Gigastrings

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in January 2003, contributed by then Contributing Editor Bruce Richardson. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

Strings are an obvious use of sampling technology. The real McCoy is expensive to record, and face it, doesn’t being in a room with a bunch of string players kinda’ creep you out? They wrestle music from wood and wire and hair from a horse’s patooty, and that’s the normal part.

All that aside, sampled strings are pervasive in every genre of music from the street up. And down. So today, we’re examining two of a growing number of complete string solutions for GigaStudio: Garritan Orchestral Strings and Sonic Implants Symphonic String Collection.

If you’ve managed to sleep through the entire software sampling revolution, get ready. A string library today bears little resemblance to the synth patch of yesterday. In particular, the GigaStudio disk-streaming technology pioneered by Nemesys (now under Tascam’s roof) has spawned an entire new generation of composer’s tools. The sample library has been redefined. Once delivered on floppies, now they’re boxes full of DVDs! Some companies are even delivering up their goods on hard drives. And not only strings, but every conceivable acoustic sound has been captured in microscopic detail by this new generation of sample developers.

But strings are pervasive, and everybody knows their sound. This is the true stomping block for a sample developer’s labor, the place where expectations meet reality.

People sometimes say I’m too easy to please. Maybe they never read my review of the Marshall MXL-2001. But in this case, I guess I am easy. Or at least very impressed. Both of these libraries street around the $1000 mark, give or take a few points. Both are the culmination of hundreds of session hours and thousands of man hours. Both feature sterling players and sterling musicians, and in fact, both are produced by sterling musician/player/producers. Both are award winners. Each has received high marks from smart reviewers. Either one is an asset worth many times its cost. That makes this article fun to write, and I have had a great time putting these collections through their paces.

That said, they’re not without their differences of approach. Rather than spend a lot of time detailing what’s included, I’ll leave it to you to explore the specifics at the manufacturers’ own websites, where all kinds of bowing and mapping information is given. What I want to do is give you a feel for strengths and for how the libraries work on real world projects. So read on, and I’ll try to describe my experience with each and draw a few conclusions for you to ponder.

Garritan Orchestral Strings

I open the package. A beautiful black binder. I open the binder. Lovely cover page, inscribed, “The Maestro’s Manual, presented to Maestro Bruce Richardson.” OK, I’m impressed.

Garritan Orchestral Strings is the second GigaStudio library produced by harpist, composer, and producer Gary Garritan. His previous library, the GigaHarp, was among the first proof-of-concept libraries which thrust Nemesys (now owned by hardware giant Tascam. hmmm…TascSys? NemeScam?) and its “streaming sampler” into the limelight. Garritan Orchestral Strings is a much larger effort; a collection of just about every sound you can make with a string section. You get a hefty manual that’s almost an orchestration text, elegant and detailed mapping guides, and the aforementioned personal fluffing. Maestro indeed. Who doesn’t feel good about that?

Down to the Nitty-Gritty

Spread out over eighteen CDs, you’ll find the main instrument classes broken into many individual GigaStudio-native GIG files–with separate long and short bowings, additional techniques, and keyswitch/lite instruments (respectively supersets, designed for maximum flexibility or subsets designed to conserve memory and MIDI channels). Within these there are sometimes over a dozen individual instrument mappings. There are even some full-range “strings” patches designed to get you playing quickly across the full keyboard, with all the basic bowings represented within them. These are like the strings patches on your favorite “do everything” synth module. Only way better. A person could start with just these and be happy.

But the real stars of this library are the ultra-detailed individual instrument sections. There are bowings galore, and not just the usual suspects. GOS covers it all, from romantic sustains to scroinks, boinks, and scratches. You don’t just get one variety of sustains, but many subtle bowing variations. You don’t just get staccato, you get its cousins and their cousins. There is enough there, in fact, that you can become downright unproductive as you explore one instrument, then the next, then the next…and all are recorded in a nicely consistent space, meaning that you can mix and match articulations liberally without your stereo image going to shreds.

