Review – Embertone Intimate Strings Solo
Embertone Intimate Strings – a bundle of solo strings that is both flexible and allows virtuosic sounding performance.
by Per Lichtman, Jan. 2017
Embertone Intimate Strings Solo Bundle ($375 USD from Embertone.com) is a bundle of four individual solo string libraries (one instrument each for violin, viola, cello and bass) each with the company’s distinctive vibrato control and use of both fingered and bow-change legato (among several other articulations). If you really like to perform solo strings lines and want a bundle of solo strings that can be tailored to your style as well as played in a virtuosic fashion, read on.
Leonid Bass – The Full Treatment
While I’ve previously reviewed the other three instruments in the Embertone Intimate Strings Solo bundle (from the original Friedlander Violin, to the updated Friedlander Violin 1.5 and the Blakus Cello, and finally Embertone Fisher Viola) and you can refer to them to learn more about the other instruments in the collection, there’s no denying that Embertone’s Leonid Bass benefits from being the youngest library of the group. The Leonid Bass has a rich tone with a surprising amount of air and a more effortless tone than the other instruments in the library, and having the choice of both mono and stereo patches (true for each of the instruments) is especially helpful when mixing such a low register instrument. Perhaps the first other thing you’ll notice when comparing it to the other instruments is that vibrato on Leonid Bass comes in just one flavor (compared to five for each of the other instruments) but it also sounds notably more natural than any of the vibrato flavors for the Blakus Cello when comparing the same pitch in each instrument, and that the vibrato rate range has been well selected to omit extremes that would easily sound synthetic.
One especially strong quality for Leonid Bass is how well it handles quick legato passages. The legatos here are surprisingly agile (with the bow change legato even more so than the slur), and that remains true even if you disable speed control. The bow change legato is well suited to playing relatively quick repeating arpeggiations. I did a quick comparison with the bass in VSL Solo Strings I Full, and the VSL bass has a fuller low end while the Leonid Bass (using the stereo position for a closer comparison) has a more “defined” sound that captures more of both the “growl” and “air” of the instrument and takes up less space in the mix. Comparing the bow change legato to the “Performance Interval Fast” patches in VSL Solo Strings I Full (a benchmark in solo bass sampling for many years) and found the closest analog between the two libraries to be performance marcato fast” patch, with the Leonid Bass still better able to handle quick arpeggiations than the VSL Bass.
The situation was even more pronounced when I compared “performance legato fast” patch in VSL Solo Strings against the “slur legato” in Leonid Bass: while neither was as agile as the previous legato types, the Leonid Bass was much more agile, with the transitions in VSL Solo Strings sounding exaggerated when played at speeds that the Leonid Bass could handle without issue. I’m not going to lie – I thought the Leonid Bass would likely have many strengths, but I was really surprised to find that it had the most agile legato of any solo string library I’d tried. In my direct head-to-head testing, the agility of the bass legato du beat out VSL, 8Dio Adagio Basses, XSample Chamber Strings (which used scripted legato), CineStrings SOLO and Light and Sound Chamber Strings (which uses a solo bass).
Far too often I’ve seen sample library developers treat the string bass as a second class citizen in their solo string libraries. Many highly respected solo string libraries that I otherwise enjoy omit the solo bass, so it’s great to see Embertone taking the solo bass seriously here. The instrument has and the list of refinements includes everything from more customizable dynamics control (there’s a knob in the settings page to tweak the desired dynamic range) to being the first library in the collection to include a harmonics articulation (sampled for the appropriate range of sustains, with flautando performance for the notes below, and modeled for other articulations). The Leonid Bass also benefits from the same “dynamic morphing” technology as the Fisher Viola. The only omission I found was that, The Blakus Cello, the Leonid Bass does not have the sul tasto bowing option that the Friedlander Violin and Fischer Viola do.
