Review – Spitfire Chamber Strings Review

Chamber Strings might have the most extensive articulation set of any chamber string library. See what happens when small ensembles meet a large hall.

 

by Per Lichtman, July 2017

 

Spitfire Chamber Strings ($689 USD from SpitfireAudio.com at the time of writing) is a chamber string library for either the free Kontakt Player or Full Kontakt versions 5.5.0.409 or higher. Recorded in AIR Lyndhurst and featuring so many of the hallmarks of Spitfire Audio’s sampling approach that we’ve previously lauded in earlier SoundBytes reviews, Spitfire Chamber Strings brings four first violins, three second violins, three violas, three cellos and three basses into Kontakt with a truly dizzying array of articulations. It may be the most extensive set of articulations in a single Spitfire Audio library yet – and that’s saying something. So if you’re a fan of string libraries that cover a wide range of colors, or want the detailed sound of a small section (either to use on its own or to layer with a larger one) or if you just want the big hall sound of AIR Lyndhurst… then read on!

 

Articulations Aplenty

Spitfire Chamber Strings has one heck of an articulations list. They are so numerous that it’s quicker to outline them in detail before speaking about them.

Violins 1 (4 players) – 45 articulations:

  • Longs: Long (bowed normale), “Tense”, Sul Tasto, Sul Ponticello, Sul Ponticello “Distorted”, Sul G, Harmonics, Flautando, Con Sordino, Con Sordino Sul Ponticello, Marcato Attack
  • Shorts: Spiccato, Spiccato “feathered”, Staccato, Staccato “dig”, Pizzicato, Bartok (snap) Pizzicato, Col Legno, Con Sordino
  • Legato: Bowed, Fingered, Fast, Runs (playable), Portamento, Con Sordino, Con Sordino Portamento, Flautando, Flautando Portamento, Sul G, Sul Ponticello, Tremolo
  • Trills and Tremolos: Trills (Major 2nd, Minor 2nd, Minor 3rd, Perfect 4th), Tremolo, Tremolo Con Sordino, Tremolo Con Sordino Sul Ponticello, Tremolo Sul Ponticello, Tremolo Measured (150 BPM and 180 BPM)
  • Specialized: “Disco Falls”, “FX”, Runs, Slides

 

Violins 2 (3 players) – 35 articulations:

  • Longs: Long (bowed normale), “Tense”, Sul Tasto, Sul Ponticello, Sul G, Harmonics, Flautando, Con Sordino, Con Sordino Sul Ponticello
  • Shorts: Spiccato, Staccato, Pizzicato, Bartok (snap) Pizzicato,  Col Legno, Con Sordino
  • Legato: Bowed, Fingered, Fast, Runs (playable), Portamento, Con Sordino, Con Sordino Portamento, Flautando, Sul G, Sul Ponticello, Tremolo
  • Trills and Tremolos: Trills (Major 2nd, Minor 2nd), Tremolo, Tremolo Measured (150 BPM and 180 BPM)
  • Specialized: “Disco Falls”, “FX”, Runs, Slides

 

Violas (3 players) – 35 articulations:

  • Longs: Con Sordino Sul Ponticello, Con Sordino, Flautando, Harmonics, Sul C, Sul Ponticello, Sul Tasto, Long (bowed normale), “Tense”
  • Shorts: Spiccato, Spiccato “feathered”, Staccato, Staccato “dig”, Pizzicato, Bartok (snap) Pizzicato, Col Legno, Con Sordino
  • Legato: Con Sordino Portamento, Con Sordino, Fast, Fingered, Flautando, Portamento, Runs, Sul C, Sul Ponticello, Tremolo
  • Trills and Tremolos: Trills (Major 2nd, Minor 2nd, Minor 3rd, Perfect 4th), Tremolo, Tremolo Con Sordino, Tremolo Con Sordino Sul Ponticello, Tremolo Sul Ponticello, Tremolo Measured (150 BPM and 180 BPM)
  • Specialized: “Disco Falls”, “FX”, Runs, Slides

 

Cellos (3 players) – 42 articulations:

