Want a full orchestral sample library for free? Spitfire have got you covered...
Dave Stewart was hugely impressed when reviewing Spitfire Audio’s BBC Symphony Orchestra sample library in the November 2019 issue of SOS. While BBC SO offered excellent value, its price made it a substantial investment so, in what looks like a sensible ‑ and shrewd — move, Spitfire have now rebranded the original library as the ‘Pro’ version and introduced two additional tiers, Core and Discover, with more streamlined feature sets and more accessible prices.
Core is still superbly specified, but the subject of this review is the entry‑level Discover edition and, while there is undoubtedly some very significant streamlining going on, it still provides what is essentially a full suite of orchestral instruments covering all orchestral sections. However, what’s perhaps most remarkable about BBC Symphony Orchestra Discover is that (a) it is potentially available for free (or £$49 depending upon your level of patience) and (b) the entire sample library occupies only 200MB (no, that’s not a typo). How much orchestra can you actually get into a free library of 200MB? It’s time to (BBC SO) Discover...
Crammed into that miniscule 200MB are 33 instruments and a total of 47 articulations (playing techniques). In contrast, the numbers are 23GB and 600GB, 42 instruments and 46 instruments, and 305 and 435 articulations respectively for the Core and Pro editions. What you do get in Discover though is a broad palette of instruments. In the strings, this includes first violins, second violins, violas, celli and double‑basses. For the woodwinds, we have piccolo, flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons. The brass section includes horns, trumpets, tenor trombones, bass trombones and tuba. Finally, the percussion section provides harp, celeste, timpani, marimba, xylophone, glockenspiel, tubular bells and a range of untuned percussion. In terms of the articulations, all instruments include long notes (sustained with a touch of vibrato) and short notes (spiccato/staccatissimo), while the strings also include pizzicato (plucked) and tremolo (with the exception of the double‑bass).
In terms of what you don’t get, in addition to fewer instruments and fewer articulations, there are no round‑robin samples and only a single dynamic layer; volume (via velocity or mod wheel) has to be used to provide the bulk of the playing dynamics for individual instruments. Discover also excludes true legato samples and solo players. The other limitation compared to Pro is that you only get a single mic position, although this has been very well chosen (not too ambient) and there is always reverb if you want more room.
Discover’s UI is very straightforward. You get an info line across the top, while the upper half of the display provides you with two routes to select a patch; either via the drop‑down browser or simply by clicking on the colourful orchestral floorplan. The lower half of the display provides controls to adjust volume and the level of the internal reverb. Buttons are provided to switch between the available playing articulations and keyswitches are also available starting around the C‑2 region of the MIDI keyboard.
Discover’s RAM requirements are obviously light and, in testing on my own (modest by today’s standards) iMac, I was able to run a session with every articulation (47 instances of the plug‑in) playing at the same time without my system making a murmur. The UI’s CPU and disk meters are useful in this context, but I would imagine you could have this full orchestral setup running on a pretty basic host computer without too many issues.
It’s also worth noting that Spitfire’s website has pre‑configured downloadable template files for each BBC SO edition available for most of the major DAWs. I downloaded the two available for Cubase and they are a useful starting point for new users.
While you obviously can’t conjure the finesse from Discover’s sounds that you would from Core or Pro (or any other more deeply sampled orchestral library), in use, Discover manages to sound way better than a 200MB footprint suggests it has any right to. It obviously helps that the underlying samples are very good indeed. The combination of long and shorts notes for every string, brass and woodwind instrument is both an obvious and sensible choice and it allows you to write slow sustained parts or more up‑tempo melodic runs.
While all the sustained instruments must feature some sample looping, it would appear to have been beautifully done and the results are very smooth. All the short articulations have a nice crisp attack to them and, if you want to add a little extra edge to your sustained notes, the long and short notes can easily be layered if you run each articulation in a separate instance of the plug‑in. The additional string articulations are also very welcome, and all the pizzicato instruments are very useable. You do have to make good use of the mod wheel and velocity to provide as much by way of dynamics as you can.
The only other comment I would make is that the string presets do include some noticeable low‑end bow noise. I guess this adds to the realism but, if you want to keep the bottom‑end of your mix tidy, a little low‑cut EQ on the required tracks is an easy solution.
Spitfire Audio have knocked it out of the park with BBC SO Discover; it’s free, it’s compact and sounds remarkable given its incredibly small size.
As mentioned earlier, you can obtain Discover for free or you can pay £$49. The free route requires you to complete a questionnaire for Spitfire and then wait approximately two weeks for your request to be dealt with. If you chose the paid route, Discover is available for immediate download and, as Spitfire Audio rather wonderfully pay royalties to their performing musicians, you can feel good that you are contributing to that process.
Discover is also a route to either Core or Pro and upgrade pricing means anything you have already paid is discounted on the price of the next tier you wish to buy. One other clever technical feature in this regard is what Spitfire call Mode Switching. This allows projects created using one edition to be opened with another while the plug‑in intelligently substitutes instruments depending upon which editions you are moving between. Without access to Core or Pro, I didn’t get the opportunity to test this, but it’s a cool feature.
Discover is undoubtedly a ‘win’ for Spitfire Audio on a number of levels, one of which is as an accessible entry point into the BBC SO ecosystem for budding orchestral composers. It’s also a ‘win’ for potential users. It’s difficult not to be impressed with how it manages to combine a tiny footprint and modest computer requirements with a sound that punches well above its weight. No, you probably wouldn’t use Discover to score a mainstream TV or film project, but students might have enough here to do their mate’s film school short. In addition, for working composers, sketching an idea via Discover on a compact laptop system, before Mode Switching the project over to Core or Pro for completion is an attractive idea. Indeed, when in the early stages of writing, there is something very liberating about working with a limited palette of sounds and not having to concern yourself with stressing your host system; Discover is ideal for this.
Spitfire Audio have knocked it out of the park with BBC SO Discover; it’s free, it’s compact and sounds remarkable given its incredibly small size. If you look, there are other low‑cost and free orchestral sounds out there but Discover sets an incredibly high bar. Absolutely a no‑brainer and ideal for anyone wanting to explore the world of composing for a full orchestra.
Spitfire Audio have created a brilliant entry‑level orchestral library for any budding composer, as well as a genuinely useful compact scoring tool.