Review – CineSamples CineStrings SOLO
Packed with articulation options and other features, yet very easy to learn and use, Cinestrings SOLO merits your attention for sampled solo string performance.
by Per Lichtman, Jan. 2017
CineStrings SOLO ($399 USD MSRP from CineSamples.com) is a solo string sample library using the free Kontakt Player version 5.3.1 or higher. Having previously reviewed CineSamples Tina Guo Acoustic Cello Legato and used it frequently ever since, I was very interested to see what approach the company would bring to a full string quintet of solo players: 1st violin, 2nd violin, viola, cello and double bass. I found many things in common, but also several important differences for the Tina Guo library.
Easy to Use
One thing that both libraries have in common is that they are very easy to use, but CineStrings SOLO manages to maintain that simplicity while adding many new articulations and features. It’s a string library that you can get a great out of the box sound with, integrating without additional tweaks with the sound of the company’s CineSymphony range (see our review of the CineStrings CORE ensemble library and the CineBrass Complete Bundle), and features the same four microphone positions as CineBrass: Full Mix (a blend of the other three), Close, Room and Surround. Each player is recorded in the first chair position for their respective string section, ready to layer over the ensemble strings with CineSymphony (a big difference from Tina Guo Acoustic Cello Legato which was recorded purely to function in a soloist context). I suggest disabling the reverb FX if you decide that you want to delve into mixing, but the reverb is fine for those who want to just dive into composing. Out of the box, the patches load with the Full Mix enabled and all the instruments balance well.
Once you’ve installed the library, you can pretty much load a patch and be ready to play right away without tweaking. If you don’t like the way it’s controlled, the GUI makes it easy to swap from velocity control to mod wheel (or other CC) control, or rely more on keyswitching, or use the pedal, etc., etc. It’s all very flexible, yet very quick to use.
One of the ways in which CineStrings SOLO diverges most strongly from Tina Guo Acoustic Cello Legato is in the performances themselves. The vibrato here is more subtle and restrained and each performer appears to be trying to fit into a larger group context rather than be featured as soloist in the same way. The espressivo patches are closer to the vibrato that many users might be expecting by default while the standard patches uses a very light vibrato, well suited to Americana scores and historical applications from the Baroque, pre-Classical and some early Classical. For repertoire targeting a more Romantic sound, I would suggest reaching for the espressivo patches first.
The core articulations (included for every instrument) are standard and espressivo sustains and legatos, spiccato, staccato, marcato and pizzicato. All of these (except pizzicato) are included in the Articulations patch for each instrument, while pizzicato is found in its own Pizzicato patch. Additionally, the aforementioned legato and sustain patches can be loaded on their own (to save memory) by loading the True Legato patch. Note that the legato articulations in the True Legato patch are exactly the same as in the Articulations patch. Other than the sustains and legatos, all these articulations have between 2x and 6x round-robin, and multiple dynamic layers (except marcato, which is recorded at a single dynamic). Some additional articulations articulations are only available for a some of the instruments: short spiccato (violin 1, violin 2 and viola), Bartok/snap pizzicato (violin 2, viola, bass) and tremolo (violin 1, violin 2 and viola). While the short spiccato is loaded into the main articulations patch, the tremolo and Bartok pizzicato are each only loadable via their respective patches in the Extra Patches folder.
It’s great to see three choices of bowed shorts, alongside pizzicato offerings, helping to make the library much more flexible than some of the “legato only” libraries that CineStrings SOLO gets compared to. The legato options are great, though.
Two types of bow change legato articulations are on offer (standard and espressivo) and each uses a single dynamic layer so crossfading/phasing aren’t an issue like with multi-dynamic library. Standard has a very subdued vibrato, useful for times where you either want a more neutral sound (for instance for Americana or something from the Pre-Classical period) while espressivo is what I find to be the more bread and butter articulation, giving the instruments a lusher sound. Notably, the first violin espressivo articulation sounds quite different from the others (more of a zigane style articulation) but the other four players are more similar to each other. CineSamples opted to use bow change legato intervals exclusively, eschewing the more common fingered legato intervals, because they said they found the bow change legato sounded more natural in a sample library. If you’ve ever played a bowed string instrument, you’ll know that a bowed legato normally takes longer than a fingered legato transition, because a performer can usually more quickly make the small finger adjustment on the fretboard to modify the pitch than they can change the direction of the bow (which requires moving the arm, not just the finger). Thus, you’d be forgiven for thinking that CineStrings Solo catered primarily to slower passages (especially since that was the case with Tina Guo Acoustic Cello Legato before the version 1.2 update at the end of November). The legatos are more flexible than expected, however, owing to a dynamic transition speed script that modifies the speed based on the performance (with many configuration options available in a setup tab, but with defaults that work very well).
Room for Improvement
While I can understand wanting to capture the personality of multiple performers and a desire to have a wider variety of colors available, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times that I wished the legatos in the first and second violins weren’t a little more similar. The second violin seems to treat the espressivo legato in roughly the same vein as the viola, cello and bass, but the first violin legato transitions have notably more portamento to them that is unlike the other performers. While that makes for a great zigane style articulation on the first violin in isolation, it also makes it tricky if you want to have both the first and second violins playing espressivo alongside each other at the same time. As such, it would be great to have an espressivo option for the first violin that was more like the second.
After the extremely consistent articulations offered across all sections in CineStrings CORE, it’s a little surprising to see that some articulations (like tremolo) are offered for some soloists and not others. Also, it would be nice of the additional articulations could somehow be mapped into the master articulations patch. It feels odd having the pizzicato in its own patch, in particular.
