Review – Orchestral Tools Capsule 2.0 Update for Berlin Strings and Expansions A+B

Berlin Strings 2.0 is not the only choice you have for strings – it just happens to be one of the best ones money can buy.


by Per Lichtman, May 2015


Berlin Strings 2.0 with Expansion A+B from Orchestral Tools is a massive update, free to existing users. SBM is proud to bring you the very first reviews of the Berlin 2.0 series update (which covers the rest of the Berlin range such as Berlin Woodwinds)- and I strongly suggest reading my previous review of the BST 1.0 release because this one will only cover the changes. When I reviewed BST 1.0, I praised the sound quality, detail and how the product fit into a “one articulation-per-track” workflow but thought the library was less effective for rapid sketching and noted how several competing libraries offered more key-switching and CC options for articulation control. With the free 2.0 update, the Berlin series now uses a new interface in Kontakt that aims to address these issues and many others. Orchestral Tools provided SBM access to the 2.0 libraries throughout the very long beta process, so though it’s only officially been out for a short time, I have had a lot of time to get up-to-speed with the new interface. But first, the new sounds.


The New Samples in 2.0

Berlin Strings 2.0 adds two new set of articulations: spiccato exposed for each of the five sections and the fingered legato articulation for the first violins. The spiccato exposed articulation is one of the most agile sounding short articulations in BST, especially for the basses, and the library benefits far more from this simple addition than I would have expected, making it one of the best libraries on the market for short string articulations in an ambient environment. Now the staccato and spiccato and staccato offerings for each section include spiccato, spiccato exposed and staccato at a bare minimum with some sections offering staccato bold and spiccatissimo options as well (not to mention blurred variations of each). The library of course includes many other types of shorts but I wanted to emphasize this particular part since it is so much at the core of a lot of scoring work.

The fingered legato articulation for the first violin offers a less pronounced transition than the normal legato preset. It’s a nice additional color and BST already offers a lot of legato options. As a minor issue, I’ll mention that if Orchestral Tools is going to call the new legato “fingered legato” then the name of the old legato type, “slurred legato” is simply not specific enough to differentiate between the two – depending on who is doing a reading, a slurred legato might very well be performed with fingered legato as opposed to bowed legato. But I can see how that becomes an issue when additional articulations are added after the fact – and it still sounds and plays great. Not to mention the fact that it’s beautifully integrated into the Capsule interface alongside the other articulations, but more on that in a minute.


The Interface Changes

As great as the additional sounds are, the big deal with the 2.0 update is new Capsule interface. While I’ll openly admit that I really liked the color and feel of the old interface, there’s a great deal more power packed into the new one than ever before. Orchestral Tools has added many new powerful options (some of which will be better covered in their Capsule Tutorial YouTube videos than here) but I would like to draw attention to the ones that are most important to me, personally.

Berlin Strings now divides its presets up into three folders for each section: Single Articulation (the same organization system as in 1.0), Multi Articulations (which give does away with the dynamic layer display wheel and gives access to up to twelves articulations in a single preset) and TM (Time Machine). The Time Machine folder looks a lot like the Single Articulations one but presets now have a Time Stretch slider that can speed up or slow down the sound of the preset while leaving the release tail unaffected.

Capsule offers something I’ve never seen in another orchestral ensemble product: the ability to use the recorded interval legato samples with any articulation by simply enabling legato mode with the push of a button. This is big – huge. Do you want to use a legato interval to transition between dynamics presets? Done. Do you want to play a legato line that transitions from legato into a portato? Done. This is really great and makes you wish someone had done it long ago. Major kudos. You select the articulation and push a single button to activate legato transitions. Then you just push the button beneath it to open articulation options and tweak the legato options, including using up to three different transition types depending on the playing speed.

