Review – Spitfire Audio BML 309 Mural Vol. 2

If you want the sound of a large string section, in a hall with a large sound, recorded through a warm signal chain then our reviewer thinks this library is going to nicely fit the bill.

by Per Lichtman, July 2014

First Look

This is a first look at Spitfire Audio’s library for owners of the full version of Kontakt 4 and above: BML 309 Mural Vol. 2. It’s the second volume of their symphonic string section, Mural, which follows their multi-volume Sable small strings section. If you want a large string section recorded in a large hall, you should keep reading.

 

The Basics

Mural Vol. 2 is already available for sale for the price of approx. $693 USD (available for direct download through spitfireaudio.com only) but it also has additional microphone positions that will be given to users in the future at no additional charge. However, the main mics already provide five positions of coverage that go beyond some of the other libraries reviewed. The natural acoustics of the environment (the widely acclaimed converted church AIR Lyndhurst where many scores are recorded) have been very well recorded: Neve Montserrat pre-amps into the world’s largest Neve 88R console  feed a Studer A800 mk III 2” tape machine (though it’s unspecified whether at 15 IPS or 30 IPS) before the AD stage is handled by Prism converters at 96 KHz in 24-bit dynamic range (though the library itself is delivered at 48 KHz 24-bit in the final product). One other reviewer said that it had a very transparent and uncolored sound, which I disagree with: you don’t go to the trouble of adding tape into the signal path before converting to digital to get an uncolored sound, you do it to get the coloration of tape. That color works well here (and is the same as used in Spitfire’s other BML and Albion products before it) and in conjunction with the rest of the signal chain really makes the most of the performances and space. There’s a grandness, warmth and texture to the sound of both the performances and the hall that’s captured very well. If you like your hall big but with a surprising amount of detail and your performance on the warm and refined side of modern western European classical and session performance, then this is a very good place to look.

 

The Recorded Reverberation of the Space

I’d like to take a moment to speak a little more about the reverb tails captured in the library. The string products I’ve reviewed recently have been recorded in four primary types of environments: small rooms (in one case a bedroom), soundstages, churches/converted churches and symphony halls. If the intentionally controlled, dry, flexible short tail environment of VSL’s Silent Stage tends much the way towards one extreme, Spitfire Audio’s recordings in AIR Lyndhurst tend toward the opposite extreme. According to Alexander Publishing’s Visual Orchestration 3 video series, AIR Lyndhurst’s acoustic’s can be controlled to allow tails ranging from the length of some of the world’s premier concert halls (closer to two seconds)  but if left free to go their full length will result in longer tails (closer to four seconds).  In my testing I never noticed any awkward tapering, noise reduction or other artifacts to interfere with my enjoyment of them. These are quite simply the longest, grandest natural tails I’ve encountered in a string library to date and make very curious about the rest of Spitfire’s products recorded in the same manner.

Now obviously such a distinctively colored environment isn’t a natural choice for every project so it’s both helpful and important that the miking distance varies so greatly. If you want to try and place Mural Vol. 2 in a different environment, you’ll want to turn to the Close (C) and Leader (L) positions, which were recorded in place but a much closer distance, greatly increasing the ratio of the direct signal to the early reflections and tail of the environment. Even so, if your primary intention is to place your string library in smaller or drier environments, then you’re taking one of the libraries big strengths (the reverberation of AIR Lyndhurst) out of the equation and may be better acoustically served by one of the other libraries reviewed. However, the library has several other strengths that merit it consideration.

 

Ensemble Size

Mural uses full symphonic string section sizes, with the same number of first violins as the largest ensembles in LASS, Hollywood Strings and CineStrings CORE. Very few libraries include larger first violins sections, among them the 18 in EWQLSO or the 20 in VSL Apassionata Strings (a library that actually offers only one violin section as opposed to two). The breakdown is 16 first violins, 14 second violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos and 8 double basses (as many as double basses as Sptifire Audio used in their previous Albion III Iceni). The large section and sizes and large space combine to really give a sense of grandness and in conjunction with the warm signal chain, this is not a library where you’re likely to hear rough edges. Nonetheless, there’s a great deal of shimmer and grain (in the best sense of each word) on offer for the delicate articulations, especially the sul tasto and flautando where offered.

 

Articulations on Offer

I don’t play the violin well enough that I’d want anyone to hear (especially with friends like Jeff Edward Ball around), but I do play. That means I look at the performances in a string library not only from the perspectives of my work as a composer, engineer, producer, director and reviewer (and the emphasis on performance style, timbre and application that goes with them) but also from the perspective of what I know can be done with an instrument in terms of the range of techniques available to even the most modest but adventurous or curious player. Col legno, sul tasto, sul ponticello tremolo, etc. were all things I was able to get interesting results out of my violin with in my first month and yet they are often neglected in favor of deeper sampling of more widely used techniques. For many years, libraries might inconsistently capture an aspect or two of the extended playing techniques from time to time but VSL was the only company that consistently made an effort to be more consistently comprehensive. But I’m glad to say that things seem to changing recently, and Spitfire Audio appears to be a part of that.

Some of the things I was most interested in hearing in Mural were the flautando, sul tasto and sul ponticello articulations on offer. Every one of those was excellent and I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed power of the distorted sul ponticello articulation for the basses.

