Review – Spitfire Symphony Orchestra, Part 2: Masse and Beyond

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In continuing coverage of Spitfire’s Symphony Orchestra sample set, we look at the very special Masse ensemble-timbre set and investigate the possibilities for microtuning these samples.

 

by Warren Burt, May 2017

 

In our last issue we took an overview of Spitfire Audio’s massive Spitfire Symphony Orchestra sample set  (Kontakt 5 Player or Full).  Read Part 1 here.  We looked at some of the resources in the individual libraries, the Symphonic Strings, Symphonic Woodwinds and Symphonic Brass libraries.  All of these are of the highest quality, and with them, one could craft ensemble orchestral palettes of great variety and subtlety.  But wouldn’t it be nice if someone had made some sample sets using these high quality samples which covered the whole pitch range with unison ensemble patches for each family and for the whole orchestra.  One problem with developing a set like this is that each person’s idea of what might constitute a good unison-tutti orchestration of any family of the orchestra would be different from another’s idea.  For example, if crafting a woodwind family patch, at which pitch should the piccolo come in?  What should be the upper limit of the bassoon?  Etc.  Still, it would be very nice if someone were to make some universally useful patches for section and tutti ensemble playing that would be available without fuss.  And they have.  With the purchase of the Spitfire Symphony Orchestra set comes an additional library, Masse, which consists of just such unison “utility” patches.  Apparently, six months of effort went into making this set from the samples in the first three libraries, and all that work shows.  The patches – there are separate woodwind, brass and string patches as well as a tutti combining all three – are smooth as silk, and the timbres are very pleasing.  Even the fussiest orchestrator, while insisting on making their own patches for unison playing, will find something useful in this set, while the rest of us will simply delight in these very carefully crafted sounds. 

 

Like the other three libraries, the main library for Masse provides a variety of articulations, nine for the woodwinds (a variety of longs and shorts), nine for the brass, and sixteen for the strings. The tutti patch offers thirteen different articulations, which have various mixes of wind, string and brass timbres.  The short articulations for each turn on the Ostinatum arpeggiator, as in the other libraries, and keyswitches allow instant changing from one articulation to the other.  Like in the other libraries, there is an impressive mix of articulations and round robins possible, allowing some extremely subtle crafting of ensemble timbres.  And of course, three complete mic-position sample sets are provided, close, “tree,” and ambient, just as in the other libraries.  I especially found the close-mic woodwinds to be a variety of sonic cream that I would like to slather on a bunch of my sonic deserts!  Although I really like the timbres in the individual sample sets, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend each of those to someone wanting beautifully sampled orchestral sounds recorded in a specific environment, for me, the icing on the cake is Masse, a very impressive and carefully thought out set of ensemble timbres.

 I didn’t mention last month that, for those interested in having a good look before committing to such a considerable purchase, Spitfire have a whole series of VERY impressive videos on their website demonstrating the operation of each of the libraries in the package.  I’m not normally a “watch the videos then use the software” kind of guy, but these were so well done, and clearly put together that I found them incredibly helpful.  The care that went into making the samples carried over to the making of the videos.  Here are the YouTube links for the videos for each of the libraries.  Each one is long (about 20 minutes or more) but each one will richly reward the time you put in in watching them.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tvm-xyK0mVM Spitfire Symphony Orchestra Overview

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8C2qWaj22c Spitfire Masse Overview

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MAJ1He4R67g Spitfire Symphonic Woodwinds

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9mTra2i6SB0 Spitfire Symphonic Strings

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCn1Wl9524Q Spitfire Symphonic Brass Library

 

A couple of caveats:  with sample loading, there is a facility called “Autofile Searching.”  This will search your whole memory environment for the samples needed, if they can’t be found immediately.  For those of us with several large hard drives attached to the computer, this might take a considerable amount of time. It would be good if one could limit the locations that “Autofile Searching” looks at, but I haven’t found it.  A minor quibble, to be sure, but one that would be worth fixing.

Also, when you’re loading samples, remember to wait until the samples are completely loaded (watch the loading meter in Kontakt to be sure), before you make any adjustments.  I moved the “Easy Mix – Close Far” control while samples were loading, and Kontakt got very sluggish and I had to restart it.  If you see the meter for sample loading moving, pausing a moment to let the loading finish will result in both you and your computer being much happier.