Another great feature is the combination of dynamics matching and auto-gain. Orchestral Tools went through the library to analyze and better balance the dynamics of the different articulations and samples, not only within a given section but also within the orchestra as a whole. Consequently, you can spend way less time worrying about getting dynamics “right” and setting levels. This is an unusual approach (Spitfire Audio is the only major other one I’ve heard talk about anything at all similar) and Orchestral Tools builds on it by offering auto-gain. Auto-gain is a toggle button – when you enable it, dragging one microphone position slider adjust the remaining ones to maintain a constant volume. And you know what? It actually works really well and takes the “more is better because it’s louder” concern out of finding the right balance. Of course if you want to adjust all the faders at once, there’s also a new “chain” mode.

Possibly the biggest addition is articulation switching. This is big – huge – especially because so many of my favorite libraries had some level of it already. When I went back and forth between my different libraries, the two that stuck out as being limited by not having better articulation switching support where Berlin Strings 1.0 and Hollywood Strings, each of which offer so many articulations that the absence was even more keenly felt. In both cases, a limited number of articulation switching presets were offered but often not the ones I wanted and the user had no way to create new ones. With Berlin Strings 2.0, there are more articulation switching options than you can shake a stick at in the new multi-articulation presets. It doesn’t take the VSL approach (more on that later) but you can have twelve articulations key-switched and picked at your discretion from a large pool of options. The multis are divided up into dynamics, longs, octave runs (one each for up and down) and shorts and you can choose which twelve articulation are mapped to the key-switches from any group within that category using a menu that conveniently removes entries for any articulation you’ve already loaded.

The articulation switching goes further by offering both monophonic key-switching (which is mostly what we normally think of as key-switching) and a polyphonic mode I’ll discuss in a moment. Monophonic key-switching operates in a mode where one key-switch is active a time – when you select a new key-switch it becomes active as soon as you release all notes on that channel. This is different from most other interfaces I have tried where the key-switch changes as soon as the next note is pressed, regardless of whether any notes are still sustaining. It took me a minute to figure that out so I mention it in case any users coming from other libraries get confused, too. It’s a fairly simple adjustment when performing – if you avoid overlapping your notes, the monophonic key-switch will behave as expected. If you overlap notes, then the next key-switch becomes active after you release the last note of the phrase.

Polyphonic key-switching has four modes, can switch between them (or between the monophonic and polyphonic modes) using user assignable MIDI CCs. Each of the four modes allows you to select from one to four articulations at once using the same key-switches as in monophonic mode. The first mode is CC Switch: the mode uses a MIDI CC (assignable using the “MI X-Fade/Switch” parameter but set to CC 22 by default) to switch between different articulations. The CC value that’s active when a note starts determines the note that plays, so you don’t need to worry about overlapping notes (unlike Key-switch Mono). There’s velocity switching, which works pretty much like you would expect as long as you remember that it’s switching, not XFading. CC XFade is similar to CC Switch (including the CC # used) but you can dynamically crossfade between articulations – making it possible to XFade between different vibrato levels in Berlin Strings for the first time. CC XFade 2D uses the sort of XY cross-fading pad seen in products like the Prophet VS, Wavestation, Hartmann Neuronn and Camel Audio Chameloen, etc. You can control it visually with a mouse or using CCs. The X-axis is mapped to the same CC as the CC Switch and CC XFade modes, while the Y-axis CC can be reassigned with the parameter named “MI – Y Fade (2D)” and is mapped to CC 23 by default. It is also possible to switch between the four polyphonic key-switch modes using CCs 25 through 28.

To use the polyphonic key-switch modes, you press and hold down the key-switches for the articulations you want to add, and each is stacked in the order the key is pressed. For instance, if I’m in CC Switch and press and hold the key-switch for “immediate sustain romantic” and keep it pressed while I next depress the key-switch for “sustain accented”, then CC values 0-63 map to “immediate sustain romantic” and the top half (64-127) map to “sustain accented.” The values dynamically divide depending on whether have one, two, three or four key-switches selected. It’s possible use the polyphonic key-switch modes in a very powerful way to dynamically construct preset mappings as you play. For instance, you switch to the CC XFade mode at the start of a piece and select just a single short articulation for the first section. Then when your part has a rest, press down a few keys to 3-layer crossfading sustain and use it for the melodic section. When the section ends, just tap a single short articulation key-switch and you’re back to your shorts again. I’ll also note that if you are a power user, the last tab on the left (the one that’s a grid 3×3 squares) is your friend – as are the up and down arrows.


