Review – Spitfire Symphony Orchestra, Part 1
This library is an amazing set of extremely high-quality orchestral samples that also reveals the biases of its makers.
by Warren Burt, Mar. 2017
When I first started thinking about composing, I would sometimes sit at the piano, or accordion, and just sustain sounds, or repeat chords that I loved. Over and over. Bathing in those luscious sounds. I’m not alone in this, apparently – I’ve asked several other composer friends, and they report the same. While playing with the new Spitfire Symphony Orchestra sample set, I have to report that the same thing happened to me. With these luscious timbres, I became a teenager again, and just played and played some favorite chords for hours. Mostly Schoenbergian, or Stravinskian, with occasional nods to Bill Evans. And when I got done with the chords, single line melodies, resembling the modern music by Carl Ruggles, Edgard Varese and Bela Bartok that had filled my teenage listening emerged. What I was doing, I realized, was reproducing the sounds of recorded modern orchestra music that had thrilled my teenage ears. Probably recorded by the London Philharmonic or the BBC Symphony Orchestra. And that’s exactly what this amazing sample set was intended for – to recreate the sound of an establishment British orchestra being recorded in a very fine recording hall. As such, it not only does this brilliantly, it does it better than I’ve ever heard before.
This is a very hefty set of samples. The total size, after installation, comes to about 255GB. And you need about 512GB during installation. The download size is an eye-watering 389GB. This set is clearly aimed at the professional market, and I guess Spitfire think that one of the marks of a professional is that they can afford an internet service provider and a separate computer to devote to the several days that this download would require. Fortunately, as shown, they also offer a bespoke hard drive service at a fairly reasonable price. This is the route that I took with this software, and I can report that the installation with the hard drive was almost completely painless. I discovered that there was one file missing on the hard drive, and I wrote to Spitfire, and within hours, (really, about 5 hours!), they had uploaded the replacement file for me to download. THAT’S service! All I had to do was buy another hard drive on which to back up the samples, copy the samples, install the Kontakt player, and away I went. After a brief time re-learning Kontakt (it had been about six years since I’d last used it), I began exploring the worlds of timbres that the set offered, and also discovering its limitations.
The complete set comes as four Kontakt libraries – winds, brass, strings and Masse, which is a set of useful orchestral doublings and full keyboard ensemble patches. All the sets were recorded in AIR Studios in London, so there is a common ambience to all the samples. All the samples are recorded from three different locations – close miked, from on top of a “Decca tree,” at a mid-distance; and from distant mics placed at the edges of the hall. You can adjust the balance of these three sample sets to create the kind of ambience you want for your instrument or instruments. Be aware though, that each mic position is a completely different sample set, so that with all three positions being mixed, one instrument can make quite a large dent in your RAM allocation. Additionally, there are a number of different articulations available for each instrument, from beautifully realized mono legato patches, through long tones to a variety of short articulations. Like the mic position sets, these can each be turned on or off if you don’t need them, economising on memory. Each instrument is sampled on a per-note basis, and each has at least two, sometimes more, round robins per note. The instruments are recorded in the highest quality practical, without compromise. That explains the size of the sample set. When working with this set, you’ll want to keep a RAM meter handy so that you can keep track of how much RAM you’ve got left. I didn’t, and quickly maxed out my RAM, which led to all sorts of malfunctions in my computer, which took a while to straighten out. (It should be mentioned that I’m using a computer with 4GB of RAM, which, while it was quite adequate when I bought the computer four years ago, is clearly underpowered now. My film-scoring colleagues here in Australia say they run computers with 32GB of RAM, in order to have all the samples they need available for a film-score mix (I guess that’s another definition of “professional” – you’re able to afford upgrades to equipment like this routinely). Fortunately. Spitfire is aware of this, and they have a number of patches that have just one articulation available, as well as “economic” versions of some patches, in addition to the turning off of resources in some of the “all purpose” patches described above.
