Review – London Contemporary Orchestra Strings from Spitfire Audio
You all know Spitfire Audio for its beautiful, majestic string libraries. Well, London Contemporary Orchestra isn’t that. Strings just got weird – in a most delightful way.
by Dave Townsend, May 2017
Spitfire Audio knows string libraries. Theirs are some of the very best on the market. I count around 28 string-related libraries in their catalog, representing everything from delicate solo instruments to the thundering 300-piece Masse. Frankly, I thought that they’d surely have already covered every conceivable variation on sampled strings. Then I heard London Contemporary Orchestra.
LCO takes strings in a whole new direction. It features eclectic articulations that, although you may have heard them in movie soundtracks, you have never heard them coming out of a sample library before. In fact, you’d have a very difficult time attempting to duplicate them using any conventional string library.
More than just a Spitfire product name, The London Contemporary Orchestra is a real working ensemble, established in 2008 for the purpose of recording with contemporary artists and cinematic soundtracks. They are prominently featured on Radiohead’s 2016 album “A Moon Shaped Pool”, as well as the soundtrack for Ridley Scott’s latest addition to the Alien franchise, “Covenant”. London Contemporary Orchestra specializes in effects that one might characterize as adventurous, with unusual articulations and microtonal tunings being hallmarks of this unique ensemble.
When you first open LCO, you’ll see just four instruments: violins, violas, celli and basses + celli. This might lead you to initially assume it’s a stripped-down library, at least if you hadn’t noticed that the download was 28 GB in size (46 GB uncompressed). In fact, there is more here than first meets the eye.
Those four top-level nki files are the “every articulation” versions, featuring eighteen keyswitched articulations for violins and violas and fourteen articulations for cellos and bass + cello. In addition to those four, there are also separate instruments for each of those 32 articulations, plus additional variations called “techniques”. There are in fact a whopping 111 nki files in total.
But wait, there’s more! For each of those articulations there are two microphone positions and four processed layers. The first two options, “Close” and “Room” are self-explanatory and will already be familiar to users of orchestral libraries. Less obvious are the other four, mysteriously labeled “FX1”, “FX2”, “MX1” and “MX2” – more on that in a bit.
Bring Your Own Reverb
This library was purposely recorded quite dry, to make it easier to blend with more conventional string libraries. You’ll probably want to skip the built-in Kontakt reverb, and instead route all string libraries in a project to a common bus and drop in your own favorite reverb plugin there.
Any nice hall reverb will do the trick, but this is the kind of instrument that encourages you to think outside the box. I tossed out my usual go-to “nice” reverb and proceeded to try every off-the-wall reverb effect I had on hand, such as ValhallaDSP’s UberMod, Toraverb from D16 Group and even the out-there Moodal resonance engine by tritik. Creepy alien-infested spaceships! Don’t be afraid to mangle LCO, it won’t be offended.
If you load up the top-level violins.nki, you get all eighteen violin articulations. You also eat up 600 Megabytes of RAM. So if, say, you only need the “Vivid Long” articulation, you can load just that one and drop the memory usage to a mere 43 MB. Or, you just may be an old-school type who prefers separate tracks for each articulation.
Altogether, there are 83 separate instruments representing each individual articulation. A few of them are pretty standard fare, such as “Vivid Long”, a pleasant sustained legato you can use anywhere – and which is not representative of the library’s overall theme.
LCO’s Instruments directory structure looks like this:
There are a lot of articulations and variations. This library is, after all, all about stretching the definition of string orchestration. Many of these articulations do not have traditional names, so Spitfire had to use the kind of imagination usually reserved for synthesizer patch names.
Consider, for example, “Long Woozy Vib – Slow Pulses”. Wonder what that might sound like? Well, it actually sounds like it sounds like it should sound: a slow vibrato with the instruments weaving in and out of pitch with one another, reminiscent of a grade-school orchestra recital. Or a movie scene wherein the protagonist has just realized he’s been drugged by the supervillain.
Long Woozy Vibe
Don’t expect to discern what each articulation is from descriptions alone. You’ll just have to audition them and play with their variations. Be sure to keep an open mind while doing so, as it probably won’t be obvious on first listen just what the heck you’re going to ultimately do with any given articulation.
Extended Techniques, Other Patches and Time Machine
“Extended Techniques” offers elaborations and decorations to complement the basic articulations.
“Other Patches” includes economic and lightweight variations for reduced memory and CPU usage.
The most interesting set of goodies down in this “Other” folder are the four “time machine” patches. Each consists of all six of the short articulations for each instrument fully loaded into RAM, allowing you to stretch them using Kontakt’s Time Machine engine.
