Spitfire's latest Albion library heads north in search of new scoring directions.
Out with the old, in with the Neo. The latest addition to Spitfire's popular Albion range pursues a fresh direction in film scoring spearheaded by a new breed of composers who ply their trade in European capitals rather than Hollywood. This band of musical thinkers avoid blockbuster clichés by working with smaller instrumental groups, exploring new, subtle playing techniques and incorporating electronic sound design elements. The results amount to a quiet revolution in music scoring, where Wagnerian bombast and conservatoire training are replaced by subtlety and sonic smarts.
In celebration of this creative arising, Spitfire Audio have released Albion Neo, the latest in a series of themed orchestral libraries stretching back to 2011 (see the 'Albion Endures' box). The library is an all-new sample collection which, while drawing inspiration from previous Albion titles, doesn't duplicate any of their content.
Recorded via a two-inch tape path in the reverberant acoustic of Air Studios' hall, the new library (henceforth referred to simply as Neo) contains a chamber orchestra consisting of strings, woodwind and brass, as well as loops, hybrid synths and evolving orchestral textures. The big, crashing 'cinematic percussion' found in other Albion titles is absent, but by way of compensation there's a pristinely recorded harmonium. (One small keyboard, no big drums — is this the new austerity?) Neo (59.4GB installed) requires Kontakt 5.6.8 or higher and includes a free copy of Kontakt Player.
Neo's strings are split into two 'divisi' sections of a dozen or so players with an overall head count of 23. Though each section contains first and second violins, violas, cellos and basses, instruments are not presented individually: they're melded together into a single playable unit, mapped according to range over the full strings C1-C7 playing range. In addition, there are separate low strings patches in which cellos and basses play in octaves. This classic style sounds great, and I was pleased to see it presented as an optional extra rather than baked into the main patches.
Amidst all the talk of experimental techniques, electronic textures and hybrid synths, you might overlook the bread-and-butter string articulations that constitute the heart of this library. That would be a mistake: the strings' simple long–note patches are captivating, beautifully played, expressive and dynamic, with a sweet upper register and a sombre, sonorous low range. Transitions between instrument registers, often a stumbling block in sampled full string sections, are expertly handled, so you can move freely up and down the entire range without hearing any obvious jumps in timbre.
Legato performances are divided into high- and low-range patches, both of which sound fine and are eminently playable for stately melodic themes and expressive bass lines — being able to crossfade between no-vibrato and vibrato samples of these long notes is a great asset. Other standard artics such as spiccato, tremolo, and pizzicato are of a uniformly good standard, and I particularly liked the lovely, tender sul tasto (a Spitfire trademark) and flautando bowings. When combined, these lush, breathy textures work a treat for soft pads.
Moving off the beaten track, I enjoyed the gentle oceanic ebb and flow of the strings 'long pulses', and loved the '5th Bend Up' patches, in which the players perform a strong, tightly played slide up to a sustained target note from a fifth below. A 'bend down' version is also included, which you can layer with the first style to produce a delightfully crazy effect.
'Seagulls' also caught my ear: in this patch, a few violins perform quiet, high-pitched, descending harmonic glissandos which mimic the distinctive cry of the seabird (a sound guaranteed to evoke nostalgia in us British island dwellers) while the rest of the section holds straight unison notes. I was less keen on the 'slow detune' artic — call me an old fuddy-duddy, but to my mind it spoils what would otherwise be a beautiful sustain texture by introducing tuning discrepancies too small to be truly scary.
Given their modest proportions, I was surprised by how big and lush these chamber strings can sound: though essentially intimate and clearly defined, they can be layered to produce a convincing symphonic effect. Alternatively, since the two sections perform more or less identical articulations, you can use them for traditional divisi writing, or combine their different playing styles into your own creative combinations such as the fabulous pizzicato/spiccato layering demonstrated in Paul Thomson's video walkthrough (see https://youtu.be/Z6VQ7vF60W0).
