Snful Orchestra- Do Big Things Really Come In Small Packages?

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on in March 2008, contributed by then Editor Brent Randall. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

Pros: Sounds great, amazingly resource friendly, very tweakable

Cons: No multi-out, some instruments slightly limited, sections could be better

Summary: Solid with a ton of potential. Many instruments outperform larger libraries. Takes time to learn, but worth it.

In the world of orchestral sound libraries, we are absolutely flooded with options. It’s a good thing, no doubt about it. And libraries are getting more and more detailed as the hard drive space gets taken more and more each time a new library comes out. You could say that large sample libraries are a major part of the way music is made these days, and that would be a huge understatement.

Then there is Synful Orchestra. It’s not your typical library. In fact, it’s not much of a library at all if you consider size to be a determining factor to what makes a good library. But can it compare to the multi-gigabyte hard drive monsters we’ve come to love so much? We’re about to find out!

First, The Pleasantries

Before we go into details, let’s get some of the formalities out of the way.  Synful comes in several formats, including VST and DXi on Windows, and AU, VST, and RTAS on the Mac.

The installation is fairly easy, but requires a reboot before using Synful(only on Windows). I believe this is due to the PACE copy protection, which is installed here without any other hassle.

Authorization is taken care of with a challenge/response code that is provided by the developer. It’s not automatic, but on both computers it took very little time to get my code back.

Tuning Up The Orchestra- First Thoughts

Loading up Synful Orchestra takes a few seconds as it seems to load all available instruments into RAM. It’s still significantly shorter time than using samples though, so that’s a plus. And it makes switching instruments very quick. Also, since Synful only loads the data once no matter how many instances you use, after the first instance the rest load much faster.

You get a decent selection of preset instruments, including a Flute, Oboe, English Horn, Trumpet, Trombone, French Horn, Bassoon, Violin, Viola, Cello, Double Bass, and some string sections. According to the website, Tuba, Bass Trombone, Contra-Bassoon, Piccolo, and Bass Clarinet are expected to be added in a free update, although a timeframe for these instruments isn’t set.

You can load any of the included instruments into any of the 16 available slots, each corresponding with it’s respective MIDI channel. However, you cannot assign the same MIDI channel to multiple instruments. To do this you would have to load another instance of Synful Orchestra into your project, which is of course not ideal. However, Synful uses a very low amount of CPU and RAM so it’s a little easier to swallow if you have to add multiple instances(more about performance later).

For each instrument, there is a set of controls that is specific to that instrument. For instance, there is a bow noise control for the strings that obviously won’t be there for the horns. But these controls all alter the sound and can all be assigned to any MIDI controller.

Finally, there is a large amount of controls dedicated to room size, instrument placement in the room, listener locations, and instrument section controls(all of which we’ll touch on in a minute).

A Stranger In The Crowd- Unique Features Of Synful

Before getting into the sound of Synful Orchestra, it’s a good idea to explain exactly how Synful works, as it’s quite different than any other instrument plugin.

Synful uses a technology called Reconstructive Phrase Modeling(RPM).

When a note is triggered, Synful digs into a large library of pre-recorded phrases that includes single notes, detached notes, natural note transitions, slides, legato notes, and much more. I say these are phrases because the samples that are being drawn from are actual recorded phrases of the instrument being used.

For example, if you play a C followed by an F, instead of triggering a C note and then a F note, Synful will find a naturally played transition from a C to an F and play that instead. At any given time, Synful may be triggering three or more phrase fragments to splice together in order to come up with the exact playback of your input.

Synful uses several different factors for determining exactly which notes to play, including velocity, volume, expression level, note overlap, and more. When combined with some creative use of additive synthesis and a few other modeling techniques(part of the “secret of Synful”, perhaps?), Synful sounds take shape.

If this all seems a bit daunting, don’t worry. It’s all behind the scenes. But if you must know more, visit and read all about the details.

RPM technology is very cool technology, but it isn’t without it’s drawbacks. First of all, in order to know what phrase fragments to play, Synful must know what is going to be played. It’s impossible for Synful to know what note you are going to transition to BEFORE you play that note. So Synful uses what is called “Delay For Expression”(DFE). When DFE is activated, Synful inserts a one second delay between what is triggered by the user and what is played back by Synful.