  • Longs: Con Sordino Sul Ponticello, Con Sordino, Flautando, Harmonics, Sul C, Sul Ponticello “Distorted”, Sul Ponticello, Sul Tasto, Marcato Attack, “Tense”
  • Shorts: Col Legno, Con Sordino, Bartok (snap) Pizzicato, Pizzicato, Spiccato, Staccato
  • Legato: Bowed, Con Sordino Portamento, Con Sordino, Fast, Fingered, Flautando, Portamento, Runs, Sul C, Sul Ponticello, Tremolo
  • Trills and Tremolos: Tremolo Con Sordino Sul Ponticello, Tremolo Con Sordino, Tremolo Measured (150 BPM and 180 BPM), Tremolo Sul Ponticello, Tremolo (bowed normale), Trills (Major 2nd, Minor 2nd, Minor 3rd, Perfect 4th)
  • Specialized: “Disco Falls”, “FX”, Runs, Slides

 

Basses (3 players) – 22 articulations:

  • Longs: Long (bowed normale), Flautando, Harmonics, Sul Ponticello, Sul Ponticello “Distorted”, “Tense”
  • Shorts: Col Legno, Bartok (snap) Pizzicato, Pizzicato,  Spiccato, Staccato, Staccato “Dig”
  • Legato: Fingered
  • Trills and Tremolos: Tremolo Measured (150 BPM and 180 BPM), Tremolo Sul Ponticello, Tremolo (bowed normale), Trills (Major 2nd, Minor 2nd)
  • Specialized: “FX”, Runs, Slides

 

Ensembles (combinations of the five individual sections) – 15 articulations:

  • Longs: Long (bowed normale), Con Sordino, Flautando, Harmonics, Sul Ponticello, Sul Tasto
  • Shorts: Col Lengo, Con Sordino, Pizzicato, Bartok (snap) Pizzicato, Spiccato, Staccato
  • Trills and Tremolos: Tremolo, Trill (Minor 2nd, Major 2nd)

 

You’ll notice that while all sections have many articulations, some clearly have more than others. Understandably, the “Ensembles” folder has the fewest, since it both is meant to take care of common articulations between sections (thus only including articulations with an overlap across all five section) and eschews both legato and more esoteric specialized/FX articulations.

The bass section has the second fewest, but nonetheless get two of the more unique articulations (sul ponticello longs and staccato “dig” shorts), which are otherwise only found in violins 1.

The violas have sixty percent more articulations than the basses, in large part because of the many more types of legato and longs.

Violins 2 have the same number of articulations as the violas, but an additional legato type is added while dropping the con sordino tremolo articulation.

The cellos have the second most articulations (being the only section other than the first violins with “marcato attack” longs and one of three sections with minor third and perfect fourth trills), but notably it doesn’t have the staccato “dig”,  “feathered” spiccato or “flautando portamento” articulations found in the first violins.

The first violins have the most comprehensive articulation set of all the sections. If you want to explore the full range of articulations in the library, start with the first violins.

 

Why So Much Detail About Articulations?

One of the important reasons to go into so much detail about the articulations is because the library’s wide array of colors can easily be missed, depending upon how you choose to navigate it.


If you just want one specific articulation, it can be loaded individually by going into the “Instruments” folder, selecting the “_Advanced Articulations_” folder, then entering the “Extended Techniques” sub-folder and finally selecting the “Individual Articulations” folder. However, many people will probably only do that when they need an articulation that isn’t found in the palettes they normally use.

Spitfire Audio has different “palette” patches to load some of the more frequently desired ways of working with articulations. The most basic palettes, found in the root folder load fingered legato, bowed long, spiccato, staccato, pizzicato, col legno, tremolo, minor 2nd trills and major 2nd trills. Since these articulations are found in all sections, the palette articulation selection is entirely consistent. It’s easy to get started here but (depending on the section) you’ll be missing out on up to 80% of the articulations. If you want to access the full range of articulations, you’ll want to venture into the “legato” and “extended articulations” folders.

If you wanted to get access to all the legato articulations for a given sections you would follow the folder path “_Advanced_/Legato Techniques” and select your section. Each section has a “legato performance” palette (which consists of legato techniques performed using normale bowing, without a mute – excluding tremolos). All sections except the basses have a “legato decorative” palette (which consists of legato techniques that either use a mute, or are performed with the bow closer to either the bridge or the fingerboard, as well as legato tremolo where offered).

There’s a similar organization inside the “_Advanced_/Extended Techniques” folder, where each of the five sections has two more palettes: core techniques and decorative techniques. The delineation between core techniques and decorative techniques is somewhat arbitrary. For instance, you might find long con sordino and sul ponticello each in the basic techniques palette – but long con sordino performed sul ponticello would be in the decorative techniques palette. However, for the most part the choices make sense: the decorative techniques palette is mainly filled with tremolos, trills, slides and FX articulations.


