Spitfire Audio get intimate with their new studio-recorded orchestral sample libraries.
Although they occasionally decamp to other sites, one recording location dominates Spitfire Audio's output: Lyndhurst Hall in London's AIR Studios, a hexagonal, 5000-square-foot galleried space which can comfortably accommodate a 100-piece orchestra and 100-voice choir (though I'm not sure the canteen can cope so easily). Over the last 12 years Spitfire have spent huge amounts of time and money in this room, recording an extensive range of orchestral sample libraries which cemented the company's global reputation and found their way into innumerable film scores, TV soundtracks and record releases.
A striking feature of Lyndhurst Hall's acoustic is its lively reverb, a natural feature which permeates recordings and can be heard even on Spitfire's close-miked samples. While this glorious sonic halo creates an impressive soundscape for epic-sounding orchestral scores, it's less suitable for revealing the intimate detail of a quietly played solo instrument. With this in mind, the company relocated to record their latest library. Titled Spitfire Studio Orchestra, it features a comprehensive collection of 25 ensembles and 24 solo instruments recorded in the tight, dry acoustic of AIR Studio One, a mere few yards from the adjoining hall.
Two years in the making, the Spitfire Studio Orchestra collection (which we'll abbreviate to SSO) consists of three separate components: Spitfire Studio Strings, Spitfire Studio Brass and Spitfire Studio Woodwinds, released over an eight-month period starting in Autumn 2018. Each library has a Core and a Professional version: the latter incorporates the entire Core content and adds more instruments, five extra mic positions and two stereo mixes created by Grammy-winning engineer Simon Rhodes.
The SSO libraries run exclusively on Kontakt or Kontakt Player 5.6.8 or higher, with the free Kontakt Player included with purchases. Disk space requirements are shown in the comparison box. If you find them too big to download, a hard drive delivery option is available at extra cost. Discounts are available when you buy the three instrument families as a set; there are also crossgrade paths between their Core and Professional versions (you simply pay the price difference between the two products at the point of purchase).
Spitfire Studio Strings features separate sections of eight first violins, six second violins, six violas, six cellos and four double basses. I know from experience these player numbers can create a rich, powerful sound for epic and grandiose scores, and they're also ideal for pop/rock tracks — in short, these strings are highly versatile!
In this collection Spitfire made a huge effort to give users all the different string playing styles they might conceivably need (I counted 46 for the first violins). Each section has a basic all-in-one patch containing seven common playing styles; for more detailed score work, 'Core Techniques' patches group together up to 17 keyswitchable articulations, and beyond that you can delve into 'Individual Articulations' folders for a wealth of colourful performances such as harmonics, trills of intervals up to a fourth, short grace notes (a great resource for cartoon music) and disco-style falls.
I enjoyed the violins' dreamy flautando (a light, fast bowing which produces a soft, breathy flute-like sound), sul tasto (similar, but slightly more assertive) and Spitfire's trademark 'super sul tasto', a quiet, beautifully tentative and delicate timbre. If you're in the market for such sensitive performances, the strings' muted con sordino patches have an attractive, thinned-out, silky texture, while 'CS blend' patches featuring a 50/50 mix of muted and unmuted instruments are a romantic, easy-on-the-ear timbre.
These strings also cut the mustard for dramatic soundtrack work: their urgent, emphatic short spiccatos are perfectly tailored for tense action and chase scenes, and the fast 'measured tremolo' bowing creates a hectic, exciting rhythmic blur. The gentler 'brushed' spiccato style is also nicely propulsive. For more aggressive passages, the marcato–attack long notes are suitably forceful, while the col legno and Bartok pizzicato styles are incisively percussive (the latter violently so).
Given Spitfire's experience in this field, I expected the strings' legatos to be on the money, and I wasn't disappointed: providing you take care to slightly overlap notes, the slurred legatos work supremely well for smoothly joining up the notes of soaring violin themes and moody cello section bass lines, and the excellent legato portamento slides are just the ticket for that irresistible, colourful and sinuous Bollywood strings style.
Some patch names need clarification: 'effects glissandos' are a smallish collection of ascending and descending slides of different lengths; 'hairpins' are quietly compelling, dramatic, long, slow crescendo/diminuendo performances; while 'to tonic' and 'to dominant' slides consist of a quick slide up to a short target note from a fourth or fifth below.