The library breaks with tradition by including saxophones in its woodwinds, prompting one forum member to enthuse, "I REALLY hope that it's jazz influenced." Sadly, his hopes were dashed by Spitfire's Christian Henson explaining that his personal sax inspiration stems more from Michael Nyman and Philip Glass, neither of whom is known for his hot jazz credentials.
As with the strings, the woodwinds are blended by range into a single section: bass saxophone, baritone sax and bass clarinet take care of the low range, while flutes and alto sax operate in the higher register. The substitution of saxes for oboes and bassoons creates an attractive breathy sound which is softer-toned than conventional orchestral woodwinds. The lower-pitched instruments also have a beautiful, velvety, peaceful and solemn atmosphere.
This characterful section excels at unusual-sounding, full-range legato lead lines and chord beds. The quiet dynamic of the 'long pulses' patches works well for the latter, as does the delicate, airy, somewhat disembodied 'hollow' style, with a bass register consisting almost entirely of breath sound.
If you need something more lively, the woodwinds' excellent staccatissimos (incorporating a pleasantly honky low-end combo of baritone sax and bass clarinet) drive the rhythm along nicely, while their short marcato notes sound effective when used as the final emphatic chord of a passage. For horror soundtracks, the spooky detuned performances' steady fluctuation between in-tune and out-of-tune long notes generates a queasy, unsettling mood which would be difficult to emulate with conventional samples.
In another unconventional move, Neo's brass section brings together flugelhorns, French horns and euphoniums, with a solo bass trombone adding low-end oomph. Played without vibrato (except in the 'long pulses' patch, where one player gets a bit carried away), the ensemble makes a fat, warm, pleasant sound reminiscent of a brass band, a far cry from the steely triumphal blast of orchestral trumpets.
Though their 'hollow' performances are less convincing than the woodwinds' version and their detuned patch sounds more like the Portsmouth Sinfonia than the 'CS80-type sound' claimed by the makers, the brass players' subtle swells patch would make a fine chord bed for a jazzy noir film score. I also enjoyed the steady, emphatic marcato short notes and well-played staccatissimos, both of which sound best from the close-mic position.
Being the proud owner of both libraries, I'm happy to confirm that these brass samples are not the same as in Albion 2 Loegria, as implied by one suspicious commentator. As mentioned earlier, this is an all-new collection: the mistaken comparison with Loegria arose because Spitfire made a teaser announcement referring to the new library as 'Albion ***', which some interpreted as 'Albion Two'. In the ensuing speculation, some camp followers put two and two together and made five.
Returning to solid factual ground, the brass has its own octaves patch in which mellow-toned flugelhorns play an octave above the rest of the section, a classic and effective timbre for lead lines. The brass legatos also sound great for slow and medium-paced melodies, but, possibly due to the slowish release time (which can't be readily adjusted) and abundance of hall reverb, fast trills don't work very well.
The inclusion of a harmonium here is a welcome surprise. Carefully sampled in the large hall, it has two very nice presets: the second is a little softer than the first, more muted and melancholy-sounding with an extended upper register. A combination of the close and outrigger mics sounds great on this instrument.
Named after the mountain range in northern Norway, the Segla Textures section of the library contains a large collection of evolving orchestral textures presented in a synth format. Though Spitfire's eDNA interface appears insanely complex at first glance, it's based on a simple principle: load a preset into each of its two sound bays, and use the built-in Oscillate Mixer to merge, layer, crossfade and oscillate between the two sounds.
Versatile and ear-catching, the 84 Segla presets can easily be adapted and saved as user patches. Unconventional and mobile-sounding pads abound: the psychedelic 'Shape Stretching' starts out with a strings fifth slide and then magically shape-shifts between transcendental winds and a heavenly organ, while the modestly named 'Best Ever Woods Pad' continually crossfades between the woodwinds' 'pulsing accents' and 'hollow' patches, creating a splendidly sumptuous pad which is a dream to improvise over. In addition, there's a nice selection of rhythmic patches created by the eDNA Gate Sequencer.
