Spitfire Audio’s BML range packages a full orchestral library into 20 individual modules.
Since January 2013 Spitfire Audio have been steadily developing their largest sampling project to date: a comprehensive, modular collection of orchestral strings, brass and woodwinds, recorded in London’s AIR Studios from multiple listening perspectives. Titled the British Modular Library (BML for short), this ongoing series currently comprises 19 individual volumes containing solo instruments and sections of various sizes (see the ‘BML Volumes’ box below for a complete listing).
Upholding the company’s proud-to-be-British traditions, BML features the best players our green and intermittently pleasant land has to offer. In this case, rather than yet another example of the tedious, faux-patriotic nonsense currently disfiguring UK politics, the British bias is justified: it’s an undisputable fact that UK players and studios are among the best in the world, and the musical talent, lavish hall sound and excellent engineering featured in this collection have graced many acclaimed recordings and film scores.
The BML range runs exclusively on the full version of NI Kontakt version 4.2.4 or 5, and will not work with the free Kontakt Player. All volumes are available as downloads from Spitfire Audio’s site; the company also offers a hard-drive delivery service for larger libraries and bundles.
In common with Spitfire’s other orchestral offerings, the samples were recorded in AIR Studios’ Lyndhurst Hall with players seated in their correct concert positions. Consequently, BML instruments fit together in a balanced stereo picture with no need for panning. Taking advantage of the hall’s hexagonal shape and high galleries, Spitfire recorded the samples from seven perspectives: four of these positions (close, Decca Tree, outriggers and ambient) are included in each library as standard, with the remainder due to be issued as free updates. The updates also include three additional mixes created by engineer Jake Jackson, which include a ‘symphonic’ presentation optimised for film soundtracks and a closer, more detailed mix for pop production.
Refined over a number of years, the Kontakt GUI used in BML includes a microphone mixer and controls for legato interval transition speed, round-robin behaviour, articulation loading/unloading and sample purging. The ‘Ostinatum’ sequencer, a quick and enjoyable way of creating repeated ostinato rhythm patterns, is also included, as is the ingenious ‘Punch Cog’ facility, which allows you to remove and/or tweak the tuning of any sample used in a patch.
The first BML title to see the light of day was Sable Strings Volume 1, released in early 2013. In contrast with the large sections in their other string libraries (more on which later), Spitfire went small with Sable and sampled a chamber-sized group optimised for nuance, definition and detail. Reflecting this desire for pointillistic focus, the Sable library takes its name from a type of artist’s brush designed for fine, detailed work.
Sable Vol 1 (86.9GB) features four first violins and a separate, three-player cello section playing essential articulations such as long notes, short spiccatos, staccatos and legatos. I was pleased to find the long notes have fast attacks, rendering them usable for quick rhythmic playing as well as slower-moving pads. Con sordino (muted) samples are a nice extra, and provided an unexpected highlight: the cellos’ sordino sustains, which sound majestic and imposing in AIR’s lush hall acoustic.
The library’s excellent legato samples offer a choice between ‘bowed’ (featuring a bow attack on every note) and ‘fingered’, which changes note without re-bowing. Legato portamentos provide fantastic Bollywood-style slides, a perennially ear-grabbing and charismatic delivery which cries out to be used in pop arrangements. In a lighter vein, the ‘flautando’ articulation is an interesting, breathy and tender texture, while the high-pitched, ghostly harmonics (which sound almost flute-like on the cellos) are strikingly atmospheric.
While the short spiccato performances are agreeably light, brisk and precise, a more aggressive short-note style which caught my ear was the violins’ ‘short staccato dig’, featuring strong, dramatic, fiercely propulsive bow attacks. I also appreciated the lively tremolos and tone/semitone trills, which are played with great spirit and animation. Percussive ‘Bartok pizzicato’ and col legno hits (the latter produced by hitting the string with the back of the bow) are also enjoyably raucous and robust — the cello col legnos are particularly strong.
