Review – Minimal by Sonokinetic
Sonokinetic’s Minimal is a Kontakt instrument that offers “Philip Glass in a box”; it is a library which is very true to the spirit of minimalist composing.
by Per Lichtman, May 2014
What Is Minimal?
Sonokinetic Minimal (€199.90 EUR at /www.sonokinetic.net/products/classical/minimal/) is Sonokinetic’s latest orchestral library, joining Tutti, Vivace and Da Capo. It’s a Kontakt Player library (so you don’t need to own Kontakt) and features a large variety of orchestral loops, divided by orchestral section, performed in a style inspired by the 20th century minimalist composers that its name suggests. The loops were originally recorded at 108 BPM in 3 minor keys and 3 major keys but re-pitch and lock to tempo by taking advantage of Kontakt 5’s Time Machine Pro, whether you are using the player or a full version of Kontakt. The material is best thought of rhythms, beds and colors rather than in terms of melodic phrases.
I don’t review a lot of loop-based products but this one caught my eye (and my ear for several reasons). First of all, it addressed the minimalist style which I developed an affinity for shortly before I was lucky enough to briefly study with John Adams back at the California State Summer School for the Arts over a decade ago. So I wanted to see the extent to which Minimal was true to feeling of that material. Second, the sound quality and performances on offer in the demo videos really got my attention and I was curious to see whether they were indicative of the library as a whole or of the skill of the people that made the video.
If you don’t want to go to the trouble of reading the whole review, I’ll do my usual and cut to the chase: the library is both very consistent in the quality of the material and very true to the spirit of minimalist composing and some of the really good performances thereof. You can keep reading if you want the details.
What’s the Orchestra Like?
Between the 52 string players, 11 brass players and 12 woodwind players, Minimal’s orchestra reaches 75 musicians before the percussionists are accounted for. If you deployed the melodic percussion so as to use one player per recorded instrument at the same time, you’d add another five players, bringing the grand total to 80 musicians. In other words, the orchestra size is consistent with several large twentieth century orchestras but don’t look for a 30-player combined violin section or Mahler-esque expansions – you’ve got tons of detail in the sound here, though it’s some of the sweetest sounding detail I’ve heard in an ensemble sample library to date.
The patterns are addressed by each of the four families of the orchestra (woodwinds, brass, strings and percussion) and in a combined families option. To be clear, though certain patterns may highlight one sub-section over others, you do not normally mean that you get access to individual sections within each family. For instance, a string section pattern might contain notes played by the first violins, with the second violins playing harmony beneath and the violas below that (leaving room to fill in the low strings with another part, either from Minimal itself or another library).
With that in mind, here are the numbers of players used in recording the sections.
– Violins I: 12
– Violins II: 12
– Violas: 10
– Cellos: 10
– Basses: 8
– French Horns: 4
– Trumpets: 3
– Tenor Trombones: 2
– Bass Trombone: 1
– Tuba: 1
– Flutes: 3
– Oboes: 3
– Clarinets: 3, with one of them doubling on the bass clarinet
– Bassoons: 3, with one of them doubling on the contrabassoon
– Xylophone: 1
– Marimbas: 2
– Celeste: 1
– Piano: 1
What Do the Phrases Contain?
There are different numbers of patterns available for each of the sections. The strings have the most basic patterns (over sixty), woodwinds the second most (over forty), followed by the percussion (over thirty), mixed sections (over twenty) and finally the brass (eight).
While there are fewer patterns for the brass than any other section, the brass phrases in the library are a real highlight. They offer some really epic and soaring elements that benefit from great performance and recording, capturing some great arcs and repeated notes that I don’t typically encounter in orchestral samples but have long enjoyed in live performances. They can be used as a “glue” or to provide highlights or agitated rhythms.
Using the mixed section means taking advantage of internal balancing within the orchestra, as well as reducing the noise floor even further compared to going section by section. While it also means that the orchestra had a chance to lock rhythms internally so timing might be stronger, I should note that I never found the timing at all distracting when the sections were played individually – in fact, I would sometimes analyze the timing to get a sense for how to get a more human feel as compared to a quantized grid, then apply it to other things as well.
The percussion section has the most difficult brief, in my opinion, since rhythmic beds of melodic percussion are less commonly deployed in many genres than many of the surrounding sections. So it’s not entirely surprising that I found myself somewhat less inspired by these patterns than those in the other sections. Nonetheless, the section can be used effectively when things are very sparse (soloed worked best for me, in fact). It can also add very subtly during a tutti section, but I found I often preferred to write my own parts instead. That said, the performances and recording quality maintain the standard the library set, so if you find material that interests you in the melodic percussion patterns, you’ll have a great sound to work with.
As for the woodwinds, they are so very important in the twentieth century orchestral literature and Minimal really nails some of the performance and color possibilities used by minimalist composers. It was always a joy to deploy these performances and while there aren’t as many as for the strings, I’ve found there’s a ton of variety.
This brings us to the strings. From marches to agitated rhythms, from quiet flowing colors to strong accents, there’s an awful lot to work with here. This is beautiful stuff. I should say more but that really just captures it right there – beautiful, well-chosen, well-performed material.
One great thing about all of this material is that it always sounds natural and musical. There was never a “phone in” performance and the only way I found to make things artificial was too push the time-stretching too far – really solid.
Notation View and Lite Programs
The notation view automatically follows the pattern for each of the 4 sections, but not the key. You have to choose between minor and major by manually highlighting the appropriate square in the upper right. The notation view seemed to default to the last section I had been editing (e.g. the strings family in this case) but the four white squares correspond to the same sections on the main page, so you can switch between them at will.
