CANTON, Ohio, November 26, 2017 – While recent, laudable efforts in sampling Baroque, Renaissance and ancient European instruments have emerged, one glaring weakness in these various new products has been the lack of a quality Viola da Gamba.
Stepping in to fill the gap is Cinesamples. Launched back in 2007, the company now brings us their glorious new Viola da Gamba virtual instrument for Kontakt (full version, 5.5 or higher). Recorded at the MGM Scoring Stage of Sony Pictures Studios, this new Cinesamples effort is a predictable marriage of beauty and functionality.
Resembling something of a cross between a modern cello and a fretted lute, the Viola da Gamba is a 6 stringed, fretted instrument played with a bow. A precursor to modern bowed strings, this instrument was most popular during the 15th century. But even today, it maintains a strong international profile in various baroque and renaissance performance groups.
While somewhat cello-like, it nevertheless possesses its own distinct and striking timbral (tone color) quality – full in some ranges, brighter and more fragile in others) – while giving composers six strings to work with. Arguably, it is this instrument’s unique timbral characteristics that have contributed to its historical longevity, even beyond historical performance practice.
The Cinesamples instrument is immediately playable and musically convincing. The sound quality is predictably stunning, with the samples possessing clear immediacy as well as lush moodiness.
The onboard impulse reverbs add further tweakability, and the standard “Lush Church” setting at 50% seems tailor-made for this instrument. Users can also toggle between general manager and audio director Tim Starnes’s studio mix and a raw mix of the instrument for more organic applications.
The instrument is divided into six main patches. First comes the “Essential articulations” patch, including a highly playable and convincing legato patch, a short and scratchy sfz (sforzando) patch, a full sounding pizzicato and a nice polyphonic staccato full of character across the dynamic spectrum.
Also included is a semi-pitched “chug” setting, which sounds like a right-hand muted string struck with a forceful downbow. (Figure 1 below.)
Under the “mapping” settings, users can elect to alternate between available techniques using either key-switches or a playable setting. For example, in one possible combination, a performer can select legato playing with the pedal down, and staccato with the pedal up.
This is highly configurable, and sets a real industry standard with regard to performance choices, allowing composers to run the gamut from notation software use to live performance situations. On the right side of the screen, users can right-click to easily assign dynamics (default to mod wheel), vibrato and legato speed to the controller of their choice.* Round robins** are sufficient and can be toggled on/off in a customizable drop-down menu.
The remaining two main patches include a dedicated legato patch and a beautiful “drone” patch, which allows for full sounding polyphonic sus notes, tremolo, open string patches and a more airy and almost sul ponticello (bow kept near the bridge) sustained technique. Those seeking an idiomatic and convincing Gamba will clearly find it within this product.
A particular Cinesamples innovation is the green key switch. In this case, the switch allows users to trigger a bow-less (read: infinite sustain) version of an upcoming technique change, permitting longer bow-lengths in music with slower tempos. This can be particularly useful in an instrument like the Gamba, where bow changes can be more noticeable.
The “Extra Patches” folder contains several additional options, including a “split keyboard” patch. This patch is perhaps most useful for use in performance situations where separate articulations can be assigned to left and right hands area on the keyboard. Finally, for those who wish to mask the sound of a bow change (or just have some fun), the main “articulations” patch is also provided in an “infinite bow” variety.
Given that many traditional composers will be interested in this vital historical instrument, the question of its use in notation software will naturally arise. Cinesamples’ official position is that such use is not ideal, since optimizing the instrument requires a full digital audio workstation (DAW). That said, the robust articulation mapping options available allow composers to use notated keyswitches, hidden MIDI commands or pedal markings to alternate between techniques in a score.
It should be noted that most quality, playable legato patches sound far better when played into a DAW as opposed to being triggered via MIDI in a notation setting or via a midi file imported into a DAW. The Viola da Gamba is no exception.
There is also a lack of a full keyswitch technique patch, meaning that certain techniques such as legato and tremolo must be composed on separate lines. While some composers may find this too much hassle in a notation package setting, many others will find the extra layer of process (and temporary setup hassle) a worthy price to pay to include the sound of such a glorious instrument in their scores.
In the final analysis, Cinesamples’ Viola da Gamba fills a significant need in the industry at an affordable price (MSRP $109.00). While in the past, composers have used creative EQ’ing and mixing to create “Gamba-like” results, such efforts cannot even remotely match the particular color and character of this magnificent hybrid instrument.
The timbral quality of the instrument is worth having for inspiration alone, and even non-historical composers may still enjoy the particular quality of this instrument in their mix, as it straddles the boundary between ancient and modern strings.
Link to the Cinesamples web site for further Viola da Gamba details and ordering information.
As you deliberate, please check out our own sample video below. It was created during the author’s first time play-through of the Viola da Gamba in Pro-Tools. No mixing is used beyond simple panning, and the on-board IR is utilized throughout.
Editor’s Note: The reviewer received a copy of this software in exchange for his unbiased review.
* Note: As historical performance practice generally dictated playing without a vibrato, the vibrato setting on this instrument is predictably underwhelming.
**Round-robin is “a way to let sample developers play back a different sampled version of the same sound each time [they] hit the same key, so that just like most acoustic instruments each note sounds slightly different for more realism.”