Combining With Other Libraries

Capsule makes it much easier to combine the Berlin series with other libraries than the 1.0 interface, since users can recreate some of the mapping used in several other libraries. I’ll use the example of how I created a legato mapping to work well alongside an EastWest Hollywood Strings 1st Violins  “Legato Powerful System” preset to demonstrate the process of emulating even a rather complex preset.

First, Hollywood Strings 1st Violins Legato Powerful System crossfades between three layers of vibrato using CC1: non-vibrato at the bottom, normal vibrato through the middle and molto vibrato at the top. So the first step was loading the Berlin Strings 1st Violins Longs multi-articulation and making sure that I had sustain immediate non-vibrato, sustain immediate romantic vibrato and sustain immediate strong vibrato articulations loaded in different key-switch slots.

Next, I wanted to make sure that each of these articulations had legato transitions enabled. I clicked on the name SUSIW (for the immediate sustain non-vibrato) and clicked the top icon to enable legato transitions. Then I clicked on the icon beneath it to open the articulation specific settings. Here I set all three of the legato speeds to fingered legato. I clicked the back arrow and repeated this step for the other two sustain types. [Note: This gave me the closest sound to the Legato Powerful System preset I was emulating, but if I wanted to emulate a Bow Change Legato Powerful system preset, I would use slow slurred, mid fingered legato and fast fingered legato. HS portamento variations of these presets map portamento to low velocity values, so this cannot be emulated using the speed options at this time.]

Next, I clicked the Mono/Poly KS button to switch to display the four polyphonic key-switch modes and selected CC XFade. I chose CC XFade instead of CC Switch since the mapping I emulated crossfaded the amount of vibrato rather than switching it.

After that, I pressed and held down the key-switch for Sustain Immediate Non-Vibrato, then held down the Sustain Romantic Vibrato and kept both held while I pressed and held the Sustain Strong Vibrato key-switch – then I let go of all the notes. Basically, you just press and hold the key-switches together and Capsule stacks them in the order each note is pressed.

Next, I clicked the Controller Table icon on the left (the one that looks like a 3×3 grid) and navigated from the Dynamics window, past the Multi Articulations window with legato articulation switches to the Multi Articulations window that displayed the “MI X-Fade/Switch” parameter. I selected the MI X-Fade/Switch parameter and set the CC to CC1.

The HS preset I emulated had dynamics mapped to CC11 (expression), but this BST preset originally had dynamics mapped to CC1 – which my preset was now also using for vibrato cross-fading. To fix this I stayed in the Controller Table view and clicked the down arrow twice to get back to the Dynamics window. I clicked on the Dynamic XFade parameter and changed the CC from CC1 to CC11.

The HS preset I emulated was also a niente preset (meaning that the dynamic range goes down to silent). I could have just left things as they were – after all, BST assigned CC11 to Volume 2 by default – but the volume behavior of the two presets was radically different and Capsule has a dedicated niente option. So first I clicked I click on the Instrument Vol. 2 parameter in the Control Table view and set the CC to Off. Then I clicked the wrench icon on the left to bring up the Instrument Settings view. Finally I clicked the Niente button to activate the niente option.

After that, I was able to use the original Hollywood Strings preset and my new Berlin Strings preset using the CC data in the same way – so I saved the preset with a new name for future use. Using these seven parts directions, the presets now functioned so similarly that I could layer them using the exact same MIDI data without tweaking. But I wanted to get them to sound even closer, I could have tweaked the curves for the MI X-Fade/Switch and Dynamic XFade in the controller table to emulate the Hollywood Strings behavior even more closely. And if I wanted to go a step further, I could even use the dynamics slider in the Articulation Settings for each of the sustains to emulate the dynamic range of the Hollywood Strings preset even more closely. In other words, the system is a detail-oriented tweakers delight.

