Review – Orchestral Tools Berlin Strings with EXP A and EXP B
If you need strings with some of the most powerful scoring capabilities available (and have the budget for it), then the Berlin Strings Series could be just what you’re looking for.
by Per Lichtman, Nov. 2014
Berlin Strings is Orchestral Tools’ professional string library series using the Kontakt 5 platform that has one of the most diverse sample sets of any library I’ve reviewed so far. This review covers all three entries in the Berlin Strings line that Orchestral Tools have released to date: Berlin Strings, EXP A and EXP B. A roadmap is already in place for future expansions. The prices for those outside the EU (or otherwise not required to play VAT) are about €839.50 EUR for the main Berlin Strings Library, €209.24 EUR for EXP A and €158.82 EUR for EXP B.
The main library, Berlin Strings, will run with Kontakt Player 5.3.1 or higher. To use EXP A and EXP B you will need to own a license for the full Kontakt 5. The libraries are available for download at orchestraltools.com or can be shipped pre-installed on Samsung 840 EVO SSD. The review copy was provided via download. Thanks to use of NCW compression Berlin Strings samples take up 129GB, EXP A takes up 22.3GB and EXP B takes up 11.4GB. As reflected in both the price and the space requirements, the main library provides a larger amount of content than the expansion.
Dynamic Range and the Instrument GUI
First of all, let me just say that that I’m a big fan of the Berlin Strings GUI, which borrows many elements from Berlin Woodwinds. It’s elegantly simple, highly visual and well organized, displays the dynamic of the sample used and makes it easy to make tweaks without ever feeling like you’re getting bogged down in “engineering side” of things. For example, all it takes is a couple clicks to activate or deactivate any of the dynamic layers and the instrument intelligently modifies the crossfades to compensate – no gaps. In addition, you can toggle between velocity and modwheel control of the dynamic layers with the touch of a button and there’s a knob for controlling the additional volume range (what might be labeled “expression” in some other libraries) that gets mapped to the modwheel. It’s all intuitive, works very well and the default settings were a great starting point and never left me scratching my head.
The dynamic control (not to mention the tweakability and visual clarity of which samples are operating) is in my opinion among the very best offered in a string library today, taking its place alongside Hollywood Strings and CineStrings CORE as a personal favorite in that respect (as well as in the power of the legato programs, as discussed later). Like those other libraries, the most powerful legato or sustain patches in the library can be used to dramatically cover the full dynamic range of the instrument in a single note, through MIDI CC control alone. The process does not require using key switches or different patches. While the legato and sustains using alternate bow placements in EXP A and B have fewer dynamic layers, many still employ multiple dynamic layers – which was an unexpected (and pleasant) bonus.
The Recordings and Mic Positions
The library was recorded at Teldex Scoring Stage, in situ, using a multi-mic configuration. The wetter ambience of the library means that the sound has more in common with Spitfire BML than either Hollywood Strings or VSL (both of which were recorded in drier studios), though Teldex is a symphonic hall with very different acoustic properties than AIR Lyndhurst (which has longer tails). As such, BST is a ready to use solution: it does not require any panning or reverb setup in order to be used in most contexts since all the instruments are in place and the sound of a concert hall is already in the recordings.
The library has four mic positions for each section (Close, Tree, Surround and AB), while the 1st violins also have an extra concertmaster (section leader) mic. The Tree mic is the one loaded by default, getting its name from the Decca tree used to record it. The library supports routing each mic position to a different output. All of these areas are an improvement upon the company’s earlier Berlin Woodwinds, which offered Close, Room (called Tree in BST) and Mix and came with Mix loaded by default. Users looking to use BWW together with BST should just use the Room position mic in BWW to match the sound of BST – don’t be confused by the default settings or the mic position name change.
Section Sizes and Performance Style
The section sizes are eight 1st violins, six 2nd violins, five violas, five cellos and four basses. In other words, roughly the half the size of a large symphonic string section but close to twice the size of the sections offered in libraries like Spitfire Audio’s BML Sable or the divisi articulations in 8Dio’s Adagio series. The sections are large enough to fully register as a large ensemble sound rather than chamber sections but at the same time small enough that you could score two parts for each section without sounding like you’re using more players than a large symphony. The sound is both warm and detailed, effective in a variety of musical contexts.
