Review – Embertone Friedlander Violin

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If you use solo strings in your music (or want to) then read this to find out if the Embertone Friedlander Violin for Kontakt could be the one for you. Our reviewer thinks it’s pretty special.

by Per Lichtman, Nov. 2013

What is Embertone Friedlander Violin?

UPDATE: You can now also read our review of the updated Embertone Friedlander Violin 1.5 at http://soundbytesmag.net/embertoneblakuscelloandfriedlanderviolin/.

Embertone Friedlander Violin (EFV) is a new Kontakt 5 Player solo violin library (fully compatible with the full Kontakt 5) that puts expressive playing first and range of articulations second. With close-miking and non-vibrato legato sampling (including slur, bow-change and portamento) on a level unlike any commercial sample library released to date (and I compared it hands-on to many others) the library extends further through the use of fully controllable vibrato, additional sustain samples and 8x round-robin. I possess or have tried most of the available solo string libraries hands-on (with the notable exceptions of the Spitfire Audio, Kirk Hunter and 4Scoring releases) and EFV is quite simply something different entirely. If you use solo strings in your music (or want to) then read on to find out if it could be the one for you.


Vibrato, Non-Vibrato and a World of Gradation

Embertone Friedlander Violin is ambitious in its approach to modeling vibrato. Normally, sample libraries include different recordings depending on the level of vibrato. For instance, non-vibrato, vibrato and molto vibrato recordings can be made and the user can be given control to cross-fade between them. The primary advantage of this approach is that the detail of a given performer’s vibrato is reproduced exactly as in the recording and can generally be implemented well in a variety of samplers. Two of the potential pitfalls are the potential for phasing and audibly obvious crossover points while cross-fading. In addition, there are limits as to the control of the vibrato (frequency, pitch variation and amplitude are all baked in for example). Embertone Friedlander Violin instead opts to give the user direct control over every aspect of the vibrato using either MIDI CC’s by using non-vibrato recordings combined with modeled vibrato created within the sampler. They also provide a control option for users of TouchOSC for iPad to let them dynamically control vibrato. A handful of products have previously attempted to give this sort of vibrato control for the violin (notably the discontinued Garritan Solo Stradivari Violin and Synful Orchestra) but both of them failed to provide a sufficiently convincing non-vibrato starting tone to use as a good starting point. Thankfully EFV succeeds wonderfully using close-miking that captures one of the most convincing non-vibrato tones for the violin in any library to date.

One of the nice things about EFV is how easy Embertone have made it to customize the controls. The multi-tab interface lets you change the mapping of any MIDI CC with a few clicks – though the sustain pedal and keyswitches have locked functionality.

Here’s my perspective on it: I have a real violin. I can barely play it, but I nonetheless choose to do so from time to time. In playing my own violin, it’s been my experience that the instrument is beautiful and musical, full of the potential for expression even without employing vibrato. By building EVF on non-vibrato recordings and then adding vibrato control, Embertone have managed to capture the expressiveness and breadth of articulations that have too long played “second fiddle” to their legato brethren.

But getting back to that vibrato, here’s the big question: how does that vibrato sound? If you are playing single notes and you are happy with every detail of the vibrato performance, then some competing libraries will offer a more authentic tone. Let’s just get that out of the way first. But Embertone lets me sculpt the performance of the vibrato in a way those do not: delayed onset of vibrato, controlled acceleration and deceleration of the vibrato rate, over a hundred gradations between non-vibrato and molto-vibrato, etc. I often have issues in other libraries with vibrato starting far too quickly after I move from note to note but with EFV I get to choose. Which is more important to your performance or recording is a personal decision: for myself, it varies but EFV makes the strongest argument for modeled vibrato control of any solo string product I’ve encountered to date.

Dynamics

In the current 1.01 release, Embertone Friedlander violin has 3 dynamic layers for the staccato samples and both normal and harsh sustains. The legato samples (all 3 types) are single dynamic layer.

Kontakt, Kontakt Player

EFV is a Kontakt 5 Player library: you don’t need to buy Kontakt to run it, but it runs properly in the full Kontakt 5 (and likely will in future Kontakt versions as well). I tested it using the newest build of the full Kontakt 5 to see how much editing was possible. Many Kontakt Player libraries choose to lock direct access to editing the instruments but EFV gives direct access to just about everything – except for the proprietary performance script. The script can be disabled entirely, if you wanted to for some reason, but I can’t honestly see any reason for that at this point.