The instruments on offer for the strings are ensemble violins, violas, celli and basses; for the winds, flutes (regular, alto and bass), double reeds (oboes, English horns, bassoon, contrabassoon), clarinets (soprano, bass, contra-bass), most in both solo and doubled versions; for the brass, horns, trumpet, trombones (tenor, bass, contrabass), tubas (regular and contrabass) and cimbasso, a bass trombone with a very wide range and a very “authoritative” sound. Again, the brass are available in solo, doubled, and sometimes a6 versions. You may notice the lack of saxophones, or brass-band type brass, or solo strings. This is a very basic symphonic orchestra set – with the orchestra being defined as if in a 1920s orchestration textbook. For the instruments you do get, however, the sound is never less than superb, and as “realistic” (and we’ll have a talk about that word in a moment) as you could possibly wish for.
There are three modes of interacting with each instrument. These are “Easy,” “Advanced,” and “Ostinatum,” a very versatile arpeggiator/pattern generator. Easy gives a minimum of controls necessary for a given instrument. Advanced, shown on the “d-Celli” instrument, with the green side panel in the above screenshot, gives more complete controls. Going from top-left in the grey control panel, these are Mic Mix, Options, Round Robins, and Controllers. Along the bottom of this panel are the Articulation selectors. Below the Articulation selectors are small buttons, which are used to unload or load the samples for that particular articulation out of or into RAM. These buttons also exist below the volume faders in the 3 sample sets on the Mic Mix, so if you’re not using, say, the Close mics, you don’t need to have those samples in RAM. All the Controllers and Articulations can be selected or controlled with external MIDI controllers, and the setup of those is very easy.
The Ostinatum is shown in the instrument below that, “f-Bass Trombone Solo,” with the red side panel. In this panel, starting at the upper left, there are Mode controls, then a Load/Save control for your patterns, then the Pattern Generator itself. In this Pattern Generator, you select the duration of the notes in the pattern, then decide which note of the held chord (on your MIDI controller) you want on each note, (and, as you see, you can also have silences), and you can optionally have a different velocity on each note. With this, you can get some very pleasing asymmetrical patterns. There is also a Chord Mode, which will play chords in the rhythm given. Generally, this sounds like the theme to every news broadcast program in the world. Where the Ostinatum really shines, in my opinion, is where you have several of them, in several different instruments, each with a different length, going at once. Then you begin to get very interesting rhythm combinations. And if you add (with your sequencer or algorithmic generator), changing MIDI chords on each channel your instruments are playing on, you begin to get into the realm of what we used to call “serious composition.” The Ostinatum only becomes active when some of the shorter Articulations for each instrument are selected. This makes sense, because its operation would conflict with the programming for the legato articulation, and with the long note articulations, you might quickly end up with massive overlapping chords which would overload your CPU quickly. I wonder if it would be possible to have some kind of ostinatum with longer pitches that used the same principle, but didn’t overload the machine. That’s a problem for another time, but it is worth thinking about. The Ostinatum is a very clever approach to the idea of an arpeggiator, and it’s very useful.
One thing the SSO instruments can’t do is pitch-bend. I was very curious about this (no pitch-bend means no Middle Eastern music, no Klezmer, and nothing remotely related to African-American musical models!), so I wrote to Spitfire about this, and they said that they felt that having pitch-bend implemented would harm the realism of the ambience the sounds were recorded in. I asked a colleague who regularly uses commercial film-scoring packages, and he said that a lot of film-scoring packages don’t have pitch-bend for that reason. I’m told that if you have the full version of Kontakt, you can set up pitch-bend on the Spitfire instruments, but as I don’t have the full Kontakt, I can’t report on how that would work or sound. This privileging of sonic ambience over musical stylistic possibilities strikes me as very strange, and leads me to want to examine what the film-industry erroneously, in my opinion, considers musical “realism.”
In my opinion, the Spitfire sounds are beautiful, and they sound like recordings of a fine orchestra in a great hall, but they are NOT “realist.” I consider this a bad use of a term by an industry (film) which ought to know better, since they are great contributors to the language we use, and how we use it. Besides, the last time “realism” was used in music was in the Soviet Union, where the doctrine of “socialist realism” was enforced on all the arts. And, as no less an authority than Dmitry Shostakovich pointed out, it was neither “socialist” nor “realist.” So from my perspective, the word “realism” leaves a bad taste in the mouth. If I’m going to play language-police for a moment, I might say that these instruments are an incredibly faithful emulation of the sound of a British orchestra in a fine recording studio, and that “sound” is associated in the minds of many, with high end film scores. So if you want that “sound,” then yes, this sound set is definitely for you. But don’t forget, that “sound” is going to be applied to a film, which is just about the most artificial, constructed artform you can get. And the so-called “realist” film score is contributing to that illusion. So it might be best to say that these sounds will fool almost anyone, and the illusion they create is pretty damn convincing. But that’s not the same sound as a live orchestra, no matter how skilfully constructed.