The performance style is flexible, with the two or three vibrato types offered for each section’s legato patches (the number varies by section). The three types chosen from are “Without Vibrato”, “Romantic Vibrato” and “Strong Vibrato”. The vibrato types are switchable by MIDI CC, not crossfaded as in libraries like CineStrings CORE or Hollywood Strings.
The “Romantic Vibrato” is the bread and butter, offering a sweet but not exaggerated vibrato that sounds more “classical” than is often employed in Hollywood studio orchestras but never comes off as clinical. It’s as good for delicate passages as it is for louder ones and despite the small sections comes off as a unified sound (as opposed to the differing approach of the sections in 8Dio’s Adagio line, where the vibrato of certain performers comes across more strongly).
For passages where a “firing on all cylinders” level of vibrato is required, the “Strong Vibrato” option offers a more passionate take on things. Keep in mind, “Strong” is the operative word and this really is more reserved for specific musical circumstances than either the Molto Vibrato or Espressivo vibrato options in libraries like CineStrings CORE or Hollywood Strings. There’s not really a counterpart to Hollywood String’s studio orchestra vibrato style, or the Golden Age film scores it evokes. However, access to the more dramatic (and less commonly sampled) “Strong Vibrato” type may be something that draws composers in that have not been able to find it elsewhere.
The “Without Vibrato” type hardly bears much discussion since it’s exactly what you would expect, but I will mention that it has a pleasant sound that doesn’t come off as harsh and is a bit larger than the section size might suggest. Nonetheless, the other vibrato types will of course sound larger and lusher.
Just How Much Does the Library Offer?
There are a few different kinds of string libraries: the kind that offer only the most basic things (such as the strings tacked onto non-orchestral products), the kind that pair more advanced sampling techniques with an interface to make the core articulations as quick and easy to use as possible (like CineStrings CORE and Cinematic Strings 2.1) and the ones that aim to provide enough patches to do almost anything a composer might want (like Hollywood Strings Diamond, Spitfire Audio’s expanding BML line and many of VSL’s products). Orchestral Tools Berlin Strings line (referred to as BST) is squarely in the last category – it aims to cover all the bases for true power users. It just so happens to offer the sort of sound quality, unique sampling and great user interface ideas that a lot of other people might want it, too.
Complete articulation lists are available through Orchestral Tools’ site for your perusal on the product pages for each entry (look on the right-hand side), but I’ll hit a few highlights here. I’ll discuss the patches as they are setup for the first violins, since it has a few extra articulations compared to the other sections. First of all, there’s the Adaptive Legato patches which switch between three different kinds of legato performance intervals (slurred, agile and playable runs) as well as portamento intervals (velocity controlled). The Adaptive Legato patches also give you control of the sustain type for the first note based on your velocity (immediate, soft and accented). The legato type can be locked by clicking a solo switch, or temporarily activated soloed by depressing one of three key switches outside the range of the instrument (the lowest three keys on an 88 key keyboard). The same control for the sustains is also provided when they are played using the sustain patches with legato intervals – and both include crossfading between four dynamic layers. This holds true for both violin sections and the violas, while the cellos use three dynamic layers and the basses use two – an area where CineStrings CORE and Hollywood Strings Diamond exceed it.
There’s also the Ostinato Arp Legato [EDIT: unique to the 1st violins and the cellos] which provides six round-robins for the fast performance intervals and three for the slow ones – though it only has two dynamic layers (p and f) compared to the four of the main Adaptive Legato. Personally, I found I used the Agile Legato type in the Adaptive Legato the least – it felt just a little too “dry” to me compared to the others and I found I either usually opted for the extra “messiness” of the “Fast Runs” legato type or the richness and round-robins of the Ostinato Arp Legato when using the first violins. In fact, the Ostinato Arp Legato was so much fun to use, that I’d love to see Ostinato Arp Legatos for other sections in the future (at the very least the 2nd violins). Of course, personal tastes will vary and the agile legato can cater well to many other composers. Either way, the library provides some of the best options I’ve seen since Hollywood Strings came out in this area, going toe-to-toe with 8Dio’s new Agitato series (a library that eschews the round-robin of the Ostinato Arp Legato but applies the fast legato to violins, violas and cellos).