The sound of each section is full, resonant and alive. I appreciate the wide variety of bowings, because they’re all musically interesting and each has distinct character. The straight sustains are nicely slick and present at low velocities and insistent towards the top. The more expressive bowings get a little grittier and evolve with more personality, and the players are definitely not holding anything back. There is a touch of ambient content in the samples themselves, but not a lot. Just a bit of bounce and decay from the space, which sounds nice. In a somewhat dry mix, this may be all the ambience you need in a track. For a larger orchestral footprint, it’s not too much bounce to interfere with additional reverb and reflective content.

One significant feature of Garritan Orchestral Strings is a companion MIDI application, called Maestro Tools (authored by MIDI-ace Jeff Hurchalla). Maestro Tools sits, loopback-style, between your MIDI input and GigaStudio, and enables a whole host of playability and sequencing features of the library. There’s a legato mode. There are alternation modes, which alternate samples on a given note to combat the dreaded machine-gun effect. It’s an idea that harks back to the original GigaHarp, which used common MIDI controllers to “double” notes realistically within glissandos by key (one of the telltale “it’s a sequence” giveaways with virtual harp parts). In fact, this aspect of GOS seems to have caught on, with Michiel Post’s Grandioso pianos sporting a similar feature to enhance pedaling techniques.

There are additional “variability” modes that provide even more sample substitutions, detunings, etc., to keep things constantly changing. There are some velocity crossfading methods that can yield great crescendos and decrescendos in realtime. There are layered articulations and wheel-selected bowings. Yet despite all this seeming complexity, the use of the library and accompanying tools is easy and straightforward, and I had no trouble at all learning to use each GOS feature.

I amused myself for hours on end, in fact. What I needed was a good string project to get me moving. In the usual, “careful what you wish for…” scenario, I was suddenly overwhelmed with projects. Luckily, GOS gets down to business as pleasantly as it distracts. Here’s the poop on a few of them.

Pop Strings

An old friend approaches me with a project. A new pop group he’s producing has synth strings all over their tunes. He wants me to ditz them up and do some revoicing to make them a bit less synthy. Little does he know…

When I got the tunes, it became apparent that I’d need to use a couple of different approaches. A few spots called more for solo strings (GOS is ensemble-only), so I used Dan Dean Solo strings for these. But overall, most of the lines wanted to be large and soaring, and the GOS legato patches filled the bill perfectly. I used the “EXP” versions, a great variant on the typical multi-velocity sample. EXP patches in GOS crossfade between velocity layers using the modulation wheel, so that you can play crescendos and decrescendos in realtime. With these patches, I was able to program the kinds of sweeping dynamic quality you only get with live sections (or hours of excruciating envelope-drawing in your DAW).

I also found that the EXP patches were easily modified to breath control (simply changing the attenuating controller in the GigaStudio Editor), and that this was just about the ideal way to use them. Using a Yamaha WX-5 as the controller, I found this to be far superior to the mod-wheel implementation. I was now physically coupled to the expression in a more direct way, and the resulting parts were more musical than my keyboard entered parts. I am not a killer saxophonist by a long shot, so I concentrated on getting the expression nailed at the expense of a few clams. These are easy enough to clean up in the sequencer. In fact, several complex passages were easiest to perform with one hand on the keyboard playing the line while I played a “dummy note” on the wind controller (later, I deleted this string of “dummy notes” leaving the melody behind).

GOS’s LEG or legato patches proved really helpful. These patches must be used with the Maestro Tools utility. It works a MIDI-magic trick, tracking incoming note-offs to trigger hidden “bridge” samples between legato notes. Anyone who has done sampled string work knows the dreaded “slurp, slurp, slurp” sound of mushy legato attacks. With GOS’s legato bridge samples being triggered by each release, the air between notes gets filled up, and the notes connect to each other much more naturally. Combined with the EXP crossfades, you can knock out gorgeous and shapely lines that will have even the biggest skeptic wondering how you managed to afford a full string section.

Needless to say, the string parts for the project were a huge hit. The tunes took on that nice depth and size that says “expensive,” and everybody was happy. GOS gets an A+ here.

Soundtrack: Exploring Society

Next on the plate, I scored 22 episodes of a sociology telecourse, using all manner of orchestral instruments and styles. I made GOS the workhorse library for strings.

