Review: Signs by String Audio

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String Audio have released their most flexible and inspiring sample library to date, as Signs directs us to exciting new sonic vistas. Superb sound design is layered beautifully in a brand new interface to provide unique pads, soundscapes, leads and pulses.

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Review: Signs by String Audio

Signs is the latest offering from String Audio, who has been releasing pad, texture and sound design libraries for both Kontakt and Omnisphere for a few years now. They have become very popular tools amongst composers who have valued the unusual organic textures and vast bespoke convolutions. Their libraries have always centered around the key concept of blending multiple layers to create complex new sounds and Signs continues this trend, but with a totally new GUI and a farewell to snapshots for this library due to the unique nature of it’s functionality.

Signs sells for $179.00 from String Audio

Thoughts

The new interface makes use of the Kontakt ‘big boy’ size option and gives a far less cluttered feel than previous versions, whilst also making it a bit more intuitive and easier to get around.

 

Main Interface

We still have the trademark minimal colour scheme (but now with red for anything that is animated!) and some controls that will make you reach for the manual, but for me it is a big improvement. It’s simply more intuitive and makes it easier to do what you want to do. Each sound in this large library is comprised of up to six layers that each have solo, mute and volume controls at the bottom of the interface. I really liked the real time red meters that give a good visual indication of the relative layer volumes within any patch.

 

Layer Controls

Various combinations of these mostly multi-sampled building blocks gives rise to the 500 presets across categories such as Dark, Supernatural, Pulsing and Dreamy. These appear as separate nki patches and not as snapshots as previous Kontakt libraries used, due to the various changes in the engine which worked less smoothly with snapshots. There is a slight lag in loading them, so a batch re-save can help. The six layers are quite distinct, yet always blend well with each other and there is a huge range to choose from: 96 different sounds for EACH layer. There is a good browser facility which also allows automatic auditioning as you click through each sound.

The Textures are the most atmospheric though not many fall into the purely atonal category. They vary a fair bit from low drones to bowed metals. The Synths run through a gamut of sounds, from gritty swells to pitch dives. The Pads go all the way from retro to scary ambience, while the Keys lighten the mood with plucks and generally shorter sounds. The Lows fill in the bass end using mainly synthetic sounding sources which makes for a nice contrast to the Organic section, which reveals a range of sustained pads mostly derived from guitars and field recordings. There is less in the way of orchestral sounds, which were more of a feature in Monolith that I previously reviewed.

Each layer has its own page, which you select at the top of the interface. Across all six layers they share broadly the same controls. There is amp, pan, tune, ADSR (with adjustable attack slopes), saturation/compression boost, stereo widener, LPF and HPF, as well as five LFOs mapped to destinations as shown below.

LFO and Filters

Small red tabs above the destination rotary knobs animate if the LFO is dialed in for them, which really helps see at a glance what is going on. The LFO can be disabled at the flick of a switch, though this works globally for all LFOs. You will need to dig into the depth knobs for individual LFO bypassing. Each layer also has two dedicated FX, but these are specific to the exact layer. For example, the Texture layer has tube saturation and phaser, whereas the Low layer gets amp and distortion.

Low FX

In practice it works very well as the chosen FX do seem to match each sound type very nicely and it means that a possible mush of sound when all layers share the same FX never happens. As you navigate between layers it can be easy to forget to select the right layer in the top section, so watch out for that. Just below where you select each layer page is a control to mute the send to the Color engine, which brings us neatly to the final page of the interface.

Color Engine

The term color could be slightly misleading, if you are not familiar with other String Audio products, but basically it is six convolution reverbs operating in parallel. With 276 bespoke impulse responses to choose from this section is equally as limitless as the main page. Take your pick from Piano FX to Timestretch, Feedback to Space Echo! Many of them move far beyond what would normally be considered reverb and if dialed in heavily they can really transform the sound. Ample control over size, pre-delay and the general tonal shaping of the entire Color engine allows for fine tuning. Like the main page there are controls to lock down specific parameters to prevent them from being randomised (see below for more on that). Lookout for the Eco mode too, which automatically bypasses an impulse response when the send level is below 22bB.

