Review – Cinematic Strings 2.1
If you like strings that are big and round, recorded in-place in a concert hall and prefer working quickly to a wide range of articulations, then this might be the string library for you.
by Per Lichtman, Sept. 2014
Cinematic Strings 2.1 ($399 USD from www.cinematicstrings.com) is a Kontakt Player library with one heck of selling point going for it: it has the shortest learning curve of any major string library I’ve ever run on computer in the last fifteen years and can be used without any additional FX (though it benefits from them, of course). If you like your strings big and round, recorded in-place, in a concert hall and prefer working quickly to a wider range of articulations, then this is definitely a library you should read about.
Working Surprisingly Quickly
First, a little background. Before I started reviewing string libraries for this issue, I had gotten to the point where I used Hollywood Strings for almost all of my ensemble string needs. I’d spent a great deal of time setting up large templates to have the widest range of articulations I might use at my fingertips and the template itself took a long time to load. The library was pretty dry so I usually added convolution reverb to get smoother note releases at the very least. It sounded (and sounds) great but it takes a lot of resources and a lot of time to make it work well.
So why did I just mention that? Because Cinematic Strings 2.1 (CS 2.1 from here on out) is as far away from that process as you can get. You just load one patch for each of the strings and the pre-mixed mic blend has everything panned and enough tail from the hall (found in Sydney Conservatorium of Music) that you can just start playing immediately. You can load five tracks (one for each string section) and be ready to start composing immediately, with every sound the library offers at your fingertips. Did I mention immediately?
The library can run without an SSD. The system requirements are 22GB hard drive space once installed (45GB during installation) and 4GB of RAM but I think you’d be happier with a minimum of 6GB, but anyone with 8GB or more will not have to think about it.
CS 2.1 isn’t the only library that’s quick to use (CineStrings CORE being one that seems to be aiming towards similar ease of use) but it’s nonetheless still both the simplest and fastest to learn – and the only ensemble library I’ve encountered that mixes complete consistency in articulation and key switches from section to section with a single patch design. There’s something really nice about loading just one patch and never having to worry that you’re missing anything – and the fact that each section has the same articulations and key switches makes it so very easy to learn.
Ensemble Size and Hall Size
The ensemble size in Cinematic Strings 2.1 is noticeably smaller than Mural, LASS and Hollywood Strings (all of which feature 16 first violins), a little smaller than Miroslav String Ensembles 2.01 and VSL Orchestral Strings (which both feature 14 first violins) let alone the 18 violins in Quantum Leap Symphonic orchestra’s first section or the 20 in VSL’s Apassionata Strings. Its first violins are closest in size to 8Dio’s Adagio large ensemble (11 violins), larger than the sections in Berlin Strings and much larger than chamber or divisi libraries.
So what are the sizes? 12 first violins, 8 second violins, 7 violas, 7 cellos and 6 basses. So the sections are all a little larger than 8Dio’s Adagio series – except for the violas (which has one player less) and it features a distinct second violin section. The similarity is interesting to me because in the demos where I was using the close mics from each library, with a large hall reverb applied to rapid dramatic rhythmic shorts in each, they were two of the libraries that got picked most often in blind tests by some friends I roped into listening. I mention that because my preconception had been that people would choose the largest ensembles for that test and wanted to share my anecdotal experience with those that might overlook the library on that basis.
But you obviously don’t need to use additional reverb on these samples. The hall they were recorded in has nice tails on its own. They aren’t as large and grand as AIR Lyndhurst, but they have a real roundness to them that can be especially helpful if you are writing simpler material that you want to fill the space, rather than lots of intricate lines. In fact, I think that hall is part of the reason that library “feels” much bigger than the ensemble size would lead me to believe.
The Mics and Hall
Remember that test were I used the close mics with lots of verb and people really liked the sound? Those were mono mics – yet another preconception people may want to consider. Now, obviously the mono mics become more of an issue if you’re using them exclusively and trying to place the listener very close to the string, but even then there things you can use (like ReStereo from Numerical Sound) to expand the field if you really want. Anyway, the close mics are one of three distinct original microphone positions: Close (mono), Stage (stereo) and Room (stereo). There’s also a Mix position created from the other three positions – and if you activate it, the other positions will mute. If you want to fill space and keep a fair amount of detail, the Mix position works well and uses less memory than combining the other positions, so it’s a good starting point. However, if you find that your mixes are getting muddy or you want more definition, I would suggest relying more on the closer mics – and obviously it’s possible to create a more ambient mix if desired, too, though I would say the default mix does give a lot of the room sound.