I really used the pizzicato strings on this project, coming back to them again and again. The GOS pizz samples have a nice buzzy-woody quality about them, and come in two main flavors: loose and tight. The tight samples are VERY tight, with dead-on ensemble accuracy. The loose pizz samples, on the other hand, are quite loose and spread on the attack. There are various “switching” patches between these and one other pizz articulation, the so-called Bartok pizz, which is a snap against the fingerboard for an extremely aggressive, percussive tone. These are mapped to the highest velocities, and really do give the impression of a full section digging into the accents. I edited some of these patches to pop out the “Bartoks” even more…in the Basses, they were actually not quite as aggressive as the rounder varieties, and I found they’d actually leave something of a sonic hole rather than a super aggressive feeling. No biggie, it was easy to do and this is a personal taste thing, anyway.

Another nice articulation I used often–the various tremolo patches. Here again, the EXP versions of these allow continuous crescendos and decrescendos over individual notes or lines, and allow very realistic performances to be entered in realtime. Tremolos come in a couple of varieties, one full-bodied and warm, the other (sul ponticello) played closer to the bridge for a scratchier, eerier tone quality. There are multiple velocities of each. As you might imagine, one can switch between the two varieties in a number of ways. Tremolos are used to convey agitation and emotional sweep, and like their live acoustic counterparts, the tremolo patches in GOS get the job done. You can stir up a lot of energy with them.

A note to the adventurous: The Tremolos don’t come with release triggers right out of the box, but I found that the release triggers from the legato instruments contained in the latest update were perfect for this. Just copy them from the legato instruments to the Tremolos, study and emulate the mapping from the sustain instruments, and enjoy.

I also found myself using the short bows quite a bit, mainly to mix it up with the pizz articulations when “grooving” with the string section. Here, the ALT articulations come into play with the Maestro Tools utility. Pressing a keyswitch tells Maestro Tools to alternate up-bow and down-bow samples every other note. Whether you are playing a repeated note, or a line, this feature helps combat the machine-gun curse, and gives you much more realistic parts. It’s helpful to use your sequencer’s note-length editing capabilities to tweak your lines. Once you’ve found exactly the right note length for a given line at a given tempo, you can easily visualize a section of players burning through the part. Here, too, you can use the variability instruments to give even more variety…or not. What you’ll find is that the advanced features are somewhat scaleable…you don’t have to use them in the tracking stages in order to take advantage of them as you work towards mixing and completing your piece. Sometimes, it’s far better to forge ahead while the muses still think you’re cute.

Soundtrack: Henry IV

Last on my set of evaluation projects was a score for Shakespeare’s Henry IV, parts one and two. This was an original adaptation, premiered at Shakespeare Festival of Dallas, which reduced the two three-hour plays into one. The style of the production was a rather mixed bag. We started out flirting with constructivism, and retained some of that flavor in the end. However, our Falstaff chewed scenery mightily (and well), so in the end we had a constructivist-farce on our hands. Which is a little weird. Needless to say, I made a few stylistic changes through the process.

I mostly scored transitions, trying to foreshadow upcoming scenes and keep the audience with us as we blazed through the tale. One of the challenges of outdoor Shakespeare is the fight against ambient noise. As it turned out, I didn’t get to score many of the scenes I’d have liked, simply because getting the actors heard over the sound of traffic is no mean feat. But I got many complements on the overall score just the same. People are genuinely curious about how I get orchestral sounds like these. It’s a real complement that even casual listeners notice the sound of the score itself. The actors notice and appreciate it as well…they get subjected to some pretty cheesy sounds sometimes, and still have to keep a straight face and tough it out over the top. Once again, the tremolos were golden–I was able to go from subtle agitation to heights of tension using the EXP patches. Another nice juxtaposition was using extreme ranges of all the legato instruments in their quietest velocities, allowing the nice long samples to provide motion to otherwise static lines. Unlike the constant hiding, nipping, and tucking you must do to disguise shortcomings with lesser libraries, these samples beg to be held out their full length. The more you expose, the more they sell.