As you can see, the flexibility of the Capsule interface allowed me to emulate the behavior of a powerful Hollywood Strings preset as I saw fit. I would be unable to setup the Hollywood Strings Legato Powerful System preset to natively re-assign the default mapping used in Berlin Strings or anything else – I would have to find workarounds using my DAW, plug-ins or other tools. On the other hand, let’s say that I was collaborating with a composer that used Cinesamples CineStrings CORE instead of Hollywood Strings and he sent me a True Legato violin part. I could quickly take the above preset I just created and make it work with the default MIDI CineStrings CORE mapping for True Legato.

  • First, I set the Niente option back to off.
  • Then I set Instrument Vol. 2 back to CC 11.
  • Then I set Dynamic XFade to CC1.
  • Then I set MI X-Fade/Switch to CC2 (breath).

Done in four steps with Capsule. Once again, if I tried to do the same thing with Hollywood Strings, I would need an external solution to handle the re-mapping because PLAY doesn’t offer one at all and PLAY Pro has not been released yet. This is why it’s much easier for me to adapt other libraries to work alongside Hollywood Strings than to adapt Hollywood Strings to work alongside other libraries.


How Does the Interface Stack Up Against The Competition?

As the previous section illustrates so clearly, Capsule offers the sort of flexibility to re-map and customize as the user sees fit that a library like Hollywood Strings cannot match. Berlin’s other competitors range widely in the customizability offered through their interfaces. I can’t comment on LASS since the developers have thus far declined to provide a copy for review. However, the customization situation improves noticeably from Hollywood Strings as we go to 8DIO’s string series for Kontakt: while Adagietto uses a one-articulation-per-preset approach, both the Adagio and Agitato series allow key-switch reassignment and all of them allow you to use MIDI learn on their dynamics knobs and things of that ilk. Still, the customization would be considered fairly basic in comparison to other offerings in general and certainly compared to Capsule in particular. The Kontakt Player libraries Cinematic Strings 2.1 and Cinesamples Cinestrings CORE, each go further by offering quicker to customize interfaces with more options than 8Dio’s offerings. Cinematic Strings 2.1 does a great job of making the most of an octave of key-switch mappings and makes the process very simple and visual. I am also a big of the CineStrings CORE’s rapid reassignment GUI, especially in regards to specifying velocity or CC ranges, let alone its unusual application of the sustain pedal. However, neither of the two offers the level of detail and power to customize that Capsule does.  While CineStrings CORE can hold its own in terms of the legato sampling (it has more dynamic layers than BST), there’s simply no denying that the legato programming in BST is a lot more powerful than Cinematic Strings 2.1, let alone the customization options relating to that. In fact it’s clear that Capsule aims to take on the interfaces most specifically designed to handle large numbers of articulations: those from Spitfire Audio and VSL.


Capsule vs. Spitfire Audio’s BML Interface

Out of the three interfaces just mentioned, Spitfire Audio’s current incarnation of their BML GUI is the one that places the greatest premium on simplicity – you never find yourself wading through text the way you sometimes can in the other two. At the same time, Capsule generally offers more powerful tweaking options and more flexible mapping and reassignment

Spitfire’s BML interface is the one that caters most specifically to individual samples issues using a context sensitive COG menu: play a note, click the COG icon and select “tweak last note” and adjust the tuning and volume of the sustain or release tail, or you can opt to omit the round-robin from being played. Click the COG and you can save, load or remove those tweaks. COG remains unique in the interfaces I’ve encountered, and I didn’t see a way to address individual tuning and volume issues using Capsule. Instead it seemed like I would have to rely on the full Kontakt’s native editing if I wanted to do that. As far as omitting round-robins, Capsule’s articulation settings interface shows a grid of the round-robins, highlighting the one currently being played, and omitting or re-enabling a particular one is as simple as clicking the circle. However, while COG addresses round-robins on a per-sample basis, Capsule address them per group. If you omit a round-robin variation on one note in an articulation Capsule, you omit that variation for all the notes in the articulation.

Next let’s look at re-mapping and transposition. BML’s interface makes transposition easy – Capsule does not offer any native transposition options that I encountered. Both libraries make it pretty easy to assign MIDI CCs – BML primarily relies on MIDI learn in conjunction with sliders provided on the main page, while Capsule integrates them natively into the interface but puts them away from the main tab. It should be noted that Capsule offers CC and velocity curve tweaking options that the BML interface does not. Spitfire Audio advocates the use of a standardized UACC mapping scheme which BML supports, but a discussion of the pros and cons of that approach are beyond the scope of this article.