Despite the small player numbers and limited instrumentation, Sable Strings Vol 1 can produce surprisingly grand, full-sounding string arrangements spanning the vital C2 to C7 pitch range. However, for a full chamber strings line-up, prospective BML buyers need to add Sable Vol 2. This 93.8GB companion library contains three second violins (different players from the first violins), three violas and three double basses playing the same articulations (with a few omissions) as the instruments in Vol 1. Though slightly less bright-sounding, expansive and assertive than the first violins, the second violins’ musical quality is in no way inferior; in fact, their downplayed, more supportive approach provides the ideal foil for the first violins, and helps the two sections to blend together.
I was impressed by the strength and emotional depth of the violas’ long notes, legatos and con sordinos, which sound like they were played on very expensive instruments! My only minor criticism of this fine section is that it lacks an aggressive delivery to match the first violins’ ‘short staccato dig’. The double basses play this confrontational style with great vigour, along with some fabulous long notes and earth-shaking tremolos. On the downside, some of the basses’ pizzicato samples suffer from unclean attacks and extraneous noises, but they’re weighty enough to pass muster in a mix.
Having created a full chamber strings orchestra with a basic range of playing styles, Spitfire pushed the boat out in Sable Vol 3 (70.5GB) and introduced a host of extended articulations for all five sections. ‘Measured tremolos’ (fast, repeated 16th notes played at 150bpm and a hurtling 180bpm) are an exciting new style, the perfect accompaniment for frantic on-screen action. Kontakt 5 owners can activate the ‘sync to tempo’ function and lock these energetic rhythmic performances to their song tempo.
Sounding thin, metallic and a little scary, the sul ponticello articulation has great horror-film and sound-design potential. When combined with tremolo bowing (as in the first violins’ and cellos’ ‘tremolo sul pont’ patches), it adds a harsh, menacing edge to a classic tension-building style. Use with care.
Somewhat disappointingly, multi-octave runs and a small selection of meandering mini-phrases come in a very limited selection of keys. I was surprised to hear the second violins ending up a semitone apart on the final note of one of their ascending three-octave runs, but the basses make amends by grunting out two-octave runs with commendable vigour and tight timing. A set of lively single-octave ascending runs (which have no descending version) are supplied in all 12 keys, but unfortunately the second violins have been programmed a semitone too low. These runs and phrases have no tempo-sync’ing facility.
A comprehensive effects section comprises moody ‘tense longs’ (a slow, wheezy crescendo which builds into a hushed, expectant, dynamically undulating sustain), a nerve-jangling collection of high-pitched, avant-garde noises, and some terrific glissandos and slides. (In theory you can alter the slides’ direction with the mod wheel, but that didn’t work in my review copy.) Also included are entertaining ‘disco falls’ (short notes with a quick descending slide on the end), evoking the golden age of Saturday Night Fever, excessively tight white trousers and unfeasibly high, falsetto male vocals (presumably the last two have a causal link?).
The first violins and cellos benefit from three new legato styles: the brilliant ‘fast legato’ is optimised for rapid, leaping phrases, ‘legato runs’ work a treat for super-quick scales of intervals up to a minor third, and ‘legato tremolo’ puts a smooth sheen on tremolo melody lines. One caveat: these patches require the legato long-note samples from Vol 1 to work properly. The two sections are further expanded by romantic, impassioned ‘molto vibrato’ performances, some great, biting sforzando marcato attacks and trills on minor 3rd and 4th intervals, which have a variable sample start point depending on how hard you hit the key.
By June 2014 the Sable chamber strings series had grown to five volumes, making it the largest and most evolved part of the BML library. Sable Vol 4 (9.7GB) provides an eclectic collection of extra articulations, including the expressive ‘sul tasto’ (bowed over the fingerboard). Whereas the second violins and cellos perform this romantic, dreamy style as “an intimate whisper” (Spitfire’s words), the first violins’ and violas’ version is considerably more assertive.