If you’re unfamiliar with Time Machine, don’t worry, you won’t have to read the manual or anything. These patches conveniently add a “Stretch” slider to make it easy to exploit the feature. Move it to the left to stretch out the samples (very cool-sounding) or move it to the right to shorten them. And of course, like all controls in any Kontakt instrument, the Stretch parameter can be easily automated.
The mixer allows you to choose from or blend six different sample sets and variations. “C” and “R” are pretty standard, being abbreviations for “Close” and “Room” mics respectively.
The others (FX1, FX2, MX1 and MX2) aren’t as obvious, and if you turn to the documentation to find out what they are, you won’t find many clues there – except for a brief mention that they were created by engineer/producer Joe Rubel, using some unnamed “vintage gear”. Curious, I got in touch with Joe, and he was kind enough to fill me in on the geeky details. Here’s how these alternate sample sets were created:
FX1 is treated with reverb. No, not some vintage Lexicon that costs as much as your car, but an inexpensive digital stompbox: a Strymon Big Sky on the “plate” setting. OK, maybe it’s not exactly “vintage” but it’s a great-sounding reverb and definitely in tune with LCO’s overall out-of-the-box thinking.
FX2 uses a short and heavily distorted delay created with a Binson Echorec. This unique device, made famous by guitarists David Gilmour and Hank Marvin, really does qualify for the adjective “vintage”, given that they haven’t been manufactured for 40 years and are hard to come by these days.
MX1 (described in the documentation as “Full”) is the close and room signals summed.
MX2 is described in the documentation as “Pumped”. It’s heavily compressed (“slammed” to use Joe’s word) through a UBK Fatso. This is an Empirical Labs EL7 Fatso compressor modified by Gregory Scott at Kush Audio to be even more aggressive than the famously colorful original Fatso.
Joe also provided information about the LCO signal chain: close mics were through a Neve 33609 compressor followed by Maag EQ2 equalizers; room mics were processed by a Manley Vari Mu compressor into a Manley Massive Passive equalizer. Thanks for sharing, Joe. Inquiring minds want all the details!
Dynamics and Expression
Most of the other controls on the main panel are self-explanatory, e.g. Release and Reverb. Two that are less-obvious are Expression and Dynamics, which might strike some as being two words for the same thing. In this case, they are not.
“Expression” refers specifically to CC11, which is designated as “expression” in the MIDI spec. If you’re a string orchestrator you’re already intimately familiar with CC11 for adding liveliness to performances. For everyone else, CC11 is essentially a second volume control that adds with the main volume (CC7). You set CC7 to an average minimal level, and then manipulate or automate CC11 to create swells and other dynamic variations. The Expression slider determines how much affect CC11 has on overall volume, from 0 to 100%. At 100%, CC11 and CC7 are summed, giving you control over the entire volume range from controller 11. At 0%, CC11 is ignored.
“Dynamics”, in this context, refers to which samples get played based on note velocity. Whereas Expression is just a volume adjustment, the Dynamics slider alters the way velocity layers are brought in and out.
Most sampled instruments select the appropriate sample layer based on velocity alone (e.g. velocities between 1 and 32 play sample A, velocities between 33 and 64 play sample B, and so on.). The problem with this simple mapping technique is that sometimes a small change in velocity can result in an abrupt tonal change for a note as the engine snaps from one velocity group to the next. Developers usually combat that effect by supplying a large number of velocity layers with smaller variations between them, at the cost of increased memory and disk space, while still not necessarily guaranteeing that listeners won’t be able to perceive the layer switching.
A more sophisticated method is to crossfade between layers, giving a smoother transition from one to the next. This is what Spitfire does with their orchestral libraries. The Dynamics slider determines how much overlap there is between crossfaded layers. At 0%, LCO works like a typical Kontakt library, selecting a single velocity layer based solely on a note’s velocity. According to Spitfire, this throwback method may actually work better if your track uses low velocities exclusively. But for highly-dynamic tracks, you’ll probably leave the control at 100% to achieve the most transparent transitions.
Summary and Additional Resources
So just who and what is this wonderfully weird library really for? “Film Composers” is a quick and easy answer, since that umbrella encompasses, well, everything. But I think anyone who loves strings and is looking to stretch a bit from the norm will have fun with LCO. Case in point is this symphonic metal example by composer Marius Haraldsen.
The user manual may be viewed or downloaded here.
Spitfire has created some helpful YouTube videos where you can see and hear LCO in action:
Spitfire London Contemporary Orchestra is $375 and may be purchased/downloaded from the Spitfire Audio website. It’s compatible with both the free Kontakt player (included) and the full Kontakt product, version 5.5 or higher. You’ll need 56.2 GB of free disk space to install it, and it’ll occupy 45.7 GB after installation.