In a more disconcerting vein is the haunting, wheezy and disembodied 'Almost Nothing Strings', in which the experimental 'col legno tratto' bowing style forms an uncanny pulsating backwash to straight long notes. Other highlights include the fantastically scary 'Bombers', a low drone sounding like a fleet of gigantic alien spacecraft, and 'Frozen Lake', the sound of the frozen tundra crystallised into music: engage the pitch wheel and you'll hear a recording of a ghostly radio orchestra transmitting from a 1930s time capsule — or at least that's how it sounds to me!
There are plenty of libraries on the market which cater for bombastic and epic approaches to film, TV and game scoring. Spitfire Audio's Albion Neo achieves its objectives by other means...
Continuing a thread started in the original Albion, this section takes samples of the Neo orchestra and Christian Henson's vintage and modular synth collection and transmutes them into hybrid synth pads and textures, again presented in the eDNA engine. Various treatments, including Mr Henson's modular rig, effects pedals and vintage tape machines, were used to create these messed-up, mangled, warped, glitchy sounds.
Somewhat arbitrarily divided into 'electronic' and 'neoclassical' categories, this large collection's complex, abstract sci-fi soundscapes, evolving mobile pads, synth basses, ominous drones and shuddering pulses emphasise we're not in traditional orchestral territory. Good examples are 'Golden Pad', a lo-fi square wave pad accompanied by cosmic noise waves, and 'Holmberg II', a serene harmonium-based texture which undergoes amazing timbral contortions.
More extreme treatments include 'Theectovoice', which sounds like a malfunctioning Mellotron, and 'Smoking Wires', a distorted racket which disintegrates into glitchy fragments before finally spluttering out altogether (not recommended as a lead line instrument for a children's TV cartoon theme). More sensitive listeners may wish to skip 'Black Eye', a sci-fi version of the strings 'seagulls' patch in which the birds sound more like the carnivorous flying bioraptor creatures from the Pitch Black movie.
Though fairly primitive, eDNA's arpeggiator livens up some presets, and while the interface's effects section seems unnecessarily complicated, I found it worthwhile to simplify some pads by turning off the Oscillate Mixer and/or unticking the 'clone' box, often used by the makers to add an extra upper or lower octave to the synth tone.
Rather than reaching for your favourite collection of funky breakbeats, you can add rhythm to Neo's instrumental textures by dipping into its Brunel Loops. Performed by Spitfire's musical staff members, the loops are presented as full mixes and also broken down into tempo-sync'ed, chromatically mapped percussion, guitar, high synth, low synth and 'organic' stems, the latter consisting of a wafty, reverberant sustained texture or chordal pad.
Patches I liked include 'Drifting' (an atmospheric, clean, echoey octave guitar phrase played over a gently pulsating sus 4-type chord), 'Fields' (a pastoral, euphoric and uplifting major-key mood) and the minimal, ethnic-flavoured 'Suspended in Space' light percussion groove. My Best in Show award goes to 'Nighthawks', a terrific, original-sounding, menacing reggae-ish groove featuring a cool single-note rhythm guitar part, an ethnic frame drum of some sort and hip synth offbeats. I was less keen on the naive minor-key synth arpeggios found in other loops, though they do have a certain charm when played backwards via the handy 'direction' slider.
While these idiosyncratic, tastefully designed loops contain some interesting material, I was disappointed that rather than being presented in isolation, many of the rhythm parts have a baked-in, sustained pitched element which limits the harmonic choice of what you can add to them. This is not ideal for composers, and seems to go against the grain of an otherwise flexible loops collection.
Neo's orchestral sections are presented in a choice of a single patch containing most articulations (selectable via keyswitches, MIDI control changes, etc) or separate patches dedicated to each playing style. Judging by the screencasts one sees nowadays, it seems that most composers prefer the latter approach. In any case, all patches exhibit the programming skill you'd expect from this experienced company, and the masterful range blending in all the sections is a credit to orchestrator Ben Foskett.
The only small fly in this huge jar of ointment is the dodgy tuning of a few samples, such as the woodwind longs' E5 and brass longs' Ab4 loud notes. While these will probably trouble only tuning martinets like myself, I hope Spitfire will fix them in an update. Had the ingenious 'Punch Cog' feature been included it would be easy enough for users to deal with the offending samples, but as things stand I couldn't find a way of doing it.