There are dynamic bowings in various guises (with pre-recorded dynamic bowings in the vein of VSL and 8Dio’s Adagio). There’s a multitude of short bowings, and the first violins have the most with two kinds of spiccato, two kinds of staccato, an FFF martele, two kinds of portato and both standard and snap pizzicato. There are also so called “blurred” articulations for spiccato, staccato, portato and sustains. The harmonics, col legno and alternate bow placements (sul tasto and sul ponticello) are saved for EXP A and EXP B, but a variety of tremolos, trills, double strokes and triple strokes are on offer. In addition to the “playable runs” legato type mentioned earlier, there are pre-recorded octave runs with time-stretching that follows the songs tempo. Bow noises are also included.
The library also includes (for the first time that I’ve ever seen) playable glissandi for the first violins. This rather impressive (and unusual) feature allows you to start a glissandi by running your fingers across the keys of the keyboard and to change direction at any point and have the glissandi move that way as well. It’s a gestural rather than specific performance process that really got my attention the first time I encountered it. It’s not something you’ll be using all the time but there’s really nothing like it that I’ve ever seen in another library before and I found the process of using it made me feel a small part of the fun I have doing the same thing on my real violin.
[Update: In place of sordino recordings, BST includes sordino modeling that can be switched on or off as an effect. I have avoided discussing this in any detail because I consulted on Numerical Sound’s Universal Sordino, which is designed to do something similar using convolution in a library agnostic way so I didn’t want to be accused of passing off a biased opinion as an objective one. If you still want my biased opinion anyway, I would say that BST’s sordino effect is much better than the similar switch offered in Hollywood Strings. Of course, I cannot objectively compare BST’s modeling to Universal Sordino and leave that to others to do.]
The Kitchen Sink Approach Continues With Exp A and B
There’s only a handful of companies that really aim to provide “comprehensive” as opposed to “bread and butter” string articulations on the market today, with a handful of developers falling somewhere in between. In terms of those that have dedicated significant attention to alternate bowing placements (such as sul ponticello and sul tasto or flautando articulations) the only ensembles released had come from VSL and Spitfire Audio – and now Orchestral Tools. And with Expansions A and B (A covering the high string sections and B the low ones) Berlin Strings goes after the sul tasto and sul ponticello bowings with a vengeance (with some harmonics and col legno battuto added in for good measure). [EDIT: It should be noted that these alternate bow placements cover the same range as the primary bowing. Some libraries may cover a reduced range.]
For those less familiar with the sound of the bow placements, here are some of my brief observations from my time playing them on my violin. Sul ponticello brings out a sort of primal edge to the spectrum as compared to the normal placement – it can be played quickly and loudly as desired and can cover a wide dynamic range. Conversely, sul tasto bowings lend a soft and warm texture that’s normally played at quieter dynamics (both for aesthetic and practical reasons, as its difficult to produce the same volume as with a normal bowing). They can provide textures that are difficult to achieve with standard bow placement, whether a mute is used or not and regardless of how much the bowing is varied using standard placement. As such they are very important textures to the composer looking for the fullest possible orchestral palette – and I’ve already talked to at least one composer with tons of other string libraries that opted to buy Expansions A and B before trying the main Berlin Strings library.
I wanted to draw attention to a very important fact: at the time of writing, the sul tasto legato articulation provided in any competing library. Interval legatos are often recorded in a variety of ways, but this really is the first time that it’s been applied to either a sul tasto or flautando performance in any commercial library I’ve encountered – and every other developer should aim to remedy that as soon as they can.