I had a similar experience in another medium many years ago. In the early 90s, I was working with high-end computer graphics. I was enjoying how I could create 3D models of imaginary shapes that would move in space and even collide and merge into each other very “unrealistically” but with a convincing measure of illusion. I showed a sculptor friend my work and said that I now felt like a sculptor, making and working with masses and volumes. He politely but firmly said that no, what I was doing was making a 2D image, even if with perspective, and that sculpture must necessarily involve working with physical objects in real space. Convinced, I agreed with him. Similarly, with these samples, no matter how convincing the illusion, they are not “realist” – they do not deal with the reality of 100 sound sources spread across a large space. They deal with sound coming out of boxes in a studio or theatrical space. And remember, film-music by definition is designed to come out of boxes, even if there are 5 or 7 of them. For most people, that might be enough to be “realist.” But not for this little black duck. Like the French philosophers said in the 70s, these days the simulacrum has largely replaced the “real-thing” in the minds of most people, and we in the music industry are as guilty in promulgating that philosophical lie as any other branch of the contemporary media.
There is another view here, of course. That’s the one that electronics makes it possible to make things which are better than the old non-electronic reality. Techno-utopianists used to describe a future in which any extension of any musical sound was possible. And of course, there is the matter of expense. $1700 may be a lot of money, but it’s not even as expensive as a good student trombone. At the same time, there are those (as described by Marshall McLuhan) that want to use the new technology to emulate the possibilities of the old. Philosophically, I guess, that’s where this sample set fits. And the amount of work they’ve done to emulate that old reality is awe-inspiring. That the film-music world they are emulating doesn’t acknowledge the usefulness of Middle Eastern, African-American, or Jewish modes of ornamentation is unfortunate. One is left asking why the film-music world decided, in its market-driven wisdom, to eliminate those possibilities from what they did sonically.
But this sound – a British orchestra in a fine recording studio, is apparently a “sound” that is valued in the film-music world. An Australian film-composer friend tells me that this sound set is especially valued in Hollywood because that “sound” is very different from the sound of either sampled or live Hollywood orchestras, and that many of his LA film-composer friends use this set for that exact reason. He also points out that in LA, the sample set is usually used either for temp tracks or doubled with live instruments, but in Australia, where budgets for having live musicians doing film soundtracks have largely disappeared, we’re left with just using the sampled sounds. I imagine this is the case in a number of smaller film-making scenes around the world.
So, if you’re involved in the film-music world, and you can accept the idea that samples beautifully emulating the sound of a recording of a live orchestra is a good thing (or is required by your boss), then you’ll definitely want to own this set. If you’re not part of that world, but want some incredibly gorgeous sounding samples, with lots of intriguing possibilities (the long fluttertongue French horn samples, so incredibly tasty, for example), then you should seriously consider this set, despite its stylistic limitations. I’ve been enjoying the set so much while testing it. Like I said, it made me a kid again, and that’s a pretty hard thing to do.
There is so much else to discuss about this sound set. Like how one can implement microtonality with it (something the good folks at Spitfire also don’t recommend, because, again, it would harm the “realism” of their samples). And a number of techniques for doubling instruments, as well as the quality of the many ensemble patches in Masse (great, by the way). And their absolutely clear and superior tutorial videos. But those things will have to wait for Part 2, in the next issue of Soundbytes. Stay tuned.
Windows/Mac – Requires Kontakt5 (either Player or Full) 255GB hard drive space required. 8GB RAM recommended. Prices: Complete set $1699 USD; Individual components: Spitfire Symphonic Woodwinds $579; Spitfire Symphonic Strings $789; Spitfire Symphonic Brass $689; Masse $349 (although it’s only available as part of the complete SSO package). Bespoke hard drive service: UK £49 GBP; Europe, £59 GBP; rest of the world £69 GBP.