Some Spitfire Audio presets feature the ostinatum sequencer for launching rhythms using an internal sequencer when you play a note. There’s no equivalent to this in Capsule.

While both interfaces do a very good job of managing multiple microphone positions and these are the two major orchestral libraries that seem most concerned with maintaining the original dynamics of the instruments, each has slight advantages. Spitfire’s BML microphone preset system makes it easy to save and load a particular mic blend without affecting other settings (Capsule saves these as part of the general settings preset instead) but the BML interface has no equivalent for Capsule’s powerful auto-gain feature.

In terms of legato programming, customization and flexibility, I definitely give the edge to Capsule’s implementation in BST. It would take too long to tackle every detail, but suffice to say that in their current implementations, Capsule offers more control, more powerful scripting and the ability to add legato intervals to any sustain. I will note that the BML presets are set up for vibrato cross-fading out-of-the-box while BST Capsule offers the ability for users to create their own. Conversely, BML presets often segregate the legatos from the other articulations while Capsule’s more flexible system allows you to mix and match them with other longs, with or without legato.

In the end, both are great interfaces designed with slightly different priorities. Spitfire’s BML interface gets the edge in individual sample adjustments and simplicity, while Capsule gets the edge in overall power and depth.


Capsule vs. Vienna Instruments/Vienna Instruments Pro

In comparison with both VSL’s Instrument and Instrument Pro interfaces, Capsule offers both advantages and disadvantages. VSL’s approach continues to offer access to more articulations at once than any other approach using larger matrices, but it lacks Capsule’s ability to add sampled interval-legato sampled transitions with any articulation. Dragging and dropping articulations in Vienna Instruments is a little easier to navigate than clicking in lists in Capsule’s smaller windows, but Capsule does simplify the process by removing any articulations from the list that you have already used.

Let’s look at round-robins. Both interfaces eschew Spitfire Audio’s sample-specific tools, each handles chords similarly well and use similar interfaces to add or remove round-robins. Vienna Instruments Pro has an edge in terms of offering bettering “humanize” and sequencing options, but Capsule offers an automatic round-robin reset timer that neither Vienna Instruments Pro nor BML has.

Vienna Instruments Pro has a powerful sequencer that’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss. Capsule has no equivalent.

Since VSL’s libraries are offered with a single mic position of centered, close-miked stereo samples, the Vienna Instrument engine has no application for Capsule’s unusual Auto-Gain option. On the other hand, the way that Orchestral Tools analyzed and setup the dynamics of each articulation and instrument makes for a much shorter learning curve in balancing instruments levels. By contrast Vienna Instruments Pro offers per-articulation mixing options (level and panning) that have no equivalent in the multi-articulation Capsule presets.

Overall, there’s no clear winner. These are arguably the two most powerful interfaces for working with an orchestral library that have been designed to date and each has features you just can’t find anywhere else.


Should I Get It?

If you own Berlin Strings 1.0, you should definitely download the 2.0 update – there’s just no excuse not to. If you’re looking into getting Berlin Strings for the first time or have been on the fence, then Berlin Strings 2.0 radically improves both the ease of use for beginners and the overall functionality for power users at once. The customizability means it can pretty much be integrated into any workflow now – though obviously users that prefer a close-miked dry library will still be better served elsewhere. Beginners may still find the learning curve of Cinematic Strings 2.1 or CineStrings CORE a little shorter (especially since there are fewer articulations to learn) but Berlin Strings 2.0 is a lot faster to work with than before. It also has to be said that beginners and experienced users alike will benefit greatly from the way the dynamics have been setup:  there’s nothing like being able to throw an array of woodwinds and strings from the same company together having them balance well out of the box without adjusting a single fader.

Long story short, Berlin Strings 2.0 is not the only choice you have for strings – it just happens to be one of the best ones money can buy.

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