Although Signs comes with an incredible number of presets I feel it is perhaps best used when employing the extensive randomiser feature. This is activated by hitting the String Audio logo at the bottom center of the GUI. By default it randomises nearly every parameter available, including the actual samples themselves, which puts you into real pot luck territory. That can work ok, but I got best results from finding a preset that was generally in the right ball park, using the preset categories on offer, and then locking down specific parameters of aspects of it that I liked before hitting randomise. As you move closer to the ideal sound simply lock down more and more, or get in there and manually tweak a bit too. Various dots and lines that change from dark (locked) to light (unlocked) throughout the interface give incredible control over how much is left to chance. On the broadest level you can choose to randomise only the Color engine and leave the main sounds and their parameters untouched, or as precise as only randomising the LFO of the Synth layer for instance. With so many sounds and possible combinations at your fingertips this method of discovering a great sound is both practical, quick and exciting compared to building a sound from scratch, which might test your patience. Though, it is worth noting the ability to quickly audition sounds in this new interface does make manual tweaking much better.

As I auditioned some presets and then got busy randomising it quickly became apparent just how versatile Signs is. It can do light and tinkly, powerful and synthy, pulsing, atmospheric, ambient and all the way to dark and atonal. I especially liked how capable it is of excellent signature lead type sounds that can carry a simple melody with an incredibly unique timbre. However, many of the presets that showcase this type of sound still have pretty long releases and vast ambiences. With that in mind a way of globally controlling ADSR would have been very welcome, as currently to shorten any sound requires editing the release on each individual layer. Whatever the type of sound, Signs always responds excellently to velocity and the mod wheel connects to different parameters on different presets, making it very expressive and playable.

One thing to be aware of, which might be a positive or negative depending on your tastes, is that the timbre can often be quite resonant and mid-heavy. This is in part down to the characteristics of the impulse responses which can ‘honk’ at times, but it is also inherent within the raw samples. If you are after warm and cozy pads look elsewhere!

With Signs, String Audio have stuck quite closely to their trademark sound that has proved so popular in composer circles – mysterious, dark, epic, and left-field. Some of the sounds are not too dissimilar from what you might find in their other Kontakt libraries, but it does offer more in the way of signature sound design and lead sounds and is arguably more aggressive and unusual. This gives it flexibility way beyond underscoring, though it also takes to that task with aplomb. The new interface and Kontakt engine is a huge improvement in being both easier on the eyes and clearer to navigate, though you will need the manual to figure out a few of the more esoteric features.

Signs has a very modern aesthetic that I have no doubt will find it’s way onto many film, TV and computer game scores, on more avant-garde artist albums and might even pop up in advertising and trailer cues. You find sounds emanating from your speakers that feel way more complex than just one mere instrument, which will make it superb for working on a tight deadline. I did stumble across a number of sounds that would not have been out of place on Hildur Guðnadóttir’s work on Chernobyl – sounds that tread that ultra modern line of sound design meets music. And therein lies the real appeal of Signs – it manages to combine atonal with tonal, organic with synthetic and traditional with modern into this beautifully blurred and melancholic soul. There really is only one way this sign is pointing and that is directly at the future.

Facts

Signs is over 18 GB in size, consisting of 570+ multi-sampled sounds, 3900+ unique samples, 500 presets, 6 convolves and 276 impulse responses. It requires a full version of Kontakt 5.8.1 or above.

Signs sells for $179.00 from String Audio

 

Demos of Signs by String Audio

Videos of Signs by String Audio

 

Contributor Sam Burt reviews Signs by String Audio
String Audio have released their most flexible and inspiring sample library to date, as Signs directs us to exciting new sonic vistas. Superb sound design is layered beautifully in a brand new interface to provide unique pads, soundscapes, leads and pulses.”