Review – Prague Solo Strings
We look at Prague Solo Strings, is a budget library of warm sounding instruments (violin, viola, cello and double bass).
by Per Lichtman, Sept. 2014
Prague Solo Strings ($99 USD from www.PragueSounds.com) is a solo string library (one violin, viola, cello and double bass) for owners of the full Kontakt 2.2.1 (not just Kontakt Player, because with that you can just demo the library for a matter of minutes) built primarily upon the strength of its performances and timbre of its recording. Weighing in at 7.88GB, recorded in an unadvertised space, one mic-position at a time, it’s the least expensive complete solo strings collection that I have reviewed to date, apparently partly because it’s one of the first libraries the developers have completed and because there are plans to create a more expensive (and more extensively programmed) version in the future. What this means is that right now it’s mainly meant for people that don’t want extensive scripting or prefer to roll their own and as a result, it’s very inexpensive – in fact, it costs less than some of the single instruments libraries reviewed this month.
The Sound of the Library
Prague Solo Strings (PSS from here on out) has a unique character to both the performances and the recording. It’s anything but glossy and sterile, with all the irregularities and detail left in – it’s full of vibe and neck-and-neck with the solo instruments in the 8Dio Adagio for which is the “warmest” sounding of the solo string libraries reviewed this month. If you’re just letting sustains from each library play against each, there’s a good chance this will be the library you’d choose. . This is part of the reason why it is less likely to sound synthetic than some older libraries programmed in a similarly basic fashion. It also means that you may want to listen to some of the demos to see whether the vibe is your personal cup of tea (as always) but I’m guessing the odds are pretty good if we’re talking about the sustains (which are often given in several variations).
The pizzicatos (two dynamics), staccato (two dynamics) and the spiccatos (often in several options) aren’t the most aggressive or vibrant sounding ones reviewed this month but work well if you want ones that blend a little more and cut a little less. But there’s typically only one patch for each instrument at a given mic distance with round-robin patches, and it’s a 2 or 3 round-robin spiccato patch that doesn’t feature multiple dynamic layers and doesn’t go too aggressive in its sound (though there’s often a more aggressive one available without round-robin). Basically if you want to vary your shorts to feel piano/mezzo piano through mezzo-forte most of the time, they can work quite well – and they are less ideally suited to really dramatic dynamics (no triple forte or sforzando style articulations, to be sure). So it’s really a question of what you need in your mix or what your writing style is like – and the library does do a good job of blending, for sure.
The library is not the easiest to navigate: there’s tons of single instrument patches, each microphone position was recorded individually – not concurrently (so you can’t use them together for one instrument, just layer them as different ones), there are few patches that use velocity or CC cross-fades or round-robins (at least not in terms of the articulations they cover), there’s no version of legato scripting included, and key-switching isn’t used by most patches (and the ones that do are somewhat limited in their approach). For instance, the key-switch programs that are present will put different dynamics of a given articulation on different key-switches instead of using velocity or CC cross-fading or switching – and when an articulation has a round-robin version, it’s not included in the key-switched programs. If you’re coming from pretty much any of the other solo string libraries reviewed this month, you’ll likely miss some of scripting features. This library takes longer to learn and to use than some of the others – but it doesn’t have to be as limited as it seems at first glance.
Expanding the Library Yourself
One of the first things you should after buying this library is go to http://nilsliberg.se/ksp/scripts/utkt/utkt.htm and download the Ultra TKT and SIPS scripts. The newest version of SIPS includes TKT functionality but the Ultra TKT script is definitely a little easier to learn/use on its own. These are two scripts you can add to the PSS patches by clicking the wrench icon on the patch in Kontakt, selecting the scripting tab and then either adding the scripts from the presets menu, or copying the text of the script into the window below.
The Ultra TKT script adds neighboring-zone round-robin – which creates additional variations/repetitions for a given articulation by swapping in retuned versions of adjacent pitches. It’s already a switchable option in a lot of the other libraries, so it makes sense to add it here and the script is very easy to use once loaded. It’s not as “neutral” sounding as real round-robins but it can help avoid the dreaded “machine gun effect” where the exact same sample is played consecutively, over and over again, drawing attention to itself.
The SIPS script is arguably even more important and is one I use on pretty much any Kontakt library that offers sustains but no legato samples or scripting. If you’ve used pocketBlakus, you already know how good this approach can sound and similar scripts are used by other libraries (like XSample Chamber Ensemble) to good effect and I personally like it much better than the scripted (as opposed to sampled) legato script in Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra. It takes a little longer to learn how to use it properly than Ultra TKT and there are two versions to choose from, but I think the results are much more musical and it makes it much easier to play.
After you’ve added one or both of these scripts to a patch, make sure to save your edited version of the patch with a new name so that you can use it later. I would also suggest going into the Amp section of each patch saving a version that maps the volume to another controller (normally modwheel CC1, breath CC2 or expression CC11) and saving that, too. The combination of SIPS and CC-based volume control makes the library way easier to perform melodic lines with. But if you don’t want to deal with controller remapping, there are some patches that use cross-fades (labeled x-fades) between different dynamics or articulations if you just spend a little time learning the names to see which one is closest to what you’re after. A good starting point might be the three-layer sustains.
I’ve already mentioned that the performances were recorded at different mic distances, one mic distance at a time. The content for each position varies greatly and I found I mainly used close mics, partially because it made it easy to mix with other libraries, partially because it had more articulations but also because the close mics don’t sound unpleasant and edgy (which if you’ve ever miked the instruments or play one yourself, you know they easily can). When it says “close” it doesn’t mean “super close” but the room isn’t going to give long tails either, so maybe “flexible” is a good way to think of it. The fact that the different mic distances use different performances can be helpful if you’re building ensembles, but I personally would much rather have had multiple mics recorded at the same time.
So What’s the Verdict?
Once I’d customized Prague Solo Strings, I enjoyed it a lot. I didn’t tend to use it for faster or more complicated legato lines but timbre was wonderful for blending and I enjoyed incorporating it in chamber works alongside other solo string libraries. This is a library you buy for the sound, not for the speed and ease of use, organization or scripting. But if you already have Kontakt, it’s the best sounding solo string collection I’ve tried so far in its price range and the timbre is just about as useful when you’ve got the most expensive libraries to choose from as it on its own. So if you’re on a budget or you don’t mind getting a little hands-on to customize the library, it’s a good choice for a warm sound and definitely worth a look.