NORTH CANTON, Ohio – If you Google “BBC Symphony Orchestra” today, you might be surprised to find that one of the very first links that comes up – and the main videos which are suggested – have to do with a once obscure company out of London called “Spitfire Audio.”
Somehow this little outfit, which produces beautiful and musically raw (in all the right ways) virtual instruments, has grown to the point where they could contract the BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBCSO) for over 80 recording sessions at the orchestra’s home base, Maida Vale Studios.
A remarkable software offering
Spitfire Audio ultimately distilled the essence of this proud and storied ensemble into a single piece of software capable of serving as the centerpiece of a modern scoring studio. The end result is both of feat of engineering and a profound piece of practical art, a tool that can both inspire composers and help them realize their most profound musical visions. Listen to the results, below.
While the Spitfire Audio BBC Symphony Orchestra library has already received glowing praise throughout the industry, I thought it beneficial to review the library from the point of view of a more traditional composer who only occasionally makes forays into film and media.
To begin with, this is not a very notation software friendly instrument. That is, unless you are willing to drop many key-switches into your score. That said, with Dorico now supporting expression maps, anyone willing to spend a day or two putting such a template together can now bridge that gap.
Back to the library:
Coming in at a $1,000 US price-tag – with an additional $249.99 USD for those desiring an SSD delivered by mail – how does this instrument really stack up when compared to the many other fine orchestral sample libraries currently available, some costing much less? Happily, Spitfire found a sweet-spot between a budget vehicle and a Rolls Royce, offering far more of the latter at a fair, mid-range price.
I received my promotional copy of Spitfire’s BBC Symphony Orchestra on an express-shipped SSD Hard Drive. It came packaged immaculately like an Apple product, and was custom-stamped for further aesthetic effect. (Figure 1.) Since then, I’ve been digging deep into this library, trying it in different contexts, and finding much to love and little to dislike.
The first big news is that this is a Kontakt-free library. That means you don’t need an additional highly expensive piece of software to run things. While the BBC Symphony Orchestra needs a DAW (digital audio workstation) to run, the proprietary Spitfire hosting software proves sleek in its minimalist design (Figure 2) and generally quite stable and system resource-friendly. The samples are VST, AU, and AAX compatible.
This Spitfire library includes 99 players recorded as section and individuals. That adds up to 55 virtual instruments representing 418 individual musical techniques. Users can also pick from 20 available microphone positions, including the bleeds for each section. This allows skilled users to achieve unparalleled realism in their production phase.
How was it tested for this review?
I tested this instrument in Pro-Tools, Logic X, and Ableton Live, running on a four-year old Macbook Pro with 16GB of RAM and an external audio interface. So while the computer I used was generally capable, it was by no means a custom Hollywood-grade workhorse unit. The fact that this ambitious instrument functioned so well in limited hardware is a testament to Spitfire’s attention to detail. While some comments online claim less than satisfying results with regard to the stand-alone player, I did not experience such issues.
The solo horn
My first dive into a library such as this is always to look for the solo horn.
The solo horn is an instrument of great expressive potential and exceptional timbral complexity. So the way a library captures and executes an instrument like this one really speaks to the level of detail and knowledge that a company possesses.
Here, the default legato patch plays stunningly, with dynamics controlled via MOD wheel as it is throughout the entire library. Playing one rising line of fifths alternating with chromatic pitches, one can hear the subtle detail and all of the beautiful ambient flaws of the horn emerge.
Searching through the remaining selectable keyswitch-able techniques, we see standard polyphonic longs, staccato, marcato, a nice long cuivre, sfz, flutter tonguing, multi-tonguing, and major/minor trills.
Other solo voices are similarly stacked with standard techniques, lending an air of near-completeness to the library. (Figure 3.) Users can turn Techniques on and off by clicking the small pencil icon near the Techniques area. This allows custom keyswitch configurations and RAM-saving curatorial procedures.