Users wanting access to a comprehensive (or near comprehensive – I’m not about to cross reference upwards of forty articulations again  :mrgreen:  can do so by loading just four palettes per string section: Legato Performance, Legato Decorative, Core Techniques and Decorative Techniques. Note that for the basses there’s no Legato Decorative palette.

 

That’s Great, But How Does It Sound?

The library has a lot of life to it and the broad range of colors is typically explored with a clear musical aesthetic, as opposed to just aggressively pursuing the limits of sonic textures. As such, the sound of the performances are often characterized by their warmth, air and delicately refined nature. This is not to say that the library shies away from dirtier sounds – the sul ponticello “distorted” patches in particular do a great job of really digging in, for instance. It’s more so that the articulations are performed in a way that balances providing a great deal of color and vibe with giving the user something that can work in a lot of different contexts.

For instance, in most Spitfire Chamber Strings sections you’ll find legato transitions to cater to many different tempi, usable in just about any repertoire without ever feeling sterile. By contrast, certain other libraries I’ve reviewed have catered very strongly to a specific style (either with unusually dramatic vibrato or more portamento on transitions than usual without a being a full-on portamento, or by using much less vibrato in service of either a baroque or Americana sound, etc.) Such libraries are often colored to such an extent that while little effort is needed to work with the samples within that context (making them very quick tools for specific applications) they work much less well once you try to use them in any other context. Spitfire Chamber Strings simply does not suffer from this.

Spitfire Chamber Strings large range of articulations makes it possible to find a color that will suit almost any occasion – and while the AIR Lyndhurst has a distinctive (and often highly desirable) sonic fingerprint, the mics offer significant opportunity to sculpt the sound. I’ve often said that Spitfire Audio libraries sampled in AIR Lyndhurst offer the most luscious out-of-the-box big- hall-long-tail reverb on the market, and that remains as true today as when I first started reviewing Spitfire Audio libraries. At the same time, the mic approach has changed somewhat. Spitfire Chamber Strings comes with the three most frequently used microphone positions (close, tree and ambient) with those looking for an immediate sound able to rely more on the close mics, while those looking for a more distant (or heavily hall colored with lots of reverb) sound can rely more on the ambient. The close mics on offer here are stereo and panned in-situ, so you’ll notice big differences in stereo placement from section to section, while picking up a lot more of high frequency air than other mic positions. Also notice that the more heavily the close mics feature in your mix, the “quicker” it will sound like the samples are responding to your touch. On the other hand, if you have a cue or piece that calls for a more diffuse sound, relying entirely (or almost entirely) on the ambient mics can be a great way to get there more quickly.

Of course, if you want more mics (as well as pre-mixed mic combinations) then Spitfire Audio also sells the “Additional Mics and Mixes” expansion for Spitfire Chamber Strings ($449 USD at the time of writing). This expansion was not included in the review copy provided to SoundBytes but from previous experience working with Spitfire Mural (recently revamped into Spitfire Symphonic Strings) I have nothing but good things to say about the additional mics (outriggers, close ribbons, close stereo pair and gallery), as well as the quality of the custom stereo mixes that Jake Jackson creates from the higher sample rate source recordings. If you want more mics, they aim to please – but excluding the less commonly used mics also seems to have helped them reduce the price for the base package in comparison to Spitfire Chamber Strings’ predecessor, Sable.

 

A Few of My Favorite Things

Sptifire Chamber Strings has, hands down, my favorite set of articulations in any chamber strings library I’ve worked with. The different levels of vibrato, different types of legato, different bowing placements (from sul tasto to normale to sul ponticello), and related variations (flautando vs. sul tasto, for instance.), with a mute or without a mute, many types of shorts, etc., etc. … long story short, I’m able to find the overwhelming majority of articulations that I go looking for. It’s the most articulation-complete library I’ve used from Spitfire Audio, and that is really saying something.

Beyond that, there’s the solid performances (refined and musical), excellent hall acoustics (Air Lyndhurst remains my favorite “very large” sound in sample libraries) and recording quality and engineering are all of the level I’ve previously come to expect from Spitfire’s BML series.

 

The Competition

Certainly, there’s no shortage of string libraries on the market today. In many ways, Spitfire Chamber Strings has four competitors: VSL Chamber Strings, 8Dio Anthology Strings, Orchestral Tools Berlin Strings and Light and Sound Chamber Strings.