Though the manual doesn't document the violins' runs and phrases, I can reveal that the first consists of fast ascending octave runs in all 12 keys, played in a choice of major, melodic minor, harmonic minor, whole tone and chromatic scales. The second (which seems like a bit of an afterthought) is a small collection of two-bar, classical-sounding melodic phrases which meander a few steps up and down the major scale in a few keys.
The good news for users is that all of the articulations described above are available in the Core version of the strings library, all sections were sampled over a wide pitch range (the cellos span four octaves), and the performances are exemplary — clearly, these are top players.
The additional mic positions supplied in the Studio Strings Professional edition are described in the box below. Also included are independently recorded 'A' and B' divisi sections of the Core strings' violins, violas and cellos, featuring different sets of players seated in their original positions. Having captured the divisi samples, Spitfire blended them with the corresponding original sections to create a virtual 56-piece symphonic group of 16 first violins, 12 second violins, 12 violas and 12 cellos and four basses.
This opens up a world of possibilities: you can use the half-size sections for a smaller, more intimate 'Eleanor Rigby' chamber sound, or go massive with the symphonic patches (which feature some truly kick–ass short spiccatos). For quieter settings and ballads, I found that layering the 16 violins' con sordino and flautando sustains creates a lovely lush sound — you just have to turn the con sordinos down a little to achieve a nice blend.
The additional Pro edition string sections don't introduce extra articulations, but offer the standard menu of legato (slurred), long note, long con sordino, flautando, pizzicato, short spiccato and tremolo styles. In my book, the only thing missing from this great collection is a set of full string ensemble patches, which many composers find helpful for writing and arranging.
Originally released in December 2018, Spitfire Studio Brass contains a workmanlike line-up of trumpet, French horn, tuba and cimbasso solo instruments and four ensembles (two trumpets, two tenor trombones, two bass trombones and four horns). First adopted in the company's BML range a few years back, the two-player ensemble format allows you to create virtual trios by adding a solo instrument of the same type.
Creators of epic music will have a field day with this library — the solo trumpet sounds bright and strong over its E3–D6 range, and the two-player trumpet, trombone and bass trombone sections contribute fine legatos for lead lines and smart, brilliant-sounding staccatissimos for rhythmic figures. It's easy to imagine the trumpets' marcato and sforzando note attacks, coupled with the horns' loud, brassy 'bells-up' style, blasting out over a cinematic CGI battlefield. Also on hand are Spitfire's favourite 'multi-tongue' patches (a great resource for galloping brass rhythms) and energetic rips up to a target note — you can use the 'variation' slider to shorten the length of rips, and to switch between double, triple and quadruple multi-tongued performances.
While these instruments will do a good job in cooking up rousing militaristic soundtracks, they're also suitable for more subtle work: the solo trumpet and horn's quieter dynamics and optional vibrato will sound great in a more subdued or jazz big band setting, and the warm, full-toned cimbasso and tuba make good companions in providing a solid bass foundation. To ensure compatibility between libraries, the recording approach is the same as Spitfire Studio Strings, featuring a single Decca Tree position using Schoeps room mics.
Spitfire Studio Orchestra is a vindication of the company's decision to step outside their beloved AIR Lyndhurst Hall for a major sampling project.
Spitfire's Studio Brass Pro edition incorporates the Core content and adds extra mikings and mixes along with nine solo instruments, more than doubling the instrument list. The extra items are a second solo trumpet and solo horn, piccolo trumpet, bass trumpet, tenor trombone, bass trombone, contrabass trombone, contrabass tuba and euphonium — acquire that lot, and you'll have the complete trumpet, trombone and tuba families (give or take a few little-used instruments) in your locker, plus a choice of trumpet and horn soloists.
A quick run-down of the extras: the second solo trumpet is a useful alternative to the Core instrument (though the latter's high notes sound stronger), while the second solo horn has a brighter, louder and more declamatory tone than its Core brother — in fact, it's positively blasting. The piccolo trumpet is usable, and I was pleasantly surprised by the strength and wide range of the bass trumpet, which at times can sound almost trombone-like.