Watching the amusingly bad 1966 horror film Island Of Terror on TV the other day made me reflect on how far soundtracks have progressed in the last 50 years. Today's film composers no longer routinely try to scare their audiences with discordant brass blasts and jarring atonal harmonies; in many contemporary dramas the music score suggests rather than states, allowing viewers time to absorb and consider rather than immediately telling them how to feel.
There are plenty of libraries on the market which cater for bombastic and epic approaches to film, TV and game scoring. Spitfire Audio's Albion Neo achieves its objectives by other means; small is the new big, and subtlety is the name of the game, with expression achieved by stealth and guile. This seems like a good way forward, and I anticipate more libraries in a similar vein from this innovative company.
As Spitfire invented the Albion template, one could reasonably consider other titles in the series: the closest to Albion Neo is Albion V Tundra, which introduced Neo's general musical direction and principles with a much larger orchestra. Though released a good few years ago, Project SAM's Symphobia's blended sections and large menu of wild orchestral effects and textures still have currency. Alternatively, if you're prepared to forgo the sound design elements, you might take a look at Orchestral Tools Metropolis Ark 4, which boasts small string sections and some unorthodox woodwind, brass and mixed winds ensembles along with its percussion and choirs.
Having apparently tried to break the world record for multiple mic positions in their BBC Symphony Orchestra library, Spitfire revert to a more familiar scaled-down approach in Albion Neo. The company's traditional close, Decca Tree, ambient and outriggers mic positions are augmented here by an alternative close ribbon-miking, providing a varied set of perspectives which should keep most users happy. In addition to the five mic positions are two full-bodied stereo mixes created by Jake Jackson.
If you look closely at the walkthrough video of the Neo orchestra strings, you'll see Paul Thomson using a blend of three mic positions: close ribbon (50 percent), Decca Tree (83 percent) and outriggers (100 percent). Thomson explains that in film scoring sessions it's common practice to augment the Decca Tree with the wider-spaced outriggers, which creates a nice sonic halo around the instruments. If you want a more distant effect you can add the ambient mics, which make the most of Air Studios' fabulous natural hall reverb.
Spitfire's best-selling Albion range has spawned seven titles to date, five of which are still in print (so to speak). Albion Volume 1 and Albion 2 Loegria, reviewed in SOS October 2011 and February 2013 respectively, have now been discontinued: the first was superseded by the confusingly named Albion One (see SOS June 2016), while Spitfire retired the second because "it is no longer in line with the quality of our other products". Personally I had no qualms about its sound quality, but the somewhat eccentric instrumentation (sackbuts, anyone?) did give me pause for thought!
Still available are Albion III Iceni (oversized low-end sections), the aleatoric, atonal Albion IV Uist and Albion V Tundra, described as 'capturing a characteristically Scandinavian sound at the edge of silence'. Following those releases, Albion One pushed the boat out with a gargantuan 109-piece orchestra, including a thunderous percussion section.
The journey north continues with the Scandi-inflected Albion Neo, which focuses on the more subtle and intimate areas of orchestral scoring. For this project Spitfire employed a chamber-sized orchestra and supplemented it with a collection of rhythm loops, analogue synth treatments and hybrid orchestral textures, thus maintaining the format of all Albion libraries issued since 2011.
- As ever with Spitfire Audio's orchestral titles, this collection features the cream of London's session players recorded in a superb hall acoustic from multiple mic positions.
- A top-class chamber orchestra features divisi strings and an unusual woodwinds and brass instrumentation.
- Also contains a huge menu of hybrid synths, evolving orchestral textures, warped sounds and loops. Oh, and a harmonium.
- The eDNA interface used for the synth textures takes some getting used to.
- Many of the Brunel Loops percussion stems have a baked-in sustained pitched element which limits composers' harmonic choices.
Inspired by new directions in media music scoring, Albion Neo adds fresh colours to the modern composer's palette (NB. palette not included). Its non-traditional, chamber-sized orchestra turns in some superb performances, and its vast collection of hybrid synth and evolving orchestral textures is the icing on the cake.