One of the lovely things about the sul tasto legatos on offer here is how smooth, warm and blended each line can be. While the timbre itself is wonderful (and it’s been good to see similar sustains offered in other libraries before), the ability to play connected melodic lines with the bowing really enhances the utility a great deal. I’d be surprised if this didn’t become a favorite for other composers as it has certainly become one of mine.
The sul tasto legato patches are less elaborate and complex than the main legato patches in the core library: they offer one legato type instead of three and one vibrato type instead of three. The legato that is on offer is of a smooth and flowing variety not unlike the “slur” type in the main legato, meaning that the more rapid lines possible using “agile” or “run” types cannot be rendered well here. From my perspective that this isn’t much of a loss, since more rapid lines often benefit from the definition offered by the core legato patches in the main Berlin Strings library anyway.
There are also several more patches (staccato harmonics, sul ponticello staccato, sustains, etc.) that you can find listed at the Orchestral Tools site.
A Little Bit More about the Library in Use
In the process of reviewing a large array of string libraries recently, I’ve seen a lot of different ways of approaching instrument organization. Berlin Strings, like Hollywood Strings and 8Dio’s Adagio series before it, relies more on different instrument patches than it does on key switching. If you use it in the default fashion (as I did) you’re going to need a lot of tracks in order to get access to all the sounds. This is balanced out by just how powerful some of the individual patches are (like the Adaptive Legato ones), so the library is both easier and more complicated to use than some of its competitors all at once. Suffice to say that you’re definitely going to have to spend a little longer getting to know it than you would with Cinematic Strings or CineStrings CORE – but you’ll also be able to use a wider array of articulations once you do. In addition, the default sound and default settings work really well – this is one of the libraries where I rarely found myself wanting to tweak default settings and found it easy to do so when I did.
The library worked very well for me on a wide variety of material, excelling (in particular) on very delicate passages as well as ones that required uncommon articulations. It was balanced and well-rounded enough that I could use it on pieces that needed to feel both small and large and I never felt that I couldn’t use it for a given piece because of the performance style. There were a handful of pieces I worked on during the review that benefitted from a drier sound than BST’s more ambient recording environment provided (situations where I opted to employ Adagio or CineStrings or Hollywood Strings instead) but the overwhelming majority of the time, the color and blend of the hall proved an asset to my composition.
My main quibble is that given the fact that smaller section sizes are perfect for writing two part divisi and that the library was recorded in situ … it would have made things easier if there were second, equally sized sections recorded as well. Of course, the library would have double in size, but then they could either be stacked to create a full symphonic section sound (which wasn’t on my mind that often) or to use as separate divisi sections without re-positioning using a virtual placement plug-in (which is something I would very frequently use). Admittedly, I can’t help but think that this would have drastically increased the price of making the library and the final cost – but it would be something that I would have loved to use.
There were a handful of minor bugs or inconsistencies that I passed along to Orchestral Tools team. Most notably, the sul tasto legato patch for the second violins operated as a single dynamic layer despite indicating that two were present. However, I’ve been assured that this will be corrected in the very next update whenever it’s released – and even one dynamic layer of interval legato for the second violins is still more than any other library I’ve used.
Is the Library Right For You?
Berlin Strings doesn’t skimp on articulations or features and has the sound quality and scripting to satisfy many power users. If you want a lot more than a budget offering can provide and you’re more concerned with having some of the most powerful scoring tools than having the simplest and quickest setup, then the Berlin Strings Series could be great for you. I really like the sound and unless you want the largest ensembles (or conversely, a very dry sound) there’s a good chance you will, too. No library I’ve encountered can do “everything” but the Berlin Strings is one of the ones that come closest. If you already have Kontakt 5 and mainly want the less common bow placements, the EXP A and EXP B packages are a great place to start – the sul tasto legato patches are very warm in particular.
If you’re on a very tight budget, rarely want the symphonic hall sound that Teldex provides, need your strings very dry or only want the largest string ensembles, then you might want to look elsewhere. However, you’ll be passing up one of the best string libraries I’ve reviewed to date.