Specs and Need-to-Know:
Content: 40 GB of content on five dual-layer DVDs
Format: Native Instruments Kontakt Player 3 (included) or Kontakt 3.5+
Documentation: User Guide on PDF
Licensing: User cannot sell or transfer sounds; no royalties on compositions using them; two installs permitted
Price: $1399 ($1099 street)
More from: Audiobro, www.audiobro.com.
Now, on to the review!
Despite the many string libraries already on the market, and with the experience of having built an earlier such project himself, film composer Andrew Keresztes still felt that the existing products didn't allow for a score with the most expressive string performances. So he set out to produce such a library.
The mission, therefore, was simple: Hire the best section players in LA, go into a great room, and direct them to shmaltz it up-I mean, track them playing "molto espressivo" with portamento and glissandi takes that any of the late Romantic composers would tear up over. Then, throw in a couple of tricks and hope that your target audience-film and record composers looking to add emotion to orchestral mock-ups-will bite. Ambitious. How'd he do?
As it comes
Installing the five-DVD package initially requires 40 GB of disk space-for both the 16- and 24-bit versions, then you can delete one or the other after the install (why can't we chose before the install?). The 16-bit sounds great by itself, but you're more likely to hear the difference and benefit from the 24-bit on scores with lots of tracks. Both were tracked and edited in Steinberg Nuendo, and dithered in WaveLab. LA Scoring Strings (LASS) uses the Native Instruments Kontakt player engine (always download the latest version); there's a serial number and activation code for two installs.
Windows woes—and an easy fix
Audiobro recently released LASS 1.5, a free upgrade. If you're using either a Vista or Windows 7 based workstation and Native Instruments Kontakt 4, let me save you a potential major hassle.
Firing up Cubase 5 and LASS I discovered that the version 1.5 instruments failed to load into Kontakt 4, and I was presented with a message telling me that I needed a newer version of Kontakt. This persisted even after heading over to the NI Service Center to download the latest K 4 update, and the K 4 app itself was acting a bit churlish. Neither Audiobro's tech folks nor I could fix the problem, but a call to Gabriel Ferrer of Native Instruments tech support got me a solution.
Gabriel told me that on Vista and Win7 machines the installation process for NI products can get confused, and the installer can be misled into thinking that the original path for .dll placement has been changed. That's what happened to me. The 64-bit .dll sitting in my VST plug-ins folder had not been updated-instead, Rather, the new .dll had migrated somewhere else on my computer (the two .dll files have the same name; the only way to tell them apart is to look at their properties). I simply had to search for it and place it in the proper plug-ins folder. As we move into the 64-bit world, problems like this will crop up from time to time. Gabriel told me that NI is reexamining its installers.
Keresztes asked the musicians to play with (nearly) exaggerated portamento; you can scale it back with a MIDI slider assigned to Continuous Controller 83, or by drawing a curve into a MIDI lane in your sequencer.
Keresztes had another very interesting idea: Each section was recorded with three separate groups of players, wittily named A, B and C. The A sections deliver LA's first-call players to your fingertips, but don't think that the B and C sections are losers... they're not, they're also outstanding musicians. In general, I found the A sections to have a slightly more pointed sound, but the real idea here is that on three separate days, three groups played the same scores. As a result, layering two or three of these divisi sections together yields more than an increase in the aggregate sound. It brings more humanness to your score. This experiment proved highly successful, but I do wish that it was possible to increase vibrato-even on a single, held tone-at your discretion.
Keresztes had each first-chair player record the same material. Now you can do things like layering parts (by copying a track or-probably better-by playing the part again on a new track), assigning the solo player to one track and an ensemble section to the copy, and dialing in differing amounts of portamento, probably less for the section and more for the soloist, then mix to taste. Wow, that sounds really good!
All of the instruments are panned to their normal orchestral positions, but you might want to rotate the first violin a bit to the center. Touch response is great: You have the option to join two notes together quickly, which yields a smooth legato, play a bit slower and get portamento, or play even more slowly, which yields the more romantic glissando effect. The website has good definitions and demos to explain the terms in more detail-suffice it to say that glissandos are defined within this app as the slower, more exaggerated effect.
