Spitfire build on the Albion legacy with a new orchestral library.
As August cooled into rainy September at the end of Summer 2015, Spitfire Audio caused a chill of their own by announcing that the original Albion Volume 1 was to be discontinued. Given that this orchestral library was the cornerstone of a popular series that extended to four titles, this seemed odd. What, if anything, would replace it? Internet forums seethed with frenzied conjecture, but by October, all was revealed: a new Albion library was set for release, bigger (and naturally, according to the sales blurb, better) than the original.
Bigger it certainly is, being more than twice the size of its predecessor. Better? Well, let’s see. Boasting a “large epic orchestra” of 109 players and a title which sounds like an overpriced London riverside development, the new Albion One aims to preserve the essential approach and popular aspects of the original while adding new features developed for Spitfire libraries over the last four years. As a nod to the faithful who bought Albion Volume 1 (all of whom were offered a substantial discount on the new library), some legacy patches have been included. However, the bulk of the material has been freshly recorded, making this a genuinely new library.
Like all the company’s large-scale orchestral titles, Albion One was recorded at London’s AIR Studios, formerly the property of the late Sir George Martin. One can only imagine the quizzical smile on the great man’s face if, on the day he bought the building back in 1991, a bearded visitor from the future had materialised and informed him that in 25 years’ time people would be playing massive orchestras recorded at this location on their laptop computers. The famed AIR hall sound is captured across four mic positions ranging from close to distant, while 96kHz recording via a two-inch tape path unites the highest audio standards of the digital and analogue eras — a fact, I’m sure, Sir George would have appreciated.
Available by download or on a hard drive, this 89.8GB collection of nearly 50,000 samples compresses losslessly to around 50GB once installed (the makers warn that 106.6GB of disk space is required during the installation). A copy of the free Kontakt Player is included with the library. The contents are divided into four main sections: Albion Orchestra, Darwin Percussion Ensemble, Brunel Loops and Stephenson’s Steam Band, names guaranteed to make the hearts of patriotic British Sound On Sound readers (well, there must be one or two) burst with pride. We’ll take a detailed look at each section.
The main selling point of Albion is that its orchestral sections are pre-orchestrated, so rather than (say) separate first violins, second violins, violas, cellos and basses, you get a blended ensemble of all five, mapped according to range, with the lower strings giving way to violins in the high register. This would be a disadvantage for old-school orchestral composers who like to construct arrangements in traditional score format one instrument or section at a time, but for less experienced users seeking more instant results, it’s a Godsend. Simply put, it means you can immediately hear the sound of full orchestral ensembles doing their thing, enabling you to concentrate on musical creation without having to continually think about what patch you’re going to need next.
Though the honeymoon phase of my relationship with orchestral samples is now just a happy memory, the library’s main ‘Strings.NKI’ patch managed to rekindle my ardour. It contains a spiccato articulation of the highest order, a commanding, briskly brushed stroke played by a six-octave, full strings section. Sounding amazingly lush and sheer in AIR’s spacious hall, this impressive delivery works exceptionally well on loud, vigorous rhythm passages, but it’s also capable of light, subtle interjections. Overall, it’s a great string texture that almost compels you to write music, and a sound with which I can happily improvise for excessive periods of time.
Accompanying this stellar articulation is a useful set of basic playing styles. The ‘Spic/Stac’ patch uses a slightly longer bowing than the tense, ultra-brief spiccatos, while looped long notes are on hand for string pads. These ultra-dynamic sustains can sound both romantic and forceful, and although Spitfire haven’t published their section sizes, they achieve most of the plush, expansive quality of the large string ensembles featured in the company’s Mural Ensembles, and are warmer and somewhat more full-bodied than Albion Vol 1’s original strings. A simulated con sordino style models the tone of muted strings; though some may bemoan the lack of real mutes, this is an attractive timbre which by its nature perfectly matches the unmuted samples, enabling you to switch between the two with no nasty surprises. Excellent tremolos, exquisitely plump pizzicatos and col legno bow hits are also included.