As regular readers of Soundbytes will know, one of my main musical interests is microtonality, so I was very interested in seeing how these samples could be used in a microtonal context.  My first contacts with Spitfire Audio were not encouraging.  They said that the use of the Kontakt Microtuner script could indeed put the samples into different tunings, but they didn’t recommend it, because it will tend to damage the quality of the ambience the samples were recorded in.  Well, of course, this was all the encouragement I needed to investigate this, and I started a series of tests, which I’m still continuing. 

Kontakt Full, apparently, does have a microtuning script, and there are a number of other microtuning scripts made for Kontakt Full.  I recently upgraded to Kontakt Full, but as of yet I haven’t been able to get any of those scripts to work for me.  I’ve got help requests into Native Instruments on this, but so far, I haven’t had a response from them.  Hopefully, sometime in the near future I’ll hear from them and I’ll be able to continue this investigation.

However, all is not lost.  Kontakt is, of course, a multi-channel multi-timbral sampler, in which each channel can be individually tuned using the “tune” control on the front panel.  This allows you to detune each channel in 1 cent (1/100th of a semitone) increments.  If one were to take the same timbre, and load it into seven, or twelve, different channels, and then detune each channel individually, one would have an instrument that would be capable of microtonal playing with the proper kind of multi-channel sequencing.  For example, take any standard algorithmic tool-kit program, like Max/MSP, or PD, or MusicWonk, and make an array like this:

Pitch

0

2

4

5

7

9

11

MIDI Ch.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

 

Now, when pitch one is selected, pitch 0 (probably a C, with the appropriate octave added) will play on MIDI channel 1, while pitch 2 will play on MIDI channel 2, etc.  This chart is for playing any 7 note scale.  If each of 7 channels in Kontakt with the same timbre were detuned individually for each pitch, then you would have a 7 note microtonal scale happening.

For example, if you wanted a scale of harmonics 1, 19, 5, 3, 13, 7 and 31, that scale, in cents, looks like so: 0, 297, 386, 702, 841, 969, 1145.  Here’s a chart showing the detune settings needed for each channel and the pitch numbers to use for this scale.

Pitch

0

3

4

7

8

10

11

Detune

0

-0.3

-0.14

0.02

0.41

-0.31

0.45

MIDI Ch.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

 

So does this work, and what does it sound like?  Using MusicWonk, I made a MIDI file of a small etude that played seven-note melodies in three octaves, from C48 up to B83. I then played that MIDI file into Kontakt with the Masse Strings “Giant Epic Long” articulation.  Masse’s ability to turn off all the other articulations was very helpful here, as each new channel loads a separate set of samples into memory.  This seems to be a characteristic of both Kontakt and UVI’s Falcon.  Garritan’s ARIA player, on the other hand, seems to allow multiple channels to share an already loaded set of samples.  In any case, I played the MIDI file first through Kontakt with all the channels tuned to 0.00, and the result was a fine sounding string orchestra piece in normal twelve-note tuning.  I then detuned the channels as given above and played the MIDI file through that.  I heard the same piece, but now in the just-intonation scale given above.  The result sounded different, but it didn’t sound “bad.”  That is, I didn’t notice any particular deforming of the timbral or resonant character of the samples themselves. 

 There are two different problems here, though.  One is the “timbre” or overall sound of a particular scale, and the other is the timbre of a particular instrumental sample.  In all of my experiments, I tried to limit the detuning of any particular channel to less than 50 cents.  I thought this would cleanly preserve the resonance and timbral quality of the instrument.  What I found was that it takes a lot of listening concentration to distinguish between the timbre of a scale (which may be very unfamiliar) and the timbre of an instrument (which might be familiar).  The timbral identity of certain instruments is tied up with the tuning that they are usually placed in.  For example, the “sound” of the piano is a combination of the timbre of the particular strings as well as the sound of those strings tuned in twelve-tone equal temperament.  Piano pieces which use different tunings, such as Ben Johnston’s “Sonata for Microtonal Piano,” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XP7BgV-11fQ) or Terry Riley’s “The Harp of New Albion,” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iinw91AVpMg) often result in such a changed timbre that the instrument might more realistically be called a “microtonal piano” rather than a “piano,” even though it’s the same instrument, just with a different tuning. 