An auxiliary ‘sul G’ (aka ‘sul C’) legato articulation consists of legato intervals played exclusively on the instruments’ bottom string. Of necessity this style has a restricted pitch range, but its sound is satisfyingly full and fruity, with a slight hint of portamento. A straight sustained version is also included, featuring some rather sour tuning by the second violins. Muted sul ponticello patches are a fairly extreme texture, thin and wiry like a hurdy gurdy; the tremolo version of this style is the ultimate in edgy creepiness, but if you can’t handle the tension, the regular muted tremolo bowing is far more mellow and musical-sounding. Though the basses don’t play all of these new styles, Sable Vol 4 belatedly fills some gaps in their ranks by providing flautandos, trills and regular sul ponticello samples.
Composers like myself who like to work with full strings patches will enjoy Sable Ensembles (26.8GB), which combines Sable’s violins, violas, cellos and basses into eminently playable, great-sounding ensemble patches. Mapped and blended over six octaves according to range, the sections play a set of basic articulations — an excellent compositional resource.
With a little simple programming, it’s possible to make Sable Strings sound like a bigger section. However, if that’s the sound you generally hanker after, it’s simpler to use BML Mural Symphonic Strings, which sound that way straight out of the box. Featuring 60 players (16 first violins, 14 second violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos and eight basses), the Mural sections immediately create a full symphonic string sound. The only problem (if you can call it that) is that they can sound almost too big, and need to be handled with care so as not to overpower other sounds in the track!
Mural Vol 1 (33.5GB) contains all five sections playing essential articulations; Mural Vol 2 (30.6GB) adds important playing styles, as well as filling gaps in the second violins’ and violas’ articulations. The recently added 20.9GB Mural Ensembles blends the sections into full-range patches, featuring 13 essential articulations. You can read my review of Mural Vols 1 & 2 in the October 2014 edition of SOS.
The first woodwind library in the BML catalogue, Flute Consort Vol 1 (13.9GB), contains a solo flute and a flute duo playing essential articulations. You can combine their patches to emulate the classic three-flute ensembles found in the first wave of orchestral sample libraries. This flexible ensemble-building approach occurs throughout the BML range.
If you share my view that woodwinds are under-used in contemporary media composition, you can help redress the balance by employing this library’s great solo flute. Its delivery is lyrical, elegant and expressive, with beautiful tuning and a sweet vibrato: map a MIDI controller to the on-screen vibrato fader and you can start a note with no vibrato, then fade it up at will. This is an easy, subtle and natural-sounding way of adding expression to flute parts.
The solo flute’s legato samples do a fine job of smoothing out melody lines: the ‘legato articulations’ patch automatically switches between ‘slurred’ and ‘progressive’ legato styles according to your playing speed, with the progressive version handling fast note transitions. For more rhythmic work, you can’t do better than the flute’s admirably precise and incisive short staccatissimos.
Alternative deliveries include ‘hollow’ long notes and upper-register harmonics (both of which have a primitive ethnic flavour), and overblown samples which recall the jazzy flute stylings of ’60s film scores. The multi-tongue articulation (two, three or four quick repeated notes culminating in an end note) is very cool: the mod wheel controls the number of initial repeats, while the length of the final note is governed by note velocity. Similarly, flute trills play their natural start on quiet velocities, but cut straight into the trill when you play hard. The flute duo duplicates the solo instrument’s articulation menu with no diminution in musical quality. One niggle: it seems the solo flute and flute duo ‘short marcato sfz’ patches use the same samples.
BML Additional Flutes (8.6GB) extends the flute family by adding alto flute and piccolo, which between them play most of the articulations found in Flute Consort Vol 1. The alto flute sounds lovely, maintaining a sumptuous tone from its low register up into the high range — the hallmark of an exceptional player. Long notes are played with a delayed vibrato, while the legato performances (which I could play all day) feature a more immediate vibrato style. The perky, piping piccolo has a nice, clear and bright sound, handles melody lines with aplomb and can even do a good impersonation of an Irish whistle when you play its legato patch quietly.
