Interview with Alex Wallbank, the Creator of Cinematic Strings 2

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We talk to the creator of Cinematic Strings 2 to discover who he found a way to offer something really new and revolutionary in this overcrowded market.

by A. Arsov, May 2013

Alex WallbankThere are a zillion quality strings libraries around and it is almost impossible to bring something new to this market. Most of them sound so perfect that it is just a matter of taste which color you will wear in your song. If I paraphrase the legendary intro of various junk mails: “Maybe this library comes as a surprise for you” and yes, it comes as a big surprise. It doesn’t sound better than the most expensive libraries on the market, it doesn’t offer endless number of articulations, but it offers you extra vivid and realistic tone in a most critical and most used part of the string arrangement.

With this library staccato or staccatissimo parts don’t sound so repetitive as has been the case with other libraries (the only cure for that disease before CS2 comes out was adding a new part over the essential one on every few bits), and what’s the most important, you can achieve desired results without any extra programming. It is a library that you can play and record, programming it in a real time. Even legato articulation comes to life with a few very clever solutions that offer you the means to color in real time with mod-wheel of your keyboard.

All in all, a touch of EQ, reverb and a bit of panning and you are done. If you’ve ever made any string arrangements before you know that this is mission impossible. Not any more, mission impossible has been completed. So, we decided to ask the creator just how in the hell he found a way to offer something really new and revolutionary in this overcrowded market fulfilled with big sharks.    

SoundBytes: What is the main difference between Cinematic Strings I and II?

Alex Wallbank: Cinematic Strings 2 is really like a new library, more than just an upgrade from version 1 to 2. The new interface meant we could consolidate the numerous patches from version 1 into single patches. So instead of there being 20 or so patches, there are now 7. Other libraries have 100s of patches, and it can be pretty annoying to have to sift through a giant list when all you want to do is make music. Basically, CS2 was rebuilt from the ground up, with a focus on ease of use and speed while composing. Loading times are very small, thanks to Kontakt’s background loading feature. This now means that RAM usage can be monitored quickly, and any unused articulations can be removed with one click, to save on memory.

I think as technology improves, especially with the likes of smartphones and social media, there is an expectation that the tools you use will make your life easier. This is of course accompanied by an increased expectation that you’ll also be able to work more efficiently. That’s why we’ve made the changes we have, including the two new full-ensemble patches to allow for quick sketches, so that working composers can speed up their production times.

SB: What’s seems harder for you, to capture the right sound or to edit it in a final stage?

AW: I think it’s fair to say that it’s 50/50. While it’s obviously hugely important to capture a musical, energetic performance and have it beautifully recorded, the editing phase is equally as crucial. It’s not uncommon to hear libraries that are recorded in amazing sounding rooms around the world, only to be let down by lackluster/rushed editing and patch programming. And there are other libraries that are recorded in more modest environments on a tighter budget, but still come out in front of the bigger libraries, simply because greater care and clever editing tricks have been used to elevate the end product beyond the limitations of the initial recording quality.

SB: The main problem of the sound libraries from the past was a static tone recorded by players. We all know that the tone in a phrase is not the same as the isolated one. How did you manage to achieve this vivid lively tone in the first place? What was the biggest challenge in this process?

AW: There are programming challenges, but first and foremost, it’s important to have some understanding of how the instruments work. There are so many things going on in a string section during a musical phrase that it’s impossible to keep track of all the variables, but thankfully we can identify a few crucial factors that we need to emulate in order to mimic human musicality. The most important ones that I can fit into this interview are: tuning, timing and expression.

Tuning and timing in a string section are rarely perfect, and so this should be reflected in a sample library. I conducted each section, without a click track in the players’ ears, and gave them just enough time to get to the next note without perfecting their timing or tuning, so it would sound a bit looser and more realistic. As for expression, one of the toughest things is keeping the players interested enough to give you a musical performance after hours of playing. As you can imagine, things start to get a bit hazy after 3 hours, so it’s important to keep a positive, understanding attitude, and plenty of energy drinks. 🙂

As for the programming side of things, we used some under-the-hood tricks in order to simulate further tuning and timing slips. The main example was blending custom messy samples in with the short notes, to create Live Mode. How we did that is a secret, but it’s always important to remember that experimentation is key. If it sounds good, it is good. 🙂

Cinematic Strings GUISB: You said in one interview, that composers don’t credit the libraries, so you don’t know where exactly your library is used. But do you recognize it when you hear it? I ask because I can hear the difference between the strings libraries that I own, especially in fast passages.

AW: As a former gamer (too busy now!), I was excited to hear that the library was used all over the Dead Space 3 soundtrack by Jason Graves, for whom I have great respect. Sam Hulick, who composed the Mass Effect soundtracks, is now using CS2 on some beautiful material; I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with next.

I think CS definitely has a unique and recognizable sound, so I can usually tell when I hear it in a piece. To be truthful though, I spend most of my time editing samples and programming patches these days, and don’t watch many movies. So I got a pleasant surprise last year when I was credited in the “special thanks” section of the Ice Age 4 soundtrack insert – I love John Powell’s work.

