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London Contemporary Orchestra Strings: Cutting Edge Sample Library Spitfire Audio

Dr. George Hess • Technology • June 19, 2017

There are extended techniques, and then there are extended techniques.

The latest sample library from Spitfire makes that distinction clear. Beyond a few now standard techniques, these string articulations from the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO) are so cutting edge that you’ll have to design your articulation library to notate them.

What’s in the Box?

LCO is a chamber orchestra that specializes in modern, innovative orchestra techniques. They’ve worked with groups and composers such as Radiohead, Arcade Fire, and Terry Riley and have been featured in innovative films and stage shows. The library consists of recordings of over 100 articulations divided across four sections: violin, viola, cello, and bass and cello in octaves.

The recordings are all state-of-the-art using with ribbon and tube mics in a very dry room. Each articulation was recorded with close and room mics. There are additional mixing options that I’ll discuss later. Recording the samples dry is a great feature as it makes blending them together much easier using your reverb or the built-in convolution reverb.

Installation

Installation requires the Spitfire Audio Library Manager, through which you download the library from the website. At over 50 GB it can take a little while, particularly on a slower connection. The samples are 26.5 GB, but require twice that in free space to install. An external audio hard drive is recommended.

How it Works

At first glance, the simple interface would seem to suggest that these samples should be used straight out of the box. While you can certainly do that, this is a library that is all about timbre and articulation, and to do it justice you will want to look under the hood. When you first load an instrument, help popups are activated by default. Click on them to dismiss or click on the cog to hide them permanently. You’ll see the available articulations for the instrument that can be selected by clicking on the icon or using a MIDI key switch. You can also assign a MIDI controller to cycle through the articulations. One feature nice feature is the ability to layer articulations by shift-clicking.

Above the articulations, you’ll see the mixer on the left. There are sliders for the close and room mics, two different “secret” effects configurations and two mixes. You will want to audition each of these individually and in combinations, as they are quite distinct. I found the MX1 and FX1 to be the most useful as the core sound and then mixing in the room and close mics for added space and definition. The FX2 and MX2 are “pumped” and produce a dramatic, cinematic effect.

On the right, are the expression controllers. As with most sample libraries, dynamics are controlled by the Mod wheel. The others, vibrato, release, reverb and expression (overall volume) can be controlled with the mouse or quickly assigned to a MIDI controller by right-clicking.

At the top of the left sidebar are three icons. Click the wrench icon to switch to advanced view. You’ll notice there are some text options added and some odd-looking buttons below the mixer channels and each articulation that on closer examination turn out to be memory chips. These are toggles to load or purge samples. It is important to note that they don’t work unless the option “Purge unused” is selected. This worked great with the samples stored on my internal drive, but was too slow when they were installed on an external magnetic hard drive. The samples can use a lot of memory and storage, so I would strongly encourage investing in an external USB 3 or Thunderbolt SSD drive to store them.

Above the mixer are icons that adjust the velocity curve and stereo panning. The last two icons toggle mixing per articulation or globally and saving and loading mix settings.

The other options in that group allow you to choose presets for various computer and articulation configurations, set transpositions and to map the dynamics controller to velocity are available.

The next column relates to “round robins.” One of the with early samplers were that they only had one sample per note. So when repeated notes were played, they all sounded exactly alike. Round robins are multiple samples of the same note that are played when a note is repeated, cycling through up to eight different samples of the same note depending on the articulation.

This provides a more realistic sound. The options on how the program cycles through them are pretty subtle and for the most part leaving it at the default will be okay. You’ll also notice some additional icons at the bottom of the sidebar. The cog icon allows you to tweak individual round robins by adjusting the tuning and release. This is not for the faint of heart. The other icons let you move the key switches and assign a controller to scroll through all articulations for that instrument.

And a Little Extra

The third view button on the sidebar opens the Ostinatum, a unique arpeggiator device. With this, you select note values, choose which note of the chord will play them and then set the velocity for each note. If that’s not enough, you can layer as many as eight patterns. The manual says this works best with short samples, which is a good thing since it’s an option on long ones.

How it Sounds

The library provides many different configurations of instruments. You can load each section that includes all articulations, but you can divide the sections into long and short articulations or individual articulations. There is also a collection of patches that combine a minimal selection of the articulations for underpowered machines. In most cases, the individual articulations make the most sense, and I loaded sixteen different articulations into my DAW with no problem. You can easily layer articulations within the Kontakt Player using these as well.

Each instrument has a basic long and short sample (Vivid in Spitfire’s mind), but they are anything but run-of-the-mill. The bass and cello section in the low range immediately conjures images of the Dark Knight, while the upper strings combined with MX2 or FX2 mics produce soaring cinematic effects. And rather than the standard staccato, the spiccato spits out at you. The other “essential” sounds include sul ponticello, sul tasto, and harmonics. All are very usable.

But from there on, we are in new territory. Obviously, words won’t do to describe the sounds, and there are no standardized name for them, but I’ll do the best I can. The Super Pont Scrapes has the strings playing right on top of the bridge. The effect is that of a swarm of insects with just a hint of pitch. One of my favorites is Spectral Scrubs, a light tremolo effect that includes notes, harmonics and varies the dynamic randomly. These work incredibly well in clusters. Other tremolo effects are just as unique with irregular, sul pont, and “granular” effects, which are scratches with occasional pitches thrown in. There are a couple of articulations that gradually change from granular to normal, something that would be impossible to program otherwise.

One unique idea was to create a detuned open string instrument. Each note of the chromatic scale is an open string detuned, which results in a bright sound with no vibrato. Other sounds include “slackened” crescendo and “twitchy,” which is a long note that breaks up at time. There are considerably fewer short sounds. Beyond the aforementioned spiccato there’s a “dig” staccato that takes it to another level. Percussive pizz is a good sound but was a little difficult to control. This was one sample where it was easier to use the mod wheel mapped to velocity option. There are also short harmonics, a short slackened sound and bridge scrapes. One thing to be aware of is the limited range of most of the samples. Since these are extended techniques, most don’t span the full range of the instruments.

Down Bows

There aren’t many complaints to be had here, and all of them are related to the decision to make these only available for Kontakt. Installation and authorization are more troublesome than it should be and invariably, little twitches and idiosyncrasies appear that just make the experience less than perfect. All of Spitfire products are for Kontakt, so this is unlikely to change, but at least most including this one will run on the free Kontakt Player.

Report Card

When I first opened this library, I was at a loss of what to do with it; the sounds were that different. But as I played with it a little more, I began to fall in love with it. Each time I chose an articulation more ideas came out. So, for innovation and inspiration, I give this an A+. Media composers, particularly those who work in the box, will want this library as will any program that teaches media composition. I can also see it as a useful addition to contemporary composition studios. These are cutting edge articulations that emerging composers should know about. For functionality and playability, I’d give it an A-. The interface leaves a little to be desired, and there were occasional glitches. Finally, for practicality, I’d give it a B. This is a sophisticated, specialized library and the average user will be better served by a more well-rounded library. In the meantime, someone please send me a movie to score. I’ve got some great ideas.

Guitarist, composer, and educator George Hess has been teaching and performing professionally for over 30 years throughout the United States and now recently in Asia. He is currently associate professor of music at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in Singapore, where he teaches music technology and improvisation. Dr. Hess was named an Apple Distinguished Educator in 2010.

 

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