DFE is an optional feature, and is not required for RPM to work. You can actually get some good sounds with live playing. However, some of RPM’s features require the delay and there will be a noticeable difference in sound when it is turned on.

In practice, RPM can create some amazing results. Like any complex instrument, it will take practice and/or some MIDI tweaking afterwards. But when done right, it’s very much worth the work.

Another unique feature of Synful is the Synful Pitch Wheel. When turned on, it doesn’t work exactly like a normal pitch wheel. Instead, it allows you to create natural portamento and slides from one note to another. But it’s also quite touchy so it will take some getting used to. When done correctly, the results are great, and actually can become slightly addicting. I found myself sliding to every note once I got the timing down. And like RPM, it can take some time to perfect.

Yeah, But How Does It SOUND?

Synful Orchestra is a mixed bag, leaning to the high side on quality. But we’ll start with what seems to be the highlight of the sounds, the strings. Then we’ll discuss the rest.

NOTE: It’s important to know the terminology in Synful Orchestra. Synful uses a more traditional, musical(and correct, might I add) definition of the word “articulation”. For instance, most sample libraries consider “arco” and “pizzicato” to be different ARTICULATIONS. However, Synful refers to these as “playing modes”. In Synful, “articulations” are the little nuances and changes in sound as the sound progresses, shifts, transitions, etc. It’s important to remember the difference as to not get confused while you read.

The strings in Synful Orchestra consist of solo violin, solo viola, solo cello, solo doublebass, and sections of each that can be adjusted.

Solo strings are naturally very expressive instruments. So to get it right you REALLY need to get it right. I feel that Synful gets it right in most respects. There are plenty of playing modes available to you, including arco, pizzicato, tremolo, harmonics, and more.

With proper use of the expression and legato controls, the solo strings actually seem to “sing” to you. You can almost feel the player as he increases bow speed and pressure on the string. You also have the ability to change things like attack noise, tremolo speed, vibrato depth, and even bow noise. These and other controls allow you to really fine tune the strings to your liking.

Next in line are the brass instruments: horn, trumpet, and trombone. I found these sounds pleasing when combined with other instruments in an arrangement, but as solo instruments they could have been better. The expressiveness is definitely there in the brass instruments, but there is a lack of detail compared to the strings.

For instance, there aren’t any mutes for any of the brass instruments. As a matter of fact, there aren’t any playing modes except for the basic patch. Now, brass don’t have the amount of playing modes or articulations that stringed instruments do in the real world either, but having the ability to perform falls, growls, or flutters would have been a plus. But none of that is found here(you COULD fake some of this with creative editing, but having these included would be most ideal).

Woodwind instruments round out the sound selection: flute, oboe, clarinet, English horn, and bassoon. These instruments actually sounded BETTER in sections than the other instruments, and in an orchestral arrangement could pass off as believable with less effort and tweaking than the other instruments. I actually found the woodwinds to be quite expressive by themselves as well, but for some reason it took a little longer to convince me of this. I found them quite dynamic and capable of holding their own in an arrangement that was a little more sparse.

Woodwinds also don’t have the sheer amount of variety in their sound that a stringed instrument has, and just like the horns, they lacked any playing modes outside of the normal, straight sound(which of course encompasses most articulations that a woodwind uses anyways).

As mentioned above, every instrument has it’s own set of unique parameters that allow you to control things like breath noise, vibrato depth, bow noise, and other common controls such as expression and individual instrument tuning.

All of the instruments in Synful Orchestra have the ability to be played outside of their normal range. However, I don’t really recommend doing so. The instruments have VERY noticeable artifacts that come out when playing outside of their range. The developer has said that he plans to improve this in the future though.

Another feature that is present for all the instruments is the ability to control harmonics tilt and harmonics parity. In a nutshell, these let you control the harmonics and overtones of each instrument and will let you create different variations of the instrument. You could, potentially, change the model of an instrument to match more closely a sound you had in mind, or even creating instruments that don’t exist. But in general, I found myself using the stock settings for these parameters.

