With its considerable array of string articulations and its thoughtful preparation, Sonic Implants' Symphonic String Collection (SSC) is one of the finest large-scale string-ensemble libraries currently available (see Fig. 1). World-class musicians from the Boston Pops and the Boston Ballet Orchestra were recorded in 24-bit, 48 kHz resolution at Sonic Temple Studio in Roslindale, Massachusetts. An old wooden meeting hall with a high vaulted ceiling serves as the soundstage at Sonic Temple and was chosen for its size and exceptional acoustics. Bruël & Kjær, Schoeps, and Neumann microphones were combined with high-end preamps and A/D converters to maintain pristine fidelity throughout the recording process.
The resulting samples include First and Second Violin, Viola, Cello, and Bass sections as well as a complete set of Ensemble programs. The massive 12.3 GB library comes on 20 CDs (or 3 DVDs) and is packaged as a nicely designed boxed set reminiscent of an old 78 rpm record collection. Two 30-page booklets are included: one explains the basic library layout, and the other serves as an instrument-list and controller-assignment reference. At the time of this writing, the full library was available in Giga and EXS24 formats; a Kontakt version should be available by the time you read this.
ART AND ARTICULATIONS
Each string section includes an extensive set of articulations (playing techniques): legato, espressivo legato, col legno, con sordino, bowed harmonics, pizzicato (tight and loose versions), spiccato, staccato, marcato, tremolo (sul ponticello and ordinaire versions), whole- and half-step trills, and miscellaneous effects (clusters, glisses, knocking, scratching, tremolo behind the bridge, and so forth). All sections were sampled with the same articulations, although the cellos and basses also include pizzicato harmonics.
The full string ensemble comprises eight First Violins, six Second Violins, six Violas, five Cellos, and four Basses. The resulting sound is clear and present but also lush and orchestral. Moreover, the various programs lend themselves well to layering with other programs from the SSC library (combining espressivo and legato patches, for instance) or with programs from other sample libraries to make the sections sound larger. I prefer this approach because it's always easier to add samples on top of other samples when needed than it is to create intimacy with a sample that's too large-sounding to begin with.
It's noteworthy that SSC is one of the few orchestral libraries that properly treats the First and Second Violins as separate sections by creating completely different sets of samples for them and placing the two violin sections in their proper stereo perspective on the soundstage (to the left of the conductor with the Firsts farthest to the left). In fact, all of the individual string sections were recorded in their usual orchestral positions, which automatically yields the proper panning of the sections when they are combined in a sequenced orchestration.
With SSC, producer (and Sonic Implants founder) Jennifer Hruska has really outdone her previous work for Kurzweil and Sonic Implants. She clearly understands that having a collection of great samples is only part of the formula; it still takes great programming to create a truly useful library. That's especially true in this age of streaming software samplers when some manufacturers think that a collection's size is the only thing that matters. Not so with Sonic Implants; the detailed programming in this substantial library is consistently well done. The organization of the various articulations, the naming scheme used for the programs, and the use of MIDI controllers are uniform throughout the library, so learning your way around this huge collection is not overly daunting.
The bowed articulations include up and down bows as separate programs. Versions incorporating both bowing directions are also provided, allowing you to control the bowing direction in real-time with the Mod wheel. Velocity-switched two-layer and three-layer programs are provided along with versions that use the Mod wheel to crossfade between the layers. Slow attack versions of most of the sustained programs are also included. MIDI CC 16 and CC 17 are assigned to control the envelope attack and release in most programs. All of the sustained samples are looped, but they sound great, and I have yet to find a perceptible loop point.
However, I've found that some of the Velocity-layer transitions are not quite as smooth as I'd like, which makes many of the Velocity-switched programs somewhat hard to control while playing. Although it's fairly simple to edit MIDI Velocity data in a sequencer after the tracks are recorded, I find myself editing Velocity a bit more than usual in this library. Nevertheless, the end results make the extra effort worthwhile.
Unlike some high-end string libraries, SSC does not include an auxiliary real-time MIDI application that can automatically alternate bow directions in real time or enable you to play a smoothly connected legato line by inserting transition samples between notes. In SSC you must work with the slow attacks when using the legato samples, although you can compensate for the problem by overlapping notes and playing early. Still, I hope that Sonic Implants will add a real-time performance application in the future, because the results can be impressive when the program is manipulated correctly.
The SSC library is greatly enhanced by the addition of release samples for most of the articulations (indicated by an R after the program name). With these programs, a separate sample of the room ambience is triggered with each MIDI Note Off. Programs with release samples chew through more polyphony than the other programs because the release samples often continue to ring as additional notes are played. Nonetheless, the effect is excellent, giving more depth to the sound in a very natural way. In fact, for many of your projects, you probably won't have to add any artificial reverb to the programs that include the release samples.
The Ensemble programs for each articulation (with and without release samples) are assembled from the individual sections. The Ensemble patches stand up extremely well on their own, although the panning and crossfading between the various sections has been adapted somewhat to create a more uniform sound across the keyboard.
If you're in a serious time crunch, though, the full-range Ensemble programs sound terrific by themselves. For example, I've gotten some great results on pop-ballad string arrangements by just using the Ensemble Con Sordino R bank. I simply duplicate the one bank on four separate MIDI channels and plunge ahead sequencing First Violins, Second Violins, Violas/Cellos, and Basses on the different tracks.
The legato patches in SSC offer a beautiful, warm sound with a tender quality. I especially love the gorgeous con sordino samples. The marcato, staccato and spiccato samples, on the other hand, dig in nicely with the proper bite. I didn't find any clunkers in the whole library, and that's saying a lot considering the sheer number of samples included in this gargantuan collection. I would have loved sul tasto samples (bowed closer to the neck), but I can't really complain.
The amount of ambience included in the string samples is — dare I say it — perfect; there's just enough to give a three-dimensional presence without being too much or too little within a musical context. Sure, you can always pour on more of that Lexicon 480 if that's the sound you want; however, the natural acoustic ambience always seems to be just right for me in every setting, and I've had no problems blending SSC samples with samples from other libraries. If you want, you can also use the program versions without the release samples for a drier sound. They still sound terrific, but it's a shame not to use the great sound of this hall.
If you're on a tight budget, “Mini” versions of SSC are available in SoundFont format (2.6 GB on 4 CDs) or Giga format (over 5 GB on 7 CDs). They provide the major articulations for all of the sections, including ensembles. Of course, the samples and programming have been pared down, but the main part of SSC is provided for desktop musicians who can't afford the full library.
If you must have a top-of-the-line string library, however, the complete SSC is one of the most comprehensive collections of string articulations currently available, and anyone who is serious about orchestrating with samples should own Symphonic String Collection.
Producer-composerRob Shrockis back in Los Angeles developing new artists. He has worked with Elvis Costello, Faith Hill, Stevie Wonder and many others. He currently serves on the Board of Governors for NARAS.
Symphonic String Collection
$995 (full version)
$449 (Mini version)
QUALITY OF SOUNDS5.0PROGRAMMING4.5DOCUMENTATION4.0VALUE5.0RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Extensive collection of articulations. Highly detailed and organized programming. All sustains are excellently looped. Up and down bows are controllable in real time. All programs have versions with and without ambient release samples.
CONS: No detaché or sul tasto samples. No MIDI application for automatically switching between up and down bows or creating a true legato as found in some competing high-end string libraries.