Sounds & Samples
Spitfire Audio’s product range and user base has always been heavily skewed toward film and media composition, and as such it’s not surprising that they developed a range of libraries in collaboration with composers working in this area. Foremost among these must be Hans Zimmer, who has already put his name to two of their piano and percussion libraries. The latest, and biggest, instalment in this collaboration comes in the form of ‘Hans Zimmer Strings’, an orchestral string collection that is big in just about all senses of the word. You will, for starters, need 180GB of disk space to store the more than 200,000 samples and associated content. Uncompressed, this would be more than 400GB of audio files! If downloading this amount of data fills you with dread, then you may wish to opt for hard disk delivery (for an additional £59). You should perhaps also budget for an SSD if you don’t already have one.
The second ‘big’ feature in this library is the number of players employed during its creation - 20 violinists, 20 viola players, 60 cellists and 24 double bassists. However, this rises to 344 when different positions are taken into account. Recording took place at London’s famous AIR Studios, and made use of extensive multiple mic placement strategies. This means some of the presets employ up to 26 microphones, allowing extensive rebalancing at the mix stage. Twenty long and short playing techniques are covered, with further additional ‘FX’ across the collection (with various forms of clusters, slides and ‘chatter’).
In order to make this large library as easy to use as possible, Spitfire have eschewed the limitations of Native Instruments’ Kontakt software and created their own virtual instrument plugin (in AU, VST2, VST3 and AAX formats). As I have made clear in previous reviews of Spitfire products, their Kontakt-based interfaces could be hard to see, and fiddly to use, at times. Thankfully the new instrument window is scalable and much clearer than its forebears. I’m hoping this is adopted by their other libraries as well.
The window itself is split into a number of sections. The Main Controls section is always visible and deals with Volume, Dynamics and a third configurable dial that can be allocated to parameters such as Reverb, Release Time and Vibrato. Below this, you can switch between Techniques, Signal Mixer and Controller sections. There is a lot of flexibility here, allowing you to customise just about every way in which the instrument is triggered and played-back. Just tweaking the numerous mics is an education in itself. For the faint-hearted among you, ‘Advanced Mode’ can be disabled, allowing you to fade between ‘Close’ and ‘Far’ mic mixes.
Some may come to this library expecting to find full-on bombast throughout. However, for me, the main power of this new collection comes from its more subtle playing techniques. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t do ‘huge’, but if your bread-and-butter is epic film trailers, then you may come away a little disappointed. However, if you value subtlety combined with immense flexibility, then this is well worth a look. Bruce Aisher VERDICT 8.9
How can I make absolutely sure that I’m not using illegal samples?
If you’re worried about the legal implications of sampling, it’s essential that you make sure that you’re aware of where the audio material that you’re using comes from and who owns it. If you sample a beat or hook from a record and then put it in a commercially-released track without getting clearance from the rights holders, then it probably won’t surprise you to learn that you’re leaving yourself open to the potential threat of legal action. Similarly, if you just download a sound ‘off the internet’ without knowing its origin, you could end up in trouble. In cases like this one, ignorance isn’t really ever an excuse.
If you want to practise ‘safe sampling’, you have a number of options: the golden rule is to source your sounds from reputable places. There are loads of vendors selling sample packs these days; just make sure that you’re aware of the license agreement that you’re making when you buy them. Remember that you don’t actually ‘own’ these sounds – you’re just paying for the right to use them in your music, and you may be required to credit the owners, too.
If you’re a sampling purist, the downside to going down this road is that you’ll know that these loops have been prefabricated in a studio somewhere and aren’t from a dusty crate-dug record. If you want a more ‘authentic’ solution, you could try a new service called Tracklib. You can think of this as an online music store for producers – not only can you buy tracks, but you can also pay for clearance to sample them, with prices starting at $50 for the latter option. It’s not exactly Spotify at this stage – only around 60,000 tracks are currently available – but at least you can be reassured that your sampling is legit, and hopefully we’ll see the catalogue growing soon.
One final point to be made: even if your sampling policy is beyond reproach, recent events suggest that, if you are lucky enough to have a hit record on your hands, simply sounding a bit like another song could be a problem. The Blurred Lines case – in which the Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams song of the same name was deemed to have infringed Marvin Gaye’s Got To Give It Up – could leave you with the impression that even getting close to the feel of an existing track may land you in hot water. So go careful out there…
What are the differences between a hardware synth, a stage piano and a workstation?
If you’re new to the hardware keyboard market, working out what the various types of instrument in it are can be a little tricky, which is hardly surprising when you consider that there’s a certain amount of crossover between them.
Let’s start with the easiest category: synths are used both in the studio and on stage, and are typically designed to create electronic sounds. Yes, some of them do contain samples, but if you buy a synth it won’t be because you want a realistic emulation of a Steinway grand piano.
They come in analogue and digital forms, with some marrying both of these sound generation technologies.
Workstations are slightly more complicated: they frequently contain synth sections – usually digital ones – but they also emulate ‘real’ instruments and come with their own sequencers. Some will enable you to record audio, too – the idea here is that you can produce all of your music with just a single keyboard. Workstations are less popular than they were at one point in time, with most of us now doing our production work on a computer… but they do still exist.
Stage pianos are precisely that – portable pianos that can be used on stage. A fully-fledged stage piano will have a large-weighted keyboard and give you a realistic piano sound, but again, there’s crossover. Today’s stage pianos are also capable of producing synth and other sounds and, just to confuse you even more, you can also buy high-end workstations with hammer-action keyboards that can be used as stage pianos.
So, while these labels can be useful when you’re trying to decide what kind of keyboard to buy, you need to judge each product on a case by case basis.