Best Service - The Orchestra - Sound On Sound

Best Service - The Orchestra - Sound On Sound

Sonuscore’s new library takes an unusual and inventive approach to the sampled orchestra.

With a name like The Orchestra, it might be tempting to dismiss this as just yet another orchestral sample library; however, that would be missing out on something quite special. In fact, I’ve found it quite hard to stop playing with The Orchestra and actually start writing this review.

First off, I should explain what it is not. It’s not a deeply sampled, highly detailed rendering of every possible articulation of every possible orchestral instrument, recorded in some swish Hollywood studio in umpteen mic positions. At a mere 6GB in size that would be expecting a bit much. What it does manage to squeeze into that relatively small footprint are the essential components of an orchestra, with just enough articulations to cover the most commonly needed performance variations. These instruments are presented as playable patches, but they serve a greater purpose: The Orchestra Engine. Users of phrase-based sample libraries such as the Sonokinetic range (Minimal, Tutti, Capriccio, etc) or Native Instruments’ Action Strings will be familiar with the concept: real, pre-recorded musical phrases or rhythmic patterns that conform to the chords you play on a keyboard. However, the content of those phrases always remains the same. What if you could make your own content? That’s what The Orchestra Engine is all about. The main difference is that there are no pre-recorded phrases in this library — you use the sampled instruments as raw material. We’ll dive into the Engine’s concept and methods in due course. First, let’s take a look at how The Orchestra’s presets are laid out.

Preset Structure

Under the Instruments tab are five folders representing each orchestral section: Strings, Brass, Woodwinds, Percussion and Choir. Strings, Brass and Woodwinds have subfolders for each instrument type in that category, eg. Violins 1, Violins 2, Violas, Celli and Basses. Within these subfolders are the instrument patches: one that loads all available articulations, the remainder that load only single articulations. For a full count of instruments and their articulations, see the ‘Full Instrument List’ box.

The Percussion folder contains four patches: Non-Pitched Percussion, Orchestral Harp, Timpani and Tubular Bells. The Choir category is provided as a ‘bonus’, providing male and female ‘Oh’ and ‘Ah’ sustains, male and female staccatos, each with 11 different keyswitchable syllables, and a sustained ‘Elven Choir’ that morphs through the vowels ‘ooh, aah, eh and ee’. You’re unlikely to render convincing versions of Mozart’s Requiem or Carmina Burana with the Choir, but it’s a useful addition nonetheless. The final item at the Instrument tab’s root level is a patch simply named ‘The Orchestra’, which will be covered in detail later, for it’s here that the magic of this library lies.

Instrument Basics

Instrument patches are very simple: no envelopes, no filters, in fact no clever scripting at all. An EQ with low- and high-boost/cut and a convolution reverb with a choice of 10 impulses and a reverb mix knob are all there is to play with. The ‘All Articulations’ patches add buttons for selecting articulations. These are also pre-assigned to keyswitches C0 to F0 — this convention is (laudably) consistent across all keyswitchable instruments. One nice feature is that multiple articulations can be layered by pressing two or more keyswitches simultaneously — handy for layering a staccato attack with sustained violins, for example. Articulations common to all the String, Brass and Woodwind are staccato, sustain, marcato and legato. The Strings benefit from two extras: pizzicato and tremolo. Marcatos are all of a usefully extended length, decaying neatly to silence. Sustain, legato and tremolo are all dynamically controlled by the mod wheel; all others are velocity sensitive. Sustaining sounds and staccatos all have three dynamic layers; staccatos have up to five round robins depending on the instrument, whilst non-pitched percussion can have up to eight dynamic layers and five round robins. Sonuscore have clearly worked hard to squeeze as much into 6GB as possible, so there are inevitable compromises — there are no trills, for example — and whilst the legato transitions do a reasonable job of smoothly connecting notes with no uncomfortable gaps, there are no tools for fine-tuning their speed or volume, or adding portamento.