Support and Upgrades

A significant and somewhat unique aspect of Garritan Orchestral Strings is a free upgrade policy. And so far a very generous upgrade policy. Since beginning work on this review, a whopping 1.5 gigabytes of new samples, instruments, patches, and software enhancements have been added to the basic library…with much more to come very soon, according to Gary. That’s more than the total size of some libraries, and nice support however you look at it. Some of the coolest enhancements are user contributions. GOS has gathered quite a following of people who have contributed back some nice new ways of using the material. Also included in the last upgrade were some reverb impulses by music tech ace Ernest Cholakis. These are usable in so-called convolver programs like Acoustic Mirror and Altiverb, and are among the very best I have ever heard. Another resource is a helpful user forum on Northernsounds.com. All in all, the customer service for GOS is exemplary, and is a notable feature of the library.

Some Conclusions

I work every day with sampled instruments, and my livelihood more or less depends on these products. I consider myself a pretty good judge of what works, and Garritan Orchestral Strings has worked out very well for me. It can be layered up into a lush thicket of orchestral madness, and can serve just as well in a sparse pop setting.

You’d be hard pressed to come up with musical situations it wouldn’t cover. No library has the number of articulations this one boasts. It wrings every drop of functionality from GigaStudio’s significant toolbox, and adds new tools to boot.

All in all, I give GOS my warmest and heartiest recommendation to anyone seeking a great sounding string library. It is definitely an investment quality resource, which will not lose value as other products emerge. No matter what your musical genre, GOS covers your string needs. You’ll be able to churn out hours of great music with it. Professionals will find the pricetag very appealing, and easily recouped. In fact, every high-profile GigaStudio user I know counts this one as a must-have…so I’ll defer to the larger group and let you draw your conclusions from that.

Sonic Implants Symphonic String Collection

Miracles happen. UPS managed to get a package to my door despite the fact that the shipping label had been torn completely off. And inside that package was a string library for GigaStudio that managed to make grumpy old me giggle like a little girl.

Ever since Giga-technology redefined sampling, symphonic libraries have themselves transformed. They’re huge now, getting bigger every day. Sonic Implants Symphonic Strings weighs in at a hefty twenty CDs, packed with the most used articulations, bowings, and effects used in symphonic music.

The mastermind behind the Sonic Implants product line is Jennifer Hruska, perhaps best known to industry folks as one of the dynamo sound designers behind some of Kurzweil’s most praised products. After a nine-year stint there, Jennifer founded her own company; and after rolling a couple of other family-run businesses together, the combined effort emerged as the present Sonic Network–the parent company of Sonic Implants. Until recently, Sonic Implants was probably best known for its reasonably priced and top notch Soundfonts. Expanding both titles and formats, Sonic Implants is rapidly branching into the pro-sampler market, as well as licensing sounds and technology to the corporate and manufacturing sector.

The CDs are cleverly displayed in a retro-LP box like the classic orchestral volumes of vinyl days (just saying this makes me feel a little classic myself). Voluminous size is only part of the charm. The players are some of Boston’s finest, and the recordings are top notch (the engineers, Antonio Oliart and John Bono, are highly pedigreed in orchestral recording circles) It was recorded at Sonic Temple Studios in Roslindale, Massachusetts, a nice woody meeting hall turned soundstage. The recording gear was all top shelf. B & K, Shoeps, and Neumann mics coupled with Benchmark preamps deliver a slick and polished sound. The room is heard to nice effect while still maintaining an intimate and transparent sound across all the dynamic ranges.

I spoke to Jennifer about the recording techniques used. She pointed out that one interesting aspect of the process was recording sections in their relative orchestral placement, with a fixed conductor-perspective array and overhead spot mics. “We even set up chairs to help define spacing, and draped blankets over them to emulate warm bodies between the source and the room mics,” Jennifer explained. “We wanted to give an impression of the space, but with enough intimacy to be useful in a variety of contexts.” The subsequent mix process delivered up a pre-panned image of each section, which faithfully reproduces the section’s footprint (and “presence print”) in the overall orchestral plot.