 To a hard-core composer of “blockbuster film scores” (to use the term in one of Spitfire’s videos), the sound of orchestral timbres may indeed be so closely linked to the sound of twelve-tone equal tuning that when they hear any deviation from that tuning, they might think that the timbre of the instruments were being changed, when, in fact, they weren’t.  To further investigate this, I decided to play my MIDI file through two other string orchestra timbre sets, detuned the same multi-channel way.  I used two less expensive string orchestra tutti sets (since this is not a “shoot-out” comparison article, I won’t give the names of the brands – let’s just call them set “V” and set “G”), and played the same MIDI file through them, both in twelve-tone and just-intonation tunings.  The results were quite interesting.  In twelve-tone tuning, I could clearly hear the character of each orchestral set (and I have to say that the Spitfire set did have a particular clarity to it that the others lacked), and they all sounded quite good, and the harmonies were familiar.  With the samples played in just intonation, again, they all sounded good, and they all sounded different than twelve-tone tuning, but in all three cases, the quality of the instrumental samples did not seem to suffer at all.  All three also sounded harmonically identical in just intonation – so there was no difference in the tuning of each instrumental set.  So with this kind of technique, I can without hesitation say that the Spitfire set is indeed quite useful for microtonal composition. 

I did another test – I made a small test MIDI file to play through an instrument tuned in seven notes out of thirteen-tone equal temperament.  Thirteen-tone tuning is theoretically (and to my ears definitely!) one of the most dissonant possible tunings.  If any tuning should warp the timbre of a set of samples, it would be that one.  And to be sure, the thirteen-tone etudes played with the string samples were indeed much more dissonant than the just-intonation set above, and probably more likely to drive a “blockbuster film composer” crazy with the level of dissonance, but again, the quality of the orchestral instrument timbres was not significantly different than when played in twelve-tone tuning.  Again, all but one of the pitches was detuned by less than 50 cents – the single exception was one note that was 54 cents sharp.  So it seemed that although there is a really clear relation between tuning and timbre (see William Sethares work for more on this: http://sethares.engr.wisc.edu/), for purposes of practical microtonal composition, the Spitfire set (and the other sets I used in the test) was quite useful and “good sounding” when placed in a microtonal context.

 I did one more experiment, using the Ostinatum feature, and channel detuning.  I set up one channel with a short string timbre, from Masse, then one with a short brass articulation, and one with a short woodwind articulation.  This enabled the Ostinatum for each instrument.  I then made a rather longish repeating pattern with the Ostinatum and copied this into each channel.  On channels 2 and 3, I lengthened the pattern by one (different) duration each.  I then set up a patch in MusicWonk that would simply play a sustained chord of three notes into each of the three channels.  So you would get the same Ostinatum pattern in each channel, but looping because of the slightly different durations, and each pattern played with slightly different pitches.  This sounded thrilling, and not too different than the music of a number of minimalist colleagues of mine.  I then detuned channel 2 by 33 cents and channel 3 by 67 cents.  So now our Ostinatum piece was being played in 36 tones per octave.  The result was a much spikier “sound” than when the same loops were playing in twelve-note tuning, but each instrument was playing its ostinato in normal twelve-note tuning.  When listened to on their own, each channel sounded quite good (those Spitfire timbres are really lovely).  When combined, we had entered a new musical realm – through the simple means of detuning two channels by a small amount.  A new realm of harmony was there, but the timbres were still as luscious as ever.  However, I do acknowledge that for Mr. Blockbuster, the difference in tuning might be also heard as a difference in timbre, and that might be enough to discourage him/her from further work in this field. 

 Nonetheless, my experiments showed me that the Spitfire Symphony Orchestra set could indeed be a very useful adjunct to a set of microtonal composing resources.  The timbral range of the set was undamaged by my various detunings, and the lusciousness of the sound maintained itself, but with the addition of the unique new worlds of microtonal tunings.  So whether it’s for “blockbuster” film composing, or for more experimental uses, I can highly recommend the Spitfire Symphony Orchestra set.  It’s expensive, and as we pointed out last month, it isn’t programmed to implement pitch bends, but if you want a set of gorgeous, highly programmable orchestral samples, then this might be just what you’re looking for.

 

www.spitfireaudio.com

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.

 

 

 

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