The BML Reeds Vol 1 library (11.5GB) is a simple, straightforward presentation of oboe and Bb clarinet, both of which have solo and ‘a2’ (classical-speak for two players) versions. Articulations are limited to long notes, legatos and short staccatos. I like this solo oboe a lot. Its deliveries are elegant, lyrical and romantic, warm-toned but retaining that hint of angularity which makes the oboe such a characterful and distinctive instrument. The solo instrument’s legato articulation is another treat: inter-note transitions are very smooth, and you can perform rapid twiddles, runs and grace notes with no break in the timbral continuity.
A pair of out-of-tune oboes wouldn’t be much fun, but thankfully that doesn’t occur here; the two players manage to precisely match their intonation, creating a strong, controlled unison timbre that works well both for short staccatos and legato long notes. In contrast to the solo instrument’s expressive, slightly delayed vibrato, the two oboes use no vibrato at all. This gives their long notes a slightly stern, serious atmosphere which would be very effective in solemn liturgical music.
The solo clarinet resonates beautifully in the AIR Lyndhurst hall, but its pure sweetness of tone is offset by some dodgy tuning in its long notes, particularly noticeable on the F and F# above Middle C; move the mod wheel while holding a note, and you’ll hear a tuning discrepancy as one dynamic layer cross-fades with another. This problem (which occurs to a lesser extent on a few other pitches) diminishes the usefulness of what would otherwise be a very good instrument, so one hopes Spitfire will address it before long. Thankfully, the clarinet duo’s short staccato and long-note performances are nicely in tune. In keeping with orchestral tradition, the clarinets perform long notes with no vibrato, but a subtle (real) vibrato can be added with the on-screen fader.
An essential volume for serious composers and arrangers, BML Low Reeds Vol 1 (15.6GB) completes the basic orchestral woodwind line-up with cor anglais, solo bassoon, two bassoons and a contrabassoon. BML’s cor anglais is another wonderful legato instrument: it can play Charlie Parker bebop solos (and indeed, any other fleet-footed melodic passages) with ease, and its plaintive, slightly melancholy tone is an inspiration for melodic writing. The bassoon also has very nice legatos, played with a subtle, restrained and dignified vibrato, which can handle lines of any speed.
The solo bassoonist obviously took the ‘short’ part of ‘short staccatos’ to heart, as that particular patch’s note durations are so brief as to sound almost clipped. However, that can be remedied by using the ‘TM Shorts’ patch, which allows you to globally stretch staccato note lengths. Alternatively, the bassoon duo’s brisk, urgent, well-played short staccatos avoid over-brevity and match other BML instruments’ versions of that articulation.
Composers looking to extend their woodwind low register would be well advised to check out the instruments in BML Low Winds Vol 1 (10.6GB). With its languid, unhurried long notes, fruity staccatos and fabulous legato performances (some of the best in the BML range), the bass clarinet is a star turn. Standing 10 feet tall, the library’s contrabass clarinet doesn’t do anything in a hurry. Its short marcatos are the closest it gets to a fast attack, while trying to play a bebop solo on its legato patch would be a thankless task. But for big, fat stately pedal notes, this ultra-low-pitched wind instrument is unbeatable.
The third instrument in Low Winds Vol 1 is bass flute. This exotic instrument adds a breathy, velvety lower octave to the flute family’s range, enabling you to add bass notes to flute chords and contrapuntal bass lines to your flute chorales!
Moving on to BML’s brass, Horn Section Vol 1 (26.5GB) adopts the woodwinds format of combining a solo instrument and a duo. The French horn duo gets the lion’s share of articulations, and delivers them with great confidence: sustains, slurred and detached legatos are strong, steady and well-tuned, brassy cuivré performances sound impressively noble and the loud, blasting ‘bells up’ patch is positively regal. Effects (consisting of exuberant, whooping rips and uninhibited falls) are a welcome bonus.