Extended Controls

Synful offers a variety of other controls to allow you to play with the sound further. The first of these lets you control the room size by setting the height, width, and length of the room. These controls are quite subtle, and are not a substitute for reverberation.

To fully take advantage of the room size controls, you need to also use the Listener Location and Player Location controls. With this combination, you are able to put yourself at the front of the room and individually place all the instruments in Synful Orchestra around you because the listener location is the same for all instruments and the player locations can be adjusted for each. The results can sometimes even feel very “3D” because they do work together very well.

The room size, listener location, and player location controls partially make up for the lack of multiple-outputs in Synful because they let you do some of what you may want to do in an external plugin(like reverb). However, they may still leave you wanting more as the controls are quite limited. Still, these controls DO give you some good results and do a good job at what they are meant to do.

Filling Out The Orchestra- Synful Sections

Synful doesn’t provide instrument sections like traditional sample libraries do. Instead, Synful lets you choose the size of your section and it actually multiplies the number of voices being played by that number. You also have the ability to everything from how spread apart each player is, how much variation in timing each player has, velocity variation, and more. Pretty much any variation the players could have, you can control.

Synful also claims that when putting together a section, it draws each instrument from a different sample. It doesn’t just multiply the same sample ten times for a 10-piece section, but rather plays ten different samples from the RPM library.

Regardless of the level of control that Synful provides though, I found myself really not liking the sections nearly as much as the solo instruments. Don’t misunderstand me, the sections CAN sound good. But they didn’t have the wow factor that the solo instruments, in particular the strings, had. This is partially due to some of the playing techniques that solo instrument can use don’t exactly translate well in large orchestral sections.

One problem that I found with the sections was there was a noticeable phasing effect, especially in the strings and brass instruments. I wouldn’t expect this to be a problem due to the way Synful draws from different samples for each voice, but I did find it to be a slight problem. Changing the section settings didn’t seem to cure the problem, at least not completely.

One more useful feature that Synful Orchestra brings to the table is natural divisi. That is, when a section is playing more than one note, the voices divide evenly between the notes. This eliminates a problem with pre-recorded sections where if you play a chord, you are multiplying the voices ultimately by the number of notes in the chord. Synful handles this area quite well and the divisions seemed quite natural, and in fact the phasing issues were noticeably less when the divisi kicked in.

An Orchestra Of Epic Proportions- A Note About Performance

I’ve saved this for last because out of everything that Synful does, the performance is something special. I ran a few tests with Synful to see how far I could push it. My test system is Sonar 7 Producer Edition, HP dv6833us, 1.83gHz Core 2 Duo with 3GB of DDR2 RAM. Nothing spectacular, just a modest every day system.

First, I should mention that Synful only takes up RAM once no matter how many instances you use. This is some good news since it lacks multiple outputs. And since it takes less thatn 300MB of RAM to begin with, you can get a rather large orchestra for a fraction of what any worthwhile sample library will take.

How large of an orchestra can you get? In my tests, I inserted a single instance of Synful Orchestra, maxed every instrument channel to a 16 voice section and played a single note on the first eight channels. Synful plays separate notes in sections as mentioned above, so it’s like having extra voices playing. So doing this gave me 128 voices. On playback, one of my two cores measured in at under 50% usage! I doubled this setup, giving me two instances of Synful Orchestra, both with eight channels running with 16 voices on each channel, giving me 256 voices. Now each core ran at under 50% without glitches. Imagine that, a 256 voice orchestra running in real time on your computer and still giving you PLENTY of extra room to work with?

To say I’m impressed is an understatement!

Final Thoughts

Synful Orchestra, more than almost every other instrument I’ve used, exemplifies the word “potential”. The technology is there, and in quite a few ways it’s far ahead of it’s time. It takes a unique approach to creating realistic instruments, and in turn takes several risks. But the approach works when used properly. However, the downsides are there. And if you are willing to work in a non-conventional way in order to get the best sounds, you may be in for a treat.

Synful is a work in progress, and I’m excited to see what possibilities are taken advantage of by the developer as things progress. If Synful keeps going where it’s going, the need for large sample libraries could greatly diminish. And for that, my hard drive would be sending a letter of thanks to the Synful developer.