If you've been paying attention, this past year or two has seen the release of several great string libraries, both from big established companies down to one-man shops giving their take on the sampled strings industry. Kirk Hunter is one of the longest-running orchestral sample makers out there, and he has jumped into the fun with some new libraries of his own.
The most recent of these is the new Pop Rock Strings library, which is being featured in a group buy at the moment. So we figured it would be a great time to take a look at this new focused string library.
The Short And Skinny
Pop Rock Strings is built using the same samples as Kirk Hunter's next most recent strings library, Concert Strings 2. Some features have been removed that wouldn't necessarily benefit a Pop Rock production as much, but at it's core, it shares most features and samples from it's big brother. Instead of having every chromatic step, you get approximately every whole step or so. You do get around three round robins per note though. So all-in-all, this shouldn't be considered a 'crippled' version of Concert Strings 2 by any stretch. It's definitely not.
Samples are recorded at 44.1kHz, 24-bit, and take up around 10GB of space on your hard drive. Pop Rock Strings is Kontakt-based, and includes the Kontakt Player.
The Sound Of Sweet
If there was a single word I would use to describe the sound of Pop Rock Strings, it would be "sweet". I'm not talking in a gnarly kind of way, but the sound of Pop Rock Strings is one that is very lush, not overpowering, while still remaining strong. They don't pierce through the mix, but instead fit in well with other instruments. It's a soft, and shall I say it again, a lush library.
With that being said, you can have some variation in the core sound as Pop Rock Strings lets you control how bright or 'dull' the sound is. You can either adjust it based on velocity, or based on the mod wheel. This was sometimes subtle, but I especially liked it for volume swells and to add a touch more emotion into some parts.
Pop Rock Strings was recorded dry for flexibility, which is always a good thing. The samples are very clean and on pitch. All samples are very accurate to each other and blend exceptionally well.
The older Kirk Hunter libraries are very well known and are often used libraries on even the highest productions. But the strings recorded here are a step up in many ways from those. The sound is very refined, and very pleasing to the ear. I found Pop Rock Strings were able to find their sweet spot on their own, without much extra EQ from my end. Adding a touch of reverb is always nice with dry libraries, but these samples contain enough natural instrument ambience that they could be used without any additional processing, given the right situation.
Speaking of which, you will find a 3 band EQ on board as well as a general reverb. Both are nice for an extra added touch if you happen to need them.
All-in-all, the sound of Pop Rock Strings(and CS2, for that matter) is immediately useful in a variety of settings.
The full section were my favorite, as the sections blended extremely well and were recorded full of emotion. There is a certain versatility in these sections that I particularly enjoyed. It goes back to the sweetness factor, and these stand out as the highlight of the library for me. Of course, it's not the only sound you'll find.
The half and quarter sections(Studio and Chamber) are probably the most effective in an actual Pop Rock production as they mixed with other instruments better than the other sizes for me. Leaving just enough air without losing power, the half and quarter sections are a welcome part of any library, though for some reason, rarely utilized fully. Not a problem here though. Whether you need just a few string players, or just need to stop short of a full section, you can use these sizes rather effectively for plenty of variation.
The solo instruments included in Pop Rock Strings are quite expressive, but due to a lack of full vibrato control, they may not be suitable for every solo opportunity. They are, however, fantastic when played ALONG with larger amounts of strings(like the quarter or half divisions) to add some emphasis to the sound and let it cut through the mix a bit. There are around three or four round robins present in the solo strings, and on a few notes, the character would jump from semi-dull to semi-bright as it rotated through the "robins". This is a natural thing to happen, and at times would be a bit more noticeable than I would like. But it's only on a few notes, and we've been informed that the issue has been addressed at least partially. So it's definitely not a major issue at this point.
The overall sound of Pop Rock Strings is very strong. There are a few rough edges that appear with extended use, but that's actually not such a bad thing as "real" string sections aren't perfect either. But the issues that ARE there are not distracting, and Pop Rock Strings remains one of, if not the most versatile library I've seen. You get what is essentially four different libraries, all meant to sound great together and share the same features.
How To Play Sweet
There are loads of options included for setting up and playing Pop Rock Strings. And most everything is completely customizable. As a matter of fact, I don't think I've seen a more flexible system in any other Kontakt-based string library(outside of it's older brother, Concert Strings 2).
You can load everything from entire string sections down to single articulations or groups of articulations(such as sustain articulations, short notes, etc.). You can load individual section sizes, like solo or full section, or all section sizes at once(called "Quad" patches). You can then switch between them, pan them individually, etc. There are also combination patches with all four string sections included in a single patch. You can see a partial list of the many included patches above.