For those interested in having rapid access to all the patterns, the “Minimal – Conductor Score” PDF can be purchased on the same page as Minimal, with part of the money going to the performers. The score is €40 EUR for Minimal owners using their coupon code, or €99.90 EUR for non-owners.
The Lite programs use a specially mixed “Tutti” microphone position instead of giving you individual access to the programs, a potential savings of time and effort.
Mixing with Minimal
Minimal was recorded in an eastern European orchestral hall with four different mic positions: close, decca, wide and balcony. The interface allows you to load up to two of the positions at once in each instance and then crossfade between them with a slider underneath. This is quick and easy to use approach to helps to avoid the easy “let’s just turn them all up!” tendency that novice users sometimes deploy in their early experiments with multi-mic libraries. The hall has a nice character, distinct from the soundstages use by VSL or EastWest yet less cavernous than the churches/converted churches such as AIR Lyndhurst. Nonetheless, I found it could be used well with libraries recorded in those spaces if you got creative, especially if a convolution reverb was used to unify to the sound.
The four mic positions and the library’s knack for handling radical EQing without introducing unpleasant artifacts really make it very malleable. I’ve found I keep a handful of external EQ presets nearby to tailor the library to different genres and roles. Adding a low-cut filter and a light bass cut, along with pushing a band in the highs can really help to make the library thinner yet more audible in a crowded mix by making more room for drums, bass, or darker synths. Leaving the library without EQ lends a very warm, rich sound that feels very much like being in the hall. All the detail and grain of a well-recorded orchestra is there and it never feels over-processed, yet I found it difficult to find any undesirable edges to bring out with EQing – though this may be too dark for some applications. Honestly, from a timbral perspective, this might be the most well-recorded library I’ve received for review to date – and it doesn’t hurt that the performances are so full of life, too.
This makes it a great starting point for working with other libraries, too. I found that by using the notation view to look at the parts and then writing them down, doubled in other libraries, I could extend my options even further. For instance, I would take an idea in the strings that used the violins and violas in Minimal and then layer the divisi or close mics in Hollywood Strings with a similar rhythmic articulation for bite and detail. The results using this approach are distinct from those of using EQ alone. I would say that EQ was a more useful approach when I wanted a smoother and more integrated sound and that layering worked better when I wanted to add more heft. Of course you can use Minimal alongside other libraries instead of layering the articulations, having a rhythmic bed in Minimal while you play the melody in one or more of the remaining instruments in another library, for instance.
The ability to see the notation (in full) for each pattern really elevates the usefulness of the library more than I would have thought, making it possible to quickly layer or integrate it with other libraries or score for use with a live ensemble. This makes the library great for power users, but the library is proving equally useful as an instant gratification element.
The patterns in the library were originally performed at 108 BPM and automatically lock to the tempo in your session through Kontakt’s Time Machine Pro time-stretching engine. I found they worked well a variety of tempos (I’m currently using them in several 144 BPM sessions) though there are of course limits.
The performances in Minimal are full of tone and vibe, with recordings that can handle huge amounts of processing because of the sweetness of the original tone. They are at home in large soaring epics but can also be EQed to bring up front detail out of the material.
Sonokinetic provides several free instructional videos in addition to the PDF documentation and I would strongly urge new users to at the very least watch the “Overview” video before getting started, and preferably read the succinct, informative and well-written manual. While Minimal is quite easy to use in practice, the workflow is different than with most other products so a few minutes getting used to the approach can save a lot of frustration and head-scratching.
When you open up Kontakt (Kontakt Player) you’ll see several zones highlighted with colors. The first one you want to think about is what I like to call “the triad playing zone”, an octave and a half where you hold down three notes at a time to tell Minimal what chord it should start playing. It doesn’t matter what inversion you play the chord in – Minimal will play the same material.
Take a minute to explore how you prefer to work with the library. Do you want the release samples on or off? Leaving them on means that you may have to release last note a little earlier before you hit the next set, or else the release sample may step over your next entrance – but the release samples can potentially make for a more realistic result if you let go of a note before a phrase is complete.
Personally, I often found myself using the sustain pedal to hold a given triad until I played the next one. I won’t go too far into usage beyond that – I’d just be duplicating what the videos say already. Suffice to say that there are many ways to vary the sound and the you can change the relationship between the host tempo quickly for each section: quarter note is locked to tempo, half-note means half-time, etc.
I did the bulk of my testing on a Windows 7 64-bit PC running Reaper 4.591 64-bit and in that environment, Minimal was the first library I’d used so far that had some difficulty with Reaper’s “Auto-Arm” record mode. If I was listening to a track that was in that mode, playback could sometimes be a little unpredictable – though the part I’d recorded always played back correctly if I disarmed the track.
There’s a couple of other small issues I occasionally ran into, but there weren’t any show-stoppers among them and my issues more frequently resulted from user error than coding issues. Honestly, I spent much more time enjoying the well-thought out GUI than I did dealing with things like finding “the sweet spot” for dealing with overlapping notes (something I all but stopped having to worry about once I adopted the sustain pedal approach).
So what users are going to get the most out of Minimal and is it right for you? I would start by listening to the videos on Sonokinetic’s site to see if the style of any of the patterns appeal to you, because they certainly do to me. If they do, then you a tool that’s equally well-suited to rapidly coming up with textures and colors on a deadline, providing a bed to improvise over or add color to an existing composition (especially assuming that composition primarily uses major and minor triadic harmony). Honestly, I did not find the product especially limited by genre: I used it in realizing mock-ups for concert music, for rapid film and game scoring and even as an element in pop and electronica (or EDM as I’m increasingly being asked to call it ;).
The sound quality and performances here are among the very best heard in a sample library to date and have a unique vibe all their own. Even if you don’t normally pay much attention to loop based libraries, I would seriously consider checking this one out.