Review – Embertone Blakus Cello and Friedlander Violin 1.5

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Embertone continues it’s exploration of the realm of solo string instruments with a new cello library and an upgraded violin library.  We look at both in this review.

 

by Per Lichtman, Sept. 2014

 

Embertone currently has two solo string products available to download at www.embertone.com: the new Embertone Blakus Cello and the recently updated Friedlander Violn 1.5 (which was a free update to existing users). Each is available in 24-bit and 16-bit versions, priced at $125 USD and $120 USD respectively. Embertone has stated that the difference in price is to cover the difference in bandwidth costs. For Friedlander Violin I used the 24-bit and 16-bit versions, while for Blakus Cello I used the 16-bit version exclusively.

I reviewed the original release of Embertone’s Friedlander Violin in rather great detail last year, which you can read at www.soundbytesmag.net/embertonefriedlanderviolin/. That review gives a lot of additional background and coverage. This time around I’ll just focus on what’s new, different or modified in these two new products as compared to that one, because there is a lot of ground to cover.

 

Blakus Cello – Overview

 

Embertone Blakus Cello features Blake “Blakus” Robinson, the same talented cellist/composer as the free pocketBlakus library (reviewed in the previous issue of SoundBytes: http://soundbytesmag.net/pocketblakusreview/ ). But while that library largely relied on the cellist’s own expressive abilities and sensibilities in regards to vibrato and dynamics in a very small number of articulations, EBC places far greater control in hands of the user. For starters, EBC builds upon the deep interval legato sampling approach applied in Embertone’s original Friedlander Violin (which I’ll refer to as Friedlander Violin 1.0 to differentiate it from 1.5). This means that bow-change, slur and portamento articulations have been sampled to great effect.

One tweak that I find helpful compared to the Friedlander Violin 1.0 was the addition of the option to delay the onset of the slur legato articulation to match the end timing of the bow-change legato. This is extremely helpful for me because it means that I can record a line with either legato and switch the type later without having to change the timing. This has been a real time saver. It should be noted that all interval samples have been recorded at a single dynamic level.

The library lets users activate a con sordino (or “muted”) alteration to any articulation, as well as change the bow position from normale to sul ponticello (which as the name described brings the bow closer to the bridge, lending an edgier sound). Con sordino and sul ponticello can be stacked, but sul tasto and harmonics are notably absent. However, staccato and pizzicato articulations have been all been recorded in a high quality fashion, building upon the original experiences with Friedlander Violin but overall going for a warmer rounder sound (as one might expect, given the difference in the instruments), though it all feels more on the “refined” as opposed to passionate side of the spectrum, even for the FF samples. Of course activating the sul ponticello keyswitch does make them take on a more aggressive tone. However, Bartók pizzicato/snap pizzicato, col legno and spiccato are not included.

This may seem like an odd thing to comment on but … at the time of writing, why on earth doesn’t Embertone advertise the number of round-robins? They sampled 8 round-robins at three dynamics (p, mp, ff) chromatically from C2 to A5 for both the pizzicatos and the staccatos. That’s 24 samples per note for a very large range and frankly a headliner specification where competitors are happy to advertise less. I hope they add it to the blurbs soon.

The sul ponticello sustains have their own group, while the sul ponticello versions of the staccatos and pizzicatos do not, so I’m not sure what’s going on under the hood as far as those. But judging by the fact that activating the sordino never results in switching groups, I’m guessing that con sordino is created through processing and that sul ponticello is for the short articulations, but is recorded for the sustains. In any case, the results are quite musically useful, regardless of how the library is getting there – and I already enjoy the sound of Numerical Sound’s Sordino Universal convolution approach to muted strings on lots of my other libraries, so I’m glad Embertone added the additional colors here.


Blakus Cello – Key Switches

In addition to accommodate the additional content, Blakus Cello uses more key switches than Friedlander Violin 1.0 and introduces the choice of “locked” or “unlocked” key switches. Basically, it toggles whether the key switches respond to velocity or not. With the velocity sensitive key switches, a high velocity switches the selected articulation even after released while a low velocity only activates the key switch while held. Users looking to switch articulations for just an accent may find this useful, but personally I turned off the functionality since I find velocity sensitive key switching to be a playing technique difficult to employ (an experience I also mention in my Cinematic Strings 2.11 review).