Mapped over six octaves in unison from C to C, these basic articulations benefit from a magnificently assertive low-end section of cellos and basses. When the low strings play in octaves, it creates a thunderous, grandiose bass noise of which Thor himself would be proud. Though it would be foolhardy to use such a monstrous racket in (say) a TV ad for extra-soft toilet paper, the effect is stupendous and will delight any media composer looking to inject some musical drama and muscle.
As with its predecessor, Albion One’s string legatos are mainly voiced in octaves, offering ‘High’ and ‘Low’ patches with contiguous ranges which can theoretically work together as a whole, though when you move from low to high the difference in volume is fairly alarming! Designed for John Williams-esque soaring, heroic themes and operating in the top two octaves of the strings’ range, ‘Full’ legatos take the octave idea further by doubling notes in two octaves, creating a majestic combination of octave violins underpinned by lower cellos. A ‘Mid’ legato option featuring unison violins sounds very nice indeed, though it’s frustrating that it spans only the bottom two octaves of the instrument.
A new feature in this library, string runs are played in ascending and descending chromatic, major and minor scales over one, two or three octaves by violins and cellos respectively. In addition to regular straight-line runs, there are ‘flurries’ which meander up and down unpredictably en route to their target note. Originally played at 150bpm, the runs can be sync’ed to your host’s tempo, though there some timing variations within the samples which require positional manipulation to achieve good musical sync. Energetic and exciting played events of this type always help to vitalise an arrangement, and these specimens have been well received. In the words of one forum post, “Pretty sure I am going to overuse the crap out of those string runs.” Eloquently put, sir!
In my review of Albion Vol 1, which you can read in the October 2011 issue of SOS, I criticised the lack of high brass unison samples. Someone at Spitfire appears to have taken heed, because Albion One’s high brass section offers a choice of octave and unison voicings, giving us the best of both worlds.
When you need a big, dramatic brass sound, whether it be to signal the triumphant arrival of a screen superhero or to bring your latest desktop symphony to a suitably cataclysmic conclusion, you can dial up the library’s ‘Brass High’ patch and belt out stirring melodies on unison trumpets, with or without horns doubling in the lower octave à la Vol 1. The blasting loud dynamic of the bass trombone and tuba in ‘Brass Low’ will give you an equally big-sounding low-end accompaniment, which intensifies further when you select its raspy, menacing ‘Nasty’ articulation. For more subdued brass passages, try the unison horns and trombones in ‘Brass Mid’: the horns’ mellow, warm, rounded tone dominates, with the trombones adding a bit of edge and aggression at louder dynamics.
The brass articulation menu is limited to long, short and legato styles. In the latter category, stately high brass legatos are supported by a tremendous low brass patch, both played in octaves only. There’s also a unison ‘Mid’ legato patch with a different timbre and somewhat smaller range than its straight-note equivalent. This is good as far as it goes, but it would be nice if the makers could supply unison legatos spanning the entire brass range.
As far as I can tell, Albion One’s woodwind instrumentation is the same as in the original library (alas, there’s no manual to confirm that). However, their overall tone is generally reedier, though the alternative high woodwind long-note takes provided in the ‘Individual sections’ folder do sound softer and flutier. As with the brass, articulations are limited to long and short notes with unison and octave options, and a wonderful, liquid, swirling unison legato mode. These are vibrant, rich-sounding, thoroughly playable woodwinds — I’m pretty sure I’m going to overuse the crap out of them.
If memory serves, Charles Darwin was the bloke who annoyed the religious establishment in 1859 by claiming that different species evolved from simple life forms. Looking at the behaviour of some members of the Homo Sapiens species (from which I have officially resigned), I think Darwin’s theory is insulting to the simple life forms, but we’ll let that go... Anyway, quite what this 209-year-old man was doing in the AIR Studios hall with a bunch of percussionists is another of life’s mysteries, but most scientists and religious leaders agree that it has yielded an absolutely stonking set of big, Hans Zimmer-esque drum hits.