Arpeggiator 1 is playing an up/down pattern of 8th notes in 4/4, with dynamics controlled by the Rhythm step sequencer. Only the top two notes of a chord will be played by this arpeggiator.
Arpeggiator 1 is playing an up/down pattern of 8th notes in 4/4, with dynamics controlled by the Rhythm step sequencer. Only the top two notes of a chord will be played by this arpeggiator.
Whilst it would take up too much space to describe each instrument in detail, a number of key characteristics are worthy of mention. The sustained/legato Violins and Violas are fairly light on vibrato, especially in the p and mf dynamic layers, but it becomes more apparent in the ff layer. Celli and Bass sustains are played in a non-vibrato style. Brass sustains cover a moderate dynamic range with enough gusto to carry a tune, but never quite hitting fff. The staccatos and marcatos, on the other hand, deliver some satisfyingly rude and fruity tones when played hard. Star of the bunch is undoubtedly the Low Brass, having enough Wagnerian heft and lip-flapping rudeness to mark the End Of Days. In the Woodwinds, the Clarinet and Contra Bassoon sustains are played in a typically classical non-vibrato style, whereas the Flute, Oboe and Bassoon bring in vibrato as the note progresses. My personal star of the bunch is the Oboe’s Marcato, with a rather cheeky, animated vibrato — it’s a Venetian masked ball waiting to happen. Combining sustain and marcato articulations works very well with all the instruments; the marcato element lends a positive attack which decays neatly into the sustain element, which can then be further shaped with the mod wheel. Ideal for performing custom-shaped sforzandi.

The Orchestra Engine

On loading The Orchestra patch, the GUI presents a very different face. If you can tear yourself away from playing the immediately absorbing default preset ‘A New Life’ (a Baroque-style string section playing a chugging eighths pattern) you’ll see the Main tab’s screen — one of three — showing five rows and three columns. The concept here is simple enough, but the creative possibilities are, quite literally, endless. In the left-hand column, clicking on any row’s instrument name guides you through an expanding directory of all the instrument categories, instruments and articulations. The idea is to select one specific articulation — of whatever instrument — to fill that particular slot. The middle column has small dials allowing each row to be octave-shifted relative to the others, by up to +/- four octaves.

Conveniently, these dials are also MIDI learnable. The right-hand column is where all the action happens; clicking a down arrow brings up one of two menus, depending on whether a row’s assigned sound is sustained or staccato in nature. The choices are one of three arpeggiators for staccato, or one of two envelopes for sustains. You can also choose ‘none’, so that row plays its sound as if it were an ordinary (polyphonic) instrument patch. To fully understand the arpeggiators and envelopes, we need to switch to the Engine page.

Feel The Motion

At the top of the Engine page are five tabs for accessing each of the three arpeggiators and two envelopes. All five of these ‘modulators’ are independent from one another, but the arpeggiators’ editing parameters are identical across all three, as are the ones for the envelopes. The arpeggiators are the most complex, and are divided into two sections: Arpeggiator and Rhythm. Arpeggiator parameters begin with the note order, which includes a wide selection of up/down, zig-zag and inward/outward movements, as well as whole chords. Playback rate ranges from quarter to 1/64th notes, and notes can be transposed by +/- 12 semitones and +/- two octaves. Notes can be made to repeat up to four times before moving to the next step, and variable amounts of swing can be applied, from zero all the way to a 3:1 ratio (eg. dotted crotchet, quaver). Then comes the clever stuff. Note Selection defines which notes in a chord will be used in the arpeggio. The options are: off (ie. they’ll all play), lowest, lowest two, middle, top two and top. So you could, for example, assign arpeggiator 1 exclusively to play staccato bass strings and/or celli, and have them play their own bass pattern that responds only to the lowest note of a chord. Patterns can also reset, either to every bar or every second bar, in a choice of time signatures (compound and odd signatures are all available). The Rhythm step sequencer controls the note velocity of each step and sequences can be up to 32 steps long. It follows the standard bar graph format — just alter the height of each bar to change the velocities. There’s also a handy tempo multiplier to halve or double the speed of both the arpeggio and rhythm stepper. The potential variations are staggeringly huge when you put all of these functions together — and then add the other two arpeggiators into the equation.

