NORTH CANTON, Ohio. As 2019 arrives, we take a look back at one of 2018’s most interesting – and somehow underreported – virtual instrument releases. Spitfire Audio’s Hans Zimmer Strings hit the market last summer. It provides composers with a gorgeous-sounding, truly revolutionary string composition tool.
Not that we fault the music tech press for overlooking, somewhat, this significant release. Spitfire – the company by composers, for composers – seems to be shifting into overdrive lately. Evidence? Their free “Labs” releases and a flurry of other exciting new products.
Hans Zimmer Strings: Test Drive
We tested Hans Zimmer Strings (HZ Strings) on a Mac laptop with 16GB of RAM, employing a Focusrite audio interface. We tried the program in Pro Tools, Ableton Live, and Dorico. All ran efficiently and without incident.
That said, as we added options, such as new mic placements, patches quickly approached and exceeded the 1GB range. The above setup could indeed handle a full string orchestra with keyswitch patches. But it did not leave room for much else.
Simply stated, the HZ samples are heavy-duty samples. But what else would you expect from a library that captures and offers access to an unreal 344 string players?
The HZ library allows for up to 60 violin players at once. In addition, it provides instruments with 20 players divided right, center, left, plus significant addition of gallery players.
Violas are recorded “20 center” and “20 wide”. The cellos also have a 60 player configuration, along with 20 right, left, center, and gallery selections.
Finally – and this is the odd duck of the group – the package only provides basses as a section of 24, recorded center only. This last selection is likely due to the company’s current thoughts on modern mixing techniques, which generally center the lowest sound. But a composer or arranger may need to acquire an additional package with a smaller bass section recorded “right.” That would enable a more traditional orchestral soundstage setup.
Spitfire’s proprietary player
Also noticeable in the Hans Zimmer Strings package is the new Kontakt-free GUI. Spitfire seems to be taking this direction with such higher-end releases. Spitfire’s proprietary player proved very efficient, somewhat easy on system resources, and refreshingly clutter-free. This is essential information for composers. Not multi-timbral, the new player requires a new load for each new instrument. As such, its focus on efficiency is key and thankfully delivered.
The uses of this instrument vary. Users can take a traditional approach, building sections by 20. Or they can dial up a single 60-unit single instrument ensemble, such as one consisting entirely of cellos. Finally, users can reach for the full breadth of the tool and create literally unreal ensembles of over 300 instruments. This enables a depth of natural sound previously unavailable in the virtual instrument world.
“Volume” or “Loudness”?
This writer often encourages his students to avoid associating the word “volume” with loudness. More accurately, it refers to the mass of overall instrumentation.
Hans Zimmer Strings provides an ample example of such thinking. While marketed as the “big sound” string library, it was perhaps most stunning to this reviewer to hear various “barely there” techniques. For example, hearing 60 cellos play an exaggerated flautando or with mutes is simply breathtaking.
Also of note is the product’s incredible “tremolo CS Pont Waves” setting. When held, the setting moves sul ponticello “waves” across the stereo spectrum. While folks are looking for a Zimmer “Dark Knight” sound, this aforementioned rich and moody patch is certainly coming to a Terrence Malick film near you!
ZH Strings is inspirational
Perhaps the biggest compliment one can give to a virtual instrument is that it can inspire a composer. The sounds of Hans Zimmer Strings are in and of themselves wonderful for sketching and exploration. As a result, in their timbral and atmospheric richness they can truly aid in the process of discovery.
Minor issues with the initial product release
We should note at this point that users may confront some non-standard issues in the current release of this product. Hopefully, a future upgrade will address them. Key among current issues is something we addressed earlier. Namely, the basses are only recorded center. This setting would not give you a classic string sound stage balance.
Other issues? Regarding reverb setting from dry (about 1.5 s tail and a bit of room sound) to ultra-verby, we note that perfectly dry sounds are not available.
Also noticeable were balance level issues between certain patches. Fortunately, composers can easily solve this issue by making use of the ample mixing and mic options available in the package.
Users should also look at the large selection of alternative techniques and bowings. While not exhaustive, they provide more than the average string library. It’s unfortunate that Spitfire didn’t go all the way. This would have put the instrument into the category of a “total string solution.”
Combining ZH Strings with other packages
The producers likely imagined Hans Zimmer Strings as part of a larger Spitfire-based toolkit. So combing this package with Albion V (for quiet and mysterious sounds and other extended techniques), for example, would definitely give the user a nearly complete string solution when combined with diverse packages that work beautifully together.
We should not fail to mention notation software at this point, as such topics are also part of this column’s general focus. Packages such as ZH Strings are not designed primarily for notation software use. Nevertheless, we had no problem integrating this package into Dorico and assigning keyswitch techniques to Dorico’s expression maps when using the larger keyswitch patches.
Dollars and Sense. And further information
Hans Zimmer Strings is a rather hefty investment: 183Gb of disk space running $799.00 (msrp). Yet in the final analysis, Hans Zimmer Strings is a beautiful package with only minor flaws. It is certainly a powerful toolkit to add to a composer’s arsenal. True, it may not be an ideal “first purchase.” But it provides artfully sculpted icing to embellish an existing orchestral cake.
For those not yet familiar with the company’s products, Spitfire also provides perhaps the most interesting and useful set of standalone (read: Kontakt not necessary) free instruments yet seen in their “Labs” package. These include a gorgeous chamber strings section. Simply Google “Spitfire Labs,” sign up and enjoy.
Both the “Labs” package and Spitfire’s always expanding website are full of amazing tutorials, interviews and ample inspiration for the next time you hit a rut. Be sure to check them out.
— Headline image: Splash screen image for Hans Zimmer Strings package, courtesy Spitfire Audio.