Review – Cornucopia Strings from Strezov Sampling

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Cornucopia is a 20-piece tutti string section for full Kontakt from Strezov Sampling, intended for fast creation of lush cinematic beds or backing strings for popular genres.

 

by Dave Townsend, July 2015

 

Cornucopia is a 20-piece string ensemble consisting of two basses, three cellos, four violas and eleven violins, recorded all together (“tutti”, meaning “all at once”). It’s intended for fast creation of cinematic beds or backing strings for pop and rock. Full Kontakt, version 4 or 5, is required.

I did indeed find the instrument to be quick and easy to use, delivering natural-sounding results in minutes. Although “quick and easy” necessarily implies some compromise in versatility, I found that it can be surprisingly adaptable to a wide range of genres.

If you listen to the beautifully-done audio demos on the Strezov Sampling website, you might come away thinking Cornucopia is just for classical music. In actuality it’s pretty sweet in any genre.

Here’s a little experiment I did, layering Cornucopia over a metal tune. (Many thanks to Øyvind Jarsve for letting me use his song, “The Only One”. You can hear the whole song (less my improvised strings) here .)

   The Only One

 

Library Architecture

Most multi-instrument string libraries separate each instrument group into its own Kontakt instrument (NKI), e.g. “First Violins”, “Second Violins”, “Cellos” and so on. Every supported articulation will typically be rolled into each NKI, and key-switches are used to select the sample set for the desired articulation.

Cornucopia takes a different approach. Here we have cellos, violas and violins all combined into one sample set, playing the same articulation and the same notes in unison. Instead of a separate NKI for each instrument, we have a separate NKI for each articulation. Each NKI contains all instruments (except basses, which are in separate NKIs).

That means if your string part goes from pizzicato to staccato to sustain, you’ll load a total of three NKI’s – one for each articulation – and you’ll create three separate MIDI tracks to drive them. If you’re not accustomed to this method of composition, it may seem a bit cumbersome at first. But believe it or not, it’s actually a time-saver.

This is because all but bass are playing tutti (Italian for “all at once”), meaning every instrument is playing the same note (within the limits of each instrument’s range, of course). Drop a single MIDI note onto a track and you’ll get up to three instrument ensemble groups (up to 18 individual instruments) playing at once. You can therefore program full chords without regard to what each individual instrument is doing or how the instrument groups are divided. The result is a nice, fat bed of lush strings in minutes. And no wasted RAM because you only load the articulations you need.

Granted, you’re not going to have elaborate interplay between instruments. You won’t have the option of tonal inversions such as having cellos playing high while violins play down low. You can’t have cellos playing tremolo while violins play sustained legato (unless you load multiple instances).

But you also don’t have to think about divisi splits and instrument ranges, and you won’t need to program each group’s articulation switches separately. If you’re not an experienced orchestrator you can simply program in chords and let the library sort out the voicing. Vibrato is baked in and cannot be adjusted, as is the norm for ensemble instruments.

You don’t have to concern yourself with instrument panning, either. Rather than being arranged in the classical style (e.g. violins on the left, basses on the right) Cornucopia’s instruments are panoramically arrayed across the soundstage in the left/right balanced manner commonly used for pop, film and video games.

If you’re new to sampled strings, the first time you load this library you might be surprised that it’s playing at a very low volume. Just push the Mod Wheel up. As is typical among many string libraries, it’s the Mod Wheel (CC #1) that controls volume, not the usual CC #7. This lets you more easily program in those dynamic swells that are so important for convincing performances. (Unless, of course, it’s hard rock or metal music, in which case you just crank it up and leave it there!)

 

Articulations

  • Pizzicato
  • Sforzando
  • Sordino Sustain
  • Staccato
  • Sustain
  • Tremolo
  • Tremolo Sul Ponticello
  • Trills
  • FX

These are all typical articulations found in most of the better string libraries, with the possible exception of “Tremolo Sul Ponticello” and “Sordino Sustain”. For those whose Italian vocabulary is limited to ordering coffee, the former refers to tremolo played near the bridge, and the latter indicates a softer sustained tone obtained by playing with a mute (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mute_(music) ). (Think of those big weepy strings in romantic movies from the 1940’s, and TV dramas in the 1950’s – that’s Sordino.)

Trills can be either half- or whole-step intervals. Trill speed is fixed and not tempo-synched, but this is a reasonable compromise because being sampled rather than scripted makes them sound more natural.

Sforzando has a novel option to overlay a staccato sample for a sharper attack. This is great for cinematic rhythmic beds that are slightly less-aggressive than the staccato patch alone. But if you’re after straight up maximum-impact chugging, go with the staccato articulation.

The “Tutti FX” instrument consists of atonal effects and one-octave runs. I don’t know the proper Italian word for that dissonant stab made famous in the movie “Psycho” (if such a term even exists), but that effect is in there.

Finally, there is one odd duck in the collection called “4 Vln FFF Divisi Marc.nki”.  Mr. Strezov describes it like this: “we sampled the first chairs of first and second violins (a total of 4 players) and had them play with a very exaggerated vibrato and really, really loud.” I’m thinking this might be useful for suspenseful movie cues, maybe for sci-fi, as it’s somewhat reminiscent of a Theremin.