I enjoyed the fine lyrical delivery of the solo tenor trombone; the solo and duo bass trombones are both decent, with the latter sounding stronger at the bottom end. Surprisingly, the contrabass trombone doesn't descend as low in pitch as the bass instrument, and its patches are very quiet in comparison. I was pleased to see a euphonium included. This popular brass band horn has a lovely warm timbre, but for bottom end you can't beat this library's contrabass tuba, a supremely big, fat sound which will rattle your chandeliers.
Amidst these musical assets, there are some technical blemishes: I noticed subtle pitch chorusing on some instruments' descending legato transitions, and the four horns' Close 1 mic position has weird stuff going on in the low register, sounding as if the sample loops are kicking in too early at a lower volume level than the initial attacks. Spitfire say that these issues will be fixed in a future update.
Spitfire Studio Woodwinds, the third and final release in Spitfire's Studio Orchestra range, contains a generous spread of 15 solo instruments and ensembles. All but four are included in the Core edition, which offers piccolo, flute, alto flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet and bassoon solo instruments, along with three-player flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon ensembles (those good old Miroslav Vitous woodwind trios rearing their head once again).
Spitfire's new woodwinds library is, in a word, excellent. All flutes and clarinets benefit from an expressive vibrato option (not normally used on clarinets in orchestral scores, but handy for other musical styles); the piping piccolo sounds sweet and true, and the solo flute's liquid true legato patch is a positive pleasure to play. In this collection, short staccato and short staccatissimo deliveries are actually the same note length, but they're differentiated by the latter's emphatic attack (which the solo flute overdoes a bit).
The reeds are equally agreeable: a poignant, bright-toned solo oboe is just the ticket for lyrical pastoral lead lines, and also turns in some good comedic falls and wicked, piercing sforzando attacks. At the low end, there's a fine, confident and extremely well–played solo bassoon for all occasions — the bassoon trio sounds great too. All members of the clarinet family have super-smooth legatos, none more so than the superb bass clarinet.
In addition to extra mic positions and mixes, Studio Woodwinds Pro gives you a bass flute, contrabass clarinet, cor anglais and contrabassoon. While the first two are unarguably rarities, cor anglais and contrabassoon strike me as essential orchestral woodwinds which ideally should be included in the Core library. As Spitfire's Christian Henson points out, in many orchestral pieces what appears to be a solo oboe often turns out to be a cor anglais, and I fail to see how anyone can compose music for a scene depicting an army of orcs duffing up some hobbits without chucking in a few well-timed contrabassoon blasts.
Be that as it may, the cor anglais has a lovely melancholy sound and an understated (but still emotional) vibrato, the bass flute sounds beautiful and the contrabassoon matches the quality and power of the Core edition bassoons. The 'best in show' award must go to the contrabass clarinet, a magnificent, mournful-sounding instrument whose low notes perfectly evoke moods of deep, Russian mid-winter woe. While staccato short notes are not really its forté, this huge instrument's sustains are fabulous, and its uninhibitedly flatulent flutter-tongue noises would provoke giggling at a state funeral.
By the way, I suggest you reserve the flutes' sad-sounding 'hollow' long-note style for occasions when life seems particularly empty and meaningless — I auditioned it while my partner watched a TV Brexit debate in the next room, and I have to say it provided an ideal accompaniment.
A self-professed passion project for Paul Thomson over the last three years, Spitfire Studio Orchestra is a vindication of the company's decision to step outside their beloved AIR Lyndhurst Hall for a major sampling project. The producers have performed the remarkable feat of recording a new library in a drier climate (so to speak) without leaving the building, leaving users free to control the amount of reverb they want to use in a mix.
The resulting collections see the emergence of drily-recorded brass and woodwind solo instruments as a major new force in the Spitfire arsenal, while introducing string sections which can sit equally comfortably in a film cue or pop arrangement. All in all, this is a highly versatile and accomplished addition to the company's ever-growing orchestral range, and one which will surely give its users a great deal of musical pleasure.
For comparison purposes I've concentrated on full orchestra collections and studio-recorded libraries. Vienna Symphonic Library's drily recorded, single–mic–position libraries have long been a favourite of orchestral sample users: price-wise, the closest VSL alternatives to SSO's Core titles would be Special Edition Strings Vol 1 and Vol 1 Plus (which also contain solo strings), Special Edition Brass Vol 1 and Vol 1 Plus and Special Edition Woodwinds Vol 1 and Vol 1 Plus. Alternatives to the SSO Professional libraries would be the EastWest/Quantum Leap Hollywood Strings, Brass and Orchestral Woodwinds collections, and Cinesamples' Cinestrings, Cinebrass and Cinewinds, all of which have multiple mic positions.