Played on orchestral bass drums, toms, low taikos and the like, Albion One’s newly recorded Darwin Percussion Ensemble comprises a healthy collection of gigantic, booming detuned sub hits, massive bangs, slams, flams and deafening anvil clanks. In addition, there are higher-pitched octabans and stick hits, plus a set of souped-up percussive noises which include metal bins and bamboo hits. Spitfire’s ingenious Kickstart Kontakt percussion engine allows users to easily build their own percussive patches and create custom keyboard mappings. Also provided are legacy patches of cymbals, gongs and subterranean rumbling swells from the v3 update of the original Albion, enabling us to hear how this particular percussion species has evolved. Rock on, Mr D!
Round about the same time as Darwin’s boys were playing merry hell with their big drums at AIR Studios, another eminent Victorian, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was in town overseeing the production of a new set of rhythm loops for Albion One. Performed by percussionist Paul Clarvis on a diverse set of hand percussion (including tuned instruments) and utensils, the loops were drily and closely recorded at AIR Edel Studios.
The Brunel Loops are powered by Spitfire’s eDNA engine (see the ‘Creative Tools’ box), an extremely powerful and versatile mixing and sound-shaping tool. Designed to add drama to action cues but with creative applications for pop production, the loops contain unusual sound sources such as berimbau, Appalachian dulcimer and er, a milk urn, as well as more recognisable shakers and hi-hats. The so-called Organic folder contains the raw loops, while Spitfire’s Christian Henson’s sonic treatments are presented in Warped and Extreme Warped folders, the latter adding a further, mod wheel-driven manic edge to the processed versions.
Many of these tempo-sync’ed loops are played in eighth, 16th and 12th notes (triplets) at quiet and loud dynamics which can be crossfaded. All the 16th-note variants have a slightly swung feel reminiscent of the drum intro to Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust For Life’: they feel great, but the subtly swung time could in theory cause rhythmic conflicts if you layer them with straight 16th-note-based material. I like the undefinable, leftfield, controlled glitchy quality of these loops. Some consist of shuddering rhythmic waves of organic noise, while others (such as the Tibetan singing bowl played with fingers) are simply beautiful. I also greatly enjoyed the mad Badass Marauderz groove, a truly berserk rhythmic call to arms which lives up to his name.
The ‘Stephenson’s Steam Band’ section of the library contains a large collection of pads, synths, drones, atmospheres and effects created from the Albion One orchestra and other sources by Christian Henson. The variety is enormous, ranging from ominous, end-of-the-world blasts to dreamy, disembodied ethereal pads, the latter nicely exemplified by ‘Observing Aliens’ and the lovely ‘Crotalium’, which reveals a delicious rich chorus effect when you push up the all-important mod wheel.
Owing more to electricity than steam, these patches make extensive use of the eDNA engine’s modulation facilities to create shimmers, stammers, pitch wobbles, tremolo and pulsating gate effects. Highlights include spooky, choir-like patches, lush synth string pads and some nice church organ-like sounds. One such patch which caught my ear is ‘Intimate Space Harmonium’, which emits earwax-shifting filter-oscillation overtones when you wiggle the wheel. I enjoyed the wide-ranging tonal spectrum of ‘Morph Pad’, and got a nostalgic kick from the wheel-triggered, swirling backwards racket featured in ‘Up Close and Loopy’, which recalls the crazy orchestral noises on the Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. While diatonic pitched pads predominate, there’s also a good selection of dark, scary atonal material on hand in the moody Steam Drones section.