From brass instruments to the violins
Moving through the section horns and other brass voices, we see a similar approach to musicality and color. This is concurrent with previous Spitfire products and also representative of an even higher attention to detail in this offering. The trumpet here really pops. It can effectively play everything ranging from martial to deeply melodic styles. And the moody Contrabass Tuba is one of the highlights of the library.
Arriving next at the violins, we began with the firsts. The default legato setting plays beautifully in fast passages. It can also achieve a glorious moodiness when MOD wheel dynamics are deployed to access the softer dynamic layers. “Longs” can be triggered for effective divisi playing, while the “long flautando” patch is both present and wispy, matched by the “long sul tasto” deeper in the keyswitches. (Figure 4.) Another highly appreciated touch is the inclusion of separate samples for long and short harmonics, while the spiccato and staccato attacks provide appropriate bite. The Violins 2 patch matched the depth and quality of Violin 1. But it was more subdued and less strident in play as one might hope.
Users will notice that each of the sections also includes a separate instrument for “leader.” The intent is to allow composers to mix in a section leader to add depth to sound and also providing the capability to play out solo lines. That said, these instruments double as effective solo instruments for use in chamber music. They may not reach the level of certain dedicated solo strings virtual instruments (with certain limitations such as realistic fast legato emerging). But they more than hold their own.
The woodwinds section
Moving over into the woodwinds section, we began with the solo/section leader Flute, another highlight of this library. The default legato patch (sampled down to that evocative low “B”) is incredibly moody in its dynamic layers, while turning on a dime between fast runs and breathy staccato. The scripting on this highly playable instrument is simply top-notch.
Section patches in the winds are similarly deep when compared to those of the strings. Additionally, the inclusion of the low winds is particularly welcome. Just try loading a Contrabass Clarinet with a flutter tongue or menacing low minor-second trill for an instantly threatening mood.
The only notable omission from the winds library is the alto flute. To be fair, the full flute family is ably represented in Spitfire’s Studio Woodwinds library. But mere mortals may feel they can’t afford purchasing both libraries just to add one or two additional instruments to their scoring toolkit.
The percussion menu is not as robust as the deep strings, winds, and brass. But it still provides incredible sounds to match the quality of the rest of the library. I particularly enjoyed the idiomatic rolls keyswitch in the marimba patch. Additionally, the various rolls and hits (including hot-rod and damped hits) in the timpani create a nearly complete experience of that vital instrument. I immediately used the crotales instrument in a mock-up of a chamber piece I am currently composing, including the luminous bowed crotales option.
I have only one complaint. The unpitched percussion occupies a single virtual instrument, instead of allowing the option to load individual instruments on separate tracks.
Spitfire products always include beautiful microphone and mixing options. And yet, for this BBCSO package, the team may have outdone themselves with an “everything and the kitchen sink” approach. Most exciting was the “bleed” mic option. In this option, the natural bleed between section spot mics is imitated by simply leaving them on. While I was somewhat dubious about the idea, I am amazed at how much depth and realism this option can add to a mix.
A word on the sound
One of the most wonderful parts about this library actually isn’t a part of how it plays or sounds. Rather, it is how it treats the musicians involved in its creation. One of the big complaints about software instruments is that “they are putting musicians out of business.”
This is, of course, an unfair assessment. It fails to take into account how certain labor constructs make hiring musicians impossible. Nor does it consider just how much such products can benefit composers who work without access to high quality musicians. But, in a beautiful gesture of compromise, Spitfire will pay royalties for each copy of BBC Symphony Orchestra sold to the musicians involved in the actual recording itself.
In the final analysis, Spitfire may have achieved exactly what they wanted by creating this library. Namely, to create a one-stop shop capable of quickly delivering incredible orchestral instruments directly into the hands of composers who need them. Spitfire’s BBC Symphony Orchestra now ranks as one of those “must have” products that can serve as the able cornerstone of any MIDI studio.
— Headline image: Package graphics for the Spitfire Audio BBC Symphony Orchestra Library.
(Courtesy of Spitfire Audio’s website.)