If you fancy treating yourself to one or all of Spitfire Audio's Studio Orchestra libraries, deciding between their Core and Professional editions could be tricky. Here are some stats to help you make up your mind.
|CORE||Sections||Solo Instruments||Mic Positions||Mixes||Disk Space (GB)|
|PROFESSIONAL||Sections||Solo Instruments||Mic Positions||Mixes||Disk Space (GB)|
|Studio Strings Pro||17||--||6||2||210.6|
|Studio Brass Pro||4||13||6||2||113.0|
|Studio Woodwinds Pro||4||11||6||2||102.0|
|Studio Orchestra Pro*||25||24||6||2||425.6|
(* Bundled versions of the three individual libraries.)
The extended array of mic positions in the Professional editions comprises:
- Close 1: Valve mics placed close to the instruments.
- Close 2: As above, focused on the leader of the section.
- Tree 1: The classic Decca Tree array of three Neumann M50s, set up above the conductor's podium.
- Tree 2: Alternative Decca Tree miking featuring less room sound.
- Ambient: Condenser mics placed some distance from the players to capture room ambience.
- Outriggers: A set of vintage mics placed wide apart either side of the Decca Tree.
Two stereo mixes by engineer Simon Rhodes are also included in the Pro libraries. The Core libraries omit these and contain only the Tree 1 array.
All the SSO libraries include the Ostinatum sequencer, which automatically generates user-configurable repeated patterns of short-note articulations (the feature is not available for long notes). Named after the musical term 'ostinato' (meaning a continually repeated musical phrase or rhythm), this entertaining musical tool was first introduced in Spitfire's Albion library back in 2011.
Ostinatum sequences can contain up to 16 steps of any note length between a whole note and a 32nd note. Each step is assigned a number between one and 10, that being the maximum amount of fingers any sane keyboard player will attempt to engage in a performance at any one time. When you play a chord, Ostinatum plays its notes as a repeated arpeggio in a pre–arranged, user-defined sequence, which can be 'order pressed' (ie. the notes in the order you pressed them), ascending from bottom to top, descending, or chord mode (in which the chord you're playing repeats in a regular rhythmic pulse). You can also insert syncopated accents by varying selected notes' velocity settings.
Though not a fully-fledged sequencer, this handy tool is fun to use and a quick and enjoyable way of adding instant rhythmic propulsion to a score — try it with SSO's spiccato samples, it works a treat!
- High–quality, studio-recorded orchestral samples performed by top session players.
- Benefits from a full instrumentation, large articulation menus and excellent true legato patches.
- The Professional editions contain extra instruments and six microphone positions.
- Studio Strings Core edition's sections are an ideal size for both orchestral and pop arrangements.
- The Brass and Woodwinds Pro editions contain a comprehensive spread of beautifully played orchestral winds.
- Some of Studio Brass Pro's legato patches have a few minor technical issues, but these should be fixed by the time you read this.
Spitfire break the mould by stepping outside their beloved AIR Lyndhurst Hall into the dry acoustic of the adjoining AIR Studio One. The result is a complete, great-sounding, three-volume collection of excellent orchestral strings, brass and woodwind sections and solo instruments, which represents the pinnacle of UK musicianship. The Core editions are an affordable starting point for semi-pro and novice users, while the Pro editions (which incorporate the Core content) expand the instrumentation and mic positions to a top professional level. Recommended.
Studio Strings Core £199, Studio Strings Professional £449, Studio Brass Core £169, Studio Brass Professional £349, Studio Woodwinds Core £169, Studio Woodwinds Professional £349, Studio Orchestra Core £449, Studio Orchestra Professional £899. Prices include VAT.
Studio Strings Core £199, Studio Strings Professional £449, Studio Brass Core £169, Studio Brass Professional £349, Studio Woodwinds Core £169, Studio Woodwinds Professional £349, Studio Orchestra Core £449, Studio Orchestra Professional £899.