In terms of the hall sound, it’s a concert hall not a church or soundstage so the sound is different. The tails are longer than LASS, VSL, Hollywood Strings, Adagio and Cinestrings CORE – so like Mural or Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra, you can use the recorded tails alone without additional reverb. Speaking of reverb, you can go ahead and disable the built-in one – it uses the built-in Kontakt algorithmic reverb and given that there’s a whole host of reasons to disable built-in algorithmic reverb in even the best of case, this really isn’t an exception. Built-in reverb like that is included so that people can tweak the sound right out of the box to sound big – but I strongly advise that if you want to use additional reverb, use good mixing practices, such as sending the various tracks to convolution reverb plug-in. As mentioned earlier, you can do surprisingly well without any additional reverb at all. The samples are all edited well and I never felt frustrated by their cutoffs (a criticism I’ve had several times with some other libraries).
The legato has some nice sweetness and a bit of air to it. The attack is on the slower side so it features a switchable staccato overlay, but I didn’t find this changed my impression of the speed in extended lines, just the start of the line (which I’m guessing is the intention). As a result, the library is good for a lot of the slower bread-and-butter legato lines but less well suited to quicker lines than for instance Hollywood Strings or CineStrings Core. The sampling isn’t as deep as Hollywood Strings, and there’s not portamento or bow-change legato, but like that library it features switchable playing position: HS uses first, second, third and fourth positions switches while CS 2.1 simplifies to switching between high and low. The vibrato is also controllable via a CC mapped to the crossfade and the library has a warmer vibrato than CineStrings CORE. The interval legato samples can be switched on or off at any time.
The library offers staccato, staccatissimo and pizzicato shorts. The staccatissimo samples were apparently created through custom modifying the staccato samples but they register to my ears in a distinct way and don’t come off sounding like a “cheap re-hash” at all. I found them very useful and they held up well, even alongside the staccatissimo samples that were performed and recorded for Hollywood Strings (though obviously each has a unique sound). That’s important because there are no spiccato articulations on offer, so the staccatissimo carries the full weight of the faster lines (as opposed to CineStrings CORE which offers spiccato but no staccatissimo). The four round-robins fared well in practice and I enjoyed playing rhythmic lines, especially with the staccatissimo samples.
There are no extended articulations on offer like col legno battuto, short harmonics, sordino shorts, sul ponticello or sul tasto shorts and this seems to be in keeping with the simplicity that CS 2.1 offers. Nonetheless, I’m glad pizzicato was included at least.
Large vs. Intimate
Despite the smaller sections sizes, I found that combination of hall, performance style and recording approach made cs 2.1 less suited to especially intimate pieces or more traditional performance style. It makes more sense for pieces from the late-romantic or post romantic eras or for larger game and movie score compositions. Sci-fi, combat, brooding, and a lot of “blockbuster friendly” settings can be well-served by it. It can be sweet but that sweetness is better on a broader canvas than a specific, detailed one where the performance and writing considerations may be different. Obviously it’s not a library designed for divisi writing, either.
It’s all by design and a fair trade, I’m just emphasizing it so that you know the sound you’re getting because far too many people buy a library without really getting specific about what the sound they want is or how they want to use it. Now, it’s not that you can’t use it for classical or neo-classical work at all. I had a lot of fun using the shorts for a neo-classical piece inspired by some of the western European dance forms, but the pieces will sound big and they will sound round – not specific, delicate and refined.
A Minor Quibble
I don’t like velocity-sensitive key-switching, so I wish that that staccato and staccatissimo each had their own key switch. It’s counter-intuitive to me to have to worry about the velocity of a key switch when I’m focusing on dynamics. Moving on.
There’s also a “runs” key switch that adds some “messy” samples that can help glue runs together. I don’t like it as much as the Hollywood Strings Playable Runs but it does provide a welcome improvement over both playing runs without them and over what many other libraries offer. There’s also a tremolo, whole tone and half-tone trills and each of the three has its own key switch. Their quality is consistent with the rest of the library. There’s also a marcato sustain articulation that pretty much marries the sound of the sustain and staccato – functional and fine but nothing exciting compared to the basic sustain, staccato and staccatissimo.
The library also has a “live mode” that modifies the samples slightly as you play to add some flow through imperfections. I liked the effect and general left it on and set to high. The intensity can be set through the advanced page (a tab accessed near the center of the screen) alongside many other helpful customizations. For instance, on that page, the controllers can be change using a pair of easy to work with dropdown menus.
I used this to try layering cs 2.1 with Hollywood Strings using the same MIDI data as for the Legato Powerful System patches in HS by simply remapping the controllers in a matter of seconds. I just set both the velocity x-fade (dynamics) and expression to CC11 and vibrato control to CC1 and it worked very well. If you’re used to using the aforementioned patches in Hollywood Strings, be aware that mapping the controller to Velocity X-Fade alone will give you a much narrower dynamic range than you’re used to because Hollywood Strings does the equivalent of mapping expression to the same control as well.
Cinematic Strings 2.1 does exactly what it sets out to do: make it quick and easy to write with some of the most common articulations with a sound that’s big and forgiving. There are lots of string libraries out there and you should listen carefully to see which one offers the sound you want as well as think about what articulations you want or need … but if Cinematic Strings 2.1 has got it, there’s no other library that’s as fast, simple and easy to use that I’ve ever ever encountered. That’s a heck of an accomplishment.