The Hybrid Orchestra folder houses some great, forceful, processed brass, woodwind and string stabs, some of which incorporate massive-sounding col legno or pizzicato strings in the bass — all good TV ad fodder. These patches straddle the border between straight orchestral and synth sounds, a good place to be if you’re involved in contemporary media music, which nowadays leans heavily toward non-traditional, processed sound-design timbres.
The king is dead, long live the king. Though Albion Vol 1 is no more, some of its favourite elements live on in the new library. The Albion Legacy folder contains all the wild orchestral played effects (including woodwind runs) which came with the original, along with a selection of long and short notes from the strings, and brass and woodwind short notes. Also included is the staccato piano, whose battering bass staccatos evoke the golden era of ’70s Hollywood action thriller soundtracks. Go ahead, make my day!
Once again Spitfire Audio demonstrate that British superiority can occasionally exist in the real world as well as in the fevered imaginations of those clinging to the notion of Empire. Their new library is definitely a contender for global supremacy, setting a standard for other developers to match. In this industry a challenge is always around the corner, but for the time being at least, it’s a case of Albion One, Rest of World nil.
Though it may point the way forward, the Albion ‘orchestrated ensembles’ approach is far from commonplace. Project SAM’s Symphobia and Symphobia 2 (12GB and 42GB installed respectively) are in the same stylistic ballpark, combining live orchestral ensembles with played instrumental effects and atmospheric sound design patches derived from the ensemble recordings. However, neither contains rhythm loops.
Albion One contains some powerful creative options. First introduced in the original library, the Ostinatum step sequencer automatically creates user-programmable repeated note patterns: this works brilliantly with the string spiccatos, transforming sustained notes and chords into pulsating, driving rhythmic ostinatos. An inspirational compositional tool.
Created in conjunction with Scriptmaster-General Blake Robinson, Spitfire’s eDNA Engine contains two sound banks which the makers liken to a pair of record decks. By using the eDNA Oscillate Mixer, you can merge, layer, crossfade and oscillate between the two banks. Also on board is an automatable Gate Sequencer which, unlike a conventional sequencer, operates on timbre rather than pitch. Each sound bank contains settings for transpose, tuning, filter, panning, ADSR envelopes and volume, as well as a great analogue synth-style glide control. eDNA also houses a powerful effects section with extensive routing capabilities, which includes EQ, tape saturation, lo-fi, distortion, flanger, phaser, chorus, convolution reverb, limiter, stereo width and formant effects.
The Close, (Decca) Tree, Ambient and Outriggers miking configuration of the original library is preserved in Albion One, giving you the means to create your own surround mixes. To conserve resources, patches load with only the Tree miking activated, after which you can introduce the other three positions at the touch of a button. The only caveat is that using multiple mic positions will place considerable strain on your system, so unless you have a fast SSD drive-based set-up, it’s advisable to be frugal in this regard.
A new feature in Albion One can help those with modest systems to avoid computer meltdowns: the new ‘Lush Verb’ feature enables you to add a long, Lexicon-like hall effect via a slider on the front panel. This sounds very agreeable when added to the Close mics, and uses no extra RAM when activated.
- Ready-to-go blended orchestral sections and percussion performed by top players in a world-famous hall.
- Recorded from multiple mic positions.
- Also includes an extremely versatile collection of rhythm loops, synth sounds and effects.
- The blended ensemble approach means there’s no access to individual strings or winds.
- Limited brass and woodwind articulation menu.
- No proper manual.
Designed for those who want an instant orchestral sound without having to painstakingly program the individual elements, Albion One takes much of the strain out of creating orchestral arrangements. Combining a large, great-sounding orchestra recorded at AIR Studios with big-screen percussion, rhythm loops, synth pads and effects, the library provides all the essential ingredients for modern media scoring. The lack of solo instruments and individual sections, coupled with the small brass and woodwind articulation menu, make it unsuitable for recreating the detail of a traditional score, but it achieves its mission of giving users “all the essential tools used to make modern epic cinematic music” very well.