Review: Chris Hein Strings Compact by Chris Hein
Chris Hein presents a compact version of his flagship string library that trims the content but loses none of the sound quality or customisation features. It is impressively adaptable with super dry samples, a pristine timbre and wide dynamic range.
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Review: Chris Hein Strings Compact by Chris Hein
Chris Hein has a very broad catalogue of highly respected orchestral products in his arsenal that are quite detailed and sport professional price tags to match. However, he also offers compact versions of many of his products which provide a cutdown number of articulations. The latest ‘light’ version to get released is Chris Hein Strings Compact, which includes content from both CH Ensemble and CH Solo Strings Extended. If offers all the dynamics and programming features of the full versions, but simplifies matters by restricting content to the nine most important articulations. This is great news for composers who don’t need the more specialist articulations, giving you only what you need at well under half the price.
So what do you actually get? For the solo instruments there are a total of 14 variations – four violins, three violas, four cellos and three basses. For the ensembles we also have 14 instruments comprised of full and small sizes for each section, plus a full string band ensemble divided into high, mid and low which again comes in both full and small sizes. In terms of articulations it boasts, Sustain Vibrato, Dynamic Expression Long, Trill 1 Minor, Tremolo, Pizzicato (with Bartok at full velocity), Short 1, Short 3, Spiccato 5 and Spiccato 6. The main sustain is your longs workhorse patch with the dynamic variation having a natural swell. The shorts consist of two lengths of marcato with the spiccatos offering the same variation, the tightest one being particularly pointy. All of the articulations have a broad dynamic range from p to to ff or even fff with very even crossfades. One slight quirk in the library is that the celli and basses are tuned one octave lower than all my other string libraries (to get them in the correct pitch you will need to use the Transpose function), and all instruments extend lower and higher than normal by artificial pitching in Kontakt. If, like me, you often let the sample library dictate playable ranges check the Basics tab which tells you when they are in extended range.
This is a really complex library, so I am not going to go through everything in detail. Instead I will highlight the main features in the GUI and then go on and take a closer look at the patches.
Every nki loads up with the same simple looking interface, but don’t be fooled – under those tabs lay enough configuration options to keep even the most ardent tweaker happy!
The Basics tab is more for displaying information about the currently selected articulation, momentary velocity, vibrato and similar factors as you have to go elsewhere to tweak them. It does though give access to the reverb under the Room sub-tab.
By taking off both the Body and Room convolution reverbs you can hear how close and ultra-dry these have been recorded and reminded me just how much the room acoustics make up what we perceive as a nice string sound. Users will at least need the Body reverb which seems to deal more in first reflections, with the Room reverb giving the big hall sound. There are no mic options in this library and instead you use the reverb to dial in levels of ambience. It certainly helps the sample size content and RAM and this ultra dry single mic concept also gives the freedom of choosing your own recording space using external reverb. It’s not the only unusual concept as the ensembles were actually created by painstakingly assembling individual solo recordings, which might help explain why there is not your typical Decca Tree, room and ambient mics – there was never a full ensemble there to start with!
Moving onto the Articulation Presets tab brings up a slightly daunting looking screen. To save this review reading like a manual, let’s just say pretty much anything you could want configuring is possible.
It’s very much the main page of the instrument and gives more control to the user than any other string library I have played. Articulations on all patches are selected by either clicking on the main articulation title taking you to a menu or via keyswitching. The latter has extensive configuration options to suit your workflow, by clicking the Overview button.
It’s very flexible and by copying and pasting onto a neighbouring keyswitch you can make quite subtle adjustments to the same articulation, to have for example a different type of attack on your sustains at the flick of a key. The Overview section is also where you can deactivate unneeded articulations and save a lot of RAM.
The default midi cc selections might not be to your liking so a bit of time spent configuring and then saving each patch will pay off. For me personally I like longs to have x-fade dynamics assigned to modwheel and vibrato as aftertouch, with the shorts as keyboard velocity. Once you have done that you can even specify if the keyswitching process is momentary, permanent or just for the next note (this is more intuitive than it sounds!).
There are a bunch of really neat features on the Articulation Presets page that makes this a quite unique interface. I liked the Blending section allowing tremolo and trills to be faded into the currently active articulation. The Auto X-Fade lets you draw in a custom dynamic map or use one of the presets, enabling precise swells, crescendos and much more to be created. The Keyboard and X-Fade dynamic control are also really good and works intelligently in that the X-Fade only ‘takes over’ once it reaches the velocity level that you hit the keyboard at.
An Ensemble section stacks the players up to five times the original number that can give the illusion of a super sized section at the expense of sounding a little synthetic. Another innovative feature is the Note Head designer. It works in two ways, firstly is by assigning control of all the shorts to a midi cc meaning you can ride the cc up to gradually shorten the note. You could do this with keyswitches in theory, but it would be clumsy in practice. The second way to use it is to press the Stack button, which then layers the selected short articulation with the original long (the Note Head function only works on long articulations) enabling you to easily play, for example, nimble ostinatos straight into a long held note. The samples are phase aligned so there is no smearing of the front of the note.
There is a highly detailed legato section where you can select polyphonic, legato and portamento options. There is also polyphonic legato which is always a great feature in any library like this. Clicking on the Edit button brings up a frankly bewildering amount of parameters to precisely configure the legato to your own taste.
There are two different legatos at play here – a real one and an artificial one that when layered do give a very smooth effect, that works excellently for faster playing. I do think some of this legato hyper control is too much and the manual even suggests not to change the settings. Likely most users will never even need to dig in this deep.