The close-miking of the instrument gives it a big sound with a lot of power that can work well in a variety of context. Owing to differences in the ranges of the instruments itself) the Leonid Bass is significantly easier to place in the mix out of the box than some of the higher register instruments, especially the Friedlander Violin.
What Makes Intimate Strings Solo Bundle So Different?
I’ve reviewed a lot of solo string libraries (in fact I’m covering at least one other one for this very issue) and one of the things I’ve noticed is you can get the most joy out of a library when you really fully understand what it does best. In the case of Embertone Intimate Strings Solo, it has several very important strengths, but the one that stands foremost is the degree to which it can tailor to a given composer/performer’s interpretation in regards to the performance. Whereas some other libraries offer a beautiful sound out of the box but limited opportunities to sculpt a different type of performance, Intimate Strings Solo gives you seemingly limitless opportunities to make the ebb and flow of the scripted vibrato follow the expressive core of the exact passage you are performing. This means that the learning curve is a little longer but that each user can get a very different sound out of the same passage depending on how they control the intensity and speed of the vibrato and to control the vibrato independent of the dynamic.
From my real life experience playing my violin (don’t get excited, I play it very poorly) I can tell you that the vibrato control that Intimate Strings Solo offers (especially in concert with independent dynamic control) does a good job of allowing the user make creative choices that are very difficult in other libraries, and few have . I may love the sound of vibrato in another library, but get frustrated in passages where I want to either delay or accelerate the onset of vibrato, let alone make it more subtle or intense (which can often only be done by crossfading from one vibrato sample to another). In Intimate Strings Solo, the scripted vibrato can be modified on the fly (using MIDI CCs or TouchOSC) to be different in each passage or every note, or even different parts of the same note. If your vibrato preferences change significantly over time, you can go back to a passage you composed earlier and redo the vibrato completely. The vibrato you get out of the library may well sound very different from the vibrato that another user does. It takes some practice to get the most out of this, but it’s very powerful.
The flipside of this is that Embertone Intimate Solo Strings has a bit of a learning curve compared to many competing libraries, though the Leonid Bass has the shortest of the instruments on offer. All instruments here benefit heavily from being able to control MIDI CC or TouchOSC data in real time for multiple parameters. If you don’t have at least two or three MIDI CC parameters you can modify in real-time, whether you’re using faders on a control surface, a mod wheel and an expression pedal or breath controller, or even a smartphone or tablet with WiFi and the TouchOSC app, you’re going to find working with Embertone Intimate Strings Solo slower than other libraries. It’s possible to map multiple parameters to a single MIDI CC but the flexibility and quality of the results is simply better when the parameters are handled independently.
Articulations and Colors
All four instruments offer sustain, staccato, pizzicato and tremolo articulations. When it comes to the pizzicato articulation, each instrument offers a minimum of p, mp and ff articulations, while the violin, viola and bass instruments have a snap pizzicato mapped to the highest dynamic layer (which is absent from the cello). The instruments vary in their implementation of bowing position (here grouped under the “color” heading) with all instruments offering normal bowing and sul ponticello. A sul ponticello bowing position sound is realized using either a different set of samples or modeling depending on the context. The violin and viola use a similar combination for the sul tasto bowing position. The bass offers a harmonic articulation (again, through a combination of additional samples and modeling) in a patch that uses flautando sustains for the lower pitches (c0-c2) and harmonics for the upper ones (c#2-c#4). A modeled sordino/mute is also switchable on or off for all instruments and articulations and colors.
An important consideration of the additional bowing positions and (for the bass) the harmonics, is that modeling fills in the gaps that between what the additional samples address. So while unique samples are often provided for sustains with different bowing positions, the legato intervals (for example) are modified in color to match in color using modeling. Similarly, the shorts are modified using modeling, which makes perfect sense for the staccato articulation but is less logical for the pizzicato articulations (where non-standard plucking position isn’t normally called for as a real-world acoustic color, except plucking below the bridge). The sordino modeling can also be stacked on top of any changes in bowing position (or color).