On the other hand, I did make use of the editing capability to try stripping away every single bit of Kontakt FX in instrument to find out just what the raw samples sounded like and how close the recordings were. The answer: EFV has some of the closest miking I’ve heard in a violin library and has opted to capture the sound “warts and all” of full bowstrokes without looping. Instead, as mentioned earlier, the library relies on alternating bowstrokes to continue a sustaining note if you keep the note held down.

Performance and System Requirements

EFV offers 16-bit and 24-bit samples in mono and stereo configurations. All of these are available in normal and “LoRAM” variants, with a different controller configurations preset for you. I did most of my testing using the 24-bit stereo samples, but the others use proportionally less RAM.

All my testing was done using a 7200 RPM hard drive. You don’t need an SSD to get the optimal experience out of EFV and I didn’t try testing one – though it based on my experience with other Kontakt libraries, it would be likely to reduce load times.

Sound and Mixing

The close-miking approach makes EFV uniquely well-suited to be used in a variety of venues outside the halls, chambers and soundstages of classical recording that are the bread and butter of most solo string products. While EFV is quite capable in those more common venues as well, it can also be mixed into pop, country, electronica and pretty much anything you can throw at it. It’s miked so close that once you disable Kontakt’s FX, you can throw any reverb you want on it without any identifiable sonic fingerprint of the space it was originally recorded in. You can even get closer to the instrument than VSL’s revered Silent Soundstage Recordings (which have been some of my most frequently use solo string samples for close to a decade).

Similarly, EFV is well suited to different kinds of post-processing. Once again, if you disable the internal Kontakt FX, you can throw on pretty much any of your own that you want. I tried everything from emulating preamps and consoles, to equalizers and compressors, to tapes and exciters and enhancers and was able to get good results without making recording noise or the acoustic venue more noticeably apparent.

Since I play violin, I would be remiss if I did not linger on timbre for a moment. The timbre of the Embertone Friedlander Violin is different than those in most other popular sample libraries: this is neither good nor bad, but it is important. I’ve talked to other violinists that have different violins for different applications (one for their solo work, one for playing in quartets, etc.) and one of the reasons is because different tones will work better for different applications. EFV has more overall body and a bit more resin and bow noise in the recordings of some of the competing libraries, and sometimes a bit less focus to the tone of the soaring notes. It does not sound like a Stradivarius but contrast in tone could create a positive differentiation against one in a quartet.

You’ll want to pair Embertone Friedlander Violin with a good reverb for best results – the included one won’t cut if for discerning users. Like most things, I found I got good results out pairing it with Numerical Sound FORTI and SERTI, especially since the latter offered smaller spaces for chamber music, but you can get realistic results with other products based on real acoustic venues as well. If you want unrealistic results, you could always pair it with an algorithmic reverb instead and it certainly is up to the task of performing soaring lines in dreamlike soundscapes should you choose to go that route.

Using With Notation Software

If you primarily use notation software as opposed to either using a DAW or performing virtual instruments live, you’ll have to do a bit more work to get things setup with EFV than with competing products like XSample Chamber Ensemble. But one thing you may appreciate is the use of the sustain pedal, which makes legato lines exceedingly easy to program (just insert pedal in and out events at the start and end of the phrase) in even the oldest and least expensive notation apps. Nonetheless, many composers using notation software will want a greater breadth of articulations than EFV provides – though the promised free update would help narrow the gap somewhat. In the meantime, there are several competing products that can cater to a greater range of articulations.

Articulations currently cover sustain, slur legato, bow change legato and staccato. An update has been promised to be delivered in coming months at no charge to existing customers that will add several more articulations, but in its present form it already demonstrates several key strengths in both sound and playability – even though the range of articulations is much smaller than libraries like VSL Solo Strings.

Embertone Friedlander Violin vs. Garritan Stradivari Solo Violin

Most people active in orchestral sampling libraries over the last decade will remember the 2005 Garritan Stradivari Solo Violin (GSSV) – the first sample library to attempt the sort of expressive control that Embertone Friedlander Violin strives for. Since that product was discontinued, a lot of mystique has built up around it (especially since it shares lineage with later critically acclaimed SampleModeling libraries) and since I bought the product years ago, I thought I’d compare it to EVF.