The freehand curve drawn in envelope 1 cycles every two bars, controlling the dynamics of its assigned (sustained) sound.
The freehand curve drawn in envelope 1 cycles every two bars, controlling the dynamics of its assigned (sustained) sound.
The Envelopes are designed to apply a customisable, repeating dynamic curve to sustained sounds. Drawing curves is straightforward, just drag the mouse freehand across the bar graph or right-click to draw straight lines. The cool part is that the overall dynamic of the shape you’ve drawn responds to the mod wheel, so you can manipulate its strength on the fly. The time scale can be set to run from between half a bar to four bars, in compound or odd time signatures, and like the arpeggiator, Note Selection specifies which notes of a chord will sound. Notes can either retrigger at each repetition of the envelope cycle, or carry on playing in a continuous loop. Once you’re done setting up all the instrument assignments, arpeggiators and envelopes, your creation can be saved as a new Orchestra .NKI preset. Bear in mind that snapshot presets are specific to a particular .nki patch, so if you do save your work as a snapshot you must also save the whole Orchestra instance (preferably as a new .nki), otherwise your snapshots will vanish into the aether.

Orchestra Presets

The presets that come embedded within The Orchestra’s .nki should not go without discussion; they’re entirely responsible for my finding it hard to stop playing and start writing up this review. If there was a CCTV camera monitoring my studio, you’d have seen me with a constant gormless smile on my face. These presets can be loaded either via the snapshot menu or the larger drop-down menu on the Main screen’s GUI. They fall into three categories: Orchestral Colours (60 presets), Orchestral Rhythms (60) and Animated Orchestra (30). The Colours presets are the simplest, being pre-made layers of instruments in various combinations, and make no use of the arpeggiators, envelopes or tempo-sync’ing. Rhythm presets comprise a wide range of arpeggiated staccato patterns in various time bases, ideal for providing a driving backbone to any arrangement. There’s a lot in common with NI’s Action Strings here. Patterns focus both on instruments from a single orchestral section, or combinations of instruments from different sections. The jewels in the crown that afford such endless inspiration and entertainment, however, are the Animated presets. These are mini-arrangements in their own right, featuring a mix of sustains and staccatos from different instruments, frequently making use of all the arpeggiators and envelopes. Titles such as ‘Driving Force’, ‘Icy Lake’ and ‘Building An Empire’ suggest their general mood — they’ll doubtless inspire different reactions in different people.

Mixer Page

The Mixer page, with controls for the level, pan, reverb send level, solo and mute status of each layer. Reverb is the only effect engaged here.
The Mixer page, with controls for the level, pan, reverb send level, solo and mute status of each layer. Reverb is the only effect engaged here.
Five simultaneous layers of noise need some form of management. The mixer page deals with the volume and panning of each layer, with essential solo and mute buttons so you can check on what each layer is doing. Three effects act globally on the whole mix: EQ with two selectable fixed curves, Compressor with threshold and gain controls, and convolution reverb with a choice of 10 impulse responses. Each layer has its own reverb send level, and there is a master reverb return level for the whole ensemble. All the mixer controls are MIDI learnable (bar the solo and mute buttons) so you can easily control the density of activity, bringing instruments in and out on the fly.

Multis

There’s nothing to stop you loading several instances of The Orchestra at once to create ever more complex interactions and layers of sound. The 15 Multis demonstrate this well, occasionally employing four instances to do the job. There’s a point of diminishing returns at play here — sometimes there’s so much going on it’s overwhelming — but the potential is demonstrably clear. It’s up to the user to exercise common sense and good taste!

Conclusion

Whether or not you approve of this sort of phrase-based orchestration, it has to be conceded that The Orchestra is totally absorbing, and more fun than a fun thing. I even like its tonal character — quirky, brash and occasionally unsubtle — yet it has an attitude that evades some other orchestral libraries. Traditional orchestrators might baulk at using it, especially in a situation where a playable score has to be produced — imagine the raised eyebrows of the poor copyist faced with the prospect of unravelling what they’d consider an undisciplined sonic furball. But for purely MIDI musicians, for whom the means is irrelevant and only the end result matters, The Orchestra will score highly (pun intended). It may require a little more forward planning than the aforementioned Sonokinetic libraries and their ilk, but it’s all doable. Ultimately, the sheer joy of this library in contrast to ‘fixed phrase’ libraries is that you can create your own content, and make it uniquely yours. The only challenge now is for me to stop playing around and write some music with this thing!

Click here for more details on 'The Orchestra'