The Ensemble Mode
In the lower right of the instrument GUI you’ll find the Ensemble tab. The controls available for each instrument in this tab are completely identical across all four instruments and differ only in their default settings (most especially with the viola using six players instead of eight by default). There’s the intonation knob (which controls the pitch spread between the players, like a detune knob); a tightness knob (which similarly controls how exact the timing is) and a randomize knob (which modifies the previous two parameters at random by the range it is set to). For all three of these knobs, greater values leads to a “looser” sound while lower values yield a more precise one (though obviously the random one will sometimes sound looser than others). The panning knobs specify the left and right maximum extents of the sound field for the ensemble (bring them closer together for a narrower sound or leave them at L100-R100 for the widest sound). Near the center, there’s a row of eight instrument icons, each which can be individually enabled (highlighted) or disabled (left black). A minor cosmetic difference is that violin and cello both have numbers beneath the icons while the cello and bass are blank underneath. The final two remaining buttons are “Ensemble” (which lets you enable or disable ensemble mode the same way as on the main page) and “Combine Transitions” (which modifies the sound of the bow change legato transitions by mixing in some of the slurred legato transitions sound as well).
The ensemble mode can be used for two primary purposes: to create a grouped ensemble section sound (which definitely sounds different from a real sampled ensemble but can be very useful for pads, layering or non-traditional use) or for creating multiple players. For instance, you could load two instance of the instrument, enable ensemble mode in each, and enable just one player in each ensemble but select a different player for each. By doing so you’d create a slight variation in sound (useful for a variety of scenarios, including the common need for both a first and second violin). When doing so, it may be useful to narrow the panning.
There are many solo string libraries on the market, but as you narrow in on the kind of library that Embertone Intimate Solo Strings is, the list gets a lot shorter. On the one hand, it gives you full vibrato control, which to the best of my knowledge has only been attempted in products like the no longer available Garritan’s Stradivari Solo Violin and Gofriller Solo Cello, the currently available Synful Orchestra (a fully synthesized library available exclusively as a whole orchestra), Kirk Hunter’s Spotlight Strings and or Sample Modeling’s recent collection (The Violin, The Viola, The Cello). I have copies of two of the libraries but have only heard the rest in examples, so I’ll keep my comments brief: my personal preference (based on what I’ve heard so far) is for the tone of the recordings that Embertone offers. While all the above libraries offer a lot of control, Embertone sounds the most like the way I’m used to hearing solo strings in person. Notably, of the preceding list, the only library besides Embertone Intimate Solo Strings that offers a soloist for all four string sections (violin, viola, cello and bass) is Kirk Hunter Spotlight Strings. So if you are primarily looking for the combination of the instrument selection and the ability to control vibrato (and your aesthetic preference is a little different from mine) then I’d suggest taking a look at Kirk Hunter Spotlight Strings. The two libraries sound really different from each other, so chances are you’ll have a clear preference for one versus the other.
In comparison to VSL Solo Strings, the experience of using each library differs. VSL Solo Strings requires considerably longer to setup and either learn or organize (in part owing to a much larger range of articulations on offer) while getting the most out of Embertone Intimate Solo Strings requires spending longer learning how to work with the various vibrato settings and perform them in real-time (or in multiple passes, or editing after the fact) Both libraries require more mixing setup than other multi-mic libraries, so you’ll also want to have at least some experience mixing virtual instruments to get the best sound of either one. Once you are up to speed with both, VSL Solo Strings gives you the ability to switch between more articulations on the fly than any other library (including Embertone Intimate Solo Strings) but Embertone Intimate Solo Strings provides much greater ability to tailor the vibrato to your piece. VSL Solo Strings offers more types of legato transitions, while the legato transitions that Embertone Intimate Solo Strings have on offer still manage to do things that are difficult to accomplish with VSL Solo Strings (like fast arpeggiated legato passages, especially in the case of Leonid Bass). In regards to which recordings I prefer for a given instrument, it really depends on the context and application. Having used both for a long time, I still find times where either one is more appropriate in my work than the other. I generally tend to prefer to use Embertone when I want to perform the lines live with maximum expression and use VSL when I want access to the wider range of articulations (or especially when composing using any method other than recording a MIDI performance).
