Review – Orchestral Swarm from Spitfire
Spitfire introduces the third installment in the “things you didn’t think you could do with a string library” series. This time it’s Orchestral Swarm.
by Dave Townsend, Jan. 2018
Spitfire Audio made a name for itself with sweet and grand orchestral libraries such as their runaway hit Albion One. But now that they’ve gotten “sweet” and “grand” well-covered, they’ve been turning their attention to the outer envelope of what we thought was possible with string libraries. There was the genre-bending London Contemporary Orchestra, and then Symphonic Strings Evolutions that blurred the line between orchestral and synth pads. Now we’ve got the next installment, the unusual – and yet strangely familiar and beautiful – Orchestral Swarm.
This collection isn’t what I’d first imagined it would be. The term “swarm” is often used to describe an amorphous, atonal effect (like a swarm of insects) in which each string player modulates pitch and/or volume independently. The result is a chaotic buzz that’s usually associated with tension or mystery in film. My initial thought was “that’s a neat effect, but what are they going to fill up the other 29 gigabytes with?” The answer is that a) “swarm” means more than that, and b) Orchestral Swarm is far from a one-trick pony.
To start with, it’s not just a string library. It also includes brass and woodwind instruments. Check out these sweet-sounding “Woods” (alto and bass flutes, clarinets, bass clarinets and bassoons).
But we can easily wander from the beaten track when we start throwing in some of Swarm’s unique articulations.
No, there is no digeridoo in the library. That first shaky drone is a couple of tubas doing something called a “Tongued Swarm”. All of Swarm’s modulations are organic, accomplished entirely by the players’ own mouths. (I can’t shake this silly mental image of a trombone player trying to practice after returning from the dentist, lips and tongue numb from anesthetic.)
If it sounds as though these effects might fit nicely into a nature documentary, you’d be right on the money. In fact, Swarm began life as a custom library for use in the BBC documentary Blue Planet 2, in collaboration with the delightfully-named Bleeding Fingers Music.
Bleeding Fingers is a collective of adventurous composers who have not only done music for classy documentaries but also Top Gear and The Simpsons. It’s a joint venture of Hans Zimmer and Sony subsidiary Extreme Music, headquartered in Hans Zimmer’s Santa Monica studio complex. You have to respect an outfit whose logo is a piano keyboard with a drop of blood on Middle C, and which modestly promises “sonically brave” productions.
Spitfire and Bleeding Fingers collaborated to create something called the Tidal Orchestra, specifically for use with Han Zimmer’s Blue Planet 2 score. It was also used on the Radiohead/Zimmer collaboration Ocean Bloom. Spitfire then added more material to create what then became Spitfire Orchestral Swarm.
For a taste of Orchestral Swarm in action, listen to the music behind this YouTube video, the opening episode of Blue Planet 2.
The User Interface
As with other Spitfire orchestral libraries, there are multiple microphone layers that can be mixed as desired. These are labeled “C” (close, with stereo width adjustment), “T” (3-mic Decca tree), “O” (outriggers), “St” (stereo microphone, more direct than the Tree option), “R” (AEA R88 ribbon mic) and “M” (mid room, a wide stereo that applies to brass only).
Note that the above screenshot displays the Advanced Options window. Click on the wrench icon to open this window.
There are some icons at the top of the mixer that bring up additional options, such as selecting a velocity curve, width adjustment for the stereo microphones, and saving/loading mixer presets.
One of the less-obvious of these semi-hidden features is something called “Mic Mix to Articulation”. This is an on/off switch (its icon is the musical note symbol). When enabled, this very useful feature lets you have separate mixer settings for each articulation, enabling you to balance levels between them or use different microphones for different articulations.
Note that, as with most Spitfire libraries, volume is controlled via CC11 (Expression). In the advanced settings the slider labeled “Expression” lets you decide how much CC11 affects volume. There is also a slider labeled “Dynamics” that controls the relationship between velocity and volume.
What You Get
There are a mere seven main instruments in this library (but nearly 30 GB of samples):
- Bones and Tubas
- Strings High
- Strings Low
- Woods High
- Woods Low
Each of these instruments has between eight and thirteen articulations, with names such as Tongued Swarm, Tenuto Swarm (“tenuto” just means a long-held note) and Mordent Semitone, indicating the manner in which they were played. The greatest variety of articulations, as you’d expect, is with the high strings.
Articulations may be switched no less than five different ways:
- Key-switches, which by default are C0 through C1.
- A single Continuous Controller. Compared with key-switches, this method is a little clumsier and prone to mistakes, but it can be handy if you’re using an external controller to program articulations.
- Velocity range. This is a fun option when you’re playing in real time, but it can also lead to unexpected results – which can be a good thing, of course.
- By MIDI channel. This is pretty clever. You can assign each articulation to a specific MIDI channel, essentially turning a single instance into a multi-timbral instrument.
- Playing speed. This one’s pretty unusual. It switches articulations based on your playing speed. This is actually quite useful, because most instruments feature a short articulation that could be triggered by fast notes. Makes sense.
Method #4 implies that, unlike with most libraries, articulations can be layered. I serendipitously discovered this after accidentally inserting two keyswitches, and then noticing that two articulations lit up. Sure enough, you can play two articulations at once.
And that’s not all. Each articulation can have its own trigger mechanism. That means any of the five methods can be applied independently to each articulation. For example, you could trigger the short articulation only on high-velocity notes, while selecting all other articulations via keyswitches.
In addition to the seven main multi-articulation .nki’s, there are also separate instruments for each of the individual articulations, for a total of 72 instruments. If you’re using Komplete Kontrol, you can preview most of them without having to actually load them up. If you’re not using Komplete Kontrol, those preview files can still be easily auditioned, as they are separate .ogg files. Look for them in the .preview folders within the Instruments folder tree.
You also get a basic but capable ostinato sequencer, called The Ostinatum. Simply drop some notes into the sequencer and tell it which note will trigger its playback. You can create up to eight patterns, each with its own trigger. There do not appear to be any factory presets, however, which would have been a nice addition for lazy people like me.
Note: the sequencer only works with the short articulation, which will be automatically selected when you open the Ostinatum. If you click the sequencer button and it just flashes without showing the sequencer, check to make sure the instrument you’re using supports the short articulation. Most do, but not all.
Who is this library for? Obviously, film and television composers, but it definitely doesn’t stop there. Any musical production that calls for somewhat out-of-the-ordinary but still pleasantly musical orchestration could benefit from this library. The close-mic samples are quite dry, making them easy to blend with other orchestral libraries for complex textures. (And not just orchestral libraries – for grins I borrowed an old Motown trick and doubled a rock ‘n roll bass guitar with Swarm’s staccato tuba.)
Orchestral Swarm is only available direct from Spitfire and only as a download. You’ll need 29.7 GB of disk space, double that if you’ll be downloading and then installing on the same drive.
Swarm is compatible with both full Kontakt and the (included) free Kontakt player (version 5.6.8+). As with all Spitfire products, the license allows you to install it on two computers. You will have to run Native Access to activate after installing the product.
The user manual can be downloaded here.
Price is $249 USD.