Though it has only five patches, the solo horn is highly effective and performs its simple deliveries immaculately. For a bigger (dare I say epic?) sound, Spitfire offers Horn Phalanx (8.4GB), a classic name for a six-horn section. It’s not known whether the players marched around the studio in tight military formation, but the size, majesty and force of some articulations certainly evokes the might of ancient Rome (or should that be Greece?).
The 12.3GB Trumpet Corps Vol 1 also contains a solo instrument and a duo. The soloist turns in a serviceable handful of articulations, including brilliant-toned long notes and somewhat more reflective legatos. The duo’s collective tone is equally bright, clear and assertive, a call to arms at loud dynamics and a calming presence when played softly. Quiet notes contain a hint of vibrato which all but disappears in the louder dynamic layers; by contrast, the vibrato in the braying ‘Mariachi’ delivery is so strong you could practically trim a hedge with it. If you want galloping, rhythmic figures, the multi-tongue patch automatically generates initial fast note repeats, or you can perform them yourself with the ‘Fanfare Sculptor’ patch.
Six-player Trumpet Phalanx and Bone Phalanx volumes are also in the works, but at the time of writing the musicians had not yet arrived from ancient Athens (or should that be Carthage?).
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones... well hardly, nothing recorded in AIR Lyndhurst’s reverb-enriched hall ever sounded dry. BML’s trombone library, Bones Vol 1 (11.3GB), provides a tenor trombone duo and a separate section of two bass trombones. (Solo tenor and bass trombones are due to appear in Vol 2.) I love the sound of the tenors. Their timbre ranges from warm and mellow to big and grandiose, a rich, stately, spectacular and dynamic sound which is ideal for chord pads and melody lines. Two minor issues: sustain pedal is disabled on long-note patches (easily fixed in Kontakt’s ‘instrument options’ window), and imperfect tuning takes the shine off some high long notes — using the Punch Cog to remove the offending round-robin samples improved matters.
The bass trombones duplicate the tenors’ articulations, reinforcing the low register with their powerful, raspy deliveries. In the effects department, both sections perform a set of lusty rips and falls, the speed of which can be controlled by the on-screen ‘speed’ slider. Amusing ‘effects glissandi’ are also included.
Adding a further low octave to the trombone range, the contrabass trombone in BML Low Brass (27.1GB) contributes an impressive array of performances: its stupendously powerful, unlooped cuivré style reminds me of the glass-shattering, sub-bass blast of the mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The library’s solo and duo cimbassos (a floor-standing, valved contrabass brass instrument) make an interesting alternative to the bass trombone: their timbre ranges from big, warm and comforting to a spiky, brassy shout (as heard in the fabulous zippy short staccatos). Underpinning the whole shooting patch is a wonderfully rotund tuba, providing a great, solid foundation to BML’s brass instruments.
Spitfire Audio certainly release a lot of material — I sometimes wonder if these guys ever find time to eat and sleep, let alone write music. If we factor in the company’s initial license-only releases, one could say they’ve come close to sampling an entire orchestra twice, an achievement akin to building a scale model of both Houses of Parliament out of grains of rice.
With a comprehensive and flexible instrumentation, a brilliant team of players maintaining a high standard of performance throughout and a great hall acoustic, BML is a force to be reckoned with. Admittedly it faces competition from overseas, but without wishing to sound like a UKIP supporter, why go abroad when you can enjoy the best of British?