“This was the most challenging session I’ve ever run,” Jennifer added. “We were spending a lot of money on players, gear, engineers, and the facility itself, and we had to be sure we were getting what we needed. We’d bring the previous sessions’ rough mixes back into the studio daily, to make sure we were getting a good relationship between the sections. “

“One funny thing we learned was to schedule the loud stuff after lunch. The players would go out every day and eat a big lunch, and when we’d get started up afterwards, we were hearing lots of stomachs rumbling.”

The things they don’t teach you in school, eh?

So How Does it Sound?

Jennifer recommended loading up the various Ensemble presets first, to get my hands wrapped around the sounds. This was good advice. Much like the various “strings” patches on your favorite multitimbral hardware synth, these are full range compilations of the full string section, designed to get you playing and knocking out ideas quickly. Unlike the strings patches on your favorite dino-synth, these are impressive. I loaded up the pizzicato ensemble first, and was greeted with a very spacious and full-bodied multisample across the board, topped by a super-aggressive fingerboard “snap.” The dynamic range is extreme…from a barely audible plink to a fingerboard snap that probably left a mark, but very controllable while playing. So far so good.

Next I tried out the legato ensemble, and here again, I got a very playable and controllable full-range string section. Nothing generic about this sound–I could easily pick out the individual players in the soundfield, thanks to the compact section sizes. There’s a nice balance struck here–just enough players to get a full section sound, but no so many that the resulting samples become too chorusy and diffuse.

During my maiden voyage, I was struck over and over by the combination of spaciousness and intimacy. Again, a nice balance struck. Tutti orchestra passages fill out into a nice soundstage, while thinner and gentler passages will recede into a more compact image. Even at fortissimo levels, there’s a good transparency to the sound. Other instruments can break through it and claim their own space.

Playing the ensemble presets is interesting on many levels. It’s nice to hear the image of a chord break out across the soundstage, so that even in the rough-out stages of composition you’re hearing a fair approximation of your end result. Of course, the downside of this is that a given melodic thread can unintentionally jump from section to section as you cross the “breaks.” As a springboard for knocking out very quick sketches, they’re very good and have enough depth in some applications to stand as completed work.

Lest you worry too much about the built in panning, the sections respond fairly well to a couple of techniques. The purest approach I found was flipping the channels on the resulting track, which exactly reverses the image. You can easily do this within GigaStudio’s DSP station channel strips, since each channel of the stereo sample has its own independent panner. You can also constrict or nudge the image by experimenting with other fader positions. In general, the images hold up well no matter where you place them, although the ideal use of this library seems to be using the built-in image or its mirror. I didn’t find this to be a restriction at all, and in fact, I have yet to alter the panning except to experiment with it for this article. I’m not so hung up on my own special formula, I guess. It sounds good to me just where it is.

One thing to note–if you want to dry up the sound just a bit (although it’s not overly wet), you can work in mono, favoring the channel where the section is imaged on the soundstage. It will sound drier than its opposite channel. Alternately, using only the “wetter” side of the stereo signal as a panned mono representation would give you, in essence, a more distant-sounding mono image of a given section. These “mono tricks” can really help you blend disparate libraries together, so it’s always worth trying.

It’s the Playability

Playability at the keyboard is this library’s strong suit, and here you will note the design ethic that Hruska pursued at Kurzweil is very much alive at Sonic Implants.

“You have to be able to sit and actually play,” Jennifer said. “Our goal throughout the process was to focus on creating instruments more than just samples. A busy composer needs to be able to sit down and knock out a part that works, right from the keyboard.”

I like the section sizes. For lack of a better analogy, a smaller section feels a bit quicker on its feet. While there is plenty of controller-driven expression available, the emphasis is clearly focused on getting the maximum expression from the keyboard itself. For instance, the legato bowings become progressively more aggressive as you dig into the keys, such that you can often execute a quick passage without invoking another bowing. There’s some nice behavioral design in the layers themselves. In ways, this becomes a different take on the Miroslav mantra of “no dead notes.” Here, the concept is a little more smoothly implemented, thanks to fewer bandwidth constraints.

