For centuries, the gold standard in handcrafted acoustic instruments has been any violin, viola, or cello made by Antonio Stradivari (also known as Stradivarius), who lived in the Italian city of Cremona until his death in 1737. He built more than a thousand instruments in his lifetime. More than 600 of his violins still survive, and some are worth millions of dollars. It's generally accepted that in the hands of a talented performer, no violin sounds sweeter than a Stradivari.
FIG. 1: Stradivari Solo Violin is an intelligent sample library that can translate keyboard gestures into nuanced performances that, until now, only a real violinist could accomplish.
One of the greatest challenges of realistic sampling is to capture the nuances inherent in playing an acoustic instrument. Whereas a real violinist can continuously control expressivity in real time, samples are static by nature. Typically, samplers lack an acoustic instrument's ability to subtly and seamlessly change timbre in response to a performer's expressive playing. To do that, a sampler would have to transition from one sample to another without interruption.
Over a year ago, Garritan announced the development of a sample library in association with Dr. Giorgio Tommasini and Stefano Lucato. By recording a Stradivari violin made in 1716, they planned to create a sample collection that captured the various articulations typically employed by violinists. They announced plans to offer a sampled Stradivari with harmonically aligned samples produced using a technique they called sonic morphing. They said they could overcome sampling's accepted limitations and smoothly crossfade from one dynamic level to another, with no phase anomalies, as a note sustained. I was naturally skeptical when I first heard their claims. That changed after I received Stradivari Solo Violin for review (see Fig. 1).
Coming in Kontakt
The sample library requires Native Instruments Kontakt 2; no other formats are available. Garritan has announced plans to release a standalone version using Kontakt Player 2, and it could be available by the time you read this. I ran Kontakt 2.1, standalone and as an AU plug-in within MOTU Digital Performer 4.61, on a dual-processor 2.3 GHz Power Mac G5 with 4 GB of RAM and Mac OS X 10.4.6. My audio interface was a MOTU 2408mkII with a PCI-424 card. I also ran Kontakt 2.1 on a Dell Latitude D610 with a 2 GHz Pentium M, 1 GB of RAM, and Windows XP Professional, using an M-Audio Ozonic as my audio interface. Stradivari Solo Violin requires only 522 MB of disk space.
You'll need a footpedal assigned to send MIDI Control Change 11 (Expression) and a keyboard that sends Velocity, Pitch Bend, Modulation, and Aftertouch. A keyboard with more than 61 notes is preferable, but it isn't absolutely necessary. If you're unable to assign a footpedal to CC 11 from your keyboard's front panel, perhaps your sequencer will let you remap CC messages; that's what I did in Digital Performer.
Most orchestral samples allow you to change articulations on the fly using keyswitching, so playing notes below the sampled instrument's normal pitch range switches from legato to staccato to pizzicato, for example. Stradivari Solo Violin provides ten keyswitches that enable tremolos, trills, con sordino (muted) sustains, and other playing techniques, mapped from C1 to B1. The instrument's playing range is the same as a real violin's, from G2 to E6. Playing two, three, or four notes at the same time enables polyphony in most modes, but only if you play them less than 20 ms apart. Two keyswitches enable true polyphony, which allows you to stagger notes. The highest keyswitch enables natural harmonics; if a violin doesn't play a harmonic at a given pitch, that note doesn't play on the keyboard.
Stradivari Solo Violin uses a custom Kontakt 2 script to process MIDI data and thus simulate a real violin's behavior. The script (which is password protected) converts simple data to a complex series of commands, which are responsible for functions such as inhibiting vibrato during pitch bends and recognizing that overlapping notes indicate portamento.
FIG. 2: Because it depends on Kontakt 2''s scripting and convolution capabilities, Stradivari Solo Violin requires the updated Native Instruments sampler. A version based on Kontakt 2 Player should be shipping soon.
Using Kontakt 2's convolution engine, a proprietary modal impulse response contributes to realistic vibrato and portamento, according to Garritan (see Fig. 2). Because the Kontakt script and convolution processor are such integral parts of Stradivari Solo Violin, I think of it as an intelligent sample library that's unlikely to be ported to other samplers anytime soon.
When I loaded the samples into Kontakt and began playing, I was initially unimpressed by the lack of sustain and seemingly random portamento I heard no matter which keyswitch I pressed. I consulted the 44-page manual and learned that I needed to increase the Expression value to achieve anything other than barely audible sustain. The footpedal provides a smooth, wide range of control over the violin's dynamics, from pp to ff, except on pizzicatos.
I also learned that Velocity controls the portamento rate and has little effect on loudness. (The one exception is Staccato mode, which responds with four Velocity layers.) When I played two subsequent legato notes softly, the portamento was slow; playing a little harder produced a faster portamento, and playing even harder produced true legato, with no portamento. Velocity also affects how much of the bow you hear; playing harder produces a stronger attack, especially when you use keyswitching to enable spiccato or down-bow attacks.
When I pressed the keyswitch for tremolo, I heard no tremolo. I checked the manual and discovered that I needed to restrike a key in rapid succession to play tremolo. Same deal with trills — after pressing the keyswitch, you hold one note and play trills with another. (Obviously, it pays to read the manual.) Vibrato worked as I expected, but with a slight twist: the mod wheel controls depth, and Aftertouch affects the rate. In addition to changing samples, keyswitching changes sets of performance parameters for those samples.
As I fiddled with the instrument (pun intended), I was increasingly impressed with its sweet sound. I was also surprised at how quickly I learned to control it; I was producing passable violin solos in about an hour (see Web Clip 1). Although editing in a sequencer did improve my recordings, that wasn't entirely necessary to achieve pleasing results. Still, it was a challenge to retrain my hand to use Velocity for controlling portamento rather than loudness or brightness.
I loaded some MIDI files that Garritan had sent me and was simply blown away. They actually sounded like a violinist playing, and the tone was absolutely lovely (see Web Clip 2). Stradivari Solo Violin doesn't offer every sound possible with a real violin — there's no way to play bridge effects, for example — but it can play double-stops, making it appropriate for fiddle playing as well as classical, jazz, and various ethnic styles.
Stradivari Solo Violin isn't the kind of sampled instrument you can just sit down and begin playing beautifully. You need to at least skim through the manual and practice your playing technique. Compared with the years of practice a real violin takes, though, it's a piece of cake. It does require a thorough understanding of string technique to produce the most realistic performances, which gives real string players the upper hand.
To the casual listener and in the right hands, Stradivari Solo Violin is virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. You have to hear it to believe it; I certainly did (additional audio examples are on Garritan's Web site). Now that I've played Stradivari Solo Violin, I can't imagine ever needing a replacement. Even on compositions I create using a very expensive orchestral library, this is one solo violin I intend to keep playing.
EM associate editor Geary Yelton aspires to compose almost any type of music imaginable — if only he had enough time (and enough talent).
Stradivari Solo Violin 1.07
intelligent sample library
FEATURES 4 EASE OF USE 3 QUALITY OF SOUNDS 5 VALUE 5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Authentic sound. Expressive control. Modest resource requirements.
CONS: Requires careful technique to play realistically and intimate knowledge of string technique to truly master.