Review – BT Phobos from Spitfire Audio
Adding drama to a media score just got more interesting with another cinematic (but not just cinematic) library from Spitfire Audio.
by David Keenum, July 2017
I happened on the movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service, last week, and I was struck by the score, or maybe I should say, I was struck by the scope of the score. It was modern … and classic. There were nods to 007, and there was even some subtle humor in the score. But the sound was very big at times. It was … dare I say the word? … Epic! Yes, that is modern film music – I know that. And maybe the reason it made such an impression was because I was thinking about Spitfire Audio’s BT Phobos. But it still remains that I was again reminded of how big movie scores have become, and it is up to composers to come up with ways to achieve that bigness – that Epic sound. Sure, the big orchestra is a must, but there are always “spice” elements like drones or rhythmic beds, or hits of noise.
Without any question, I can say that Spitfire Audio’s BT Phobos can help you achieve that sound. But it will not do the work for you. In fact, because of its vast editing possibilities, it can even possibly slow down your work flow – although I must add that editing is easy and straightforward.
By the way, the “BT” in name of the instrument is that of composer and electronic music producer who goes by the professional name BT. BT collaborated with the Spitfire engineers in the production of Phobos. His screen credits include The Fast and The Furious, Monster, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
But back to vast BT Phobos – the sound of the instrument is vast, as well. Just so you know, “vast” is a word that I do not use lightly … but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the overview and then get to the conclusions.
BT Phobos is a polyconvolution synthesizer, meaning it has more than one convolution engine. In Phobos you can use up to three convolvers per patch. I know we are familiar with convolution reverbs, but these convolutions are also used to modify audio in ways other than introducing reverb ambience. As far as sound sources go, in the word of Spitfire Audio, Phobos has over 20GB of unique hand-built BT rhythms, pulses, textures and atmospheres for use in building patches. These can be combined using four sound sources per patch. Simply put, that’s it – four sounds and three convolutions per patch. And keeping with this “simple” theme, as far as I can tell, all the editing can be reached from the instrument’s main GUI. Simple, right? Not by a long shot!
The first clue of complexity is the sheer number of Factory Presets: 716 at present. The website claims 2381 unique sounds and the possibility of over 90 sextillion combinations of sounds. Thus my first impression: it will take time to get to know this instrument. Just listening to 716 presets will take some time, but then you can try muting different sound sources and convolutions… or what about changing the convolution? You see what I mean?
The 716 presets are divided into subcategories on the GUI. The presets are created by BT, Christian Henson, Paul Thomson, Richard Devine, and the Spitfire staff. These are generally divided into Atonal, Harmonic and Melodic, Hybrid Melodic-Rhythmic, and Rhythmic (Christian Henson uses different categories). They range from ambient sounds, to atmospheres, to one finger rhythm beds, to all of that combined. Some of the presets (for example BT’s Timeless Truths) have layers built into them. Timeless Truths has four layers, divided by octaves. An example of a beautiful and evolving atmosphere would be Christian Henson’s Pad for Playing Slowly in Airports. Yes, it sounds somewhat like Brian Eno. It sounded best, to me, when you played open fifths with octaves in the lower notes. This could create an instant cue, but you could also layer strings or piano on top.
Generally speaking, there is little melodic material in the presets. BT’s Sparked Skies preset could be used melodically, if the melody were slow. But the main emphasis is on ambient sounds and rhythm beds. In these general areas there is a wide variety, both in the raw material (in the “old days” we’d say samples), and in the presets. There are presets that sound dark, brooding, or even sinister, but there are dramatic sounds as well.
The focus on this instrument seems to be directed at media composers, specifically composers writing in a cinematic or ambient style. Both the audio and video demos point to the cinematic style. Listen and watch them to get a good idea of Phobos in action. As we’ve come to expect, Spitfire Audio has produced ample demo video material on their website (URL below), so the potential owner of this instrument has all that’s needed to make an informed purchasing decision.
Although the emphasis is cinematic and ambient style, this is not to say that you couldn’t use Phobos in other styles of music. You could. One of the Richard Devine’s rhythmic loops may be just the “spice” your hip hop track needs. But that isn’t the focus. The same could be said for ambient composers. There is a lot of ambient potential here.
To clarify, I feel I need to point out that I can find none of BT’s dance/pop music sounds in the presets. There’s nothing that sounds like a dance loop. I suspect BT’s experiments in his trademarked “Studder Edits” played a part in the raw sounds, but I do not hear it.
I do have a small criticism, and when I think about it, it may just be a quirk in the way the synth architecture works. Some presets are much quieter than the norm. My suspicion is that it has to do with the way the convolution modulators interact with the sound sources. I noticed this especially in some of Christian Henson’s presets. Of course, there is an easy fix: turn it up.
Editing Phobos can be as simple as turning off layers (one of the four sound sources) or one of the three convolution modulators. Of course, you can program from scratch or edit presets at will. In fact, programming and editing are pretty straightforward. It’s easily accessible from the main GUI.
I tried changing sounds or convolutions in a preset, and I was delightfully surprised. Of course the ADSR envelopes remained the same, but the texture changed dramatically. It was a new sound. Speaking of ADSR, you can edit them directly in the GUI. No edit page. So, I am happy with editing.
What’s not to like? The sound was pristine. The instrument is solid – no crashes or glitches during the time I used it (using it in Logic for evaluation purposes). Within the limits of what the instrument was designed to do, the possibilities are almost limitless. Editing presets were a snap.
I feel I need to point out that there is nothing general about this instrument: nothing resembling pianos or a drum kit or whatever else you would find in a general instrument – nothing. This instrument is designed and built for a specific purpose, and it accomplishes that purpose. The atmospheres are expansive. The percussion-like loops are many times distorted and gritty, and other times dramatic or even somewhat sinister. So does it sound “Epic”? Sometimes it does, but I think its intended purpose is to be a tool to help you on your way to “epic-ness”! Watch the video demos, and see if you agree.
Until now, all of Spitfire Audio’s instruments have been Kontakt-based, but not so with this one. One consequence is that in previous instruments, owners of the full Kontakt (not just the Kontakt player) had the ability to incorporate their own samples. Not so with BT Phobos – this is a closed sample space (albeit a massive one, as I think I’ve made clear, so this point is not intended as a criticism).
VST, VST3 and AU formats are supported. The Spitfire Audio web site is a little vague on the availability of a 32-bit version. I know 64-bit is supported because that’s what I ran for this review. Remember, Spitfire, if Kontakt is out of the picture, you need to remember to tell your potential customers these important details yourself. 🙂
BT Phobos lists for $299 USD, but occasional sales offering modest discounts on Spitfire Audio titles have been known to happen.