There are many other solo string libraries available to serve different niches, but so many of them omit the solo bass entirely that the list really gets shorter when you want to include the instrument. At that point, out of the products I’ve reviewed for the site, the options are CineSamples CineStrings SOLO, XSample Chamber Ensemble and the solo strings from 8Dio’s string range (previously reviewed in their Adagio form but recently revamped as Anthology Strings).
CineSamples Strings SOLO is a great library catering to a different niche: great out of the box sound with the performers recorded in position for the first chair of each of the five string sections (so 1st violin, 2nd violin, viola, cello and bass) and two types of bow change legato, but no fingered legato. Much like Embertone Intimate Strings Solo, it doesn’t overwhelm you with articulation choices, but since it doesn’t have the same sort of vibrato control, it also has a shorter learning curve and you can use the library to its full capacity with just a single MIDI CC (like a modwheel). So basically CineStrings SOLO is a good alternative for people that don’t want to deal with mixing and would prefer to rely on the recorded performer’s expression as opposed to getting maximum control to tweak it yourself, or that want to have the shortest possible learning curve.
XSample Chamber Ensemble is based on much older recordings, so it features scripted legato as opposed to sampled interval legato (unlike Embertone, CineSamples and 8Dio) but it features good instrument tone, without excessive ambience, that settles well into just about any mix, and a surprisingly wide array of articulations. It’s definitely worth a look. Like CineStrings SOLO, it can be used well without much mixing experience, though it can benefit from additional reverb if desired. Again, it can’t compete with Embertone’s ability to sculpt a melody line in real time to your unique taste, but it does offer a wider range of articulations.
8Dio’s solo strings don’t try to be as flexible as Embertone Intimate Solo Strings (you can’t really tweak vibrato at all, you use what was performed, etc), but they do need to be placed in the mix, just the same. The emphasis on the solo strings here is on specific and emotional performances that are designed to work well in a more specific context rather than be tailored to others. You’ll find a violin, viola, cello and bass with one or more short articulations and one or two legato types, and some additional articulation types. The solo instruments are only available as part of larger collections, but they can be used to great effect when they are appropriate to the material. Note that Embertone Intimate Solo Strings can handle faster legato lines much better, but that the 8Dio solo strings offer some very musical legato types that aren’t always easy to recreate in other libraries. They are very simple to use, even if you don’t use keyswitching or real-time MIDI CC tweaking at all, and they have both close and far mics.
While there are many other solo strings libraries I haven’t had a chance to audition yet, from everything I’ve heard, Embertone Intimate Solo Strings remains unique. Other libraries in the market provide alternatives to aspects of it, but none offers the same combination of qualities and applications. Once again, if you want the best vibrato control on the market that I’ve heard to date, Embertone Intimate Solo Strings is where it’s at.
Is It Right For Me?
If you like to perform your solo string lines live with a keyboard and one or more real-time MIDI CC controllers (or the TouchOSC app for your smartphone or tablet), then I don’t think you’ll find a library that offers more expressive control than Embertone Intimate Strings Solo, especially one that includes a double bass! It takes some experimentation to get the most out of the vibrato for most of the instruments (though less so for the Leonid Bass) but once you get the hang of it you’ll be rewarded with the ability to sculpt truly musical performances with a great deal of individuality. On the other hand, if that sounds hard or like a lot of work, or you want a library that doesn’t make you spend any time on mixing, or if you’re more concerned with a wider range of articulations than real-time control (especially if you mainly use notation software) then you should probably look at other libraries. Embertone Intimate Strings Solo is one of the best solo string library collections, doing many things very well instead of trying to be a jack of all trades and master of none.