If you own a product that includes a fully mature keyswitch app like VSL's Performance Tool (which took a while to refine but is now extremely elegant) you might initially be dismayed by the fact that LASS lacks such an interface. However, the Kontakt player has a 127 slot bin into which you can drop patches, and the resulting keyswitches operate as continuous controllers, which means that the location you choose for playback will automatically call up the proper patches. You'll have to figure out how to use this aspect of Kontakt in conjunction with your sequencer's MIDI transform function to insure that you use keys outside an instrument's range that do not interfere with scripting data built into LASS.
Then there is the A.R.T. (Auto Rhythm Tool) in LASS, which lets you instantiate staccato patches, hold down chords and use MIDI CC64 (usually the sustain pedal) to activate arpeggiation, which you can modify by drawing in pattern lengths and accents.
Head up to the audiobro site and listen to the demos. They're all really good, including the ones that Colin O'Malley contributed. For my money Colin's one of the best orchestral mockup composers working today, and working he is. When we spoke he'd just had a pair of spots he scored run on the Super Bowl. Although it's easy to get caught up with combining multiple sections into a conglomerate, Colin makes an interesting point: "I'm finding that removing bandwidth opens up a mix. I do a lot less doubling of live players these days, and with LASS I tend to use the divisi sections as sections. I ask myself, which section sounds best on a line? The A sections sound the smallest to me, and so I tend to use them on my lead lines."
Very nice, Colin. Still, load up all the violas, drench them in reverb, and improvise a solo line using the octatonic scale. Man, that sounds great! So do the ensemble gliss effects. Grab them by the handful and you morph into Bernard Herrmann.
Achieving convincing runs at medium to fast tempos has been a thorn in the side to orchestral mockup composers. Many have resorted to exotic tricks like adding low register trills at a low volume to purposefully add some mud to the sound. Although fast run execution wasn't the principal goal of this library, using the edit function on the Legato Tweak page yields great results in this area. Once again, I loaded a violin section, called the first-chair player in from his cigarette break, and demanded they all play the same line. This time I clocked in a moderato portamento on the lead track and adjusted the fade out and attack on the section part so that they would play with moderate staccato. I performed in a line at a tempo of 60 BPM and ramped up playback speed to 120 BPM.
The resultant run sounded great, but could be improved. I looped the two bars, went back into the Legato Tweak page of both parts and made adjustments. I could have added a third LASS section, perhaps an expressive patch, but I'm fortunate enough to have several other string libraries on my computer, and so I loaded in a flautando (lightly bowed, to sound like a flute) section violin patch from the VSL string library. The net effect, with LASS leading the way, was stunning.
So how good is this library? I'll give you two instances where its musicality blew me away.
Do you know "Lujon", Henry Mancini's great cue from the movie Hatari? For my money, this cue, scored for bass marimba, percussion, a great 'bone solo in the style of J.J. Johnson, alto sax, nylon string guitar (with a mandolin or some exotic plectrum instrument playing the last chord), and a huge violin section, is one of the most glorious pieces of music ever written in the "Hollywood" style. I loaded up all the first violins patches that include legato, portamento and glissando, looped "Lujon", and played along with this cue for about ten minutes. I was intoxicated!
Years ago I ushered at Carnegie Hall, which really taught me how great music, players, and instruments sound in an ideal environment, and I still remember listening to the Cleveland orchestra perform Mahler's "Das Lied Von Der Erde". There's a point in the score where the double basses hold one of their lowest notes and there's no other sound except, if I remember correctly, a dust of violin harmonics and flutes at the tippy top of their range. What an effect! It felt like my head was slowly being spun around on its axis! The first time I loaded up the LASS BassesFullEspSus patch (the Full patches are a blend of all three sections and the soloist) and struck the low C, I was reminded of that long-ago performance, and the fact that this patch triggered that memory impresses me.
Keresztes has clearly achieved the goal of releasing a string library that working film composers (like himself) will find attractive, particularly since this group can afford to purchase multiple libraries.
But what about bozos like you and me who work on a limited budget? If you can afford only one string library, should it be LASS or one of its competitors? That's a hard call. Fortunately, audiobro is currently working on subsets of the program that will allow users operating on a limited budget to purchase only the first chair samples, for example, and if you buy one of the smaller libraries you can upgrade at any time and receive full credit towards the complete collection.
Bottom line: Smart ideas, outstanding playing, first-rate MIDI implementation... and highest recommendation.