Most orchestral sample companies sell their wares in large, one-size-fits-all volumes, which can be overkill for anyone looking to buy a limited selection of instruments. If you’re in the market for a library that can be purchased in smaller, modular chunks, an obvious alternative to BML is the Vienna Symphonic Library. Like the BML volumes, VSL’s instruments are available in themed bundles (the Vienna company also sell some individual instruments), and both libraries benefit from interval legato sampling, great sound and superior musicianship. In contrast to Spitfire’s multi-miked, reverberant hall approach, VSL favours a dryer studio acoustic and a stereo-only configuration, but weighed against that is VSL’s large and complete range of performance styles across all instruments.
To save on disk space, Native Instruments’ lossless NCW compression is employed throughout the BML library: this reduces the samples to half their original size (though the sound quality is identical). The GB figures in this review refer to libraries’ installed sizes. At the time of writing the entire BML range uses 500GB of disk space, but with new releases in the pipeline, anyone interested in buying the whole collection should invest in a 1TB drive.
- Sable Strings Vol 1 £478.80£399
- Sable Strings Vol 2 £478.80£399
- Sable Strings Vol 3 £358.80£299
- Sable Strings Vol 4 £178.80£149
- Sable Ensembles £298.80£249
- Mural Strings Vol 1 £478.80£399
- Mural Strings Vol 2 £478.80£399
- Mural Ensembles £298.80£249
- Flute Consort Vol 1 £238.80£199
- Additional Flutes £202.80£169
- Low Reeds Vol 1 £202.80£169
- Low Winds Vol 1 £202.80£169
- Horn Section Vol 1 £202.80£169
- Horn Phalanx £178.80£149
- Trumpet Corps Vol 1 £298.80£249
- Bones Vol 1 £334.80£279
- Low Brass £294£245
- Trumpet Phalanx TBC
- Bone Phalanx TBC
Catalogue Contents Number
Flute Consort Vol 1 BML 101 Solo flute, two flutes.
Additional Flutes BML 102 Piccolo, alto flute.
Low Winds Vol 1 BML 103 Bass flute, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet.
Low Reeds Vol 1 BML 104 Cor anglais, solo bassoon, two bassoons, contrabassoon.
Reeds Vol 1 BML 105 Solo oboe, two oboes, solo clarinet, two clarinets.
Horn Section Vol 1 BML 201 Solo French horn, two French horns.
Trumpet Corps Vol 1 BML 202 Solo trumpet, two trumpets.
Low Brass BML 203 Tuba, solo cimbasso, two cimbassos, contrabass trombone.
Bones Vol 1 BML 204 Two tenor trombones, two bass trombones.
Trumpet Phalanx BML 209 Six trumpets.
Bone Phalanx BML 210 Six trombones (three tenor, two bass, one contrabass).
Horn Phalanx BML 211 Six French horns.
Sable Vol 1 BML 301 Four first violins, three cellos (essential articulations).
Sable Vol 2 BML 302 Three second violins, three violas, three double basses (essential articulations).
Sable Vol 3 BML 303 All five sections (extended articulations).
Sable Vol 4 BML 304 All five sections (additional extended articulations).
Sable Ensembles BML 305 Blended ensembles.
Mural Vol 1 BML 308 Sixteen 1st violins, 14 2nd violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos, eight double basses.
Mural Vol 2 BML 309 As above (additional articulations).
Mural Ensembles BML 310 Blended ensembles.
- Top players, expensive instruments, opulent hall acoustic.
- Recorded from seven different microphone positions.
- Contains some great performances, including excellent interval legatos.
- Has some tuning issues.
- The articulation menu is not fully comprehensive.
- Currently has no solo trombone.
It’s big, it sounds very posh and it’s an established vote-winner. No, we’re not talking about Boris Johnson: this is Spitfire Audio’s 20-volume British Modular Library, featuring a superior collection of strings, woodwind and brass sections and solo instruments recorded in AIR Lyndhurst’s hall. For those considering investing in an orchestral sample library, BML offers a buy-as-you-go solution: beginners can dip their toe in the water and buy single volumes, while committed pros will be tempted to dive in and acquire the whole collection.