But starting with Mural Vol. 2 and skipping Vol. 1 is definitely a case of coming in, in media res, and so I’m at a bit of a disadvantage. For instance, I haven’t heard what the shortest articulations are like yet, because the “shorts” here are long and majestic marcatos, suitable for slower tempos, sparser parts or accents in a line. If you’re coming to Mural Vol. 2 from Hollywood Strings, then think of the 0.5 second and 1.0 second articulations as being analogs to the marcatos Hollywood Strings’s  “Short” folder or the detache in the “Long” folder.. Note that I’m referring only to the duration of the notes, not the style of execution: in both cases the Mural articulations feel more open and relaxed with less anxiety and forward momentum and more have a sense of arrival (at least that’s how I’d put it if I was trying to interpret both from my own violin playing perspective). As a composer, I would say that the Mural articulations have greater warmth and bloom while also having a bit less bite than Hollywood Strings, especially in the louder dynamics. The difference in the spaces (a relatively dry soundstage for HS vs. a hall with some of the longer tails used in film scoring) also means that the note endings have a gentler and somewhat less specific feel in Mural vol. 2, the sort of thing you might emphasize or show off without additional processing, whereas with Hollywood Strings you would normally use additional verb because note release are not a strong point.

I’d like to take a moment to talk about the molto vibrato patches. They are lovely. Round, beautiful and full, they stay beautiful as they head into the louder dynamics, never sacrificing tone for volume. This makes them very controllable, pleasant to blend and useful in a wide range of material. It also means that it’s not possible to make the section cut through a dense arrangement by going to a louder dynamic in the same way that some of the other libraries (that  embrace a more aggressive approach to the louder dynamics) make possible. Mural Vol. 2’s molto vibrato uses two dynamic layers as opposed to the three to five in some other libraries, but there’s a great dynamic range in them and I enjoyed using them with the dynamics controller (mapped to CC1, the modwheel by default) even without relying on additional expression. If it’s more important that sound of the performance have weight and warmth throughout the dynamic range than for intensity of the sound to really punch through at the loudest dynamics, then Mural Vol. 2 renders its approach beautifully. I’d say it errs on the side of gravitas more than visceral.

 

Scripting

Since I’m coming  with Vol. 2, I’ve missed out on the scripting for Mural’s standard legato in Vol. 1 but here are my thoughts on some of the other scripting aspects. I’ve been watching Spiftire Audio add more and more scripting capabilities as free updates to their existing products for a while now from the sidelines. There is a lot thought put into user customization. Their round-robin implementation works well by default and they also make it easy for the user to disable the use of any particular round-robin samples they dislike. The user is generally given full editing access to the inner workings of editing the library as well, with the exception of the legato patches, and the groups are well labeled and clearly organized. The one thing that was odd coming starting with volume 2 was that apparently the “normal” range of keyswitches that I was accustomed to in many other libraries was already taken up by other articulations. So the keyswitches in the patches I received were primarily mapped outside the range of my 88-key MIDI keyboard. It’s a little thing that was easy to address, it just confused me at first.

 

Initial Thoughts

There’s much more to cover in looking further at the library in a future article, but several things are already apparent. First of all, if you want the sound of a large string section, in a hall with a large sound, recorded through a warm signal chain then this library is going to fit the bill. I’ve yet to review a library that can go “larger and grander” in terms of the overall sound of a library. If you need a lot of short articulations it remains to be seen whether Mural Vol. 1 offers them, because Vol. 2 caters to the slow, grand, maestoso end of the marcato spectrum as opposed to the staccatos and spiccatos you might additionally need.

In regards to the legato on offer in Vol. 2 alone (as opposed to more elaborate legato combo patch it makes possible in conjunction with Vol. 1) we find legato detache intervals mixed with molto vibrato sustains, alongside portamento intervals that can be keyswitched in by default. I found that relationship between the transitions and the sustains made the most sense with the dynamics set at CC values over 55 (out of the range 0 to 127), were a little unexpected at values below CC10 but really started to work well at CC values of 64 and above. The detache legato articulations in Mural Vol. 2 (to my ears) really emphasize sweetness and beauty, even at the louder dynamics, and the detache legato detache here needs a bit of time to breathe, so you’ll want to “play to the samples” more than I had initially expected, regardless of what speed setting you are using. But once you make that adjustment, the results can get some nice flow to them, especially (as I mentioned) with the Dynamics CC values of 64 and above. And for some reason I found that the issues I had were much less pronounced when using multiple mic positions in concert than when using just one at a time: when I was highlighting tree or solo, those lower CC values just seemed a little trickier, but with the two of them . The first and second violins, violas and cellos all have a nice wide and sweet melodic range that sounds even better in the distant mics than in the close mics (to my ear), though this is also one of the libraries where I used multiple mics at once a lot.

It’s interesting to note how much of the original performance variations have been left in as opposed to edited out. For instance, if you play a slow scale on the legato detache cellos (which have the molto vibrato sustains), leaving the dynamics at the same value throughout, you’ll notice that the peaks for the sustains vary naturally across the instrument as one might expect from the original performances. There was a variation of 5dB between the loudest and the quietest notes and while the progression isn’t linear, the loudest notes are all on the lowest two strings and the quietest ones are all on the top string. So it’s acoustically sound and realistic, it’s just different from some other libraries.

The library has a great interest in addressing a wider range of colors, but always with a warm interpretation – this isn’t the library you’d turn to if you want a gritty up-front sound, but that warmth can be interesting with some of the edgier articulations (like the sul ponticello on offer). This also probably isn’t the library to turn to if you want to place your strings in all sorts of different spaces: Mural prides itself on its hall, is strongly colored by it and if you are going to use it your compositions, your other libraries will probably be the ones that need to adapt to sound more like Mural Vol. 2. And it’s a great sound.

So, if you want your strings sweet, large and grand, then this is a great place to start looking.

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