Most of the four libraries (VSL Chamber Strings, OT Berlin Strings and Light and Sound Chamber Strings) feature six to eight players for the first violin section compared to four in Spitfire Chamber Strings. As such, they can’t quite get the same intimate sound – so if that’s a primary selling point, you can rule those out right off the bat. While 8Dio Anthology Strings allows you to get roughly the same ensemble size as Spitfire Chamber Strings, the two libraries have very different sounds – with Anthology having a much drier sound with a wider stereo field by comparison and needing additional reverb to approach the size of Spitfire Chamber Strings hall sound. Anthology Strings has much more strongly colored legato transitions (catering primarily to slower tempi) and a significantly narrower range of articulations than Spitfire Chamber Strings. Additionally, Anthology Strings doesn’t have a separate second violin section.

Those less concerned with the exact size of the string sections, just looking for a “smaller than full symphonic” section sound can look again at the remaining three libraries. Light and Sound Chamber Strings offers as many microphone positions as Spitfire Chamber Strings combined with the Additional Mics and Mixes expansion, but does so in a much drier recording studio – meaning you’d once again need additional reverb in order to approach the size of Spitfire Chamber Strings’ hall sound. Additionally, there’s a fraction of the articulations on offer: three legato articulations, three longs, FX, shorts, doubles, pizzicato and col legno. So you miss out Spitfire Chamber Strings wide range of articulations. On the other hand, Light and Sound Chamber Strings features some of my favorite legato transitions of any library, as well as excellent dynamic controls (which I find just a touch easier to use on the longs than in Spitfire Chamber Strings). Coming back in the other direction again, I find the sound of Spitfire Chamber Strings three basses balances with the other sections much better than the solo bass in Light and Sound Chamber Strings does.

VSL Chamber Strings and Orchestral Tools Berlin Strings both have large articulation lists of their own, especially when their expansions are purchased. However, VSL Chamber Strings doesn’t offer sul tasto, sul ponticello or flautando articulations, nor many of the other more exotic colors in Spitfire Chamber Strings.  But it does offer more in the way of patches with recorded dynamic movements (fortepiano, sforzando, crescendo, etc.) and more choices for performing harmonics. VSL Chamber Strings is one of the very driest libraries recorded, with a single mic position – so you’d pretty much need to add “all the reverb” if you wanted to approach the big hall sound of Spitfire Chamber Strings. On a personal (and subjective) level, I also find I prefer the tone of the Spitfire Chamber String recordings.

So that brings us to Orchestral Tools Berlin Strings. With sections often twice as large as those in Spitfire Chamber Strings, there’s a noticeable difference in the sound of the sections. But the smaller hall and wide variety of mic positions also help give it a sound of its own, for those more interested in the wide range of articulations than they are in articulation size. The A and B expansions for Berlin Strings offers many of the more desirable articulations found in Spitfire Chamber Strings, such as harmonics, sul tasto and sul ponticello. Each library has its own advantages. Spitfire Chamber Strings having the more epic out of the box hall sound, yet a bit more detail in the sound of the performances (owing to the smaller sections) while the scripting in Berlin Strings has a bit of an edge in terms of agility and customization (most notably in regards to dynamics). It’s really not an apples to apples comparison when you’re dealing with a library with roughly twice as many players in the section. Long story short, if you’re more concerned about the articulations than you are about the ensemble (or hall) size, give both libraries a look. They are different but both excellent.

 

Room for Improvement

My number one request if Spitfire Audio Chamber Strings were to get a future update would be to look at the approach to scalable dynamics in Orchestral Tools Berlin Strings or Light and Sound Chamber Strings. Coming from those libraries, (or even just the excellent factory dynamics  control on the sustains CineSamples CineStrings), I sometimes found it tricky to adapt my approach to working with dynamics, especially on sustains when using the lower part of the modwheel range where the jumps can at times be difficult. Sure, I can get additional control if I use an expression pedal along with the modwheel, but in those other libraries I get the results I want using the modwheel alone. As such, a “scalable dynamics” slider, or something similar (or possibly just a different curve for the dynamics on the modwheel) would be very helpful.

Anyway, that’s my big feature request. It’s not a bug or error – just something that could be helpful for users used to working with other libraries.

 

Is It Right For You?

In the crowded field of strings libraries, Spitfire Chamber Strings still offers something different. Whether you’re looking for a small ensemble in a big hall, great performances or just an extremely wide range of articulations (with an emphasis on providing diverse colors) this is a library that holds its own. The library makes highly effective use of its space, lending it a character you won’t find elsewhere. If you need a drier library or you’re willing to trade more articulations and flexibility for something that’s a little more strongly colored and narrower in scope, there are other options.

 

 

 

 

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