 

The Samples

The first time I loaded Cornucopia, I heard a faint noise, perhaps a chair squeak, on one of the notes. Oh, I thought, they missed an edit on that sample; I’d better let them know. But as I listened closely to other samples I realized that this wasn’t a mistake at all; those noises were left in on purpose.

Thinking about it, I realized that it would probably be impossible to record 20 musicians simultaneously and not pick up some human noises. Then I was struck by a little epiphany: the unnatural quietness of sampled orchestrations is part of what gives it away as not being real. From that perspective, it makes perfect sense to leave those little imperfections in there for the sake of realism. However, you will only perceive them subliminally in a mix, and they are never a distraction.

The samples themselves are deliberately raw, unprocessed except for trimming and normalization. This is as close as you can get to actually throwing up microphones yourself and bringing in twenty live musicians. Of course, even if you did that you’d still need a world-class room and some expensive microphones. Fortunately, the Strezov team provides both.

Cornucopia was recorded in a very nice-sounding room. It’s the same room used for most of Strezov’s other libraries such as Storm Choir, Thunder percussion series and the orchestral brass instruments. The natural reverberation from that room is subtle, just dense enough without being muddy. If you want to hear more of it, turn up the outrigger microphones.

 

The Microphones

 

There are three microphone positions: Close, Decca and Outrigger. Each is its own phase-aligned sample layer, so they may be blended any way you like, depending on how wet or dry a sound you’re after, and how wide you want it. Overall, it’s a fairly dry sound – there is no Distant or Hall microphone position.  That’s appropriate for a medium-size ensemble, and I think most users prefer to start dry and control the wetness with reverb.

“Close” means microphones on the stage. Well, technically over the stage. Use this alone if you want a relatively dry sound with a strong stereo image.

“Decca” refers to what’s known as a “Decca Tree”, a spaced array of three microphones that’s often used for orchestral recordings. “Outrigger” refers to two additional wide-spaced outside microphones sometimes used in a 5-mike Decca tree configuration. The outrigger mikes have been recorded as a separate layer so you can bring in as much or as little of them as you like.

The classic Decca tree setup consists of a center mike, a pair of mikes about 5 feet apart and slightly behind the center mike, and possibly an optional additional set of microphones about 20 feet apart. That’s five microphones spread across the stage, and they’re normally all omnidirectional. The whole thing sits fairly high in the air and close to the stage, often directly above the conductor.

This broad microphone array stirs up and blends the individual instruments’ sounds and room reflections, sacrificing some stereo imaging in exchange for a pleasantly lush omnidirectional mush. That’s the sound of Hollywood movie music we all love so well.

Because Cornucopia gives you individual faders for the center mikes and outriggers, you can turn the Outrigger channel up or even use it alone for a wider and wetter stereo image. You can even route each fader to its own Kontakt output channel.

 

Programming and Controls

Cornucopia’s user interface is simple, as you’d hope for a library meant to be fast and easy. There are no key-switch configuration options, because there are no key-switches. All you see in the interface is between one and three option buttons plus a simple mixer for the three microphone positions.

The bare-bones mixer panel consists of three faders (B) for blending the three microphone positions, on/off buttons (A) for each, and a dropdown list (C) for routing.

That last feature, somewhat uncommon for this type of library, lets you conveniently route each microphone set to a separate audio output for independent effects and EQ.

As an experiment, I ran the outrigger mikes to a separate audio track and had fun with stereo manipulation such as M/S balance and Haas-effect delays. That turned this normally intimate ensemble into a spacey, ambient wash.

Articulation Options

There are four articulation-specific options: legato, round-robin, staccato overlay and trill interval.

The Legato option pertains only to the sustained articulations. In practice this is mostly useful for monophonic melodies. Cornucopia’s strength is fat chordal beds, so expect to leave the Legato option off most of the time.

For the short articulations (pizzicato, sforzando, spiccato, trill and staccato) you’ll see an option button labeled “Round Robin”. “Round Robin”, as the name implies, enables round-robin samples. Why would you not enable round-robins? When turned off (the button now reads “Stack Group”), instead of alternating between samples they are stacked to create a thick tone that’s great for fat, pulsing ostinatos.

“Stacc Overlay” is an interesting and unusual option that’s only offered for the sforzando instrument (Tutti sfz.nki). When enabled, a staccato sample is overlayed atop the sforzando patch to emphasize attack.  Combine this with the “stack group” option for deep chugging cellos for your epic battle film score or symphonic metal tune.

The trill articulation (Tutti Trills.nki) has an extra button labeled “Half Tone” or “Whole Tone” for selecting between half-step and whole-step trill intervals.

And that’s all there is to the front end of this library. It’ll take you all of thirty seconds to figure it out. Of course, you also have all of Kontakt’s built-in effects available, such as convolution reverb, stereo enhancement and filters. Or use your imagination for some less-conventional orchestral treatments.

 

Summary

If you have serious classical orchestral ambitions, Cornucopia probably won’t suffice as your ONLY string library. Sorry, but you’re going to have to spend a lot more money if you want a do-everything string resource.

But for putting together powerful string beds and backing tracks with minimal fuss, Cornucopia strikes an excellent balance between versatility and ease of use. Personally, it’s just the ticket for my own classic/prog/pop rock styles.

What you’ll need: $129 and full Kontakt 4 or 5. Get Cornucopia Strings here:

https://www.strezov-sampling.com/products/view/cornucopia%20strings.html

 

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