The key switches help keep all the articulations in one patch (like Embertone Violin 1.0 and 1.5), so once you choose your patch version (24 vs 16-bit if you have both, mono vs. stereo samples and preferred controller mapping) you’ve got live access to every articulation. This is something I very much appreciate.

 

Blakus Cello – Legato Types

Both the bow-change legato, “slur”/”normal legato” interval samples are great at a wide range of speeds, even in the LoRAM versions that don’t use Kontakt’s Time Machine algorithms. If you want quick legato lines, the only other library I’ve used that is effective for this sort of material is VSL Solo Strings I Full. This is an area where Blakus Cello stands above pocketBlakus, Adagio, XSample Chamber Ensemble, Prague Solo Strings, though each of those libraries offers strengths in other areas.

Note that Blakus Cello, the notes will sustain as long as you hold the note. If you’re used to VSL, you’d expect the sustain following the legato interval to eventually end and that only the dedicated sustains would sustain indefinitely, so I mention this difference.

The portamento is quite simply unlike any other library I’ve tried. I didn’t check the intervals sampled for the other articulations but the portamento activated up to the octave (like VSL). Exceeding an octave in either octave simply starts a sustain without an interval transition. I mainly auditioned Blakus Cello’s portamento in the LoRAM version (without time stretching) and the flow for the longer intervals was just wonderful – long, natural and never rushed or synthetic sounding. The time-stretched version can be used at a wider range of tempos but that also makes it easier to abuse and make synthetic sounding. Compared to the VSL Solo Strings I Full cello’s portamento, it’s longer in duration and offered at one dynamic as opposed to two. This results in a large difference in how each is played: when playing a scale with portamento (a somewhat unusual effect) the VSL Solo Strings I patch would generally have time to land on each note after the portamento, while the Blakus Cello LoRAM recordings would still be executing the portamento played at the same tempo. While this makes the VSL portamento samples potentially more useful for more traditional performance at a brisk tempo, the Blakus Cello samples can be used wonderfully expressively for less traditional playing or for extended portamento sections. The Blakus Cello portamento has a darker, rounder tone with less bow noise while the VSL portamento cuts through a mix more (less so at the lower of the two dynamics, where a pleasant grain comes through in the recording).

Honestly, I can’t believe I just a spent a paragraph on the portamento. Usually my first thought in dealing with sampled string portamento is “I miss playing my real violin!” because you don’t get the sense of momentum playing it. Most of the time, using portamento convincingly in a mock-up requires careful editing and my general reaction to hearing it (even in demos by very skilled composers) is a slight cringe. But the slower speed and round tone help this articulation to draw much less attention to itself here than in other libraries, even if it may be more difficult to use a faster tempos without time-stretching. So even if you don’t normally like using portamento, give this a try – especially the octave intervals.

 

Friedlander Violin 1.5 – What’s New Part 1: Refinements and Fixes

 

There’s a vastly improved overall timbre that’s much clearer and more pleasing and whole lot of transparent adjustments under the hood that I only noted as a cumulative effect of a more pleasing and consistent sound. The staccatos are still the same specs (three dynamic layers and eight round-robins) but new samples have replaced some of the iffier notes from 1.0 (such as the A above middle C) and they (in particular) now have a consistent sound that benefits greatly from that overall tonal improvement. I’ll also note that the crossover points between the three dynamic layers are well hidden: when playing gradually increasing and decreasing staccato dynamics, it was not generally aurally apparent where one layer ended and another began at the same time as there was a noticeable overall movement in color from one end of the dynamic spectrum to the other.

The sustains are now infinite in length – though you can still activate more pronounced bow changes by holding the sustain pedal and hitting the note again. I honestly didn’t bother checking if they cross-faded between samples or used looping for the infinite length initially because frankly I wasn’t distracted by artifacts after more than a minute of holding the same note (which had some pleasing natural variation in dynamics, even over that length of time, I might add). But I get into this more later with the Rebow toggle.

The controllable dynamic range in the sustains has increased from around 16dB in 1.0 to around 33-34dB in 1.5 and the overall instrument response is more consistent. The controllable dynamic range in the staccatos has increased from about 10-15dB in the original to around 40dB in 1.5.