The Vibrato similarly is extremely user programmable, but for that you must go to the Vibrato tab which adds detail to the basic vibrato controls on the Articulation Presets tab.
Here there are two options to choose from – either an LFO vibrato triggered by your desired midi cc or an automatic one. For the latter you can select presets or draw in your own specific vibrato. As the Kontakt engine is simulating a real nuance that is much more than a bit of pitch change, Chris has included volume, tune and EQ. Baked in vibrato is always a hot topic for composers – it always sounds good, but some libraries have too much and some too little. Here this issue is off the table and left for the composer to dictate it. It’s never going to match the real thing, but it does mean you can get a quick attack passionate vibrato all the way to a subtle vibrato that only slowly fades in.
There are some handy Hot Key functions too, which can be (no surprise!) customised to whatever keys you want. The Repeat Last Note is a really good one for fast legato phrases where you want the same note to repeat in a smooth fashion rather than pressing the same key again. Other hot keys enable you to trigger tremolo and trills and to play in bespoke vibrato. It takes a bit of getting used to, but the results are pretty convincing.
The last thing to mention on functionality is the Settings tab with most of the regular settings you might expect (watch the release on some patches as it is set too long by default). A second page here takes you to an extensive barrage of DSP/FX.
Worthy of note is the Sordino button which seems to engage some EQ and filtering to simulate a mute and a micro tuner to match specific tuning scales or perhaps just to blend in a bit of tuning variation. This page also has a Round Robin button which leads me to my biggest issue with this library – there are no real round robins recorded! This button seems only to simulate a single variation. Having no round robins when deep sampling up to 8 dynamics is not a huge deal, but still I found it a particular issue on the shorts resulting in noticeable machine gunning.
It is clearly a very flexible GUI, but what of the samples themselves? Well the words precise, clear dynamic and balanced come to mind. Nothing is too bright or too dark, nor too smooth or too brittle. Taking the ensembles first, the basses are full, powerful and deep. The cellos are rich and very nimble, performing runs with ease with the smaller chamber ensemble having a detailed quality I really appreciated. The violas are present with a nice punch on the spiccatos. They sound a little smoother than some others libraries, so depending on your preferences might lack that guttural, woody timbre that the instrument can produce. The violins have a bold, piercing quality that will cut through dense arrangements well, though they don’t quite have the organic ‘rosin on string’ sound. My only real gripe is I that found the pizzicatos quite poor across all ensembles – a touch bland and synthetic sounding.
It would be easy to overlook the solos in such an already extensive library, but arguably they are the jewel in the crown. Gladly the functionality remains the same as the ensembles as do the articulation types and the pure and classical sound extends to their timbres too.
The variation on offer here is really something with multiple choices of all 4 instrument types to suit your taste and what a composition might require. Some are better than others, but all work excellently either solo or layered with the ensembles to act as a first chair and give that added definition. Standouts for me are the Italian Violin with a sublime and emotional feel and the Romantic Cello, exhibiting a sonorous and woody tone. I was very impressed with all these solos, perhaps more so than the ensembles.
There is no doubt that the amount of configuration available with Chris Hein Strings Compact gives incredible control to the composer. He has even pre-mapped virtually parameters to midi cc! Once you have mapped things how you like them, it does prove to be very playable and handles those difficult fast legato lines very nicely indeed. This library is clearly one where a huge part of its appeal is in how customisable and playable it can be, but the recordings need to stand up too. In this regard I was very impressed, if not blown away. There is something about recording strings so desert dry that means the sound waves from the body of the instrument do not get chance to develop in the room before mics can capture them. What is incredible is that by using the body convolution reverb Chris still manages to make it sound very realistic. It’s just that it lacks a bit of character – it is neither Hollywood lush nor edgy and stringy like some other libraries pull off. But therein perhaps lies the true power of this library – by design it is quite neutral, controlled and immensely flexible that with good knowledge of how it works the composer can really craft anything from a very wet and powerful epic sound to chamber sections with a first chair and right the way to an intimate vintage solo violin. With the option to take all reverbs off the user is also left with the ability to colour the raw, dry samples with any third party reverb desired. The lack of round robins and the method of sampling means it can sometimes sound a touch synthy, especially with the shorts, but it does layer extremely well with other libraries and with ambient heavy samples it can really add in definition and intensity. The way the interface is constructed also enables very complex composition to be realised with a good deal of authenticity, that many other libraries would struggle with.
It’s often hard to know for sure without trying strings at length in context what they might be best suited for, but with it’s very pristine and clear sound it would lend itself well to purer classical compositions and a wide range of general media work. It lacks the glory Hollywood sound out of the box, but it does go very loud and by tweaking the reverbs it might still prove to be useful for trailers and that blockbuster sound.
If you don’t need the more specific articulations and are after an all-in-one string library that is supremely malleable then Chris Hein Strings Compact is well worth a look and represents amazing value for money. If it then becomes a favourite there are various upgrade paths to get the full versions with the extra articulations.
Chris Hein Strings has 36 GB of data consisting of 75,000 samples. There are 9 articulations and up to 8 dynamic layers and 4 dynamic modes. 63 impulse responses are also included.
Contributor Sam Burt reviews Chris Hein Strings Compact by Chris Hein
“Chris Hein presents a compact version of his flagship string library that trims the fat but loses none of sound quality and customisation features. It is impressively adaptable with super dry samples, a pristine timbre and wide dynamic range.