The key here is to let you layer your own sections. Most libraries include either only full string sections, or just chamber size sections, or just solo instruments. Pop Rock Strings provides you with all section sizes so you can build your own divisi. There is no auto-divisi like in it's big brother, Concert Strings 2, but there isn't as much of a need for this in Pop Rock Strings. So you can arrange and layer sections however you wish, adjust individual volume and pan, etc., and that's a very good thing.
Keyswitches are assigned to each articulation, so you can switch from legato to pizzicato to whatever else you want easily. But keyswitches are also used to select which section size you are playing, from full sections to chamber to solo instruments(if you have a patch loaded with all section sizes), all on the fly. The keyswitches can be assigned to whatever notes you prefer using the Pop Rock Strings interface.
Several articulations are available to switch between, including standard legato, adagio, and others. You'll find different degrees of accent on the beginning of each note(softer or harder), as well as several short note accented variations from marcato to detache to spiccato.
Rounding out the articulations are tremolos and pizzicato.
While not the most comprehensive list compared to it's older brother, Concert Strings 2, it's still a very complete and legit list of articulations and more than enough for a large majority of productions, especially the Pop/Rock type(which makes sense, seeing as this library is named after them).
Playing Pop Rock Strings is very easy, and the response to velocity and controllers is very evenly programmed. Out-of-the-box, you can be up and running with minimal fuss. But should you want it, there is plenty of extra control included.
For instance, the pitch wheel can be used to trigger slides between notes. This isn't actually bending the notes like you would see in a synth, but triggering actual transitions based on your playing. Rocking the pitch wheel upwards provides a slide up to the next note. Downwards does the opposite. You can also set Pop Rock Strings to trigger different speeds of slides based on how far you have the pitch wheel turned, or have the volume of the slide controlled by the wheel if you wish.
Legato is triggered automatically when two notes overlap. However, Pop Rock Strings also lets you play chords by detecting when you are playing solo lines or multiple notes at the same time. This seemed to work very well, and I can't recall the script ever confusing overlaps for chords, or vice-versa. What makes legato even better is that you can use it WITH the chords you play. Chord voices can be changed and legato transitions will automatically trigger for the moving notes. You can even play chords in one hand and a solo line in the other(when using combination patches with all instruments loaded).
Vibrato is also adjustable. You can control the amount of vibrato using either the velocity of the note, or by the mod wheel. You won't find many controls for depth or speed, but there is still enough variation there to suit most needs.
In addition to all this, you have full control over the volume envelope of all notes, set overlap time for legato transitions, and more. I can't say that anything was missing here. This helped the library to be useful in many different situations from slow to fast passages and arrangements.
You can change all keyswitches and most controls to any controller or note that you wish, and all from within the interface(one screen is shown below, but this is only a small sampling of which controllers can be changed). And Kontakt obviously adds more flexibility in this area as well.
Pop Rock Strings is quite complex under the hood, but Kirk Hunter has managed to keep it very easy to play. It's almost TOO easy to get a good sound out of these strings. The "play now, adjust later" approach worked best for me as I found that you didn't need too any real-time controls to get a good quality string part. It does help to have both a mod wheel and an expression pedal(or other secondary continuous controller) so you can set one to volume and the other to another real-time controller. But in the end, despite the complexities, you don't have to learn too much to get started.
Probably the best part for me is that all patches are identical in their control scheme. You could program a part for a solo violin, and the part would work just the same if you transposed the notes to use with solo cello. You could program for a large section and then decide later that you needed a smaller section, and it would all work great. Very little, if any tweaking would be necessary for the new parts.
Poppin' And Rockin' Away
If I had to choose a single strings library that offered a good amount of features without breaking the bank, Pop Rock Strings would be at the top of my list. It's a great balance of articulations, control, and excellent sound, and at a price that easily makes this library a no-brainer if you like what you hear.
The sound in Pop Rock Strings is as versatile as they come, and while not perfect in every area, it's about as easy to make a track with this library than any other I've seen. The fact that you don't need any additional software or player is great as well. It's a fully self-contained string library with as much control as many libraries costing many times more. With the exception of a few rough edges, there is little to fault Pop Rock Strings with. It's a solid library, at a solid price, from a solid developer. Great value for money.
Price: Currently on sale for $125 until January 15th- Normal price- $249
Test System(s): Windows 7 64-bit Professional, Custom built Intel i5 Quad Core, 8GB Corsair DDR3 RAM, 750GB Seagate Barracuda SATA System drive, 1.5TB Seagate Barracuda SATA Samples drive, Focusrite Saffire Pro 24, Keystation Pro 88, Edirol PCR-M50