There are several things that differentiate CineStrings SOLO from many of the other solo string libraries I’ve either reviewed or tried. For instance, it has recorded separate soloists and instruments for the first and second violins, unlike VSL Solo Strings, 8Dio Adagio and Anthology, Embertone Intimate Strings Solo, Orchestral Tools Soloists Nocturne series, Strezov Sampling Macabre Solo Strings and Fluffy Audio Trio Broz. At the same time, it features a double bass, which is omitted from Orchestral Tools Berlin Strings First Chair expansion, Strezov Samping Solo Strings and Fluffy Audio Trio Broz. And even among those that share some of these characteristics, it is (as far as I know) the only library I’ve used that features two types of bow change legato for all five solo string instruments. Now let’s get a little deeper into the weeds for a second.
As a multi-mic library with a nice out of the box sound that sets well in a mix right out of the gate, one of the first libraries I thought of when I first started using CineStrings SOLO (aside from CineSamples own Tina Guo Acoustic Cello Legato, of course) was Strezov Sampling’s Macabre Solo Strings. Both libraries have very short learning curves and offer drier positions that can be relied upon in mixes where the more distant mics impart too much of the sound of their respective recording venues. At the same time, their performances are quite different, with Macabre Solo Strings tending toward a more heavily colored romantic sound and CineStrings SOLO tending towards a more neutral (in the sense of a more subdued vibrato, etc.) sound, with more articulations, wider ranges sampled (Macabre Solo Strings uses two octave ranges per instrument), more instruments sampled and a legatos that can be used at a wider range of tempos. If you’re looking for the specific sound that Macabre Solo Strings offers (and it is a really nice sound), have a full version of Kontakt (it can’t just use the free Kontakt Player like CineStrings SOLO), can work with the more limited instrument ranges, only need sustains or legatos and don’t need an additional violin or a string bass, then you can you’ll find Macabre Solo Strings only costs a little over half the price of CineStrings SOLO. For anyone else that wants a really easy to use solo string library that includes all the five first chair players, with a very short learning curve and the ability to sound good without tweaking the mix, CineStrings SOLO is best option I’ve tried so far.
Next up, let’s look at the Orchestral Tools offerings. The Nocturne series (which uses single dynamic sustains and legatos like CineStrings SOLO) isn’t really an apples-to-apples comparison because it features two soloists (one violinist and one cellist), recorded out of position. On the other hand, the Berlin Strings Exp D First Chairs comes much closer – though I should say right off the bat that CineStrings SOLO has the edge in terms of being up and running quickly (you can be up and running within minutes of installation), while Exp D First Chairs offers a wider range of articulations and requires a little bit more study to get the most out of it (though not by a massive amount). Exp D First Chairs is the only other collection I’ve received a review copy of that recorded each performer in their first chair position, left to right and front to back in the hall to map with a main ensemble library (Berlin Strings). It does not feature a first chair performer for the bass, however, which is a notable advantage for CineStrings SOLO. I’ll be able to cover Exp D First Chairs in greater detail in its own review, but at first glance I would say that it’s got a wider array of articulations and more deeply sampled sustains/legato (with three types of vibrato, non-vibrato, etc.), a longer learning curve and a very different recording and performance aesthetic. In other words, while both are appealing libraries, the aesthetic you prefer will likely be a matter of personal choice: both libraries are recorded in scoring stages, but Teldex Studio has a more diffuse and reverberant sound in the Berlin Strings recordings than the MGM Scoring Stage does in CineStrings SOLO. Nonetheless, both are much drier than and less reverberant than (for example) AIR Lyndhurst recordings. I would say that I found CineStrings Solo had a more intimate and immediate quality that I enjoyed, well suited to all sorts of pieces where Exp D First Chairs felt a little too big (for instance some types of indie soundtracks, non-classical genres, intimate improvisatory pieces, Americana, Gaelic or Celtic, pop, etc.) while Exp D First Chairs had the edge when I wanted to feel like the performers were a little further away and more blended into the space.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, you’ll find the close-miked solo string library collections, like Embertone Intimate Strings Solo (which offers the most flexible vibrato control of any library I’ve reviewed so far), or the most comprehensive articulation selection to date in VSL Solo Strings, both of which offer a violin, viola, cello and double bass (but not a second violin). It should be noted that VSL Solo Strings uses articulations mapped to a low E as opposed to all the way down to the low C in Embertone and CineSamples’ respective offerings). CineStrings CineStrings Solo is generally less flexible than these other libraries but unlike them it can be used out of the box without spending time on mixing considerations, either in a DAW or via a placement program like VSL MIR or VirtualSoundStage. This is one of the reasons why it has a far shorter learning curve and (much like Tina Guo Acoustic Cello Legato) can create musical results very quickly without any mixing experience, loads of CC data or large amounts of articulation switching (either or both of which are expected in order to get the most out of the aforementioned VSL and Embertone libraries).
Is This The One For You?
CineStrings SOLO maintains a lot of the simplicity and ease of use that I so enjoyed in Tina Guo Acoustic Cello Legato, while also having a very different aesthetic to the performances and recordings. It’s by far the easiest to use solo string library I’ve tried that features first chair performers for all five string sections, which means you can dive right into using it either for orchestral or chamber compositions (no other library I tried was as easy to use when it came to string quintets featuring a double bass). It’s not perfect (it would be great to see an espressivo articulation for the first violin that’s more like the second) but it strikes a great balance between offering some of the most used articulations and making them very easy to use. Those looking for a wider range of articulations (for instance muted, sul tasto or sul ponticello), heavier vibrato or a more reverberant hall will want to look elsewhere, but the more restrained vibrato on offer here works especially well in an ensemble context without getting too big or stealing the show. I really like the sound and find using the library to be fun and effortless, making it easy to recommend.