff. A set of more subdued, under‑the‑lid piano performances includes lightly scraped string zings, bass rumbles and some artistically voiced dissonant chords, all good horror film fodder.
Two general points about the ensembles: although they overlap by about an octave, the high and low sections are designed to work together as a unit, and the sample mapping and blending is so skilful that you don't notice instruments dropping out as you move up and down the range. It's worth noting that, for the sake of realism, Spitfire don't trim the front of samples too tightly, and though they generally 'speak' quickly enough to maintain rhythmic integrity, you'll probably need to use pre‑delay on your MIDI tracks to get them to sit comfortably with your quantised rhythm parts.
Impacts! That's what we want — not the sort you get when your driving test goes wrong, but the 'cinematic' sound of big, booming drums and scary, low‑pitched rumbles and crashes, preferably recorded in a highly reverberant hall acoustic. By a remarkable coincidence, this type of explosive, earth‑shaking racket is amply covered in Albion. Though no instrument list is provided, Spitfire's session photos depict huge orchestral bass drums and oversized, taiko‑like drums set up in the Air Lyndhurst hall, and the patches (which omit the 'Outriggers' miking) sound correspondingly colossal. Metal clangs and unidentified drum hits are also included, but standard items such as timpani, orchestral snares, piatti crash cymbals and the like are not — Spitfire have already covered those in their percussion library.
When starting on an orchestral arrangement, it often helps to have some sort of rhythm pattern — nothing too heavy or dominant, maybe some light hand percussion — to get things moving. Albion includes a selection of such rhythm patches: based on small, dry sounds you wouldn't normally associate with orchestral production (bottles, tapped metal objects, a mandolin, repeated single‑note acoustic‑guitar figures, and so on), they consist of double‑tracked, wide‑stereo MIDI‑driven loops which sync to your host's tempo and provide a light, propulsive, forward motion.
These samples are the only ones in Albion not to be recorded at Air Lyndhurst — a wise decision, as the hall's ubiquitous reverb wouldn't have helped these particular sounds. Naming them 'Brunel Loops' might be misleading, as they completely lack the pounding, heavyweight, industrial shipyard quality one associates with the great Victorian engineer. Given their diminutive, unassuming nature, 'Ronnie Corbett loops' would be more fitting, though it doesn't have quite the same ring. Either way, they have a nice feel and are unarguably more inspiring than a bare click track!
If these loops get your programming juices flowing, you might want to dial up Spitfire's 'Albion FX Sequencer' to add some extra seasoning to the rhythmic stew. This module does what it says on the tin: you can automate Kontakt's effect parameters to fade in or out over a specified number of beats, handy for programming (say) long, controlled, synth‑style filter sweeps. In the short time I spent fiddling with it, I managed to produce some startling broken‑radio noises by rhythmically modulating the sample rate of the 'Lo Fi' bit‑reduction effect. From that, I deduce that this facility has a lot of potential for hardcore sonic experimentalists.
In Albion, Spitfire follow the current trend of supplying composers with cinematic sound-design patches as well as straight instrumental multisamples. By running the orchestral recordings through a bank of processors (including a TC6000 reverb, Thermionic Culture Vulture, Fractal Audio Systems Axe FX Ultra, a Distressor, a 1960s Unicord Mixer King, compressors, EQ, and even an old Akai sampler), Christian Henson transformed the Albion samples into a sizeable collection of pads, drones and atmospheres. Most of the processing was done by the hardware outboard gear, with plug‑ins handling delays and pitch manipulation; mixed in quad, the patches have only two mic positions (Tree and Ambient), ready to route to the front and rear speakers of a 5.1 system.
Though most of them are no longer identifiable as orchestral in origin, these patches retain the epic sweep of a real orchestra, with the added dimension of subtle (and not‑so‑subtle) pitch mutation and beautiful long reverbs introducing a psychedelic, other‑worldly quality. The pads section ranges from dreamy, gently swelling chordal textures to enormous, multi‑octave 'choir of the gods'‑style patches. I particularly liked the beautiful, clarinet‑like tones of 'Woodland Coalface' and the light, ethereal 'Celestion' and 'Marimbarium', both derived from instruments in Spitfire's Percussion library.
The drones department houses a host of brain‑mangling noises, some of which are positively overwhelming: the frightening, thunderous build of 'Descending Machines' had me ducking for cover, while 'Hell Brass' is the kind of apocalyptic Harrison-Birtwistle-meets-Throbbing-Gristle racket you'd use in a movie cue to underscore shots of planets no‑one in their right mind would wish to visit. My advice to anyone playing these sound-design creations is to keep holding the keys down and try pushing up the mod wheel — but first take the precaution of turning down your power amp. Don't say I didn't warn you!
Albion's patches load quickly and don't place excessive demand on computer CPU. The only time I noticed a glitch was when I played a lot of simultaneous sound-design effects (programmed with long decay envelopes) and the voice count went briefly bonkers. Despite its large‑scale sound, this library will run happily on modest systems, which should make it easy for users to incorporate Albion into their existing orchestral templates. Does it sound better for being recorded on two‑inch analogue tape? Despite being something of a digital devotee, I have to say that, judging by the warmth and clarity of the samples, their brief encounter with the magnetic oxide‑coated recording medium has done them no harm at all.