The new dynamic range corresponds well with previous measurements of the violin’s dynamic range:  37dB maximum overall and 31dB at an acceptable tone quality for the acoustic violin’s g-string (A. Askenfelt at KTH Royal Institute of Technolog, 1988 http://www.speech.kth.se/prod/publications/files/qpsr/1988/1988_29_1_001-030.pdf). It’s a huge improvement over 1.0 and renders a control and range that feels very natural to me coming from my acoustic violin.

 

Friedlander Violin 1.5 – What’s New Part 2: Features and Content

There are all-new pizzicato samples at four dynamics (p, mf, f, ff) with four round-robins.

There’s a fast tremolo recorded chromatically, from G3 to E7 (exempting a whole-step sample from C#5 to D5). It cuts well and transitions gracefully from note-to-note in legato mode (even though no interval samples are used). If you turn legato off the transitions from note to note are more obvious but you can play polyphonically. Polyphonic writing in this context means that you won’t be getting the real sound of just one performer: the time required to travel across two strings makes playing double-stops impractical at this speed, let alone matching the rhythms between two tremolo takes … but it can be a fun way to sketch multiple parts and work out voicings, and once you start thinking of it as multiple performers it can be very effective. The tremolo is energetic and driving yet surprisingly tight. The scope of the VSL Solo Strings I tremolo is broader (three dynamic layers in the main and fast attack version, 1.5 and 3.0 second crescendo and decrescendos) but each offers an equally desirable an different character. The VSL tremolo breathes a bit more because of the more distant miking and has a somewhat faster tempo, while the Friedlander is a bit slower, clearer and more precise with a very consistent energy and character. The VSL tremolo has a tendency to highlight the size of the soundstage (the natural build-up of energy from all the notes brings out the acoustic even in a space as carefully controlled as the Silent Stage) while the close-miking and recording technique of the Friedlander Violin 1.5 mean that the space is just as far from my mind with the tremolo as any other articulation. VSL’s tremolo has release samples that can be switched on or off – the space sounds much larger with them on and that’s my preferred way to use them. When VSL is used without release samples, the default note off envelope (while perfectly normal) doesn’t quite sound as natural and precise as that used by Friedlander Violin 1.5.

There’s a Rebow toggle button on the configure page that controls sustain behavior. What I described in the first section was the default behavior (with Rebow on). With Rebow off, the infinite sustain has somewhat more obvious repetition and less dynamic variation. So far I haven’t found a scenario where I would want it off, but I think it’s good that they have it there for people with different tastes.

There’s continuously controllable bowing position (from sul tasto through normale into sul ponticello) that can also jump to three preset positions using key switching if your prefer. While some of that may be modeled (I’m inferring that’s the case for the staccatos at the bare minimum and hope Embertone will correct me if I’m wrong), there are nonetheless distinct flautando, normale and sul ponticello sustain samples (that sound quite good, even naked in the Kontakt wave playback window).

To piggyback on that last one, you can set the bowing position for any articulation and you can add a mute. All my earlier comments about con sordino in Blakus Cello apply here as well.

 

Friedlander Violin 1.5 – A Quick Note on Legato Types

Most of my earlier comments about Embertone’s legato interval samples from earlier still apply here. In regards to portamento, specifically, I would say that I enjoyed using it more than in version 1.0, especially when used in the LoRAM version at the original tempo, but I didn’t analyze the differences.

 

Final Thoughts

The range of articulations for both instruments is much broader than it was for Friedlander Violin 1.0, pricing’s fair and the libraries both have a lot to offer. They’ll become even more useful if Embertone follow-up on their plans to release additional solo strings (they say a viola’s coming next) because right now you can’t make a full quartet or quintet with the instruments on offer. Competing products offer more articulations (like VSL Solo Strings I or perhaps XSample Chamber Ensemble) or require less mixing to sound like they are in a pleasing space (Spitfire Solo Strings, Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra). Some of the others also just a have warmer base timbre (like Prague Solo Strings or the 8Dio Adagio Solo Instruments).

Frielander Violin and Blakus Cello have some of the very best interval legato samples recorded in any library I’ve encountered to date.  They are very close-miked and need to be placed in a mix, not used “as is” and you should definitely turn off that internal reverb (I sound like a broken record, I know). They provide the best vibrato control I’ve used so far (though that means you need to learn how to use it before the vibrato sounds good, too). I love the combination of flow and control that you get with the legato lines in each and think you should check them out.

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