SB: As we mentioned the fast passages, your library specially shines in the staccato and staccatissimo articulations. So, what is your main secret, the spice that makes it so unique?

AW: Thank you! In addition to the timing and tuning considerations I mentioned earlier, I think the programming definitely has a lot to do with the playability of short note patches. It takes a lot of fine tuning and play testing to ensure a smooth transition between the soft and loud dynamics, and it’s important to keep the editing consistent. Staccato, staccatissimo, marcato etc have no predefined length, so it’s necessary to communicate with the players to make sure they get the lengths exactly how you want them.

When it came to the loud dynamics, I really got the players to dig in and play as loud as they possibly could, without breaking their instruments. 🙂 This was a major consideration when recording the library, as one of the frustrating things of older libraries was that their FFF didn’t sound like FFF, it sounded more like F, no matter how hard I belted the keyboard! 🙂

SB: You have borrowed a small fortune to fulfill your dream, to bring into life your vision, how should a string library sound and how do you make it really user friendly. Was that very brave or a bit insane decision? Ok. It is probably easy to be smart regarding the past tense, but how it was back then?

AW: It was in no way brave or noble, but possibly slightly insane. 🙂 In fact, I didn’t really think about it. Before starting, I was constantly frustrated by the samples I had, so I wanted to go out and record some better ones, and that’s really all there was to it. The drive to create a string library that was enjoyable to work with overpowered any doubt or worry of the financial risks I was taking at the time. In hindsight, I’m really happy that CS2 has been well received and I’m excited to be in the position that we can continue bringing out new products, which is what’s taking up all my time these days. 🙂

SB: Your string library sounds very soft and gentle but at the same time it can be very aggressive and expressive. Is that more a result of a recording process, choosing the right tools and the right place or it was more a programming stage? And please don’t just say it is a combination of both, as there should be a point where such things begin and the methods that are crucial for achieving such results.

AW: I think it helps to listen to a lot of classical music that hasn’t been manipulated and processed extensively. This can help in recognizing how broad the dynamic range of an orchestra can be. Getting thoroughly used to the sound of pianissimo is especially useful, and can help maintain perspective throughout a session. This also comes back to learning as much as you can about the instrument you’re sampling; this is especially true with strings, but also applies to any instrument. For example, I’ve found that flutes sound much louder in their upper register. The player needs to apply more air pressure to get an acceptable tone, and so the dynamic range significantly reduces.

As for strings, I’ve found that playing position plays a major role in timbre. Load up the CS violas, set the playing position to “high” and then play some chords… and then switch to low position and repeat. You’ll hear how much of a difference there is; it’s hugely important, and sadly, often overlooked.

SB: What’s next? Do you envision any further improvements, new marketing plans or maybe something totally different like a new library with some other instruments?

AW: We’re definitely working on new libraries, and part of the challenge has been setting up a systematic workflow that will allow us to record and produce libraries more quickly. Hopefully we’ll have this in place soon. We’ve been doing some recording in a new scoring stage environment, and the results so far have been fantastic. I can’t wait to show everyone what we’ve been up to; my dream has long been to create a whole sampled orchestra in a world-class film scoring stage, and I won’t rest until I’ve done that.

SB: I love your video tutorials and I’m thankful for your demo arrangements, but I’m still waiting for your mixing the string library tutorial that you promised on your site. Does that mean that you are swamped with future projects or you just simply took some spare time for yourself enjoying the after-the-success moments?

AW: Thanks, I’m glad you enjoy the tutorials, and I’m sorry I haven’t released a new one in quite a while. I’ve been really swamped with work but I’ll definitely look into doing a tutorial that covers mixing/reverb and sample choice in the not-too-distant future.

SB: And as a last question, could you tell us about your musical background? We just want to know what are those attributes that a human being needs to have to become a successful library creator?

AW: In short, I played trumpet all through high school, taught myself guitar, and went to full-time music college for a year. I’ve always listened to music constantly, and to a wide range of artists and styles. I was especially inspired by the work of some of my favorite composers, and after working at a couple of other jobs, I started composing and learning more about music composition and production through trial and error. I’ve always found it almost impossible to ignore music; even if it’s just playing somewhere in the background, my brain goes into auto-pilot and deconstructs the bass line, the chords, the melodies etc. I can’t tell you the number of times people have been frustrated with me because I’m listening to the music instead of them, but whether I liked it or not, this has probably helped.

As for sample library development, I think a little bit of stubborn persistence, combined with a bit of OCD and control-freak tendencies are a good start. 🙂 Seriously though, many composers do their own custom sampling these days. With programs like Kontakt, it’s really easy to go out and hire a few musicians and record a nice little custom sound set for yourself that no one else has. I really encourage anyone to have a go at that; it’s a lot of fun. 🙂


Cinematic Strings 2

More info at Bestservice  or at Cinematic Strings  Price: 450 €. (Compatible with the free Kontakt 5 Player) The main advantage of the library is realistic sound with minimum or even no additional programming. It is very user friendly and it offers instant results without any sound compromises.


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