As the company name and product titles suggest, Spitfire Audio like to celebrate what Britain has given to the world — no, not football hooligans, binge drinking, rabid tabloids and xenophobia, but the more positive cultural qualities exemplified by great orchestras, fabulous musicianship and world‑class studios. While this nationalistic stance isn't entirely serious (cf. Albion's tongue‑in‑cheek category names 'Darwin Percussion' and 'Stephenson's Steam Band'), it is a reminder that UK orchestral players are exceptional. Anyone considering hiring European musicians rather than their British counterparts should first take a listen to the excellent performances of the 60‑odd players in this collection. Such musical quality rarely comes cheap, but at its current price, you'd have to say this isn't an overly expensive library, especially when you consider what went into creating it.
If you're planning to painstakingly recreate a full orchestral score with every small detail faithfully preserved, Albion would be the wrong tool; its broad‑brushstroke articulations aren't designed for that, and the lack of solo instruments would be an immediate stumbling block. But if you need a palette of powerful orchestral ensembles which will inspire your writing, galvanise your scores and generally add class, sheen, size, power and depth to your orchestral armoury, the library delivers in spades. At the risk of sounding like a music‑tech Linda Barker ("I Like These Sofas And I'm Sure You Will Too!”), these are some of the best orchestral samples I've heard. I'll certainly be featuring them in my mock‑ups and will be surprised if large numbers of you don't follow my example.
Few libraries have attempted to cover Albion's musical territory, but Dutch samplists Project SAM's Symphobia and Symphobia 2 titles come closest; these combine mixed‑instrument orchestral ensembles recorded in a concert hall from two mic positions with a large collection of atmospheric sound design patches.
First & Second Violins:
- Sustain (oct) [m]
- Staccato (oct)
- Legato (oct)
Violins & Violas:
- Sustain [m]
Cellos & Basses:
- Sustain [m]
- Sustain (oct) [m]
- Staccato (oct)
- Legato (oct)
BRASS SECTIONS (high & low)
- Sustain 
- Staccato 
- Ascending runs 
- Orchestral bass drums
- Large ethnic drums
- Unidentified percussion, drum & metal hits
(oct) = played in octaves, [m] = includes muted (con sordino) version,
[numbers in brackets] = alternative types.
Albion runs on Kontakt 4 and on the free Kontakt Player, which can be downloaded from Native Instruments' site at www.native‑instruments.com/#/en/products/producer/kontakt‑player/. The library is download‑only; be prepared for a lengthy transfer if, like me, you suffer from a slow broadband connection! After downloading, the library must be activated at Native Instruments' online Service Centre, using the same serial number you were given to initiate your download.
I encountered an activation glitch that prevented patches from loading; it was caused by the Service Centre self‑updating prior to the activation, which (although NI don't say so) requires a computer re‑boot before normal service can be resumed. To avoid this issue, Albion users should visit the Service Centre before performing Kontakt's 'Add library' routine; while you're there, you can check 'Updates' and verify that your version of Kontakt 4 is up to date, which Spitfire stress is essential. If at any stage a window opens up warning you that the SC is self‑updating, re‑boot your computer afterwards, then add and activate the library.
Kontakt 4 runs stand-alone and as a plug‑in on Windows 7/Vista 64/XP SP2 and Mac OS 10.6.1 (Snow Leopard). Though Albion's patches will run on a PC with Pentium or Athlon 1.4GHz processor and/or a Mac Mini 2.4 GHz with as little as 1GB RAM, overall performance won't be great and you may well experience glitches if you use a lot of simultaneous voices, or lean heavily on some of the script‑based patches. For optimum results (especially if you're in the business of creating full orchestral mock‑ups), Spitfire recommend an i5 or i7 quad- or eight‑core PC or a Mac Pro Intel dual-, quad- or eight‑core machine, both with 8GB or more of RAM.
By using Native Instruments' NCW lossless compression system, Albion's 39GB of samples compress down to just over 18GB on your hard drive. You may want to reserve some more drive space, as Spitfire have promised expansion packs for the library later this year, one of which is a unison brass ensemble of four French horns and three tenor trombones. No price details are available yet.
As far as we know, Albion is the only orchestral library on the market to be recorded on two‑inch tape. Paul Thomson of Spitfire elaborates: "We recorded to Pro Tools through Prism converters at 96k — we split the signals so that one path ran from the preamps to tape with Dolby SR noise reduction. The tape signal came off the playback head back into Pro Tools via the Prisms. The other path ran straight into Pro Tools through some more Prisms. I was therefore in the odd position of being able to A/B full mic-setup multitracks straight from digital and tape... I never believed there would be that much difference, but Christian was very keen we tried it. I was amazed at the discernible 'fatness' and resonant low end of the tape tracks... The difference was much more audible at Air on the superb monitoring there, but it's very audible still in my studio.”