Every individual sample is a little klangfarbenmelodie unto itself. There’s the typical caveat that a given note might wander from your intention of the moment, but here’s another little nod to Jennifer’s design experience. They don’t wander often. The motion is definitely there, but subtly enough to give you some control. I have no idea if Jennifer has ever read Philip Farkas’s “The Art of Musicianship,” but the samples tend towards those same principles. Pianissimo and piano-force keyboard velocities are hushed and static throughout the choir. The mezzo piano becomes a bit insistent, the mezzo forte the same. Not too exaggerated, but taking you somewhere. As you move into the forte and fortissimo the attacks become more aggressive and the vibrato and general tonality begin to roughen up. The top level in most instruments has a ferocious attack, and a full, blocky sustain.

In general, I found myself improvising a lot at the keyboard and polishing less than I’d expect. I’d just jam away on the ensemble patches, then separate the parts out by section. Or not…the ensembles are pretty well crafted, and for a down and dirty part, you might well be done in one pass. But whatever the methodology, the behavioral programming itself is very smart and musically vetted. Maybe another way to say this is that the tactile sensibilities seem to have been high on the list of design goals. Whatever the design intent, the result is a set of instruments that feels good and behaves predictably under your hands. And if you are a player with good hands and ears, you’ll be able to take a part most of the way there directly from the keyboard.

Tweakers, don’t freak. When you’re through roughing out, the super-packed single instruments will let you get into the details. The aforementioned controller-driven crossfades, bowing-switches, layers, etc., are there and waiting. Planned updates will roll out new features. The first, according to fellow Kurzweil alumnus turned Implant-er, David Fox, may well be out when this article hits the airwaves. “We’re adding open tone functionality to all existing presets in the Symphonic String Collection. Utilizing a dimension switch, these open string tones can be easily activated on the fly during a performance or sequence. This update will be done via GigaSampler/Studio articulation files”

Conclusions

All in all, this is a gorgeous sounding and easy-to-use string library with a lot of depth and soul. One thing I particularly like about it is its ability to be very small and intimate, yet hold vast amounts of power in reserve. A set of recordings like this is priceless, so one certainly cannot argue with the value. It’s easy to forget that old Kurzweil expander modules of days gone by cost three times this much, and compared to this…well, sucked. Everyone I’ve met at Sonic Implants has been smart, friendly, open, and helpful. Sonic Implants Symphonic String Collection is an investment grade sample library that sounds fantastic, and is as easy on the hands as on the ears. That’s no small feat.

It may be vexing to someone trying to make a purchase decision, but I’m not recommending one of these libraries over the other. They both rock. They both step into the role of “string solution” with style and are both recorded well in interesting spaces. Basically it’s Brand A of good vs. Brand B. I say this having used both products for an extended time, on real jobs big and small. They can both carry their (and your) weight.

And so, if the answer can be both, then both. If you’re facing a choice, and these two products are in the running, I hope I have given you a feeling of each product’s unique strengths.

One difference that exists between the two collections is the stereo perspective. GOS gives a centered stereo image of each section, with a constant distance perspective. SI Symphonic Strings gives you an image based upon an orchestral floor plan, each section having a different location in the stereo field. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method, and they’re both perfectly valid approaches. If one or the other is important to you, this is a factor to weigh.

Otherwise, you can feel confident that these are both libraries worth having and using. Their universal acclaim needs no cheerleading from me. People sing their praises all over.

The thing that I’d like to share, though, is that I found the combination of these two products to be a real joy. SI’s section sizes are very compact, but neither SI or GOS is a particularly large orchestra, so it’s completely plausible to double up some of the instruments. And by doing so, you can introduce many layers of serendipity that make the combination of the two almost better than either one alone!!

I think as a matter of strategy, we producers tend to think we need lots of variety in solo instruments, yet we tend to think that one “ensemble” library is going to carry us through the day. When you think about it, that doesn’t make sense at all. It should really be the opposite, if anything. Sometimes you need multiple choices, and Garritan Orchestral Strings and the Sonic Implants Symphonic String Collection are each truly unique and valuable additions to any composer’s palette of sounds.

Leave a Reply