Quite simply, Embertone Friedlander Violin blows GSSV away in almost every metric. The EVF base non-vibrato tone is superior and more convincing (to be clear, I’m speaking about the specific recordings, not the acoustic instruments they were made from). The EVF legato transitions are more expressive in all modes (bow change, slur and portamenti). EVF offers full Kontakt access to instrument editing capabilities while GSSV offers none. EVF also offers pre-built menus for controlling or changing most parameters, while the most recent GSSV version came with almost all parameters (including key switches) locked. In addition, EVF automatically re-bows using an alternate sample at the end of a sustain, GSSV simply ends.

Basically, unless you need articulations that EVF doesn’t provide or are looking for a more ethereal tone with less body (or less expressive but rapid legato transitions), there’s almost no reason to use GSSV anymore. EVF really is the product that I had hoped GSSV would be originally and it has taken advantage of the advances of the last 8 years to make a much more expressive instrument.

If you want to do comparison of your own, keep in mind that GSSV needs to be run in Kontakt Player 2, not the newer versions, to get the most out of the library. So no there’s no 64-bit support for newer systems. EVF on the other hand is designed for Kontakt 5/Kontakt Player 5 so you won’t be able to run it on legacy systems (like PPC Macs).

If that’s not enough for you, here are a few more quick notes for comparison.

Configuration: the latest version of GSSV was closed system (especially in regards to assigning CCs and using different convolution). EFV 1.01 has great flexibility. While I’m not wild about the included convolution impulses, even they can be swapped in the full Kontakt 5 without much extra work (or disabled completely).

Dynamics: GSSV makes superior use of multiple dynamics and proprietary harmonic alignment techniques for matching samples. EFV could be improved through multiple dynamic layers in the future, though it was worth noting that I generally found the result of using it (even with the limitations of the dynamics) to be more musical than GSSV.

Attacks: GSSV uses the approach of blending a short attack sample with a different sustain sample that can be difficult to adapt to coming from other libraries. In addition, the recordings themselves were not to my taste. With EFV the dedicated staccato samples (3 dynamic layers with 8x round-robin) work much better and are easier to use. EFV also benefits from giving the user the choice of controlling the level of staccato notes by velocity or by the same CC used to for the dynamics of the sustains. In other words, you can use the same method for controlling the level of short and long notes if you want.

Basically, EFV does fewer things – but does almost all of them better, especially expressing legato sampling.

 Additional Thoughts

Embertone Friedlander Violin pushes the envelope in several key areas for solo instruments: legato, vibrato control, overall control and editability and mixing flexibility. There are certain things in Embertone Friedlander Violin that are so good that all other sample library developers should take note.

First, the approach to legato is truly expressive – it feels more like when I actually play the violin than the most common legato interval sampling approach with a real sense of momentum and flow from note to note, especially within optimal tempo ranges (a range greatly broadened in the “Full” program that use Kontakt 5’s Time Machine functionality) and including slurs, bow-changes and portamenti with similar sampling detail in the same program really helps. The fact that it can be used equally effectively with non-vibrato and vibrato without worrying about key switches is a nice bonus.

Second, the use of the sustain/damper pedal in legato mode here is so good is and so universally useful that it should become the standard way of programming string libraries from now on. Essentially, when playing a legato line, the sustain pedal causes each note to sustain until the next one is played – and if a note is repeated, a bow-change on the same note is played using a different sample (with a very natural sound to boot). Embertone did not invent this method (it had been heard earlier in Garritan Stradivari Solo Violin for instance) but they’ve perfected it by using either superior sampling or performances (it’s hard to tell from the finished product) to create better differentiation in the sound of the re-bows and a good sense of flow between them. This useful for a variety of things, including manually creating loures within a certain range of tempos without the need for a key switch or loading a different program.

