Though you might have to dig deep into their web site to find it, Spitfire Audio’s ‘Folk & World’ section has much to offer the keen-eared composer: ethnic winds, Indian percussion, and a collection of samples from the archive of ethnomusicologist David Fanshawe, whose African Sanctus fused traditional African drums and tribal chants with Western choral music back in the day. Nestling amongst these attractions is an exotic instrument with great musical applications: I refer to the Grand Cimbalom, a compact library which runs on the full version of Kontakt 4.2.4 and higher (though not on the free Kontakt player), occupies 2.6GB of disk space and costs less than 50 quid.
Technically part of the zither family, the cimbalom is a large hammered dulcimer found throughout Central-Eastern Europe from Switzerland to Hungary — go further east, and you’ll find it in Iran and Iraq, where it’s called the santur. The instrument’s metal strings, stretched over a trapezoidal sound board with three or four strings per note, are struck with beaters to produce a beautifully resonant, deep sustaining twang with a slightly chorused effect reminiscent of an electric 12-string. You may have heard it in John Barry’s ’60s TV and movie themes, and its evocative sound has attracted composers as diverse as Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Lalo Schifrin, Harrison Birtwistle, John Adams and Elvis Costello.
The concert cimbalom in this library was performed by composer/percussionist Greg Knowles. Unlike smaller folk-style instruments of the same ilk, it has a damper pedal, enabling players to switch between dry and percussive damped notes (ideal for fast rhythm patterns) and long sustains. Spitfire sampled both pedal positions at two dynamics with four round robins, along with a set of tremolandos, a characteristic and highly charismatic performance style. Though you can use sustain pedal to switch between long and short notes, there’s no option to use the pedal to fully control note die-away. I daresay those with Kontakt programming chops will find a way around it, but as things stand it’s a small limitation.
Grand Cimbalom’s USP is that it was recorded in the hall at Air Studios, London from Spitfire’s classic close, Decca Tree, ambient and outrigger mic positions. The concert-hall acoustic adds huge size and resonance to the instrument’s mournful twang, transforming it from a humble folk zither to a majestic sonority which would grace any cinematic soundscape. While its exotic timbre suggests a particular geography, its use is by no means limited to Eastern European cold war spy thrillers. I recently recorded it on a sensitive pop ballad, and it can also take on the role of a magisterial, reverb-drenched, ’60s-flavoured twangy electric guitar whenever you need an unusual and distinctive lead sound. Either way, it’s an affordable, great-sounding gem of an instrument with oodles of creative potential.