Third, is the combination of easy options for quickly and easily configuring the

No One’s Perfect

With so many things to like, you may be wondering where the product falls short – both in comparison to other libraries and in its overall potential. The most obvious limitation is articulations. Compared to established competing products, like Vienna Solo Strings (Volumes I and II) or XSample Chamber Ensemble Solo Strings (available on their own or as part of the XCE bundle), and at times even the solo strings in East West Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra,  the overall articulation set is much more limited. Embertone has officially announced the addition of several important articulations in a free update expected within the next couple of months (possibly sooner) that could increase the value of the library further. While the tremolo, sul ponticello, pizzicatos and additional sustain layers (as well as the custom programmed Con Sordino (string mute) effect applied note-by-note) would certainly increase the versatility of the instrument, I can only review that product if and when it arrives. Common sense (and years of industry experience) dictates that I not count my chickens before they hatch. Even then, if you need flautando/sul tasto, harmonics or con sordino performances, you’ll have to look elsewhere – I would start with offerings from XSample, VSL and EWQLSO.

As a counterpoint on the articulations front, I would like to emphasize that Embertone Friedlander Violin is the only library I’ve encountered to date that offers such powerful legato programs based around non-vibrato performances (that of course can be fully vibrato controlled as well).

Part of the Family?

As mentioned before, Embertone Friedlander Violin is the first solo string product from Embertone. They’ve announced a cello (Blakus Cello) and said that a viola is next in line, but neither have been released yet meaning that it’s important to know whether EVF “plays well with others”. For me, the answer was a resounding “yes”. While it takes a little bit of mixing work up-front, I found that Embertone Friedlander Violin was good at playing first violin in chamber music ensembles, as well as taking solo lines in an orchestral setting. It could be made to double other instruments or play second violin against other libraries, but this took a little bit more work and did not seem to play to the library’s natural strengths quite as much. Still, I did so several times with good results. But if you want an integrated set of solo strings right now, without dealing with additional mixing work to make them coherent, I would look to competing products.

Price

Embertone Friedlander Violin currently sells for $110 U.S. If you broke down price of competing products on a “per-instrument” basis, you’d find several that are competitive with EVF, but the price of entry is higher. In fact, the only other interval sampled legato available for less than twice the price of Embertone Friedlander Violin is QL Solo Violin for $99. QL Solo Violin is a product with a timbre so poor that practically every demo for it has made me cringe and is a rare miss from the company whose EWQLSO solo strings I enjoy. In other words, Embertone Friedlander Violin is really competing with products starting at $250 and above – so there’s additional incentive to check it out if price is a concern.

Ensemble Mode

EFV also features an Ensemble tab. Here you can engage or bypass the ensemble mode, which uses several samples from the instrument at the same time (panned differently) to create an ensemble effect. The mode lets you choose the total number of players from 1 to 9 and specify the stereo spread, timing and intonation range. There’s also a button to process the legato transitions together. In addition, the overall level is decreased whenever ensemble mode is engaged to prevent the patch from sounding louder just because more voices are playing – a handy bit of forethought.

The sound of the ensemble mode is both a useful addition to (and distinct from) the sound of string orchestra libraries, sounding (appropriately enough) as though it has been miked a little closer and benefiting greatly from the legato programming.

Layering With Other Libraries

When layering EFV in solo mode with other libraries, I consistently found that EFV brought the sound closer and granted a little more immediacy by default. When in ensemble mode, I found it worked especially well when I layered it with instruments from other solo string libraries. The staccatos are especially effective in this capacity – it’s easier to match staccatos between libraries than legatos and the 8 layers of round-robins are helpful for masking a more limited number of repetitions in another library. This is also one of the places where the close-miking once again pays dividends since the library doesn’t start to sound “too big” or have too much room, which are both problems I’ve had with certain other libraries using a similar method for ensembles.

Conclusion

So to recap, the highlights of the library are the expressiveness of the samples; the effectiveness of the programming; the fact that it’s one of the first libraries that doesn’t treat non-vibrato legato like a second class citizen; and the level of control available and also the uncommon amount of body and core that results from the miking. It’s a library based on dynamic control rather than pre-built phrases that begins with some great source recordings – but that’s still very easy to use and lets you customize just about everything to suit you. It doesn’t offer a comprehensive array of articulations – just a focused range of extremely expressive ones miked so that they can be used in any mix you want.

No matter what solo string library you already use, Embertone Friedlander Violin brings something a little different to the table – so if you’re shopping for a violin library it should be one of the very first that you take a look at.

More information can be found here:  http://embertone.com/

 

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